You know you’re a Utahn if … you say “mow-uhn” instead of “mountain. You drop the “g” at the end of most gerunds. You ask for fry sauce with your combo meal. And you know it’s not olive juice used to make a dirty Diet Coke. Whether you’re a lifelong Loganite who bleeds Aggie Blue or you came to Salt Lake by way of Los Angeles and are definitely not “just passing through,” the best thing about living in Utah is adventure is just a short drive in any direction. And we’re not just talking about all the national parks. Sure, Zion is totes amaze. Samesies for Arches and Bryce. But there are places everywhere to play for a day or enjoy a longer getaway.
On the Water
Yes, Utah is a desert. No, you don’t need a vaporator to harvest water like they do on the sun-scorched planet Tatooine. Instead, strap on a life jacket and head to one of these outdoor oases for some hydrated hijinks.
Lake Powell. Bear Lake. Both of these state-straddling bodies of water are obvious choices to take watercraft of all sizes — from a single jet ski to a large, luxurious houseboat. But where’s the great in-between? Glad you asked.
In northern Utah, Pineview Reservoir is a boating paradise. It’s nestled in the valley below Snowbasin Resort with incredible mountain views in every direction and earns bonus points for its sandy beaches and shady campground. If you want to live the lake life in different locations, consider purchasing a season pass which is good at both Pineview and Strawberry Reservoirs.
The water in this mountain dam 40 minutes from Heber City can be a bit chilly, even in the dog days of summer. But it’s still a go-to destination for boaters, wakeboarders and jet skiers. And as one of Utah’s Blue Ribbon fisheries, it’s especially popular with anglers. Trophy-size cutthroat trout, rainbow trout and Kokanee salmon are reeled in all year long. Strawberry is open for ice fishing in the winter months.
Echo State Park
A less-crowded alternative to nearby state parks Rockport and Jordanelle, there are rarely more than a dozen or so boats on this reservoir at a time. Why? (*shrugs shoulders in bewilderment*) Dunno. It’s beautiful. It has grassy boat docks and a sandy beach. And every skier and/or kneeboarder carving turns out on the glassy water appears to be having fun. Maybe it’s because Echo is the newest state park. Or maybe it’s one of Utah’s last secrets. Sooo … shhh. Don’t tell anyone.
Sand Hollow State Park
Warm blue water and soft sand set against a red rock backdrop lure visitors from all over the state to the reservoir in Sand Hollow State Park. When you’re done making a splash with your watercraft, upwards of 6,000 acres of sand dunes offer a place to keep your adrenaline flowing off the water.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat (or Board)
Two words: wake free. Grab your kayak, pedalboat, or paddleboard and start exploring these waters. Or, inflate that giant flamingo floatie and lounge around instead. Chances are you’ll see a kindred spirit laying out on a unicorn.
Located about 20 minutes east of Pineview Reservoir in Ogden Valley, Causey offers similarly stunning views of mountains and trees without the constant whir and wake of motorized boats. There’s not much beach to speak of — just a steep shoreline with rocky outcrops — making it popular with cliff jumpers and paddlers alike. Fishing is also a common pastime here early in the summer but is not allowed after August 15. Every September, Kokanee salmon’s silvery scales turn bright red as they make their way to the dam’s tributaries and spawn upstream.
Tony Grove Lake
Red paintbrush. Purple columbine. White daisies. Yellow sunflowers. Blue lupine. The shores of Tony Grove Lake are dotted with so many wildflowers from mid-July to early August it looks a lot like one of Seurat’s pointillism paintings. This is why the alpine lake located in Logan Canyon — despite its somewhat chilly water temp — is a prime place to paddle. Or fish. Or whatever. Feel free to hang a hammock between the trees and alternate between napping and reading if you please.
Smith and Morehouse Reservoir
Motorized boats are allowed on this manmade body of water on the western edge of the Uintas, but only at wake-free speeds. In the midst of a conifer and aspen forest with sweeping valley views, the water is usually calm and peaceful in the morning, perfect for SUP yoga or a relaxing ride in your vessel of choice. You’ll have to work a little harder in the afternoon to paddle unless you put in at the boat ramp on the northwest shore and let the breeze take you to the other side … where Adele is (hopefully) waiting to say hello.
How does a surface area of 53 acres of glassy water sound? With the surrounding mountains and trees reflecting in it? And a boat launch? Pretty much perfect. This is why this aptly named body of water in the high Uintas is a popular place to try your luck at catching trout or paddle around with no purpose whatsoever. If it gets too people-y for your liking, there are other nearby lakes to choose from. Moosehorn offers easy access from the Mirror Lake Highway. The water is a short canoe-carry from the day-use parking lot. If you have a lightweight, inflatable paddleboard you can strap to your back, Shepard Lake is just a 1-mile jaunt downhill from the Fehr Lake Trailhead. And you’ll likely have the water to yourself when you get there. But remember: What goes down must come back up!
Lake at the Hills
Described as an urban pond, Lake at the Hills is a manmade lake conveniently located in Cedar City. Its shores are flat and sandy; its calm water gradually gaining more depth until it maxes out at 17 feet. On-site watercraft rentals are available if you don’t have your own.
Runnin’ the River
Would you rather go with the flow? All those lakes and reservoirs are fed by some pretty gnarly rivers. Everybody wants a permit for the infamous Desolation Canyon section of the Green River. Same for stretches of the San Juan River. But there are also calmer currents close to home where anyone can cool off.
When you’ve graduated from the lazy river at the local waterpark but aren’t quite ready for class V rapids, you might try tubing the stretch of the Weber River that runs from Henefer to Taggart. It’s mostly mellow with a few obstacles and small rapids. Outfitters in the area provide heavy-duty tube rentals (no flimsy flamingo floaties here!) and life jackets for trips down the Weber River, as well as similar adventures on the Provo River.
What’s that? You thought the Colorado was full of whitewater rapids that can only be rafted by experienced river rats? Parts of it are. And if you don’t fall into that category, you can hire a guide to take you on a Moab
rafting trip. But there are also long stretches of flatwater to be floated. If you have two vehicles, put in at Moab’s Six Mile Beach and get out at Lion’s Park. Otherwise, find a calm spot, paddle upstream for a while, and let the current take you back down. Either way, you’ll be treated to unbeatable views of Arches National Park, which borders the river.
On the Trail
Do you have the mettle to pedal? Or would you rather ditch the bike and take a hike? Whatever you prefer, you’re in luck. The entire state is pretty much covered with beaten paths through unbeaten scenery.
Few things are more freeing than flying down a hill, navigating every bump and berm with agility. Utah’s varying terrain is some of the best in the world. You’ll never get bored with these rides in your backyard.
Salt Lake City
Whether you’re new to the sport of mountain biking or just looking for a scenic ride, Albion Basin in Little Cottonwood Canyon is a good fit. It’s especially beautiful during wildflower season. Take it slow and inhale the sweet fragrance before your own odor becomes too pungent. More advanced riders can tackle SLC singletracks on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail — City Creek to Bobsled is a popular route that finishes with a fast, steep descent back to the city.
There are more than 450 miles of trails to tackle in the Park City area. The International Mountain Bicycling Association ranks it as a Gold-Level Ride Center. How to pick just one? Eliminate any with portions named “Puke Hill.” (Sorry, Wasatch Crest.) Then play “bubblegum, bubblegum, in a dish” to narrow it down from there.
The must-ride winner? Mid-Mountain Trail. Cruise through groves of aspen and pine and enjoy spectacular vistas. There are lots of intersecting trails and loop options so you can make your ride as easy or epic as you want. An added bonus? Summer temps are much cooler here than in other parts of the state, with average highs ranging from 75 to 83°F.
Bookend your summer rides with a trip to Moab in both spring and fall. Anywhere you ride here, the trails are iconic. The Moab Brand Trails (Bar M, Circle O, Rock A, and Bar B) are short and sa-weet. They’re perfect for initiating new riders to the unique slickrock terrain or warming up those who are more advanced. Navajo Rocks area has a combination of dirt and slickrock and is ideal for intermediate riders. And then there’s The WholeEnchilada. It has some quad-busting climbs — roughly 1,200 feet of elevation gain into the high alpine zone — then descends nearly 8,000 feet into a sandstone canyon where the Colorado river resides. That ratio may sound easy, but the terrain can be tricky. And at 34 miles, it's a long ride. As for the scenery? Mind. Blowing.
This baby got back — 200 miles of backcountry MTB trails that is. Brian Head Resort has courses for all ages and abilities. Minimal pedaling is required on the Color Trail, a favorite with novices. The Glitter Trail caters to intermediate riders and has some fun ladders and tabletops, while the Timberline Trail is an advanced course with big-air ops.
Rolling slickrock. Serpentine-like singletrack. Birds-eye views of Zion National Park. This is Gooseberry Mesa, a world-class trail located about an hour from St. George, between Hurricane and Rockville. It’s a challenging, technical ride, but the payoff is worth it. If you’re looking for easier mountain biking in St. George, check out Bear Claw Poppy instead. Its flow is fast and fun, a roller coaster-like ride named after a rare flower along the trail that blooms in the spring.
Find Your Footing
Flip flops? Pfft. That hiker's from out of town. Locals know it takes sturdy soles to traverse the trails here in Utah. And these hikes will make your Vibrams vibrate with excitement.
Salt Lake City
You can’t go wrong with any of the hikes in the SLC area. Gloria Falls is a short, family-friendly hike in Little Cottonwood Canyon. It’s great any time of year, but the runoff is especially impressive in late spring or early summer.
The Lake Blanche trail is steep but stunning. It stays cool and shady on summer mornings, follows a rushing stream most of the way, and offers distant views of a tall waterfall. Once you make it to the namesake lake there are plenty of places to spread out and enjoy your surroundings.
Dog Lake, which is accessible from trailheads in both Millcreek Canyon and Big Cottonwood Canyon, is a fall fave. Yellow aspens contrast brilliantly against deep green pines and short stretches of the trail are walled with the season’s favorite color: pumpkin spice.
There are more alpine lakes in the Uinta Mountains than you can count on your fingers, toes and elbows. A few are visible from the Mirror Lake Highway. But some of the best lakes are hidden high above the pavement, only accessible by foot. A preferred path? The Lofty Lake Loop. It begins at the Pass Lake trailhead and meanders by three lakes in 4.4 miles: Scout, Kamas and Lofty. Chances are you’ll also see some mountain goats along the way. There’s a steep climb to a saddle that’ll take your breath away, literally and figuratively. Bring your inhaler (or a paper bag) and your fishing pole.
Located in the Mount Timpanogos Wilderness near Sundance Resort, Stewart Falls is a popular out-and-back hike. Stand at the base and let the mist from the icy water refresh you on a sweltering summer day. Or, when the air is cooler, make the 40-minute drive from Provo to Spanish Fork Canyon and soak in the mineral hot springs on the Fifth Water trail.
Arches National Park too crowded for your liking? Escape the masses by following Potash Road past the steep sandstone cliffs known as Wall Street with the climbing crew to the Corona and Bowtie Arches trailhead. (Don’t let the now unfortunate name deter you.) This short, scenic hike has fun features including a cable bolted in the ground and a ladder along the way to help with the slickrock ascent. The impressive arches at the end are icing on the cake. A little farther up Potash Road is the even less trafficked trail to Jeep Arch.
Green River Area
Another fun hike outside of national park boundaries is Colonnade Arch (aka Five Hole Arch). Getting to the trailhead on the 4X4 dirt road south of Green River is as much fun as the hike itself. It’s a short, easy 1.5-mile walk to the arch … as long as you follow the cairns carefully.
Several non-technical slot canyons can be found in the Green River area, including Moonshine Wash and Little Wild Horse Canyon. Be sure to check the weather before you undertake these or any other slot canyon expeditions and avoid the area when the potential for flash floods is high.
Feel like a short 1-½ miler? Check out The Toadstools, a mostly flat, mellow out-and-back with out-of-this-world scenery. It passes by gravity-defying stone caps perched on slender stems and boasts amazing views of the P aria River Valley near the turnaround point.
Under the Stars
Most everyone agrees waking up in the wilderness is nothing short of spectacular. But where you sleep at night? That’s not as unanimous. Bivvying by a secluded alpine lake? Rolling your RV into an organized campground? Or living as luxuriously as possible? Whatever your comfort level is, you’ve got lots of options in Utah.
Photo taken during a guided OARS rafting trip down Cataract Canyon, Utah. The trip was a photography-themed trip in which I was the instructional photographer.
Tents and tepees and tiny houses … oh, my! There are many different ways to glamp up your adventure, each of which combines the comfort of a hotel with the convenience of a campsite.
Located near Bear Lake, Conestoga Ranch has different lodging options. Choose from traditional tents or Conestoga wagons to facilitate a family adventure or a romantic retreat.
One of the best places to stay near Kanab? Basecamp 37. Its five safari-style tents are secluded in the Chocolate Cliffs and furnished with beds and luxe linens. Oh, and they also have hot showers.
Stay in one of the go-to glampsites from Under Canvas and have one of Utah’s national parks delivered to your doorstep. The high-end outfitter has locations in Moab and near Zion National Park.
Capitol Reef Resort
While there are traditional hotel rooms here, you can also stay in one of the Capitol Reef Resort’s luxury cabins, tipis or Conestoga wagons. And there’s also a heated outdoor pool and jacuzzi on the 58-acre property in Torrey with stunning views of the surrounding red rocks.
Cliffside Cabins and RV Park
The name of this place says it all. Tiny homes with cabin themes and cliffside views. Yes, please! Located in Orderville, this intimate property is centrally located between Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, and Coral Pink Sand Dune State Park.
More than 300 campgrounds exist in Utah, with upwards of 7,000 individual campsites ranging from primitive to posh. And then there are the countless BLM acres where you can park your adventure-ready rig. Where to go? Use these faves as a starting point and branch out from there.
Logan - Spring Hollow Campground
Woodruff - Monte Cristo Campground
Uinta Mountains - Soapstone
Big Cottonwood Canyon - Spruces
American Fork Canyon - Granite Flat
Dixie National Forest - Panguitch Lake Campground
Fishlake National Forest - Tushar Lakeside
Leeds - Red Cliffs Recreation Area Campground
Trade the dirt for a yurt and beat the crowds to the trail. These huts with hobbit-like vibes are all about location, location, location.
Gooseberry Mesa Yurts
Remember that MTB trail of the same fowl name mentioned before? Well, you can eliminate the 30-minute drive from a Hurricane hotel and stay in the Gooseberry Mesa Yurts instead. Wake up, walk out and wail the trail.
Talking Mountain Yurts
Located in the La Sal Mountain Range, Geyser Pass Yurt offers easy access to some of Moab’s best mountain biking (Burrow Pass, Moonlight Meadows, and The Whole Enchilada) during the warmer months. Come winter, both Geyser Pass Yurt and Gold Basin Yurt offer cozy accommodations for ski touring and snowshoeing.
Castle Peak Yurt
This cushy campsite located 30 miles from Park City is available for year-round reservations. But Castle Peak Yurt is especially popular in the winter for skinning and skiing the backcountry.
Several state parks also have yurts close to the action, including Dead Horse Point State Park and Goblin Valley State Park.
The beauty of backpacking is you can go practically anywhere. It’s one of the most authentic Utah experiences you’ll have. Lace-up, load out, and check these epic backpacking trips off your bucket list.
Up for some hardcore adventure? Get a permit and thru-hike the longest and deepest slot canyon in the United States, Buckskin Gulch. In addition to tight squeezes, other obstacles contained between the colorful walls of the Colorado Plateau include wading pools, rock jams, and quicksand. (It’s a real thing. Not just a comedic invention for cartoons.)
A must-hike for any peak bagger is Kings Peak in the Uinta Mountains. With an elevation of 13,528 feet, it’s the highest in Utah and an intense multi-day adventure. After some steep climbs and scrambles, you’ll be rewarded with views of endless alpine basins and massive peaks in every direction. Totally worth every mosquito bite you got on the way there.
On the Road
Remember the part at the beginning about Utah being a desert? Well, the desert gets hot and sometimes you just don’t want to get out of the comfort of your air-conditioned vehicle. Or maybe you have a kid who desperately needs a nap and a relaxing afternoon ride is your ticket to a tantrum-free evening. Whatever your reasons, these scenic drives are sure to please everyone.
Logan Canyon National Scenic Byway
You’ve spent the morning paddleboarding on Tony Grove Lake or hiking to the infamous Wind Caves. You’re ready to sit down for a while, but don’t want to head home just yet. Hop in your trusty Truckster and take the scenic route. Literally. The 41-mile portion of US 89 that runs from Logan to the Utah/Idaho border is so beautiful it’s earned the National Scenic Byway designation. Craggy cliffs make way to incredible overlooks. And in the fall? The foliage is phenomenal. Keep going up to Jackson Hole or turn around and see things from a different point of view.
Provo Canyon Scenic Byway
It makes no difference whether you start from Heber or Provo. Either way, this Utah Scenic Byway is breathtaking. Stop for a picnic at Deer Creek Reservoir or stretch your legs at Bridal Veil Falls — the paved trail leading to the double-tiered waterfall tumbling over 600(ish) feet of rock is short and easy. Hungry for more? Extend the drive by taking a side trip on the Alpine Loop.
Scenic Byway 12
Any road that goes through (not around nor over) a rock fin is an automatic favorite. The Red Canyon Tunnel is one of the many reasons we love Highway 12 — all 112 miles of it. The Scenic Byway (aka The All-American Road) also offers views of Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the Henry Mountains from a 9,000-foot overlook. If you’ve got 4-wheel drive, tell your passengers to grab hold of their oh-sh*t handles and hit Hole-in-the-Rock Road while you’re in the area. (No napping here!)
The southern part of our six-sided state has been used as the backdrop for many cinematic productions. In fact, Kanab is nicknamed Little Hollywood. This driving tour passes by the old movie set for Gunsmoke. You’ll also see Eagle Gate Arch, pioneer farms, and cowboy glyphs. During the right season, fields of sunflowers punctuate the desert landscape. The paved road climbs through White Cliffs before transitioning to dirt and continuing into Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument.
Distance isn’t always measured in miles. You don’t have to go far to get away from all of the distractions and stresses of your daily life. Whether you’re a mow-uhn man or a lady of the lake, stay local and play local