Get elevated in the greatest snow (and rocks) on earth.
Utah is a land of extremes: Rugged mountains and expansive deserts; hotter-than-heck summers and snow-covered winters; the rock-tacular south and the alpine north. More than 60 percent of Utah lands are public, and about 100% (give or take) of those public lands are otherworldly, photogenic, recreational paradises. The state’s diverse landscapes are reflected its oddball culture, too. For (almost) every Mormon with a temple, there is a non-Mormon sporting a countercultural tattoo. Even if you never left the Beehive State, you’d never run out of thrilling things to see and do.
Top Picks for You
Ski Alta and Snowbird in Little Cottonwood Canyon
Sure, Park City is a super adorable mountain town. But if you’re more interested in skiing than shopping, you might be happier with an AltaSnowbird pass—your ticket to shred the Alp-like slopes of two resorts (each averaging more than 500 inches of snowfall per year) for not much more than the price of one. Alta has an uber-charming old-school vibe and doesn’t allow boarders, while laid-back Snowbird often stays open more than 200 days a year! With your AltaSnowbird pass, you can ski back and forth between these two no-nonsense resorts at your leisure. Both are known for challenging, steep terrain and champagne powder, but the beginner and intermediate options are also prime.
See Indie Movies at the Sundance Film Festival
Stand in line, watch a movie, spot a celebrity, ski, repeat. Every January, the Sundance Film Festival envelopes Park City like a star-studded blizzard, and yes, it’s a mob scene, but a magical one. The January weather, the breakaway hits, and the chance encounters are all unpredictable and full of promise. And the skiing? Quite good! With so much attention on the silver screen, the slopes are emptier than usual, so get out there when it’s time to stretch your legs.
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
The recently christened (and controversial) Bears Ears National Monument encompasses 1.35 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 to look up on a moonless night. Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges are both designated Dark Sky Parks within Bears Ears, hosting regular star parties led by “Dark Rangers” equipped with powerful telescopes. If you’re among the 80 percent of Americans who can’t see the Milky Way from their homes, expect to be awed.
INSIDER TIPIn partnership with Brian Head Utah’s highest elevation ski resort, Cedar Breaks hosts winter star parties at the Navajo Lodge. Dress warm, pray for clear skies, and ski in red rock country the next day!
Take a Selfie at Spiral Jetty
Decidedly spooky, lonely, and moving, this singular work of land art appears and disappears depending on the water level of the Great Salt Lake. Created by artist Robert Smithson of mud and black basalt rock in the 1970s, Spiral Jetty is a 1,500-foot-long coil that spirals out from the lake’s northeastern shore. It was submerged for about three decades because Smithson intentionally created it during a year of extreme drought. But in the early 2000s, low water levels became the new norm, so there’s a good chance Spiral Jetty will show itself if you go looking. Evaporation, erosion, and other natural phenomena are constantly at work on what has been deemed Utah’s official work of art. Guaranteed: your thoughts will be deep even if the water’s not.
Raft Cataract Canyon
Deep in the heart of Canyonlands National Park, Cataract Canyon boasts the beastiest rapids in Utah, and, at peak times, the U.S. We’re talking 29 Class 4 and 5 rapids ripping between towering 2,000-foot-tall red cliff canyon walls. Hold. On. Tight. And don’t be misled by the tranquility of the first 50 miles…enjoy it while it lasts. When the Colorado meets the Green River, you’re in for 15 miles of raging waters.
Watch the Sunrise at Delicate Arch in Arches
Delicate Arch is to Utah’s outdoorsy side as Temple Square is to Utah’s Mormon side. It’s an icon. It’s on the license plates, for gosh sakes. Needless to say, this 65-foot focal point of Arches National Park is a hotter-than-hot tourist attraction, both literally and figuratively. So be smart: get your butt out of bed and be there to watch the sunrise. Then go see some of the other 2,000 named sandstone arches in the park. If you’re looking for a picture-perfect sunset destination, try Skyline Arch.
Enjoy the View at Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky
Set atop a 1,000-foot mesa, Island in the Sky offers killer views of Canyonlands National Park, including deep chasms cut by the Colorado River. The overlooks and photo-ops are jaw-dropping and many. Not at all a bad place to watch the sunset. After you’ve seen the view from above, dip down below and see Canyonlands from one of its narrowest passageways: the Joint Trail. It’s part of the Chesler Park Loop in the park’s Needles District. The loop cuts a spectacular path with lots of tunnels, rock steps, mushroom knobs, slick rock, and other interesting obstacles along the way.
Hike the Narrows in Zion Canyon
Prepare to get wet. The Narrows is the narrowest part of Zion Canyon and one of the best slot canyon hikes in the world. The hike follows the path of the Virgin River. You’ll be ankle deep, knee deep, even chest deep in its waters—which is right where you want to be on a hot summer day. This hike is easy to moderate, but keep an eye on the weather. A storm could mean a flash flood.
Cruise the Capitol Reef National Park Scenic Drive
If the squeeze of a slot canyon or the crush of the crowds doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps Capitol Reef is the park for you. It is less popular and more expansive than the other parks under the Mighty 5 umbrella, but no less eye-catching. And a great way to experience the wide-open splendor of this park is from the comfort of your car. The 25-mile Capitol Reef Scenic Drive is just one of several gorgeous road trips in the area.
INSIDER TIPStop at one of the u-pick farms along the way and harvest cherries, apricots, pears, or apples at one of the historic orchards in Fruita.
Snowshoe or Cross-Country Ski in Bryce Canyon National Park
If you can avoid the summer crowds and heat when making your pilgrimage to Utah’s most popular national parks, do so. Bryce’s high elevation means it gets a decent amount of snowfall in the winter. And the combination of white snow, orange hoodoos, and green pines? Beautiful. A guided snowshoe or ski tour is a peaceful and unexpected way to explore this dazzling landscape.
Learn About Mormonism at Temple Square
Still don’t know the difference between LDS and LSD? You can get everything straightened out at Temple Square. Tours are free! You can’t actually go inside the temple, but it’s pretty impressive from the outside, and there’s other stuff to explore: poke around Brigham Young’s house, hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearse, or dig into your family history at the world’s largest genealogy library. Do you need to be Mormon to research your roots? Heck, no! If you create an account and fill in your family tree before you go, you’ll be all set for a customized, interactive experience at the FamilySearch Center.
See Bison, Birds, and the Great Salt Lake at Antelope Island
First, a few disclaimers: The Great Salt Lake is super salty (up to seven times saltier than the ocean), sometimes stinky, and full of brine shrimp. It’s so salty that some people, even some locals, assume that you can’t swim in it or recreate on it. But you can! And Antelope Island is the perfect launchpad for GSL exploration, and also worthy of exploration in its own right. Relax on the island’s white sandy beaches, then take a dip in the water. The extreme salinity will keep you effortlessly afloat! There are showers on the shore so you can rinse away the salt before you move on to other adventures: birdwatching, bison-spotting, hiking, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, mountain biking… End your day atop Buffalo Point, the perfect vantage point for watching the sun sink into the lake. The lake’s stillness and shallowness create an enormous mirror, which means…double sunset!
Snowmobile in Heber City
Snowmobiling?? You can do it! No special license required. Snowmobiling is an excellent (albeit spine-tingling) way to get out and about in Utah’s winter wonderland. Amazing views? Check. Fun with friends? Check. Exciting as all get-out? Check, check, check. Thousand Peaks offers guided tours of its 60,000-acre ranch, and Daniels Summit is a great base for exploring 40 miles of groomed-daily trails and deep powder.
Mountain Bike the Slickrock Trail Near Moab
They say it’s the most famous mountain bike trail. In. The. World. Hard to prove, we suppose, but it’s definitely world-famous, and for good reason. Virtually 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, a wild and wonderful 2- to 4-hour ride for experienced mountain bike enthusiasts. New to mountain biking? This trail really isn’t for beginners; try the more moderate, 2.3-mile practice loop.
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.
Experience Sandstone Acoustics at the Moab Music Festival
This is culture, Utah-style. In September, the Moab Music Festival hosts world-class musicians in a variety of exquisite natural venues, setting intimate concerts against the backdrop of Moab’s famous red rock. Jazz, classical, and other musical styles reverberate off the sandstone walls in a unique way. Coolest of all: among the roughly 20 festival concerts are the Grotto Concerts, set in a towering red sandstone grotto on the Colorado River and reachable only by jet boat.
Attend the Utah Shakespeare Festival
Fact: Utah’s cultural offerings don’t come close to matching the caliber of the state’s outdoor splendors and recreational opportunities. However, there are some totally worthwhile arts experiences, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival is one of them. Located on the campus of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, each season the festival mounts around eight productions (not all of them written by Shakespeare), plus a host of backstage tours and seminars.
Backpack the Uinta Highline Trail
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 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 Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
You need to do this: get a boat-load of friends together and tool around one of the country’s largest man-made reservoirs. A Lake Powell houseboat trip 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. Just be sure to have a designated captain, and be prepared for a daily sprinkling of rain. It’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.
Drive the Bonneville Salt Flats
This eerily flat, bright-white landscape stretches across 60 square miles and has made an appearance in more than a few films and car commercials. Should you try to set the land speed record in your Subaru? Probably not. You can drive on the Bonneville Salt Flats , but the surface is unpredictable, and you might find yourself stuck in the mud underlying the thin layer of salt. Your best bet is to visit in August, when the flats are driest and when you can leave the dare-devil driving to the professionals at Speed Week, the fastest of whom will be pushing 400 mph.
Après Ski in Park City
There are lots of 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 in Utah, but the drinking laws are a little weird. They’re getting less weird, but grocery store beer and beer on tap still can’t be stronger than 4% ABV. The alcohol content of bottled beer sold in bars and state-run liquor stores, however, is unrestricted. If you’re planning to après ski at your Airbnb, stop by the liquor store for wine and spirits; the grocery stores only sell low-point beer.
Adrenaline junkies, you’ve met your match. Utah has some wild and unusual rides for your thrill-seeking pleasure. Park City’s summer offerings include the old-school Alpine Slide, one of the longest slides in the world. Ride a chairlift up and coast 3,000 feet down, controlling your own speed with a handbrake. The newer Alpine Coaster flies through the trees at speeds of 30 mph–the ideal roller coaster for mountain lovers. Also in Park City: the sliding track used in the 2002 Olympics for bobsled, skeleton, and luge events. Slide in the winter or roll in the summer. The entire ride only lasts a single minute, but at speeds of 60-70 mph, you won’t soon forget it.
INSIDER TIPNorth of SLC in Farmington is Utah’s largest amusement park, Lagoon. With more than 50 rides, including 10 roller coasters, Lagoon has something for everyone. And…you can BYOB! You can even BYODog.
Swim Under a Waterfall at Escalante's Lower Calf Creek Falls in Escalante
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 itself (6 miles roundtrip), which features pictographs, colorful lichen and fungi, wildflowers, beaver dams, Fremont Indian ruins, and towering canyon walls.
Go Canyoneering in Goblin Valley
Who or what are hoodoos? Sandstone rock formations that look like giant drip castles made by giant children on a giant beach nowhere near an ocean. Others think hoodoos resemble mushrooms. Or goblins! In any case, Goblin Valley is full of ‘em. Their weirdness is a sight to behold. We recommend jumping in feet first! Explore these fantastical shapes by rappelling 70 feet down into the Goblin’s Lair, a cathedral-like slot canyon.
Relax in Unexpected Luxury
The Beehive State has some super deluxe adventure-focused lodgings for your consideration. Get your glamp on with Moab Under Canvas, a convenient basecamp for many of Utah’s most popular and breathtaking national parks. What better way to stay than in tents furnished with king-size beds, claw foot tubs, and star-viewing windows? Red Mountain Resort in St. George is an adventure hotel with a laser focus on health and wellness. Explore nearby Zion and Bryce, then observe a cooking demonstration, choose from one of 50 weekly fitness classes, or re-energize at the full-service spa. And, ohhhhhhh, Amangiri. The design aesthetic alone, inspired by the surrounding white canyon walls, is completely to die for. With options like sunrise hot air balloon rides, this place will set you back more than $1,600 per night (at the very least). Start saving now.