Every now and then the stars align and you end up with a few days off during the school year and a family calendar without any commitments. Where do you go? What do you do? Bryce is nice. But it’s also busy. Samesies for St. George, especially during spring/fall break and tournament weekends. How about one of the Utah State Parks? Specifically, Kodachrome Basin. It’s colorful, quiet and a quick drive from Salt Lake City (4-¼ hours) or Grand Junction (5 hours). Even on a holiday weekend when the campgrounds are full, you’ll only encounter a handful of people on the trails. And there are a variety of activities to keep the whole fam damily happy.
I’m Just Here to Hit Trees and Curse
No truer words have ever been printed on a T-shirt than those above. The shirt is sold in the visitor center gift shop and humorously refers to the disc golf course at Kodachrome Basin State Park. Despite its challenging arborous obstacles, the course is a blast. Not to mention scenic. Dare we say it's the most beautiful course in Utah? Yes. The course starts across the road from the visitor center, dog-legs to the right up the drainage, then … BAM! It smacks you in the face with a fistfull of rugged beauty. The second and third holes take you past unique rock formations. The fifth requires you to throw across an incredible canyon. Then it’s trees, trees and more *insert your favorite expletive here* trees.
You can rent discs at the visitor center or pack your own. You don’t need to schlep an entire set for each player, but at the very least everyone will want a midrange and a distance driver. The latter is especially important if you wanna clear that canyon or even come close to hitting par on the seventh basket, which is a whopping 705 feet away.
The Utah state park’s website lists the disc golf course as 18 holes, but the back nine weren’t yet included on the scorecard and map found in the visitor center as of April 2022 (though some not on the map were visible from the parking lot). No biggie. The full course could be a bit much for families who don’t do this sort of thing every day anyway. Completing the front nine with an adult, a tween and two teens took about two hours and covered about two miles. But time flies and it doesn’t feel like you’ve walked that far. The first six are very clearly marked and easy to follow. The last three are a bit … disc-combobulating. The ninth basket brings you back to the other side of the visitor center parking lot, making an easy exit for the half-course option.
Amateur Tip: There is no “safe zone” along the side of the course when playing with beginners. Make sure everyone is behind the person throwing to prevent potential scalping and/or additional language that is not rated G.
If You Like Piña Coladas
When you’re done playing, go back to the visitor center and buy that shirt. You know you want it. Grab some blue raspberry and piña colada slushies while you’re there from the … snack bar? That’s right. This park has a small (but tasty) assortment of grab-and-go food and beverages. If the hanging lounge chairs are unoccupied, get off your feet for a few minutes while you slurp your way to refreshment. Otherwise, hop in your vehicle and make your way to the Panorama Trail parking area. You’re designated DJ shouldn’t even bother trying to put on Rupert Holmes' Escape (The Piña Colada Song) though. The trailhead is a mere minute away.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Panorama Trail is open to bikers, hikers and horseback riders. You can book a guided tour in advance through Red Canyon Trail Rides. The family-owned outfitter has a small coral right next to the trailhead and offers one- and two-hour rides. If you have your own equines needing a break from your barn, bring ‘em. There’s a designated area for horse trailers in the parking lot.
Footin’ the hills? The elevation gain is minimal on the Panorama Trail and the length of the hike varies depending on what exactly you choose to do. The entire loop, with side trips to Cool Cave and Panorama View Point, is approximately 6 miles. It can also be completed as a 3- or 5-miler. But you’re gonna wanna see everything this trail has to offer. Maybe even more. If you’re on the trail with adventurous tweens and teens, you might consider completing the Shepherd Loop while you’re at it. But this section ain’t for everyone. It requires some scrambling and is rated as difficult.
If you prefer to bike it, this is a great trail for all ages. There are a few sandy uphill stretches that might be tough for petite pedalers. The trail is marked with directional arrows, though, so protective parents usually don’t need to worry about others coming down at the same time the younger riders are making the ascent. The rest of the trail is hard-packed singletrack without many obstacles, but there are a few short stretches on the way to/from Cool Cave that may be a bit hard for beginners. Once you hit the junction pointing you in the direction of the trailhead it’s pretty much all downhill. Translation: all whee-e-e-es, no whines.
Whatever your preferred mode of transportation, stop to see the sites along the way. Ballerina Spire is on point. Indian Cave has a mysterious, steamy history. Rumor has it the heat from a (now extinct) geyser made the sandstone soft enough that someone (or something) from the way, way back pressed their hands into the wall to create a mural. True? No one really knows for sure. The Hat Shop is interesting, but not as impressive as Secret Passage which provides opportunities to stop and gawk at the slickrock as it curves through a small canyon as well as cone-shaped formations that were once sand dunes. The short detour to Cool Cave is also worth the trip. And if you’re on the hunt for smashed penny geocaches in the park, you’ll need to take this route. The GPS coordinates might be off a bit, but the box is visible from the trail if you’re keeping an eye out.
Up for more? Grand Parade Trail is accessible from the same parking lot (it’s a twofer!) and is also open to hikers, bikers and horses. This easy 1.5-miler follows the basin floor and sports short spurs to unique box canyons.
On Top of the World
Angel’s Palace is on the opposite end of the height spectrum. The trail makes a quick ascent but the views are worth every step for legs long and short. You’ll be looking down on creation — astounding creation — in about eight minutes. The contrast in each layer’s colors from this vantage point is more apparent than anywhere else in the park. On a clear day, the deeply hued Caramel Formation gives way to subtler shades of red in the Entrada Formation before the cliffs show off alabaster and tan striations under a cerulean sky punctuated with cotton clouds. The lasso-like loop continues past more spectacular scenery and photo ops, but a camera doesn’t always do the landscape justice. Go slowly and take mental pictures along the way.
Saving Relationships One Campsite at a Time
Staying in one of Kodachrome Basin’s campgrounds is the most convenient way to experience everything the park has to offer. Oasis campground is a tent-only group site on the north end of the park. Basin Campground is next door and its layout is genius. It consists almost entirely of pull-through sites, some of which are straight shots from one road to another, while you simply turn into a rounded space on the side of the road for other sites. No need to back your trailer up, yelling at one another while trying to offer guidance, then scheduling couples therapy upon your return home. Everyone here is calm, cool and collected. The pavement is also super smooth, the perfect place for kids to ride scooters, rollerblade or skateboard while patiently waiting for dinner.
Bryce View and Arch Campgrounds are more primitive, accessible via a gravel road, but they also offer a bit more privacy. And there are just as many opportunities for family bonding found in this WiFi-less portion of the planet. No tent? No trailer? No problem. Kodachrome Basin has two reservable bunkhouses as well. Tentrr also offers a few furnished glampsites in this and other Utah state parks.
There are more opportunities for camping near Kodachrome Basin, including a mixture of tent sites, RV sites and small cabins at Rjourney in Cannonville (11 minutes away). RV sites with or without corals are available at Bryce Valley Ranch RV and Horse Park (13 minutes away).
Star Light, Star Bright
Campers and glampers alike sleep under the same stunning sky in this International Dark Sky Park. Remember those stars that aligned to make this trip to Kodachrome Basin possible? They are extremely visible here thanks to the park’s high elevation, low humidity and remote location. Galaxies far, far away can be seen in extraordinary detail with nothing more than the eye. Should you need a little help, park rangers offer astronomy viewing events at certain times of the year, complete with telescopes and constellation laser tours.
I Hike It, I Love It, I Want Some More of It
Before leaving the next morning, be sure to check out one more of the Kodachrome Basin hikes, Shakespeare Sentinel Trail. You might be tempted to skip this one since the arch broke in 2019. But at least one park ranger in the visitor center will tell you it’s still one of his favorite places in the park. And it’s only 1-½ miles, so why not?
Not too far outside of the park, Grosvenor Arch is a must. No, you’re not seeing double. The name should really be plural because there are two arches. Willis Creek Slot Canyon is also nearby and a fun way to spend a few hours (even during a drought when the water isn’t trickling through it). It’s not uncommon to see names from all over the United States on the hiking register, as well as names of international visitors who come to see our colorful corner of the world.
It’s easy to take the beauty we have in our backyard for granted. A quick trip to Kodachrome Basin State Park and the surrounding area is a good reminder of just how lucky we are. Check your calendar and start planning your own family getaway.