Sitting down to write this makes me want to turn the rig around and head back to Utah to continue exploring. But we know in doing so we would roast from the heat, so we will have to wait until we return in the next year or two to explore the hundreds of other spectacular places in Utah that are not on this list.
As some of you know, we are working to visit all 50 states in a fairly short time frame before slowing down and returning to places we have fallen in love with. So what made us spend two months in Utah? Back before we knew better, we thought Utah was a fly-over state, but the following places proved us wrong. As with most casual travelers, we hit Utah’s Big 5, but each of those locations led to even more incredible places and then some, which is what led us to our own Big 10 list.
There are thousands of articles about Moab and all that this quaint little town has to offer, and we echo all the sentiments of the writers before us. There are endless opportunities to get outside and explore this fascinating landscape, with three main parks to visit: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse State Park.
But there is also an abundance of BLM and city land to explore free of charge. While the town and surrounding areas may seem like an outdoor enthusiast’s playground, there are plenty of opportunities for the faint-of-heart travelers to get out and experience breathtaking views.
Arches National Park – This spectacular park offers paved roads that wind throughout the different formations and plenty of trails to keep anyone busy for days. Don’t let the crowds deter you, the park is plenty big and the formations will make you forget that you have hundreds of other visitors near you. As with any park, early arrivals will allow you to take in the beauty without the crowds, but it will fill up quickly.
Canyonlands – This vast park offers amazing views that seem to go on forever. And as the name suggests, much of the park includes hiking trails that line the gorgeous canyons, but a few spectacular arches can be found as well. And as of now, the park allows night photography and light painting if you are so inclined. We were greeted by talented rock climbers scaling the walls and other hikers looking to capture frame-worthy photos.
Dead Horse State Park – While your National Parks pass will not cover this park’s admission fee, it is well worth the stop on your way into Canyonlands. And, if you are lucky enough to snag a campsite here, you will be surrounded by amazing desert views and dark skies for a great night’s sleep. The highlight of this park is the gooseneck turn in the river below. But don’t mistake this view for Horseshoe Bend in Page, AZ, although it looks quite similar.
2. Goblin Valley
Our friends from Crazy Family Adventure told us about this not-to-miss, family-friendly park on the way to Capitol Reef and we are glad we took their advice. The park is filled with small hoodoos that you are allowed to climb on. Typically parks refrain from allowing people to climb on formations to prevent damage, but this park has two parts, one for tourists and one for research. You will feel like a kid again while visiting this park and playing on the hoodoos in the valley.
3. Capital Reef
An often-overlooked National Park, but one that offers a diverse landscape and plenty of hiking opportunities. The drive into the park starts with hills layered with red, green and tan hues until you are met with towering canyon walls for miles. The gem of the park is Cathedral Valley, which can be reached by 4×4 vehicles. But we chose the moderate hike to Cassidy’s Arch, so we didn’t have to camp out in a tent with the promise of snow overnight.
Utah’s first National Park is split up into two sections on the north and south ends. Kolob Canyon is on the north end of Zion and is by far less crowded than the rest of the park. The road takes you up into the canyon offering gorgeous views around every twist and turn. While the main portion of the park can be crowded, the bus and permit systems keep most hiking trails from becoming too congested even on busy days. If you are traveling to the park during the spring months, be sure to check the park’s website for trail closings due to snow melt, as many of the hikes are through the water.
5. St. George
For a break from National Parks, hiking and all things outdoors, a trip to St. George offers warm weather and city feel. This city has a small community vibe and all the amenities and golf courses you would want after being in the mountains and canyons for the time it takes you to visit the highlights of southern Utah.
6. Bryce Canyon
The towering needle-like hoodoos that make up Bryce Canyon National Park are a favorite for most every traveler we met who has been through the western part of the country. The drive into the park from the west gives you a taste for what is to come, but taking in the view of the valley is indescribable until you reach the top and park. The aptly named, Inspiration Point, offers 270-degree views of the park in all its glory.
7. Monument Valley
For most, this section of the state is most recognizable from a scene in Forest Gump and old western films, but it is amazing how the view changes as you encounter the formations up close. The Navajo Tribe allows visitors to drive through the formations on an incredibly bumpy road, but it is well worth seeing everything up close and from different angles. We would recommend taking a tour (for an even bumpier ride) to save your vehicle (and maybe your nerves).
8. Lake Powell
This expansive desert lake straddles Utah and Arizona and offers RV parking right on the beach at Lone Rock on the Utah side. There is a stark difference between the red rocks of the canyon to the unbelievably blue water. During the summer months, houseboats will fill the lake along with other water lovers looking to cool off from the heat radiating off the rock walls. The lake also provides the best means of transportation to view and explore Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
9. Dinosaur National Monument
After exploring much of the southern Utah regions, we escaped the heat and traveled north to Dinosaur National Monument to check out the excavated dinosaur bones and fossils. Both Utah and Colorado share this park, the bones and other exhibits can only be found on the Utah side. Along with the fossils and exhibits, the petroglyphs are also highlighted throughout the park.
10. Salt Lake City
While work has brought us to Salt Lake in the past, it was a place that we did not expect to love as much as we did. Even though we are not traveling with children, the city and surrounding suburbs host an abundance of family-friendly (and incredibly clean) parks with a number of free events to keep everyone busy year-round. The proximity to the mountains was a wonderful bonus as it gave gorgeous views out our windows and outdoor activities galore in less than an hour’s drive.
Both Salt Lake and nearby Park City have done a phenomenal job repurposing Olympic venues to give even more entertainment options for those in the area. While the area sits along the foothills and natural hot springs are scattered throughout, we found one that provided an experience of a lifetime. Homestead Crater is a hot spring located in a beehive/volcano shaped rock where you can jump in for a soak in the 90-degree water, or even complete your scuba diving certification. Of course, there is the Great Salt Lake itself which offers all sorts of activities year-round since the water doesn’t freeze.
Salt Flats – While the fields of salt can be seen miles before the Salt Flats begin to take shape, the Bonneville Salt Flats boast the best views of the white, crusted land that looks like a combination of a snow and ice storm. The salt gives a great contrast between the surrounding foothills and desert landscapes to create some of the most beautiful sunsets and even better photos. While some use the flats as an opportunity to race their vehicles, we were weary of how much weight they could support based on the ruts created along the drive in.
We hope you enjoy your journey through Utah as much as we did!