With its newly revitalised capital city, a clutch of upcoming cinematic milestones and a claim to some of the world’s best hiking, skiing and stargazing, there’s never been a better time to visit Utah...
Utah is synonymous with the Wild West, a place where ghost towns gently crumble and ranchers still tend their herds amid a landscape of soaring sandstone mesas and red-rock spires. Its iconic deserts have formed the backdrops for countless cowboy tales over the years, including the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.
The film tells the story of affable outlaw Robert Leroy Parker – born in Beaver – and his gang the Wild Bunch, set against the soaring vermillion cliffs of Zion National Park among other Utahn locations. You can track down Cassidy’s real-life hideout at Robbers Roost, forty miles east of Capitol Reef National Park. Other major milestones include the 25th anniversary of Forrest Gump and 50th anniversary of Easy Rider, both partly filmed in Monument Valley.
In 1869, the president of the Central Pacific Line drove a ceremonial golden spike into the ground near Ogden outside Salt Lake City, ending the race between two competing rail companies to finish the Transcontinental Railroad. The new cross-country route, stretching from the San Francisco Bay to Omaha in Nebraska, changed the face of the American West forever.
You can celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 'wedding of the rails' at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit, where a ceremony will be held on May 10 flanked by two historic steam engines, the Jupiter and #119. There will also be various other events held throughout the year, including open houses, pageants and photo exhibitions.
Utah has a storied Native American history – its name comes from the Ute who settled around the Great Salt Lake basin – and today tribes such as the Navajo, Shoshone and Piute live here in tight-knit communities. You’ll find numerous ways to learn about their fascinating heritages and traditions across the state. The newest experience is part of the Voices of Bears Ears project, where you can join tour guide Carol Talus on her farm on the Navajo Nation in southeastern Utah and help her herd sheep, learn about ancient Anasazi sites and enjoy an authentic Navajo meal. Alternatively, book a stay at Goulding’s Lodge, where you can take a Jeep tour of Monument Valley led by a local Navajo guide.
Once known only for its intriguing Mormon heritage and overlooked in favour of the Mighty 5® national parks to the south, Salt Lake City has carved out a liberal reputation over recent years, buoyed by a multitude of new coffee houses, international dining options and a burgeoning craft beer scene – Polygamy Porter, a dark local ale, is not to be missed. Many are also drawn to the city for its outdoor lifestyle, thanks to the International Dark Sky Park on its outskirts, the hiking trails crisscrossing the surrounding hills and the Wasatch Mountains looming on the horizon. Eleven of the state’s ski resorts, including Park City, Snowbird and Deer Valley, are less than an hour’s drive away.
For stargazing you can’t get much better than Utah, which has the greatest concentration of International Dark Sky Parks anywhere in the world. In total, eleven places across the state have been officially certified, ranging from the Mighty 5’s® Canyonlands National Park and otherworldly Goblin Valley State Park in the south to craggy Antelope Island State Park in the north, just outside Salt Lake City. In the latter, you can watch the sun descend over the largest salt-water lake in the western hemisphere, and try your hand at photographing the Milky Way beside herds of snoozing bison.
With Airstreams, house boats and dude ranches all offering beds to weary travellers, you’re certainly not limited to staying in a traditional hotel or B&B. If you’re a fan of stargazing, book a room at Compass Rose Lodge in Huntsville, which is one of only two hotels in the United States built around a high-tech observatory. Alternatively, take in the night skies the old-fashioned way beside a campfire at Capitol Reef Resort, where you can relax in a Conestoga wagon amid towering red-rock mesas. You’ll also find plenty of options for glamping, whether it’s in a safari-style shelter at Under Canvas Zion, a rustic yurt at Escalante Yurts or a high-end camp at Conestoga Ranch.
Thanks to a meteorological phenomenon called the Lake Effect, Utah is renowned for its deep, fluffy powder snow, which makes Alta, just east of Salt Lake City, one of the snowiest ski resorts of them all, receiving over 500 inches annually. If you’re eager to conquer the pistes, you’ll have 14 resorts to choose from, ranging from Park City – now America’s largest – to luxury Deer Valley and laid-back Solitude. If you’re up for a challenge, sign up for some kite skiing lessons at Powder Mountain, where you can master this relatively new winter sport – a cross between skiing and kite surfing.
While it’s true that the Mighty 5® national parks – Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion – can become busy during the summer, you can have them almost to yourself between December and February. Winter is a magical time to be in the parks, when occasional snowfall dusts the tops of towering mesas, stalactites form under red-rock arches and it’s silent save for the crunching of your boots. You can take it all in from the back of a snowmobile, or strap on your snow shoes for a wander between the rock formations. Of course, it’s chillier at this time of year, so it pays to be prepared.
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