With the biggest and most beautiful landscapes in North America, UTAH has something for everyone: from brilliantly coloured canyons, across desert plains, to thickly wooded and snow-covered mountains. Almost all of this unmatched range of terrain is public land, making Utah the place to come for outdoor pursuits, whether your tastes run to hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting or skiing.
In southern Utah, especially, the scenery is stupendous, a stunning geological freak show where the earth is ripped bare to expose cliffs and canyons of every imaginable hue. The region holds so many national parks, it has often been suggested that the entire area should become one vast park. The most accessible parks – such as Zion and Bryce Canyon – are by far the most visited, but lesser-known parks like Arches and Canyonlands are every bit as dramatic. Huge tracts of this empty desert, in which fascinating pre-Columbian pictographs and Ancestral Puebloan ruins lie hidden, are all but unexplored; seeing them requires self-sufficiency and considerable planning.
Although northern Utah holds less appeal for tourists, Salt Lake City, the capital, is by far the state’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban centre, and makes an attractive and enjoyable stopover.
Led by Brigham Young, Utah’s earliest white settlers – the Mormons or Latter Day Saints (LDS) – arrived in the Salt Lake area, which then lay outside the USA, in 1847 and embarked on massive irrigation projects. At first they provoked great suspicion and hostility back East. The Republican Convention of 1856 railed against slavery and polygamy in equal measure; had the Civil War not intervened, a war against the Mormons was a real possibility. Relations eased when the Mormon Church dropped polygamy in 1890 and statehood followed in 1896; to this day, well over sixty percent of Utah’s two-million-strong population are Mormons. The Mormon influence is responsible for the layout of Utah’s towns, where residential streets are as wide as interstates and all are numbered block by block according to the same logical if ponderous system.Read More
Zion National Park
Zion National Park
With its soaring cliffs, riverine forests and cascading waterfalls, ZION NATIONAL PARK is the most conventionally beautiful of Utah’s parks. It’s divided into two main sections: Zion Canyon is on Hwy-9, thirty miles east of I-15 and 158 miles northeast of Las Vegas, while Kolob Canyons is just off I-15, further northeast.
The centrepiece of the park, the lush oasis of Zion Canyon, feels far removed from the otherworldly desolation of Canyonlands or the weirdness of Bryce. Like California’s Yosemite Canyon, it’s a spectacular narrow gorge, echoing with the sound of running water; also like Yosemite, it can get claustrophobic in summer, clogged with traffic and crammed with sweltering tourists.
Too many visitors see Zion Canyon as a quick half-day detour off the interstate as they race between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Magnificent though the canyon’s Scenic Drive may be, Zion deserves much more of your time than that. Even the shortest hiking trail can escape the crowds, while a day-hike will take you away from the deceptive verdure of the valley and up onto the high-desert tablelands beyond.
Summer is by far the busiest season. That’s despite temperatures in excess of 100°F and violent thunderstorms concentrated especially in August. Ideally, come in spring to see the flowers bloom, or in autumn to enjoy the colours along the river.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
The surface of the earth can hold few weirder-looking spots than BRYCE CANYON, just south of US-89 86 miles northeast of Zion Canyon. Named for Mormon settler Ebenezer Bryce, who declared that it was “a helluva place to lose a cow”, it is not in fact a canyon at all. Along a twenty-mile shelf on the eastern edge of the thickly forested Paunsaugunt Plateau, 8000ft above sea level, successive strata of dazzlingly coloured rock have slipped and slid and washed away to leave a menagerie of multihued and contorted stone pinnacles.
In hues of yellow, red and flaming orange, the formations here have been eroded out of the muddy sandstone by a combination of icy winters and summer rains. The top-heavy pinnacles known as “hoodoos” form when the harder upper layers of rock stay firm as the lower levels wear away beneath them. Thor’s Hammer, visible from Sunset Point, is the most alarmingly precarious. These hoodoos look down into technicolour ravines, all far more vivid than the Grand Canyon and much more human in scale. The whole place is at its most inspiring in winter, when the figures stand out from a blanket of snow.
The two most popular viewpoints into Bryce Amphitheatre, at the heart of the park, are on either side of Bryce Canyon Lodge: the more northerly, Sunrise Point, is slightly less crowded than Sunset Point, where most of the bus tours stop. Hiking trails drop abruptly from the rim down into the amphitheatre. One good three-mile trek, a great extension of the shorter Navajo Loop Trail, starts by switchbacking steeply from Sunset Point through the cool 200ft canyons of Wall Street, where a pair of 800-year-old fir trees stretch to reach daylight. It then cuts across the surreal landscape into the Queen’s Garden basin, where the stout likeness of Queen Victoria sits in majestic condescension, before climbing back up to Sunrise Point. A dozen trails crisscross the amphitheatre, but it’s surprisingly easy to get lost, so don’t stray from the marked routes.
Sunrise and Sunset points notwithstanding, the best view at both sunset and dawn (the best time for taking pictures) is from Bryce Point, at the southern end of the amphitheatre. From here, you can look down not only at the Bryce Canyon formations but also take in the grand sweep of the whole region, east to the Henry Mountains and north to the Escalante range. The park road then climbs another twenty miles south, by way of the intensely coloured Natural Bridge, an 85ft rock arch spanning a steep gully, en route to its dead end at Rainbow Point.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
East of Bryce Canyon, Hwy-12 curves along the edge of the Table Cliff Plateau before dropping into the remote canyons of the Escalante River, the last river system discovered within the continental US and site of some wonderful backpacking routes. The Escalante region is the focus of the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the main visitor centre for which is at the west end of ESCALANTE, 38 miles east of Tropic.
The most accessible highlight is Calf Creek, sixteen miles east of Escalante, where a trail leads just under three miles upstream from a nice undeveloped campground to a gorgeous shaded dell replete with a 125ft waterfall. More ambitious trips start from trailheads along the dusty but usually passable Hole-in-the-Rock Road, which turns south from Hwy-12 five miles east of Escalante. A trio of slender, storm-gouged slot canyons, including the delicate, graceful Peek-a-Boo Canyon and the downright intimidating Spooky Canyon, can be reached by a mile-long hike from the end of Dry Fork Road, 26 miles along. From Hurricane Wash, 34 miles along, you can hike five miles to reach Coyote Gulch and then a further five miles, passing sandstone bridges and arches, to the Escalante River. Under normal conditions, two-wheel-drive vehicles should go no further than Dance Hall Rock, 36 miles down the road, a superb natural amphitheatre sculpted out of the slickrock hills.
Thirty miles beyond Escalante, at BOULDER, the Burr Trail, almost all of which is paved, heads east through the southern reaches of Capitol Reef National Park and down to Lake Powell.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Utah’s largest and most magnificent national park, CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK is as hard to define as it is to map. Its closest equivalent, the Grand Canyon, is by comparison simply an almighty crack in a relatively flat plain; Canyonlands is a bewildering tangle of canyons, plateaus, fissures and faults, scattered with buttes and monoliths, pierced by arches and caverns and penetrated only by a paltry handful of dead-end roads.
Canyonlands focuses on the Y-shaped confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, buried deep in the desert forty miles southwest of Moab. The only spot from which you can see the rivers meet, however, is a five-mile hike from the nearest road. With no road down to the rivers, let alone across them, the park therefore splits into three major sections. The Needles, east of the Colorado, is a red-rock wonderland of sandstone pinnacles and hidden meadows that’s a favourite with hardy hikers and 4WD enthusiasts, while the Maze, west of both the Colorado and the Green, is a virtually inaccessible labyrinth of tortuous, waterless canyons. In the wedge of the “Y” between the two, the high, dry mesa of the Island In The Sky commands astonishing views, with several overlooks that can easily be toured by car. Getting from any one of these sections to the others involves driving at least a hundred miles.
Canyonlands does not lend itself to a short visit. With no lodging and little camping inside the park, it takes a full day to have even a cursory look at a single segment. Considering that summer temperatures regularly exceed 100°F and most trails have no water and little shade, the Island In The Sky is the most immediately rewarding option. On the other hand, for a long day-hike you’d do better to set off into the Needles.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park
The writer Edward Abbey, who spent a year as a ranger at ARCHES NATIONAL PARK in the 1950s, wrote that its arid landscape was as “naked, monolithic, austere and unadorned as the sculpture of the moon”. Apart from the single ribbon of black asphalt that snakes through the park, there’s nothing even vaguely human about it. Massive fins of red and golden sandstone stand to attention out of the bare desert plain and more than eighteen hundred natural arches of various shapes and sizes have been cut into the rock by eons of erosion. The narrow, hunching ridges are more like dinosaurs’ backbones than solid rock, and under a full moon you can’t help but imagine that the landscape has a life of its own.
While you could race through in a couple of hours, it takes at least a day to do Arches justice. A twenty-mile road cuts uphill sharply from US-191 and the visitor centre. The first possible stop is the south trailhead for Park Avenue, an easy trail leading one mile down a scoured, rock-bottomed wash. If you stay on the road, the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint provides a grandstand look at the distant 12,000ft peaks, as well as the huge red chunk of Courthouse Towers closer at hand.
From Balanced Rock beyond – a 50ft boulder atop a slender 75ft pedestal – a right turn winds two miles through the Windows section, where a half-mile trail loops through a dense concentration of massive arches, some more than 100ft high and 150ft across. A second trail, fifty yards beyond, leads to Double Arch, a staunch pair of arches that together support another.
Further on, the main road drops downhill for two miles past Panorama Point and the turnoff to Wolfe Ranch, where a century-old log cabin serves as the trailhead for the wonderful three-mile round-trip hike up to Delicate Arch. Crowds congregate each evening beside the arch, a freestanding crescent of rock perched at the brink of a deep canyon, for the superb sunset views; coming back down in the dark can be a little hair-raising, though. Three miles beyond the Wolfe Ranch turnoff, the deep, sharp-sided mini-canyons of the Fiery Furnace section form a labyrinth through which rangers lead regular hikes in spring, summer and autumn ($10; reserve at the visitor centre or via w recreation.gov).
From the Devil’s Garden trailhead at the end of the road, an easy one-mile walk leads to a view of the astonishing 306ft span of Landscape Arch, now too perilously slender to approach more closely. Several other arches lie along short spur trails off the route, though one, Wall Arch, finally collapsed in 2008. Seeing them all and returning from Double O Arch via the longer primitive trail requires a total hike of just over seven miles.
Founded in the late 1800s, MOAB was hardly a speck until the 1950s, when prospector Charlie Steen discovered uranium nearby. When the mining boom finally waned, the town threw in its lot with tourism to become the Southwest’s number one adventure-vacation destination.
Moab still isn’t a large town, though – the population has yet to reach ten thousand – and neither is it attractive. The setting is what matters. With two national parks on its doorstep, plus millions more acres of public land, Moab is an ideal base for outdoors enthusiasts. At first, it was a haven for mountain bikers lured by the legendary Slickrock Bike Trail. Then the jeep drivers began to turn up and the whitewater-rafting companies moved in, too. These days it’s almost literally bursting, all year, with legions of Lycra-clad vacationers from all over the world.
Perhaps the main reason Moab has grown so fast is that out-of-state visitors tend to find Utah’s other rural communities so boring. As soon as Moab emerged from the pack, it became a beacon in the desert, attracting tourists ecstatic to find a town that stayed up after dark – even if it does amount to little more than a few miles of motels, restaurants and bars.