Ready for an epic road trip? I’ve got just the thing! After spending a week in southern Utah, I’m officially obsessed with the “Beehive State.” As someone who grew up taking road trips up the east coast every summer, I couldn’t wait to get in the passengers seat and stare out the window. Maybe it’s because I love fantasy novels but I kind of felt like a girl in a snow-globe—everything around me moved in a perfect blur and I was looking out at it all.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service so if there’s ever a time road trip it up in Utah, now is it! Home to five national parks, 43 state parks, seven national monuments, two national recreation areas and “The Greatest Snow on Earth®,” Utah is a must-see for any bucketlist-obsessed traveler. Plus, with resources like Skyscanner, discounted flights are literally a few clicks away. That, and motels along the route help save you cash.
Getting there was pretty easy, especially coming from San Francisco. The flight was about 1.5 hours and as mentioned above, Skyscanner secured a fair deal despite it being a last minute trip. I flew into Park City rather than Salt Lake but it’s completely up to you where you want to begin and end your journey. Personally, I think Park City is a smart starting choice, because you get to experience a big city with a small-town feel. I’d also recommend renting a car, as you’ll be driving quite a bit. Some of the roads have some rough spots, so I’d opt for a compact SUV rather than a small sedan. Also worth noting is that aside from the Washington Schoolhouse boutique hotel in Park City, don’t expect to see luxury hotels along the way. Don’t worry though; the motels do begin to grow on you.
Get assimilated in Park City
Ok, let the games begin! We spent less than 24 hours in Park City and I really wish we had more time. Main Street is super cute and definitely worth a wander. Here you’ll find farm-to-table restaurants, cafes serving artisan coffee and independent designer boutiques. Having not eaten on the plane, I was starved come dinner time. Luckily, the High West Distillery & Saloon did not disappoint. I ate more than I ever thought possible—from braised ribs with whiskey butter grilled corn and smoked gouda & local Gold Creek Cheddar mac ’n cheese to jalapeño deviled eggs—I was in foodie heaven.
Before leaving, swing by their distillery to pick up a bottle of bourbon. Believe me, it will be your reward after a long hike and sore muscles. If you’re up for an adventure, consider spending the next day at Olympic Park, where travelers have a wide range of activities to try, including a whirl on the Olympic Bobsled course or whizzing down an alpine slide. Personally, I didn’t do this, but would have if given more time.
Canyoneer at Robbers Roost
The “Robbers Roost” might sound a tad ominous but trust me, it’s a seemingly endless stretch of natural beauty. Robbers Roost is an outlaw hideout most often used by Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch because of rugged terrain, but now known for its stunning scenery. We spent most of Day 1 here, learning (and barely) mastering the challenging art of canyoneering. More on that here. Thankfully, we had the BEST guide. Chris was not only skilled in the sport but was patient throughout the 11-hour trek.
If you want to go canyoneering like I did, make sure to book a tour with Get in the Wild because Chris is one of only a handful of guides that can lead groups in the canyon solo. Essentially, that means you have the entire “roost” to yourselves. Canyoneering— a combination of hiking, rappelling and climbing through the canyons—is no easy feat (even for what I’d consider beginners) so keep that in mind before committing. That said, I highly recommend it and it was THE highlight of my entire trip.
Hike Capital Reef National Park
After an overnight in Hanksville, we were off to Capitol Reef National Park, which is about a 1.5 hour drive away from our humble motel. Here you’ll see evocative world of spectacular colored cliffs, hidden arches, massive domes, and deep canyons. It’s a place that includes the finest elements of Bryce and Zion National Parks in a less crowded setting. We took in the view two different ways. First, we mustered up the strength we had left from our canyoneering adventure and hiked to the exact spot shown below. Before leaving the park, we snapped some photos at one of the scenic viewpoint spots marked along the road. This is definitely one excursion that is ideal for beginner hikers.
Indulge at Hell’s Backbone Grill
A girl’s got to eat, right?! When in Utah, you must, must, MUST dine at Hell’s Backbone Grill. Everything here is worked organically on their farm, employing principles of sustainability and Buddhist values of right livelihood. They use no chemicals, all weeding is done by hand (or by their two rescue goats), and they rely on companion planting and relocation to deter pests. This spot is special for so many reasons that it’s hard to list them in order of importance. For one, I loved meeting one of the owners, Blake, who has so much positive energy exuding from her that I felt lighter simply by sitting in my seat.
Their restaurant follows Buddhist principles, with a focus on sustainability, social and community responsibility and environmental ethics. Everything you eat is organic, locally produced and reflective of the seasons. In fact, many of the fruit and vegetables you see are plucked from one of two gardens from the restaurant’s very own six-acre farm. The food aside, I loved the ambiance of Hell’s Backbone. The space is circular, with open-air windows all around, thus allowing lots of afternoon light to roll in. Since this is such a popular spot, especially for passerby, make sure to make a reservation in advance.
Horseback Ride at Kodachrome Basin
Kodachrome Basin is home to 67 monolithic stone spires, called sedimentary pipes, accentuating multihued sandstone layers revealing 180 million years of geologic time. The color and beauty of this place even prompted a National Geographic Society expedition to name the area Kodachrome, after a 1948 film. If you’re an animal lover like me, I’d recommend signing up for a horseback ride through the basin. There are plenty of other activities offered here as well, like boating, camping, fishing, mountain biking and more.
While I can only comment on the horseback riding tour, I will say that gave me a completely different perspective of the landscape than canyoneering or hiking. The horses (at least on the day we arrived) were a little fickle and didn’t always obey our commands but it’s mostly a walk/trot kind of tour. Also worth noting is that it’s “Western” saddle, so take note my fellow English saddle equestrians. I’d also suggest not wearing a hat, as I did, because if and when it falls off, it can spook the horses. Oh, and girls, keep you iPhone in your bra so you can easily grab it and snap some photos without fumbling around for your DSLR.
SUP at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park
When you’re all “hiked” out, cool off with an afternoon of Stand-Up Paddle-board in Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. This was actually one of our more relaxing mornings and one that we all appreciated. As much as you want to see and do it all, it’s important to listen to your body and slow things down a little. Escalante Petrified Forest State Park is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, which is where you can SUP. Alternatively, rent a boat, canoe or bring some fishing rods and wait for a big catch. Whatever water sport you choose, the view is the real treasure. I’ve never paddled through the water that wasn’t a beach, so getting to see the rocky mountains in the distance was honestly surreal. I found myself alternating between rowing around the reservoir to laying down on my board and letting the water drift me away.
Snap a selfie at Bryce Canyon National Park
Visit Utah and Skyscanner saved the best for last and you should too! Bryce Canyon has a main lookout point similar to the one you see at the Grand Canyon and it’s the perfect way to end your epic road trip. The first thing that stuck out to me…literally…are the seemingly countless hoodoos. Hoodoos are basically these odd-shaped pillars of rock that jut out of the main rock. You’ll find these on every continent but they are most highly-concentrated here in Utah. To avoid the crowds, I’d suggest planning a morning visit. Alternatively, stop by in the evening just before sunset to see the sky change colors and cast shadows across the rock. No matter when you visit, you can count on magical views like this.
Have you ever been on a road trip? If so, where? Tell me in the comments below!
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