When you think of doing the ultimate road trip through Utah canyon country, the first thing that comes to your mind is—of course—the panoramic overlooks, narrow canyons, and oddly-shaped rock formations. But southern Utah also has some places to see that go beyond just admiring the red rocks. Here are five unique sites in Utah canyon country that will give you a taste of the region’s cultural flavor and colorful history.
Fry Canyon Lodge
When I first started visiting Utah canyon country back in the late 1990s, I read about Fry Canyon Lodge and kept telling myself I would go spend a couple of days there. Unfortunately, I waited too long, and the lodge closed permanently sometime between 2005 and 2007. Fry Canyon is in a remote location about 50 miles west of Blanding. The lodge opened in 1955 when Fry Canyon was a uranium boom town. But mining activities in Fry Creek caused groundwater contamination from uranium and copper, which probably was a big factor in the lodge’s eventual closing. The buildings still stand, though, including gasoline pumps and ice machines outside the office (can’t help but wonder if that ice glowed in the dark!). It’s an intriguing place that always captures my attention when I’m driving between Hanksville and Blanding.
Location: Utah SR-95, about 50 miles west of Hwy 191 near Blanding
Thompson Springs and Sego Canyon
This is a stop you shouldn’t miss if you’re traveling on I-70 to or from Moab. Just 37 miles north of Moab is the historic town of Thompson Springs, which developed in the early 20th century to serve folks working in coal mines in nearby Sego Canyon. The 2010 census showed the town’s population at just 39, but it’s interesting to drive around and see some of the ghost town buildings, such as the Desert Moon Hotel. The main reason people get off at this I-70 exit is to see the Sego Canyon pictographs, one of the most impressive rock art displays in the world. The art is attributed to both the Fremont and Archaic people and includes life-size anthropomorphic (human-like) forms.
Location: I-70 exit #187, northeast of Moab
Linn Ottinger’s Moab Rock Shop
If you’re a geology geek or just a novice rock lover, the Moab Rock Shop is a must-do while you’re in Moab. In fact, you might want to dedicate a couple of hours to this stop, as there are plenty of rocks, fossils, and bones to fascinate you here. Linn Ottinger came to Moab in the 1950s, intrigued by a rare gem someone showed him that had been found in the area. He began collecting and selling rocks and made some impressive finds, including a new species of dinosaur in the 1970s that was named after him. His rock shop has become world-famous for its fossils, rocks, crystals, and minerals. And if you have kids in the family who love dinosaurs, be forewarned that you’ll probably have to drag them out kicking and screaming when it’s time to leave.
Location: On Main Street in Moab, Moab Rock Shop
Historic Gifford Homestead
If you’re visiting Capitol Reef National Park, be sure and include a stop at this historic pioneer home. The Gifford Homestead is typical of the early 1900s and includes a farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, and garden area. Inside the house, you’ll get a feel for the simple lifestyle the early settlers of Fruita lived. The house was originally built in 1908 and occupied until 1969, when the property was sold to the National Park Service. The other reason to stop at the Gifford House is because this is where you’ll find the tastiest fruit pies in the West. The locally made pies come in a variety of flavors like mixed berry, peach, rhubarb, cherry and, of course, apple. Grab a fork and a seat at one of the outdoor tables and dig in.
Location: Capitol Reef National Park, about one mile from the visitor center on the Scenic Drive
Hite Crossing Bridge
Early settler Arthur Chaffin is known for bringing public attention to the area now known as Goblin Valley State Park. But that’s not his only claim to fame—he also built the Hite Ferry back in 1946. This ferry at the tiny settlement of Hite was one of the few places where people could cross the Colorado River, making it possible to travel by vehicle between Hanksville and Blanding. The ferry operated for 20 years until Lake Powell buried Hite in the late 1960s. Now, you can cross the river via the Hite Crossing Bridge. Completed in 1966, the scenic arch bridge is the only automobile crossing of the Colorado River between Moab (110 miles upstream) and the Glen Canyon Bridge (185 miles downstream). Be sure and stop at the Hite Overlook for a distant view of the bridge.
Location: Utah SR-95, 47 miles south of Hanksville