I’m just going to go ahead and say it. Utah is the most beautiful state in America. Few states possess the diversity in natural beauty that Utah does. From its otherworldly salt flats to seemingly Martian landscapes, Utah can often feel like another planet altogether. For road trippers, I can’t think of a more exciting destination than Utah.
You’ve probably heard of some of these places, but the fun thing about Utah is that there is always something new to discover. I’ve visited Utah numerous times now. No matter how many adventures I go on, it always feels like I’ll never see it all. Truth be told, I don’t think I ever will. From its vast national parks to glistening alpine lakes, Utah is blessed with natural beauty that other states could only dream of.
Here are some of the can’t-miss destinations of Utah.
Oh, and before you go, make sure to have good travel insurance handy whenever you’re out adventuring. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels.
Zion National Park
Let’s kick it off with one of Utah’s most famous destinations: Zion National Park. Sure, everyone’s heard of it, but to this day, I can’t think of anywhere I’ve visited in Utah that has topped it. The hiking and the natural beauty here is world class. In particular, hiking the Narrows is one of the most surreal things I’ve ever done. That goes for anywhere that I’ve been in the world. Hiking the Narrows is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. It should be at the top of anyone’s Utah bucket list.
Maybe on par with the Narrows in terms of fame is Zion National Park’s other iconic hike. Angel’s Landing is one of the first real hikes that I ever did. Angel’s Landing and Zion’s contributions to my undying love for the great outdoors cannot be overstated. The death-defying hike along this steep, fin-shaped formation is a thrilling challenge. Those who make it to the end are rewarded with once-in-a-lifetime views of Zion National Park and its gorgeous mountains, valleys, and rivers. Get here early before it gets too hot and crowded, then reward yourself with a dip in the river down below on your way back home.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is home to an attraction so iconic that Utahns decided to put it on their license plates. The three-mile roundtrip hike to Delicate Arch is the most popular hike at Arches, and what a hike it is. Make sure to go just before sunset to get peak golden hour. It’s surreal to see the waning sun basking the red desert landscapes in a golden glow.
Aside from Delicate Arch, you’ve got plenty of attractions and hikes at Arches. Devil’s Garden is one of my favorite hikes in Utah, boasting several arches and stunning geological formations. The deeper you go, the fewer people you’ll run into. Park Avenue, The Windows, and Fiery Furnace are some other can’t-miss attractions of Arches National Park. Just driving through Arches National Park alone is enough to make you feel like you’re on another planet.
Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument
The drive from Moab to Capitol Reef took me through parts of Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. This region is unfathomably massive, with so many hidden gems and epic hikes left to be discovered. I only had time to do a couple of hikes here, but they were quite unforgettable. Conquering the slot canyons of Spooky Gulch and Peekaboo Gulch was much more of an adventure than I’d bargained for. If you’ve seen 127 Hours, you’re already well aware of the dangers of slot canyons. Let’s just say I pushed my luck to its limits while I was here. If you want something more off the beaten path and adventurous, there are plenty of hikes in this often-overlooked area of Utah.
Bryce Canyon National Park
In terms of wow factor, few places in the world can top Bryce Canyon. I’ve seen many pictures of it, but laying eyes on the Bryce Amphitheater for the first time is something I’ll never forget. A storm had swept through, clearing the park out of visitors. I had just finished setting up my tent at my campsite, and was itching to get moving. I headed to the park while it was still raining, and miraculously, the skies cleared up just as I was pulling into the Inspiration Point parking lot. I had the entire place to myself for a few minutes, as the sun started peeking out and lighting the hoodoos in a fiery glow. Talk about good timing.
I can’t think of many places that can compete with Bryce Canyon. Most of the main sights can be seen in a day, which makes it a great stop in between the larger national parks like Arches and Zion.
Bonneville Salt Flats
It’s almost unfair just how many different otherworldly sights Utah has to offer. The Bonneville Salt Flats are located about two hours west of Salt Lake City on the Nevada border. You’ve probably seen it in every car commercial ever. It’s like a little taste of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni without having to leave the U.S. I arrived at Bonneville Salt Flats shortly after sunset, so I couldn’t really see the landscapes yet. I parked my car right on the salt flats and wow, what a way to wake up. It was a surreal place to catch a sunrise, and motivated me to keep my road trip going despite facing many unforeseen roadblocks along the way.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is arguably Utah’s most overlooked national park. That might be one of the best parts about it. Capitol Reef National Park is absolutely gorgeous, with so many areas to explore with hardly anyone else around. Even in the summer months of peak national park visitors, I was able to get a campsite at Capitol Reef last minute. Boasting arches, slot canyons, petroglyphs, and otherworldly geological formations, Capitol Reef has a little bit of everything. It has everything that the other national parks have, though admittedly usually not to the same degree or wow factor.
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
One of the places I wish I had been able to visit was Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Although I’m not much into fishing, it is considered to be one of the best spots for fishing aficionados. The scenery here looks like something straight out of Red Dead Redemption, but in real life. It’s a massive outdoor space, boasting over 200,000 acres of playground for hikers, boaters, and anyone with a passion for the outdoors.
Canyonlands National Park
One of the best surprises of my travels through Utah turned out to be Canyonlands National Park. I skipped it my first time in Moab, opting instead to go to Arches twice. I didn’t make that mistake the second time around. I visited during the Coronavirus pandemic, and after the crowds of Arches, the lesser-trafficked Canyonlands proved to be perfect. It’s weird to call a national park “off-the-beaten-path”, but all things considered, it really does feel like it. It’s just so vast and spread out. It’s possible to go hours without seeing anyone else.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Despite being just outside of Moab, Dead Horse Point State Park often gets overlooked. It doesn’t have the national park title that Arches or Canyonlands has, and the separate entry fee often deters visitors. However, those who do make it to Dead Horse Point are treated with some magnificent views. It’s perfect for hikers and cyclists, as well as campers looking to escape for a night or two. The views are otherworldly, giving you stunning vistas of the winding river carving through the canyons.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Like a mini, younger version of Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks National Monument is a beautiful and lesser-visited alternative. Your national parks pass will get you in just fine. The hoodoos of Cedar Breaks aren’t as defined or as eroded as Bryce Canyon, so they don’t have the same wow factor, but it is still gorgeous to see. Best of all, there will be hardly any other people there. It’s only 30 minutes from Cedar City, making it a pretty central destination for those on a national parks road trip.
Goblin Valley State Park
Down here, we call hoodoos “goblins”. Hundreds of these goblins can be found at Goblin Valley State Park in the San Rafael Desert. Next to Bryce Canyon National Park, Goblin Valley is where you’ll find the highest concentration of hoodoos in the United States. It’s a very unusual landscape, but you’ve likely gotten used to running into those here in Utah.
This might be one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. Lake Powell is a man-made reservoir on the Colorado River, and visited by millions of people per year. It’s not hard to see why. Lake Powell takes all the best of Utah’s stunning desert landscapes and lets you see it all from the refreshing waters of a lake. It’s perfect for those sweltering summer days.
This is one of the most iconic views in the entire United States. You’ve likely seen it in Forrest Gump. It’s in the very south of Utah, close to the Arizona border. However, it’s an essential part of any road trip. Did you really take a Utah road trip if you didn’t go to Monument Valley? I don’t think so.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
Southwestern Utah never ceases to impress. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is ideally located in the same region as a multitude of Utah’s must-see destinations, like Zion National Park. It is one of Utah’s most famous state parks, boasting, as the name suggests, beautiful sand dunes shaded with hues of coral pink. It’s a surreal place for sunrises and sunsets, and well worth the journey if you find yourself in the area.
I usually wing it when I’m on the road, but every now and then, I regret that. Kanarra Falls was one of those moments. I desperately wanted to go see them, but to preserve its beauty, hiking to Kanarra Falls requires a reservation. Right now, the trail is limited to 150 hikers a day. In the summer months, those reservations go unbelievably quick. You’ll have to plan ahead if you want to see these stunning waterfalls, perhaps some of the most beautiful in the state. Here’s a guide to hiking to Kanarra Falls.
Home to the famous Sundance Film Festival, the Sundance area is absolutely stunning. I honestly had no idea it was in Utah, so when I saw a sign for Sundance, I took the turn, joking that we were going to the film festival. To my surprise, the festival actually does take place in this remote little resort in the mountains. Goes to show how cultured I am. This area is home to plenty of beautiful hikes, from waterfalls to stunning mountain views, it’s got a lot to see.
Big Cottonwood Canyon
This is one of the first drives I ever went on that blew my mind. I wasn’t much of an outdoors person growing up, so when I went on my first road trip, Big Cottonwood Canyon was one of my first stops driving south from Salt Lake City towards the deserts of the Southwest. I feel like I stopped every five minutes to take pictures or admire the view. There are so many gorgeous hikes to do in this area, no matter what you’re into. Check the AllTrails app for a pretty comprehensive list of all the hikes to do in Cottonwood Canyon and the Salt Lake City area.
Lake Mary and Lake Catherine
One of my favorite hikes in the Salt Lake City area was the hike up to Lake Catherine. The hike will take you through a few lakes, the first being the highly popular Lake Mary. However, if you continue a few miles along the trail, you’ll be treated to some spectacular views. Out of the many alpine lake hikes to do in northern Utah, this was one of the best. Cecret Lake, Lake Blanche, and the nearby Albion Basin are some other can’t-miss adventures for the avid hiker in this region.
Antelope Island State Park
With so many national parks in Utah, the state parks often get overlooked. Don’t make that mistake. All of the national parks are concentrated in the southern part of the state. Antelope Island State Park is one of the best places to visit in the northern part of the state. The island is the largest in Utah’s famous Great Salt Lake, and is an amazing place to visit. It offers plenty of hikes, beaches, and wildlife spotting opportunities. Without a doubt, the large herd of bison is the main attraction to Antelope Island.
As I hit the schedule button to publish this post, I just know I’m missing quite a few things. Like I said, there’s just so much to explore. From dinosaur footprints to spooky ghost towns, there is something for everyone to do in Utah. Hell, I could have filled this entire list up just with things to do in Moab. I’ve only barely scratched the surface, but I’m nowhere near done exploring this gorgeous state yet.
What’s your favorite destination in Utah?
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