Out in the USA’s wild west, the state of Utah has some of the country’s most incredible views – unreal sunsets, magical rock formations, majestic mountains and more. Whether you’re gazing up awestruck at red-rock cliffs from a raft bouncing along the Colorado River or hiking down into the grand amphitheater of a desert canyon, you’ll find ample natural beauty here to soothe your harried soul. String a few of these experiences together into a classic American road trip, or pick just one of these outstandingly scenic places to spend what might be the vacation of a lifetime.
Moonrise over Arches National Park
A short drive from the adventure basecamp town of Moab, discover the world’s biggest assemblage of natural sandstone arches at the grand Arches National Park. Weathered by eons of time and rain into fantastical shapes, they rise up out of the desert like alien architecture. Come during the daytime to take a hike into the desert and stand underneath these formidable giants. But be sure to return after dark to photograph the moonrise, framed perfectly by ethereal Delicate Arch. Visit during the more temperate spring and fall – summer temperatures exceed 100°F.
Monument Valley on horseback
Spanning the Utah–Arizona border, Monument Valley is one of the most photographed places in the USA. Located on Navajo tribal land, soaring sandstone buttes tower up to 1000ft above the valley floor. The landscape is instantly recognizable from countless classic Hollywood Western movies. You’ll best appreciate the gargantuan scale of this place on a guided horseback ride. To savor the sight at your leisure, The View Hotel perches on the very edge of the valley, and every room comes with its own east-facing balcony to catch a glorious sunrise.
Sunset over the Great Salt Lake
Covering almost 1000 square miles, the Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the hemisphere. Shimmering on the horizon, it looked like a mirage to early pioneers. Dotted across the lake are several islands, and one of them – Antelope Island – is open to the public as a state park. Go swimming in the mineral-rich waters or follow hiking and mountain-biking trails with panoramic lake views that are most unforgettable at sunset. The island is also a perfect place to spot wildlife, especially migratory birds, desert bighorn sheep and even American bison.
Rafting on the Colorado River
The mighty Colorado River, which carves the Grand Canyon as it flows from the Continental Divide toward the Pacific, also winds through Utah. Get a keen sense of its epic scale and timeless beauty by getting your feet wet on a rafting expedition. With outfitters in Moab, join a family-friendly float through the Fisher Towers or commit to a hair-raising paddle through the whitewater rapids of Cataract Canyon.
Canyonland’s Island in the Sky
Words can’t do justice to Canyonlands National Park’s desert wilderness of twisting canyons, eroded buttes and sheer cliffs painted in pastel hues. For a bird’s-eye perspective, follow the scenic drive through the Island in the Sky district, a series stunning overlooks. Get out of the car to hike into the cinematic landscape, or gear up for a 4WD adventure along rugged backcountry White Rim Rd.
Angels Landing or the Narrows in Zion National Park
Its name bestowed by Mormon settlers who found it utterly heavenly, Zion National Park is an oasis in the desert. Here a meandering river snakes between dizzyingly high canyon walls, and secret springs and emerald pools hide in shady grottos. For postcard-worthy photos, there are really only two directions to go: up or down. Choose up, and you’ll be tackling the vertiginous hiking trail to the top of Angels Landing (5785ft). Pick down, and you’ll strap on a helmet to rappel in twisted slot canyons before splashing down into the dramatic Narrows of the bubbling Virgin River.
Bonneville Salt Flats
Dazzlingly white and so flat that they feel as if they could go on forever, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a ghostly apparition at the Utah-Nevada border. At the speedway, world land speed records have been set and broken. Race events are still held there every year, all free to show up and watch. You’ll be amazed simply by the sight of this lunar landscape as you whiz by on Interstate 80. Even better, turn off onto the marked access road for a meditative walk into the otherworldly vastness.
Hiking among Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos
At the top of the geological ‘Grand Staircase,’ which extends south all the way to the Grand Canyon, sits Bryce Canyon. Surrounded by aromatic pine and juniper forests, it’s best known for its iconic hoodoos, weathered spires of rock that reach up to 10 stories high. Viewpoints along the national park’s main road are stirring, but take time to wander on foot down into the canyon for some gasp-worthy spectacles. One popular hiking route, the Navajo Trail, starts from aptly named Sunset Point.
Moki Dugway and the Valley of the Gods
In an often forgotten southeastern corner of the state, outside the odd-sounding town of Mexican Hat, Hwy 261 heads out seemingly into the middle of nowhere, following the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway. Abruptly, the road turns to sand and gravel as it precariously switchbacks 1200ft up the face of Cedar Mesa at an unnerving 11% grade. From the top, Muley Point affords limitless looks over the San Juan River and desert tablelands. Back at the bottom, detour into the Valley of the Gods, a backcountry wilderness full of buttes and pinnacles along another unpaved road – but this time, a mostly flat one. Tip: only attempt these drives in dry weather.
Mountain skiing in Park City
You might think that Utah is all desert, but the Beehive State is also blessed with rivers, lakes and mountain ranges. During winter, when many high-elevation roads are closed by snow, you can still reach mountaintop vistas by taking the chairlifts at famous ski resorts, like those in Park City, which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. Pause to take a selfie with the craggy Wasatch Mountains as a dramatic backdrop before swooshing down that double black-diamond run.