Road Trip Itinerary: Off the Beaten Path in Utah

Off the Beaten Path in Utah
Off the Beaten Path in Utah

Panoramic stretches of scarlet and rust offer uncharted potential for discovering Utah beyond the mainstream.

Home to some of the most alluring landscapes with astonishing geological wonders, Utah’s charm shapeshifts with mountainous forests and lakes in the north and red canyons and dunes in the south. The state’s allure lies in its ranch-style cliffs, lodges amongst rocky beds, clear skies and zones featuring spectacular rock formations shaped by the moving waters. Utah offers surprising versatility and offers immersive experiences for first-time visitors.

For the unacquainted, expect to find a spectacle everywhere. Rich colours deck the stunning landscapes, mountainous hills contrast the ski slopes and urban adventures throw gob-smacking combinations your way. While an average itinerary may seek adventures across the Mighty 5® national parks, the expanse of the state allows travellers to revel in the magic of discovering hidden gems in unexpected locations, and often merging experiences together. Inviting every type of traveller for a memorable visit, craft your visit as per your liking, but we’d suggest a road trip to pack the best of all together.

Camp under the darkest skies at Kodachrome Basin State Park. Photo by: AustenDiamondPhotography/VisitUtah
Camp under the darkest skies. Photo by: VisitUtah

Celestial Slumber

In the lands of the Forever Mighty, five national parks and 44 state parks make for the desert-wonderland. Each offering unique geological formations and scenic marvels, a weekend-long visit to any of the parks is bound to leave one stunned. Find solitude in the remote stretches of the Colorado Plateau at Canyonlands National Park, visit Zion National Park for dramatic outdoor wonders or Bryce Canyon National Park for winter adventures.

Outdoor parks too offer unique experiences—find the idyllic setting for your adventure in the west at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, head to Dinosaur National Monument to find a treasure trove of fossils or find sandy activities at Kanab’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

What sets these parks apart from any scenic landscape are a selection of some of the finest certified International Dark Sky Parks and Communities to witness the marvels after dark. From camping in Capitol Reef National Park amidst endless landscapes where earth and sky meet, to ghoulish corners in Goblin Valley State Park for a perfect view of the Milky Way, one can sojourn through the state, lodging in spots that offer complete light blockage to spot celestial wonder.

Amateur stargazers may even head to Salt Lake City’s Clark Planetarium for interactive space-themed exhibits. Check out the full list of stargazing programmes for your next visit.

Bryce Canyon National Park is open year-round, including winter when you can go snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Photo Courtesy: Visit Utah

On the Road

The roads that cut through the desert lands of Utah offer escapades for RVs, sedans, convertibles and bikers. If the idea of an all-encompassing itinerary perks your ears, set aside a week to zoom through the 200-km-long Scenic Byway 12 which connects Panguitch in the west and Torrey in the northeast. While the route may not call for the longest American road trip, it packs visual delights like no other. Even a week may not be enough to soak in the scenic contrast of the stops along the trail. Most visited highlights include two national parks—Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef for alpine forests and water pocket folds—multiple state parks for viewing dark skies and recreational activities like camping, hiking and bouldering in Dixie National Forest.

For travellers seeking visual spectacles in empty pull-offs, take to these destinations that offer a chance to discover marvellous alternatives beyond the usual on this All American Road.

Kick-off your road trip from Panguitch’s four blue-ribbon fisheries and Wild West-themed restaurants and salons. If lucky, you may be able to witness the three-day Quilt Walk Festival in June 2022 which commemorates a historic tale. Otherwise, plenty of outdoor activities on the lakeside shall keep you company.

History geeks may spend a morning learning about the ancestral Puebloan communities at the Anasazi State Park Museum and round off the evening at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to uncover the wilderness. A five-kilometre loop covers two must-visit slot canyons in the Dry Fork area—Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch–that are best visited with a guide.

As you drive past mesmerising rust-coloured rocks, pair mainstream destinations like Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks with a view of the beckoning star-studded skies at Kodachrome Basin State Park. It happens to be one of the best spots to observe and photograph the Milky Way and sports 67 monolithic stone spires which can be explored with horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking.

Zoom through the Scenic Byway 12 for one of the most scenic road trips in the world. Photo Courtesy: Larry Price/Visit Utah

The Scenic Byway 12 or Highway 89 has a short detour to Cedar Breaks National Monument above Cedar City that offers slickrock formations. Visitors will find themselves amidst rainbow-hued badlands, passing picturesque washes of purple, orange, red and yellow or ambling towards a fantastical amphitheatre—made of limestone, shale and sandstone—decorated with mineral-rich natural towers and hoodoos. Don’t miss the trail up to Point Supreme for a whimsical sunset.

Another option is to start your road trip in central Utah, clubbing the Interstate 70 and US Route 6 with the state’s scenic byways. Start off with the most-photographed and yet almost-untouched Blue Hill Badlands. Decorated with rainbow-shaded mesolithic rocks, you’ll find a one-of-a-kind geological feature.

Head eastwards, taking the Dead Horse Point Mesa Scenic Byway to Moab where one can undertake ranger-led stargazing hikes and astronomy programmes at the Dead Horse Point State Park, a designated international dark sky park. This lies in close vicinity to the Moonflower Canyon Trail and the Matheson Wetlands Preserve which are rich hotspots for travellers seeking solace through wildlife spotting and bird watching. You may also head to Arches National Park for your Utah bucket list or to Manti-La Sal National Forest for aspen and spruce-lined broad rolling ridges, perfect for cross-country skiing, hiking and mountain climbing.

Travel due north to meet the Green River where water adventures like fishing and river rafting offer exciting day-long camping opportunities by the riverside and offer a chance to slow down in the small town’s solitary placement. Visitors may also bookmark the San Rafael Swell—a detour on the west—to sight desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, wild horses, grey fox and kit fox.

For an off-beat weekender, go bison-spotting (top) in the nearby Antelope Island State Park. Photos courtesy: Visit Utah

These lands are also famous stomping grounds for some of Hollywood’s greatest productions, which is what makes Provo a must-visit destination before reaching Timpanogos Cave National Monument further up north. Here, adventurers may choose to embark on solo explorations through the evocative limestone caves that feature mesmerising helictites, stalactites, stalagmites, calcite crusts, draperies and frostwork.

Nestled amongst picturesque mountains, Salt Lake City, despite being an urban centre, promises unexplored and exciting experiences. Check out the city-wide craft breweries to pair pierogies and bratwurst with a Viennese amber lager and fries with a honey-wheat brew, or tour the coffee scene sprawled magestically in every corner. Shop for some of Utah’s world-renowned chocolate and immerse yourself in a fine blend of drinks and food over jazz music. Head out for yoga and wellness trails (options include IV therapy treatments in the Salt Lake area and the Albion Meadows Trail promising lush wildflower foliage in the summer months) in close proximity of the Wasatch Mountains, and for stargazing opportunities in North Fork.

Finally, do not miss the grasslands and wetlands that line Antelope Island State Park, all while driving along a scenic byway called the Great Salt Lake Legacy Parkway.

Lights, Camera, Action

Utah’s remarkable scenery makes it a phenomenal destination for cinematographers, turning its long panoramic stretches to a perfect destination for movie buffs. While touring  America’s Film Set®, expect to find spooky sets, as well as fantasy-rich locations that filmed Davy Jones’ Locker at Bonneville Salt Flats. However, if you’re traversing Moab through the Dead Horse Point Mesa Scenic Byway, check out the locations that set the backdrop for the 90’s classic Thelma and Louise—Arches National Park, Dead Horse State Park and Manti-La Sal Mountains, or Canyonlands National Park that brought HBO’s Westworld to life.

Utah is also the region that gave life to the formulation of the idea of the American West on the big screen. Check out the Sundance Mountain Resort near Salt Lake City as you chalk out your itinerary to tour America’s Film Set®. Director of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, Robert Redford’s fans may drive to across the Provo Canyon or make their way through Zion Canyon to live like Jeremiah Johson in the woods, although the complete location list sprawls across includes the ghost town of Grafton, Snow Canyon State Park and the city of St. George, too.

The adventure story of Thelma & Louise portrayed the Grand Canyon, but it was the backdrop of Dead Horse Point State Park that saw the protagonists drive off the precipice in the finale. Photo courtesy: Visit Utah

While the Sundance Film Festival (bottom) offers exciting avenues, a trip to Bonneville Salt Flats (top), or to the Fossil Point (right) puts one in the world of Jack Sparrow and Thelma & Louise. Photos by: Steve Greenwood (salt flats); Matt Morgan (Sundance). Photo Courtesy: Visit Utah (Fossil Point)

In Kanab, also known as “Little Hollywood”, expect to find daily tours of locations where classics like Gunsmoke and The Outlaw Josie Wales were filmed. Travellers may also visit Perry’s Lodge, the brainstorming spot for geniuses like John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan.

Whether one is traversing the grounds in search of uncovered destinations, thrilling adventures or cultural mementoes, the desert state doesn’t miss to captivate travellers of all ages. Graced with jaw-dropping geology and contrasting visual splendour, there’s a story encased in every crevice.

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