With its towering red rocks, hoodoos and salt flats, Utah will leave you speechless. Home of the Mighty Five national parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capital Reed and Zion), the Beehive State attracts tourists from around the globe. That means you probably won’t have the parks to yourself, but there are certainly other sections of the state that feel much as they did 300 (or 3,000) years ago.
Here are the most beautiful places in Utah.
Scenic State Route 12
The state offers 27 designated scenic byways. The Utah tourism board does an incredible job of laying out possible itineraries, along with helpful insider info. For an epic road trip, head down State Route 12. This stretch of road covers 124-miles, winding between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national park, with a few charming towns along the way.
Kick off your adventure Panguitch, UT, just outside Bryce Canyon. The route will take you past the iconic red rock pillars (called hoodoos). Of course, hiking is the best way to experience the park, and there are easy and short day hikes available for those passing through. That said, spending a night at Bryce Canyon is worth it due to its incredible sunrises, sunsets and unparalleled stargazing on a moonless night.
Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument
Continuing northeast on Route 12, you’ll have the opportunity to diverge from the main road to explore Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gorge and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Bring your camera and strike a power pose before exploring these beautiful but dark and often claustrophobic paths through ribboned sandstone canyons.
Calf Creek Falls / The Hogback / Boulder
Once you’re back on the main highway, be sure to snap a photo at Calf Creek Falls and The Hogback on your way to Boulder. This funky small town (population: 200) earned a reputation for excellent fishing, art and even farm-to-table dining at Hell’s Backbone Grill. Boulder’s Anasazi State Park Museum explores the artifacts and lifeways of the ancestral people who once lived here.
Capitol Reef National Park
The scenic byway essentially ends at Capitol Reef National Park. Less popular than Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches, visitors get all the visual colored sandstone bang without the crowds.
The Great Salt Lake
Photo via Good Free Photos
Did you know you can swim in Salt Lake? Or, more accurately, float. This landlocked body of water is far saltier than the ocean, making floating nearly effortless. Antelope Island State Park houses the best beach on the lake, complete with showers should you want to rinse off after. Locals will tell you the lake often puts off a bit of a stink due to brine shrimp and algae; it’s more of an issue on the causeway to Antelope Island and not at the beach itself.
Bonneville Salt Flats
The Bonneville Salt Flats are found west of the Great Salt Lake. There’s a great view of the flats from I-80, between Salt Lake City and Wendover (there’s even a rest stop that allows for perfect photo snapping). Some days, the flats look like a frozen lake bed, and on hot days, a reflective lake. Bonneville Speedway hosts Speed Week every August, where drivers compete to set land speed records.
Moab / Arches National Park / Canyonlands
Outdoor enthusiasts flock to this town for easy access to the country’s best mountain biking trails, and both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. For a different view of the area’s iconic red rock formations, get out on the Colorado River. Paddle Moab offers leisurely stand up paddle board excursions on tranquil parts of the river. If you crave that adrenaline rush, they also lead paddle boarding on class II and III rapids. Sounds crazy, but fun.
As for accommodations, you’ll find charming B&Bs, guesthouses, and many AirBnB offerings, but it’s paradise for those who love camping. Just know that this destination is no secret and campsites fill up fast. If you can’t get a reservation, be sure to stake out your spot before noon or you may be sleeping in your car.
A note on Arches: It’s one of the most congested national parks, due largely to the fact that there’s only one main road. It’s best to arrive first thing in the morning, and try to avoid weekends or holidays where the wait to simply enter may overshadow the vistas.
If you binge watched HBO’s Westworld, you’re probably jonesing for a dose of the wild west. There’s no better place to experience that than Monument Valley. Situated on the border of Utah and Arizona, this iconic spot actually isn’t a national park or monument. It really is smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, literally hundreds of miles from any sizeable town, which makes a journey here feel like stepping back in time. Fill up on gas, grab some snacks and drinks before you head out there. You can never be too prepared.
Zion National Park
The good news? Zion National Park is breathtakingly gorgeous. The bad news? Everyone knows it, and there’s only one main road. It’s purported to be one of the most congested parks in the country. Much like Arches, it’s best to arrive first thing in the morning, and try to avoid weekends or holidays where your wait to simply enter may be a Debbie Downer. If that gives you pause, re-read this list and remember how many other beautiful places exist in this wild state.
What are your favorite spots in Utah? Share in the comments!
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