Utah’s stunning landscape is far from a secret. The state’s “Mighty 5” pack of Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches national parks has long been a staple of family road trips and bucket-list adventures.
But Utah’s splendors do not end at the national parks. They extend into a system of 43 amazing state parks. Located in virtually all corners of the Beehive State, Utah’s state parks take visitors from the mountains and lakes near Salt Lake City to the colorful sand dunes and spooky rock formations in the south.
While the national parks are undoubtedly must-see attractions, I have found the state parks to be perfect accompaniments to Mighty 5 road trips. They’re where locals escape the national park crowds to take in the state’s many beauties.
Based on my travels through Utah as well as recommendations from Visit Utah, here are nine Utah state parks that should be on your bucket list.
1. Dead Horse Point State Park
Just a half-hour drive from the world-famous rock formations of Arches National Park is another not-to-be-missed Utah experience: the overlook at Dead Horse Point State Park, which provides a big-picture view of the Colorado River meandering through the area’s canyons and mesas.
The parkland towers 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, offering seemingly infinite views of not just the Colorado River, but the area’s distinctive rock spires and buttes as well.
A number of stellar hiking trails traverse the park’s desert and rocky landscape. The overlook is the main attraction of the park, and it can be reached along a very easy, 200-foot paved pathway. The park also offers an easy 1-mile roundtrip Colorado Overlook Trail, an easy 2-mile East Rim Trail, and a moderate 2.5-to-3.5-mile West Rim Trail.
Pro Tip: The fun town of Moab is the perfect base for exploring many of southeastern Utah’s national and state parks, including Dead Horse Point. Here’s how to spend a perfect long weekend in gorgeous Moab, Utah.
2. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
If sand dunes are as fascinating to you as they are to me, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is definitely one for the bucket list. Located in the midst of the Navajo sandstone formations of southwestern Utah, the state park features an otherworldly sea of shifting, rose-tinted sand.
On my recent June visit, the ruddy sand was beautifully set off by fields of vivid yellow rough mule’s ear wildflowers. The colorful landscape is irresistible, and the state park is among the seven must-visit sand dunes in the Southwest.
With few permanently designated trails, the dunes are generally open to hikers and ATVs. The shifting nature of the sand can make hiking a bit difficult, but gorgeous views await at the top of the dunes.
Pro Tip: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is located just a half-hour drive from the town of Kanab, a cool and convenient spot to stay for many of southern Utah’s treasures. For inspiration on a visit to Kanab, see my article on the best things to do in Kanab, Utah.
3. Kodachrome Basin State Park
For a wonderful stop on the drive to or from Capitol Reef National Park, consider making a short detour to Kodachrome Basin State Park, a veritable wonderland of rock pinnacles and colorful cliffs.
Boasting 67 monolithic stone spires, the basin is a part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and is among the best experiences in the massive parkland. Owing to the basin’s photogenic qualities, a National Geographic Society expedition in 1948 is said to have named the area Kodachrome after the popular color film of the time.
The state park can be enjoyed from three scenic campgrounds and two bunkhouses, as well as a number of trails that take hikers and horseback riders deep into the basin. For unbeatable views, check out the easy 3-mile Panorama Trail and the moderate 1.6-mile Shakespeare Arch Trail.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the short drive to the park’s largest rock spire, Chimney Rock, which rises dramatically out of its rocky surroundings to a height of 170 feet.
4. Wasatch Mountain State Park
Located at nearly 6,000 feet elevation, Wasatch Mountain State Park offers year-round recreation in a mountain setting.
A 45-minute drive southeast of Salt Lake City, Wasatch Mountain State Park’s Soldier Hollow was the host of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The park’s website notes that the venue remains open to the public and offers cross-country skiing, tubing, summer and winter biathlon, and inline skating. (Be sure to check ahead for the availability of snow and winter sports.)
The state park, which was established in the 1960s, also offers camping, picnicking, hiking, mountain biking, golf, off-highway vehicle recreation, and horseback riding.
5. Goblin Valley State Park
The name alone is enough to entice travelers in search of an extraordinary experience. Often compared to Mars, Goblin Valley State Park features thousands of mushroom-shaped hoodoos, also known as goblins.
The state park, located about an hour and a half west of Moab in southeastern Utah, is a showcase of geologic history, featuring cliffs that reveal parallel layers of rock that have been exposed by erosion.
Made up of three distinct valleys, Goblin Valley features a system of trails with a range of difficulty levels. An easy hike is available on the 1.5-mile one-way Curtis Bench Trail, while a moderate trek can be found on the 1.5-mile round trip Carmel Canyon Loop. For a strenuous excursion to a massive, cavernous formation, head to the Goblin’s Lair.
Pro Tip: While Goblin Valley’s rock formations are stunning sights during the daylight, they are also recommended under the night skies. The park reportedly features one of the darkest skies on earth, making for unparalleled views of the Milky Way.
6. Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail State Park
Billed as one of Utah’s most unique state parks, the 28-mile-long Historic Union Pacific Rail Trail follows an old route starting near Park City and on to the towns of Wanship and Coalville, then the Echo Reservoir.
Abandoned since 1989, the train route, located less than an hour northeast of Salt Lake City, was converted into a non-motorized recreational trail and dedicated in 1992. It offers a great option for a bike ride or hike through Utah’s railroad and mining history, as well as some of the state’s most scenic terrain. The trail’s surface is primarily gravel but also includes paved sections. It is rated as easy.
Pro Tip: For places to access the trail, see Visit Utah’s Trail Guide.
7. Utah Lake State Park
For a lake setting with urban amenities nearby, it’s hard to beat Utah Lake State Park in the Provo area. Sitting at the mouth of the Provo River, Utah Lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the west.
The state park offers boating, fishing, hiking, and camping. It also has a day-use area for swimming in the outer marina, picnicking under one of the beach cabanas, and disc golf.
Pro Tip: A major perk of a visit to Utah Lake State Park is its close proximity to the trailhead for the beautiful Provo River Parkway. The 15-mile rail-trail begins at the state park and ends near the base of the Bridal Veil Falls.
8. Sand Hollow State Park
Among Utah’s newest and most popular state parks is Sand Hollow State Park, a 20,000-acre park in southwestern Utah, about a 25-minute drive northeast of St. George and about 45 minutes southwest of Zion National Park.
With Sand Mountain providing 15,000 acres of dunes, the park is a favorite destination for local off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts. The dunes also create a beautiful backdrop for the Sand Hollow Reservoir. Along with OHV recreation, the park also offers opportunities for boaters, bikers, and equestrians.
9. Goosenecks State Park
Sweeping views are the name of the game at Goosenecks State Park located in the far southeastern corner of Utah.
The park sits at the edge of a deep canyon above the curve in the San Juan River known as a gooseneck. The river twists and turns for six miles on its way west to Lake Powell.
Activities at Goosenecks include gazing at the spectacular views, photography, stargazing, and camping. There are no hiking or biking trails within the park, and bikes are permitted on public roads only.
Pro Tip: The best seasons to visit Goosenecks are fall, winter, and spring. The park’s website notes that Goosenecks can be intensely hot during the summer (well into the 90-degrees Fahrenheit range), and there is no shade.