Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Utah
At the aptly named Emerald Pools, a verdant stream connects a series of three fresh water pools—a picturesque contrast to the earthy red cliffs that dominate Zion National Park. Three hiking trails access the pools, ranging from a short paved route to a more strenuous loop. Flowing waterfalls and crystal-clear pools make this a must-visit spot.
Experience one of nature’s roller coaster rides, Hell’s Revenge Trail. Set in a desert canyon outside of Moab, the off-roading track crawls over slick rocks, along cliff faces, and up and down near-vertical terrain. Between rock-crawling adventures, stop to take in views stretching from Arches National Park to La Sal Mountains.
When Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Brigham Young, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), proclaimed, “Here we will build a temple to our God.” That place eventually became known as Temple Square, the centerpiece of which is the Salt Lake Temple—the largest Mormon temple in the world.
Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere and the largest natural lake in North America west of the Mississippi, is the setting for some of the state’s best outdoor recreational opportunities; sailors and kayakers ply the waters, while sunbathers bask on sandy beaches and swimmers float in the high-saline waters.
Completed in 1867, the Salt Lake Tabernacle is an architectural marvel famous for its remarkable acoustics: A pin dropped at the pulpit can be heard clearly at the back of the hall 170 feet (52 meters) away. Home of the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the church hosts concerts and tours that attract visitors from all over the world.
Set in the high desert of the American Southwest, Canyonlands National Park comprises 337,598 acres (136,621 hectares) of rugged landscape divided into four distinct districts by the Green and Colorado rivers. Deep craters, towering rock spires, white cliffs, and majestic buttes dominate the landscape of Utah’s largest national park.
Situated in the rocky desert terrain of southwestern Utah, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is nearly two million acres of public, protected land. The ancient lands are full of bright sandstone cliffs and narrow canyons, with geological formations and beautiful natural terrain for miles. It extends from the north edge of the Grand Canyon up to the high plateaus of Utah.
The area gets its name from the sedimentary rock layers and their visualizations created by geologists. Many say you can read this area as layers of history and time. Several dinosaur fossils more than 75 million years old have been found in the park area. Since then prehistoric human settlements and even abandoned former Western film sets have been left behind here. Today outdoor recreational activities such as hiking, backpacking, camping, and off-roading are popular for visitors.
Lake Powell is a reservoir—the second-largest man-made reservoir in the United States, actually—in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the border of Arizona and Utah. Known for its many sandy beaches, sparkling blue water, and red-rock landscapes, this fun vacation spot is one of Arizona’s top attractions. Some of the lake’s famous features include the Glen Canyon Dam (located in Arizona) and the Rainbow Bridge National Monument, one of the world’s longest natural bridges (located in Utah).
Built for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, Utah Olympic Park was the site of the bobsled, skeleton, luge, ski jumping, and Nordic combined events. The park, located just outside downtown Park City, now serves as a training center for Olympic hopefuls and is a top tourist attraction for visitors and locals interested in Olympic history.
Salt Lake City’s Latter-Day Saints Family History Library is the largest genealogical library in the world. Founded primarily to assist members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to fulfill one of their fundamental tenets—to baptize and otherwise save deceased ancestors—today many individuals use the library to simply research their ancestry.
More Things to Do in Utah
Utah’s This is the Place Heritage Park commemorates the arrival of Mormon pioneers who settled in the Salt Lake City valley in 1847. Experience activities such as train and pony rides, blacksmithing, and gold panning at the 450-acre (182-hectare) park’s Heritage Village, which also displays restored structures and hosts events.
The neoclassical Utah State Capitol Building opened in 1916 and is home to the offices and chambers of the state Legislature, governor, and other government officials. The building is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and features artwork, historical items, and monuments both inside and around the grounds.
According to local legend, this breathtaking mesa with incredible panoramic views of Canyonlands National Park and the roaring Colorado River, was once home to wild mustang herds that old-school cowboys worked tirelessly to break. Today, Dead Horse Point State Park attracts hikers, photographers and mountain bikers seeking out rugged terrain, epic scenery and untouched natural wonder. Intrepid trails offer thrill-seeking bikers a raging shot of adrenaline, while shorter hikes up well-marked paths lead to epic views of some of the country’s most beautiful scenery.
Though the sprawling Zion National Park covers 229 square miles, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is the most popular section of the park. In fact, this winding drive up Zion Canyon is so popular that from March 15 until mid-October, the nine-mile drive is only accessible by riding the Zion Park Shuttle. Along the way, there are stopping points for major sights—from Zion Lodge and the Court of the Patriarchs to the trailhead for Emerald Pools—and the scenic drive reaches its terminus at the Temple of Sinawava. While visitors must ride the shuttle in summer, the road is open to private vehicles during the late-fall and winter. There is a decent amount of parking at most of the stops, although during the holiday visiting season the road can be congested and parking can be a bit tough. Nevertheless, this is the main vein that leads through canyon and offers accessible day hiking and views, and takes an entire day to explore properly from the south end of the canyon to the top.
In an area filled with challenging mountain passes, technical terrain and plenty of level 2, 3 and 4 hikes, the Rock Art Sites of Moab offer travelers easy access to ancient drawings scattered along paths even a novice can navigate.
Old-school petroglyphs and pictographs pay homage to the Paleo-Indians, a group of historic people thought to be the first in the area, and visitors can wander through scenic points like the Moon Flower Canyon, Birthing Scene and Jug Handle Arch to gain new perspective on the traditions of a culture that’s long gone, but still remembered. Travelers say the road that winds through the Rock Art sites is one of the area’s most scenic, making it a perfect rainy-day activity when wet weather makes scaling mountaintops or biking down rugged passes impossible.
One of Zion National Park’s most famous hikes, The Narrows are the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, with sandstone walls reaching 1,000 feet (305 meters) high and sometimes 20 feet (6 meters) across. The Virgin River flows underfoot for most of this adventurous trek—be prepared to get wet.
In 1930, when the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel was completed in Zion National Park, it was the longest tunnel anywhere in America outside of an urban city. Today, this 1.1-mile tunnel navigates the innards of a soaring sandstone mountain, and provides a conduit connecting Zion National Park with Utah’s famous Bryce Canyon. The road itself, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its beauty and feats of engineering—the grandest of which is the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel that’s become an attraction in itself. As a means of illuminating the deeply dark tunnel, multiple “windows” have been cut through the wall to showcase the view outside, though you’ll want to keep moving, rather than stop, to make sure traffic keeps flowing. In the three years that it took to complete the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, the total cost eventually ballooned to just over half a million dollars. In 1930 that sum was unconscionable for simply creating a road, but seems like a bargain when you consider today the feat that the builders pulled off.
The red Moenkopi sandstone peaks of the Fisher Towers are one of the most photographed sites in Utah. Their rigid summits stretch high into the open skies and on clear days, the juxtaposition of red rock against brilliant blue makes for an imagine that’s worth making the trip just to capture.
Outdoor enthusiasts and avid climbers say challenging passes like Finger of Fate, Titan Tower and Stolen Chimney make Fisher Towers is a destination for thrill seekers, and they caution that the dangerous twists of the famous Cork Screw tower are not for the faint of heart either.
Capitol Reef National Park is a long stretch of land that includes some bizarre geologic formations, Native American petroglyphs and orchards planted by Mormon pioneers. Established in 1971, Capitol Reef is named in part for sandstone dome formations that are said to resemble the capitol building in Washington D.C. The park also includes a formation called the “Waterpocket Fold,” a 100-mile-long rift where ancient layers of the earth's crust have become visible as they've been pushed up over millions of years.
Native Americans had lived in the area around the 11th century – there are petroglyphs on some of the rocks in the park – and in the 1870s and 1880s Mormon pioneers settled nearby, planting orchards and mining minerals from the rocks. Today, some of the orchards still remain, and visitors can even pick the fruit for a fee.
In addition to simply enjoying the scenery, visitors can also go hiking and horseback riding. Overnight camping in the park is possible with a permit, and there's also a large official campground inside the park.
Zion may have become a national park in November of 1919, but the history of humans walking through these canyons dates back almost 12,000 years. Before there were tourists, pioneers, and Mormons, the Anasazi and Paiute Native Americans were the first settlers to make this landscape their semi-permanent home. At the Zion Human History Museum, marvel at animal pelts that were used by settlers to stay warm through the harsh Utah winters, or read the tales of the western pioneers who would eventually start outposts and towns. There are firsthand accounts from railroad workers who lay tracks throughout the mountains, and stories from the Civilian Conservation Corps diaries from the men who first made the trails. A 22-minute video provides a visual representation of the park’s fascinating history, and over 50,000 objects intricately explain the cultural, natural, and geologic diversity that’s sculpted the park to this day.
Visitors agree that the Corona Arch is one of Red Rock Country’s most spectacular sites. With its swoop of natural sandstone that stretches up towards a thrilling mountain pass, Corona Arch proves a highlight for travelers to the Moab area. The technical trail, which scales smooth rock walls and requires a ladder and cable to ascend, is a difficult but doable adventure that grants visitors epic views and a hard-earned sense of accomplishment. More adventurous travelers and daredevil outdoorsmen can repel from the top of Corona Arch in what can only be described as a serious natural rush. But a visit to this popular destination is still worthwhile for the faint of heart who prefer to take in beautiful views of the arch from the ground up.
Up a gorge of the Colorado River and between red sandstone cliff walls, Westwater Canyon is one of the best spots for experiencing white-water rapids near Moab. Running 17 miles and crossing the Colorado-Utah state border, there are pools and streams for both beginning and advanced rafting levels. There are 10 class III-IV rapids for experienced whitewater rafters. Journeys through the canyon vary from 1,200 foot high canyon walls to black rock cliffs and rapids through gorges, and stops ashore can include exploration of caves, historic cabins, Indian petroglyphs, and some of the oldest geographic layers in the world.
Great Blue Herons, river otters, and bald eagles can also be spotted. The canyon is remote and often serene (when the water is calm) and the variety of scenery and speed makes this is an easy spot to see a lot in a short amount of time.
Red Butte Garden and Arboretum is a university-owned botanical garden in Salt Lake City covering more than 150 acres. The garden was founded by Dr. Walter P. Cottam in 1930. Cottam was not only the chair of the University of Utah's botany department; he was also a co-founder of The Nature Conservancy. By 1961, the collection of plants had grown so significantly that the state recognized it as the State Arboretum. In 1985, the garden was relocated to a new – and larger – site in Red Butte Canyon, and given a new name – the Red Butte Garden and Arboretum.
Today, Red Butte Garden features several different garden spaces, hiking trails, paved walking paths, and an amphitheater which hosts concerts on a regular basis. During the summer, films are also often shown in the garden. Visitors are treated to an ever-changing display of plants as different things bloom year-round, but the garden is particularly well-known for its spring bloom made up of some 400,000 bulbs.
Towering rock formations, colorful slot canyons, and a maze of hiking trails make Zion Canyon the heart of activity in Zion National Park. The Virgin River courses through the green valley floor and painted sandstone cliffs, creating a desert oasis that draws hoards of visitors to the scenic park.
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