With its wild mix of ancient geology, little-known ski resorts, great state parks, and wild road trips that look like they’ve been ripped from a movie reel, Utah packs a real visual punch. It’s not hard to find your own special escape here in the Beehive State. It’s so diverse, both culturally and geologically, that there are adventures to be found on every highway. All you need is a GPS and the will to explore…
Arrive and find your marks
Reaching Utah is a straightforward affair, giving visitors more time to explore the state. It is well served by two major airports: Salt Lake City International and Harry Reid International in Las Vegas. Both are good options, with the latter being convenient for visiting southern Utah attractions like Zion National Park.
For the best introduction to the state, a few days in Salt Lake City do the trick. Stroll through microbreweries, artisan chocolatiers and the bustling farmer’s market in Pioneer Park, then discover what’s on the doorstep of the state capital. The town is the gateway to a dozen ski resorts in the surrounding mountains, while the nearby Snowbird Aerial Tram takes visitors 2.5km to the summit of Hidden Peak (3,350m).
There’s glamor to be found in Park City, home to the annual Sundance Film Festival, or you can gaze at the stars of the animal kingdom on Antelope Island. This sprawling island in the Great Salt Lake is a wilderness state park with bison, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, the fastest land animal in North America. It’s certainly good preparation for the untapped wilderness that awaits elsewhere.
When it comes to national parks, Utah’s quintet can rightfully claim to offer some of the craziest experiences in the United States. They are a tempting natural lure for outdoor explorers, each offering something different from the other.
Arches National Park, north of Moab, is a thrilling drive from Salt Lake City as you enter a landscape filled with geological formations, the most impressive of which are its 2,000 natural (and gravity-defying) arches. To the south, Canyonlands National Park is every bit as spectacular as its name suggests, offering views of seemingly endless canyons and cliffs carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers.
In central Utah lies Capitol Reef National Park, the least visited of the state’s Mighty 5 and perhaps the most underrated of them all, offering an otherworldly experience devoid of any sign of civilization. To the west, Bryce Canyon National Park sits 2,750m above sea level and combines alpine forests with red rock hoodoos and mule deer grazing on the plateaus. And finally, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the 300m deep red rock canyons of Zion National Park or the towering Court of the Patriarchs, the trio of tall sandstone cliffs that line the eastern edge of the park. .
Lesser known landscapes — the route of the mighty
True to the phrase “it’s the journey, not the destination”, road trips to the Mighty 5 are an adventure in themselves. From driving under the towering spiers of Bryce Canyon to kayaking adventures en route to Capitol Reef, stopping to enjoy the ride is almost as much fun as arriving at your final destination.
If your first stop after landing in Salt Lake City is Arches National Park, be sure to cut the 370 km journey short. On the outskirts of town, you’ll find the Red Butte Garden Arboretums and the Natural History Museum of Utah. Further down Route 70, Green River is a good introduction to the forces of nature at work in the state. The cold-water Crystal Geyser, just 15 km south of the city, erupts frequently, spewing water about 40 m into the air.
If you’re heading to Capitol Reef National Park, consider a route that passes by Lake Powell. It’s popular with kayakers and paddleboarders, and day-trippers can rent gear from the Bullfrog Marina before hitting the water. The area also attracts anglers and jet skiers, with a coastline that stretches for over 3,200km and campgrounds for those who want to stay a night or two.
Even Utah’s highways offer incredible views. The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway more than delivers, taking in the rock drama and ancestral lands of southeast Utah. One highlight is the Natural Bridges National Monument, best viewed from Route 95, west of Blanding. Here, trails descend from its lookout points and into a canyon lined with Puebloan ruins. Later, the route continues into Navajo country, where Monument Valley hugs the Utah border and the Four Corners monument lets you stand in four states at once.
moments of cinema
As you cruise the state’s lesser-known highways, you might begin to recognize its big-screen scenery. Many of the world’s biggest hits were filmed here, and Thelma & Louise fans can retrace the route the duo took back to where their journey ended – stopping before stepping off. a cliff, of course. In fact, that infamous final scene was filmed in Fossil Point, Utah, just outside of Moab, and is viewable from Dead Horse Point State Park.
If Robert Redford and Paul Newman are more to your liking, plan your trip to include the sights of Snow Canyon State Park and the ghost town of Grafton. Both locations were featured extensively in the 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and it was at Cave Valley in the Kolob area of Zion National Park that Butch battled Harvey Logan to gain control of the Hole-gang. In-The-Wall.
Dark sky: astrotourism
Thanks to Utah’s size and vast expanses of uninhabited deserts, the state is a magnet for stargazers. Many come just to contemplate the sky, far from any light pollution. For the uninitiated, the best places to get a glimpse of the Milky Way are the International Dark Sky Parks, and Utah is home to one of the largest concentrations of these in the world.
To get the most out of the state’s astrotourism, time your trip to avoid the full moon and prepare to embrace some of Utah’s lesser-known (and less-visited) regions. There are many national and state parks offering stargazing experiences, from Rainbow Bridge National Monument, accessible only by foot or boat, to the desert vastness of Dead Horse Point, to the macabre rocks of Goblin Valley. Alternatively, Arches National Park serves as an equally impressive (and easily accessible) introduction to the world of stargazing in Utah.