Utah is world-famous—and justifiably so—for its red-rock landscape. Each year, millions of travelers visit the state’s better-known national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches. But the iconic look-outs, restaurants, hiking trails, and hotels in and around these parks can get unpleasantly clogged, especially in summer. That’s why we put together this list of hidden gems, parts of this glorious state that are just as captivating but far less crowded. Go now, before word gets out.
All that most visitors see of Capitol Reef’s red and white sandstone formations is the view out their car windows as they drive from Zion to Arches on Highway 24 (which runs right through the park, making it free to enter). Few travelers know to stop for a picnic just inside the park’s western entrance at the groves of peach, apple, cherry, and apricot trees, which are still-producing remnants of the Mormons who settled the area in the 1880s; you can eat your fill for free, or pay a nominal fee for any fruit you take with you. A bit farther in, the hike to Hickman Bridge (a huge, naturally carved stone bridge) is lovely but crowded; from the same trailhead, the Rim Overlook Trail and its extension to Navajo Knobs see far fewer feet, and offer panoramic views into the park. The most adventurous should consider the Burr Trail, a 67-mile road (only some of it paved) that starts in the tiny artists’ haven of Boulder, Utah and runs through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef, with numerous hiking options along the way.
In the town of Torrey, less than five miles from the western boundary of Capitol Reef, the Cougar Ridge Lodge has changed all that, and its seven brand-new casitas are surprisingly affordable: You can rent a single room for as little as $90, or an entire cottage—with two bedrooms, a living area, kitchen, and deck with grill—for $285 per night. From the beautiful floors to the granite and marble countertops, the stonework is top-notch, matched by comfy leather armchairs and lovely views of the pasturelands for horses and llamas. Owner Gary will proudly show you around the 42-acre property, into which he’s clearly plowed generous doses of both money and passion. He can arrange a guide for ATV rides, hiking, or horseback riding. There’s no sign on Highway 24 for the Cougar Ridge Lodge, so it might just stay the “best kept secret in southern Utah,” as one TripAdvisor traveler calls it.
Pomegranate and chipotle-glazed ribs, shrimp cooked in a coconut curry with bananas: These are the kinds of surprising flavor combinations you’ll find at Café Diablo, another southern Utah outlier in Torrey, just down the road from Cougar Ridge. Noise from the kitchen can infiltrate the dining room, so go early enough to eat outside. The generous portions will refuel your tanks after a day outdoors; start with a Diablo Salad, an inventive sweet-and savory combination of spinach, strawberries, Havarti cheese, toasted pecans, and banana-bread croutons. The Wasatch Jalapeño Cream Ale, a Utah-produced brew, has a subtle kick that pairs well with Diablo’s dishes.
This outdoor adventure company specializes in taking people well off the beaten path—often into wilderness areas that you can only visit with the proper permits, and where you will likely see not another soul. Canyoneering is hugely popular in Utah (think of it as the opposite of mountaineering: You scramble down rock fields, squeeze through narrow slots, and rappel down ropes to explore canyons); instead of joining the masses trying it out in Arches, book a tour with Get in the Wild, whose guides will take you into the Goblin’s Lair in Goblin Valley State Park. Surrounded by the otherworldly stone hoodoos that give the park its name, you’ll rappel 90 feet into an underground chamber, then emerge at the other end of the red-rock canyon for a gorgeous hike back to the starting point.
Chefs love to name-drop farmers these days, but few can say that they actually grew most of their produce themselves. That’s the case at Hell’s Backbone Grill; it’s not a rib joint, as the name might suggest, but a restaurant with its own organic, six-acre farm that contributes heavily to a menu where vegetables are the stars (though sustainably raised meat makes a few appearances as well). Whatever’s not used fresh off the farm is carefully pickled, frozen, or dehydrated in order to be served during a less bountiful season. If it’s on the menu, start with the impossibly creamy Utah goat cheese fondue, served with crunchy carrots and radishes for dipping.