Perhaps no state is more synonymous with national parks than Utah. Arches. Zion. Bryce Canyon. Capitol Reef. Canyonlands. Utah’s world-famous “big five” national parks are some of the most popular in America, attracting more than 10 million visitors in 2019. Which doesn’t leave a ton of space for social distancing.
Those five national parks managed to bring in more crowds than all of Utah’s 44 state parks combined, with many state parks seeing annual visitation roughly equivalent to a busy summer weekend at Zion or Bryce Canyon.
But here's the dirty secret: Many of those state parks hold their own against the grandeur of the Big Five, usually with a fraction of fellow humans crowding the trails and vistas. With many national parks currently limiting capacity, now's the ideal time to point your GPS toward one of Utah's 10 coolest, and less visited, state parks.
Often obscured by the shadow of Utah's most iconic park, this hidden gem located about an hour west of Zion shares much in common with its more celebrated cousin. Unfurling a rugged landscape of dramatic sandstone cliffs and ancient lava flows, this high-desert mini-Zion rolls out the red carpet for explorers with 18 hiking trails, 30 campsites, and a fraction of the visitation. Check out the sights by cruising the main road, or get out and about biking the paved 6-mile Whiptail Trail along the canyon floor.
Located just 30 minutes east of Bryce Canyon National Park, this cinematic natural masterpiece is a must for any visitor to the region. Named after Kodachrome film, this serene landscape of vibrant colors showcasing 67 unique sandstone spires attracts both nature lovers and photographers eager to snap a pic of something besides the crowds bunched up along the Bryce Canyon overlooks. Perched at an elevation of 5,800 feet in one of the darkest sky regions in North America, the stargazing here is nothing short of epic.
Grab your ATV and hit the sand dunes like Napoleon Dynamite’s grandma at this stunningly unique palace of pink- and red-hued dunes located near the funky little town of Kanab in southwest Utah. With 90 percent of the park open for ATV riding, this dramatic out-of-the-way spot attracted just 130,000 visitors in 2019. It's the ideal Instagram backdrop for those seeking to cheekily pose in front of 6,000-foot windswept mountains of brightly colored sand.
This popular park about 30 minutes east of St. George is like a “best of” for Utah’s state park system all rolled into one. Boating and fishing atop its warm blue waters is the most popular activity in the warmer months, but visitors can also go off-roading amidst wild red sandstone dunes in the park’s Sand Mountain area. Want to camp on the beach? You do that here as well.
If the mind-blowing landscapes of this Grand Canyon-styled park look familiar, it's probably because the final scene of Thelma & Louise was filmed here. But you don't need to launch your car off a cliff in a defiant act of emancipation to appreciate the views: there are plenty of vista points to gaze upon the color-packed vertical cliffs and rugged canyons rising 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, with sweeping views extending into nearby Canyonlands National Park. In addition to mountain biking 17 miles of expert single-track along the Intrepid Trail or peering out over the edge hiking the East Rim and West Rim trails, you can also camp. In a yurt.
Tucked away in the secluded San Rafael Desert region of southern Utah somewhere between Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Park, this trippy prehistoric landscape boasts one of the highest concentrations of hoodoos (tall, thin rock spires) on Earth. The occasionally phallic rock pinnacles (called goblins around these parts) dominate a wildly hypnotic, kaleidoscopic playground that might just make the perfect place to test out those edibles you may or may not have picked up in Colorado.
While many travelers visit Park City to rub shoulders with celebrities and swoosh down some of America’s finest ski slopes, few save time to explore this scenic wonderland just 18 miles south of town. Well known by locals yet mysterious to outsiders, one of Utah’s largest and most popular state parks offers everything from 18-hole golf courses in summer to ski and snowmobiling runs in winter at its Soldier Hollow Nordic Center (which hosted events during the 2002 Winter Olympics.) Otherwise, feel free to pop a tent in one of 139 campsites and take in the astounding mountain views.
Perched at the edge of the Great Salt Lake just 60 miles northwest of Salt Lake City, this 42-square-mile island offers an easy escape from the hustle and bustle of the capital. The International Dark Sky Park is most famous for its wildlife, including a roving herd of 550-700 wild bison, in addition to bighorn sheep and the blindingly fast deer-like pronghorn antelope. Cruise the shore along Antelope Island Road, watch the sunset at Ladyfinger Point, or test your mettle on the steep climb to the top of the 6,600-foot Frary Peak. Adventurous travelers may also elect to swim in the salt water (beware the smell) or just kick back on Bridger Bay Beach.
Petrified wood found on the Petrified Forest trail | Utah State Parks
Bordering the massive Delaware-sized Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel -- only 64,000 people visit annually -- allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest (#goals). Anglers can also test the bluegill and rainbow trout-stocked waters of the laid-back Wide Hollow Reservoir, where canoeing and kayaking are also excellent, and solitary, endeavors.
Those looking to make the drive to take in the quintessential American West landscapes of Monument Valley along the Utah-Arizona border are encouraged to stop off at this small but mighty Utah state park about 30 miles from the valley. Here you will encounter panoramic vistas of a 1,000-foot-deep serpentine canyon carved into the San Juan River at a dramatic riverbend known as a gooseneck. Snap some pics of your 300-million-year-old environment, hike the nearby Honaker Trail (there are no hiking or biking trails within the largely undeveloped park) or spend the night stargazing from one of its primitive campsites.
Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile