The Beehive State is home to fluffy skiing, killer outdoors, and welcoming locals.
Utah does two things remarkably well. Its unique climate catches the driest, fluffiest snow in the world, which is terrible for snowballs. But it’s heavenly for skiing—like gliding on clouds. Secondly, it stars some of the most fascinating rock formations and canyons on the planet–the former is out of this world, the latter legitimately rivals the Grand Canyon. More than 60% of Utah lands are public, and about 100% (give or take) of those public lands are otherworldly, photogenic, recreational paradises–every single one is a must-see attraction. Even if you never left the Beehive State, you’d never run out of thrilling things to do in Utah.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT UTAH?Summer is the most popular time to visit Utah, but spring and fall offer milder temperatures and unparalleled nature viewing for outdoor experiences. Winter brings famous snow and skiing.
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Ski the Best Slopes in Little Cottonwood Canyon
Although most tourists head for Park City for the giant resorts, fancy hotels, and nightlife, the best terrain and “greatest snow on Earth” are actually found in Little Cottonwood Canyon, a mere 45-minute drive from Salt Lake airport. At either Snowbird or “skiers-only” Alta, you’ll drift on over 500 inches of snow per year while descending some of the most exciting slopes in the entire state.
See Indie Movies at the Sundance Film Festival
This is what happens when Hollywood sells movies in adorable ski towns. Every January, the world’s largest independent film festival takes place in Park City and nearby Sundance, where the festival gets its name. Although mostly intended for big studios hoping to buy the rights to new indie dramas, documentaries, and feature films, the event is actually open to the public. Do you want to watch a day’s worth of movies, gawk at celebrities, and even ski a little? This is the place to do it.
INSIDER TIPVolunteering for the festival will get you free passes and exclusive access, depending on how much time you’re willing to commit. So if you want a truly authentic, behind-the-scenes, work-hard-play-hard movie-going experience of a lifetime, become one of the 2,000 volunteers making sure the show goes on.
Stargaze at Bears Ears National Monument and Natural Bridges
Bears Ears National Monument encompasses over a million acres and more than 100,000 archaeological sites in southeastern Utah. One of the better ways to absorb the sanctity and significance of this remote landscape is by looking upon a moonless night. Both Bears Ears and nearby Natural Bridges National Monuments are designated as Dark Sky Parks and regularly host star parties led by “Dark Rangers” equipped with powerful telescopes. If you’re among the 80% of Americans who can’t see the Milky Way from their homes, expect to be awed.
Cross Hell’s Backbone on Scenic Byway 12 Through Grand Staircase
Many road enthusiasts regard Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 as the most stunning road in America. Running east and west along the famous southern half of the state, it is “122 miles of pure driving bliss.” I highly recommend you drive all of it. But a favorite section is called Hell’s Backbone in Grand Staircase National Monument, while driving between Escalante and Boulder, Utah. It feels like you’re driving on the fossilized spine of a giant dinosaur for several miles with exposed cliffs on both sides.
Raft Cataract Canyon
Deep in the heart of Canyonlands National Park, Cataract Canyon boasts the beastliest rapids in Utah—and sometimes the entire U.S. during peak conditions. We’re talking 29 Class 4 and 5 rapids ripping between towering, 2,000-foot red cliff walls. Hold. On. Tight. And don’t be misled by the tranquility of the first 50 miles. When the Colorado River meets the Green River, you’re in for 15 miles of raging whitewater rapids.
See Two of The Most Towering Arches in the World in Moab
Have you ever seen that iconic orange arch on a Utah license plate or advertisement? It’s called Delicate Arch, and you can hike to it (three miles roundtrip) at Arches National Park in Moab. Better yet, the bigger, more accessible, and less crowded Corona Arch is just an hour’s drive away and just over two miles of roundtrip hiking. Both are ideally visited when the sun is glowing at sunrise or sunset.
Enjoy the View at Canyonlands’ 'Island in the Sky'
There is a place in Canyonlands National Park called “Island in the Sky.” It’s where the Green and Colorado Rivers cut deep, 1000-foot chasms in a sprawling red rock mesa, leaving behind what appears to be dozens of giant, orange countertops (or tables) that ancient gods would have used. It is absolutely surreal. And the best place to take in this floating “island” is at the Green River Overlook. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” a man once told me after spending a fortune visiting nearly every notable place on Earth.
Hike the Narrows in Zion Canyon
Canyoneering through righteous water without a rope or special gear is the best way to describe The Narrows, widely regarded as one of the greatest slot canyons in the world. But hiking also means walking it in the ankle, knee, and sometimes chest-deep waters of the Virgin River. You can hike down the Narrows (with a permit) and even overnight on a ledge. Or you can freely hike up the river as far as your legs will take you—the further up you go, the fewer crowds and more watering holes you’ll encounter for better solitude and cliff jumping.
INSIDER TIPWhile at Zion National Park, also consider hiking Angel’s Landing, another top 10-day hike.
Canyoneer Sulphur Creek at Capitol Reef National Creek
This fantastic “no rappelling required” wet hike you can take in one of Utah’s lesser-visited parks, Capitol Reef National Park. And unlike The Narrows, Sulphur Creek is great for families with small children alike. However, it does require two shuttle vehicles—one at the start of the hike just outside the park and another where the hike finishes at the Visitor’s Center. The extra effort is worth it, so get ready to frolic.
Hike Bryce Canyon’s Hoodoos on a Full Moon Night
I once met a seasoned ranger in Yellowstone who had extensively hiked every National Park in America. “What’s your favorite hike?” I inquisitively asked. “Easy,” he replied. “The Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park on a full moon night is the most otherworldly three-mile hike you will ever endeavor.” That’s because the hundreds of hoodoos (or tall rock spires) seem from another planet under the dim glow of the moon. It’s magic.
See America’s Most Successful Homegrown Church at Temple Square
In 1820, a New York boy named Joseph Smith claimed that God and Jesus Christ appeared and instructed him to transcribe a new American bible called The Book of Mormon. He also claimed they told him to start a new church. That upset a lot of people. So Smith was murdered by an angry mob, and his successor (Brigham Young, a.k.a. “American Moses”) headed west to settle Utah and parts of several surrounding states. This homegrown American church grew to 17 million global members two centuries later. At Temple Square, you can find out what all the fuss is about.
See Life and Death at The Great Salt Lake
A long time ago, ancient Utah rivers and lakes largely dried up, leaving behind a massive remnant lake that’s seven times saltier than the ocean. Today, that barren but beautiful lake is known as The Great Salt Lake, second in size only to The Great Lakes of The Midwest. Highlights include floating abnormally high on the admittedly stinky water, driving the famous Bonneville Salt Flats, wildlife watching on Antelope Island, and seeing The Spiral Jetty, a large earthwork sculpture.
Tube Soldier Hollow After You’re Done Skiing
Sometimes you just want to slide down a snow-covered mountain at butterflies-in-your-stomach speeds. Here’s where you can do that. Nestled above the picturesque town of Midway in Wasatch Mountain State Park, the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center is home to both cross-country Olympic skiing and a tubing hill with a half dozen 1,200-foot sliding lanes. Better yet, there’s even a lift, so you don’t have to do any work while mixing up your winter vacation.
Mountain Bike the Slickrock Trail Near Moab
They say it’s the most famous mountain bike trail. In. The. World. It’s hard to prove, of course, but it’s definitely world-famous for good reason. The entire trail is on “Slickrock”—actually Navajo sandstone—which isn’t slick at all (when it’s dry). It’s smooth and rolling like a roller coaster and provides a wonderful 2-4 hour ride for experienced mountain bikers. New to mountain biking? This trail also offers a two-mile practice loop before jumping in.
INSIDER TIPIf off-road motorsports are more your thing, Slickrock Bike Trail actually doubles as Hell’s Revenge, the most extreme off-road trail in Moab.
Discover Dinosaur Tracks and Bones at Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaurs—you’ve heard of them, but it takes standing in a working dinosaur quarry, staring at a wall of fossilized bones jutting out from the earth to realize, they were right here. And they were everywhere. Meet at the quarry’s visitor’s center to hike the Fossil Discovery Trail and for guided interpretive hikes. And be on the lookout for petroglyphs and pictographs!
INSIDER TIPDinosaur National Monument is H-O-T! Go dino hunting in the off-season–say, October. Or, if summer’s your season, be sure to nab a campsite in the shade and plan to spend a day or two rafting the Green River.
See Broadway-Quality Theater in Salt Lake City (Really!)
The new Hale Centre Theatre in Salt Lake City is seriously just as good as Broadway or The West End and comes at a fraction of the price. Here you’ll find classic reruns of some of the world’s greatest plays and musicals and lesser-known gems you’ve never heard of.
Turn Your Knuckles White on the Shafer Trail and Moki Dugway Drives
There are scenic Utah drives, and then there are ones that will make you gulp, sweat a little, and grip your steering wheel for dear life. Here are two of the latter. First up is The Shafer Trail in Canyonlands National Park, which winds 1,500 feet down colorful sandstone walls along some of the tightest switchbacks you’ll encounter on a road. When you’re done with that, head three hours south to summit the breathtaking Moki Dugway with similar switchbacks and elevation gains.
INSIDER TIPAlthough both roads are gravel, I’ve seen cars drive both. But I prefer an all-wheel-drive crossover for an extra layer of security.
Backpack the High Uinta Wilderness
Yes, there are myriad things to do down south in the summer, but guess what? It’s hot down there. And it’s people-y. How about heading for the cool mountain air of the High Uintas, 100 miles east of Salt Lake City? With lots o’ lakes and fishing holes aplenty, this subrange of the Rocky Mountains offers blissfully lonely expanses of beautiful wilderness flush with wildlife. The 78-mile Highline Trail, for example, travels along ridges, offering top-tier views and side hikes to summits, such as Kings Peak, Utah’s highest point at 13,528 feet.
Party on a Houseboat at Lake Powell
You need to do this: get a boat-load of friends together and tool around Lake Powell, one of the country’s largest man-made reservoirs. Officially known as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a houseboat trip here is as rowdy as it is scenic, with 2,000 miles of red rock shorelines and 96 major side canyons to explore. Houseboats are available for rent, the largest of which sleep 16+ people and feature hot tubs and party decks.
INSIDER TIPIt’s important to acknowledge the origins of Lake Powell, as it was made when the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963, flooding Glen Canyon, which was an important cultural site for Indigenous people.
Party Like an Out-of-Towner in Park City
There are many stellar ski hills in Utah, but when it comes to nightlife and culinary curiosities, Park City has everywhere else beat. Most of the happenings in this ski town center around Main Street, a cute-as-a-cowboy-boot throwback to Park City’s mining days. You’ll find plenty of places on and around Main Street to relax after a perfect powder day, from the charmingly unfriendly No Name Saloon to the award-winning High West Distillery.
INSIDER TIPYou can drink alcohol in Utah, but the drinking laws are particular. If you’re planning to drink at your rental, stop by the liquor store for full alcohol wine and spirits first; the grocery stores only sell low-point beer.
Visit Fantasy Canyon Before It Goes Viral
Just outside of Vernal, you’ll find a surreal canyon like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Like a gray wax dripping turned into a futuristic Star Wars set. It’s not terribly large, but Fantasy Canyon is delightfully intriguing and remarkably photogenic. Thanks to a captivating sunset and equally colorful clouds, you can hike the short half-mile loop and linger for well over an hour. If heading back to Vernal, be sure to drive west through scenic Ouray en route to Highway 88. It’s incredible that this place hasn’t gone viral yet.
Don’t Miss These Local Foods During Your Visit
Utah is credited for inventing two important foods: fry sauce, a half ketchup, half mayo dipping sauce; and funeral potatoes, a cheesy onion and potato hash of full-flavored awesomeness. The former is found everywhere fries are served. The latter is harder to come by, as it’s mostly a home-cooked side. But many fancy restaurants are starting to offer it on their menus. As for the brewery scene, Utah drinks the lowest amount of beer in the nation. But the growing industry has already won coveted medals from the Great American Beer Festival.
Swim Under a Waterfall at Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase
A waterfall in the desert? Yes! There’s nothing sweeter than feeling the cool mist of the falls and then plunging into the deep swimming hole below after a long, hot hike. Lower Calf Creek Falls is the cherry on top, but don’t discount the hike (6 miles roundtrip), which features pictographs, colorful lichen and fungi, wildflowers, beaver dams, Fremont Indian ruins, and some towering canyon walls.
Slip Through Little Wild Horse’s Narrow Slot Canyons
Little Wild Horse is the all-around best in terms of accessibility, family-friendliness, and sheer beauty in a state known for its slot canyons. I’ve hiked dozens of other, more extreme slots, but I always come back to this. Located right next to Goblin Valley (which you should also explore for its goblin-like hoodoos), Little Wild Horse is a wonder in and of itself.
Roadtrip the Mighty Five: Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches
With five total, Utah has the third most national parks (after California and Alaska). But it undeniably has the highest concentration of them, and many argue they are more unique in terms of diversity and out-of-this-world geology. What this means to you, dear reader, is that you can and should road trip to all within a few hours of each other. In some cases, just a single hour’s drive is all that separates them.