Utah hogs the American West’s best scenery, says David Whitley
Once seen, the view from Dead Horse Point in southeast Utah stays imprinted in the memory for life. A landscape of intricately layered canyons stretches for an eternity under a blazing blue sky, with the Colorado River cutting through them.
It’s a humbling vision and feels far removed from what we normally associate with our own planet.
The remarkable thing about Utah is that this isn’t an exception. Jaws drop routinely every hour or so and all previous best estimates on how many times you can unironically use the word “awesome” in a week are thrown out of the window.
There are a few surprises about Utah, and the first is how accessible it is. Zion National Park in the southwest corner is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Las Vegas – the most obvious entry point from the UK and an excuse to package together a few days on the Strip with a self-drive trip around Utah.
The south is all about rugged desert imagery, with roads winding through stark moonscapes, towering canyon walls and sun-scorched red-rock monuments. The five national parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands – all offer their own twists and specialities, and they’re easily strung together over a few days driving from Las Vegas to Moab.
Moab itself has become a world-renowned adventure-sports capital. In particular, it’s a hotbed for mountain bikers and rock climbers, but it’s also the base for multi-day wilderness hiking and rafting trips into the rough and remote Canyonlands.
It’d be a mistake to write off southern Utah as for hardcore outdoorsy types only, though. The National Parks Service does an astonishingly good job of making these harsh landscapes accessible for the less active. Ranger-guided tours, shuttle buses between key points, car parks close to major lookouts and graded paths suitable for wheelchair users are all designed to make the parks as open-to-all as possible.
For shorter itineraries, it makes sense to loop back to Las Vegas through northern Arizona, taking in Monument Valley or the Grand Canyon. But there are alternatives for those prepared to take on an open-jaw trip. Keep going east, and it’s possible to go through the Rockies to finish in Denver.
Head north, and the rest of Utah shows a different character before giving way to the wildlife-packed Grand Teton National Park, the gushing geysers of Yellowstone National Park and snow-capped Montana.
The centre and north of Utah are not so red and rugged. Mountains take over from desert, and the ski slopes around Salt Lake City and Park City offer some of the world’s best snow. The area has a good winter-sports infrastructure, as a result of hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Most of Utah’s population lives in or around Salt Lake City, which has a surprisingly hip bar and microbrewery scene. But the city’s real attractions are cultural. It’s the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Temple Square is the Mormon equivalent of the Vatican.
Enthusiastic tour guides will undoubtedly collar you for a free tour if you walk inside – the whole experience is educational but unsettlingly weird for those with little exposure to Mormonism.
To the west is the Great Salt Lake, which sits between mountain ranges and has become a wildlife refuge. Antelope Island State Park, in the middle of the lake, is surreal – especially when the bison herds start strolling past, with the shimmering water as a backdrop.
Park City, to the east of Salt Lake City, boasts High West, the world’s only ski-in whiskey distillery. There’s also the chance to take on the Olympic bobsleigh track, with prices from $75.
The national parks in the south all throw up something different – and Highways 9 and 12, which link them, are extraordinary drives. Zion is the most visited and accessible. Challenging hikes go to the top of the intimidating canyon walls, but the shorter ones and the shuttle buses head to the canyon floor.
Bryce Canyon is at a higher elevation, offering astonishing views from the rim. But the stars are the weird rock formations known as hoodoos, which have been weathered away to look like thousands of alien fingers.Arches National Park is all about the big, crowd-pleasing rock formations – think dwarfing rock arches and outcrops that look like animals.
On the other side of Moab is Dead Horse Point State Park, which is home to some of the most sensational views on Earth. It looks down into the Canyonlands, which is proper wilderness expedition country. Tag-A-Long runs trips that range from half-day boat and 4WD tours to multi-day canoeing and rafting expeditions along the Colorado River.
For most, self-driving will be the best way to see Utah – the canyon-climbing roads are part of the fun. North America Travel Service offers an 11-day fly-drive Grand Circle loop from Las Vegas, visiting the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell as well as southern Utah, from £1,385 including flights and car hire.
For adventurers who’d rather not drive, Intrepid sells a nine-day Utah Parks Circuit tour taking in Vegas and southern Utah’s five national parks, plus Monument Valley. Accommodation is mostly camping, and plenty of time is set aside for hiking. Prices start at £680, excluding flights.
If tailor-making an itinerary, the gorgeously cute village of Springdale is the best place to stay near Zion. The Desert Pearl Inn has a beautiful riverside location, and the pool is much appreciated after a sweaty day’s exploration. Rooms cost from £174.
At Bryce Canyon, accommodation options tend to be functional as they are chain owned, but 1st Class Holidays sells the perfectly decent Best Western Ruby’s Inn from £45 a night.
Moab is the most appealing base in the south, though. The pine-clad, motel-style Big Horn Lodge is good value, at about £87 a night, and handily central.
In Park City, the Park City Peaks Hotel is strong for a mid-range option, with a pool and hot tubs. The free shuttle buses to the ski slopes are a selling point. Prices for a three-night stay start at £358 with Virgin Holidays.
Hotel Monaco is Salt Lake City’s most fun option. It’s close to Temple Square, gives out free wine for an hour every evening and has one of the city’s buzziest restaurants on-site. Rooms cost from £120.
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