SALT LAKE CITY — Christy Karras is a travel writer with a fondness for the American West. She recently released an updated copy of “Scenic Driving in Utah: Exploring the State’s Most Spectacular Back Roads,” which takes you through 28 road trips across the state.
“People in Utah are super lucky to have so many great road trips,” Karras told the Deseret News. “Also, I think people in Utah are really good about getting out and exploring the beautiful backyard there.”
Karras has moved to Seattle, but still has a love for Utah’s scenery. In an interview with the Deseret News, she gave some of her favorite underrated Utah road trip destinations and her best travel tips.
1. Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park grew on Karras over time.
“I always used to think of it as one you just sort of drove through going from the western side of the state to the eastern side,” she said. But the park has become one of her favorites.
Karras recommends taking advantage of the short hikes and off-roading available around the park.
“You can park your car, go for a 2-mile hike, have your mind blown, get back in the car (and) go on your way,” Karras said.
Capitol Reef National Park Scenic Drive is included as part of a longer trip from Loa to Hanksville on page 71 of “Scenic Driving in Utah.”
2. Highway 12
Karras recommends taking Highway 12 from Escalante to Torrey, which takes you through beautiful red rock and parts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Although Highway 12 is well-known, Karras couldn’t leave it out of her favorites.
“Everybody has to drive Highway 12. (It) is possibly the most scenic road in all of America — if not one of the most scenic roads in the world,” she said.
This is the seventh road trip in her book, “Highway 12 Scenic Byway Drive 2: Escalante to Torrey.”
3. Nine Mile Canyon
The Nine Mile Canyon has recently been paved, making it a much easier and quicker drive. In the past, it could be an all-day trip just to get through the canyon.
“It probably still should be a multi-day thing because there are other great things to see in that area, but you won’t have to spend an entire day just driving through the canyon at 10 miles an hour,” Karras said.
She also added that the roads are less dusty, which should help preserve the canyon’s rock art.
Nine Mile Canyon is included as part of a longer trip from Duchesne to Price on page 179.
4. Dinosaur National Monument
If you have some extra time, Karras recommended extending the Nine Mile Canyon trip to visit Dinosaur National Monument.
“It’s a beautiful drive, but not many people do (it) and you can combine those together,” she said.
Karras gives tips for Dinosaur National Monument as part of the “Flaming Gorge — Uintas Scenic Byway” on page 187.
5. Western Utah
“Western Utah, a lot of people never get to. It seems so foreboding, like this flat ugly desert,” Karras said.
Moving away from Utah, she added, has given her a new appreciation for the desert, and when she visited Western Utah again she was blown away by the wide open space. There are many historical sites Karras considers must-sees in Western Utah, like the pony express, the abandoned former Polynesian colony Iosepa and the Topaz Relocation Center.
There is now the Topaz Museum in Delta where you can learn about the history of the Japanese internment in World War II. While the museum is informative and interesting, Karras thinks it’s important to also visit the actual site of the camp.
“It has this sort of haunted feel to it. I think a lot of historical sites have a different feel to them,” Karras said. “Especially after a tragedy has happened there. I think it’s important to go to those places and experience that.”
These attractions and more historical sites can be found in Chapter 16.
6. Kolob Canyon and Kolob Reservoir
While Zion National Park is beautiful, it can also be very busy. To avoid the crowds, or if you want to make a stop on your way to Zion, Karras suggested Kolob Canyon and Kolob Reservoir, nearby locations that don’t get as hectic.
Kolob Canyon is a quick stop off I-15 and there are lots of family-friendly hikes, but Karras said many people drive straight by it.
Around the same area, you can get on Kolob Reservoir Road. The road goes up, and there are lookouts to see over the top of the canyon. If you keep driving down the same road, it turns into a dirt road. Karras said it’s well-maintained, but you shouldn’t try to drive it in the winter.
“In the fall, especially, it is such a gorgeous drive,” Karras said. “It’s covered with quaking aspens and they all turn yellow. Between the quaking aspens, and the evergreen trees, and the blue sky, and these big green meadows up there … It’s completely different from what it looks like a few thousand feet lower in elevation.”
You can read more information about Kolob Reservoir and Kolob Canyon in chapters 2 (“Zion Park and Scenic Byway”) and 3 (“Kolob Fingers Scenic Byway”).
7. Beaver Canyon
Beaver Canyon is another trip Karras said has many less-explored attractions. The road takes you past the Tushar Mountains, where some of the peaks reach more than 12,000 feet in elevation. There are lots of hiking trails, like the Skyline Recreational Trail, and many dirt roads for back-road drives. You can also visit Butch Cassidy’s old home in Circleville.
“There are very few people there at any given time. It’s very kind of peaceful,” Karras said, though she warns sightseers not to go during hunting season.
“(There are) these beautiful valleys with mountains all around, and again that’s not something you see all the time … Once you get outside of Utah you realize that’s actually pretty rare.”
You can find this trip in chapter 15, “Beaver Canyon and the Sevier River Valley.”
Road trip tips
Along with her favorite destinations, Karras gave some general tips for road trips.
1. Bring water
“I recommend at least a gallon per person per day,” she said. “I would just buy a big refillable bottle. And at pretty much every national park visitors center there is a place where you can refill your water bottle, so you don’t need to go buy a new water bottle everywhere you go.”
2. Bring a map
“Google is not always right, as people have learned the hard way,” Karras said. She recommends a hard copy of a recreational atlas that shows amenities and trailheads.
3. Be ready to get out of the car
Don’t forget your sunscreen, hat and hiking shoes. Even if you plan on driving straight through, you never know what you’ll find on the way.
“You might find yourself wanting to get out, so be prepared to get out for a short hike because they’re usually worth it,” Karras said.
4. Don’t disrupt the landscape
Karras said it’s important to respect the natural landscape and leave the site in the same condition you found it. Her philosophy fits closely with Leave No Trace, seven guidelines for leaving wildlife as you found it.
5. Do your research
Learning the story of the places you’re visiting can add to your experience, according to Karras.
“Whatever you’re interested in, whether it’s history, or geology, or bird-watching, to me it always adds more if you know a little bit about where you’re going,” she said.
6. Talk to people
Many of these attractions draw people from around the world, so you can meet a variety of people without leaving Utah.
“Talk to people you meet when you’re traveling. That’s one of the best parts about traveling,” Karras said. “I’ve met people from all over the world traveling around Utah.”