Welcome to nature's most perfect playground. From red-rock mesas to skinny slot canyons, powder-bound slopes and slick rock trails, Utah's diverse terrain will stun you. The biking, hiking and skiing are world-class. And with more than 65% of the state lands public, including 14 national parks and monuments, the access is simply superb.
Southern Utah is defined by red-rock cliffs, sorbet-colored spindles and seemingly endless sandstone desert. The pine-forested and snow-covered peaks of the Wasatch Mountains dominate northern Utah. Interspersed are old pioneer remnants, ancient rock art and ruins, and traces of dinosaurs.
Mormon-influenced rural towns can be quiet and conservative, but the rugged beauty has attracted outdoorsy progressives as well. Salt Lake City (SLC) and Park City, especially, have vibrant nightlife and progressive dining scenes. So pull on your boots and stock up on water: Utah's wild and scenic hinterlands await.
This luxury train lets you see the Rocky Mountains in a whole new way
11 min read — Published Aug 24, 2021
Rocky Mountaineer's latest luxury train route runs between Denver and Moab, Utah. Lonely Planet editor Alexander Howard was one of the first to ride it.
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A Salvador Dalí–esque melted-rock fantasy, a valley of giant stone mushrooms, an otherworldly alien landscape or the results of a cosmological acid trip? No matter what you think the stadium-like valley of stunted hoodoos resembles, one thing’s for sure – the 3654-acre Goblin Valley State Park is just plain fun. A few trails lead from the overlooks down to the valley floor. You can climb down, around and even over the evocative ‘goblins’ (2ft to 20ft–tall formations). Kids and photographers especially love it. Some of Utah's most famous canyoneering routes are found in the park. The San Rafael Swell and Robber's Roost are for experienced canyoneers and should otherwise only be attempted with a guide or group. Robber's Roost's Bluejohn Canyon has become one of the most famous canyoneering routes in the world. It gained infamy in 2003, when Aron Ralston spent 127 hours here pinned to a boulder before finally amputating his arm. His ordeal has been captured in books and the media, as well as in the 2010 James Franco movie 127 Hours. The biggest mistake he made: not telling anybody where he was going. The park's 19-site campground books up on most weekends. West of the park off Goblin Valley Rd is BLM land, with good, free dispersed camping, but no services (stay on designated roads). North of the park entrance, an unpaved dirt road heads west to the Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyon loop trail, a moderate 8-mile hike through a series of lovely, narrow slot canyons. Twenty miles south on Hwy 24 is Hanksville (population 219, elevation 4294ft); if you don't need gas, there's little reason to stop. It's better to stay in Green River, Torrey or at Lake Powell, depending on where you're headed. The BLM Field Office has maps and information for surrounding lands, particularly the Henry Mountains. Before continuing south, fill up your car and carry your own food and water. There are no more services until you get to Bullfrog Marina (70 miles) or Mexican Hat (130 miles).
If you stop nowhere else along the scenic drive, be sure to catch the stunning views from Bryce Point. You can walk the rim above Bryce Amphitheater for awesome views of the Silent City, an assemblage of hoodoos so dense, gigantic and hypnotic that you’ll surely begin to see shapes of figures frozen in the rock. Be sure to follow the path to the actual point, a fenced-in promontory that juts out over the forested canyon floor, 1000ft below. The extension allows a broad view of the hoodoos. This rivals any overlook in the park for splendor and eye-popping color. An interpretive panel tells the story of Ebenezer Bryce, the Mormon pioneer for whom the canyon was named, and his wife Mary. Bryce Point marks the beginning of the 5.5-mile Rim Trail. The Peekaboo Trail also begins here. There is a chemical toilet, and the viewpoint is easily accessible for travelers with limited mobility.
Rio Tinto Center's stunning architecture forms a multistory indoor 'canyon' that showcases exhibits to great effect. Walk up through the layers as you explore both indigenous peoples' cultures and natural history. Past Worlds paleontological displays are the most impressive – an incredible perspective from beneath, next to and above a vast collection of dinosaur fossils offers the full breadth of prehistory.
Visit the site of the 2002 Olympic ski jumping, bobsledding, skeleton, Nordic combined and luge events, which continues to host national competitions. There are 10m, 20m, 40m, 64m, 90m and 120m Nordic ski-jumping hills as well as a bobsled-luge run. The US Ski Team practices here year-round – in summer, the freestyle jumpers land in a bubble-filled jetted pool, and the Nordic jumpers on a hillside covered in plastic. Call for a schedule; it's free to observe. The engaging and interactive Alf Engen Ski Museum, also on-site, traces local skiing history and details the 2002 Olympic events. Experts offer 45-minute guided tours on the hour. Not content to just watch the action? No problem. Reserve ahead and adults can take a 60mph bobsled ride with up to an incredible 4 to 5Gs of centrifugal force. The summer Quicksilver Alpine Slide is suitable for drivers over eight years old and riders who are three to seven. Clip on a harness and ride the 50mph Extreme Zip Line. Saturdays and Sundays in summer there's a Freestyle Show that takes off at 1pm. Inquire about bobsled, skeleton, free-jump and freestyle lessons year-round.
Kanab's most famous attraction is outside town. Surrounded by more than 33,000 mostly private acres of red-rock desert 5.5 miles north of Kanab, Best Friends is the largest no-kill animal rescue center in the country. The center shows films and gives facility tours at least four times a day; call ahead for times and reservations. The 1½-hour tours let you meet some of the more than 1700 horses, pigs, dogs, cats, birds and other critters on-site. Volunteers come from around the country to work here. Spending the night in one of eight one-bedroom cottages with kitchenettes ($95 to $150) or in a one-room cabin ($60 to $105) and volunteering for at least a half-day allows visitors to borrow a dog, cat or pot-bellied pig for a sleepover. (Cottages should be booked well in advance.) It also has RV sites ($50) with hookups. The sanctuary is in Angel Canyon (Kanab Canyon to locals), where scores of movies and TV shows were filmed during Kanab's Hollywood heyday. The cliff ridge above the sanctuary is where the Lone Ranger reared and shouted 'Hi-yo Silver!' at the end of every episode.
A bold desert beauty, this 230-sq-mile park is a highlight of southern Utah. Hikes range from trails traipsing the ridge lines to river wading under steep canyon walls. Many come for a canyoneering experience but there are also family friendly hikes and scenic drives. If possible, enter Zion from the east, following Hwy 9 west from Hwy 89. The route is jaw-droppingly scenic as it rolls through colorful red rocks and a gallery-dotted tunnel before switchbacking 3.5 miles into the canyon.
Red and white swirls of sandstone flow like lava, and actual lava lies broken like sheets of smashed marble in this small, accessible park. Snow Canyon is a 7400-acre sampler of southwest Utah's famous land features, 11 miles northwest of St George. Easy trails, perfect for kids, lead to tiny slot canyons, cinder cones, lava tubes and fields of undulating slickrock. Summers are blazing hot: visit in early morning or come in spring or fall. The park was named after prominent Utah pioneers Lorenzo and Erastus Snow, not frozen precipitation, but for the record it does very occasionally snow here. Check the website for free park events like hikes and talks. Hiking trails loop off the main road. Jenny's Canyon Trail is an easy 1-mile round-trip to a short slot canyon, as is the 1.2-mile Petrified Dunes trail leading to remarkable Navajo sandstone formations. Wind through a cottonwood-filled field and past ancient lava flows to a 200ft arch on Johnson Canyon Trail (2-mile round-trip). A 1000ft stretch of vegetation-free sand dunes serves as a playground for the kiddies, old and young, near a picnic area. Cycling is popular on the main road through the park, a 17-mile loop from St George (where you can rent bikes). There's also great rock climbing in the park, particularly for beginners, with over 150 bolted and sport routes, plus top roping. Apart from during the unrelenting summer, the 31-site campground is great, and so scenic. You can reserve one of the prebookable sites (14 with electrical and water hookups) up to four months in advance. Showers and dump station available.
A family-friendly museum at Thanksgiving Point that houses one of the world's largest displays of mounted dinosaurs. The exhibits, many of which are hands-on, are arranged chronologically and teach about fossils found all over the world. Little ones can dig for their own bones, search for hidden gnomes within the exhibits and practice paleontology in a Saturday lab (for an additional cost).
Blanding's Dinosaur Museum is fascinating and highly ambitious; it's aim is to cover the complete history of the world’s dinosaurs. Mummified remains and fossil replicas go a long way toward this goal, but most interesting is the collection of dinosaur-movie-related memorabilia.
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