Every state thinks it’s fun. Every state claims to have “something for everyone.” But not every state has five national parks, 45 state parks, five national historic sites and trails, and a dozen national monuments and recreation areas. There isn’t a single amazing thing about Utah. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.
When visiting Utah, definitely take in the Mighty 5. But don’t let the splendor of it all blind you to the other spectacular experiences the state has to offer.
Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets. Notable landmarks include Landscape Arch, the North and South Windows, Park Avenue, and Balanced Rock.
In Utah’s southwest corner, the Virgin River carved through 2,000 feet of porous sandstone, forming a canyon so grand it needed a name equally majestic: In Hebrew, “Zion” means “promised land.” The seasons drastically change Zion’s landscape; cottonwood trees glow gold in the fall, the ridges shine with snow in winter, and waterfalls and pools spring to life in summer. There’s no bad time to visit Zion.
Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, and photographers.
The past 60 million years have done a number on this section of southern Utah turning it into the world’s largest collection of hoodoos. The park’s 18-mile scenic drive takes you by a series of amphitheaters. But at 12 miles long, three miles wide, and 800 feet deep, Bryce Amphitheater steals the show. You’ll find the best views at the first four overlooks.
Canyonlands has four separate districts and you can’t access one from another. Island in the Sky is the most popular and accessible. Here, head to Grand View Point for panoramas of the White Rim sandstone cliffs. With one paved road, the Needles district is rugged and difficult to navigate, so its many trails are consistently quiet. The Maze district is harder still to access. The Colorado and Green rivers make up the fourth district; parts of both are calm enough for kayaking.
Located in southwestern Utah, Scenic Byway 12 is nestled between two national parks—Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. A 121-mile-long All-American Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats.
Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.
Grand Staircase-Escalante contains three distinct units, Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyon. The Monument was the last place in the U. S. to be mapped. From its spectacular Grand Staircase of cliffs and terraces, across the rugged Kaiparowits Plateau, to the wonders of the Escalante River Canyons, the Monument is a diverse geologic treasure speckled with monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches.
Monument Valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower to heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.
The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley.
Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.
Utah Lake State Park
Utah Lake is unique in that it is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the West and yet it lies in an arid area that receives only about 15 inches of rainfall a year. Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, paddleboarding, and fishing. The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and electric hookups.
Fish Lake Scenic Byway (SR-25) bookends Fishlake National Forest, an often-missed oasis featuring three mountain ranges broken up by desert canyons. Fishlake National Forest is known for its aspen forests, scenic drives, trails, elk hunting, and mackinaw and rainbow trout fishing. Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake lies in a down-faulted valley at an elevation of 8,843 feet. The 5.5-mile-long lake is one of the most popular fishing resorts in the state.
This eastern Utah town serves as a gateway to the otherworldly rock formations found in Arches National Park and the numerous canyons and buttes in Canyonlands National Park. One of the top adventure towns in the world, Moab is surrounded by a sea of buckled, twisted and worn sandstone sculpted by millennia of sun, wind, and rain.
Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway
Cutting through the red rock gorge of the Colorado River, this 44-mile long byway (UT-128) offers a panoramic view of the LaSal Mountains whose snow-capped peaks rise in vivid contrast to the red rock sandstone typical of this canyon country. About four miles from Grandstaff Canyon, the byway passes the Big Bend Campground and picnic area with its white sand beach. The next section of the road closely parallels the Colorado River.
Dixie National Forest
This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon but those who linger will be rewarded with amazing sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon) but also explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.
Quail Creek State Park
Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures campers, hikers, boaters, and anglers year-round. The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet so it is cold enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.
Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks is shaped like a giant coliseum dropping 2,000 feet to its floor. Deep inside the coliseum are stone spires, columns, arches, pinnacles, and intricate canyons in varying shades of red, yellow, and purple. The bristlecone pine, one of the world’s oldest trees, grows in the area.
La Sal Mountain Loop Road
A special place full of wonderful sights, smells, and sounds is the La Sal Mountains just east of Moab. The second-highest mountain range in Utah, the La Sals have six peaks that soar over 12,000 feet. One of the best ways to become acquainted with these mountains is to take a road trip along the La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop. The La Sal Mountains occupy a relatively small area running just 15 miles north to south and 6 miles across. They are most easily accessed from the west on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road that begins south of Moab.
The twin, towering buttes are so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or in English: Bears Ears. The land includes red rock, juniper forests, a high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts.
Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat. It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. Located on BLM land, the area is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections. It provides a fun drive through an area that is usually deserted. It is a great place to get away from civilization
Dead Horse Point State Park is located at the end of a beautiful mesa where you can look for miles into Canyonlands National Park or 2,000 feet down to the Colorado River. The vista offers outstanding views of the river and surrounding canyon country. There are a few short hikes around the edge of the mesa with stunning views into the deep canyons. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.
The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures. The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.
Sand Hollow State Park
With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, one of Utah’s newer state parks is also one of its most popular. Boat, fish, and dive at Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in a campground on the beach. Boating and fishing on its warm blue waters is the most popular activity in the warmer months but visitors can also go off-roading amidst wild red sandstone dunes in the park’s Sand Mountain area.
Camp along the shores of Wide Hollow Reservoir or rent a canoe, kayak, or paddle board. Hike along park nature trails through a petrified forest. Bordering the massive Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel on Scenic Byway 12 allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest.
Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway
The Moab area is known for its abundance of Indian rock art. This byway (UT-279) features several petroglyph panels with many individual carvings depicting symbolic animals. Other ancient traces include a roadside display of dinosaur tracks and a number of delicate, naturally formed stone arches. There are also many opportunities for outdoor adventure and extreme sports. Climb Wall Street, a popular stretch of cliffs just after JayCee Campground.
As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”