Whether you are a long-time resident or one of the tens of thousands who recently relocated to Utah, chances are you’ve seen some of the things that make Utah a pretty great state. But beyond the crowds at Temple Square and Zion National Park are other amazing sites and sights that don’t get a lot of traffic.
With five national parks, more than a dozen national monuments and recreation areas and 44 state parks, Utah still has hundreds of other beautiful places to see. The five on this list are representative of this state’s lesser-known-yet-still-spectacular locations.
These places can all be reached in a family sedan, but some are remote. So if you go, make sure you travel prepared and someone knows your schedule.
In spite of its close proximity to Moab, many visitors to Arches, Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point never drive the extra 16 miles that takes them to see some of Utah’s most picturesque and iconic red rock fins and spires.
You’ve probably seen pictures of Castle Valley because its unique rock formations are popular backdrops for commercials and advertisements. In fact, in 1964 Chevrolet put its new Impala convertible on top of one of the towers for an attention-grabbing television spot.
You can view the spectacular rock formations of Castle Valley from the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle without ever leaving blacktop. Or if you prefer a more personal and up-close view, you can hike to the towers and even climb them provided you have the requisite skills and experience.
There aren’t any services in Castle Valley, so make sure and pick up whatever supplies you need in Moab before you go. Even cell phone service is sketchy, so be warned.
“A land of balanced rock formations which look like mushrooms, The Toadstools is an enchanting wilderness area accessed via an easy to moderate 1.5-mile round-trip hike,” reports VisitUtah.com. But that description doesn’t really capture the uniqueness of this incredible location.
The Toadstools are part of The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument about 45 miles east of Kanab off of Highway 89. The Toadstools are remote but accessible. The formations are actually visible from the road, but they are distant so passersby don’t often recognize them.
There is no entrance station, no visitor’s center, no permanent restrooms, no water and the only sign marking The Toadstools is easy to miss. Millions of people pass right by as they drive to some of Utah’s better-known attractions.
You can’t really appreciate The Toadstools until you hike to the area surrounding them. Fortunately, it’s an easy hike across mostly level ground. It’s difficult to express the feeling you have as you traverse a landscape that is other-worldly.
In addition to the traditional red sandstone of southern Utah, The Toadstools has areas of bright white sandstone, creating a striking contrast.
Bonneville Salt Flats
If you’ve driven across the western side of Utah on Interstate 80, you’ve seen the salt flats. They are kind of impossible to miss because they cover more than 30,000 acres and they stretch for miles on either side of the heavily-traveled freeway. But to really appreciate the uniqueness of this geologic wonder, you need to do more than just drive by.
The white, salt crust is so vast, flat, hard and smooth it can serve as an ideal surface for vehicle racing. Since 1914, racers have come to the salt flats each summer and fall to try to set speed records for just about any vehicle you can imagine (even go-karts and bar stools, according to BonnevilleRacing.com.
For much of the year, the flats are actually covered with briny water, which deposits the salt. As it dries, the salt surface appears hard, but underneath the crusty top layer can be viscous mud. In some areas of the flats you can see deep ruts where people decided to test out their vehicles on the surface at the wrong time only to get mired in salty muck.
The area is named for Captain B.L.E. Bonneville, whose expeditions in the 1830s proved the area was part of an ancient basin, according to Utah.com. Interestingly, Bonneville never actually saw the salt flats that bear his name.
Delicate Arch is unquestionably the most popular and famous arch in Utah—it’s on the license plates, for heck sake. With nearly 1.7 million visitors to Arches National Park in 2019, you’ll be hiking with a throng no matter when you decide to go to the 52-feet tall Delicate Arch.
Just a few miles away is another breathtakingly beautiful natural arch twice as large in size and comparable in spectacularness (not really a word, but it should be for places like this). Best of all, it’s outside the park so there are no fees and far fewer people.
You reach the arch via a 1.5-mile trail through Utah’s trademark red sandstone. The hike to Corona is actually more scenic and interesting than the route to Delicate Arch.
You’ll also bag a bonus arch for your efforts. You pass Bowtie Arch before you get to Corona, which is likely named after the ring around the sun rather than the virus, by the way.
Once you get there, prepare to be impressed. A search of YouTube reveals plenty of videos of people swinging from Corona Arch (not allowed and not advised) and even flying through the arch in an ultralight aircraft (also not allowed nor advised).
Few Beehive State residents are familiar with the unique rock formations in Box Elder County known as the Devil’s Playground. Located west of the Great Salt Lake, the site is easily accessible, but also extremely remote.
“The weathered granitic rock forms fantastic forms and eerie shapes. Devil’s Playground is a remote and relatively unknown geologic curiosity,” explains the Bureau of Land Management. In Utah, this unique site rarely gets mentioned. If it could somehow be transported to any state east of the Mississippi River people would clamor for it to receive national designation as a park or monument.
Situated primarily on BLM and state land, it’s easy to see how the area got its name. In summer the area is hot, dry and seemingly unliveable. At the same time, the amazing rocks are an irresistible draw.
The simplest way to get there from Salt Lake City or Utah Valley is to head west on Interstate 80 to Oasis, Nevada, and then head northeast on route 223 back into Utah where the road turns into Utah State Route 30. It’s about 95 miles from Wendover. From Layton north, the preferred route is to take Interstate 84 west to state route 30, then southwest. It’s about 145 miles from Ogden.
If you go, make sure you are well provisioned with food, water, fuel and whatever else you might need, because it’s a long way from available services. One cautionary note: the signs on the main road marking the turnoff to the Devil’s Playground are easily missed.
* Robert DeBry is retired from the practice of law