Downtown Park City, Utah at dusk. (Photo via iStock/Getty Images Plus/DenisTangneyJr)
Mountainous multi-hued cliffs, stunning caverns, azure alpine lakes and picturesque ski towns. These are just some of the ways to describe Utah, a destination that’s absolutely gorgeous.
The western U.S. state is known for its natural diversity and is home to arid deserts with sand dunes to thriving pine forests in mountain valleys. Utah begs to be explored, and we answered the siren call on a recent family vacation. Little did we realize, how many treasures it holds. It will require multiple trips to take in all the natural beauty has to offer.
Because there’s so much to see and do here, we decided a road trip was our best bet, giving us the freedom to discover some of Utah’s parks and other natural treasures.
The Glamping Experience
Glamping at Zion Glamping Adventures (Photo via Noreen Kompanik)
For those who haven’t done it, glamping (abbreviation for glamorous camping) means staying in a yurt, tipi, or luxury tent in lieu of the normal “roughing it” experience.
Since a visit to Zion and Bryce Canyon were on our list, Zion Glamping Adventures in Hildale was a perfect kick-off spot. Each tent, equipped with comfy beds, heat, and air-conditioning also included a private picnic table and fire pit, with gas grills nearby. As night fell, only solar lights lined our footpaths. Because the area is one of the U.S. Dark Sky Communities, we brought our telescope and marveled at some of the best star and planet watching we’d ever experienced.
Exploring Zion National Park
Zion National Park (Photo via Noreen Kompanik)
It’s almost impossible to describe Zion’s towering sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant bluebird sky or the vast wilderness surrounding narrow slot canyons. It’s so magnificent, it resembles a spectacular movie set, only it’s the real deal.
Zion National Park is located in Southwestern Utah near the town of Springdale. Though the park is open year-round, summer is the busiest season. Get to the park early to ride the shuttle that stops at some of the most scenic spots to hike or gaze in awe at Mother Nature’s finest gifts.
Some of the must-sees here include the Temple of Sinawava accessed by the easy Riverside Walk and The Virgin River Narrows. The Zion Lodge stop provides visitors a chance to explore the historic property or head out for a moderate hike to the Emerald Pools. Word of warning. This is not a one-time visit park. You’ll definitely want to come back for more.
Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon
Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon (Photo via Noreen Kompanik)
Only 90 miles from Zion, Bryce Canyon is a much smaller national park sitting at a higher elevation than Zion, at 8,000-9,000 feet. We stopped to get a map at the Visitor’s Center highlighting the best of the canyon along with recommended hikes.
Bryce is distinctive due to unique geological structures called hoodoos – fascinating tall, thin spires of rock formed by weathering and river erosion. The landscape is almost other-worldly. The vibrant red, orange, and white colors of the hoodoos leave jaws agape.
Bryce is filled with short and incredibly scenic trails. The most popular is the Queen’s Garden Trail which descends down into the valley amidst a stunning garden and rock formations as far as the eye can see. It’s a relatively easy walk that can accommodate all ages and activity levels.
Inspiration Point is another must-stop with its myriad of hoodoo formations. The view from the parking lot is great, but walking uphill just five minutes more provides the absolute best view.
Discovering Park City
Main Street Park City (Photo via Noreen Kompanik)
As we trekked north through varying landscapes, we lunched at a delightful throwback car hop diner in the historic town of Fillmore. It was a blast from the past we enjoyed on our journey to Utah’s ski country.
Ski towns are beautiful even without snow, which is why our next stop was Park City. Outdoor enthusiasts love this town nestled in the Wasatch Mountains as there are many year-round activities and incredible places to play.
Location is everything when it comes to exploring an easily walkable historic town. Marriott’s Summit Watch is located right in the heart of Main Street. We loved stepping out of our villa and walking to the saloons, local restaurants and boutique shops.
Take a Trip Down Memory Lane
Mining put Park City on the map long before it was renowned as a top ski town and host to many 2002 Winter Olympic events. The Park City Museum takes guests on a journey into the past when prospectors discovered silver here in 1868. Exhibits include a re-created railcar, mining equipment, the dungeon of a territorial jail, and related the town’s fascinating transition from mining to skiing.
Bridal Veil Falls (photo by Noreen Kompanik)
Our family is totally into waterfalls and Utah did not disappoint!
One of the most beautiful natural cascades is Bridal Veil Falls in the scenic Provo Canyon. The waterfall is easily accessible via a trail located off the parking lot. Explorers can cross a rustic bridge over a tumbling mountain stream and head straight to the falls.
So named as it resembles a flowing bridal veil, the 607-foot double cataract is stunning. The first part of the trail is flat and paved, but for those desiring closer access, the climbing path is much more difficult. If you’re not that adventurous, no worries, as we promise the views from the lower trail are breathtaking.
Taking the Alpine Loop
Cascade Springs (Photo via Noreen Kompanik)
A 20-mile drive that winds through rugged alpine canyons with awe-inspiring views of Mount Timpanogos and other glacial peaks, the Alpine Loop Scenic Backway Drive is a must-do. And it’s only 20 minutes from Bridal Veil Falls. The narrow but entirely paved route leads to amazing stop-off points and overlooks. The three-day $6 entry fee is an absolute steal for all the natural wonders you’ll see. But here are a few favorites.
In 1969, actor and environmentalist Robert Redford purchased the land now known as Sundance. The resort area is renowned as the site of the yearly Sundance Film Festival. But it’s also a ski resort committed to the balance of art, nature, and community rooted in the deep cultural heritage of the Ute Native Americans that once inhabited this canyon. The resort provides chair lifts and additional waterfall hikes to enjoy.
Cascade Springs is another highly recommended spot that’s almost an unknown treasure. Located in the Unita National Forest, the cascades are formed from a large artesian spring that creates terraced crystal-clear cascades and sparkling pools. Three 15-minute easy loops surround the spring’s major areas, and it’s well worth exploring them all.
Impressive Deer Valley Ski Lift Views
Deer Valley Ski Lift Views (Photo via Noreen Kompanik)
Deer Valley is a stunning alpine ski resort in the Wasatch Ridge only three miles from Park City. This massive resort area offers luxury lodging, dining, shopping, and our favorite, ski lift rides that can take passengers all the way to 9,400-foot-tall Mt. Baldy.
When the snow melts, Deer Valley is full of nonstop summer fun, including mountain biking (lift-assisted) so bikers can easily reach the top, hiking, and of course three chairlifts in the summer that transport riders to magnificent vistas filled with aspens, pines, wildflowers, and layers of mountain ranges. There’s nothing like being in a bird’s eye view surrounded by cooling, gentle mountain breezes on a warm summer day.
Hidden Small Town Treasures
Historic Midway, Utah (Photo via Noreen Kompanik)
One of the best surprises of our road trip was discovering the small towns of the Wasatch Valley. These represent a simpler, natural way of life that’s a breath of fresh air.
Heber City, just 17 miles from Park City is a step back in time filled with a myriad of historic structures. The 1899 steam-passenger Heber Valley Railroad operates local train rides and special holiday events throughout the year.
Midway is a charming small town 20 minutes from Park City called “Utah’s Switzerland” because of its incredible Mount Timpanogos views, climate, architecture, and large population of Swiss that settled here. This rustic and historic town reflects an Old-World charm that’s straight out of a storybook.
In winter, guests can take horse-drawn sleighs to visit ice castles. Accessible other times of the year is a 96-degree hot spring called The Crater which sits underneath a 55-foot dome. And for a touch of Swiss, there are nearby dairy farms and creameries open to the public that make their own cheese and milk products.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But for our family, it was both that made our road trip so very special.