Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City is the state capital, home to a major university and seat of a major religion—a rare combination of attributes that makes for a certain amount of civic gravitas and self-focus. But to visitors, Salt Lake City presents a near-unique natural and built environment where all-seasons, big-as-all-outdoors recreation coexists with the sophisticated comforts of urban living. And as one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation, Salt Lake City's population is increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan.
Park City and the Wasatch Range
In the Wasatch Range, superb snow conditions and friendly ski resorts combine to offer some of the best skiing in North America. Each resort has its own distinct character, from folksy yet ski-crazy Alta to plush Deer Valley. In Park City, upscale amenities, fine dining, and events such as the Sundance Film Festival compete with stellar ski slopes for the attention of skiers and boarders. During summer, the mountain passes and ski areas offer hiking and mountain biking.
Ogden was once a thriving rail hub, and although the handsome rail station at the head of 25th Street no longer receives rail passengers, it now houses museums, a restaurant, and an art gallery. The city's old downtown area retains early-20th-century storefronts, which are now home to restaurants and shops. Logan is located in a green fertile valley and hedged by towering peaks. Summer festivals, including the nationally acclaimed Utah Festival Opera, make Logan a lively place. Pretty canyons lie east of both towns, escorting travelers to high valleys and lakes.
Great Basin Desert
This is the place to visit if you want to get away from it all. The Great Basin Desert alternates with arid mountain ranges, and only a few paved roads even cross this forlorn landscape. Many visitors travel through on I-80, getting a long look at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the state's northwestern corner. West-central Utah is the best place in the state for rockhounding, and there's lots of history in the old mining ghost towns. The Pony Express crossed this lonely stretch of desert, and remnants of old stations and inns can still be seen.
Provo and Central Utah
Provo, home to Brigham Young University, is a good base for exploring the dramatic Wasatch peaks that rise directly behind the city. An especially nice back road is the Alpine Scenic Loop, which climbs up to 7,500 feet through dramatic mountain scenery. Along the way you'll pass Sundance Resort, noted for its skiing and good restaurants, and Timpanogos Cave National Monument, open in summer for tours by serious hikers.
Vernal and Price have good dinosaur museums; visit dig sites at the remote Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry and hike, float, or drive at scenic Dinosaur National Monument.
Beyond dinosaurs, the lofty but rounded Uinta Mountains are noted for their trout-rich streams and lakes. The Green River cuts a mighty canyon through these mountains, exposing cliffs of deep red and ochre. Called the Flaming Gorge, the canyon now contains a reservoir that's the center of a national recreation area. This region also has excellent ancient Native American rock art.
Zion and Bryce
Zion National Park presents stunning contrasts, with barren, towering rock walls deeply incised by steep canyons containing a verdant oasis of cottonwood trees and wildflowers. Zion is so awe-inspiring that the early Mormons named it for their vision of heaven.
Bryce Canyon National Park is famed for its abundance of red and pink hoodoos, delicate fingers of stone rising from a steep mountainside. Nearby, Cedar Breaks National Monument has formations similar to Bryce Canyon, only without the crowds.
The Escalante Region
A large section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument preserves the dry washes and slot canyons trenched by the Escalante River and its tributaries as they drop toward the Colorado River. Long-distance hikers descend these sinuously beautiful, high-rock-walled cathedrals of stone to experience the near-mystical harmony of flowing water and stone. In Capitol Reef National Park, the Fremont River carves a magnificent canyon through Waterpocket Fold, offering hikers and explorers a leafy, well-watered sanctuary from the park's otherwise arid landscapes.
Arches and Canyonlands
In vast Canyonlands National Park, the Colorado River begins to tunnel its mighty—and soon to be grand—canyon through an otherworldly landscape of deep red sandstone. The beauty is more serene and mystical at Arches National Park, where hundreds of delicate rock arches provide vast windows into the solid rock. High-spirited Moab is the recreational mecca of southeastern Utah, known for its mountain bike lifestyle and comfortable—even sophisticated—dining and lodging.
When to Go
Spring (Apr.-early June) and fall are the most pleasant times to visit. The same spring showers that make the desert country shine with wildflowers can also dampen trails and turn dirt roads to absolute muck. Arm yourself with insect repellent from late spring to midsummer.
Aspens turn to gold in the high country in late September and early October, followed by colorful displays of oaks, cottonwoods, and other deciduous plants in canyons lower down. This can be the best time to travel in Utah.
Except in the mountains, summer heat can rapidly drain your energy. In Canyonlands, Arches, and Moab, summer temperatures can easily top 100°F. Bryce Canyon, at 6,600-9,100 feet, is a good summertime bet, as are the Uintas and the Flaming Gorge area in northeastern Utah. Thunderstorms are fairly common from late July through early September and bring the threat of flash floods, especially in slot canyons.
Travel doesn't let up in winter—the ski areas here are some of the nation's best, and they are very easy to get to from Salt Lake City. If you're traveling to other places in the state, inquire about travel conditions, as snow and ice occasionally close roads and trails at higher elevations.
Before You Go
If you're planning on making the rounds of southern Utah's national parks, buy an America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass ($80, good for one year) at your first stop to cover entrance to all national parks. Senior passes ($10 for a lifetime pass) and free passes for residents with permanent disabilities are also available.
If you rent a car (or bring your own), think about where you'll be driving. During the snowy winter months, four-wheel drive or chains may be required in the mountains, including on roads leading to ski areas. In any season, a high-clearance vehicle may allow you to travel unpaved back roads without too much worry, but it's always wise to check locally before setting out to determine current conditions: Rainstorms and snowmelt can render these roads impassable.
What to Take
Unless you want to return from Utah looking like a leather handbag, remember to use lots of sunscreen. Prepare for wide variations in temperature. Nights in the desert can be very chilly even when summer highs soar above 100°F.
There's little need to pack clothes to dress up. Casual clothes are acceptable nearly everywhere, although if you want to break out your $300 jeans, you'll feel good about doing it in Park City. If you're visiting religious sites in Salt Lake City or elsewhere, neat, modest casual clothing will be fine.
Alcohol presents another issue. If you want a drink, especially away from larger cities or small towns near national parks, it may be easiest to pack your own—especially if you have discerning tastes. While drinking laws have relaxed tremendously and many restaurants in larger towns now offer a selection of alcoholic beverages (including good wine and Utah microbrews), Utah is not a drinking culture, to put it mildly.
Bring your cell phone, but don't count on reception in remote mountains or canyons.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition