Utah is most often associated with Mormonism, which forms a large part of the state’s history and identity. However, Mormon temples aren’t Utah’s sole claim to fame. In fact, there is so much more to see that people of all backgrounds can enjoy. Utah holds some of the West’s most scenic natural wonders and best outdoor activities.
With five national parks, seven national monuments and even more state parks, much of Utah can be considered an outdoor playground. From world-class skiing in the Wasatch Mountains to the surreal canyons of Zion National Park to ancient rock art and much more, Utah is a land of exploration, beauty and mystery.
If you’re interested in culture, Utah boasts some of the world’s best film festivals, as well as surprisingly diverse and thriving cultural scenes in Salt Lake City and Park City. Utah may not have a lot of big-city attractions, but it more than makes up for that with the beauty of its natural features as well as with the friendliness of its people. For an unforgettable Wild West experience, consider Utah as your next travel destination.
Archaeological records, such as the Fremont petroglyphs, show that Native American have inhabited Utah for thousands of years. Ancient Utah cultures such as the Anasazi and Athabaskans made important advances in everything from irrigation and agriculture to architecture and pottery.
The first Europeans to have set foot in Utah were the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition, a group of priests who left Santa Fe in 1776 to find a route to the west coast. Following them were various fur trappers and migrants including the infamous Donner party.
The major turning point for Utah came in 1847 when the first Mormon pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley after their leader, Joseph Smith, was assassinated in Chicago in 1844. Led by Brigham Young, the pioneers faced a tough fight for survival in the unforgiving landscape. However, in a few years they were able to develop the infrastructure sufficiently to make permanent settlements. Towns such as Provo, Ogden and Farmington sprang up as Mormon immigrants from around the world poured in. The leadership in these communities was chosen by church authorities, making Utah, at this time, more or less a theocracy. Mormons built 500 communities by 1900 and they continued to expand through their vigorous international missionary programs.
At the same time, the Mormons faced tensions with Native American tribes, who wanted compensation for their land, and with the federal government which opposed the Mormons’ polygamist practices. The feds sided with the Mormons in refusing the Native Americans land compensation, but went into open conflict over the issue of polygamy. Polygamists were arrested and church lands were seized. When the Mormon President officially forbade polygamy in 1890, Utah was finally allowed to become a state.
Economically, Utah in the late 1800’s was a major hub for mining and railroads. Starting in the early 20th century, national parks such as Bryce Canyon and Zion made known the states rugged scenery. It’s little wonder that southern Utah became a popular filming site. The state also prospered with the development of its skiing industry. In fact, the Wasatch Mountains are considered to be one of the world’s best skiing areas. Further adding to Utah’s skiing credentials, Salt Lake City famously hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. Today, tens of millions visit Utah annually to experience the Beehive State’s unique culture, history and scenery.
Park City: Set high in the mountains, Park City is renowned for its alpine beauty, excellent skiing and the Sundance Film Festival.
If you decide to come in the winter, check out Deer Valley Resort. Routinely named Ski Magazine’s best ski resort in North America, Deer Valley offers upscale amenities and top-notch skiing. Deer Valley is famous for hosting some of the Winter Olympic events. The resort is well-maintained and greatly restricts the amount of skiers on the slopes at any given time in order to prevent overcrowding. Note that Deer Valley has a strict policy against snowboarding. During the summer months, the resort hosts free concerts by the Utah Symphony and opens up the gorgeous hiking trails to hikers and bikers.
The Main Street Historic District is the heart of Park City itself. It has many excellent boutique shops selling unusual items as well as Bistro at Canyons, which is Utah’s only full-service kosher restaurant. A free trolley runs through the 8 or so blocks that make up the Historic District. Every winter, the Historic District plays host to the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the U.S. and a draw for movie-lovers around the world. The festival attracts some 50,000 people and includes special cultural events and live music.
Visit the Park City Museum to learn about the area’s transformation from a silver mining town in the 1860’s to a ski resort. The museum displays restored miners’ cabins and offers a walk, through a replica silver mine.
For a fun excursion, hop on the Alpine Coaster, which winds through 4,000 feet of bends, loops and curves in the snowy mountains around Park City.
Salt Lake City: Utah’s capital is best known as the location of Temple Square, the international headquarters of Mormonism and the most popular attraction in the whole state. The building has impressive architecture and well-manicured gardens. Salt Lake City’s Mormons are friendly and have historically had excellent relations with the city’s small Jewish community. (Brigham Young allowed Jews to use one of Temple Square’s halls to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1866.) If you’re in the mood, you can debate with the missionaries walking the grounds. The massive temple complex houses the Church History Museum and the Church History Library, both of which can be toured for free.
The Natural History Museum of Utah has over 5,000 artifacts on display that detail the science behind Utah’s unique landscape. These include fossils, gems and interactive displays on earthquakes, animal life and more. There is also a special exhibit geared towards young kids called Our Backyard. The Museum Store carries unusual, nature-inspired jewelry. Step out onto the observation deck for sweeping views of the city and beyond. The museum is surrounded by the Red Butte Gardens, which contain a highly diverse array of flora and are the perfect place to do some easy hiking, sit down for a picnic or listen to a free concert.
The Utah Capitol Building looks remarkably like its counterpart in Washington, D.C. What sets it apart from other capitol buildings is its beautiful, round exterior fountain and intricately detailed rotunda depicting the Mormon pioneer days. Tours are free.
For a pleasant day trip from Salt Lake City, either head to Big Cottonwood, Canyon or to Great Salt Lake. The picturesque alpine setting of Big Cottonwood Canyon is great for summer hiking, winter sports, mountain climbing, boating and more. Great Salt Lake is a popular site for boating and is home to one of the West’s largest bird refuges. Antelope Island, located on the lake, has one of America’s largest free-roaming bison populations and is a favored spot by locals for swimming, hiking and bird-watching.
Provo: Located against the backdrop of the towering Wasatch Mountains, Provo is home to Brigham Young University and is among the most conservative cities in the country. BYU is church-owned and almost 100% Mormon. Most businesses in Provo are closed on Sundays.
Most of Provo’s attractions, namely some of Utah’s most interesting museums, lie within BYU. The Life Science Museum has an extensive collection of taxidermied animals including lions, tigers and a grizzly bear. If you’d rather see live animals, public shows are offered on weekday evenings.
The Crandall Printing Museum has a replica of the world’s oldest printing shop, as well as a replica of Benjamin Franklin’s printing press.
The Provo Pioneer Museum and Village give an in-depth look at what life was like for the thousands of Mormon immigrants who settled in Utah in the late 1800’s. The village is staffed by volunteers who dress in period clothing and host demonstrations and classes on traditional skills such as blacksmithing, bonnet weaving and woodworking.
A big hit with the kids is the BYU Paleontology Museum, where you can see a complete T-Rex skeleton.
For Provo daytrips, try hiking through the forests of Provo Canyon and/or taking a dip at Bridal Veil Falls.
Moab: Located near the border with Colorado, Moab is the jumping-off point into scenic southern Utah and a popular destination for outdoors sports enthusiasts.
The bizarre landscape of Arches National Park, situated just 6 miles from Moab, is one of the American West’s most interesting natural features. There are over 2,000 stone arches and many different animals and plants, some of which are entirely unique to the park. The most famous spot in the park is the Delicate Arch, which is featured on Utah license plates and stamps.
For some of the most magnificent views in the West, Dead Horse Point State Park provides amazing photo ops everywhere you look. The deep red canyons can easily conjure up images of the surface of Mars, (in fact, this part of Utah is actually being used to train future Mars astronauts). If you want an experience similar to the Grand Canyon but even more scenic and without the huge crowds, then this is definitely the place to go.
Dead Horse Point’s dark night skies also make it one of the country’s top-rated places for stargazing. For a fee, RedRock Astronomy will guide you to the observation spot and let you look through their high-end telescope, as well as provide information about the area’s history and answer general astronomy questions. Be sure to dress warm and bring bug spray.
If you’re driving through the Moab area, keep a lookout for the ancient rock art on Scenic Byway 279. For its age, the artwork is very well preserved. Nearby are real dinosaur tracks.
Bryce Canyon National Park: Despite its name, this high-elevation park is not actually a canyon but a huge natural amphitheater carved out by rainwater erosion. The red limestone spires (also known as “hoodoos”) that stick out of the ground make Bryce Canyon both an unforgettable place to visit and a photographer’s dream.
There are many trails that run the length of the park, the most popular of these being the Rim Trail. Rim Trail is a fairly easy hike and provides the best views of the hoodoos. However, most visitors take the scenic drive, from which 13 viewpoints are accessible. Come at sunrise or sunset, where the sunlight reflects majestically off the red rocks. Although most winter sports are prohibited in Bryce Canyon, it’s still very impressive see the stark contrast of the red rocks and white snow. Like Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon also has some of the darkest skies in North America, allowing stargazers to see thousands of times more than can be seen in L.A.
Zion National Park: One of the most visited national parks in the country (2.7 million tourists per year), Zion is an incredibly diverse land of sandstone cliffs, arches, rivers, caves and more. The park’s abundance of vegetation and low elevation set it apart from other more barren parks in the east. Zion needs ample time to explore because with such a dynamic landscape and thriving ecosystem, there’s a surprise around every corner.
One of the best things to do here is take the 2.4 mile long trail to the huge rock formation known as Angels Landing, which provides an excellent view of Zion Canyon. One of the toughest, yet most rewarding of the park’s countless trails is the 9.5 mile hike/rappel down into the Subway, a uniquely shaped slot canyon that contains many beautiful grottoes.
If bird-watching piques your interest, Zion is one of the best places to do it. Zion has been a sanctuary for over 200 bird species including the California condor, bald eagle and peregrine falcon.
Other activities include biking along the scenic Pa’rus Trail, camping in any of three large campgrounds, horseback riding (March-October), rafting through the dramatic Narrows and rock climbing up 2,000 feet sandstone walls.
Daven and Eat
There is Chabad Lubavitch of Utah in Salt Lake City. It is located at 1760 S. 1100 E. and can be reached at (801) 467-7777 or at jewishutah.com
The recently opened Chabad Lubavitch of Park City is located at 1327 Park Ave. at the Jewish Community Center. It can be reached at (435) 714-8590.
SLC has a kosher takeout deli called Kosher on the Go, located at 1575 1100 E. (801-463-1786/kosheronthegoutah.com) You can also find kosher food at Smith’s Marketplace locations throughout the city or purchase takeout directly from Chabad.
For Park City, Bistro at Canyons Village is Utah’s only kosher restaurant. Its menu features innovative twists on traditional dishes. As in SLC, takeout food can be purchased through Chabad.
Round trip flights from LAX to Salt Lake City currently range from $180-$250 per person. Amtrak prices start at around $150 per person while Greyhound starts at $260 per person. Driving from L.A. to SLC takes approximately 9.5 hours.
If Park City is your destination, then it’s an easy 45-minute drive from the SLC airport.