Utah

To my pleasant surprise, Utah is one of the most beautiful and scenic states to drive through, not to mention the mighty five national parks scattered throughout the state. There is something about the mountain ranges that make you feel small (in a good way) and that you are adventuring through prehistoric times. Utah has some of the most unique landscapes in the world, natural wonders, incredible hikes, hot springs, and dinosaur fossils. September was particularly nice as you start to feel relief from the grueling summer heat with cool evenings and before the snow in the higher elevations.

My Favorites


1. Zion National Park

Mount Carmel Highway Overlook

Highlights: Mountains, streams, hiking, nature, camping
Suggest Staying: 5-7 days
Stay Around: Zion South Entrance (Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort)
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One of the most beautiful places in the country, Zion is a sight to behold. Picturesque views, rivers, and canyons line this incredible natural wonder. There are some incredible hikes and much to explore. I also happened to be there during an annual music festival and got to see an awesome live show by this unbelievably talented group The Ben Miller Band. So much fun to see live and they play quite the assortment of home made instruments with their very impressive musicianship. Also chatted with some folks who were on a bicycle tour of the mountains! Talk about a challenge.

See & Do

  • The Narrows. The coolest thing in Zion and one of my favorite adventures ever! This day long wading in the river through the narrow canyon surrounded by high rock walls is an unparalleled experience. It’s not to miss.
  • Angel’s Landing. The other top attraction in the park with incredible views and challenging hike up a long series of switchbacks. The top is not for those with a fear of heights. The journey up to that point is not scary, just steep.
  • Emerald Pools. Nice hike with sprinkling water dripping down along the trail ending with a couple pools.
  • Hidden Canyon. Right near Angel’s Landing, but is overlooked by most hikers. I did this to prep for Angel’s Landing and had such fun. I kind of liked it better. Hardly anyone on the trail, chains at one point (to hold on to), rocks/trees to climb over, and great views. The trail kind of goes until you decide to stop. I hiked to the arch and then turned back.
  • Kolob Canyon. Nice views. Look for the Timber Creek Overlook Trail.
  • Mount Carmel Highway Canyon Overlook. Nice drive and short hike to beautiful, iconic views of the park. You can even see a forming arch.
  • Riverside Walk. Nice, leisurely walk along the river on the way to the entrance of The Narrows.
  • Weeping Rock. Trickling water along a rock face.

Tips

  • Flash Floods. At the visitor center or an outfitter, they will have the weather conditions. Check before you trek The Narrows! Flash floods are no joke and even if it’s sunny, rain from miles away can cause a flash flood in the canyons and in The Narrows especially there is nowhere to escape. Several people died a few weeks before my visit from this. Flash floods move rapidly and with such force they can uproot a tree. Don’t be scared, just be safe and plan accordingly.
  • Water. Stay hydrated, it gets hot here, especially in the summer! That compounded with long, high elevation hikes will make you thirsty.
  • The Narrows. Go to one of the outfitter stores and get The Narrows pack, which includes neoprene socks to keep your feet warm (the water is very cold even in summer), waterproof shoes (or wear tough sandals that drain so water isn’t held in the shoes weighing you down), and a walking stick (incredibly helpful to find the bottom for deeper parts and to help you balance). Plan to be out for the entire day. Bring sunblock, snacks, and plenty of water. Be prepared to get wet. This is an all day excursion if you really want to explore and get the full experience. During summer the water will be around ankle height for most of the journey, but can get up to your waist at points. Consider a dry bag or just be careful with electronics in your backpack. Don’t put things in your pockets. Use the walking stick to check for depth. It may be cool in the morning, so maybe even bring a waterproof jacket. During cooler months the water level can reach your chest and is even colder. Outfitters usually recommend dry suits. Start early, first thing in the morning so you return before dark.
  • Angel’s Landing. Go early in the morning when it’s cooler and there are less crowds. There are a ton of switchbacks and it’s very steep. The trail gets very crowded and the crown jewel last tenth of a mile or so requires holding on to chains with several hundred foot drops on both sides and people walking both ways on a path meant for one at a time. There is a place to stop and take in the views at the top base if you don’t want to head all the way out to the ledge.

2. Arches National Park & Moab

Corona Arch

Highlights: Arches, hiking
Suggest Staying: 3-5 days
Stay Around: Moab (tons of RV parks and campgrounds)
Internet: Good (Moab)
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Arches has some of the most spectacular rock formations due to its unique landscape. Relatively short hikes allow you to get a lot in during the course of just a few days. While it’s possible to drive through the park and observe from the parking lots, it’s so much better to take the trails and get to the base of the formations for the best experience. The town of Moab itself which is between Arches and Canyonlands is a cool place in and of itself with off roading, kayaking, and other outdoor sports. A great central location if visiting both parks.

See & Do

  • Delicate Arch. Most popular and idyllic view in the park. Hike to the top or admire from below if you have physical limitations or don’t want to.
  • Fiery Furnace. Super cool hike where you get to be like Spiderman to get through some of the slots in the canyon. Reserve in advance. I had so much fun doing this!
  • The Windows. Iconic views of arches forming windows, or glasses, depending on your imagination. Get right up to the base and climb around.
  • Wall Street. Get out of your car and onto the trail to experience the vastness.
  • Turret Arch. Connecting rock formation.
  • Balancing Rock. Just as it sounds.
  • Devil’s Garden. Several arches, several different trails.
  • Moab. The town of Moab is great for getting set up for outdoor activities or having a nice meal. In the area, especially along the Colorado river, you can find BLM campsites, river rafting, or just gorgeous drives. The area is also known for off road 4×4 activities.
  • Corona Arch. One of my favorite hikes in Moab. Located outside of Arches. This is the arch on the Utah license plate. Relatively short hike with varied terrain, a moderate hike that’s a lot of fun and picturesque. Go early for less crowds and cooler temperatures, as there’s no shade. Beautiful drive there along the Colorado River.
  • Fisher Towers. Wonderful hidden gem I heard about by chance from a guy at the car dealership when I was getting my car serviced. Super fun hike with great views. Highly recommend if you have time. Go early, before 9 or 10 am, to avoid the heat and crowds. Takes about 3 hours at roughly 4.2 miles out and back.
  • Shafer Trail. If you’re into off roading, this easy dirt road trail goes about 30 miles, but it’s a nice 10 mile, hour long drive up to Thelma & Louise Point. AWD high clearance vehicle required. Only a few steep spots on the first 10 miles. Probably more difficult after rain.
  • Mill Creek. Magical little swimming hole and waterfall accessible via a short hike along the creek.
  • Goblin Valley State Park. About an hour and half from Moab, if you have the time this cool little park has some interesting rock formations and hike to the Goblin’s Lair, a slot canyon blocked by a boulder creating a small cave you can climb into. If you can find it. Lots of sand and some rock scrambling.

Tips

  • Accommodations. You can either stay in Moab at a campground, RV park, or motel. Or nearby the park just outside the entrance along the Colorado river are some nice little campgrounds that are kind of hidden away off the main road.
  • Water & Sunblock. There is very little shade in the park and in the summer/fall it gets brutally hot. Wear sunblock, bring a hat, take snacks, drink plenty of water.
  • Fiery Furnace. Requires a permit and advanced reservation for the tour. Reserve before your go ideally, groups fill up several days in advance. I think technically you can go on your own, but it’s really confusing and difficult to navigate, so I recommend doing the guided tour. You’ll be sure to see everything too.

3. Bryce Canyon National Park

Navajo Loop Hoodoos

Highlights: Hoodoos, hiking
Suggest Staying: 2-5 days
Stay Around: Hatch or Panguitch
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Bryce Canyon has some pretty unique rock formations called hoodoos which are located throughout the park, and viewable in various concentrations in the main amphitheater. Lots of great hikes, most are relatively short, intersecting, and loops so you really get to see the park pretty efficiently. You can walk along the rim or down in the canyon, which can be fairly steep on the way back.

See & Do

  • Discovery and Peakaboo Trails. These trails intersect with one another and take you both above and below the hoodoos.
  • Navajo Loop. Great views, probably my favorite trail.
  • Fairyland Trail & Tower Bridge. Little bit longer than the other hikes, less crowded.
  • Rim Amphitheater. Spectacular views.
  • Mossy Cave & Waterfall. Short hike to small waterfall and mossy cave on the outskirts.
  • Red Canyon. Wander up for close views of some hoodoos.
  • Stargazing. Bryce gets some of the darkest skies and the visitor center has a telescope. Visibility depends on the weather.

Nearby

  • Cedar Breaks National Monument. Feels like an extension of Bryce Canyon. Nice drive if you’re looking for a nice scenic route en route to your next destination like Zion or Nevada.
  • Brian Head. Pretty little ski town that’s a nice pit stop or drive if nothing else.

Tips

  • Trails. Some trails, or parts of them, allow horses. Watch out for horse poop! Not only avoid stepping in it, but hiking uphill downwind when your gasping for air isn’t the most pleasant. I learned the hard way.
  • Elevation. The elevation is anywhere between around 6,000-9,000 feet high which means the air is thinner and it’s colder (mainly at night). Be aware of your limits and stay hydrated. Due to the temperature difference, I opted to stay in a motel instead of camping.

4. Canyonlands National Park

Island In The Sky

Highlights: Rock formations, hiking
Suggest Staying: 2-5 days
Stay Around: Moab or Canyonlands (Needles Outpost)
Internet: None
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The park is laid out in three sections: Island in the Sky, Needles, and the backcountry. The first two have great scenic roads through them where you can hop out onto various hiking trails. One of the few parks I’ve been to where you really get to meander around on the rocks, many of which are only marked by cairns (stacked rocks) guiding the way. It’s fun to find your way and not terribly difficult. Do pay attention though, especially on longer hikes, to avoid getting lost. I have a terrible sense of direction, but managed to make it out successfully. This is where the movie 127 hours took place. Canyonlands is huge and not visited as much as neighboring Arches, so it’s easy to find solitude on the trails. Or at least not be overwhelmed by crowds. It’s less about specific attractions and more about exploring the incredible landscape on foot. You could spend just a couple days or much longer, as the park is huge if you really want to go off the beaten path.

See & Do

  • Island In The Sky. Many different rock formations and short hikes to check out. Sweeping landscapes. Series of hikes along the main road.
  • Needles. Highlights clusters of “needle” shaped rock formations sticking straight up from the ground. Some longer hikes, but more diverse terrain.
  • Elephant Hill Trailhead. Located in the Needles, this popular hike (although not crowded on the actual trail), leads up to a great view of needles off in the distance. It’s 6-11 miles roundtrip depending on your route and how far you plan to go. It’s pretty strenuous and there is no shade. Eventually you will be climbing up and down the canyon. No ropes or steep dropoffs. I think there is a wooden ladder at one point. No large elevation changes, but definitely some ascending and descending. It’s challenging but doable if you’re up for it. The beginning is pretty flat and unimpressive, but after a mile or so, when you reach the canyon, it starts to get really interesting and fun. I enjoyed it.
  • Squaw Flat Trailhead. Nearby Elephant Hill, you can pick up this bouldering hike at the campground and also forks out into other trails.
  • Dead Horse State Park. Just outside Canyonlands. Not included with the national parks pass, but well worth the fee for these truly breathtaking views. Not really any hiking trails, more of a quick stop for a photo, but you can climb on the rocks.

Tips

  • Getting There. Although Canyonlands seems close, the entrances are a good drive from Moab. Island In The Sky and Needles are also at two different entrances, so it’s pretty much impossible to do both in a single day unless all you want to do is drive and not ever get out of the car.
  • Trails. Many of the trails here are marked by cairns (stacked rocks) that lead you through the vastness that is Canyonlands. Pay attention to where you’re going, remember or take pictures of various waypoints or unique features along the way if you think you might have trouble finding your way. Sometimes animals knock over the cairns or you may miss one or two. After all, rocks are everywhere. If you do find yourself confused or a bit lost, find your way back to the place you remember last seeing a cairn, retrace your steps, stay calm. I only ran into one or two trails where this was even an issue, so don’t worry, it’s mostly fine. Mostly…
  • Water & Sunblock. Very little shade, very dry, some long hikes, wear sunblock as the sun can be brutal in warmer months, and drink plenty of water. Bring snacks, a hat, and something to protect your neck from burning as well.

5. Glen Canyon & Grand Staircase-Escalante

Buckskin Gulch

Highlights: Hiking, rock formations, off road, slot canyons, gulches
Suggest Staying: 2-5 days
Stay Around: Page, AZ
Internet: Good (Page/Wahweap)
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Spanning up through northern Arizona and southern Utah, this vast area has some of the most beautiful desert scenery, colors and adventure in the southwest section of the country. It’s also at the center of several remarkable other natural wonders within just a few hours.

See & Do

  • Glen Canyon Recreation Area. Fantastic area with land and water activities abound, including boating, hiking, and off road adventures. Magestic waterways, gulches, slot canyons, and colorful rock formations.
  • Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch. One of my favorite activities in the area. Quickest way to get into this massive, long running gulch and slot canyon that goes for something like 40+ miles. There are other entry points too. There will be water in the form of small pools to wade through once you get to Buckskin, so prepare to get wet and muddy ankle to knee deep.
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This magnificent mountain range is one of the most discussed and revered throughout Utah. There is no doubt you’ve seen pictures. This huge landscape is a beautiful scenic drive. I’ve only driven through it, but there is hiking, camping, and fishing available.
  • Paria. Beautiful area with multi-colored rocks. Paria Homesite is a particularly cool excursion with rainbow colored walls. There are also Toadstool Hoodoos. Stop at Paria Contact Station for maps and info.

Other Considerations


Salt Lake City

Squaw Peak

Salt Lake City is most notable for its Morman population and as a result, the town is super friendly. It’s also a big college town with a young vibe. The city itself is clean with several museums around. Nearby you will find excellent skiing and the mountains combined with the lakes make for a beautiful city surrounded by nature.

Internet: Strong
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See & Do

  • Temple Square. Mormon church. Can’t go into the main church unless you’re Mormon, but there are some things available to the public.
  • Natural History Museum. I sadly couldn’t get there (check the hours before you go), but looked very cool with some interesting dinosaur exhibits, among other things.
  • Park City. Resort kind of city best known for skiing, but fun to visit any time of year. Just outside Salt Lake City. Also hosts an olympic park where you can do a variety of activities including the luge. Great for kids and adults.
  • Provo. Neat little town by the university. Also base to Provo Canyon which has stellar drives through the mountains, great views like Squaw Peak, waterfalls like Bridal Veil Falls, and a river that runs through it. You’ll also find Sundance ski resort and home to the Sundance Film Festival.
  • Lehi. Up and coming suburb of SLC home to the local tech scene.
  • Antelope Island. Wildlife including bison, antelope, and tons of birds among the Great Salt Lake.
  • Crystal Hot Springs. Just an hour north of SLC in Honeyville, makes a wonderful stop driving to or from SLC. Coming from Idaho, I arrived early evening and got to relax in the springs underneath the dim lit moon. Main heated pool, several smaller hot tubs, water slide!
  • Homestead Crater. I didn’t learn about this until after I visited Utah, but looks very cool. Hot springs resort with snorkeling and scuba diving.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef

The last of the mighty five parks in Utah, Capitol Reef is mostly a drive through park. There are areas for picnicking and remnants of Native American history. You can easily drive through in an afternoon with a couple places to hop out and walk around. It’s a good overnight stop if continuing farther south (or north) into Utah. There is limited camping available, but you can stay on public land at Mile Marker 73. For directions, ask at the visitor center. Public land is free, but there are no amenities (i.e. water, bathrooms). There will likely be other folks around in RVs or tents.

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Tips

  • Public Land. I ended up finding a nice little spot nestled behind a hill in front of a small cave to provide some relief from the wind. It was bit rough driving my car back in there since it was off-road. This being my first experience not at a campground, I threw a rock into the cave to see if anything was in there and hung my shoes upside down from my car’s sideview mirror to avoid scorpions. I slept with a knife under my pillow and texted my family from the visitor center while I had cell reception that I was staying at “Mile Marker 73,” to which they had no idea what I was talking about. I figured it was good someone knew where I was. All turned out perfectly fine and was a great adventure.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

There is no doubt you’ve seen gorgeous pictures of this vast landscape and incredible rock formations. Great drive. There are some tours up to the rocks from the local native americans, a KOA for campers, but otherwise not much else other than driving through and taking cool pictures.

Internet: None

Bonneville Salt Flats

Bonneville Salt Flats

Just across the Nevada border, these salt flats used to be a raceway for setting speed records. From the road it looks like a blanket of snow. Neat stop along your route to Salt Lake City.

St. George

Gunlock State Park

About an hour southwest of Zion National Park, is a nice stop if you’re on your way towards Las Vegas or California. The town has plenty of amenities, food options, gas, and nearby nature. Gunlock State Park is quite lovely and the George Discovery Museum has some incredible dinosaur fossil discoveries.

Internet: Good

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