Road Trip: Utah

Standing amid the talus and cracked mud, I expected to be colder. My fingers were slightly numb and tingling, but I was wearing shorts and one of those long-sleeved UV shirts without imminently approaching hypothermia. Still, the nearly 50-degree drop in temperature at Peter Sinks—from where I’d started my ride just over an hour earlier—was more than passingly noticeable.

At 8,100 feet in the Bear River Mountains, Peter Sinks is a meteorological anomaly, a high mountain sinkhole that traps cold air in overnight inversions and regularly produces the coldest temperatures in the contiguous United States. My visit coincided with a mild frost, nothing remotely close to the record -69.3 F recorded there in February 1985. More apparent was the austerity of the landscape—utterly devoid of vegetation—sitting just below lush forests and meadows where pine and wildflowers abound.

I’d arrived at Peter Sinks aboard my mountain bike via the Stump Hollow Trail, a sublime route wherein a loamy and rocky upper loop gives way to a precipitously dropping ribbon of smooth and fast singletrack through the woods just across the street from nearby Beaver Mountain. Hoping for still functional fingers on the downhill, I limited my time at the bottom of the sinkhole and enjoyed the descent back to the trailhead just minutes from the well-known tourist destination of Bear Lake.

I’d never been to Peter Sinks, or Bear Lake for that matter, only heard of it randomly in weather forecasts. Despite living in Utah for 15 years, I’ve only scratched the surface of the Beehive State, so I figured a new-to-me place of note was the perfect starting point for a road trip in my adopted home. Turns out, there are many facets to Utah left to explore. 

What Are Utah-kin’ About?

When Jim Bridger—the famed mountain man—spotted the Great Salt Lake in 1824, he thought he’d found the Pacific Ocean. Other than the salt, there wasn’t much ocean-like about the remnant of Lake Bonneville, then known as Lake Youta. I’m fairly certain the ancestral Puebloans and Fremont people who’d inhabited the lands for thousands of years knew it wasn’t the ocean, but you know how rugged frontier types get when it’s time to ask for directions.

After a couple decades of sporadic trapping and fur trading by European colonists, the area was settled by Mormon Pioneers seeking religious freedom in 1847. Let’s couch this immensely abridged history with a disclaimer by recognizing that “freedom” in Utah has historically been in the eye of the beholder—it’s the only place in the western United States to have enslaved Africans, after all. Following a prototypically American period of violent tumult involving far too many distinct identities to detail here, Utah achieved statehood in 1896.

Today, owing largely to a unique landscape with bountiful natural gifts, five National Parks, a Winter Olympic Games in 2002—plus likely another in 2030 or 2034—and one of the fastest population growth rates of any state in the country, Utah has shed its insular reputation and become a renowned destination for both world travelers and people seeking an idealized work life balance. It’s a complicated place, yes, but one with a varied character worth experiencing.

What To Do

Never having been to Bear Lake before, I figured I shouldn’t hit the road without dipping a toe in the waters. As a child of the Great Lakes, I’m admittedly not in love with most of Utah’s water offerings—sorry, mud-bottomed reservoirs just don’t do it for me. Bear Lake’s 109 square-miles of turquoise water—the color, caused by suspended limestone, has earned Bear Lake the moniker “Caribbean of the Rockies”—is far more appealing, so I opted to rent a Sea-Doo from Marina Rentals (435-946-5800, 940 N. Bear Lake Blvd., Garden City) to see a lot of it, very quickly. I’m not typically a power sports person, but if you can’t have fun zipping across Bear Lake aboard a personal watercraft, I don’t know what to tell you.

From Garden City up north, I pointed the compass south to experience Utah’s distinct regions and personalities along the way to the Beehive State’s other extreme. My next stop was one close to home, at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA) (801-328-4201, 20 S. West Temple, SLC). It was my first visit to UMOCA, and I immediately recognized it as an encapsulation of how Utah, and Salt Lake City, in particular, has shed its outdated image to become a place of more diverse identity and purpose. The exhibition that drew me in, i know you are, but what am i? (De)Framing Identity and the Body, will be on display through January 2023.

Before departing town, I made a visit to perhaps my favorite Utah music venue, Metro Music Hall (385-528-0952, 615 W. 100 South, SLC) to see Ty Segall & The Freedom Band. Call the music psych-rock, metal, punk adjacent garage fuzz or anything else you like, but the show was loud, hot and genuinely perfect in an intimate 600-person theater after a couple years of at home pandemic listening. I happened to be seeing one of my favorite artists, but I’d see almost anyone there and recommend you do too.

Road Trip Utah
Buckskin Gulch outside of Kanab is one of Utah’s famed narrow slot canyons. (Adobe Stock)

In 24 hours, I’d consumed an enviable amount of unique culture, so I got back in the car for one more outdoor adventure I’d never been on. I pulled into Kanab on the Arizona border to hike the famed Buckskin Gulch, the longest and deepest slot canyon in the Southwestern United States, which I’d also somehow never been to. Not wanting to bite off too much, we opted for the sensible Wire Pass day-hike option. The surreal, curving sandstone narrows were impressive enough to inspire me to tackle the entire canyon on my next visit. 

What to Eat

With a motto like “Wake, Lake, Shake,” Bear Lake clearly has a specific flagship cuisine. LaBeau’s (69 N. Bear Lake Blvd., Garden City) milkshakes are so popular there are two LaBeau’s right across the street from one another. Have a semantic debate about whether it’s a shake or a concrete if you must, but you’ll enjoy it either way. I had an Oreo and cookie dough mixture, but there are about 1,000 options to suit your taste.

Food at The Copper Onion
The Copper Onion (Photo by Adam Finkle/Salt Lake magazine)

For a quick bite in SLC before attending a concert, head to Little Saigon (801-906-8630, 2021 Windsor St., SLC). It has all the familiar Vietnamese fare you’d expect, but go for the tofu lemongrass banh mi. It’s my favorite sandwich in Utah. Post museum with a little more time for dinner, check out The Copper Onion (801-355-3282, 111 E. Broadway, SLC). The house made pasta is wonderful and the Wagyu beef Stroganoff is a dream.

In Kanab you’re going to want some calories whether preparing for an adventure or recovering from one. Visit the Kanab Creek Bakery (435-644-5689, 238 W. Center St., Kanab). The menu features unbelievable scratch-made cuisine like an authentic brioche French toast in the morning, incredible sandwiches in the afternoon and delightful rotating specials any time of day.

Where to Stay

The Grand Tent at Conestoga Ranch
The Grand Tent at Conestoga Ranch (Photo courtesy Conestoga Ranch)

Conestoga Ranch (385-626-7395, 427 Paradise Pkwy., Garden City) is the perfect base camp for Bear Lake. Visitors will enjoy luxurious glamping accommodations with the right amount of kitsch—you can stay in actual Conestoga covered wagons that sleep six—in complete comfort just minutes away from all the water and milkshakes you could want.

Road Trip Utah
evo Hotel (Photo courtesy evo Hotel)

evo Hotel (385-386-8585, 660 S. 400 West, SLC) is a relatively new place to stay with a fresh concept in Salt Lake’s Granary District. It’s part of evo’s downtown campus that melds art and the outdoors—think exposed brick, clean minimalism and a bouldering wall. Choose Wasatch Rooms for a view, Rafter Rooms to sleep among vintage trusses, Boulder Rooms for access to the bouldering wall or Bunk Rooms to accommodate your entire crew or family.

Grand Circle Lodge (435-644-8008, 250 N. 100 West, Kanab) is a charming bed and breakfast with six rooms in an early 1900s Victorian home. It’s centrally located in the heart of Kanab, making it an ideal launching point for outdoor adventure. The shaded gazebo and shared gourmet kitchen are ideal for winding down afterwards.

Road Trip 1

Fishing Between the Mighty Five

Start: Minersville // End: Fish Lake

The red rocks within get all the accolades, but the rivers and lakes between Utah’s National Parks are treasures unto themselves. Whether as a pit stop in between visits to the Mighty Five or as a unique adventure, the fishing in Southwestern Utah is world class.

1. Hike to Kolob Reservoir

Fishing Kolob Reservoir is a true off-the-beaten-path adventure near Zion National Park. Take Kolob Reservoir Road for 23 miles out of Virgin to fish for some monster cutthroat and rainbow trout. The campground at Lava Point is a great spot to spend the night.

2. Shore Haul at Minersville Reservoir

The next stop is just 15 miles from Beaver at the Minersville Reservoir, where easy access shore fishing will net you a bounty of bass. An on-site campground managed by the county makes Minersville Reservoir an easy one-stop shop.

Sand Hollow State Park
Sand Hollow State Park (Photo courtesy Utah Office of Tourism)

3. Bass Hunt By Boat at Quail Creek and Sand Hollow State Parks

These dual state parks right near Hurricane offer great bass fishing—the state’s largest regularly come from reservoirs here. Anglers typically fish these waters from boats, and there are plenty of great places to stay in nearby St. George and Cedar City.

Road Trip Utah
Panguitch Lake (Photo by Jay Dash/ Utah Office of Tourism)

4. Trophy Hunt at Panguitch Lake

Panguitch roughly translates to “Big Fish.” Trust the local Paiute Tribe who named the lake when searching for your Instagram-worthy fish. Ample lakeside cabins are available for rent via your rental app of choice.

5. Fly Fish in Bryce Canyon National Park

20 miles of Blue Ribbon river on the East Fork of the Sevier River await. Brown, cutthroat and rainbow trout all populate the water snaking through the Black Canyon. Camp in the park or stay at a nearby hotel like Ruby’s Inn.

6. Thin Air Fishing at Boulder Mountain

The high-mountain plateau between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks feels worlds away from the desert. Fishing Boulder Mountain is like fishing the Uintas, only with famed red rock scenery stretching out below. The views are so good, hooking a native Colorado River Cutthroat Trout can feel like a bonus.

7. Track Tigers in Fish Lake

Don’t overthink it: go fish Fish Lake. Tiger muskies fill the scenic body of water, which is surrounded by enormous stands of quaking aspens. For something a bit less toothy, seek out the kokanee salmon, which were recently introduced by state fisheries officials.

Road Trip 2

Silver Screens in the Beehive State

Start: Park City // End: Goblin Valley State Park

Who needs Hollywood? Utah has a rich cinematic history from the classic westerns filmed here to the star-studded Sundance Film Festival that takes over Park City each year. See the sites of movie magic in real life.

1. The Heart of Sundance

Start your journey at the home of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City. The marquee at the Egyptian Theatre has been made famous in countless entertainment publications, and the nearby 70,000-square-foot Utah Film Studios has been home to production for numerous acclaimed movies, like the 2018 festival hit Hereditary.

Road Trip Utah
Mirror Lake sunset (Photo by Matt Morgan/Utah Office of Tourism)

2. Wild Backdrops in the Uinta Mountains

Take a scenic drive on the Mirror Lake Highway and go for a hike in the vast Uinta Mountains. The stunning range just east of Park City has served as backdrop for countless films like The Wolf of Snow Hollow and Brigsby Bear

3. Movie Mountains at Cottonwood Canyon Resorts

Venture into the woods at Solitude Mountain Resort to explore the woods of Jeremiah Johnson just as Robert Redford once did. One ridge over in Little Cottonwood Canyon, take a tram ride at Snowbird to see the famed K-12—it’s actually a run called Great Scott—tackled by John Cusack in Better Off Dead and gaze up at Twin Peaks where the climactic scene of Wind River was filmed.

Road Trip Utah
Dead Horse State Point (Photo by Austen Diamond Photography/Utah Office of Tourism)

4. The Real Westworld

Head south to Moab for an IRL Westworld experience without the moral quagmires presented by the HBO series. From Dead Horse Point in the eponymous state park to the sweeping Castle Valley vistas below, it’s easy to see how the landscape near Moab became the real star of the show.

Grafton Ghost Town Cemetery
Grafton Ghost Town Cemetery (Adobe Stock)

5. Following Butch Cassidy

The famous bicycle scene from the 1969 masterpiece Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid was filmed in Grafton, a ghost town between Zion National Park and St. George. It’s an easy visit amid a variety of Southern Utah adventures, as is the real Butch Cassidy’s actual birth place in Beaver. There could be an entire road trip dedicated to this single movie, but we’ll stick with the highlights to leave time for the rest Utah has to offer.

Road Trip Utah
Goblin Valley (Photo by Michael Kunde Photo/Utah Office of Tourism)

6. Goblins on Mars

The hoodoos in Goblin Valley State Park are immediately recognizable as the setting of an alien planet to anyone who’s seen the 1999 cult hit Galaxy Quest. The numerous on-and-off-trail hiking options in the surreal landscape are ideal for easy exploration by groups of nearly any experience level.

Road Trip 3

Dark Skies for Starry Eyes

Start: Antelope Island State Park // End: Helper City

Utah is home to some of the country’s best dark sky locations, perfect for gazing up at the cosmos. Though all these spots are within two hours of Salt Lake City, they feel light-years away from civilization.

1. Antelope Island State Park

The largest island in the Great Salt Lake is home to an International Dark Sky Park. Spend the day cycling around the island, searching for free-ranging bison or bird-watching before seeing the sun set over Buffalo Bay. Finish by heading to White Rock Bay for stargazing, where the island’s mountains block out the city’s lights.

2. North Fork Park

Visit Ogden’s Historic 25th Street in the morning, relax on the Pineview Reservoir Beach in the afternoon and make your way to North Fork Park for a clear view of dark skies. Spend the night at the Compass Rose Lodge where an Astronomic and Lunar Observatory provides a once-in-a-lifetime viewing experience.

3. Dark Skies in the Heber Valley

Fill the day exploring the mountains around Heber, Midway and Park City, and visit the towns’ charming Main Streets for lunch and dinner. In the evening, visit nearby Rockport, Jordanelle or Wasatch Mountain state parks, where large reservoirs make the perfect setting for dark sky viewing from the beaches or on the water.  

4. Timpanogos Cave National Monument

Just minutes from downtown Salt Lake City is a designated Urban Night Sky Place. Take a tour through the magnificent caverns, then enjoy an evening of outdoor darkness and crystal clear stargazing at the nearby campgrounds in the heart of the Wasatch.

Road Trip Utah
Helper (Photo by Austen Diamond Photography/Utah Office of Tourism)

5. Helper City

The historic mining town south of Salt Lake has transformed into an art hub with access to outdoor recreation. Spend the day strolling through the art galleries populating Main Street before posting up in the evening to enjoy the International Dark Sky Community in all its starry glory.  


For more travel advice head to visitutah.com

Explore more Utah adventures and travel ideas. And while you’re here, subscribe and get six issues of Salt Lake magazine, your guide to the best of life in Utah.

Tony Gill
Tony Gillhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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