Cedar Mesa, Utah

Photo: Bureau of Land Management via flickr

The United States is full of destinations you’ve yet to explore. But you keep traveling overseas. You go to Europe for the culture and the food. You go to Australia and New Zealand for the gorgeous scenery and the wine. And you go to Asia for the beaches and the adventure. Your own country can wait, you think, as you book a flight to Copenhagen, Hobart, or Colombo. It shouldn’t be continually brushed aside, though.

If you’re looking for an area that combines fascinating history, outdoor activities, and sheer beauty, look no further than the Southwest. The landscape—dotted with deserts, canyons, and mountains—is unlike anything you can find at home. The air is dry. The trails are rugged. Plus the ancient artifacts are older than the country itself.

Though it’s been years since you’ve visited the area, you’re not going to the Grand Canyon on this trip. It’s not only one of the largest canyons in the world, but also one of the country’s most visited national parks. Instead, you’re crossing the Arizona border into Utah. Cedar Mesa, in southeast Utah, is scattered with ancient cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. Rock art, pottery, and grindstones can be found among the sandstone canyons and the rocky arches, the low shrubs and the juniper forests. While the views, from the plateaus, overlook seemingly endless—and still undeveloped—valleys.

Since Cedar Mesa is known for its cold, snowy winters and blisteringly hot summers, spring and fall are the best times to visit. You can access the land—surprisingly, it’s part of neither a national nor a state park—through the Kane Gulch Trail. Though it’s one of the most popular entrances, the trail is rarely overrun with people. Along the path, you pass aspen trees, layered sandstone, and large boulders. Alcoves, ruined structures, and colorful art are hidden along the way. While the dwellings, in Junction Ruin, have walls blackened by smoke from indoor fires.

The hike through Cedar Mesa is not an easy one. The path is wide and well-marked, but it’s also eight miles long. You’ll want to take frequent breaks—to see the sights and drink water—along the way. But, by the time you’re finished, you’ll be searching for your next local destination. The United States is now—finally—part of your regular travel plans.

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