High-Elevation Hiking in Southern Utah: Where To Beat the Heat

High above the desert, the mountains of southern Utah offer cool temps year round.
High above the desert, the mountains of southern Utah offer cool temps year round. Roy Luck
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Southern Utah is known for its sweeping swaths of desert sagebrush and vaulted redrock plateaus. And, it’s a place generally known for its sweltering summer heat—a fact that makes many visitors shy away during the hotter months. Even the cool shade of the desert’s slot canyons can be tough to hike to if it’s over 100 degrees in the full sun.

But many people overlook the high mountains of Southern Utah, which top out at nearly 13,000 feet and offer balmy alpine conditions—with views of the sandstone labyrinths thousands of feet below.

These mountains make the perfect place for a hiking, car camping, or backpacking trip where you might dip your toes in the hotter temps before ascending to more moderate places. Here, our picks for high-elevation hiking in Southern Utah—these are just the spots to step up to cooler heights, even on the toastiest days.

Snow-covered peaks high in the La Sals add a cooler element to the Fiery Furnace landscape.
Snow-covered peaks high in the La Sals add a cooler element to the Fiery Furnace landscape. Mark Land

La Sal Mountains

Towering thousands of feet above Moab, the La Sal mountains are carpeted with quaking aspens, cool lakes, shaded snow fields, and hiking trails. The La Sal Mountain Loop Road offers access to stunning views, trails, and camp sites.

Warner Lake Campground is over 9,000 feet up, and it’s as gorgeous as it is refreshing. While you’re in the neighborhood, check out the trail from Warner Lake to Beaver Basin. This five-mile trail is heavily used at the beginning, but you’ll see fewer and fewer fellow travelers as you continue. If you’re in for a good quad-buster, check out the strenuous but relatively short hike up Mt. Peale. You’ll find the trailhead at La Sal Pass, and it’s all up from there.

The aspens of Boulder Mountain perfectly frame the sandstone formations of Capitol Reef in the distance.
The aspens of Boulder Mountain perfectly frame the sandstone formations of Capitol Reef in the distance. John buie

Boulder Mountain

The area between Torrey and Boulder, just north of Escalante, is one of Utah's hidden gems. Boulder Mountain is perched in the middle of it all, home to dozens of alpine lakes and thick forests. Its high point, Bluebell Knoll, hits a towering 11,313 feet above the otherworldly sandstone formations of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A network of dirt roads and trails cover the mountain, so there’s always something new to explore.

The Wildcat Guard Station is a small log-cabin outpost along Highway 12 staffed with friendly volunteers on summer days. The station is stocked with maps, books, and local info, so they can help you fine-tune the perfect plan.

With so many lakes to explore, you’d be remiss to not consider a multi-day backpack from lake to lake. And with excellent fishing in many of the lakes and streams, you can catch your dinner on the go.

When you return from the trail, you’ll need a proper hot meal, and surprisingly enough, the tiny towns of Boulder and Torrey offer a couple of excellent dining options. Boulder has a population of 222 but boasts an exceptional organic, farm-to-table restaurant, Hell’s Backbone Grill. And Torrey, just as small, features fantastic food at Café Diablo. So save your appetite, and don’t worry about cleaning up too much: These are nice restaurants, but their level of formality is low enough for scruffy desert wanderers.

In the vast open spaces of Cedar Breaks, old bristlecone pines carpet the redrock landscape.
In the vast open spaces of Cedar Breaks, old bristlecone pines carpet the redrock landscape. J Brew

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Just a short drive into the mountains above Cedar City, Cedar Breaks National Monument offers a dazzling array of high-elevation hikes that are a visual mash-up of alpine forest, volcanic rock fields, and desert formations.

The Spectra Point and Ramparts Overlook Trail is a spectacular way to take the park in. It’s a moderate hike, but at 10,500 feet, it offers hikers a way to beat the desert heat while enjoy the shade of ancient bristlecone pine trees. And for something more ambitious, hit up the Rattlesnake Creek Trail and drop into the Ashdown Gorge Wilderness Area over the course of nine breathtaking miles. You’ll want to leave a car shuttle at one end—or plan for an extra-long day.

Cedar Breaks’ neighbor, Brian Head Resort, is also a superb spot to seek cooler temps, resort-style. The mountain’s tallest summer hiking trail takes you near the summit of 11,307-foot Brian Head Peak. And if you feel resort-y (or have kids in tow), you’ll definitely want to hit up the zip line, bungee trampoline, bike trails, disc golf course, or climbing wall while you’re at it.

 

 

 

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