Utah, fondly known as the “Beehive State,” beckons travelers with its distinct natural beauty, encompassing many majestic landscapes, including five stunning national parks, state parks, ski resorts, and outdoor recreational spaces.
I've been to Utah nearly 20 times. I've visited each of the “Mighty 5” national parks and stayed in each of the major cities. In my opinion, it is one of the underrated states in the United States. There are many places to explore, great food, friendly people, and fairly good breweries!
Let's dive into this ultimate Utah travel guide!
The Five National Parks: Utah's Mighty 5
Utah is home to ‘The Mighty 5' national parks: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Each park has its unique beauty and offers various outdoor activities, from hiking and camping to photography and wildlife viewing.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park, located in eastern Utah, is a captivating landscape that is nothing short of a geologic wonder. With over 2,000 recorded sandstone arches that have been shaped by time, wind, and water, the park offers a visual spectacle unlike any other. Spanning over 76,679 acres, this rocky realm reveals the artistry of nature in its monumental rock formations, soaring pinnacles, balanced rocks, and of course, its namesake arches.
The star of the show and perhaps the most iconic image of the park is the Delicate Arch. Standing like a sentinel against the sky, it is a freestanding arch that symbolizes the state of Utah. The three-mile round-trip hike to Delicate Arch can be moderately challenging but rewards adventurers with up-close views of this natural marvel. As you approach the arch, you might feel as if you've been transported to a different world, one sculpted by nature's own hands.
Another unmissable attraction is the Devil's Garden, located at the end of the park's main road. This area contains an impressive concentration of arches, including the Landscape Arch – one of the longest natural arches in the world. A hike through Devil's Garden presents an orchestra of fascinating shapes and sizes of arches, each with its unique charm.
The park is not only about arches; it's a tapestry of diverse geological formations. The Balanced Rock, one of the park's most popular features, appears to defy gravity, with a massive boulder precariously perched on a slender pedestal. The Windows Section, another visitor favorite, hosts a collection of large, spectacular arches that provide “windows” into the expansive desert landscape.
Arches National Park is not just a daytime spectacle. As the sun sets and the night sky unfurls its cosmic canvas, the park transforms into an astronomer's paradise. The park's remote location and dark skies make stargazing a dream. The International Dark-Sky Association recognized it as a Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park in 2019, solidifying its status as one of the premier locations for stargazing.
Visitors to Arches National Park can also engage in various activities beyond sightseeing. From hiking and camping to photography and rock climbing, there's something for everyone. For the less adventurous, a scenic drive through the park offers stunning panoramic views of this surreal landscape.
Despite its rugged appearance, the park's ecosystem is delicate. Desert flora, including prickly pear cactus and yucca, punctuate the arid landscape, while fauna like lizards, jackrabbits, and over 200 species of birds call this park home. The Park Service encourages all visitors to practice the principles of Leave No Trace to preserve this incredible landscape for future generations.
Arches National Park embodies the spirit of the American West. Its red-rock wonderland invites visitors to step into a world where the forces of nature continue to shape and create, just as they have for millions of years. It is a testament to the impermanence yet enduring beauty of our natural world – a place where one can witness the slow yet relentless artistry of erosion and time. So whether you're an intrepid explorer, a geology enthusiast, or simply someone seeking the extraordinary, a visit to Arches National Park promises an unforgettable journey into the heart of nature's sculpture garden.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park, located in southwestern Utah, is unlike any other place on Earth. It is a geological wonderland characterized by its iconic hoodoos—irregular columns of rock formed by millennia of erosion. Named after the Mormon Pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, this park, spanning over 35,835 acres, offers visitors a stunning landscape that shifts color with the day's changing light, displaying an array of hues from orange and pink to red.
The most mesmerizing sight at Bryce Canyon is undoubtedly the Bryce Amphitheater. This natural amphitheater is a vast depression filled with a forest of stone, an intricate labyrinth of walls and towers. As you stand at the rim of the Bryce Amphitheater, especially at sunrise or sunset, the landscape takes on an ethereal quality, with the hoodoos glowing like embers against the stark blue of the sky.
The park offers various hiking trails suitable for all skill levels, each promising a unique perspective of its striking topography. The Navajo Loop Trail is one of the most popular hikes, taking visitors on a memorable trek through the canyon floor amongst the towering hoodoos. For a more relaxed experience, the Rim Trail offers an easy walk along the canyon's edge with breathtaking views of the amphitheater.
Bryce Canyon isn't a canyon in the traditional sense. It's actually a series of natural amphitheaters or bowls carved into the edge of a high plateau. One of the most compelling features of these structures is the array of colors that illuminate and shift throughout the day. Early morning and late afternoon sunlight ignites the red-orange rock, creating an otherworldly landscape that leaves visitors in awe.
Bryce Canyon National Park is also a sanctuary for star-gazers. As one of the darkest places in North America, it boasts some of the country's best air quality. This, combined with the park's high altitude and lack of light pollution, makes Bryce an ideal spot for stargazing. On a clear night, you can see 7,500 stars twinkling in the sky, and the park regularly hosts astronomy programs and moonlit hikes.
Aside from its geological treasures, Bryce Canyon supports a variety of ecosystems with over 400 native plant species, providing habitats for diverse wildlife. Sightings of mule deer, pronghorn, and a multitude of bird species are common, while the more elusive include mountain lions and black bears.
Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park is like stepping into a geological fairy-tale. It's spectacular landscapes and unique rock formations are a testament to the relentless forces of nature and time. Whether you're a seasoned hiker, a casual sightseer, or a star-gazer, Bryce Canyon provides a unique, awe-inspiring experience that will etch itself into your memory long after you've left its borders.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park, situated in southeastern Utah, is a stunning showcase of geological drama. As the largest national park in Utah, spanning over 337,598 acres, it's a rugged and raw terrain filled with countless canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires carved by the relentless forces of the Colorado River and its tributaries.
The park is divided into four distinct districts by the Green and Colorado rivers: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. Each region possesses a unique character and offers different opportunities for exploration and adventure.
The most accessible district is Island in the Sky, a broad and level mesa wedged between the Green and Colorado rivers. Here, you can take in sweeping panoramic views that extend over 100 miles in every direction, providing some of the most iconic vistas of the American West. The district's easy-to-navigate scenic drive leads to numerous overlooks and trailheads for further exploration.
To the east of the Colorado River lies The Needles, named for its multicolored spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone. The Needles offers more of a backcountry experience with longer, more strenuous hikes through its rugged and diverse landscapes. This district is also home to remnants of past cultures in the form of ancient Puebloan granaries and rock art.
The Maze, the most remote district, is a labyrinth of narrow canyons that is considered one of the most difficult areas to access in the entire national park system. Its solitude and wild, pristine landscapes make it a magnet for the hardiest of explorers.
The Green and Colorado Rivers are considered separate districts and are popular for multi-day river trips. These waterways offer unique views of the park, carved canyon walls, and encounters with wildlife, making for an unforgettable river journey.
But the beauty of Canyonlands National Park extends beyond the daytime. Due to its remote location and clear, unpolluted skies, Canyonlands was designated as a Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park in 2015. Stargazers can expect an extraordinary cosmic display on clear nights.
Canyonlands National Park is also a habitat for a diverse array of desert wildlife. Sightings of bighorn sheep, mule deer, foxes, and various birds are common, while the more elusive inhabitants include mountain lions and black bears.
Visiting Canyonlands National Park is a journey into the heart of nature's raw sculptural artistry. Its isolated wilderness, dramatic landscapes, and deep, still silence invites visitors to pause, reflect, and marvel at the beauty and power of the natural world. Whether you're a passionate hiker, an adventurous off-roader, a dedicated stargazer, or simply a lover of extraordinary landscapes, Canyonlands offers a rich, rewarding, and deeply moving experience.
Capitol Reef National Park
Nestled in south-central Utah's red-rock country, Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and natural bridges. The park is defined by the Waterpocket Fold, a remarkable geologic wrinkle (or monocline) on the Earth's surface that extends almost 100 miles. Named for the white domes of Navajo Sandstone that resemble capitol building domes and the rocky cliffs which create a barrier to travel, much like a coral reef, Capitol Reef National Park is a unique and enchanting place.
Capitol Reef is less crowded than many of the state's other national parks, providing a sense of solitude and tranquillity. Covering 241,904 acres, it offers a diverse landscape with features encapsulating over 200 million years of Earth's geological history.
At the park's heart, Fruita Historic District glimpses the past. This oasis, set amidst the red desert, was settled by Mormons in the 1880s, who planted orchards that still exist today. Visitors can pick seasonal fruit, wander around the historic buildings, or have a picnic near the Fremont River. The petroglyphs, just east of the district, provide a window into the Fremont culture who lived in the area nearly a thousand years ago.
For those seeking stunning vistas, a drive on the scenic road provides awe-inspiring views of the park’s colorful canyons, massive domes, and soaring cliffs. Several viewpoints and trailheads along the way allow for further exploration. The Hickman Bridge trail leads to a spectacular natural bridge, while the trail to the Cassidy Arch gives insight into the park's connection with Butch Cassidy, the notorious outlaw.
The Cathedral Valley, in the northern part of the park, is worth the effort to reach. This remote, starkly beautiful region features monolithic sandstone cathedrals towering above the desert floor and the Bentonite Hills, whose clay-like soil presents a striking contrast to the surrounding sandstone cliffs.
For astronomy enthusiasts, Capitol Reef is an excellent location for stargazing. In 2015, it was designated a Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park due to its remote location, clear skies, and virtually unimpaired night-time visibility.
Within its boundaries, the park sustains a variety of life adapted to the desert. Wildlife includes mule deer, elk, mountain lions, and black bears, while over 200 species of birds have been identified in the park.
Whether you're hiking through its rugged trails, biting into a juicy apple from a historic orchard, gazing at ancient petroglyphs, or peering up into the starlit sky, Capitol Reef National Park offers a richly diverse and deeply rewarding experience. Far from the clamor of city life, it's a place where you can step back in time, both human and geologic, and feel the timeless pulse of the earth beneath your feet. Amid the grandeur and silence of this remarkable landscape, you may discover not just a new environment but a new way of seeing the world.
Zion National Park
In the southwestern corner of Utah, where the edges of the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau converge, lies Zion National Park. Covering over 147,000 acres, Zion is a breathtaking tapestry of sandstone cliffs, narrow canyons, and flowing rivers. Its name, meaning “place of peace and relaxation,” is an apt description of this sanctuary of natural beauty.
At the heart of the park is Zion Canyon, with its massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into the sky. The scale and grandeur of the canyon can be fully appreciated from the floor at the Temple of Sinawava or from higher vantage points along trails and scenic drives.
One of the park's most famous hikes is the Narrows, where visitors can wade through the Virgin River while surrounded by sheer cliffs thousands of feet high. It’s a truly unique experience and highlights the immense scale of Zion's geology.
I'll say the Narrows is 100% worth visiting. However, I don't think I'd recommend hiking the entire trail. It's a fun adventure, but it's a lot of the same landscape for a long time… trust me, I've done it.
The picture below is at the end. It's a clear and emerald water pool with a small waterfall. Definitely pretty cool, but make sure you are prepared for the hike, and you MUST rent the boots and hiking stick.
For the more adventurous, the Angels Landing trail offers a challenging trek with stunning panoramic canyon views, but it's not for the faint-hearted, as the trail navigates sharp ridges with sheer drops. It is definitely a fairly steep hike, but the good news is nearly the entire hike is on a paved sidewalk.
In my opinion, the true challenge isn't until you get to the top… if you're scared of heights, this one isn't for you. From someone afraid of heights myself, trust me. If you can get past this, the view at the top is amazing! I must be honest… this is a picture from my friends. I never made it, lol.
Zion National Park is also home to a remarkable variety of plant and animal life. Its unique geographical location and variety of life zones allow for unusual plant and animal diversity. Over 900 different plant species can be found within the park, providing habitat for various wildlife, including mule deer, foxes, and numerous bird species. Larger animals, such as mountain lions and bighorn sheep, also call Zion home.
The park isn't only about daytime beauty. It's recognized as an International Dark Sky Park, a place where the Milky Way is not just visible but boldly streaks across the sky. Stargazing programs are regularly offered, providing visitors the opportunity to explore the cosmos above.
Cultural history abounds in Zion National Park, too. From ancient Ancestral Puebloans to the Paiute tribe, from Mormon pioneers to the creators of the park's infrastructure in the 1920s and 1930s, the influence of those who came before is etched into the very fabric of the park.
Whether you're exploring the emerald pools, hiking the trails, observing the diverse wildlife, marveling at the star-filled skies, or simply standing still and drinking in the beauty of the towering cliffs, Zion National Park is more than just a destination. It is an experience that engages all the senses, a place that captivates the heart and spirit, and a sanctuary where the magnificence and grandeur of nature are on full display.
Side note, Zion National Park is only about 2 hours from Las Vegas, so if you only plan to go to this park, I would recommend flying into Vegas, renting a car, and spending a night or two in the sin city!
Here's my favorite VRBO near zion!
Vibrant Cities and Towns
Salt Lake City
As the state capital and gateway city, Salt Lake City offers cultural experiences with its numerous museums, art galleries, the iconic Temple Square, and the State Capitol building. Don't miss out on the exciting food scene.
Nestled in the Salt Lake Valley and backed by the lofty Wasatch Range, the city is known for its beautiful setting. Here, the outdoor lifestyle thrives, with world-class ski resorts, vast hiking and biking trail networks, and beautiful parks only minutes away from the city center.
Salt Lake City also boasts a rich cultural scene. You can explore the historic Temple Square, the spiritual heart of the Mormon faith; dive into diverse food and craft beer scenes; or enjoy a variety of arts, from ballet and symphony performances to contemporary art galleries.
If you're a fan of sunsets, one of my favorite places in Utah to catch a sunset is at Ensign Peak. This is a short hike (less than a mile) just outside downtown Salt Lake. At the top, you'll find an incredible view of Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake, and mountain ranges. It's quite a place to hang out.
Being the capital of Utah, one of the top attractions is the state house building. I will say Utah's state is one of the most unique I've seen. It is a beautiful building situated on a hill.
While you're in the area, make sure you check out the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Note: you can only go inside if you are Morman, but there's still a lot to see outside of the building if this is something that interests you.
Around all of these buildings downtown is a ton of unique history! Utah is a state that has tons of interesting facts and history. This is something that I've always found pretty cool, so I totally geeked out on exploring this city.
In Salt Lake City, there's a genuine sense of community. People are friendly, neighborhoods are safe, and the quality of life is high. Its unique blend of urban and outdoor life, cultural richness, and local warmth makes Salt Lake City a great place to live, work, and visit. The city welcomes you to explore its natural beauty, rich history, and cultural vibrancy.
Park City is a haven for winter sports enthusiasts and was one of the venues for the 2002 Winter Olympics. In summer, it transforms into a hub for hiking and mountain biking.
Nestled high in the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains, Park City, Utah, offers a unique blend of natural beauty, historic charm, and cosmopolitan amenities. Once a bustling silver mining town, today, Park City is recognized worldwide for its winter sports and as the home of the Sundance Film Festival.
World-class skiing and snowboarding are undoubtedly the main attractions, with over 7,000 acres of skiable terrain between Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort. But there's more to Park City than just winter sports. When the snow melts, the mountains become a haven for hiking, mountain biking, and golfing, with stunning views around every corner.
Park City's historic Main Street, with its quaint shops, galleries, and restaurants, exudes small-town charm. It's here you can savor everything from gourmet dining to comfort food, browse eclectic boutiques, or learn about the city's mining history in the local museum.
The city's commitment to the arts is evident in its vibrant music, film, and visual arts scenes. Each January, filmmakers, celebrities, and enthusiasts descend upon Park City for the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the United States.
Despite its global recognition, Park City has retained its friendly, laid-back mountain town feel. It's a place where world-class outdoor adventures and cultural experiences are matched by warm welcomes, making Park City an enchanting destination year-round.
Moab, situated in eastern Utah, is an adventurer's paradise known as the gateway to the awe-inspiring red rock landscapes of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. With its enchanting vistas of otherworldly geological formations and vast skies, Moab is the perfect base for explorations and outdoor pursuits.
Adventure sports thrive in and around Moab. The region is famous for mountain biking on the renowned Slickrock Bike Trail, off-roading on the challenging sandstone terrain, and whitewater rafting along the Colorado River. Hikers and rock climbers will also find endless opportunities amid the area's towering cliffs, hidden canyons, and vast plateaus.
Moab isn't only about adrenaline-pumping activities. The town itself exudes a warm, welcoming charm, with a friendly community, a local arts scene, and various restaurants and shops. It's also rich in history, featuring numerous petroglyph sites and dinosaur tracks, a testament to the area's ancient inhabitants and prehistoric past.
For nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers, stargazers, and history buffs, Moab offers an immersive experience in a region where nature's artistry and human history intertwine. It's a place of overwhelming beauty and adventure, where every path leads to a new discovery and where the spirit of the wild west is very much alive.
Utah's Cuisine: A Blend of Tradition and Innovation
Utah's culinary scene is as varied and dynamic as its breathtaking landscapes. Drawing from its rich heritage and the creativity of contemporary chefs, the state serves up a unique food experience that's both comfortingly familiar and excitingly different.
A must-try Utah staple is the delightfully quirky dish known as funeral potatoes. This casserole-style side, named for its frequent appearance at post-funeral dinners, combines hearty potatoes, creamy cheese, and a crunchy cornflake or potato chip topping. It's a rich, comforting dish that perfectly embodies Utah's communal spirit and love of comfort food.
Utah scones are another local delicacy but don't confuse them with the British version. These scones are more akin to soft pillows of deep-fried dough, typically served with honey butter, and are a testament to the state's pioneer heritage.
Green Jell-O, playfully dubbed the “official state snack,” reflects the fun, family-oriented culture prevalent in Utah. Often served with shredded carrots or in creative molds, it's a nostalgic nod to the state's past.
For something sweet, the Bear Lake Raspberry shake is hard to beat. Made with raspberries grown around the Bear Lake area, this creamy, fruity shake is a summer favorite and a refreshing treat after a day of exploring.
But Utah's food scene isn't all about tradition. The state has a growing reputation for its craft breweries and distilleries. From crisp, clean lagers to complex, barrel-aged spirits, Utah offers a variety of local brews and liquors that showcase the craftsmanship and innovation of its producers. High West Distillery in Park City, the first legal distillery in Utah since the end of the American Prohibition, and Uinta Brewing, one of the state's largest craft breweries, are just a couple of places where you can sample Utah's finest.
Utah's cuisine paints a flavorful picture of its history, community, and innovation. So whether you're savoring a comforting plate of funeral potatoes, biting into a fluffy Utah scone, enjoying a cool Bear Lake Raspberry shake, or sipping a locally brewed craft beer, you're not just tasting Utah's food – you're experiencing Utah's culture.
Utah's cultural history is as expansive as its desert landscapes, offering deep insights into the human stories that have shaped this land. From ancient indigenous cultures to the adventurous spirit of the pioneers, each chapter in Utah's history adds a unique layer to its fascinating cultural tapestry.
Begin your journey into Utah's past with a visit to Hovenweep National Monument. Here, six prehistoric villages spread over a twenty-mile area of mesa tops and canyons provide an invaluable look into early Puebloan life. The remains of multi-storied towers perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders lead visitors to marvel at the ingenuity and resilience of these ancient people.
For a more immersive experience of Native American history, Fremont Indian State Park is a must-visit. Discover the world of the Fremont Indians, who lived in Utah a thousand years ago. The park's museum houses an incredible array of pre-Columbian artifacts, from pottery and baskets to the largest collection of Fremont figurines. The surrounding landscape, dotted with countless petroglyphs and pictographs, provides a rare glimpse into the artistic expression of this ancient culture.
As you move forward in time, step into the pioneer era at This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. Named for Brigham Young's famous declaration upon seeing the Salt Lake Valley, the park offers an immersive experience into 19th-century Utah. Explore over 50 historic structures, from homes and shops to schools and chapels, each offering living history demonstrations that transport you back to the pioneer days.
The influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is undeniably woven into the fabric of Utah's history. The church's historical sites, such as the Brigham Young Winter Home and the Beehive House, offer insights into the lives of early church leaders. The iconic Temple Square, with its grand Salt Lake Temple, Assembly Hall, and Tabernacle, stands as a testament to the faith and determination of the Mormon pioneers.
Exploring Utah's cultural history offers a deeper understanding of the state. It's a journey that spans thousands of years and countless human experiences, offering glimpses into the lives of those who have shaped Utah's past and continue to influence its present.
- Plan for High Altitude: Much of Utah is at a higher altitude, which can lead to altitude sickness in some people, particularly those who live at sea level. Drink plenty of water, take things slow, and give your body time to adjust.
- Visit the Lesser-Known Parks: Utah's national parks are all breathtaking, but don't forget about the state's many state parks and national monuments. Places like Goblin Valley State Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, and Cedar Breaks National Monument are equally stunning and typically less crowded.
- Take Advantage of Free Local Guides: Many local communities offer free guided tours. For instance, the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail through Salt Lake City offers free guided tours led by knowledgeable locals.
- Stay Hydrated and Protected from the Sun: Utah's dry desert climate can quickly dehydrate you, and the sun can be intense. Always carry plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat for protection.
- Try Local Foods: When in Utah, be sure to try local favorites like fry sauce (a unique condiment often used with french fries), scones (Utah scones are different than traditional British ones), and Green Jello, which has particular popularity in the state.
- Respect the Environment: Much of Utah's beauty comes from its pristine, untouched landscapes. When exploring, follow the principles of Leave No Trace: stay on marked trails, dispose of waste properly, respect wildlife, and leave what you find.
- Check Local Events: Utah hosts several festivals and events throughout the year, like the Sundance Film Festival, Moab Jeep Safari, and Pioneer Day. Checking local calendars can enrich your visit with unique cultural experiences.
- Timing Your Visit: National Parks can get quite crowded, so consider visiting in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) for fewer crowds and milder weather.
- Road Conditions: Some of the most stunning locations in Utah are off the beaten path. If you plan on exploring these, ensure your vehicle is equipped for the terrain.
- Dress Appropriately: Utah's climate can vary dramatically between regions and throughout the day. Layered clothing is recommended to accommodate changing temperatures.
Utah Travel Guide Conclusion
There you have it, I hope you enjoyed my version of a Utah travel guide.
Utah is an adventurer's paradise, with something for everyone, from epic landscapes and outdoor pursuits to historical intrigue and culinary delights. Whether you're a first-time visitor or a returning traveler, Utah's diverse landscapes and rich cultural heritage will enchant and inspire.
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