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The reappraisal of Utah over the past decade has been astounding. Long mistaken as a bland expanse of temperance, more and more people are coming to love the state's understated charms and otherworldly beauty. And especially now, its combination of mind-blowing (and isolated) natural landscapes and vibrant towns makes it ripe for exploration.
From the snow-capped mountains of the north to the iconic red-rock desert landscapes of the national park-packed south, Utah's terrain changes with every bend in the road. Taken alone, each of these 10 places make a solid argument for Utah's scenic dominance. Together, they cement Utah as one of America's most gorgeous destinations. MORE: Utah might as well be one giant national park
Whether you’re rock climbing, white water rafting, BASE jumping, or Jeep off-roading, adventure is the cultural cornerstone of one of America’s best small towns. Perched near the banks of the Colorado River in southeastern Utah, it is the gateway to many of Utah's grandest locales. Here you'll find easy access to iconic Arches National Park, the lesser-visited Canyonlands National Park, and diamond-in-the-rough Dead Horse Point State Park, all of which combine to make Moab a mind-blowing amalgam of everything that Makes Utah so grand in scope.
But the town in the middle of this vortex is also a thing of beauty. While locals may grouse about Moab’s increasing “Aspen-ization,” the longtime mountain-biker magnet still attracts more than its fair share of funky artists, spirit seekers, and just flat-out cool people looking to live life to the fullest. It helps that the charmer has plenty of organic eats, laid-back desert vibes, and the legit Moab Brewery. In fact, you could easily spend your entire Utah vacation here and still make it one for the books without setting foot in a park.
Attracting more visitors than Yellowstone and Yosemite, Zion's stunning landscape unfurls a variety of terrain from desert to mountains, with many visitors looking to bag well-known hikes like Angels Landing and The Narrows -- but don’t sleep on some of the park’s lesser-known gems. Those looking to take it easy can cruise the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (shuttle service has recently resumed with advance ticketing) or meander the wide-open Pa’rus Trail along the valley floor. Snap sunset pics from the Watchman Trail before strolling the little shops of the classic national park town of Springdale, where a burger on the patio at King’s Landing makes a clutch way to round out a visit.
Utah’s second-most popular national park is a short 90-minute drive from Zion, making it a hell of a one-two punch of southern Utah wow. Yet the landscape undergoes a complete transformation along the way, serving up some of the most epic canyon vistas on Earth. Marvel at the huge concentration of hoodoos (rock spires) that line the seemingly never-ending canyons as you cruise the 18-mile Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive, stopping off at the park’s 13 scenic viewpoints including Sunset Point and Natural Bridge. You’ll also want to be sure to stick around in a tent after dark, as the stargazing here is nothing short of mind-blowing. (Can’t get enough canyons? Check out the nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument for more.)
Most visitors begin their excursion into the Beehive State from the capital of Salt Lake City, which has way more going on than its traditional buttoned-up reputation might otherwise indicate. The city’s food and drink scene is one of the more underrated in the West, with Modern Family’s Ty Burrell co-owner of several standout establishments such as Beer Bar and Bar X. The city’s equally underrated music scene hums with life at venues like The Depot, while a late-night session with an interesting assemblage of humanity at boozy dives like Twilite Lounge is never a bad idea. Will you run into Mitt Romney there? No. Will you leave SLC wondering what the hell took you so long to visit? Yes. Bonus: It’s one of the cheapest cities to live or visit, and its thriving LGBT scene is a national treasure.
Utah’s outdoor tour de force continues over at Capitol Reef National Park, where a star-studded assortment of cliffs, domes, arches, and canyons do their best to overwhelm the senses of the relatively few visitors who make their way over to the park. A bit more off the beaten path with roughly half the visitation as Bryce Canyon and one-quarter of Zion, this fascinating park is something of a cross between those two more famous cousins. In addition to 15 hiking trails and plenty of room for 4WD road touring, visitors can also harvest fruit from the various cherry, apple, and peach orchards in historic Fruita during summer.
In the debate over the quintessential image of the American West, the conversation starts and ends in Monument Valley. Straddling the Utah-Arizona border within the huge Navajo Nation near the Four Corners, this stunningly cinematic landscape has served as an acting background for everyone from John Wayne to Forrest Gump -- and it’s not hard to see why. Visitors can tour this living artist’s canvas by driving its 17-mile dirt road, posting up for some glorious sunset photography or even spending the night in a traditional native dwelling while learning about Native American culture over campfire stories and Navajo tacos. Unfortunately, all Navajo tribal parks -- including Monument Valley -- are currently closed until further notice due to the pandemic.
Utah’s criminally underrated state parks are some of the most gorgeous in the nation, with this hidden gem in southwest Utah standing out for its particularly unique landscape. Grab your ATV and hit the sand dunes at this singular 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 massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon, but those who linger will be rewarded with a bevy of national park-worthy sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are its most famous and easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon), but don’t forget to explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area, or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point. While you’re in the area, make the extra hour's drive to the vibrant wilderness of Kodachrome Basin State Park.
Winter mountains of Park City | Park City Chamber/Bureau
No visit to Utah is complete without hitting up legendary Park City, home of the annual Sundance Film Festival and some of the finest skiing in North America. While the winter months pack in the suntanned celebrities and powder hounds, summer is an equally mesmerizing time to wander Park City’s postcard-perfect historic downtown while dotting in and out of local hangs like the alarmingly friendly watering hole No Name Saloon and the more upscale High West Saloon. As great as it is to tour Main Street in a trolley or hit the slopes at Deer Valley, you’ll want to save some time to explore the surrounding mountains of the vast Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest that sit relatively untouched just outside of town.
We’re not exactly sure what this gobsmacking 210,000-acre national monument hugging the Utah/Colorado border is lacking in terms of national park designation, but that just makes it more of a crucial find. With 1,500 dinosaur fossils, kickass river rafting along the Green and Yampa Rivers, panoramic viewpoints such as the those at Gates of Lodore, and amazing Zion-like hikes in areas like the four-mile Jones Hole Trail, this recently designated International Dark Sky Park checks pretty much every box for the average outdoor enthusiast. And with around 300,000 visitors a year, it sees fewer people annually than a typical Lollapalooza weekend.
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