Utah has been called the most scenic state in the country, and most explorers of its back roads would definitely agree. Many people visit the glistening metro hub of Salt Lake City for its historic architecture, vibrant music scene, inviting parks, and alpine backdrop. The city is certainly not to be missed, but the less-populated parts of Utah also beckon with their remoteness and beauty. The "Mighty 5" national parks attract the most attention, but even further off the beaten path are countless hidden gems. Here are just 11 of those places you should have on your list when you visit Utah.
Larger than any other lake in the western U.S. and saltier than the oceans, the Great Salt Lake is a true wonder of nature. A short drive from Salt Lake City puts you in lapping waves on sandy shores. Venture out into the mineral-dense water and you will float with unnatural buoyancy. You can also kayak in the lake and ride bikes along the shore. Be sure to stick around for sunset, when prismatic rays ignite the water and surrounding mountains.
When it comes to colors, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, near Kanab, has it going on. These shifting sands change color with the time of day, and the undulating dunes constantly play with light and shadow. This park is popular with OHV riders, but you can easily hike beyond the tire tracks to explore your own corner of the park.
Visuals of the Wild West have always been inspired by Utah scenery. To bring it to the movies, Hollywood came to Utah. "Little Hollywood" is the nickname for Kanab, a hard-working ranch town that was quickly transformed by the big screen. As the gateway to astounding backdrops like Zion Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, and the Grand Canyon, Kanab was the sensible place for shooting westerns. Today, the Little Hollywood Museum maintains movie sets, memorabilia, and history exhibits.
This gorgeous waterfall near one of the nation’s most scenic highways makes a refreshing stop on a summer roadtrip. Calf Creek winds through colorfully streaked sandstone in a surprisingly broad gorge tucked within Escalante’s canyon country. Though the trail is flat, you will work up a sweat on the three-mile hike and be more than ready for a plunge into the perfect pool below the falls. To enjoy this oasis day after day, stay at the shady campground near the trailhead.
For a dose of greenery within the big city, retreat to SLC’s Temple Square. These 35 acres are owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and boast verdant gardens and magnificent architecture. This was the site of the original settlement by Mormon pioneers in 1847, and Temple Square still speaks to the rich history and culture of Salt Lake Valley. Everything (except dining) is free of charge, including access to the Church Office Building’s 26th-story observation deck, offering huge views of the entire valley. You can also peruse the impressive gardens, visit museums, and take guided history tours. Temple Square is open 365 days a year and has hundreds of volunteers who give tours and provide information.
Claustrophobics beware, the narrows of these canyons are incredibly tight. But the jovially-named slots present no real danger, and are easily explored as a short day trip or family outing. A three-mile round-trip hike from Hole-in-the-Rock Road, in the Grand Staircase/Escalante area, gets you through both short slots, located in a fork of Coyote Gulch. At times the walls are so close together that you have to squeeze, completely immersing yourself in waves of pink and orange stone.
If thousands of dinosaur fossils aren’t enough to attract you to Utah’s far northeast corner, maybe the spectacular and remote terrain will lure you to Dinosaur National Monument. Near Jensen, Utah is the world-famous Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry and an indoor exhibit of real fossils. This is what most people come for, but unlimited adventure can be found deep in Dinosaur’s rugged canyons. Many miles of trails are available to all visitors, and cross country hiking, backcountry camping, and whitewater boating are allowed with permits from the Park Service.
There may be no western landscape more iconic than Monument Valley. Within Navajo Nation in southeastern Utah, stone towers pry at the sky like giants’ fingers. These monoliths have set the stage for many classic movies, including Forrest Gump, and they continue to wow lovers of film, photography, and nature. In the tribal park, you can drive the scenic loop, hike trails around some of the formations, stay in a campground or hotel, and take a guided horseback tour.
The San Juan River begins as snowmelt high in the mountains of Colorado, then flows down across southern Utah’s canyon country. The most spectacular spot in this cross-cutting gorge is at Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat. Here, the river has carved deep oxbows side by side, granting huge views of the canyon and its millions of years of geology. Primitive camping is available along the rim, and the main viewpoint is only steps from the parking lot.
10. Newspaper Rock
Utah has been home to people for thousands of years, and evidence of ancient inhabitants is abundant, if you know where to look. One of the best places is at Newspaper Rock, south of Moab. This is one of the densest rock art panels you will ever see. In a sheltered sandstone gallery, figures have been continually added for centuries. Some bear eerie resemblance to nonhuman creatures like bigfoots or even aliens.
This often-overlooked state park near St. George is not especially large or remote, but packs a lot of fun among its technicolor rocks. It has sand dunes, slot canyons, slickrock, lava caves, overlooks, hiking, camping, cycling, mountain biking, and rock climbing. The park’s compact size allows for an easy day trip, but the intricacies of the landscape could be explored for a whole weekend.
If you’re looking for more hidden gems to visit in Utah, check out Explore Utah: Off the Beaten Path. Happy travels!
Originally written for Utah Office of Tourism.