Utah: Your full travel guide to the Beehive State

It’s not hard to find your own special escape here in the Beehive State. It is so varied, both culturally and geologically, that there are adventures to be discovered off every highway…

Team Wanderlust
09 August 2022
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Discover Utah

With its wild mix of ancient geology, little-known ski resorts, grand state parks and wild road trips that look like they’ve been torn straight from a film reel, Utah packs quite a visual punch. It’s not hard to find your own special escape here in the Beehive State. It is so varied, both culturally and geologically, that there are adventures to be discovered off every highway. All you need is a GPS and the will to explore…

Arriving and finding your feet

Salt Lake City was founded by Mormon pioneers in 1847 (Doug Pulsipher)

Reaching Utah is an altogether straightforward affair, leaving visitors more time to explore the state. It is well served by two major airports: Salt Lake City International and Harry Reid International in Las Vegas. Both are good options, with the latter handy for visiting southern Utah attractions like Zion National Park.

For the best introduction to the state, a couple of days in Salt Lake City does the trick. Wander micro-breweries, artisan chocolatiers and Pioneer Park’s busy farmers’ market, then see what lies on the state capital’s doorstep. The city is the gateway to a dozen ski resorts in the surrounding mountains, while the nearby Snowbird Aerial Tram whisks visitors 2.5km to the summit of Hidden Peak (3,350m).

There’s glamour to be found in Park City, which plays host to the annual Sundance Film Festival, or you can gaze at the stars of the animal world on Antelope Island. This vast isle within Great Salt Lake is a wild state park with free-ranging bison, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, the fastest land animal in North America. It’s certainly good preparation for the untapped wildernesses that await elsewhere.

Mesa Arch sits on the eastern edge of the Island in the Sky mesa in Canyonlands National Park (Utah Office of Tourism)

When it comes to national parks, Utah’s quintet can legitimately lay claim to offer some of the wildest experiences in the United States. They’re a tempting natural draw for outdoor explorers, each offering something different from the next.

Arches National Park, north of Moab, is a thrilling drive from Salt Lake City as you enter a landscape filled with geological formations, the most impressive of which are its 2,000 naturally occurring (and gravity-defying) arches. Due south, Canyonlands National Park is every bit as dramatic as its name sounds, offering vistas of seemingly never-ending canyons and cliffs carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers.

At the centre of Utah lies Capitol Reef National Park, the least visited of the state’s Mighty 5 and perhaps the most underrated of them all, offering an otherworldly experience devoid of any signs of civilisation. To the west, Bryce Canyon National Park sits at 2,750m above sea level and pairs alpine forests with red rock hoodoos and mule deer grazing on the plateaus. And lastly, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Zion National Park’s 300m-deep red rock canyons or the imposing Court of the Patriarchs, the trio of grand sandstone cliffs that skirt the eastern rim of the park.

Lesser-known landscapes — the Road to Mighty

Driving the rugged scenery up to Capitol Reef National Park (Steve Greenwood)

In keeping with the phrase, “it’s the journey not the destination”, road trips to the Mighty 5 are an adventure in and of themselves. From driving beneath Bryce Canyon’s towering spires to kayaking adventures en route to Capitol Reef, pausing to enjoy the ride is almost as much fun as arriving at your final destination.

If your first stop after landing at Salt Lake City is Arches National Park, be sure to break up the 370km drive. On the edge of the city you’ll find the arboretums of Red Butte Garden and the Natural History Museum of Utah. Further along Route 70, Green River is a good introduction to the forces of nature at work in the state. The cold-water Crystal Geyser, just 15km south of town, frequently erupts, spewing water some 40m into the air.

If you’re heading to Capitol Reef National Park, consider a route that takes in Lake Powell. It’s popular with kayakers and paddleboarders alike, and road trippers can rent gear at the Bullfrog Marina before hitting the water. The area is also a draw for fishermen and jet skiers, with a shoreline that stretches for more than 3,200km and campgrounds for those wanting to stay a night or two.

Even the highways of Utah yield some incredible sights. The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway more than lives up to its promise, taking in the rocky drama and ancestral lands of south-eastern Utah. One highlight is Natural Bridges National Monument, best seen from Route 95, west of Blanding. Here, trails lead down from its overlooks and into a canyon lined with Puebloan ruins. Later, the byway continues into Navajo country, where Monument Valley skirts Utah’s border and the Four Corners Monument lets you stand in four states at once.

Movie Moments

Lake Powell is a man-made reservoir that was flooded in 1980 and these days it is popular with those who want to get out on the water (KCOT)

In travelling the state’s lesser-known highways, you might start to recognise its scenery from the big screen. Many of the world’s biggest hits were filmed here, and Thelma & Louise fans can retrace the route taken by the pair all the way to where their journey ended – stopping short of driving off a cliff, of course. In fact, that infamous final scene was shot at Utah’s Fossil Point, just outside Moab, and is visible from Dead Horse Point State Park.

If Robert Redford and Paul Newman are more to your taste, then plan your trip to include the sights of Snow Canyon State Park and Grafton Ghost Town. Both locations were featured heavily in 1969 classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and it was at Cave Valley in the Kolob region of Zion National Park where Butch faced off with Harvey Logan to take over the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang.

Dark skies: astrotourism

Zion National Park is one of the great stargazing hotspots in Utah – its pitch-black darkness makes it perfect for glimpses of the Milky Way (David J West)

Thanks to the sheer size of Utah and its vast expanses of unpopulated deserts, the state is a magnet for stargazers. Many come just to view the heavens, far removed from any light pollution. For the uninitiated, the best places to get a glimpse of the Milky Way are International Dark Sky Parks, and Utah is home to one of the greatest concentrations of these anywhere in the world.

To make the most of the state’s astrotourism, time your trip to avoid a full moon and be prepared to embrace some of the lesser known (and least visited) parts of Utah. There are many national and state parks offering stargazing experiences, from Rainbow Bridge National Monument, which can only be accessed on foot or by boat, to the desert vastness of Dead Horse Point, to the ghoulish rocks of Goblin Valley. Alternatively, Arches National Park makes for an equally impressive (and easy to access) introduction to the world of stargazing in Utah.

Where to stay in north Utah 

Compass Rose Lodge in winter (Compass Rose Lodge)

Conestoga Ranch, near Garden City

This luxurious glamping site recalls Utah’s frontier days. Choose between grand tents and (fully mobile) wagons based on the designs of 19th-century caravans. Each sleeps up to six and offers a fun base for exploring nearby Bear Lake and its wealth of hiking trails.

Under Canvas’ glamping tents offer a dose of luxury in the wilderness (Under Canvas)

Compass Rose Lodge, Huntsville

Offering boutique rooms in the heart of the Ogden Valley, this Huntsville hotel comes complete with its own lunar observatory. Drawing inspiration from the valley’s agricultural and industrial heritage, each of the 15 rooms that you’ll find here are uniquely designed to showcase the region.

Local Lecy Gillespie

Where to stay in south Utah

Bluff Dwellings Resort & Spa, Bluff

This plush escape lies amid hundred-million- year-old sandstone cliffs and is styled after ancient Puebloan dwellings. The spa is certainly a welcome sight when returning from hikes beneath Cedar Mesa or the unearthly Valley of the Gods.

Yonder, Escalante

Converted Airstreams and stylish cabins are the lure at this luxurious camping site located within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The former are especially charming, complete with vintage furniture and full cooking facilities. Private spa-like bathhouses and an on-site pool let you cool off at the end of the day; there are facilities for RVs and an on-site drive-in movie theatre.

Under Canvas, various sites

If you fancy a night under the stars but can’t face the reality of sleeping bags and hard ground, then glamping company Under Canvas is for you. It has sites across the state, including Bryce Canyon, Moab, Lake Powell-Grand Staircase and Zion. Expect ensuite rooms, king-size beds, morning yoga and live music by the campfire.

Open Sky, Zion National Park

Open Sky’s handcrafted tents lend a safari-like vibe to stays on the edge of Zion’s wilderness. When not relaxing in soaker tubs or dining on organic breakfasts, there’s plenty to do: Guacamole Trailhead offers some of the wildest mountain biking in the state, or just take it easy, sit on your porch and watch a ballet of stars cavort overhead.

In the know: 3 tips from the locals

Nephi Pasture

“The history of the earth is shaped by the rocks. The history of life is imprinted in the rocks. The history of man is written on the rocks. A few hours in Nephi Pasture, near Kanab, will give you a small taste of the hidden treasures that surround this area: an arch that resembles an inchworm, the tracks of a mother dinosaur walking near her baby, the stories of ancient people in pictograph form that await the willing wanderer!”

Cory Unsworth, Owner Kanab Tour Company


“While the number of activities in Moab are almost countless, I often find my thoughts meandering back to the Colorado River. This mighty river ebbs and flows between calm water and whitewater rapids. There is a section that backs into the boundaries of Arches National Park, and where it combines with the Green River is what makes Canyonlands National Park, well… a land of canyons. I have had the privilege of experiencing the thrill of lining up a raft and fighting my way through an intimidating white-capped rapid as well as that sense of ease when slowly drifting with the current. There are many lessons to be learned from a river in the middle of a desert wilderness, and I wish everyone who comes to Moab can experience at least a couple of hours in the bold presence of this life-giving river.”

Lecy Gillespie, Moab Adventure Center

“The Family History Library at Temple Square, Salt Lake City, is a top-notch genealogical research library – the largest collection of its kind in the world! Here, one can trace their roots and discover who they are related to (sometimes famous, sometimes infamous), and it’s all for free! It’s a very interactive family history experience.”

Michael Mack, Director of Travel Trade & Strategic Partnerships, Visit Salt Lake

Make it happen

Tailor-made USA specialist Bon Voyage offers bespoke fly-drive itineraries to Utah. Contact the Utah experts on 023 8024 8248 or visit the website. 

You can also find heaps of travel inspiration on the official Utah website. 

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