This vast area (stretching nearly 8,000 square miles) is located in the southeastern corner of the state. With only one stoplight, the heart and soul of the county is genuinely in its natural features. But don’t be intimidated by the lack of infrastructure—the communities of San Juan County welcome visitors with hearty meals, cozy abodes, and guides who make you feel right at home. Here are our top five reasons to plan your next road trip through Utah’s Canyon Country.
This story was created in partnership with San Juan County Economic Development and Visitor Services, Utah. Images by Whitney James.
1. Unparalleled Outdoor Access
You may have heard of Bears Ears National Monument, the 1.36-million-acre area of public land that makes up the majority of San Juan County. Although its boundaries have fluctuated in recent years, there is no denying the almost unimaginable amount of archeological sites and geographic wonders that it contains. The Bears Ears themselves stand proudly overlooking the forest of juniper and sage brush. Natural Bridges National Monument, Valley of the Gods, and Goosenecks State Park are all within easy driving distance. Take an afternoon exploring several Ancestral Puebloan sites including: Butler Wash Cliff Dwellings, Mule Canyon Ruin, and House on Fire. Or, stay for a long weekend and see it all.
We haven’t even mentioned Monument Valley, just over the border in Arizona to the south. Or, the fact that Canyonlands National Park is a mere stone’s throw away across the top of the Abajo Mountains—still in San Juan County, Utah. This is a veritable outdoor playground, whether you’re looking to go backpacking, run a river, or investigate 2,000-year-old petroglyphs.
2. The Guides of a Lifetime
If you have never had the pleasure of experiencing the outdoors with a local, do yourself a favor and book one in San Juan County. Sure, you can see a lot of vistas on your own and get a general understanding of a place from researching online. But there’s nothing like diving into the landscape and its stories with a knowledgeable, trained guide. San Juan County boasts a number of highly rated outfitters.
We recommend taking a guided tour of Monument Valley with the team at Goulding’s. You’ll be able to journey off the beaten tourist path where only guides can go—like the foot of Totem Pole rock feature for a closer look. For a raucous (and completely safe) ride in a Jeep, think about hiring a guide from Wild Expeditions. We loved learning about the history of Comb Ridge and seeing an Ancient Puebloan dwelling. Plus, we even spotted a trio of wild horses along the way. For those seeking an insightful hike, consider hiring the first Navajo-owned and operated river outfitter in the United States—Ancient Wayves—for a tour of the archaeological sites in Bears Ears National Monument. Not only will you learn more than you ever could have gleaned from a guidebook, but your support goes back into the communities that have called San Juan County home for generations and beyond.
3. Mouthwatering Meals
Let’s be honest. Sometimes, road trip food can be a bit of a letdown. Not the case in San Juan County! Fuel your adventure with a warming bowl of corn grits and a smoothie at the Cedar Shack Cafe. Or go heavy with the waffles—topped with ice cream. Breakfast north in Monticello is also a treat. Try the sweet cream pancakes at High Desert Cafe. Reward your tastebuds after your outdoor pursuits with a San Juan burger from Granary Bar and Grill in Monticello, or a hefty burrito in Blanding at Pop’s. Adventurous eaters may want to sample traditional local fare, such as the blue corn pancakes at the Twin Rocks Cafe in Bluff. Fry bread is available at a number of roadside stops, and can be enjoyed with toppings or by itself. Clearly, you won’t go hungry in San Juan County.
4. Lodging You Won’t Find Anywhere Else
You don’t have to camp out in Utah’s Canyon Country. (But we won’t blame you if you want to.) San Juan County is home to some truly unique lodging options. For easy access to Monument Valley (without sacrificing any amenities, like a kitchen), try the Hillside Villas at Goulding’s. A short drive to the tribal park, the sunset view is five-stars. Desert Rose Resort offers unexpected luxury (and a beautiful pool and gym) in the heart of Bluff, and serves as a great basecamp for all your nearby adventures. Travelers who prefer a mountain view will find solitude at Abajo Haven Guest Cabins, where wild turkeys greet you over morning coffee. Last but not least, newly opened Glamping Canyonlands provides a plush way to get closer to the outdoors. Their canvas tents are appointed with thoughtful decor including bath towels, twinkle lights, and dreamcatchers; while the lack of WiFi ensures you’re still on vacation.
5. Interactive and Educational Museums
Museums, visitors centers, and other interactive indoor exhibits are a favorite of ours. Not only are they are great way to learn more about an area—they are excellent places to stretch your legs mid-road trip. Plus, they offer a great solution for a rainy afternoon. San Juan County has a number of diverse destinations that fit the bill. Try Canyon Country Discovery Center in Monticello, where kids of all ages can easily wile away a few hours trying out the hands-on science exhibits. The Dinosaur Museum and Edge of the Cedars State Park take you back through time in Blanding. (You can even enter an authentic kiva at Edge of the Cedars!) Further south you’ll stumble across Bluff Fort, a convincingly realistic recreation of an early Mormon settlement in the area. Finally, Goulding’s is home to a movie-buff’s dream: the Goulding’s Museum. Hundreds of movies have been filmed in Monument Valley, and this museum explains their history as well as that of the property.
We’ve spent weeks in this part of the American west and there is still so much left to discover. Dive into each location in further detail and build your own journey through San Juan County, Utah.