During our West Coast road trip we spent over a month in Utah and loved every minute of it. Here are our favorite things to do in Utah, adventures we believe everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy.
Take on the Mighty Five
Arches National Park
We heard nightmares about the crowds here, so we took a two-day approach. We got up early in the morning on Day 1 for a sunrise hike…and explored until lunch. On Day 2 we went after dinner and then hiked for a while, ending on a sunset hike. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Here are the best hikes in Arches for accomplishing this itinerary:
- Start your morning with a sunrise hike to Delicate Arch. You’ll meet a very small crowd, and everyone generally stays away from the arch until the sun is high….it’s a spiritual time where everyone silently agrees that the moment is far more powerful than a selfie. But then, someone wants a snap before they leave, and the line is created. It’s still short, and everyone feels connected. It’s very special.
- Next, drive North in the park and head to Landscape Arch. Be sure to go the entire way, because the view as you get closer is so much better. If you’re full of energy then take in the Navajo Arch, as well. It’s worth the extra detour.
- On your way out of the park, stop to see the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint (it was closed for hikers when we visited), Panorama Point, Balanced Rock and Courthouse Towers (and see The Three Gossips).
- Get some lunch, take a nap, explore Moab and be prepared for more fun the next day.
- On the second day, after dinner, head back into the park about 3-4 hours before sunset.
- Hike the Broken Arch, Sand Dune Arch, Skyline Arch balloon trail (about 2.5 miles)
- Jump in the car and head back toward the entrance of the park, where you’ll take the road to The Windows. Park and take in Double Arch (by kids’ favorite!) and Turret Arch, the ending at the North Window and South Window Arches. Bring a snack and have a seat, taking in the sunset. Be sure to stay well after sunset so that you can see the amazing stars.
Capitol Reef National Park
I think it’s safe to say that Capitol Reef was our favorite National Park. You’ll find the crowds to be much thinner here, and the terrain is spectacular, with so much to do. Here are the can’t-miss activities:
- Stop into Gifford House early so they don’t run out of pies. These small pies have been making history here for decades. We left with an apple, wild berry and cherry.
- Cassidy Arch is a 3.8 moderate hike, and it was my favorite hike of all five national parks! Every turn, every viewpoint, every rock…is just breath-taking. And if you’re not too scared, be sure to get a photo standing on top of the arch. It’s one of the few places you are able to do this.
- Hickman Bridge is a very popular hike, so you may want to take it early or late to avoid the crowds. The Freemont River runs along the trailhead, and it’s a good place to cool off before and after the hike.
- Panoramic Point, the Goosenecks, and Sunset Point are your must-do overlooks.
- Finally, rent a jeep (if you don’t have a high-clearance 4×4) and take the ride along Cathedral Valley Road. Highlights here include enjoying a picnic high above Cathedral Valley at the CV Overlook, Glass Mountain, Temple of the Sun (and Moon), the Bentonite Hills, and of course fording the Freemont River!
Zion National Park
Zion is the busiest of all the parks, partly because of its proximity to Las Vegas. The other reason, if you ask me, is poorly designed civil engineering. But that’s a story for another day, and everyone has to do it at least once!
- The can’t miss hike at Zion Canyon is The Narrows. If you’re coming for the day or with kids, you’ll be hiking from the bottom up. Yes, you can do it with kids. No, you don’t have to go all the way to the endpoint to be able to enjoy it. Yes, you should rent the shoes. All that and more in a full Zion post coming shortly.
- The longest lines and most jaw-dropping photos will come from hiking Angel’s Landing. With young kids, we opted out of this one.
- Finally, the other must-see hike is Emerald Pools. To see all three pools is 6 miles round trip, and as you can imagine the furthest pool is the most gorgeous.
- While we were in the area we also did a canyoneering trip with Red Desert Adventure. It’s not inside the park (tour companies cannot run canyoneering trips there) but just outside. It was one of the highlights of our Zion adventure.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Unless you are an avid backcountry hiker, there are not a lot of options in Bryce. We hiked a few of the most popular trails, combining them to see the best of everything…and one “Bryce” hike that is far from the entrance but should not be missed.
- Fairyland Loop is the one hike you have to do, if no other. It’s officially 7.8 miles, but we’ve heard others call it closer to 9 miles, and that’s what we experienced, too. You’ll walk through the hoodoos, see Tower Bridge, catch gorgeous views along the rim, and more. Be warned: it’s not easy. The 2300 ft in elevation change is a doozy. But hey, even our kids were able to make it happen.
- The other can’t miss hike here is the “Figure Eight” hike…but our kids would have killed us if we made them walk another 7-9 miles so we hiked 2 of the three trails in the Figure Eight: Navajo Loop to Queen’s Garden. You can go either direction here, but we ended our hike through the Queen’s Garden and I feel like that was the least strenuous direction. Don’t miss the side spur to see the Queen!
- You’ll also want to take the drive from the northern part of the park down to the southern tip (it’s one long road through the park) to check out the overlooks. Be sure to stop at Natural Bridge and get a selfie with the arch, and Rainbow Point (at the very very end) where you’re over 9,000 ft in elevation and can really see the rock layers change colors.
- Finally, like Fairyland Loop, Mossy Cave is a Bryce hike but it is outside the ticketing gate. It’s super short, but oh so sweet. We loved the water flowing here in the creek as well as at the waterfall. Be sure to hike up and see the cave (more like a grotto) and touch the moss, and then as you’re coming down, overlooking the waterfall, you’ll see Turret Arch. Even though this hike is only a mile, we were probably here about 2+ hours!
Canyonlands National Park
Plan to do Canyonlands right before or right after Arches, because of their proximity to each other. There are a multitude of overlooks here, and they never get old. if you’re ready to hike, we’ve listed our favorites below in the Island in the Sky area.
- My only regret is not seeing that we needed a few more days here in order to adequately explore The Needles section (not to be confused with the Needles of Zion) and Indian Creek Falls. Guess we’re going back!
- Mesa Arch is spectacular any time of day, but if you go just as the sun is coming up then you will see glorious colors that seem more like a painting than real life. I think it was our favorite arch in all of the five Utah parks.
- Aztec Butte Trail is another great hike, and not too long at just over 2 miles. It’s a very easy hike except for the end, where you scramble up the butte. We made it to within about 10 feet of the top before stopping. It’s not much more steep at the top, but the wind gusts were over 40 mph when we visited and it made us a little nervous with the kids – otherwise it’s pretty safe. Don’t miss the Aztec granaries on the trail as you come back. You’ll have to take a short spur, but it’s worth it!
Explore Beyond the National Parks
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase is not a national park, though some people think it should be Utah’s sixth “mighty” stop. Regardless of how you feel about its status, there is no denying you should take the extra effort to add this to you things to do in Utah list. How long should you stay? Two weeks if you can! We were only there about three days and only scratched the surface.
- If you do no other hike, be sure to squeeze your way through Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch. These two slot canyons are connected into one hike, and they are probably the most fun hikes we did in all of Utah. See more below (Slot Canyons)
- Lower Calf Creek Falls is a 6.7 mile moderate hike with a gorgeous waterfall. If your dying of heat from the hike you can take a dip in the cool pools below the 126 ft fall.
- Buckskin Gulch is another must-see slot canyon (more below under Slot Cayons). While Peek-a-boo was fun, this one was the most beautiful of all the ones we hiked.
Even if you’ve never been to Monument Valley, you’ve certainly see it; it’s been the red rock backdrop for hundreds of movies. Consider hiking with a guide here. You’re in the Navajo Nation, on sacred Native American ground.
- On your way into Monument Valley from Mexican Hat, be sure to snap a photo of the scene made famous by Forrest Gump – “Run Forrest, Run!”
- Wildcat Trail is a 3-mile hike to West Mitten Butte that you can take without a guide, but you will need to get a permit from the visitor center.
- Hunt’s Mesa Trail must be done with a guide, and it’s gorgeous from the top! It’s been called the best IG spot in the valley.
Goblin Valley State Park
Goblin State Park can be a little out of the way, but you’ll never see anything like it anywhere else, so it’s work the effort. Honestly, you can enjoy it without hiking a specific trail. There are a few, but there is much to see wandering around in the “free-range” area, too.
- Goblin’s Lair is an off-shoot while you’re on Carmel Canyon trail and it takes you to a slot canyon.
- There is a “trail” that leads to The Three Sisters, but it’s wonky. I recommend just pulling over on the side of the road and walking the short path from there to see them up close.
Dinosaur National Monument
See where the dinosaurs once roamed – see fossils and petroglyphs, hike the trails, go river rafting, take an auto tour!
- Be sure to visit the Quarry Exhibit Hall. As of this writing, you will need a reservation.
- Ride the Tour of the Tilted Rocks, and be sure to stop at the impressive Cub Creek Petroglyphs
- See and touch fossilized dinosaur bones along the 1.2 mile Fossil Discovery Trail.
- Join a guided river trip through Split Mountain Canyon
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
These dunes in Kanab were the backdrop in five popular movie classics from the hey-day including Arabian Knights (1942) and MacKenna’s Gold with Gregory Peck (1969). Today they are an excellent way to do some sledding and boarding…without the snow!
For only $25 you can rent a sand board or a sand sled (or both, like we did!) from the Visitor Center. Take it up to the tallest sand dune, wax the bottom (they will give you wax) and then sail down with the wind in your hair! Our friends who were with us on this adventure have also done this at White Sands National Park, and they told us that the dunes were bigger there but the sledding here was faster and more fun!
Yes, most of Lake Powell is in Arizona but is a great section in Utah (and heck, taking a 20 minute drive to Arizona is awesome also.)
- Camp at Lone Rock Beach State Park (pictured above.) Bring you kayak and/or paddleboard and enjoy the sandy beaches and to-die-for sunsets.
- Only about 15 miles from the campground, you’ve got to add “watch the sunset at Horseshoe Bend” to your to-do list.
- Kayak to the Antelope Canyon slot canyons. At the time of our visit, the most popular slot tours were still closed so we rented kayaks from Lake Powell Paddleboards and made the trek ourselves. There is a 1-mile paddle through a rough part of wake on the lake, into the canyon.
- For the best experience you’ll want to do this on a weekday; boat traffic is high on weekends and makes the water harder to paddle in. Then you’ll go another 1-1.5 mile paddle within the canyon to a beach where you can hike into the slots. This isn’t the famous corkscrew section of slots, but it was still beautiful!
Snow Canyon State Park
Have you ever heard of Snow Canyon State Park? This year Conde Nast named it Utah’s best state park. It is indeed an epic park, but with temps of 96-100 degrees and almost no shade, I would avoid going in summer like we did….but please do be sure to go because it’s amazing.
There are petrified sand dunes at the park, and a lava tube that is so fun to explore. The boys loved the 30-ish degree temperature drop when we went inside. “Approximately 1.4 million years ago, and as recently as 27,000 years ago, nearby cinder cones erupted, causing lava to flow down these canyons, filling them with basalt.”
There were a few other trails we would have liked to do, but the heat was just too much….caves, arches, and an old volcano corkscrew.
One of the trails we wanted to do was closed, but for good reason: There are peregrine falcons nesting there! We saw two of the adults flying over us as we hiked. There are also lots of tortoises in that area…the ranger said it’s because that trail leads to the only water source in the 7400-acre park.
Sand Hollow State Park
Unlike Snow Canyon, Sand Hollow is the perfect park to visit in summer. Head here to visit the reservoir where you can lounge on the river’s edge or jump from the cliffs into gorgeous blue-green waters. You can start with a low jump and work your way up to about a 30ft plunge!
What’s different about this “beach” is that the edges are rock, not sand. Which means it’s also easier to launch your kayak or paddleboard.
Mystic Hot Springs
Mystic Hot Springs is off the beaten path in Monroe, UT and it is unlike any place we’ve ever visited. I love this hot springs more than others in the region that we visited because it is more natural, more laid back, more chill.
The feature photo above shows the upper level, with 6 bathtubs that fill from the mountain. The water is very warm and continuously flowing so your always in a “new” tub of water. I also love that it’s mineral water and not sulphur water…no rotten egg smell here.
There is also a lower level with two pools – a shallow and a deep one. That’s where we spent most of our time, soaking and relaxing. They offer rustic cabins and school buses to overnight here if you wish. We leveraged their RV park. when we visited.
Hike the Slot Canyons
Most Iconic: The Narrows
Yes, we mentioned Zion above, but The Narrows are worthy of a call out on their own. Here are a few tips:
- We rented shoes from @zionadventurecompany which kept our feet warm …highly recommend this.
- Parking in Springdale to get into Zion is not easy. It took forever to find a spot. Plan for that. Finding a parking spot, getting shoes for the hike, and riding the shuttle into Zion (to catch the park shuttle) took us about 2 hours.
- Once in the park, The Narrows is the last stop in the park shuttle.
- There is a bacteria blooming at high levels in the river. It’s still safe to hike, but keep your head out of the water and don’t drink it, even with a filter.
- We all agreed that the large, thick sticks worked better for staying dry than regular hiking poles would. And yes, I fell in. Kept my face out of the water but lost my phone for a while. Thankful I have the more water-resist iPhone 11. If you don’t, bring a waterproof case.
- The park is the most crowded we visited but don’t give up. The Narrows are worth it. The farther you go in, the less crowded it is. See a heard of people at the opening? Just put your people-blinders on a march forward. You’ll see about half those people once you hike in a quarter mile…and it gets fewer and fewer the farther you go. Most visitors are only enjoying the scenery right there at the opening of the canyon.
Most Beautiful: Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch
If you only have time for one single slot canyon adventure in Utah, make it this one. Here are some tips:
- This hike is actually two slot canyons that connect on the trail. You can enter Buckskin Gulch by itself, on the other end…but, it requires a permit and it not the ideal day trip (though, if you can do it..then DO IT!) This hike will give you a lovely taste of Buckskin Gulch and doesn’t require the permit. Use AllTrails to get you to the trailhead.
- The hike begins with a 1.7 miles hike through the wash. There is no shade, so brig plenty of water. What’s amazing to me is that it looks so “plain” on this hike…you have no idea the beauty that’s in store for you.
- Wire Pass is a pretty slot canyon in it’s own right…and very cool in that you climb down a ladder to get into the canyon.
- Once you finish Wire Pass, you are “dropped” into Buckskin Gulch where you can hike a few more miles through this gorgeous slot canyon.
- Fun fact: Buckskin Gulch is the world’s longest slot canyon (13 miles) and the tallest in the Southwest, with parts reaching 500 ft tall.
Most Fun: Peek A Boo and Spooky Gulch
Again, this is a two-for-one slot canyon hike and it is active and FUN! Here are some tips:
- The road out to the slots is bumpy. More bumpy coming back for some reason. 4WD isn’t necessary, but finish your coffee before you get there. Even though the number of miles is short, you’ll also need to drive slowly…plan your time accordingly.
- You’ll hike down into the valley to reach the slot canyon, and to get into the slot canyon you’ll need to climb (literally climb) up into it. There are a few natural hand and foot holds, but it’s your first sign of the workout to come.
- The slots are narrow…I mean super narrow. Be sure to follow the signs that encourage you to go clockwise, starting with Peek-a-Boo (if you’re not climbing to get inside, it’s not peek-a-boo) and ending with Spooky. Otherwise you’ll get stuck having to climb over people coming the other direction. Swear words guaranteed. lol.
- You’ll follow the trail through the wash …maybe a quarter to a half mile…to get to Spooky Gulch, which is even tighter!
- There is a bit of a scary drop in Spooky. Our kids did it just fine, so it’s not horrible. Just be prepared!
Most Squishy: Zebra Slots
Looking for super duper narrow slots that are gorgeous? Try the Zebra Slots. Here are some tips:
- You’ll access this slot canyon off the same road that got you to the Peek-a-Boo/Spooky slots so if you’re not camping there, do both in the same day.
- You’ll hike about 5 miles round trip, for only a very short slot canyon experience (it’s worth it!)
- As you’re hiking through the wash you’ll come upon a huge wood gate. It’s a cattle gate…go through it.
- We went during a dry spell, but there are times that you’ll find standing water in the slot. Be prepared to get wet. You can call the Escalante BLM office to ask if they have a recent status on the water levels.
- These slots are less than 10 inches in some places. You’ll need to be able to navigate that in order to do this. In some parts it can get as narrow as 3-4 inches so you’ll have to “spiderman” your way up to the wider section (and by wider, I mean the 8 inch section) to get through. Our kids found it to be an easier task than we did.
- This is an out and back slot, so you’ll meet people coming the other direction. Luckily it’s not very popular because it’s so short, but you’ll have to climb over/under others.
- While you’re there, take note of the amazing color stripes in the rock, to see how it got it’s name.
Most Under-rated: Little Wildhorse Canyon
Little Wildhorse is in the San Rafael Swell near Goblin Valley, making it a great option to extend your visit there. You’ll find that the locals are here on the weekend because it’s not a popular tourist hike. Here are some tips:
- Most people go into the slots from the Little Wildhorse Canyon trailhead. Hike as far as you want, then turn around and hike out. If you want a true adventure, then make it a loop, hiking over Bell Canyon. It’s about 8 miles and mildly strenuous. Once out of the canyon you’ll have to climb a dry fall (like you did in Peek-a-Boo) so be prepared.
- You’ll usually find these to be dry, but you can see water here in Spring. It’s usually only about ankle deep.
- The slots are not technical and not too narrow. Makes it a great option for people who are looking to enjoy the canyon rather the scramble and climb.
Adventure Up North
Salt Lake City
Everyone should make it to to the capital at least once, and when you do here’s our top six recs regarding where to spend your time beyond Temple Square:
- Visit the Great Salt Lake, of course! The Great Salt Lake is actually the remainder of prehistoric Lake Bonneville. Kayaking on the Great Salt Lake is a great way to see some of the areas that you normally wouldn’t see. With 10,000 miles of shoreline, it’s heavenly. Another fun activity is to camp (or just picnic) at Antelope Island.
- While you’re at it, visit the Bonneville Salt Flats, too. Just standing there is amazing…it’s so flat that you can actually see the earth curve. The famous Bonneville Speedway is located in the western portion of the flats, near Wendover. It is perfectly flat and has a thick crust of salty soil. It looks like a frozen lake bed covered with snow. Just east of there on I80 is a rest stop that offers fantastic views in multiple directions, and you can walk on the flats here.
- Take in a concert at Red Butte Botanical Garden on the grounds of the University of Utah.
- You don’t have to be Mormon (or even religious) to enjoy the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Sundays at 9.30 am you can watch them for free September and November or January and May. Can’t make Sunday? Rehearsal attendance is also free and open to the public Thursday evenings during the same time of year.
- The Salt Lake City Public Library may seem like a strange selection, but the architecture will wow you! a half-million books with gorgeous lounging areas are the perfect place to sip your latte. The indoor cafe and the outdoor garden with amazing views of Wasatch Mountains are can’t miss stops, not to mention all the other cute shops in the Library Square.
- Last but not least, make your way to that Wasatch Mountain Range you saw at the library, to Big Cottonwood Canyon. Spot Moose and other wildlife on the way to Silver Lake, where you can stroll around the water. You’ll also want to hike Stairs Gulch across from Storm Mountain Day Use Area to see some of the best waterfalls, or hike Butler Fork, with 360-degree views of the canyon from the top of Circle All Peak.
Our favorite things to do in Park City is to hit the slopes! But there is much more to do than just snowboard.
- Visit the Park City Museum where you “ride” on a train, then take a ski subway. This was my favorite story…Park City began as a mining town, and only settled into its ski resort status a short time ago, relatively speaking. In the beginning, skiers were taken to the tops of mountains via a “subway” and “elevator” that utilized the old mining tunnels. You can sit inside one of these transports and get a feel for how it must have been. There are several other interactive things to do and kids will also enjoy the Park City History Detectives activity hunt. If they don’t offer it, just ask the front desk.
- Head over to lunch at High West Distillery and Saloon. This was such a fun treat for everyone. The food was dynamite, and we loved the ambiance – and the drinks. Yum. Pro tip: We were so excited to take a distillery tour, but they were completely booked! Bummer. Don’t make our mistake…you can make tour reservations before hand, and you’ll want to!
- Utah Olympic Park was the home of several events during the 2002 Winter Olympics, and is still an official training site. Admission is free and includes the Alf Engen Ski Museum, the Eccles Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games Museum, the Discovery Zone obstacles course, the Mountain Challenge course and several hiking trails.
- The Alpine Coaster Slide is a must! It’s one of the longest in the world… 3,000 feet of luge-like track spiriling and spinning you into a world where you can’t stop smiling.
You will want to book a room at Homestead Resort which is home to a geothermal spring, hidden within a 55-foot tall, beehive-shaped limestone rock called Homestead Crater. It is the ONLY warm Scuba diving location in the US, but you don’t have to Scuba (or even get wet) to experience it.
According to the website, you can take a self-guided Crater tour to learn the history, geology, and archaeology of this mineral water pool two miles below the surface that stays at at a constant 90F – 96F.
They’ve created a tunnel through the rock wall at ground level, lending access to custom-built decks and a soaking area where guests can enjoy the crystal-clear mineral water. Once inside, you can go swimming, scuba diving, snorkeling, enjoy a therapeutic soak or even take a paddle board yoga class.