I fell in love with Utah on accident.
I stopped in Salt Lake City on a cross-country road trip. I thought I’d be there for a day, recuperating from the hikes I did in Denver and preparing for the gambling I was to do in Vegas. I ended up staying in Utah for two weeks.
I logged 1,600 miles criss-crossing the state, visiting four national and two state parks, and eating a great deal of surprisingly good Mexican food. I learned about Mormonism, I drank very weak beer, and I came to realize how insanely beautiful the diverse regions of this state are — and how important they are to appreciate and protect.
I highly recommend exploring Utah by car. The drives through screensaver-worthy mountain landscapes, green valleys thick with saplings, and desert dunes spreading in every direction elevate transportation beyond something that gets you to the next destination; they are the destination in and of themselves. Curving up a wide strip of two-lane highway with striated rocks stretching towards the sky on either side of you will make you small and safe, cocooned in the earth’s bosom.
Whether you have a long weekend or the rest of your life, get in a car and string together as many of these activities and places as your appetite for adventure allows.
You’ll find a mix of food, adventure, culture, and activities for all seasons, by-and-large listed in the order you’d hit them if you were to leave from St. Lake City, head east, and make a big loop down to the Arizona border and back up the west side of the state (which, having done it, I can highly recommend). Most of them are very accessible for every activity level and many are either free or included in the $80-per-couple annual National Parks pass, which you should invest in at whichever park you visit first.
Salt Lake City
Here in Utah’s capital (and biggest city), you’re in for several unexpected treats. Look beyond the boxy white spires of downtown (apparently a vestige from construction done in the late ‘90s for the 2002 Olympics) and find:
Temple Square, home to the Salt Lake Temple, the largest Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in the world, which you can’t enter unless you’re a Mormon (and even if you are, you’re not a shoe-in — you need an interview with your bishop and your local church leader, who need to co-sign your entry, known as a “temple recommend”). But! You can still enjoy the architecture, take a free tour of the outside, stroll around the magnificent gardens, and duck into the visitor center for an inside look at Mormon beliefs.
City Creek Center, which is potentially the best mall west of the Mississippi. And no, a mall is not part of the natural beauty of Utah you’re meant to be enjoying, but in the case that you’re stuck with a rainy day or you ripped a hole in your pants and need new ones, I would highly recommend this well-connected, beautifully-designed shopping pavilion. The food court is awesome, and includes branches of local favorites like Taste of Red Iguana. (Go, order the fajitas, and thank me later.)
Ensign Peak, a beautiful lookout point above the city where some say is the spot where Brigham Young first looked out over the Salt Lake Valley and said “this is the place” to build a new city. It’s a quick — but steep — mile-long in-and-out hike that is definitely worth the climb.
Beer Bar, which is exactly what its name would suggest. Co-owned by Ty Burrell of Modern Family fame, this bar is the exact right mix of slick and homey. Futuristic taps offer craft brews from Utah and surrounding areas, though all at less than 4 percent ABV, since Utah has a law prohibiting draft beer stronger than that. (At least means you won’t have a hangover the next day.) Their rustic menu of pretzels, fries, and fresh-grilled sausages pairs perfectly with a pint.
Come for the slopes, stay for the celeb-spotting. In the winter, this little mountain town swells with tourists who come in search of soft powder and movie screenings, and in the summer, it’s full of hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. If you plan on being one of them, try:
Park City Mountain Resort, a great mountain for all skill levels. A number of winter sports athletes on the U.S. Olympic team live in the area and ski at the local resorts, so if you fancy yourself a pro slalomer, give their runs a try. And if you’re not — like me — enjoy the low-grade runs that wrap around the mountain like a hug, giving you plenty of views of snow-covered pines to swoon over as you head down. In the off season, take the lifts up and hike through the trees.
Sundance Film Festival, which you’ve definitely heard of but maybe didn’t know that Robert Redford founded. If you’re in Utah in January and can’t afford the full pass, sign up for their eWaitlist and pray that someone doesn’t show up for their screening.
Five5eeds, the very, very Instagrammable breakfast place helmed by an Australian husband-and-wife team who plate up hotcakes almost too beautiful to eat (featuring micro-greens and fresh berries and syrup, if you ask nicely) and protein bowls stuffed with veggies.
Hello, welcome to heaven! Or Mars! Which is maybe heaven? We’re not sure. Moab feels like its own planet, all red-rocky and sculpted. In any event, stay at least a few days in this adventure town and visit the following:
Canyonlands National Park, also known as the most underrated National Park in Utah, per my ranking schematic. (It’s also the largest!) It’s got millions of years of sediment crammed into a kaleidoscope of colors, it’s got desert grasses growing sideways from eerie crevices, it’s got tiny caves marked by pale-pink cactus flowers. What I’m saying is, it’s gorgeous. Do not miss Island in the Sky, the most driveable part of the park. Hike to the Mesa Arch, picnic near Upheaval Dome, and if you’re there in time for sunrise or sunset, catch it canyonside with your time-lapse on. You will not regret it.
Arches National Park, which has the world’s largest concentration of sandstone arches. They’re natural-formed, freestanding arcs that look the ideal place for a hardcore backpacking couple to get married. See some beautiful ones with trails leading to Delicate Arch, Double-O Arch, and the Windows sections of the park.
Moab Flats, which is where you should stay, particularly if you’ve got a big group. They’ve got amenities on amenities on amenities — think hot tub, bonfire pit, and state-of-the-art grilling station — and each apartment comes fully outfitted with a kitchen, mod design features (bright-red kitchen chairs! amps turned into speakers!), and super-comfy beds.
Moab Tour Company for Jason Statum-style adventures ATV-ing around the desert trails of Hells Revenge. Strap in with your guide and zoom up, down, and all around, catching beautiful mountain vistas and a face full of dust (that’s what the goggles are for, baby).
Page / Big Water Area
Okay, so technically Page is in Arizona. If you’d like to stay a Utah purist, book your accommodations across the border in Big Water. But Page has slot canyons (those very photogenic, orange-wavy walls you’ve definitely seen on all of your feeds) to explore, as well as Horseshoe Bend, which is very much worth the $10 entrance fee. Plus, those places are part of the Navajo Nation, and exploring tribal lands and talking to locals about how they care for it is a powerful thing. In Utah, visit:
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, aka Mother Nature’s paint palette brought to life. Stand on top of a lookout at any of the many scenic-view pullouts along I-89 and watch the mesas fade to cliffs fade to sand dunes fade to forest. Watch the colors — chocolate, vermillion, white, pink — light up as the sun hits them. Trace the snaking slice of grey-black road and its faded tics of yellow dividers cut through the rocks. Go at sunset to see the red glow fade to blue darkness as the earth absorbs every last ray of light. Listen to the insects chirping, a thousand small castañuelas, the occasional rustle of wind, and the even more occasional shout out into the everything — hello there! — and the echo as it rushes back.
St. George / Cedar City
This desert oasis features sprawling mesas, rocky hikes, and the place they filmed High School Musical 2. Whether you’re looking to reenact the iconic “Bet on It” choreography or not, you’ll have plenty to do in St. George, starting with:
Zion National Park: We have broken out the big guns, ladies and gentlemen; this is what you dreamed about when you dreamed about the West. It’s got it all — rushing rivers, towering pines, rugged cliffs — and you get to tramp around in it. Seriously, Zion will make you believe in a higher power. There is a God and She gave us this playground. You can hike Angel’s Landing if you are insane and/or impervious to height-related fear; if, like me, you prefer to stay closer to the ground, bring waterproof shoes and head out for the Narrows, a relatively flat two-mile hiking path that leads to a shallow river you’ll hike through for as long as you can stand it. On a hot day, the water rushing by and swirling around your thighs is peak earthly bliss.
Benja’s Thai & Sushi, where despite committing the classic blunder of mixing very different cuisines and expecting it to hang together (their website implores you to “explore the Eastern culture and food”— not what I like to see in my Thai OR sushi places), you can get a truly fantastic bowl of green curry. Go in, enjoy the refreshing citrus water that makes you forget it’s probably 110 degrees outside, and order two plates — you’ll want leftovers.
Navajo Lake, located inside Dixie National Forest. This pristine pool of ice-cold water was formed when cracks in the earth’s surface released enough lava to dam up the valley, and if you do part of the 12-mile Navajo Loop hiking/biking trail, you’ll scramble over piles of ash-black lava rock. It’s beautiful, remote, and another reminder that Utah really does have it all. It’s wild to remember that just an hour’s drive south lies a desert when you’re splashing around in a mountain lake.
Bryce Canyon National Park, an extremely beautiful place you should try to see at night, if you can, to watch the Milky Way light up the drippy rock columns called hoodoos. If you’re there during the day, you’ll still have plenty to enjoy — hike up to Inspiration Point (or have a loved one drag you, as I did, if you’re not good at altitude, as it clocks in at over 8,800 feet) and survey the ombré mountains beneath you.
Those are my Utah recommendations, and you should take them, have you a desire to maximize enjoyment. But the beauty of vacationing in Utah is that it’s so big, so diverse, and has so very much waiting for you to explore. Take the back roads; set off on a new hike; pause at the side of whatever vista you choose and soak in the way the horizon line darts around the desert. Welcome to Utah.