Utah is a state unlike any other. A few steps onto the mirror-like grounds of the Bonneville Salt Flats or through the prismatic, 15-mile-long canyon tunnels of Buckskin Gulch will have you questioning whether this is the likes of our own planet or the landscape of a distant galaxy. Scenic drives pass through aspen forests and petrified sand dunes, revealing millennia upon millennia of history; all the while, astonishing rock formations in Monument Valley and San Rafael Swell abound.
Utah has not one, but five national parks. Dubbed the ‘Mighty Five’ – Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park – for the collection of magnificent landscapes, these national treasures boast a variety of peculiar scenery. Towering sandstone formations in Arches, white domes and monoliths in Capitol Reef, pinnacles and winding canyons in Canyonlands, steep red cliffs in Zion, and a sprawling landscape of spire-shaped hoodoos in Bryce Canyon make this state a destination for the books.
Moab’s Slickrock Trail, often called the best mountain bike ride in America, draws thrill-seekers from all over the globe to get their share of its world-famous biking trails. Along the 13-mile loop, riders pass over petrified sand dunes and eroded ancient sea beds. But this isn’t the only place in Utah for prime biking. Gooseberry Mesa in Hurricane has 14 miles of slickrock (smooth sandstone) and singletracks (bike-only trails) with stunning views of Zion National Park, and Antelope Island boasts 21 miles of biking trails. Salt Lake City has over 150 miles of bike lanes, trails, and off-road tracks, with a 13.5-mile loop that passes through downtown.
Hiking trails in the national parks are aplenty. But you can also find an extensive set of trails in the state’s many cities – Park City, Ogden, and Salt Lake City; indeed, these are some of the world’s most comprehensive trail systems. Buckskin Gulch, Slickrock, Mount Timpanogos, Escalante, Yellow Fork Canyon, and Dixie National Forest – amongst the other state parks and wilderness areas – are a haven for mountaineering, so hikers, rejoice. You’ve met your match.
This state calls to outdoor adventurists. Explore 27,000 acres of remote, wildlife-filled landscapes on Antelope Island, or float effortlessly upon the waters of the Great Salt Lake. River rafting, mule riding, kayaking, and camping are available in the national parks, amongst other activities. Lake Powell is a watersports oasis – paddle boarding, kayaking, boating, waterskiing, tubing, and wakeboarding – while scuba divers can head to the only warm scuba destination in the US at the Homestead Crater. Adrenaline junkies should catch a glimpse of the speed races on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
There’s much to be said about a state that gets an average of 18 ‘monster dumps’ (12-plus inches of snow in a 24-hour period) every winter. It also has the tallest peaks in the country, with some of the best snow in the world. Known as ‘champagne powder,’ Utah’s dry snow is what even the most experienced of skiers dream of. And with the largest ski resort in the nation (Park City has 7,300 skiable acres), it’s safe to say Utah is where fantasy meets reality.
Dinosaur fossils are not mysterious to local Utahns. In Salt Lake, the state’s capital, find the world’s largest dinosaur exhibit at 4,330 feet above sea level. In Kanab, visitors can explore the Moccasin Mountain Dinosaur Tracksite, a Navajo formation that has preserved six different 185-million-year-old tracks. In the San Rafael Swell, more than 12,000 bones belonging to at least 74 dinosaurs have been excavated from the ancient grave site, the densest concentration of Jurassic-aged dinosaur bones ever found. Mind. Blown.
Heading to Park City’s Sundance Film Festival is a no brainer. Hosted every winter, Sundance is not only America’s largest indie film fest but also one of the most influential, with many films eventually making their appearance on the big screen or winning several awards. Catch one of the 200 screenings, check out a Q&A with a director or take advantage of the many parties across town. Plus, this charming mountain town will keep you busy with its chic restaurants and boutique stores plus its über cool coffee shops, bars, and the world’s first (and only) ski-in distillery.
If Utah isn’t picturesque enough, how about a blanket of stars to accompany the view? Said to have some of the darkest skies in the nation, this destination makes sleeping under the stars that much more worth it. There are several places to camp – Arches, Canyonlands, Monument Valley, Moab – but pitching a tent almost anywhere will grant you panoramic views of the Milky Way and the surrounding constellations.
For thousands of years, the Najavo and Ute people occupied the region that we know today as Utah. The state is packed with raw Native history, from remarkable petroglyphs and wondrous rock art to ancient ruins and artifacts. Within the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park, visitors can discover Late Archaic artwork dating back as far as 9000 BC.