The numbers: 16 miles, 2 to 3 days
The hike: This cedar mesa route packs a lifetime of desert highlights—slickrock canyons, ancient ruins and pictographs, meandering creeks, and red sandstone arches and hoodoos—into a weekend loop. Start with a flat, 1.9-mile hike to the rim of Fish Creek Canyon and a crux scramble down a slickrock slot. (Carry a 20-foot length of rope to lower your packs.) Switchback to the canyon floor, keeping a sharp eye out—binoculars are helpful—for the ruins of Ancestral Puebloan homes and granaries high in alcoves on the south-facing walls between pinnacles of Cedar Mesa sandstone. Cottonwoods shade the campsites at the confluence of Fish and Owl Creeks. If you have time, continue down Fish Creek a mile or two to find more ruins, including the Watchtower, a 500-year-old structure perched atop a mushroom of rock, accessible only by a shaky log ladder. For the return leg, hike up Owl Creek Canyon past Nevills Arch, a 140-foot span on the northeast rim. Pools below the pour-offs in the upper canyon make good rest stops or campsites for a second night. Just before you climb out of the canyon, find a well-preserved ceremonial kiva.
Trailhead 37.474300, -109.818014; County Road 253, 15 miles south of Blanding
Red tape Reserve permits ($8/person) up to three months ahead (435-587-1510, weekdays 8 a.m.–noon)
Season Spring and fall have the best weather (but are busy)