Why You Need to Go to Utah’s Wild West, in 20 Photos

You don’t need to wait for winter to appreciate Utah’s great outdoors. Fall is prime adventure time in the Beehive State’s five national and 43 state parks when summer’s desert heat has lifted and the snows haven’t quite set in. Shack up in a teepee hotel, brave some of the country’s most epic mountain biking, do paddleboard yoga in a hot spring cave, and then toast it all with some Wild West whiskey.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park

Water, mighty and persistent, has spent centuries carving Utah into an otherworldly landscape of buttes and arches, canyons and chasms. Witness Canyonlands National Park, which straddles the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. This is some of the wildest land in the U.S., from the technicolor spires of the Needles (pictured here) to the take-no-prisoners rapids of Cataract Canyon and the raw solitude of the Maze’s clefts and rock faces. Bring plenty of camera batteries. 

Photographer: Posnov/Getty Images

Mountain Biking the White Rim Road
Mountain Biking the White Rim Road

Topping the bucket list of nearly every intrepid mountain biker is the 100-mile White Rim Road. Thrilling switchbacks wind past red rock arches and around the Island in the Sky, a mesa whose sheer walls drop as much as 1,000 feet into the basin below. If you’re a total badass, you could bike it in one (very long) day, but we’d suggest roping someone into driving a support vehicle with some good whiskey, steaks, and camping gear. In this remote wilderness, the stars are almost as heart-pounding. 

Photographer: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Pumpkin Tartare at Pago, Salt Lake City
Pumpkin Tartare at Pago, Salt Lake City

People have a lot of misguided notions about Salt Lake City. Not a bad thing, since a layover here means there are fewer people you have to battle to score a table at Pago, in the city’s funky 9th & 9th District. (Insert comparison to Brooklyn here.) A meal here doubles as a culinary tour of the state with local standout producers Beehive Cheese, Wasatch Meats, and Fog River Seafood as stars. With a 7,000-square-foot microfarm just 10 minutes down the road, Pago really walks the locavore walk, too. After dinner, catch a flick at the nearby historic Tower Theater.

Source: Pago

Sorrel River Ranch
Sorrel River Ranch

Sorrel River Ranch spans 240 acres of auburn desert near Moab with the banks of the Colorado River at its front and soaring buttes at its back. Sure you come here to ride stallions, mountain bike, and hike. But the riverside spa, private log cabins, and hand-carved, four-poster beds don’t hurt, either. They grow quite a bit of produce on-site, which is incorporated into al fresco tapas paired with a pretty stellar wine list. Cab Franc in cowboy country? Count us in. 

Source: Sorrel River Ranch

Monument Valley
Monument Valley

In contrast to the rococo grandeur of Bryce Canyon, the Navajo Nation’s Monument Valley is all about space. It’s all big skies, open plains, and striking monoliths with some sand dunes mixed in. The valley’s bold buttes have served as backdrop for films from such early westerns as Stagecoach to more modern flicks like Easy Rider and Forrest Gump, becoming a symbol of the American West. While you’re in the neighborhood, head to Four Corners, where Utah meets Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. 

Source: Visit Utah

Antelope Island Buffalo
Antelope Island Buffalo

It may be named for antelope, but people visit this island in the middle of the Great Salt Lake to see its impressive herd of buffalo. Come October 23–24 for the annual Bison roundup, a pure Wild West fantasy in which volunteer cowboys corral the largest and oldest publicly owned herd toward a ranch to be counted and checked for health problems. Join them on horseback, galloping through the golden grass with the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains reflected in the lake around you. 

Photographer: Dave Reichert/Flickr

Bryce Canyon Overlook
Bryce Canyon Overlook

Like a cross between a Doctor Seuss book and a natural acid trip, the curving amphitheaters of Bryce Canyon National Park teem with glowing waves of curving spires. Local Paiute Indian legend has it that these were once animals that could morph into people, but they were turned into rocks for being too mischievous. You’d almost believe it as you descend 1,000 feet past these towering figures, which early geologists dubbed “hoodoos,” for their spell-like, transfixing magic.  

Photographer: Colleen Clark/Bloomberg

Hot Air Ballooning
Hot Air Ballooning

Yes, hot air balloons may be touristy, but they’re the best way to wrap your head around the enormity of Utah’s landscape. Being aloft at sunrise, as the sky goes from inky black to blue, red rocks glowing in the shifting light, is nothing short of magic. Prime spots to consider: the 13,000-foot La Sal Mountains, Arches and Canyonlands National Park, the surreal formations of Goblin Valley, and the dramatic Wasatch Mountains near Park City. In fall and autumn, rallies across the state see whimsical balloons take flights of fancy. 

Photographer: Douglas Tesner/Getty Images

Utah Olympic Park
Utah Olympic Park

Relive the glory of the 2002 Games at the Utah Olympic Park, where you can watch the medalists of tomorrow training today. Inspired? Test your own mettle on a bobsled, or really pump up the adrenaline with a ski-jumping lesson—on snow in winter or on an innovative track made from porcelain and plastic-coated grass in summer/fall, as seen here.

Photographer: George Frey/AFP/Getty Images

Bonneville Salt Flats
Bonneville Salt Flats

The Bonneville Salt Flats appears like a mirage on the Utah-Nevada border, a snow-white plane melding with the horizon, blue sky reflected in a crystalline surface. Formed as an ancient lake that dried centuries ago a thick crust of salt, these 30,000 acres are now catnip for auto-racing enthusiasts: Mickey Thomas in 1960 became the first American to break the 400 mile-per-hour barrier (hitting 406.60). More than a few speed freaks have followed, gathering here to push motorcycles, cars, and other vehicles to the limit.  

Photographer: Sam Klein/Flickr

The Wave in Coyote Buttes
The Wave in Coyote Buttes

Mother Nature doesn’t see borders, and neither should you, if it means getting to experience the Wave, a gnarly swell of pink, orange, red, and yellow Navajo sandstone just across Utah’s southern border, in Arizona. Like most perfect waves, you’re going to have to work for the privilege—the Bureau of Land Management allows only 20 visitors per day. Half the permits are issued by lottery four months out, and the other 10 are given to walk-ups the day before.

Photographer: Piriya Wongkongkathep/Getty Images

Teepee Hotel
Teepee Hotel

Ruby’s Inn has hosted visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park since 1919; though this complex directly outside the park entrance feels a bit kitschy, it’s kitschy in the best possible way. For a mere $40 a night, you can bed down in a massive teepee, cooking dinner over a fire as the Milky Way glitters above. Bonus points for the covered wagon rides available onsite. Go ahead, make those Oregon Trail dreams come true.

Photographer: Jennifer Chong/Flickr

Zion National Park’s Slot Canyons
Zion National Park’s Slot Canyons

Widened over centuries into swirling Alice in Wonderland-esque passages, slot canyons are a hiker’s (and photographer’s) dream. Utah has the world’s lion’s share, with two standouts in Zion National Park. At the Narrows, the Virgin River has sculpted glowing sandstone into a 12-mile shoot with more curves than a Kardashian; an easy-ish hike can involve waist-deep water as the walls climb to 2,000 feet. The more adventurous can get a back-country permit for the Subway to scale waterfalls, rappel sunset-hued rocks, and swim through churning water to deep, surreally beautiful turquoise pools.

Photographer: Kirk Mastin/Aurora Photos

Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument is as close as you’ll get to Jurassic World (without the maulings): 210,844 acres of one of the largest concentrations of dino bones in the world. Millions of years ago, creatures carried downriver got stuck in a sandbar here, fossilizing into a greatest-hits wall with hundreds of specimens. Archaeologists have left many of them partially exposed, so visitors can view the skeletons in context—food for thought should you then try your luck whitewater-rafting down the park’s remaining rivers.

Photographer: MyLoupe/UIG Via Getty Images

Amangiri
Amangiri

The mega-luxe Amangiri resort near the Grand Staircase Escalante-National Monument in southern Utah has drawn such celebrities as Brangelina and Keith Richards with a different sort of scene: 600 acres of pure desert seclusion. Take in the dramatic scenery while someone takes care of you at the 2,300-square-foot spa, where massages draw on Navajo healing traditions, or simply melt into the mesa views from a private firepit in your modernist sandstone suite. Privately guided heli-hiking, equestrian forays, and hot air ballooning are on offer for the adventurous. 

Source: Amangiri

Homestead Crater
Homestead Crater

If there’s one thing Utahans love, it’s getting outdoors. And when skiing, hiking, mountain biking, canyoneering, and kayaking gets old, you have to get creative, as in, say, subterranean scuba diving in the 55-foot tall Homestead Crater. Here, a geothermal spring keeps the water a steamy 90-96 degrees year-round. You can sign up for a paddleboard yoga class (think nature’s answer to Bikram) or just take a relaxing soak in this natural hot tub. 

Photographer: Andy Jenkins/Courtesy of Park City Yoga Adventures in the Homestead Crater

Arches National Park
Arches National Park

Red rock arches (2,000 of them), boulders, hoodoos, towers, and buttes all become backdrops when the sun goes down and the stars come out in Arches National Park. It’s here that you’ll see what only about 10 percent of the world’s population can: the Milky Way, a glittering jewel box of light stealing the show from the shooting stars, satellites, and constellations blinking overhead. 

Photographer: Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Angel’s Landing
Angel’s Landing

Mormon settlers were so awed by the red rock cathedrals, hanging gardens, and majestic formations of this southern Utah spread that they dubbed it Zion, aka the “City of God.” And it’s hard not to have faith in some higher power when you manage to scramble to the top of Angel’s Landing, a five-mile, test-your-mettle hike 1,500 steep feet up. (Perfect for epic selfies.) Hold tight to chains as you scramble the last 500 feet—up a knife-thin ridge with vertigo-inducing drops on either side—and you’ll feel on top of the world. That is, until you realize that you have to climb down.

Photographer: Ryan Gargiulo/Pause The Moment

Boating on Lake Powell
Boating on Lake Powell

Picture the Grand Canyon. Now picture someone turning on a giant spigot to fill those crimson canyons with crystalline turquoise water. That’s Lake Powell. Spanning Utah's southeastern border with Arizona, it’s a playground of wakeboarding and waterskiing, sandy beaches and party-hopping houseboats. It’s got all the big rock beauty of Utah’s national parks, but with a cold beer in hand.

Photographer: Danita Delimont/Getty Images

High West Whiskey Distillery
High West Whiskey Distillery

Utah may have a reputation for good behavior, but back in its silver mining days, it knew how to throw back a jug of moonshine (or four). High West Distillery in Park City has rekindled that legacy as the state’s first (legal) distillery since the 1870s, garnering more than a few James Beard Awards in the process. The food is pretty killer, too—think bison beef burgers, apple-smoked Scottish salmon, and freshly baked soft pretzels with whiskey-whipped beer cheese. 

Source: High West Distillery