Utah Outdoor Adventures
You can conjure up some of the longest, most challenging backcountry hikes in America in countless locations in Utah—but hiking doesn't have to be that difficult. Don sturdy boots, pack water, lean on the America's hard-working park rangers for guidance, and head out for a few hours. Your heart, lungs, and soul will thank you.
There are several hazards to hiking, but a little preparedness goes a long way. Know your limits, and make sure the terrain you are about to embark on does not exceed your abilities. It's a good idea to check the elevation change on a trail before you set out—a 1-mi trail might sound easy, until you realize how steep it is—and be careful not to get caught on exposed trails at elevation during afternoon storms (rain or snow) any time of year. Dress appropriately, bringing layers to address changing weather conditions, and always carry enough drinking water. Also, make sure someone knows where you are going and when to expect your return.
When to Go
You will be rewarded with pristine vistas ranging from deserts to canyons to tree-lined mountain ranges any time of year. Spring in Utah, however, brings an explosion of wildflowers and color (Alta Ski Resort and Mirror Lake are two destinations near Salt Lake City to walk in May or June). Fall brings a turning of cottonwood and cypress leaves that rivals autumn in the Shenandoahs. Summer's heat makes many desert locales unbearable, but the shade and breeze of Utah's canyons have offered respite for centuries. The hardiest outdoor types will even gear up in the dead of winter with snowshoes.
Angels Landing Trail, Zion National Park. A 5-mi round-trip hike, with 1,500 feet of elevation gain, including a series of steps known as "Walter's Wiggles," this is the one trail in Zion every healthy hiker should take advantage of. If you're afraid of heights, stop short at Scout's Lookout for the breathtaking view and head back down the trail.
Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park. Just 2 mi long, this trail is a perfect introduction to Capital Reef. You'll walk past a great natural bridge as well as Fremont Indian ruins.
Horseshoe Canyon Trail, Canyonlands National Park. Every weekend from April through October, a park ranger guides hikers on this trail through one of the wilder sections of Canyonlands. The highlight is one of the largest rock-art panels in North America.
The Narrows Trail, Zion National Park. Experience the thrill of walking in the Virgin River, peering up at millennia-old rock canyons, hanging gardens, and sandstone grottoes. To see the Narrows you must wade—and occasionally swim— upstream through chilly water and over uneven, slippery rocks, but the views are breathtaking.
Mount Timpanogas. One hour south of Salt Lake Valley, "Timp" is one of the tallest and most striking of the Wasatch Mountains. Access to Timpanogas Cave is via a 3-mi round-trip hike led by park rangers daily in summer. Be aware that outside temperatures can reach triple digits, even at 6,700 feet—but inside the caves it's 45°F year-round.
American Tour de France stars Levi Leipheimer and David Zabriskie are Utah natives who have pedaled the state's canyons and open roads for years. Add to that Moab's Slick Rock Trail for mountain bikers, and Utah is one of the top three destinations for cycling in America.
Rent a Bike
Thanks to the popularity of the sport here, it's usually easy to find a place that rents bicycles if you'd prefer to leave yours at home. Shops often rent a variety of bikes from entry-level to high-end, though the latter come at a premium. Bike shops are also a good bet for information on local rides and group tours.
Rules of the Road
On the road, watch for trucks, and stay as close as possible to the right side of the road, in single file. If you're nervous about cars, hop on the brand-new Legacy Park Trail near Salt Lake City Airport—and ride 15 mi north on a perfectly flat, paved trail that skirts Great Salt Lake. If you're downstate, the rural roads outside St. George, Cedar City, and Moab offer miles of varied topography with relatively little traffic to contend with. On the trail, ride within your limits and keep your eyes peeled for hikers and horses (both of which have the right of way), as well as dogs. Always wear a helmet and carry plenty of water.
Slick Rock Trail. America's most famous mountain-biking trail is a 12-mi loop through sagebrush and sand, over slick granite rock and across undulations that can only be described as moonlike. It's well marked, popular, and incredibly challenging, but not scary. Don't be afraid to walk up or down a few of the crazier inclines and always wear a helmet. This trail is not recommended for kids under 12.
Antelope Island State Park. It's cheaper to enter Antelope on two wheels, and much more enjoyable. After crossing the 7-mi causeway, there are miles of rolling and empty trails to choose from.
Bonneville Shoreline Trail. Partway up and along the Wasatch Front on the northeast side of Salt Lake City, this trail offers expansive views of the entire Salt Lake Valley, plus points west and south. It's easy to moderate in difficulty, with challenging stretches near the University of Utah Hospital.
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Because it mixes high-desert vegetation—blooming sage, rabbit brush, cactus, and wildflowers—and red-rock terrain with a cool climate, Flaming Gorge is an ideal destination for road and trail biking. The 3-mi round-trip Bear Canyon–Bootleg ride begins south of the dam off U.S. 191 at the Firefighters' Memorial Campground and runs west to an overlook of the reservoir.
Klondike Bluffs Trail. This trail offers the less-experienced mountain biker a relatively easy introduction to the sport. The climb to Klondike Bluffs is not difficult, and the reward is a fantastic view into Arches National Park.
LOTOJA Classic. LOTOJA stands for Logan, Utah, to Jackson, Wyoming, which is the distance traveled on this one-day, 206-mi supported ride. It attracts more than 1,000 riders a year and takes place in the first or second weekend of September.
Skiing and Snowboarding
Utah's "greatest snow on Earth" can be a revelation for skiers and snowboarders familiar only with the slopes of other regions. In Utah the snow builds up quickly, leaving a solid base at each resort that hangs tough all season, only to be layered with thick, fluffy powder that holds an edge, ready to be groomed into rippling corduroy or left in giddy stashes along the sides and through the trees. Moguls and half-pipe-studded terrain parks are the norm, not the special attractions, at Utah resorts.
The added bonus of Utah terrain is that there's something for everyone—often in the same ski resort, since so many of the areas have a wide variety of beginner, intermediate, advanced, and expert slopes.
What to Wear
Skiing Utah means preparing for all kinds of weather, because the high altitudes can start a day off sunny and bright but kick in a blizzard by afternoon. Layers help, as well as plenty of polypropylene to wick away sweat in the sun and a water-resistant outer layer to keep off the powdery wetness that's sure to accumulate, especially if you're a beginner snowboarder. Spring skiing in April or May often means short-sleeved T-shirts and 70-degree days. Must-haves: plenty of sunscreen, because the sun is closer than you think, and a helmet, because the trees are, too.
Alta and Snowbird resorts. These Little Cottonwood Canyon neighbors, within 40 minutes of downtown Salt Lake City, are regularly ranked the top ski resorts in the United States. Seasons with 500 to 600 and more inches of Utah's famous powder are at the root of the accolades. A joint pass lets you ski both mountains on one ticket, but snowboarders take heed: you're still not allowed at Alta. Snowbird has the longest season in the nation, occasionally staying open through July 4 weekend.
Brian Head Ski Resort. The closest Utah ski resort to the Las Vegas airport, it's worth checking out for the novelty of skiing in southern Utah. The red-orange rock formations of nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument form a backdrop to many trails, which tend to focus on beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders. Experts can ski off the 11,000-foot summit.
Deer Valley, Park City, Canyons resorts. The three Park City resorts are known for their great groomed trails, fine dining, and accommodations. The skiing is excellent, but for many it's the whole experience—including the midday feast at Dear Valley's Silver Lake Lodge and sun-tanning on the snow-covered meadow—that keeps them coming back.
Snowbasin and Powder Mountain resorts. An hour north of Salt Lake City, Ogden city and valley residents will tell you the best skiing is at this pair of resorts. Powder Mountain has more skiable terrain than any resort in the state; and Snowbasin was merely good enough to host the Olympic downhill and slalom during the 2002 Winter Games. These two are often cheaper and less crowded than the Salt Lake City and Park City resorts.
Utah Olympic Park. At the site of the 2002 Olympic bobsled, luge, and ski-jumping events in Park City, you can take recreational ski-jumping lessons or strap in behind a professional driver for a bobsled ride down the actual Olympic course.
Rafting combines a sea of emotions ranging from the calming effects of flat waters surrounded by backcountry beauty and wildlife to the thrill and excitement of charging a raging torrent of foam.
For the inexperienced, the young, and the aged, dozens of tour companies throughout the West offer relatively tame floats—ranging from one hour to one day and starting at just $20—that are ideal for anyone from 4 years old to 90. Others fulfill the needs of adventure tourists content only with chills, potential spills, and the occasional wall of water striking them smack-dab in the chest.
How to Choose a Guide
Seasoned outfitters know their routes and their waters as well as you know the road between home and work. Beginners and novices are encouraged to use guides. Many guides offer multiday trips in which they do everything, including searing your steak in a beach barbecue, setting up your tent, and rolling out your sleeping bag.
Select an outfitter based on recommendations from the local chamber of commerce, experience level, Web sites, and word of mouth. The International Scale of River Difficulty is a widely accepted rating system that ranges from Class I (the easiest) to Class VI (the most difficult—think Niagara Falls). When in doubt, ask your guide about the rating on your route before you book. Remember, ratings can vary greatly throughout the season due to run-off and weather events.
What to Wear
Wear a swimsuit or shorts and sandals and bring along sunscreen and sunglasses. Outfitters are required to supply a life jacket for each passenger and require that it be worn. Midsummer is the ideal time to raft in the West, although many outfitters will stretch the season, particularly on calmer routes.
Best River Runs
Colorado River, Moab. The Grand Poobah of river rafting in Utah. There are numerous outfitters in the Moab area with a wide assortment of half-, full-, and multiday trips on the river. Even though it is the same river, it meanders in part and rages in others.
Westwater Canyon. This short stretch of river can be negotiated in 2-3 hours, but with notable rapids like Funnel, Sock-it-to-me, and Skull Rapid, it's an action-packed ride.
Cataract Canyon. It begins below Moab and takes 3-5 days as you wind your way to Lake Powell. Expect a smooth ride for the first day or two, before you dive into the rapids. This multiday adventure offers broad beaches, Indian ruins, deep-colored canyon walls, and waves as high as 20 feet.
Green River. Before it meets up with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, the Green River offers plenty of stunning scenery and fast water through canyons such as Desolation and Gray. Desolation Canyon is a favorite family trip, with wildlife sightings, hikes and beaches. Sign on with an outfitter in the town of Green River.
Weber River. You may see more kayakers than rafters on the Weber, but there are stretches that offer class II rapids that are commercially run. For a one-day excursion, this is a great side trip from Salt Lake City or Park City.
Horseback riding options in Utah run the gamut, from hour-long rides on a well-worn trail to multiday excursions out into the wilderness. A short trek is a great way to get acquainted with the landscape—and with horseback riding if you're a beginner. Longer horse-pack trips are great ways to visit the backcountry, since horses can travel distances and carry supplies that would be impossible for hikers. Although horsemanship isn't required for most trips, it is helpful, and even an experienced rider can expect to be a little sore for the first few days. June through August is the peak period for horse-packing trips; before signing up with an outfitter, inquire about the skills they expect. Most horseback-riding outfitters have a weight limit of 250 lbs, and children must be at least 7 years old.
What to Wear
Since this is the West, jeans and cowboy boots are still the preferred attire for horseback riding, although hiking boots and Gore-Tex have long since become fashionable, especially in colder months and at higher altitudes. Long pants are a must either way. And as with most Utah activities, layering is key; plan to have some kind of fleece or heavier outer layer no matter what time of year it is, since the mountains will be cooler the higher you go. Generally, outfitters provide most or all of the gear you'll need for extended trips, including a pack animal to carry it all for you and plenty of food for the sometimes surprisingly lavish dinners that they whip up in the middle of nowhere.
Best Horseback Rides
Bryce Canyon National Park. The park's namesake claimed it was a "Hell of a place to lose a cow," but failed to say anything about how great a place it is to explore on horseback. Sign up for a guided tour at Ruby's Red Canyon Horseback Rides near the park entrance. Let the animals do the work as you descend and emerge hundreds of feet into the Bryce Amphitheatre to see the orange-pink spires and hoodoos that are unrivaled on this planet.
Capitol Reef National Park. Much of this park is accessible only on foot or horseback, which promises an experience of wide-open Western spaces that hark back to the time of cowboys. Indeed, some of the trails may have been used by herdsman and Native Americans. Sandstone, canyons, mesa, buttes—they're all here. Sign up with Hondoo Rivers & Trails or Wild Hare Expeditions for an unforgettable experience.
Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. Just east of Zion National Park at the site of a former pioneer logging camp, this multipursuit resort offers plenty of things to do after time spent in the saddle meandering along the multitude of pioneer-era trails. Horseback-riding options run from beginner to experienced (and even include a cattle round-up), and when you're not in the saddle you can ride an ATV, rent a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, or learn how to rappel and rock climb on the only man-made climbing wall in the Zion National Park area.
Trout do not live in ugly places. And, so it is in the American West, where you'll discover unbridled beauty, towering pines, rippling mountain streams, and bottomless pools. It is here that blue-ribbon trout streams remain much as they were when Native American tribes, French fur trappers, and a few thousand miners, muleskinners, and sodbusters first placed a muddy footprint along their banks.
Make the Most of Your Time
Early-day settlers had one advantage that you won't: time. If you're going to make best use of that limited vacation in which fishing is a preferred activity, you should consider hiring a guide. You could spend days locating a great fishing spot, learning the water currents and fish behavior, and determining what flies, lures, or bait the fish are following. A good guide will cut through the clutter, get you into fish, and turn your excursion into an adventure complete with a full creel.
If you're not inclined to fork over the $250-plus that most quality guides charge per day for two anglers and a boat, your best bet is a stop at a reputable fly shop. They'll shorten your learning curve, tell you where the fish are, what they're biting on, and whether you should be "skittering" your dry-fly on top of the water or "dead-drifting" a nymph. Famed fisherman Lee Wolff wrote, "Catching fish is a sport. Eating fish is not a sport." Consequently, you'll find most fishermen catch and release in an effort to maintain productive fisheries and protect native species.
What to Bring
If you're comfortable with your fishing gear, bring it along, though most guides loan or rent equipment. Bring a rod and reel, waders, vest, hat, sunglasses, net, tackle, hemostats, and sunscreen. Always buy a fishing license.
When to Go
The season is always a concern when fishing. Spring run-offs can cloud the waters. Summer droughts may reduce stream flows. Fall weather can be unpredictable in the West. But as many fishing guides will attest, the best time to come and wet a line is whenever you can make it.
Flaming Gorge. For some of the finest river fishing, try the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam, where rainbow and brown trout are plentiful and big. Fed by cold water from the bottom of the lake, this stretch has been identified as one of the best trout fisheries in the world.
Lake Powell. Formed by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam, this popular recreational attraction in Southern Utah is home to a wide variety of fish, including striped, smallmouth, and largemouth bass; bluegill; and channel catfish. Ask the locals about night fishing for stripers.
Provo River. One of Utah's world-class fly-fishing rivers, the Provo is divided into three sections, starting in the High Uintas Wilderness about 90 minutes east of Salt Lake City and ending in Utah Lake in Provo. Brown and rainbow trout are the big draw here.
Fodor's Trip Planning Ideas
- Fodor's 100 Hotel Awards: Check out the winners of 2013
- Weekend Getaways: Fodor's Recommends the Best Weekend Escapes in the US
- Great American Vacation: Find Your Next U.S. Trip with Fodor's
- 80 Degrees: Fodor's Helps You Find Your Best Beach Vacation Spots
- Best of Europe: Fodor's Picks the Best Places to Visit in Europe