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A Wow Week in Utah

Spend seven days in Utah and your group will experience some of the most breathtaking landscapes of the American West.

Bridging the arid deserts of the Southwest and the majestic mountains of the Northwest, Utah offers opportunities for travelers to experience a variety of natural wonders. Salt Lake City, itself a significant tourist destination, serves as a jumping-off point for groups visiting the state to see national parks such as Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion, as well as numerous state parks, distinctive towns and other interesting sites along the way.

Utah tourism officials promote this itinerary as “the best week of your life,” and if you take your travelers to experience it, they just might agree. There are several modifications that can be made to lengthen or shorten the trip, so groups have a variety of ways to customize their tours and create an ideal journey through this scenic state.

An Adventure in Arches

If you start your tour in Salt Lake City, you’ll have to drive about four hours to reach the city of Moab and Arches National Park, one of the geological highlights of west-central Utah. It doesn’t have to be a boring drive, though, as there are plenty of interesting and enticing places to stop along the way.

“One of my favorite stops is Green River,” said Emily Moench, public relations manager for the Utah Office of Tourism. “They’re famous for growing melons, and they also have a couple of cool restaurants. Tamarisk, in particular, is really famous for Navajo tacos, which is a favorite in southern Utah.”

Making the trip in a leisurely fashion allows groups to arrive at Arches National Park close to sunset, when they will experience smaller crowds and dramatic lighting. The park is known for its thousands of sandstone arches, including Delicate Arch, an iconic formation widely featured in travel photography and on Utah license plates. Delicate Arch is accessible by a one-and-a-half-mile hike, but there are easier, shorter hikes to experience in the park as well.

Arches also offers numerous tour opportunities. Groups can take a trip around the 26-mile Arches Scenic Drive in about two and a half hours, with plenty of stops for photographs. Another favorite activity is a guided tour through Fiery Furnace, a twisting maze of red-rock fissures and spines.

Moab, the gateway to Arches National Park, is also home to Dead Horse Point State Park, which sits 2,000 feet above the Colorado River.

“It’s really known for a lookout point that has gorgeous views of the surrounding red rocks because it’s on a little plateau,” Moench said. “Legend has it that ranchers used to keep their horses up there because the plateau meant they only had to build fences along one side of it.”

A Canyonlands Trio

After the long trip from Salt Lake City to Moab, the journey to the next Utah park destination, Canyonlands National Park, is thankfully short. The first entrance to the park is only about 35 miles from Moab, making it easy for groups to get there first thing in the morning.

The largest national park site in Utah, Canyonlands is divided into three distinct districts. Island in the Sky is the park’s most accessible and most visited district, and it offers a bird’s-eye view of the landscape, which was carved out by the Colorado and Green rivers. The “island” sits 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape. The Needles District is named for its thousands of red-rock spires and sandstone fins that jut out from the ground. The most remote area of the mark, the Maze District, is a backcountry area full of jagged stone.

Visitors can take a two-mile hike on the Grand View Point Trail to see the southernmost edge of Island in the Sky. Groups can also opt to drive along the park’s 20 miles of paved roads, which can take them all the way down from the Island to the banks of the Colorado River.

The light is most dramatic during sunrise and sunset, but groups should also plan to spend some time in the park at night.

“Canyonlands has very little light pollution and has been certified as an International Dark Sky Park,” Moench said. “They have stargazing parties and special events. But even if you don’t go to those, you can still see the Milky Way very clearly at night.”

A Hidden Valley

After visiting the Canyonlands area, you have a decision to make: take the easy 150-mile trip west to Capitol Reef National Park or make a 230-mile detour into southwest Utah. Though time-consuming, the second option offers an opportunity to explore Monument Valley.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park preserves land that is considered sacred by the Navajo people and is treasured by Hollywood filmmakers for its rugged, remote landscapes. The valley was made famous in classic Westerns, including “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers,” as well as the classic “Thelma and Louise.”

Groups can learn about the area’s famous film roles by visiting the Goulding Film and Cultural History Museum at Goulding’s Lodge. In addition to the film museum, the lodge also features a trading post museum, a Navajo restaurant and a large gift shop that features Navajo art, jewelry and pottery, as well as an on-site movie theater that plays classic Western movies nightly. The lodge also offers a variety of excursions into Monument Valley, which range in length from one hour to one day, showcasing the area’s sandstone buttes and red rocks.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.