Experiencing the mountains, deserts, and spas of southern Utah
What’s neat about Utah is that it’s home to both snow-capped peaks and dry desert. Whether you’re looking for a cooler, high-altitude getaway in the mountains or a hot-and-toasty desert vacation amid otherworldly red-rock formations, the state offers a little something for everyone—including spa aficionados, too.
I suggest flying (or driving) into Salt Lake City to spend just a couple of days there exploring sights such as Temple Square and the Great Salt Lake itself. You can overnight at a convenient downtown hotel, then hop in your rental car to explore one of these popular vacation destinations in Utah.
Mountainous Park City
While skiers flock to Park City’s powdery slopes in the winter, this friendly ski town shines in the summer with its moderate temperatures, blue skies, and oodles of ways to play in the mountains. It’s also just a 40-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City.
The most convenient way to get high quickly is via a scenic chairlift or gondola ride at one of the ski resorts: Park City Mountain Resort, Canyons Resort, or Deer Valley. Once at the top, admire the views, eat a picnic lunch, or set off on a myriad of hiking and biking trails. Park City Mountain Resort has a lift-served zipline and alpine slide at the top of the mountain, as well as an alpine coaster, climbing wall, miniature golf, and more kid-friendly fun at the mountain base.
Viewfinder Tip: Try paddleboard yoga in a crater’s natural hot spring with Park City Yoga Adventures. The water is 90 degrees, so no worries if you stumble on downward dog and fall in!
Fly fishing, hot-air balloon rides, horseback riding, river rafting, and kayaking are still more outdoor adventures available in and around Park City. I also recommend strolling and shopping along historic Main Street, where some buildings date back to the 1800s, when Park City was a booming mining town. If you’re a history buff, don’t miss the Park City Museum, with its eclectic collection of mining and skiing artifacts and informative displays. Downtown Park City is also home to excellent fine-dining restaurants, casual pizza joints, and upbeat watering holes.
Finally, at Utah Olympic Park, a competition venue for the 2002 Olympic Games, you might catch athletes training for their snow sports—even in the summer. If you’re seeking an adrenaline rush (and a sore neck afterward; I speak from experience), take a ride on the Comet Bobsled down a twisty track (15 curves in all!) at 65 mph (it reaches 85 mph on ice in the winter). More thrills here include the Extreme Zip, touted as one of the steepest ziplines in the world, and the Summit Adventure Course, which has height-seekers swinging from ropes 55 feet in the air. For folks who prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground, there are two museums showcasing the history of skiing in the area and artifacts from the 2002 Olympic Games.
Red-rock Moab for adventurers
I’ll never forget my first trip to Moab, Utah, about a 3.5-hour drive southeast of Salt Lake City. I was nearly 30 years old, had never been to the Utah desert (or the state, for that matter). When I lay eyes on the sandstone pillars, buttes, and cliffs that towered above us as we drove an especially scenic route into town (Hwy 128 from western Colorado) I gasped. Repeatedly.
Hiking in Arches National Park
Natural wonders in the form of soaring rock formations surround Moab, but the best way to see a whole bunch of them at once is by driving through one or both of the national parks in the area: Arches National Park, with more than 2,000 natural stone arches, and Canyonlands National Park, with canyons and bluffs formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries over millions of years. I’m partial to Arches because it’s the first National Park I ever visited (in 1997 with my then-boyfriend-now-husband) and it’s the first one we hiked with our children when they were able to hit the trail for a couple miles on their own two feet (versus being carried).
Sentiment aside, Arches is home to massive Balanced Rock and iconic Delicate Arch, as well as easy-to-moderate hiking trails, which are an ideal way to get up close and personal with arches that are not visible while driving the park’s winding roads.
Moab has been called the “mountain biking capital of the world,” with its single-track and slick-rock trails. One of these trails is named, simply, the Slickrock Bike Trail; its “practice loop” proved too difficult for me when I set out to conquer it years ago. Thankfully, Moab has plenty of bike routes for all levels. On repeat visits to the outdoorsy town, we’ve asked the friendly folks at the downtown visitor center for recommendations, and we’ve had good luck on Gemini Bridges Road and the easy Bar M trail with our children.
Serene St. George for spa-lovers
Located in the southwest corner of the state, about a 4-hour drive from Salt Lake City, St. George is so close to the border of Arizona (and Nevada) and at a low elevation (2,860 feet) it typically doesn’t receive snow in the winter months. Its desert topography also means days there are quite hot and dry in the summer. It’s not unusual for temperatures to soar over 100 degrees in July. However, St. George-area spa resorts offer ample opportunity to sweat outdoors in the refreshing early morning hours, and then cool off with indoor fitness classes or soothing spa treatments in the afternoon.
Meditative labyrinth at Red Mountain Resort
After a girls’ getaway weekend to Red Mountain Resort, I became a fan of its array of ways to exercise, namely guided hikes and bike rides in nearby Snow Canyon State Park. I also appreciated the resort’s excellent healthy cuisine—favorites were the hearty breakfast buffet and generous lunchtime salad bar. At Red Mountain Resort, one can opt for an “retreat package” that includes three meals a day, fitness classes, and guided hiking and biking. You also can book “a la carte” rates that just include your accommodations and breakfast.
Spa treatments here are quite good—I sampled the basic Sagestone Customized Massage and a Red Rock Hiker’s Massage when I visited a couple years ago. While the relaxation area at the Sagestone Salon & Spa was quite nice, with chaise lounges facing a big picture window with red-rock views, I found the women’s locker room small for the the number of guests the spa serves. The red stucco, adobe-like buildings housing guest rooms are plain on the outside, but very comfortable and pretty on the inside.
Two more destination fitness resorts and spas are in St. George and nearby Ivins. One, the Biggest Loser Resort at Fitness Ridge, requires a week’s Sunday-to-Sunday stay and is an excellent way to jump-start a fitness routine and learn to eat nutritiously. (I speak from experience: Start reading my “Biggest Loser” posts here.) Then there’s Green Valley Spa & Hotel, which I last visited way back in 1999, when my mom treated me to a decadent long weekend right before I got married. Back then I was a total newbie to the destination spa experience, but it certainly got me hooked on resort stays that combine outdoor exercise, healthy eating, and spa services. In fact, I’m due for a return trip to Green Valley; I’m adding it to my list of places to go in the next year!
What’s your ideal weekend getaway?
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