State By State: Utah
A Road Trip Guide
At first I overlooked it. On a trip around the states in 2008, my two travel companions and I needed to swiftly get from Yellowstone to Vegas, and so we took a night drive and, obviously, saw nothing of Utah other than a Salt Lake City coffee shop. Five years on I made another deft visit, in that I managed to once again put feet upon Utarian soil and still see almost none of it. On this occasion I landed in Salt Lake City in order to make an ill advised jaunt into the winter mountains. Although this trip had its hick-ups (due in part to my unintelligent vehicle selection), I did take note of the phenomenal drive north along the I15 with the most incredible mountains running along the road to my right for miles and miles. I made a mental note to come back and see more.
I eventually made a solo road trip and got my first real taste of the State one year later. I came into Utah from the south west and made my way from Paige, Arizona up toward Bryce. What came next blew my mind and put Utah up into my favorites list. I loved it so much I made the long drive back again and again to explore. Let me share my findings so you can plan your perfect road trip to Utah, or at least tie it into your route.
Driving north into Utah means you are immediately impressed by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Yeah I know, the name is a mouthful. However the name is apt; the monument itself is huge, stretching from the Grand Canyon, in the adjacent state. all the way to Zion at it’s northern end. The National monument was designated by Bill Clinton back in 1996, and it’s a geological treasure trove. The name ‘Grand Staircase’ refers to the gradual layering of sedimentary rock that stretches for hundreds of miles and exposes eons of our planets geological and natural history. With that said, you shouldn’t be put off by all this science, if you’re a fan of epic natural wonders, love good hikes or plan your trips around photography opportunities, this is for you.
By the time you reach Zion the chances are that you will have already started to question why you haven’t been to Utah before. Zion will have you booking a second trip.
Weaving north, you’ll eventually find yourself on highway 9 following signs for the park. If you notice the dry desert has altered, becoming more vegetative and lush, then you’re getting close. Passing a couple of small towns, you eventually enter Springdale, the town which borders the entrance to Zion.
Springdale is my recommendation for road trip campers, its campsite is affordable and spacious, plus it runs alongside the Virgin river which means you get the trickling water sounds in your tent at night (a personal delight of mine) and you can dive in to cool down from the ninety degree heat, should you go in summer. There are some first come first serve campsites just a few minutes down the road on the inside of the park, however, if you have road tripped in, the chances are you wont arrive until midday, meaning these spots will almost certainly have gone. You can reserve a spot in Springdale’s site in advance.
Leave your car here for a few days, you won’t need it. Free shuttles run from Springdale into Zion, they will take you anywhere you need and drop you at all the main trail heads. My first recommendation would be Angel’s Landing. This is quite simply one of the most unique hikes in the national park’s system. A fun start takes you gently up for an hour, gifting you views of the canyon from a perfect height. In the morning the sun hits it beautifully and you can’t take a bad photo. From here (after a few switch backs) you work along a narrow ridge using some chains to hold on (at it’s narrowest the ridge is just 18 inches across, dropping 1000ft either side!) climbing to the vista up top. This is not a hike for anyone with a fear of heights, and it gets very busy in summer so start early morning to avoid crowds and the heat.
One of the most famous areas of Zion are The Narrows. This is another unique experience to be had, hiking through Zion Canyon, wading in the river almost the whole way. You can go for as long as you wish, the river canyon runs fifteen miles, though most people only explore the the first mile or two. With possible flash floods during summer, that’s probably for the best! Hiking The Narrows is one of those bucket list items that simply have to be checked off for national parks enthusiasts. The walk is spectacular, weeping rocks line the canyon, towering peaks stalk overhead and amazing orange light soothes intrepid hikers thanks to the intense color of the Zion rocks.
There are plenty of other hikes in this park, (we’ll cover them in a special Zion article coming soon) and when you’re done for the day you can get a nice meal and a beer at a rustic pub or restaurant in Springfield, or crank up the camping grill. I’d spend at least three days of your road trip here, they’ll all be action packed.
Heading North from Zion on the 89 you soon reach the turn off for Bryce Canyon National Park, take it.
I came upon Bryce Canyon for the first time having never really paid attention to it. I pulled into the visitor parking to find pretty sizable crowds, something that I did perhaps expect but with Bryce being a relatively small National Park it becomes somewhat more noticeable. The trick to Bryce Canyon I found, is to arrive early or depart late. I strolled around the canyon for an hour or two prior to sunset, and as the sun went down and the skies turned peach I found myself strangely isolated. The trail became so quiet I had time to get my camera and tripod out unhindered, shooting way past sunset with almost no one pass me by.
The Canyon itself is stunning, spires produced from ancient rock layers reach to the skies as if wanting to be seen. Huge boulders balance precariously on smaller rocks, defying gravity as the sun catches all of this and further intensifies the views both at sunrise and sunset. At it’s highest, the park reaches over 9,100 feet, so the park offers slightly lower, more comfortable temperatures than the other parks in this region. Hikers can delight in this park as trails make their way to the Canyon floors, allowing hikers to find solitude and stare up at the towering rock formations. West of Escalante and east of Zion, this is an effortless and satisfying stop on any south Utah road trip.
Once you’ve explored Zion, you might be thinking what can top that? Well… get in your car and drive to Moab. I’m not going to lie to you, this is not a short drive. It’s a good five hours from Zion to Moab, with very little to see on the way (check out our ‘How to keep entertained on a road trip’ article). However, the drive will take you to Utah’s most amazing area. This oasis in the desert is a quaint little town, and it sits at the entrance to both Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National Park.
If you’ve been hiking in the wilderness or road tripping for a while, this place might give you an initial shock, it’s population is over 5,000, it’s Main St has an array of chain hotels and restaurants and the place is big enough for you to shop until midnight. However, this town is all about the outdoors, and you can sense it the second you arrive. Camping shops, bike shops, photography shops and stores dedicated to your 4WD needs are abundant. This is basecamp for your next week or so of outdoors fun.
Head to the visitors centre to get tons of great advice, up to the minute weather and wildlife reports, plus all the wonderful maps you can afford. Then, you need a place to stay. This town boasts two of the USA’s top parks, so it gets busy, and therefore pricey ($200 a night being a bargain), but fear not! Drive north and within five minutes you’ll see the Lazy Lizard hostel on your left. Here you can stay in lovely air conditioned cabins for around $35 a night. The staff are great, rooms clean and it’s a lot of fun to stay in. Settle down, pack your day bag and get some sleep, you’re about to have a blast.
Arches National Park
I like to start with this park and then finish with the one next door, but it really makes little difference. Summer gets so hot here that you really need to start any activity early. Head into the park before 7am and you’ll have no crowds, nice cool air and a sunrise to die for. The hike I would recommend most is in the Devil’s Garden area of the park, at it’s northern most point. Hike past plenty of crazy arches, including Landscape Arch and Double-O-Arch, and notice your mouth fall open from time to time as you wonder how the structures remain upright. The real beauty of this hike however, is the off-track-scrambling, though you always know which way to go, this trail is a lot of fun. Climbing and playing on rocks like a child, I couldn’t help thinking are we really allowed to do this?
You may want to see some of the other arches in the day, but my advice is go into Moab whilst the sun is at full-strength and relax until late afternoon, then head to Delicate Arch, the park’s crown jewel.
Watching the sun slowly drop whilst perched high, with the arch changing color in the ‘magic hour light’ is one of those experiences you’ll never forget. Pack some snacks, a thermos, head torch and despite the hot daytime temperatures, a warm top, at high altitude the evenings cool fast and the angle of the rocks create wind tunnels. The hike is a good hour if you’re reasonably quick but can be longer for anyone not used to it. Once up, the rock forms a natural arena, allowing the crowd to sit in a huge semi-circle and witness the spectacle.
Don’t panic when the sun drops below the horizon, you’ll get another half hour of good light, then pull out your headlamp and cruise down in the dark.
Canyonlands National Park
When you’ve finished exploring Arches, you can turn your attention to yet another natural wonder, Canyonlands. Technically there are two entrances to the park, but the northern entrance, just north of Moab is the better one, leading to the Islands in the Sky area, which eventually culminates at Grand Viewpoint.
There are a variety of hikes on offer in the park, with the focus here on what’s below rather than what’s towering above you. Almost everywhere you turn there’s a huge crack in the Earth or vast flatlands stretching out thousands of feet below your vantage point on a cliff’s edge. Head to Grand Viewpoint for an incredible evening hike around the rim of the canyon. Ignore the tourist filled lookout and hit the trail. You’ll have breathtaking views, huge rocks to clamber on and endless photo opportunities.
My favorite place in Utah lies here in this park, and to see it, you must get up very early and make the hour drive from Moab into the park. Set of at 4.30am and head to Mesa Arch. You’ll park up and walk in the dark for five minutes to the Arch itself (bring head torches), and if you arrive later than 5.30am you’ll have the pleasure of being greeted by the keenest of photographers. By 6am there will already be a small gathering. When the sun is just about to rise you’ll see the canyons below through a beautiful blue mist, before the blazing sunrise lights up the underside of Mesa Arch in one of natures most epic displays of fiery color.
Salt Lake City
This is one of the most overlooked city in the states, and I must admit to being one of the many travelers to initially dismiss it as just another concrete metropolis. It’s all too easy to make a mad dash to Arches, Zion or many of the other Utah outdoor treasures without paying much attention to it’s large, dichotomous hub.
Originally settled by Mormons, this city grew from it’s origins in 1847 to it’s present day population of over a million salt lakers. The city has changed demographically over the years, with less than half of it’s citizens being church goers. A new, younger, edgy scene has risen up, to give the city a dynamic and liberal feel. Craft beer has emerged as one of the city’s notable exports and amazing craft breweries dot the streets. Being ludicrously close to the Wasatch Mountains, the city has an outdoorsy vibe and you can easily venture up into the hills for hiking or skiing.
You can check out the Family History Library, where inquisitive visitors are able to trace their family histories. Just bring some information with you to start you off, names, dates, certificates etc.
Salt Lake’s Natural History Museum is dominated by dinosaurs, which makes perfect sense since Utah is a treasure trove of fossil finds. The indoor Canyon is impressive, and lets you explore geological history, plus find out about indigenous populations and their cultural history.
Crumb Brothers Artisan Bakery will fill you will delicious pastries and coffee, before you head up into the phenomenal Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains.
The Great Salt Lake
A trip to Utah wouldn’t be right without seeing the briny phenomenon that is the Great Salt Lake. Often referred to as Utah’s Dead Sea, this huge body of water is actually far from it; brine shrimp, millions of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl make their way here annually or make it a full time residence. Though the lake is 75 miles long, it’s average depth is only 13ft, and being five times the salinity of sea water, you will easily float in it’s salty fluids.
Take a drive around it’s shores, there are plenty of sites for stopping and enjoying vistas, it is beautiful, particularly at sunset. Take plenty of fluids, especially if you swim in it, as the salt water will dry you out so much your skin will tingle. For me though, the coolest place is The Bonneville Salt Flats, which are a remnant of Lake Bonneville that has been completely dried up, and is located west of The Great Salt Lake. Here you will get epic views of the hills that reflect in a seemingly perfect salty mirror.
From here it’s up to you! There are so many more places to see in this state, so many mountains and parks that anyone who likes being outdoors will need to come back over and over again. Sip the ever increasing varieties of craft microbrews, ride, drive, ski and hike your way through the natural wonders, and share your adventures with us!