Sandwiched between the snow-capped Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the dusty high desert of Nevada and the red-rock canyons of Arizona, Utah is the ultimate outdoorsy destination – whether you’re traveling solo or with company. Skiers and snowboarders can carve to their hearts’ content in five-star ski resorts such as Park City, while hikers, climbers and landscape photographers can gorge on beautiful trails, canyons and rock formations across five national parks.
Utah attracts intrepid young travelers embracing a nomadic, back-to-nature lifestyle, thanks to charming frontier towns lined with indie shops, restaurants and hip microbreweries. Places such as Moab, Kanab and Panguitch are friendly, buzzy hubs with bags of good-value accommodation, from motels to glampsites – magnets for like-minded solo travelers.
Be cautious when travelling alone in parks and other remote areas. Let someone you trust know where you’re going, inform any accommodation you’ve booked of your planned arrival time, and make sure you have all the crucial kit.
For a powder fix, start in Salt Lake City – the heart of Utah’s snow zone – in the northeast corner of the state. Within an hour’s drive are nine world-class ski resorts including Park City, Deer Valley and Alta. But snow isn’t the only draw in northern Utah – there’s the Great Salt Lake itself, like a shimmering mirror in the middle of the desert, and the blinding-white Bonneville Salt Flats, home of land-speed record makers. Allow at least three days for these once-in-a-lifetime wonders after you’re sated with skiing.
The other classic itinerary is an epic road trip looping in all five national parks, including Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches. Allow at least 10 days.
Accommodation is plentiful and diverse. Retro motels include Parry Lodge in Kanab and there are glitzy hotels such as Cliffrose Springdale in Zion National Park. For the quintessential desert experience, it has to be Under Canvas Moab. This luxury glamping retreat puts you directly in touch with the stunning landscape – all red-rock mesas, aromatic sagebrush and distant peaks – while keeping you cozy with comfortable king beds and wood-burning stoves. There are even ensuite bathrooms in your safari-style canvas tent.
In this playground for lovers of the great outdoors, the options for adrenaline-fuelled fun are practically limitless. But the rocky landscape isn’t just for climbers, hikers and bikers; it’s also home to significant Native American archaeological sites, and paleontological dig sites (where numerous dinosaur species have been discovered). Read on for our pick of the perfect activities.
You can’t come to Utah without hiking the five incredible national parks – the hard part, if you only have time for one, is taking your pick. For our money, the best all-rounder is Arches. With its relatively small scale, and proximity to the town of Moab, it’s a perfect day trip. Also, the gentle, well-marked trails weaving between wind-sculpted rock formations are an ideal intro for first-timers. It’s busy in spring and fall – best to visit in winter, when the ember-colored rocks glow brilliantly against a backdrop of snow-blanketed peaks.
An afternoon hiking in Arches National Park is included as part of our Off-Road Adventures in Utah and Colorado trip.
From Native American petroglyphs to dinosaur dig sites and ghost towns of the Old West, Utah is basically a state-sized natural history museum. You certainly won’t find a closer real-life equivalent to Jurassic Park than Dinosaur National Monument, where more than 800 paleontological sites from the Jurassic period are spread over 210,000 acres (85,000ha) of mesas, mountains and canyons. Expect to see the toothy skulls of prehistoric predators grinning back at you from the cliff face as you hike. There are ancient Fremont petroglyphs and pictographs here, although you’ll find far more at Nine Mile Canyon, with more than 1,000 individual sites. If it’s cowboy culture you’re keen on, visit the hauntingly beautiful ghost town of Old Paria, which is surrounded by candy-striped cliffs.
Utah is the US state with the highest concentration of International Dark-Sky Association-certified locations, so when night falls here, you only need to look up for an evening’s entertainment. All the national parks are also Dark Sky parks, so hang back once the other visitors leave for magical Milky Way views all to yourself.
Like much of rural USA, Utah has a food scene largely dominated by big-name roadside chains, greasy spoon-style diners and steakhouses. You’ll find more creative, diverse options in the larger towns and cities, particularly Kanab, Park City and Moab. But if you’re looking to make food a bigger part of your trip, head to Salt Lake City and start with our guide to the best restaurants in Salt Lake City.
The main thing to note about eating and drinking in Utah is that it’s a semi-dry state, which means the only alcohol you can get is beer, at a strength of no more than 5% ABV. Suds-lovers should be happy enough, as there are dozens of excellent microbreweries – find the best in our top craft breweries in Utah guide.
Utah is wide-open and sparsely populated, with large distances between places of interest. Beyond the Salt Lake City area, there’s no real public transport so you’ll need your own wheels. Roads are generally well-maintained, but when entering national parks, prepare for uneven surfaces and less attentive gritting in the winter.
Prone to goofs and gaffes? You’ll be pleased to know there aren’t many opportunities to get it wrong. Do be aware – especially if journeying into the state from the south, by Monument Valley – that you’ll likely pass through Native American tribal reservation lands. There are no tolls or entry restrictions, but respect the cultural significance of the land – and any boundaries (such as areas off-limits to outside visitors).
Prefer to explore Utah with like-minded travellers? Join our eight-day Off-Road Adventures in Utah and Colorado trip, which includes rafting down the Colorado River, off-roading in Arches National Park and two nights in Moab.