Utah is one big outdoor adventure, with millions of acres of public lands where you can cast for trout or herd cattle, go rock climbing or four-wheeling, sail or ski. The state boasts five spectacular national parks, seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, one national historic site, seven national forests, some 22 million acres administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and 45 state parks. But who's counting? It's enough to say that almost 80% of Utah's 85,000 square miles is yours to enjoy.
If you're a seasoned active traveler, you might want to skip Section 1 of this chapter. It should be a good primer, though, for those folks who are new to this kind of travel or who haven't been to the state of Utah before. Section 3 provides up-to-date information on visiting Utah's public lands. Following that are descriptions of activities you can pursue in Utah, from A to Z, including the best places in the state to pursue your interests, and the information you need to get started. Have fun!
Utah offers a surprisingly wide range of outdoor activities, from desert hiking and four-wheeling to fishing and, of course, skiing. Among the many online outdoor recreation information sources are the very informative and user-friendly Public Lands Information Center website, www.publiclands.org, and the GORP (Great Outdoor Recreation Page) website, at www.gorp.com. Another excellent website is www.outdoorutah.com, where you can order a free copy of the annual Outdoor Utah Adventure Guide, and connect to its other websites (www.bicycleutah.com, www.backcountryutah.com, and whitewaterutah.com).
This is truly a do-it-yourself kind of state, and you'll have no trouble finding detailed topographic maps -- essential for wilderness trips -- plus whatever equipment and supplies you need. And despite the well-publicized cuts in budgets and workforces in national parks, recreation areas, and forests, every single ranger encountered in researching this book was happy to take time to help visitors plan their backcountry trips. In addition, many sporting-goods shops are staffed by area residents who know local activities and areas well, and are happy to help the would-be adventurer. In almost all cases, if you ask, there will be someone willing and able to help you make the most of your trip.
Boating -- For a state that's largely desert, Utah certainly has a lot of lakes and reservoirs, from huge Lake Powell in the south to Lake Flaming Gorge in the north, with numerous reservoirs in between. Both of these lakes are national recreation areas and have complete marinas with boat rentals. Don't forget the state parks, such as Jordanelle, which is near Park City, and Quail Creek -- with the state's warmest water -- near St. George. A favorite is the picturesque but chilly Strawberry Reservoir, southeast of Park City in the Uinta National Forest. For information on boating in state parks, contact Utah State Parks (tel. 800/322-3770; www.stateparks.utah.gov).
Camping -- Utah is the perfect place to camp; in fact, at some destinations, such as Canyonlands National Park, it's practically mandatory. Just about every community of any size has at least one commercial campground, and campsites are available at all the national parks and national recreation areas, though these campsites are often crowded in summer. Those who can stand being without hot showers for a day or so can often find free or very reasonable campsites just outside the national parks, in national forests, and on Bureau of Land Management lands. Other good bets are found at Utah's state parks; among those with the best campgrounds are Kodachrome, just outside Bryce Canyon National Park; Coral Pink Sand Dunes, just west of Kanab; and Snow Canyon, near St. George.
A growing number of state and federal campgrounds, including campgrounds at Arches and Zion national parks, allow visitors to reserve sites, although more often than not only in the busy summer months. Throughout Utah are more than 100 national forest campgrounds and numerous state parks that will also reserve sites. To check on campground reservation possibilities for many National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and other federal properties, contact the new Recreation.gov, which combined the old ReserveUSA and National Park Reservation Service into one portal (tel. 800/444-6777; www.recreation.gov) or use the link from the individual park's website. For reservations for campgrounds in state parks, contact Utah State Parks (tel. 800/322-3770; www.stateparks.utah.gov).
Cattle Drives -- Opportunities abound for you to play cowboy on cattle drives that last from a single day to a week or longer. You can actually take part in the riding and roping, just like Billy Crystal and company did in City Slickers. You'll certainly get a feel for what it was like to be on a cattle drive 100 years ago, though the conditions are generally much more comfortable than what real cowboys experienced. Each cattle drive is different, so you'll want to ask very specific questions about food, sleeping arrangements, and other conditions before plunking down your cash. It's also a good idea to book your trip as early as possible. A good company is Rockin' R Ranch, located north of Bryce Canyon National Park with a business office at 10274 S. Eastdell Dr., Sandy, UT 84092 (tel. 801/733-9538; www.rockinrranch.com).
Fishing -- Utah has more than 1,000 lakes, plus countless streams and rivers, with species that include rainbow, cutthroat, Mackinaw, and brown trout, plus striped bass, crappie, bluegill, walleye, and whitefish. Lake Flaming Gorge and Lake Powell are both great fishing lakes, but Strawberry Reservoir is Utah's premier trout fishery -- in fact, it's one of the best in the West. Fly-fishing is especially popular in the Park City area and in the streams of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest above Ogden. Contact the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 1594 W. North Temple (P.O. Box 146301), Salt Lake City, UT 84114-6301 (tel. 801/538-4700; www.wildlife.utah.gov), for the weekly statewide fishing report.
Fishing licenses are available from state wildlife offices, sporting-goods stores, and the Division of Wildlife Resources website (www.wildlife.utah.gov). Keep in mind that several fishing locations, such as Lake Powell and Lake Flaming Gorge, cross state lines, and you'll need licenses from both states.
Four-Wheeling -- The Moab area, and Canyonlands National Park in particular, are probably the best-known four-wheeling destinations in Utah, but there are also plenty of old mining and logging roads throughout the national forests and on BLM land. Those with dune buggies like to head for Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, west of Kanab. For information on four-wheeling, contact Utah State Parks, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management.
Golf -- Utah's golf courses are known for their beautiful scenery and variety of challenging terrain. They range from mountain courses set among the beautiful forests of the Wasatch to desert courses with scenic views of red-rock country. The warm climate of St. George, in Utah's southwest corner, makes this area a perfect location for year-round golf, and St. George has become the premier destination for visiting golfers -- the area's Sunbrook Golf Course is probably Utah's best. In northern Utah, the course at the Homestead Resort near Park City is well worth the trip. A free directory of the state's 80-plus courses is available from the Utah Office of Tourism; or check out the Utah Golf Association at www.uga.org.
Hiking -- Hiking is the best -- and sometimes only -- way to see many of Utah's most beautiful and exciting areas. Particularly recommended destinations include all five of Utah's national parks. You'll find splendid forest trails and wilderness at Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area and in the Wasatch Mountains around Ogden and Logan. Those looking for spectacular views won't do better than the trails on BLM land around Moab. In Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, east of Bryce Canyon, numerous undeveloped, unmarked hiking routes explore some of the nation's most rugged country. State parks with especially good trails include Kodachrome, near Bryce Canyon National Park; Jordanelle, near Park City; Dead Horse Point, just outside the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park; and Escalante, in the town of Escalante.
Keep weather conditions in mind when hiking, such as the brutal summer heat around St. George and the likelihood of ice and snow on high mountain trails from fall through spring. Because of loose rock and gravel on trails in the southern part of the state, wear good hiking boots with aggressive soles and firm ankle support.
Horseback Riding -- It's fun to see the Old West the way the pioneers did -- from the back of a horse. Although you won't find many dude ranches in Utah, you can find plenty of stables and outfitters who lead rides lasting from an hour to several days. Try a ride at Bryce and Zion national parks -- it's hard to beat the scenery -- although you'll likely be surrounded by lots of other riders and hikers. If you'd like a bit more solitude, head north to the mountains around Logan in the Wasatch Front or to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.
Houseboating -- Among the best ways to experience either Lake Powell or Flaming Gorge Lake is from the comfort of a houseboat. Marinas at each lake rent them, although you'll find the best selection at Lake Powell. Houseboats provide all the comforts of home -- toilets, showers, sleeping quarters, and full kitchens -- but in somewhat tighter quarters. Some of the larger ones have facilities for up to 12 people. You don't have to be an accomplished boater to drive one: Houseboats are easy to maneuver, and can't go very fast. No boating license is required, but you'll need to reserve your houseboat in advance, especially in summer, and send in a sizable deposit.
Mountain Biking -- Although there are a few areas where road biking is popular (especially in Zion National Park), Utah really belongs to mountain bikers. With some of the grades you'll find, be sure you have plenty of gears. Moab claims to be Utah's mountain biking capital, but there's no dearth of opportunities in other parts of the state, either. Be aware that mountain bikes must remain on designated motor-vehicle roads in most national parks, but are welcome almost everywhere in areas administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM. In addition to the exciting and often challenging slickrock trails of Moab, you'll find excellent trail systems just outside of Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. The warm-weather biking at Brian Head Resort near St. George is another great option.
River Rafting, Kayaking & Canoeing -- The Green and Colorado rivers are among the top destinations in the United States for serious white-water as well as flat-water rafting; they're also popular with kayakers and canoeists. A favorite river trip, with plenty of white water, is down the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument. Trips on the Green also start in the town of Green River, north of Moab. The Colorado River sees more boaters than the Green, and has a greater range of conditions, from flat, glassy waters to rapids so rough they can't be run at all. Most Colorado River trips start in Moab. Several companies rent rafts, canoes, or kayaks, and give you some instruction. They'll also help you decide which stretches of river are suitable for your abilities and thrill-seeking level, and can arrange for a pickup at the takeout point.
A worthwhile and lesser-known river trip is along the San Juan River in Bluff. This relaxing excursion will take you to relatively unknown archaeological sites and striking rock formations.
A report on statewide river flows and reservoir information is available from the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (tel. 801/539-1311 for recorded information; www.cbrfc.noaa.gov).
Rock Climbing -- This dizzying sport is growing so much in Utah that several popular areas have imposed moratoriums on bolting, and allow climbers to use existing bolt holes only. Among the more dramatic rock-climbing spots is Zion National Park, where climbing is as much a spectator sport as a participatory activity. You'll also find some inviting walls in Snow Canyon State Park near St. George, in Logan Canyon, Ogden Canyon, and throughout the Wasatch Mountains in the Salt Lake City area.
Skiing & Other Winter Sports -- Utahns like to brag that their state has "the greatest snow on earth" -- and one winter trip just might convince you they're right. Utah's ski resorts are characterized by absolutely splendid powder, runs as scary or mellow as you'd like, and a next-door-neighbor friendliness many of us thought was extinct. With a few notable exceptions -- particularly Park City, Deer Valley, and Snowbird -- you won't find the poshness and amenities that dominate many of the ski resorts next door in Colorado, but you won't find the high prices, either. What you will discover are top-notch ski areas that are surprisingly easy to reach -- half are within an hour's drive of Salt Lake City Airport. And they're relatively uncrowded, too: Utah generally receives about a third as many skiers as Colorado, so you'll see fewer lift lines and plenty of wide-open spaces.
Cross-country skiers can break trail to their heart's content in Utah's national forests, or explore one of the developed cross-country areas. Particularly good are the mountains above Ogden and the old logging and mining roads southeast of Moab. Several downhill resorts, including Brian Head, Sundance, and Solitude, offer groomed cross-country trails, and some of the hiking trails at Bryce Canyon National Park are open to cross-country skiers in winter. Snowmobilers can generally use the same national forest roads as cross-country skiers, and both head to Cedar Breaks National Monument in winter, when those are the only ways to get into the park.
Growing in popularity is snowshoeing, which is not only easy but cheap. Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the best parks for this sport.
Call tel. 888/999-4019 for the daily avalanche and mountain weather report from the U.S. Forest Service (www.wrh.noaa.gov/slc), tel. 866/511-8824 for statewide road conditions (http://commuterlink.utah.gov), and tel. 801/524-5133 for weather information. Contact Ski Utah, 150 W. 500 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84101 (tel. 800/754-8824 or 801/534-1779; www.skiutah.com), for statewide ski resort information.
Wildlife Viewing & Birding -- The great expanses of undeveloped land in Utah make it an ideal habitat for wildlife, and in most cases it isn't even necessary to hike very far into the backcountry to spot creatures. There's plenty for you to see -- water birds at many lakes and reservoirs, elk and antelope in the Wasatch Mountains, lizards and snakes in the red-rock country of the south, and deer and small mammals practically everywhere. All of the national parks and many state parks have excellent wildlife-viewing possibilities: Coral Pink Sand Dunes near Kanab is known for its luminescent scorpions, and Escalante State Park is the best wetlands bird habitat in southern Utah. Hikers on Boulder Mountain, near Escalante, are likely to see deer, elk, and wild turkey, and birders will enjoy the wide variety of songbirds found here.
The mountains above Ogden and Logan are especially good places to spot elk, deer, and even moose. The relatively remote Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area is one of the best areas in the state to find wildlife, so don't be surprised if a pronghorn (an antelope-like creature) joins you at your campsite. Birders have a good chance of seeing osprey, peregrine falcons, swifts, and swallows along the cliffs; and hikers on the Little Hole National Recreation Trail just below Flaming Gorge Dam should watch for a variety of birds, including bald eagles in winter. Antelope Island State Park in the Great Salt Lake is another good destination for bird-watchers.