Hi everyone! My name is Andrea Cannon and welcome to my travel guide on the best things to do in Utah. I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina which is quite different from Salt Lake City where I currently live.
Growing up, we didn’t take many classic “vacations” but instead would go on my dad’s business trips during the summer and visit grandparents that lived in Ohio. While attending undergraduate and pharmacy school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I managed to get a few good deals to go on trips to Florida, Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
However, my first “real” big trip was to Greece for my honeymoon. That trip really opened my eyes to the excitement of travel. Now despite what my Instagram may look like, living in North Carolina I was solidly a beach girl. After pharmacy school, I moved close to the coast to work at a hospital while Austin, my boyfriend (now husband), finished medical school.
When he decided to add Utah to his list of programs to apply to for his surgical residency, I had not even heard of any of the national parks in Utah and had only been to Salt Lake City one time for a professional conference.
You have probably guessed but Austin matched at the University of Utah for surgery residency five and a half years ago and we have been living here ever since. He finishes his residency in June. Resident life is pretty intense but for Austin’s first vacation week, we decided to do a Utah National Parks tour. That really kicked off our sense of adventure in Utah!
Incredible Landscapes, Culture & People of Utah
The landscape of Utah is incredible. You have snow capped mountains up north and red rock desert in the south. As you drive around the state the landscape is constantly changing – making it a paradise for adventurers!
The people of Utah are amazing. You might have heard about them through the Mormon culture. The influence of the Mormon religion – formally The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – is fairly prevalent.
Liquor laws are slightly weird/annoying and the news channel and local government is interconnected with the church. However, Salt Lake City is less than 50% Mormon. If you are visiting, the only thing you will notice will be related to the liquor laws. The Mormon people are generally very nice.
My Favorite Place in Utah: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Literally after every trip I take in Utah, I add more places to see and things to do on my bucket list. We are mostly limited to weekend trips (and not long weekends at that) due to Austin’s residency program. So we normally pack our weekends with travel itineraries and outdoor adventures.
Inevitably, I will pass a spot on the drive, look it up and add it to the list. That being said, we have explored quite a lot of Utah. We have been to each of the national parks three times, seen most of the national monuments and state parks, done a ton of hikes and trails, and visited a bunch of towns.
Probably my favorite place right now – although difficult to choose as each spot is so incredibly unique – is Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. But if you asked me my favorite place in Utah tomorrow my answer might be different. Escalante is staggeringly beautiful and there are still a few trails at this national monument that I am yet to tick off.
11 Awesome Things To Do in Utah
Utah is blessed with an unbelievably diverse landscape making it a dream destination for explorers, hikers, skiers, road-trippers and the like! Get lost down the slot canyons, carve your way through powder snow and immerse yourself in a Mormon-influenced rural town. There is never a dull moment in Utah. Below are my top 10 recommendations for this Utah blog.
1. Go Hiking through Zion National Park
Kicking us off is the first recognized national park of Utah: Zion National Park! Hike the Narrows, the Subway and Angel’s Landing and marvel at the landscape surrounding you. Native Americans and Mormon pioneers once traversed these paths which gives the park a sense of history.
2. Choose any Hike at Bryce Canyon National Park
Sprawling across southern Utah is Bryce Canyon National Park – another essential place to explore in the state. This national park is famous for its mystical orange hoodoos. None more famous than Thor’s Hammer which is shaped eerily like the iconic mjolnir from the popular Marvel movies.
3. Drive the Cathedral Valley Loop (4WD Required)
The Cathedral Valley Loop is a four drive in Capitol Reef National Park (full day once you include all the stops and viewpoints) that ideally should be completed in a 4WD. Along the way you will encounter a vast desert landscape, epic sandstone monoliths and colorful hills. A must-do in Utah!
4. Discover the Scenic Fisher Towers in Moab
Hike a leisurely trail to Fisher Towers in Moab which are stunning rock formations eroded into unique shapes. This is another dream spot for photographers but also for rock climbers who sometimes scale the towers. You can easily access the hike from Moab as it starts off State Route 128.
5. Hike to Reflection Canyon in Escalante
Located in the Grand Staircase-Escalante side of Lake Powell, this stunning vista offers many magical experiences such as the opportunity for beautiful sunrises and sunsets, a starry night sky, an untouched wilderness and a fantastic hike to get there. The entire journey will take at least two days.
6. Do Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Gulch in Escalante
The name of this place – “Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Gulch” – should be enough to entice you to visit! These awesome slot canyons are situated in Escalante about a 25-mile drive into the park. You have to navigate several scrambling sections just to enter but it adds a sense of thrill to your trip.
7. Visit the Beautiful Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah
The Bonneville Salt Flats are a fantastic place to visit for the day or even just for an afternoon waiting for the sun to set. Just picture a smaller version of Salar de Uyuni but in Utah! It’s a fun place to drive through, take photos and admire the sunset colors reflecting on the white salt flats.
8. Cruise the Shafer Trail in Canyonlands (4WD Required)
A scenic drive in Canyonlands National Park that lasts for about 19.6 miles. It takes you through a beautiful and scenic landscape with wildlife viewing opportunities along the way. Again, you will need a 4WD to navigate the roads. So make sure you bring a 4WD or hire one for your trip to Utah.
9. See Delicate Arch of Arches National Park
Arches National Park is home to some of the most breathtaking sandstone rock formations in America. Delicate Arch is an iconic spot in the national park and so too is Double Arch. There are many of these arch formations to discover in Arches as well as amazing hikes to do on the way.
10. Trek the Wires Pass to Buckskin Gulch
Discover epic scenery and trails on the Wires Pass to Buckskin Gulch, including the Wave! The trail starts at a parking lot off Route 87 and follows a sandy trail for a mile until you reach a canyon with a dramatic entrance. Inside the canyon the 200 foot walls narrow to about a foot in one section!
11. Ski or Snowboard at Little Cottonwood Canyon
My Favorite Memory of Utah: Hiking to Reflection Canyon
All of the bucket list destinations listed above offer something unique with National Geographic looking experiences. They are all very diverse! Perhaps my most favorite recent memory of Utah was when I went hiking to Reflection Canyon. It was my first trip after the lockdown but very easy to social distance as we only saw one other couple on the entire 18 mile hike.
We stayed overnight at Reflection Canyon and literally camped right at the canyon. The sunset and sunrise were both amazing. And the stars at night were just extraordinary to take in. The pictures don’t do it justice in any way.
Best Places to Stay in Utah
Kanab Utah is a great small town in southern Utah and they actually have a foodie scene (some of the smaller towns only have Subway). Here are some cool things to do in Kanab while you are visiting. Highway 128 in Moab has some great campgrounds right by the river and there is a ton of free camping available on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Utah.
Need to Know Before you Go
One of the first things to get right for your Utah trip is the vehicle. Make sure you rent a car – preferably a 4WD high clearance vehicle for some of the above experiences. There is public transportation in Salt Lake City and the surrounding areas but it’s not going to be the best option for exploring.
Utah is very different depending on the time of year you visit. Research the temperature and weather for each destination. For example, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park are about an hour apart but drastically different temperature wise. When is the best time of year to visit Utah?
There are parts of Utah that are better seasonally but don’t let that stop you from planning your trip. In the spring/summer/fall, try to avoid the national parks on weekends for the best experience. Utah is very, very, very dry. Plan ahead with chapstick and extra water. Drink more water than you think you need and pack more for your adventures than required, just in case.
There is a ton to see in Utah outside of the national parks. Here are some of my favorite places to visit in Utah outside the parks. If you are planning to visit from out of state, check flights to both Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, as sometimes flights to Las Vegas are cheaper. Thanks for reading. I hope you get to tick off a couple of these Utah bucket list experiences!