The complete guide to Utah

From the vast salt flats and desert wildernesses to the pinnacles, buttes and arches of its bizarre rock formations, Utah manages to encompass in one state some of the most spectacular scenery in America. And the skiing is pretty fantastic too, says David Orkin
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The Independent Travel

Where is Utah?

In the south-west of the United States, hemmed in by Nevada (to the west), Wyoming (north-east) and Idaho (north). To the south-east, Utah's borders meet those of Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado: this region is known as the Four Corners. Utah is the 13th-largest state and, although a long way from the coast, it does have the largest lake in the western US. The Great Salt Lake's shallowness and the effects of evaporation over the centuries have resulted in very high salinity: it is second only to the Dead Sea as the saltiest body of water on earth. The lake has been declared a World Heritage bird sanctuary. Although development has been limited to the west by the lake and to the east by the Wasatch Range (part of the western rim of the Rocky Mountains), three-quarters of Utah's population of 2.25 million live in the urban corridor stretching from Provo in the south to Ogden in the north, including the state capital of Salt Lake City.

Tell me about Utah's history

Until well into the 19th century, Utah's history is similar to that of most of the land west of the Rocky Mountains. Nomadic hunters are thought to have crossed from Asia to the American continent by way of the Bering Strait some 25,000 years ago. From 200BC the Ancestral Puebloans began to settle across much of the south-west. The Fremont, a related people, were the dominant group in what is now Utah from the sixth century until the beginning of the 15th. At this time, Shoshonean Indians (including Ute, Paiute, Goshute and Shoshone tribes) moved into the area. Because Utah was a long way from both the coast and Mexico, the first Europeans did not intrude until 1776 when an expedition led by Spanish Franciscan priests arrived. The land was claimed as part of Mexico, but more than 70 years passed before any efforts were made to settle the area.

What happened next?

Utah's modern history began with the founding of Salt Lake City (SLC) in 1847. Though the region was officially still part of Mexico, the US won the land back after the Mexican Wars. Mormon settlers named it "State of Deseret", but this was changed to "Territory of Utah" after non-Mormons objected ("Deseret", which means "honeybee", is a word taken from the Book of Mormon). Brigham Young was appointed governor and Utah achieved statehood in 1896. The native peoples (mainly the Ute tribe) not only received some recognition in Utah's name, but fared better than most other "First Nations" elsewhere in the US: the Mormons tried to convert rather than massacre them. But they still ended up on reservations. Incidentally, the celebrated outlaw Butch Cassidy was born in Beaver, Utah, on 13 April 1866.

Why should you go there?

In winter, for what is justifiably called "the greatest snow on earth", and in the rest of the year for some of the world's most splendid scenery. Utah's best slopes are within an hour's drive of Salt Lake City's airport: there's a good map at www.skiutah.com/ski-area-map.php . When the snow melts, these forested mountains attract multitudes of hikers, mountain bikers and climbers.

Apart from the Bonneville Salt Flats, where for decades people have come to try to break world land-speed records (the 300, 400, 500 and 600mph barriers were broken here), the west of Utah has little of interest for most visitors. It's a remote, barren, largely empty desert area. In the north-east the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area (where the Green River, which cuts through the Uinta Mountains, was dammed to form a 91-mile long reservoir) offers spectacular scenery, hiking and boating. Nearby is Kings Peak, which at 13,528ft is Utah's highest, and the vast expanse of the pristine Uintas Wilderness.

A little further south is Dinosaur National Monument (one of the world's largest dinosaur fossil beds was discovered here in 1909), which straddles the border with Colorado. Close to Salt Lake City and reached by a causeway, Antelope Island, the Great Salt Lake's biggest, is a State Park (SP). It is home to a large herd of bison and is also worth visiting for its views and gorgeous sunsets.

However, it is the south of the state that has the US's most abundant concentration of awe-inspiring National Parks (NPs), SPs and National Monuments (NMs). Scenic drives abound. It's hard to find a road that doesn't offer fantastic panoramas, and – as in so much of the western US – by merely going from one sight to another you will pass scenery that in any other country would be a must-see in its own right. The rapidly growing town of Moab in the south-east has become Utah's adventure capital: it is a base for dozens of outdoor pursuits including white-water rafting, mountain biking and horse-riding trips.

Which are the best national parks?

Zion, the most westerly, has huge, almost overwhelming rock masses, cliffs and canyons interspersed with waterfalls and hanging gardens. Further east is Bryce Canyon, where erosion has resulted in thousands of bizarrely-shaped multi-hued rock spires and pinnacles or "hoodoos" (similar features are found on a much smaller scale at Cedar Breaks National Monument a little to the north). As at Zion, though much of the scenery can be seen from lookout points along the roads, you need to get out and walk in the otherworldly landscapes to begin truly to appreciate them.

Close to Moab, another set of geological wonders lies within the boundaries of Arches National Park. As you'd expect from the name, there are arches – more than 2,000 of them – created by seemingly impossibly balanced rocks and boulders.

The National Parks of Capitol Reef and Canyonlands are no less spectacular, but they are huge: comparatively limited road networks mean that many of their wonders are less accessible to the visitor with limited time. On Navajo land right on the Utah/Arizona border is another must-see, the buttes of Monument Valley. Much of this area will look very familiar from the backdrops of countless Westerns and adverts. Don't ignore the State Parks: Kodachrome Basin, Goblin Valley, Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Dead Horse Point.

Is Salt Lake City worth a visit?

Yes, not least for the magnificent mountain backdrop. The city's focus is the Temple Square complex: within the walls stands the huge white Latter-day Saints temple, fronted by fountains, ringed by gardens and topped by a 12ft gold statue of Moroni. The temple itself is not open to "gentiles" (see box entitled Polygamy & Preston) but everyone is encouraged to go on one of the free half-hour walking tours of the complex, which depart frequently. The tour guides are young Mormon "sisters" who come from all over the world to serve the church. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no religious hard-sell on the tour, but visitors are encouraged to request a free copy of The Book of Mormon (to be hand-delivered in person to their home address). The tour also includes the fascinating Tabernacle with its superb acoustics and huge 10,800-pipe organ. It's well worth returning to the building (free admission) to see and hear the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearse (Thursday evenings) or broadcast live (Sunday mornings). Just outside the complex are several more fine old buildings. Salt Lake City has the usual array of museums and galleries: genealogy is an important part of the Mormon faith, and many visitors use the city's facilities (including the world's biggest genealogical library) to try to check their ancestry.

Not far from the complex is the domed State Capitol building. The suburban streets in this area are some of the city's most pleasant. Unfortunately construction work on the downtown sections of SLC's light railway has resulted in the closure of several colourful businesses, but the streets south of Temple Square are quiet and a pedestrian-friendly mix of old and new. During the winter season the city is home to one of the country's top basketball teams, the Utah Jazz (see www.nba.com/jazz).

Is it hard to get a drink?

The Mormon faith encourages abstinence from tobacco, tea and coffee and alcohol. Utah's liquor laws have become far more liberal in recent years, but the local liquor industry continues to press the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control ( www.alcbev.state.ut.us) to go further. Soft (and hot) drinks are readily available and the visitor seeking an alcoholic beverage should not have too many problems as long as beer with an alcohol content of less than 3.2 per cent will suffice.

Otherwise it's a little more complicated. Bottled liquor, wine and "heavy" beer is sold "to go" only at state liquor stores and "package agencies" (these tend to be located in smaller towns and in hotels and resorts). You can get alcoholic drinks in restaurants, but you must order food and the restaurant must have a liquor licence. Even then you'll have to ask, as waiters don't automatically offer you drinks or drinks menus. The other outlet is private clubs (generally just bars). These are members-only, and to enter you'll either need to be invited in by a member (a lot easier than it sounds) or take out temporary membership (£3-£4), which also allows you to take in your own guests.

I should also mention that not only is SLC's Utah State Wine Store (at 255 South 300 East) said to be among the country's best, but its Red Rock Brewing Company (redrock.citysearch.com) was recently voted Best Brewpub in a national poll.

When should i go?

That depends on what you want to do. The winter sports season usually runs from mid/late November to mid-April. See box for details of the Winter Olympics that will take place in February; unless you are a fan, this is not likely to be either a cheap or comfortable time to be there.

Altitudes in the state vary from 2,500-13,500ft, a major contributing factor to the variety of weather conditions experienced across Utah. The National Parks and Monuments are open year-round, but though Bryce Canyon, for example, can look even more beautiful under a dusting of snow, heavier snowfalls can close the roads and the mercury can really plummet.

Peak season for those not interested in winter sports stretches from Easter to early September. Outside July and August, the busiest months, parks are most crowded at weekends. Spring and autumn are great times to visit. Those who are particularly heat-sensitive should be aware that summer temperatures can be unbearable in many of Utah's desert areas and National Parks (including parts of Bryce Canyon and Canyonlands).

The best way to get around?

Rail services are very limited and run just once a day (in Utah the California Zephyr stops only at SLC, Provo, Helper and Green River en route between Oakland, California and Chicago). Bus services connect the major cities, but they aren't much use for visiting any of Utah's parks and monuments. So unless you're only there for the skiing you will need to hire a car (or a motorhome). Distances are reasonable, roads are generally good (though snow may cause some winter closures) and traffic is light, especially outside the urban corridor. Having your own transport will give you far more freedom to choose what you want to see and how long you want to spend in each place.

The major flight specialists are quoting inclusive hire prices for a "compact" car starting from about £195 per week, although rates rise by £15-£20 at the height of summer. Or try Holiday Autos (0870 400 0099, www.holidayautos.co.uk). There are hotels, motels, resorts and campsites at or close to all the major sights but demand often outstrips supply, so make reservations well in advance. Many escorted tours include visits to Utah's southern parks and monuments in their itineraries, which also take in other Four Corners highlights – the Grand Canyon, for example, is not far from Utah's southern border. These areas are understandably popular with small-group adventure companies such as TrekAmerica ( www.trekamerica.com, 01295 256 777), which runs the Canyon Adventure.

How do i get there?

Salt Lake City is Utah's major gateway, but there are no direct flight connections with the UK. However, airlines such as Continental, United, Delta and American offer through fares from London (and other UK points). Agents are currently quoting departures for the January to mid-March period from £318.

For more information

See Utah's travel website www.utah.com. National Parks information can be found at www.nationalparks.org. Winter sports enthusiasts should see www.skiutah.com. If you're looking for a guidebook, Utah is often combined with neighbouring states (for example, with Arizona and New Mexico in Lonely Planet's guide to the south-west). Probably the best state-only book is Moon Handbooks' Utah (reprinted 2001).

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