Steamboat Springs The snow at Howelsen Hill has begun to turn to mush and the snowboarders can almost visualize the mountain bike trails on a lingering June evening. In the meantime, others have pointed their wheels southwest to Grand Junction, southeast Utah and the Four Corners region beyond.
The National Weather Service was forecasting that both Grand Junction and Fruita, jumping off point for the Kokopelli Trail, would crest 67 degrees on Sunday. Moab, Utah, was predicted to reach 70 degrees, signaling a perfect March afternoon for mountain biking or short hikes in Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Lesser known Hanksville, Utah, south of Green River was supposed to warm up to 65 degrees on Saturday.
Moab has a strong pull for mountain bikers, but the once-sleepy mining town has become overrun. Best to keep driving south on Utah 191 past Canyonlands and the town of Blanding. There is a secret place off Utah 261 called Grand Gulch Primitive Area, which is managed by the BLM. The canyons are packed with relatively untrammeled Anasazi ruins. April is one of the few times when backpackers can count on water flowing down a tributary of the San Juan River.
The area has been reserved for non-vehicle use.
Visitors must have a backcountry permit to hike in Grand Gulch or any of the other nearby Cedar Mesa canyons (Fish, Owl, Slickhorn, Road, Lime, Mule, McCloyd). Advance reservations are available for overnight use and can be obtained for spring (Mar. 1-June 15) and fall (Sept. 2- Oct. 31). From June 16 to Aug. 31 no advance reservations are available. For advanced reservations and permits call the Monticello Field Office at (435) 587-1532
Day hikers do not need reservations and can register and pay their fee at the ranger station or the in the fee tube at the appropriate trailhead before entering the canyon.
There is an $8 per person fee for overnight use of all of the Cedar Mesa canyons (including Grand Gulch and Fish and Owl). A one-day Day Use permit is $2 per person. A seven-day pass for day hiking is available for $5 per person.
Explorers who venture west of the I-70 turnoff to Moab will find a vast part of Utah's canyon country that doesn't see as many people as the area around Arches, the Slickrock Trail and Canyonlands.
Driving south from Interstate 70 from Green River, Goblin Valley State Park is a worth a side trip, but the campground is a bit desolate. If the goal is to get lost in a vast wilderness, the many dirt roads of the San Rafael Swell will accommodate people who are well prepared and packing ample water.
Northwest Colorado residents know Hanksville as that little junction town on the way to Bullfrog Marina. Stop in the Texaco for a Red Bull. Veer left and you're on your way to Lake Powell. Veer right up the Fremont River Valley and it's on to the vast Waterpocket Fold and the spectacular rock formations of often-overlooked Capitol Reef National Park.
Capitol Reef's Fruita Campground is one of the most beautiful in the national parks system, with a herd of deer grazing in historic apple and cherry orchards established by pioneer families. Average daily highs in April are 63 degrees, but there's still a realistic chance of a spring snowstorm, and overnight lows descend below 40 degrees. Spring is the best time for long distance hikes in the park, because daily highs in June and July bump up to 86 and 91 degrees.
The 80 campsites may not be reserved, so visitors have to take their chances and hope for a site on a first-come, first-served basis.
Visitors to Capitol Reef seeking creature comforts will find them on the west side of the park in the town of Torrey. Avoid the obvious chain motels and seek out the Capitol Reef Inn and Cafe. The dining room has earned a regional reputation.
Beyond Torrey is the funky mountain town of Boulder, Hell's Backbone and the even funkier town of Escalante, on the edge of the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument
But the real attraction in the region is the spectacular rock formations and twisting canyons.
It's still ski season, but Utah is calling.