I recently was asked “If I’m driving through Utah, what should I see while I’m there?”.
A few decades ago, my impression of Utah – having never been there – was that it was dirt, rocks, abandoned uranium mines, a smelly salty lake and tee-totaling Mormons – none of which were interesting to me. That changed over time, starting about twenty years ago when a European nephew of ours got married. For their wedding present we offered to take them on a two-week road trip anywhere in the US. They chose Utah.
Living in or near the Alps, they were uninterested in the Rocky Mountains; and woods, prairies, plains and American cities were not on their bucket list. So Utah it was.
We toured and hiked in Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce and Zion, then headed south to the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. For me it was impressive but not beautiful. I grew up in an environment where ‘nature’ is trees, woods and green stuff, not dirt, rocks and canyons. If wasn’t green, it wasn’t beautiful. I remember being somewhere down by the Grand Canyon, deciding where to go next. Someone suggested the Painted Desert. The conversation went something like:
Me: Painted Desert? What color is it painted?
They: No idea.
Me: Is it painted green? ‘Cause if it’s not green, I don’t want to see it.
I was really tired of brown. I wanted green.
We ended up in Utah several more times and each time I visited, I ended up with a bit more appreciation for the non-green scene(ery). Now I appreciate that area precisely because it’s so different from Minnesota. I see green every day. I don’t need to drive thousands of miles just to see green.
Back to the question at hand – “If I’m driving through Utah, what should I try to see?“.
If I were driving through and had limited time, my priority would be to see the areas of Utah that are truly unique to the US. In my opinion, Arches and Bryce Canyon National Parks are one-of-a kind and would be first on the list. In both parks you can access the core parts of the park either by driving or short hikes, so they are very accessible.
Second on the list would be Capitol Reef National Park and the surrounding area, possibly including Goblin Valley State Park and Burr Trail starting east from Boulder.
Goblin Valley is on the route between Arches and Capitol Reef and is worth a short visit.
The drive through Capitol Reef on Hwy 24 with a detour south through Fruita on the scenic drive captures the essence of the northern part of the park, and Burr Trail captures the southern.
Utah Highway 12 south from the Capitol Reef area through Boulder goes through part of Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument and over to Bryce. It’s worth the drive.
If you are in the Moab area, Canyonlands National Park is a good place to visit. On the northern end and easily accessible from Moab are Dead Horse Point and Grand View Point. South from Moab is the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
East of Moab, just over the border in Colorado is Colorado National Monument. The rim drive provides excellent views – if you can stomach driving near the cliff edges.
If you end up in the Mexican Hat – Monument Valley area I would stop an Goosenecks State Park. We camped there for three nights and enjoyed the solitude and scenery.
We’ve also toured the Salt Lake area, Hovenweep National Monument in southeast Utah, Dinosaur National Monument in northeast Utah, the Kanab area, the San Rafael Swell, and the eastern edge of the Great Basin along the Nevada border. All places worth seeing if you are nearby.
There are tree-covered mountains all over the world and Utah’s are indistinguishable from any others. I’d skip the trees and mountains. Zion is impressive – but so are many other canyons. If you can visit Zion when it’s not crowded, do it. If it was off-season and I was nearby, I’d stop. But I would not stand in line for busses and fight the crowds just to see it.
With the exception of I-70 from Green River west through the San Rafael Swell, stay off the Interstates.
All of the National Parks have guidance on what to see if you are only staying for a short time. They are worth following.
Decide if you are going to visit enough parks to purchase an annual pass. On the trip where we first toured Utah, I paid admission at each park & spent quite a bit more than the annual pass. Should’ve bought the pass at the first park.
Since the pandemic-induced travel-mania, finding places to stay is much tougher than years ago. Eight years ago in mid-May we found campsites in Capitol Reef without reservations. Ten years ago in early June we camped in Big Bend’s Chisos Basin campground without reservation. Today that’s not going to happen. For now, we’ve been able to find places to camp if we stay away from the heavily trafficked areas, even if it means driving an hour or two to get into the areas that we want to see. That seems to be the best strategy for now.