You'll need a car in Utah. Public transportation is available primarily along the Wasatch Front (Ogden to Salt Lake City to Provo), but caters to commuters, not tourists. You'll seldom be bored driving. Scenery ranges from snowcapped mountains to endless stretches of desert with strange rock formations and intense color. There are more national parks here than in any other state except Alaska and California, although their interiors are not always accessible by car.
Outside of the Salt Lake City and Park City areas, much of what draws most people to Utah is in the southern part of the state. I–15 is the main north–south thoroughfare, branching off to U.S. 6 toward Moab and to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in the southeast, passing west of Capitol Reef National Park in the south–central region, and continuing all the way to the St. George area for Zion and Bryce National Parks in the southwest. Many visitors approach the southern Utah parks by way of I–70, which runs west from Denver through Grand Junction, Colorado, and Moab. Highway 89 parallels I–15 for much of the state, offering a slower, back roads alternative and includes Main Street in many small towns. Highway 12 is a nationally recognized Scenic Byway in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and is also worth incorporating into your itinerary if you have time.
In major cities throughout Utah, gas prices are roughly similar to those in the rest of the continental United States; in rural and resort towns prices are considerably higher. In urban areas stations are plentiful, and most stay open late (some are open 24 hours). In rural areas stations are less numerous, and hours are more limited, particularly on Sunday; you can sometimes drive more than 100 miles on back roads without finding a gas station. It's best to always keep your tank at least half full.
Parking is generally plentiful and easy to find, even in Salt Lake City. Many parking garages offer free visitor parking, typically for one or two hours. Meters are usually free for two hours at a stretch on Saturday and all day on Sunday.
Utah has some of the most spectacular vistas—and challenging driving—in the world. Roads range from multilane divided blacktop to narrow dirt roads; from twisting switchbacks bordered by guardrails to primitive backcountry paths so narrow that you must back up to the edge of a steep cliff to make a turn. Scenic routes and lookout points are clearly marked, enabling you to slow down and pull over to take in the views. You'll find highways and the national parks crowded in summer, and almost deserted (and occasionally impassable) in winter.
In many locations, particularly in the burgeoning Salt Lake Valley and St. George areas, there always seems to be road construction, which slows traffic. Check road conditions before you set out, and allow a little extra time when traveling in these busier regions.
Unpleasant sights along the highway are road kills—animals struck by vehicles. Deer, elk, and even bears may try to get to the other side of a road just as you come along, so watch out for wildlife on the highways. Exercise caution, not only to save an animal's life, but also to avoid possible extensive damage to your car.
In Utah. 511; commuterlink.utah.gov.
Throughout Utah, call 911 for any travel emergency, such as an accident or a serious health concern. For automotive breakdowns, 911 is not appropriate. Instead, find a local directory and dial a towing service. When out on the open highway, call the nonemergency central administration phone number of the Utah Highway Patrol for assistance.
Utah Highway Patrol. 801/965–4518; highwaypatrol.utah.gov.
Rules of the Road
Utah law requires seat belts for drivers and all passengers in vehicles so equipped. Always strap children under age 5 into approved child-safety seats. Helmets are required for motorcyclists and passengers under the age of 18.
You may turn right at a red light after stopping if there is no sign stating otherwise and no oncoming traffic. Right turns on red are prohibited in some areas, but these are signed accordingly. When in doubt, wait for the green.
The speed limit on U.S. interstates is 75–80 mph in rural areas and 65 mph in urban zones. But watch out. "Rural areas" are determined by census boundaries, and sometimes make little sense. Increased speeds are allowed only where clearly posted. Transition zones from one speed limit to the next are indicated with pavement markings and signs. Fines are doubled for speeding in work zones and school zones.
It is illegal in Utah to send text messages while driving, punishable by a fine and a misdemeanor charge and/or more serious penalties if it causes an accident or death.
Winter and Desert Driving
It is best to have a complete tune-up before setting out. At the least, you should check the following: lights, including brake lights, backup lights, and emergency lights; tires, including the spare; oil; engine coolant; windshield-washer fluid; windshield-wiper blades; and brakes. For emergencies, take along flares or reflector triangles, jumper cables, an empty gas can, a flashlight, a plastic tarp, blankets, water, and coins or a calling card for phone calls (cell phones don't always work in high mountain areas).
Modern highways make mountain driving safe and generally trouble-free even in cold weather. Although winter driving can occasionally present some real challenges, road maintenance is good and plowing is prompt. However, severe winter storms occasionally close I–80 between Salt Lake City and Park City and I–15 near Cedar City. Tire chains and/or all-wheel drive or four-wheel-drive vehicles are often required in the canyons surrounding the Wasatch Front during storms, including Parley’s Canyon between Salt Lake City and Park City and Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Also, Highway 6 between Provo and Green River is considered the most dangerous road in the state. Its windy stretches and dramatic elevation changes cause slide-offs and mishaps, particularly in winter. If you're planning to drive into high elevations (and even Salt Lake City is at 4,000-plus feet above sea level), be sure to check the weather forecast and call for road conditions beforehand. Even main highways can close. Be prepared for stormy weather: carry an emergency kit containing warm clothes, a flashlight, some food and water, and blankets. It's also good to carry a cell phone, but the mountains can disrupt service, so also bring along coins for a pay phone. If you do get stalled by deep snow, do not leave your car. Wait for help, running the engine only if needed, and remember that assistance is never far away. Winter weather isn't confined to winter in the high country (it's been known to snow on July 4), so be prepared year-round. Keep your tank full of gas and remember water, even in winter. Always tell someone, even if it's the hotel clerk or gas-station attendant, where you're going and when you expect to return.
Desert driving can be dangerous in winter or summer. You may encounter extreme conditions in remote areas with drifting snow, blowing sand, and flash floods, with little chance of anyone driving by to help. Never leave children or pets in a car—summer temperatures climb quickly above 100°F. Before setting out on any driving trip, it's important to make sure your vehicle is in top condition.
You can rent an economy car with air-conditioning, automatic transmission, and unlimited mileage in Salt Lake City for about $30 a day and $150 a week. This does not include tax on car rentals, which is 16.35% in Salt Lake City. If you're planning to do any skiing, biking, four-wheeling, or towing, check into renting an SUV, van, or pickup from a local company like Rugged Rentals, which specializes in outdoor vehicles and provides supplemental insurance as part of the rental charge. For around $60 per day or $300 per week (plus taxes and other fees), you can rent a relatively new SUV or van with bike rack, ski rack, or towing equipment included.
Renting a car in Las Vegas can be less expensive than renting one in Salt Lake City, especially if you're visiting southern Utah. The driving time between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City is seven to nine hours, but it's only a two- to three-hour trip from Las Vegas to Zion National Park.
In Utah you must be 21 or over and have a valid driver's license to rent a car; most companies also require a major credit card. If you're over 65, check the rental company's policy on overage drivers. You may pay extra for child seats (but shop around; some companies don't charge extra for them), which are compulsory for children under five, and for additional drivers. Non-U.S. residents will need a reservation voucher, a passport, a driver's license, and a travel policy that covers each driver to pick up a car.
Advantage. 800/777–5500; www.advantage.com.
Rugged Rental. 800/977–9111; www.ruggedrental.com.
Major Rental Agencies
Alamo. 800/462–5266; www.alamo.com.
Avis. 800/331–1212; www.avis.com.
Budget. 800/527–0700; www.budget.com.
Hertz. 800/654–3131; www.hertz.com.
National Car Rental. 800/227–7368; www.nationalcar.com.