Things to Do in Utah
At the aptly named Emerald Pools, a verdant stream connects a series of three fresh water pools—a picturesque contrast to the earthy red cliffs that dominate Zion National Park. Three hiking trails access the pools, ranging from a short paved route to a more strenuous loop. Flowing waterfalls and crystal-clear pools make this a must-visit spot.
Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and the largest natural lake in North America west of the Mississippi, is the setting for some of the state’s best outdoor recreational opportunities; sailors and kayakers ply the waters, while sunbathers bask on sandy beaches and swimmers float in the high-saline waters.
Towering rock formations, colorful slot canyons, and a maze of hiking trails make Zion Canyon the heart of activity in Zion National Park. The Virgin River courses through the green valley floor and painted sandstone cliffs, creating a desert oasis that draws hoards of visitors to the scenic park.
When Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Brigham Young, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), proclaimed, “Here we will build a temple to our God.” That place eventually became known as Temple Square, the centerpiece of which is the Salt Lake Temple—the largest Mormon temple in the world.
Lake Powell is a reservoir—the second-largest man-made reservoir in the United States, actually—in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the border of Arizona and Utah. Known for its many sandy beaches, sparkling blue water, and red-rock landscapes, this fun vacation spot is one of Arizona’s top attractions. Some of the lake’s famous features include the Glen Canyon Dam (located in Arizona) and the Rainbow Bridge National Monument, one of the world’s longest natural bridges (located in Utah).
Experience one of nature’s roller coaster rides, Hell’s Revenge Trail. Set in a desert canyon outside of Moab, the off-roading track crawls over slick rocks, along cliff faces, and up and down near-vertical terrain. Between rock-crawling adventures, stop to take in views stretching from Arches National Park to La Sal Mountains.
One of Zion National Park’s most famous hikes, The Narrows are the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, with sandstone walls reaching 1,000 feet (305 meters) high and sometimes 20 feet (6 meters) across. The Virgin River flows underfoot for most of this adventurous trek—be prepared to get wet.
The eroded red rock wonderland of Arches National Park houses more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration in the world. Geological marvels abound—here you’ll find hundreds of soaring pinnacles, the iconic Delicate Arch, and Landscape Arch, the largest natural arch in the world at 290 feet (88 meters) across.
The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is the main artery through Zion National Park. Winding along the Virgin River, the two-lane road is lined with vista points, river access spots, trailheads, and photo opportunities. The route is so popular that, during the busy season, it is only accessible by a park shuttle.
Situated in the rocky desert terrain of southwestern Utah, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is nearly two million acres of public, protected land. The ancient lands are full of bright sandstone cliffs and narrow canyons, with geological formations and beautiful natural terrain for miles. It extends from the north edge of the Grand Canyon up to the high plateaus of Utah.
The area gets its name from the sedimentary rock layers and their visualizations created by geologists. Many say you can read this area as layers of history and time. Several dinosaur fossils more than 75 million years old have been found in the park area. Since then prehistoric human settlements and even abandoned former Western film sets have been left behind here. Today outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, backpacking, camping, and off-roading are popular for visitors.
More Things to Do in Utah
The neoclassical Utah State Capitol Building opened in 1916 and is home to the offices and chambers of the state Legislature, governor, and other government officials. The building is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and features artwork, historical items, and monuments both inside and around the grounds.
Built for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Utah Olympic Park was the site of the bobsled, skeleton, luge, ski jumping, and Nordic combined events. The park, located just outside downtown Park City, now serves as a training center for Olympic hopefuls and is a top tourist attraction for visitors and locals interested in Olympic history.
Utah’s This is the Place Heritage Park commemorates the arrival of Mormon pioneers who settled in the Salt Lake City valley in 1847. Experience activities such as train and pony rides, blacksmithing, and gold panning at the 450-acre (182-hectare) park’s Heritage Village, which also displays restored structures and hosts events.
In 1930, when the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel was completed in Zion National Park, it was the longest tunnel anywhere in America outside of an urban city. Today, this 1.1-mile tunnel navigates the innards of a soaring sandstone mountain, and provides a conduit connecting Zion National Park with Utah’s famous Bryce Canyon. The road itself, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its beauty and feats of engineering—the grandest of which is the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel that’s become an attraction in itself. As a means of illuminating the deeply dark tunnel, multiple “windows” have been cut through the wall to showcase the view outside, though you’ll want to keep moving, rather than stop, to make sure traffic keeps flowing. In the three years that it took to complete the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, the total cost eventually ballooned to just over half a million dollars. In 1930 that sum was unconscionable for simply creating a road, but seems like a bargain when you consider today the feat that the builders pulled off.
Set in the high desert of the American Southwest, Canyonlands National Park comprises 337,598 acres (136,621 hectares) of rugged landscape divided into four distinct districts by the Green and Colorado rivers. Deep craters, towering rock spires, white cliffs, and majestic buttes dominate the landscape of Utah’s largest national park.
The hike to the top of Angels Landing in Zion National Park ranks among the most famous in the world. It’s only moderately challenging until the final half mile, when the trail becomes precipitous and the narrowness of the path—not to mention sheer drop-offs to either side—offers an additional mental challenge. Visitors who make it to the top are rewarded with spectacular views.
Visitors to this western gem can step back in time some 150 million years when dinosaurs ruled the southern edge of Utah. Self-guided walking tours and informative pamphlets lead travelers through rugged terrain and along well-marked paths to ancient remains from these extinct giants of the Jurassic period.
Best known for the well-preserved fossils of plants and dinosaurs found in the popular Morrison Formation area, Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail is also home to the remains of a now-defunct copper mill from the 1800s. Travelers can explore the area on foot and examine fossils and the old-world factory in a truly hands-on way, as Dinosaur Trail is free of fences and guards, allowing tourists to roam as freely as dinosaurs once did.
Capitol Reef National Park is a long stretch of land that includes some bizarre geologic formations, Native American petroglyphs and orchards planted by Mormon pioneers. Established in 1971, Capitol Reef is named in part for sandstone dome formations that are said to resemble the capitol building in Washington D.C. The park also includes a formation called the “Waterpocket Fold,” a 100-mile-long rift where ancient layers of the earth's crust have become visible as they've been pushed up over millions of years.
Native Americans had lived in the area around the 11th century – there are petroglyphs on some of the rocks in the park – and in the 1870s and 1880s Mormon pioneers settled nearby, planting orchards and mining minerals from the rocks. Today, some of the orchards still remain, and visitors can even pick the fruit for a fee.
In addition to simply enjoying the scenery, visitors can also go hiking and horseback riding. Overnight camping in the park is possible with a permit, and there's also a large official campground inside the park.
According to local legend, this breathtaking mesa with incredible panoramic views of Canyonlands National Park and the roaring Colorado River, was once home to wild mustang herds that old-school cowboys worked tirelessly to break. Today, Dead Horse Point State Park attracts hikers, photographers and mountain bikers seeking out rugged terrain, epic scenery and untouched natural wonder. Intrepid trails offer thrill-seeking bikers a raging shot of adrenaline, while shorter hikes up well-marked paths lead to epic views of some of the country’s most beautiful scenery.
While you might want to cry at Zion’s beauty, save the weeping for the natural springs that trickle down Zion Canyon. At this popular stop along the canyon drive, a paved trail climbs for half a mile up the canyon wall, and provides views of a spring that slowly drips towards the Virgin River below. The water that seeps from the vertical cliff face has been trapped in the walls for years, and while the flow is rarely more than a trickle, large icicles can form in winter and hang from the multi-hued cliffs. After a heavy rain or thunderstorm, a torrential waterfall can sometimes form high on the canyon walls, and the rocky alcove at the top of the trail offers a panoramic vantage point for viewing the water and the valley floor below. While standing beneath the undercut rock, look out towards the other side of the valley where the Great White Throne thrusts its way above the surrounding spires. Though “weeping walls” are fairly common in Zion National Park, the Weeping Rock trail is short and accessible for all different types of travelers.
The Colorado River is a spectacular sight to see, meandering for 1,447 miles (2,330 kilometers) with red rocks and canyons framing it on both sides, leading up to the Hoover Dam. The Colorado River is one of the major water sources for California and Nevada, and, not surprisingly, it's a major recreational destination—activities on the river include hiking, biking, rafting, and boating.
The red Moenkopi sandstone peaks of the Fisher Towers are one of the most photographed sites in Utah. Their rigid summits stretch high into the open skies and on clear days, the juxtaposition of red rock against brilliant blue makes for an imagine that’s worth making the trip just to capture.
Outdoor enthusiasts and avid climbers say challenging passes like Finger of Fate, Titan Tower and Stolen Chimney make Fisher Towers is a destination for thrill seekers, and they caution that the dangerous twists of the famous Cork Screw tower are not for the faint of heart either.
A natural oasis set on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Red Butte Garden blankets the foothills in blossoms, plant displays, and hiking trails. The 100-acre (40-hectare) garden is the largest botanical garden in the Intermountain West, and it is best known for its magnificent spring bulb blooms and educational water-conservation garden.
The Virgin River flows through the heart of Zion National Park and can be credited with carving out the magnificent Zion Canyon. So, whether it’s the spectacular views from the top of Angel’s Landing or the colorful slot canyon known as The Narrows, these national treasures would not exist without the hard work of the Virgin River.
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