By Judy Jewell
By W. C. McRae
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- Strategic itineraries, from a weekend getaway to Salt Lake City to ten days covering the entire state, curated for history buffs, families, outdoor adventurers, ski bums, budget travelers, and more
- How to plan a national parks road trip covering Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands
- Must-see highlights and unique experiences: Hike or mountain bike across canyons, rugged mountain ranges, and glistening salt flats, or hit the slopes at a Park City ski resort. Admire ancient Native American rock art and cliff dwellings, and walk beside fossilized dinosaur footprints. Explore historic Mormon sites in Salt Lake City, or wander through old mining towns. Go rafting down the Colorado River, canyoneering through the Narrows, or climb to the famed Delicate Arch just in time to watch the sun setting over the captivating hoodoos
- Honest recommendations from Utah experts and lifelong explorers W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell on when to go, where to eat, and where to stay, from ski resorts to budget motels to campgrounds
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Accurate, up-to-date information on the landscape, wildlife, and history, and advice for LGBTQ+ travelers, international visitors, seniors, and travelers with disabilities
Focusing on the parks? Try Moon Zion & Bryce or Moon Arches & Canyonlands. Hitting the road? Try Moon Southwest Road Trip.
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10 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
The Best of Utah
National Park Road Trip
Salt Lake City Weekend
Deep Powder Without Deep Pockets
The story goes that in 1847, when the trail-weary Mormon leader Brigham Young surveyed the Salt Lake Valley from Emigration Canyon high in the Wasatch Range, he declared, “This is the place.” Since the founding of Salt Lake City and the settlement of Utah, many other people have taken a look at this dramatic landscape and agreed: “Yes, this is the place.”
Few places on earth combine such spectacular terrain and unusual history. The state hosts the majestic splendor of the Wasatch Range, the colorful canyon lands of the Colorado Plateau, and the remote deserts and arid mountain ranges of the Great Basin. This region beckoned as the “Promised Land” to members of the struggling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1840s—a place where those faithful to the Book of Mormon could survive and prosper in a land of their own. Today, this once insular state has put out the welcome mat—Utah’s extravagant scenery and superlative recreational opportunities lure sightseers, mountain bikers, hikers, and skiers from around the world, many of whom stay on to make this beguiling state their home.
Utah presents some curious statistics: Although it ranks 31st among states in population, it is the 9th most urban state in the nation, a startling fact when you consider how utterly vacant—though dramatically beautiful—much of the landscape is. The unyielding deserts, craggy mountains, and imposing slickrock formations that cover much of the state aren’t really fit for human habitation, and the majority of citizens live in a few large cities in the sprawling Wasatch Front metropolitan area.
About 60 percent of the people living in Utah are practicing Mormons. To outsiders, the social homogeneity of smaller towns far from Salt Lake City, Park City, and Moab can seem off-putting, but the strong religious and cultural bonds that tie families and communities together in Utah are themselves noteworthy and increasingly rare in the fast-paced modern world. The uniformity of the population stands in stark contrast to the diversity of the landscape and the abundance of opportunities for outdoor recreation.
From incredibly varied canyon country, remote and rugged mountain ranges, and glistening salt flats to ancient Native American rock art and cliff dwellings, fossilized dinosaur footprints, and old mining towns, the many fascinating sights and experiences of Utah are waiting to be discovered.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Take in the Views at Arches and Canyonlands: From the postcard-perfect vista at Delicate Arch to Mesa Arch poised on a dramatic cliff-top and endlessly photographable Windows Section, there’s plenty of natural beauty for lasting memories.
2 Float in the Great Salt Lake: The best place to get a sense of the continent’s largest salt-water lake is Antelope Island State Park, where you can hike, view wildlife, or even take a dip in the briny water.
3 Ski and Snowboard in the Wasatch Range: Go upscale at Deer Valley, deep in powder at Alta, or snowboard with the locals at Brighton. End the day with dinner and drinks in Park City.
4 Hike among the Hoodoos: Bryce Canyon’s pink and gold hoodoos are magnificent viewed from a distance, but you can also explore the pillars up-close.
5 Explore the Slot Canyons: Hike through the narrow rock channels carved deep into massive sandstone formations.
6 Tour Temple Square: Whether or not you’re one of the faithful, this complex is a place to gain a greater understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints…or your own genealogy.
7 Get Prehistoric: Utah is littered with dinosaur fossils and dino tracks. The Dinosaur Quarry at Dinosaur National Monument is a good place to see a wall of bones. In Salt Lake City, the Utah Museum of Natural History has great exhibits, including the skeleton of a recently discovered new dinosaur species.
8 Uncover Ancient Mysteries: Head off the beaten path to Nine Mile Canyon or Hovenweep National Monument or Canyonlands’ Great Gallery to see some of the best examples of long-ago cultures.
9 Bike Utah: The Slickrock Trail in Moab gets all the love when it comes to destination-mountain biking, but Utah offers an abundance of alternative off-road biking adventures.
10 Sky-gazing: Whether painted with fiery sunsets or glowing with countless stars, these are some of the most gorgeous skies you’ll ever.
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-season, 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. The former rail hub of Ogden, along with its nearby ski resorts and nearby Antelope Island State Park, a wild and beautiful getaway in the Great Salt Lake, draw visitors beyond city limits.
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 or the sprawling Park City resort. In Park City itself, upscale amenities, fine dining, and events such as the Sundance Film Festival compete with the slopes for the attention of skiers and boarders. During summer, the mountain passes and ski areas offer hiking and mountain biking.
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. 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 with park rangers.
Vernal and Price have good dinosaur museums; visit dig sites at the remote Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry and see more than 1,000 bones exposed in the quarry at scenic Dinosaur National Monument.
Beyond dinosaurs, the lofty Uinta Mountains are noted for their trout-rich streams and lakes. The Green River cuts a mighty canyon through these mountains, exposing deep red cliffs. 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 and important archaeological sites.
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 red and pink hoodoos, delicate fingers of stone rising from a steep mountainside. Nearby, Cedar Breaks National Monument has similar formations without the crowds.
The Escalante Region
A large section of the Escalante Canyons National Monument preserves the dry washes and slot canyons trenched by the Escalante River and its tributaries. Long-distance hikers descend into the deep, narrow river channels here to experience the near-mystical harmony of flowing water and stone. The nearby Grand Staircase region monuments preserve rock arches, jutting promontories, slot canyons and fossil-rich formations that are best explored on rugged backroad adventures.
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 red sandstone. The beauty is more mystical at Arches National Park, where hundreds of delicate rock arches provide windows into the solid rock. High-spirited Moab is the recreational mecca of southeastern Utah, known for its mountain bike lifestyle and comfortable, sophisticated dining and lodging.
When to Go
Spring (Apr.-early June) and fall (Sept.-Oct.) are the most pleasant times to visit, but 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 late spring-midsummer.
Aspens turn gold in the high country in late September-early October, followed by colorful displays of oaks, cottonwoods, and other deciduous plants in lower canyons lower. 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 late July-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 or Ogden. 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.
The Best of Utah
Utah’s top sights form a ring within the state, making it easy to take a 10-day loop road trip that connects the state’s most alluring attractions. Think of this as a sampler of Utah’s varied destinations.
Arrive in Salt Lake City. Take in the Mormon historic sites at Temple Square, wander through the historic neighborhoods along South Temple Street, and, depending on the weather, attend a free evening concert at the Mormon Assembly Hall, the tabernacle, or Gallivan Center. Spend the night at Hotel Monaco—or Little America, if you’re on a budget (look for specials online).
Drive north on I-15. Just south of Ogden, head west along a 7-mile (11.3 km) causeway to Antelope Island State Park to dip your toes into the Great Salt Lake and look for wildlife, including the island’s bison herd. Have lunch on 25th Street, lined with historic storefronts now housing shops and cafés, in Ogden. After lunch, continue north to the verdant Cache Valley, where Logan is home to Utah State University and, in summer, the Utah Festival Opera. Try some delicious Aggie ice cream, made by the university’s dairy school, and spend the night at the Best Western Weston Inn.
Return south toward Salt Lake City on I-15, but this time skip the big city and turn east onto I-80 to Park City, Utah’s top ski resort and film festival center. The old town area of Park City is a long and narrow street that remains from the town’s beginnings as a mining camp. From right downtown, ride the Town Lift for a mountain hike, then wander along Main Street to shop the boutiques and pick out a restaurant for dinner. For real fun, head a block off Main to High West, a distillery with good food and a Western vibe. Spend the night in style at Marriott’s Summit Watch Resort, or save a few bucks at the Park City Hostel.
Today, you’ll put quite a few miles on the car. Drive from Park City to Provo on U.S. 189, through the very scenic Provo Canyon. Continue south on U.S. 6, first to Price and then to the town of Green River. After a brief drive along I-70, turn south onto U.S. 191 to Moab.
You’re in the midst of national parks, so start exploring. Arches is just a few miles away, so you’ll have time to hike to Delicate Arch, explore the Devils Garden, and stop at every scenic viewpoint along the way.
From Moab, drive south on U.S. 191. Unfortunately, time doesn’t allow for exploration of all the far-flung districts of Canyonlands, but at least pull off the road 40 miles (64 km) south of Moab at the road to Needles District and drive 10 miles (16 km) to Newspaper Rock Historical Monument. Continue south to Bluff, a tiny town along the San Juan River, where you can stay at the Recapture Lodge.
From Bluff, drive to Mexican Hat and drop into the Navajo Reservation. As you continue on, the dramatic spires of Monument Valley soon fill the skyline. Snap some photos before traveling southwest to Arizona via U.S. 163 and picking up to Kanab.
Two national parks in one day? No problem! From Kanab, get an early start and drive U.S. 89 and then Highway 9 to Zion, where you’ll drop off the car and ride the shuttle bus along the Virgin River Parkway. Hop off and on, taking short hikes in the mighty Zion Canyon.
Stop for lunch at the Zion Park Lodge, then backtrack to U.S. 89 and continue north. Make the turn onto Highway 12 for Bryce Canyon. Check into the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, then catch a free afternoon shuttle along the parkway. Be sure to catch the sunset over the park’s mysterious pink and orange hoodoos.
From Bryce Canyon, continue east along Highway 12 to Escalante and hike the easy, mostly level hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls, or try some more intense canyoneering through the Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch. Enjoy great food and comfortable lodging at Boulder Mountain Lodge, in Boulder, or rough it in one of the simple cabins at Escalante Outfitters.
Return to Salt Lake City by following Highway 24 to Salina, then U.S. 50 to I-15, which will get you to the Utah state capital in time for dinner at the Red Iguana.
National Park Road Trip
Despite their proximity, visiting all of Utah’s national parks is a bit complicated because of the rugged terrain and lack of roads. You must plan on a lot of driving, but it’s worth it to see each park’s unique sights, from Arches’ colorful rock fins to Bryce Canyon’s towering hoodoos to the desert hiking trails of Canyonlands’ Needles District. The roads between the parks are also unbelievably scenic, so get into a road-trip frame of mind, cue up some good music, and head out to explore.
Start in Moab and head a few miles north to Arches National Park. Visit a few sites along the park road and hike to the famed Delicate Arch. Settle into your previously reserved campsite at Devils Garden and take an evening stroll down the Devils Garden Trail.
Devote Day 2 to exploring Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District, taking in the astonishing vista points (particularly Grand View Point, perched high above the Colorado River) and saving time for a hike to the cliff edge. Camp at nearby Dead Horse Point State Park and explore the mountain biking there.
Head into Moab for an early breakfast, and head south on U.S. 191. Pull off U.S. 191 south of Moab 40 miles (64 km) and drive toward the Needles District of Canyonlands. It’s 38 miles (61 km) to the park gate (which will add considerably to the 115-mile (185-km) straight shot down 191), but good hiking awaits. If you’re short on time just follow the park access road for 10 miles (16 km) from the highway to BLM Newspaper Rock Historical Monument, one of Utah’s finest and most accessible petroglyph sites. Head back to U.S. 191, drive south to just past Blanding and head east on UT 95 across Cedar Mesa to the campground at Natural Bridges National Monument.
From Natural Bridges, it’s a pretty 100-mile (161-km) easy drive north on Highway 95 to Hanksville and west 28 miles (45 km) on Highway 24 to Capitol Reef, one of the National Park Service’s unsung heroes, with scenery to match the other Utah parks but fewer visitors, a grassy campground, and a fruit orchard.
From Capitol Reef, follow Highway 12 south to Escalante Canyons National Monument. The 61-mile (98-km) trip between Torrey and Escalante is one of the most scenic routes in all of Utah—don’t plan to drive this in an hour. Take in all the scenery and sights, including a visit to the prehistoric ruins at Anasazi State Park and a hike across slickrock up the dramatic Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail to a waterfall.
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- Nov 9, 2021
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- Moon Travel