At Ruby’s Inn, the largest hotel near Bryce Canyon, 75% of the guests are from outside the USA. Foreign visitors are 80% of those staying in the hotels between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to the north and Monument Valley and the Navajo Reservation to the south. Utah is in many ways an odd place, unlike any other state in America because of its domination by the Mormon Church, so for the most successful Utah vacation, the foreign visitor needs not only to know what to see but also to be prepared for Utah’s oddities.
We retired and moved to Utah to go skiing and see the scenery. Before moving to Utah, we had visited Europe many times. After six years of traveling around Utah, we resumed going to Europe once or twice a year for something entirely different. Foreigners should visit Utah because you have never seen anything like this place, and you never will again unless you return, which a lot of foreign visitors do. Everything Europe has, Utah has the opposite, except for mountains, but I rescued a lost Italian in the mountains across the valley from where we live one day who explained why he was lost there: "these mountains are so different from the Alps that I had to see more of them."
Utah covers about 222,740 square kilometers. The Navajo Reservation (65,000 sq km) is larger than Austria. 3,000,000 people live in the State, 2,000,000 of them within 80 km of downtown Salt Lake City. The rest of the state is empty. There are thousands of square kilometers with fewer than 2 people per 5 sq km. Utah is a place where you come to see the works of nature, not of man.
Like Gaul, Utah’s scenery divides into three parts– the northern mountains, the Western Desert, and the Colorado Plateau. The vast Colorado Plateau, occupying parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, home of the most remarkable scenery scenery in the world, is a land of deserts, canyons, and mountains. Except in the mountains, rain is rare, less than 25 cm per year. There is scant vegetation, leaving Mother Earth fully exposed, not hidden by vegetation.
Utah’s top sights are scenic drives, State and National Parks, and the landscape in between. Since most other nations have or are close to mountains, limit your mountain visits to UT Rt 92 ($5 fee) near Provo and UT Rt 150 ($5 fee), the Mirror Lake Highway near Park City unless you are a dedicated mountain fan. For those who want to maximize mountain scenery, add Logan Canyon (Logan), UT Rt 35 (near Price), and the La Salle Mtn. Loop (Moab, near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks).
The blockbuster sights are,all on the Colorado Plateau: Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon National Parks, scenic routes UT Rts 12 and 9, Monument Valley and the Navajo Reservation. And as long as you are here, try to get to Hovenweep (ancient Indians), Natural Bridges and Cedar Breaks National Monuments; and Kodachrome Basin, Petrified Forest, Edge of the Cedars(ancient Indians), Goblin Valley, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Freemont Indian (ancient Indians), and Goosenecks of the San Juan State Parks.
Mesa Verde and The Grand Canyon North Rim National Parks are each about a two hour round trip drive from the roads connecting the major Utah sights. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 600m higher than the South Rim, less expensive, and much less crowded.
The National Parks charge an admission fee from $5-20, depending on the park, which is good for seven days entry to that park. One use and weekly, fortnightly, and yearly admissions are available for all State Parks.
The best way to see Utah is to rent a car and drive. Las Vegas or Salt Lake City are the closest major airports to Utah’s great sights. Once out of town, roads have little traffic and travel is fast. For example, when we drive to Las Vegas, once out of Salt Lake City, we set the cruise control for 125 km/h and go that speed for hours at a time. Our average speed for the trip is more than 90 km/h, including stops for gas and lunch. On side roads, we typically average 80km/h. American highway maps show miles between places. To convert miles into time for a trip, dividing by 50 will give a pretty good estimate of the hours needed. On side roads in Europe, our travel rate is about 30 miles per hour.
There are two alternatives to rental car: a bus tour or hire a car and driver. Public transportation does not exist, except in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Three typical bus tours are 1] Rapid City, South Dakota to Las Vegas via Mt Rushmore, the Black Hills, Yellowstone National Park, Salt Lake City, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon National Park North Rim, and Zion National Park. 2] Differs from # 1 by starting in Bozeman, MT, skipping Mt Rushmore and the Black Hills., and 3] Denver to Las Vegas via the Rocky Mtns., Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park , Capitol Reef National Park scenic UT Rt 12, Bryce Canyon National Park, then finishing like #1.
Within the National Parks, there is no public transportation in Yellowstone, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, or the Grand Canyon. A shuttle bus runs from late May to mid-September along the full length of the park road in Bryce National Park (35 km one way). The Zion National Park shuttle bus travels the 12km, one way, Zion Canyon road.
The major problem with a bus tour is that you must go where and when the tour goes. If you hire a car and driver or drive yourself to follow your own itinerary, no problem. The major problem with hiring a car and driver is the cost. The major problem with driving yourself is that the driver has to pay attention to the road, which limits sight seeing. The per person cost of a car and driver can be reduced by taking 4-8 people and hiring a mini-bus and driver. Google "transportation services" for Park City, UT, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas. A cautionary note: 15 passenger vans are much more dangerous than other highway vehicles unless driven by a very experienced driver.
There is no lodging within Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks, so don’t be upset when your tour puts you outside these parks. The Bryce Canyon shuttle stops at Ruby’s Inn, the major lodging for overseas visitor’s.
When to come. Summers in the National Parks are crowded and hot. The average daily high temperature in Zion National Park is 39C. Although 39 degrees is hot by any standard, it is somewhat mitigated by the very low– 2-10%-- humidity. Still, its best to visit in the spring or fall to avoid the hottest weather and the crowds (summer school vacation, the high travel season in America are from the end of May to the last week of August or first week of September).
Except for Las Vegas, all the other places mentioned here are cooler because they are at higher altitudes. Zion Canyon is about 1,000m. Bryce Canyon Lodge, Yellowstone, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon visitor's center are at 2,400m. The end of the road in Bryce is 2,700m. Yellowstone is 800 km north of Zion, which is 150 km north of Las Vegas. If you are traveling on your own, advanced reservations near the parks is a good idea, but not essential. You will find some place to stay in the vicinity, which could be an hour a way. If you want to stay inside any of the parks with lodging, advanced reservations are essential.
The best Utah trip is UT Rt 9 from I-80 to Capitol Reef National Park via UT Rt 9, US Rt 89, and UT Rt 12 with visits to Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef National Parks. From our home near Salt Lake City, we do this in three days, but we do it 2-3 times a year and we do not try to see everything at once. You should allow at least one day to get to the start of the tour from Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, one day for Zion National Park, one day to go from Zion to Bryce, one day at Bryce, one day on Rt 12, and one day at Capitol Reef. A one day side trip to the Grad Canyon North Rim will provide a sufficient visit to this great hole in the ground.