Desert hiking and stargazing: Utah’s top 10 outdoor adventures

Otherworldly red-rock canyons, raging whitewater rapids, snow-dusted mountains and coral-pink sand dunes: Utah is truly one of the planet’s greatest natural playgrounds. Here are the best 10 adventures…

Georgia Stephens
01 May 2019

With its otherworldly red-rock canyons, raging whitewater rapids, snow-dusted mountains and coral-pink sand dunes, the elemental landscapes of Utah combine to make one of the planet’s greatest natural playgrounds. Lace up your hiking boots, saddle up on a dude ranch or conquer the canyons in an ATV – here are a few ideas for your next active adventure.

1. Hiking

The view from Angles Landing (Bill Ratcliff)

In Utah, even a short walk can turn into an adventure. You can meander across a Martian landscape dotted with soaring natural towers or wander between smooth sandstone waves imprinted with fossilised dinosaur tracks – all before you’ve even had your lunch. Over seventy percent of land in Utah is open to the public, and that translates to thousands of miles of hiking trails. In Zion National Park, you can start with the Weeping Rock Trail, an easy 30-minute hike to a natural water feature and hanging garden. If you’re feeling confident, graduate to the popular but strenuous 5.4-mile Angels Landing trail for dizzying panoramic views over the canyons – but be warned, you’ll need a head for heights.

2. Biking

Mountain Biking in Moab

If you’re eager to explore Utah on two wheels, you’ll find lots of opportunities for mountain biking and road cycling right across the state. For the former, you can’t get much better than Moab, with famous trails like the challenging Porcupine Rim, billed as one of the best rides in North America, and Slickrock, known for its surprisingly grippy petrified sand dunes. But beginners will prefer a trip to bike-friendly Park City, thirty miles east of Salt Lake City, which has trails for all abilities. For road cyclists, there are options for casual rides up to epic multi-day bikepacking trips. The thigh-burning Alpine Loop is one of Utah’s most popular routes, a lofty road fringed with looming mountain ranges.

3. Skiing and snowboarding

Park City Mountain Resort (Scott Markewitz Photography)

Think of Utah, and it’s likely you’ll conjure images of sun-scorched deserts and sandstone canyons. But the state actually has some of the best conditions for skiing and snowboarding in the world, with an average of 500 inches of powder snow per year. You’ll find fourteen resorts here in all, ranging from the enormous Park City and peaceful Deer Valley to rustic Sundance, which is also home to the annual Sundance Film Festival in late January. The best time to hit the slopes is between December and April, when snowfall is at its peak.

4. Alternative winter sports

Bryce Canyon National Park Snowshoeing (Hage Photo)

Even if you’re not a fan of skiing or snowboarding, there are still plenty of ways you can enjoy the snow. You can try snowshoeing around Cedar Breaks National Monument, hit the trails on a snowmobile around Logan Canyon or hop in a bobsled to tackle the Olympic track from the 2002 Winter Games near Salt Lake City. For something a bit more unusual, sign up for a snowkiting lesson at the Powder Mountain ski resort. You’ll learn a mix of cross-country skiing and kiteboarding, and once you’ve got the hang of it you can travel up to 20 mph.

5. Stargazing

The Milky Way over a yurt at Dead Horse Point State Park (Brett Edge)

Utah is a stellar choice for stargazers, with the highest concentration of official Dark Sky parks on the planet. You’ll predominantly find them in southern Utah – among them Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park and Capitol Reef National Park – but there’s a handful to be discovered in the north, too. In Antelope Island State Park, an hour’s drive outside Salt Lake City, you can contemplate the enormity of the cosmos from the dried up bed of an ancient lake and try your hand at astrophotography to capture the Milky Way.

6. Off-roading

Explore the Coral Pink Sand Dunes in an ATV (Tyler Cornell/KCOT)

If you’ve ever wanted to feel like you’re riding a Mars rover, then off-roading across the rocky desert landscapes of Utah will do just the trick. ATVs and other off-road vehicles can reach areas of the state that cars can’t, whether it’s the top of a sand dune, the bottom of a muddy valley or the remote backcountry wilderness. In Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, you can rumble your way across miles of pinkish sand, formed by the area’s eroding red Navajo sandstone. Alternatively, try a section of the Paiute ATV Trail, which is one of the most extensive in the country and popular with enthusiasts.

7. Horse riding

Horse riding in Bryce Canyon National Park

Horseback riding out among Utah’s sunburnt rocks and cottonwood groves feels almost like stumbling back into the Old West, when outlaws like Butch Cassidy roamed the canyon country and post was delivered via Pony Express. Riding trails crisscross the state from Zion National Park to the High Uinta Wilderness, and you’ll find opportunities for short taster trots up to strenuous multi-day expeditions. For the full experience, dust off your Stetson for a stay on a dude ranch like Tavaputs, where you can trot along backcountry trails, learn the basics of cattle driving and chat to real-life cowboys.

8. Rafting

Rafting in Moab

There’s no better way to cool off from the desert heat than with a trip down one of Utah’s famous rivers, among them the Colorado, Green and San Juan. You’ll find every kind of rafting here, from flat stretches perfect for leisurely floats to roaring class V whitewater runs. If you don’t feel like having too rough an induction, try the Moab Daily river trip north of the town of Moab, which will lead you along class II and III rapids past towering red cliffs and rock towers. Alternatively, join a guided tour along the San Juan River to sail to Native American ruins and one of the biggest collections of petroglyphs in the Southwest.

9. Canyoneering

Canyoneering Kanab (Ted Hesser)

Canyoneering is perhaps the greatest way to experience Utah’s desert landscapes, not least because it gets you the closest to them. Descend into a ravine and you can traverse waterfalls and orange-hued pools, or squeeze through narrow slots and scramble over rock jams. You can start with Singing Canyon, near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, as it’s a short, easy walk from the road. You’ll find out how it got its name as soon as you open your mouth – it’s famed for its natural acoustics. Singing Canyon conquered, head off for an adventure at Peek-A-Boo & Spooky Gulch, a three-mile loop through slot canyons and waves of smooth sandstone.

10. Water sports

Enjoy water sports at Bear Lake (Utah Office of Tourism)

Utah may be the second driest state in the USA, but it has a surprising number of opportunities for water sports. In northern Utah on the border with Idaho, you can take up water skiing on Bear Lake, a cobalt-blue expanse of water that has earned the nickname “the Caribbean of the Rockies”. To the south, the enormous Lake Powell hugs the border with Arizona and is one of the best places in the state for water sports. Try wake boarding, tubing and kayaking, or just soak up the sun’s rays on a sandy beach.

There’s much more of Utah to discover…

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