SALT LAKE CITY — Tucked into the mountain just off I-15 near the unassuming town of Leeds, is a little oasis in the southern Utah desert. It’s not obscure or remote, but it is worth joining the crowds.
Red Cliffs Recreation Area, part of the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, provides a fun adventure for a few hours — or longer if camping is what you’re after.
According to the visitor guide, dinosaurs roamed here, pioneers farmed here, the Ancestral Puebloans intermittently lived here, and desert tortoises still dwell here. With activities like hiking, camping, horseback riding and mountain biking, it’s no surprise so many are attracted to the area — then and now.
The popular spot does get busy and parking is limited, so plan accordingly. The day use fee is $5 per vehicle and $15 per night per campsite. There are a handful of trails — like the Silver Reef, Anasazi and Mano trails — as well as dinosaur tracks and archaeological sites.
The Red Reef Trail is arguably the most popular hike at just over a mile round trip. It’s easily accessed from the main road, beginning with sandy terrain among blooming desert plants. Little caves and tree formations make for great photos along the way.
The ground shifts to rocks, then back again. The looming red cliffs eventually lead to tranquil Quail Creek and the first of three waterfalls. The first is easy to reach, like a little slice of paradise in the canyon. The second requires walking through a steep, rocky area, then climbing up a rock with ropes and footholds (moki steps) to get above the waterfall. The third is more difficult, least visited and for the most adventurous because it requires wading in deep water. You can, and many do, jump down the waterfalls (or slide down the smaller ones).
Because the second waterfall requires amateur rock climbing, which can only be done one person at a time, it can get backed up on busy days. The sandy rocks beside the water also get slippery. Though the trail presents some challenges, most are manageable for children (or parents carrying children). Water depth along the way varies from walking through a few inches to swimming or jumping 8 feet down.
There are times of year when the water may not be running, so the best times to go are during the spring and fall.
You’re likely to see a variety of critters throughout the hike, from desert insects and butterflies to frogs and perhaps even a Gila monster or tortoise.
Wear a swimsuit if you plan to get wet, good shoes that are suitable for sand and water, and a backpack to keep your hands free.
Directions: From Leeds, head south on Old Highway 91 to Harrisburg. Turn right on the road that goes under I-15 and follow the signs to the Red Cliffs Campground.
Difficulty: moderate to challenging