I’m sure you already know this by now, but the Western states hold a very special place in my heart. Four states in particular are constantly calling to me: Colorado, New Mexica, Arizona, and Utah.
My infatuation with the scorching western deserts and the wild towering mountains started in 2016, when I went on my first road trip out west with my three best friends. That trip was a cornerstone moment in the formulation of my identity, and I thoroughly believe that it set me on the path to becoming the outdoor enthusiast that I am today. In 2016 my friends and I toured through the aforementioned four states, and in 2018 I returned with my boyfriend and two friends to explore more of Utah.
I’ve already written numerous blog posts about those experiences; I have a travel guide to the “Mighty Five” National Parks in Utah, a love letter to Monument Valley, and a story about my experience rock climbing in Moab. At the end of the day, though, there is still so much more for me to share about the beauty of Utah and the surrounding states.
This blog post will include some of my favorite “hidden gems” in Utah and Arizona. These are places that might not be high on someone’s radar when planning a trip because they aren’t National Parks, but they are well worth the visit and make perfect half-day adventures.
I’m starting to believe that Utah is a magical place that has natural wonders around every corner, because the following places are some of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen. If you plan a trip to Utah, make sure you budget out enough time to go to these places!
Bonneville Salt Flats
During my first Utah adventure my friends and I primarily explored the National Parks, which meant we stayed close to the center and southernmost portions of Utah. The only exception was when we went to the Bonneville Salt Flats. We drove seven hours out of the way and stayed in Salt Lake City just so we could visit this natural wonder.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are in the northwest corner of Utah and are fairly close to the border of Utah and Nevada. This is a tricky spot to visit because it all comes down to timing and luck. As the name implies, this area is essentially a giant dried up lake bed; thousands of years ago there was a huge lake called Lake Bonneville that covered the area, and as it shrank and dried up salt deposits were left behind. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the remaining vestige of that ancient lake.
During the dry season the salt flats are hard and compact, and they stretch out for miles around you as glowing white cracks. If you are lucky enough to go after it rains you’ll be able to witness something amazing.
My friends and I were part of the lucky few that were able to see the Bonneville Salt Flats when it was saturated with water. When we first arrived there was a shallow layer of murky water that stretched as far as the eye could see.
After about thirty minutes of waiting, the sand in the water settled and the water became a mirror image of the sky. In every direction we could see the clouds and the mountains perfectly reflected on the water. It was surreal to stand on the sky and to watch the mountains ripple when we splashed in the water.
If you go while the salt flats are dry don’t be disappointed, because you’ll still be treated to an amazing experience. This is hands down one of my favorite spots in Utah and it is always worth the visit.
My friends and I camped at Warner Lake for a couple of nights during our trip, and I absolutely fell in love with the location. Our campsite sat at the top of a mountain and was surrounded by aspen trees, which felt like a dream come true because I absolutely adore aspen trees.
It was so overwhelmingly beautiful at our campsite that my friends and I felt obligated to sit in our hammocks and soak it all in. We sat in silence as a gentle breeze pushed our hammocks back and forth, and it was such a peaceful moment.
There is plenty to do at Warner Lake besides enjoying the view though; a short hike from our campsite took us to a small waterfall that was surrounded by flowers. It is also possible to kayak and swim in the lake, and there are numerous hiking trails that will take you through the La Sal Mountains.
After our stay at Warner Lake I knew one thing for a fact: I would return one day. I don’t know what this life has in store for me, but one thing I can count on is working as a camp host on Warner Lake after I retire. I look forward to returning to those aspen trees as an old woman and spending my days watching the sky roll by.
If I’m being completely honest with you, I have mixed feelings about Lake Powell. When I visited it in 2016 I was oblivious to it’s complex history and only saw it for what it was: a big lake. At the time it was refreshing to soak up the sun on the red rocks and then hop in the frigid water when I got too hot. My friends and I floated in the water and watched families play nearby and boats zoom past. It was nice after being in the car for so long.
It wasn’t until I started digging deeper into environmental issues during college that I discovered how terrible Lake Powell is. The area used to be an extensive system of slot canyons, each one it’s own tiny world of wonders. All of that was lost though when the Glen Canyon Dam was put up in order to create a reservoir of water for the surrounding states.
Here’s an excerpt from Utah.com about Lake Powell;
From the floor of Glen Canyon, the good people of the 1950s looked at a spot 200 feet overhead and said, “I’d really like to float on an inner tube up there.” So they built a dam where God had built a canyon to make a reservoir where He’d put a river. The dam was authorized in 1956 and blasting for the diversion tunnels began the same year. Lake Powell — named for one-armed Civil-War-veteran-turned-explorer John Wesley Powell — began to fill up behind the completed Glen Canyon Dam in 1963 and visitors have been swimming unnaturally ever since.
Once I was exposed to the tragic history of Lake Powell I felt disgusted that I had swam in those waters. Katie Lee, one of my inspirations, had lived in Glen Canyon before it was damed up and explored as much of it as she could, and after the dam went up she devoted her life to trying to get it torn down. If you want to learn more about the detrimental effects of dams on our environment then check out this post that I wrote.
That being said, it’s hard for me to objectively write about Lake Powell. On one hand, millions of people visit Lake Powell each year and utilize it for recreational purposes, which is great because people are getting outside. But it’s hard to see the lake without feeling heartbroken over what was lost beneath the surface.
Meadow Hot Springs
When I went to Utah the second time during spring break in 2018, it was freezing cold at night. The March sun would beat down on us during the day and burn us to a crisp, but once the sun sunk under the horizon it would get chilly. My friends and I decided to break up our nightly routine of shivering in our tents after the sun went down by going to the Meadow hot springs.
Meadow Utah is a tiny town located 4 miles south of Fillmore, and the locals know about a secret hot spring in the middle of an empty field. The springs reside on private property, but the owner will gladly let visitors take a dip in the warm water and camp in his cow pasture. We set up our tent and waited for the sun to go down before stepping around cow patties to the springs. The steaming pool is popular among locals, so within minutes other people showed up to soak with us.
I recommend visiting the Meadow hot springs simply because the surrounding landscape is absolutely beautiful. Snow covered mountains lined the horizon, while around us was nothing but flat pasture as far as the eye could see.
If you do decide to add a dip in the springs to your itinerary, please be respectful of the land and understand that the springs are only accessible by the grace of the owner. Pick up your trash, follow Leave No Trace principles, camp in the designated areas, and leave a little money for the owner, or else this hidden gem on private property will no longer be available to visit.
I haven’t spent as much time in Arizona as I have in Utah, but I have never had a bad experience there. Arizona is full of amazing spots, and I hope that one day in the future I get to explore it more.
Petrified Forest National Park
I consider the Petrified Forest National Park to be a hidden gem because my friends and I literally stumbled upon it; we were driving through Arizona in order to get to Flagstaff for the night and we pulled off at a random exit in order to find a restroom. By pure luck we ended up at a National Park that we didn’t even know existed (moral of the story: always listen to your bladder!).
Since we were already there, my friends and I decided to explore the Petrified Forest National Park in order to stretch our legs before we got back in the car. Petrified Forest National Park is part of the larger painted desert, which means the sloping hills were striped with beautiful colors. As we walked through the park we passed numerous ancient fossilized tree stumps. The fossils range in size from stumps almost as big as a car to palm sized pieces of petrified bark. It was amazing to run our hands along the smooth surface of the colorful trees and to wander through the stone forest.
Horseshoe Bend is another location that I have mixed feelings about.
This spot used to be a secret among locals, so that finding it literally was like finding a hidden gem. When my friends and I visited in 2016 there was practically nobody there and we had the location mostly to ourselves.
Fast forward two years when I returned in 2018: the area was buzzing with people and there was construction going on to turn the spot into a tourist attraction. What was once a tiny dirt lot was now a huge parking lot with fences and porta-potties, and the remote trail was littered with footprints and trash. People were wandering away from the designated trail and destroying the surrounding ecosystems. There was even construction around the viewpoint, and soon there will be fences preventing people from getting close to the edge and a visitor center with a glass viewing area.
Returning to Horseshoe Bend brought to my attention a common dilemma in the outdoor industry: people are constantly fighting to protect natural areas and designate them as “public land” so that they will be preserved for future generations to enjoy; however, by making a wild space public you have to make it accessible to everyone, which can potentially ruin the space. This is clearly happening at Horseshoe Bend. Everyone wants to visit it because it was wildly popular on social media, and in the rush to make that spot accessible we are ruining the essence of what made it so special in the first place.
I shared the following words in an instagram post, “Public lands are supposed to be just that: public. And that means making places accessible for anyone to experience. But something about the plans for a paved walkway and an enclosed viewing area broke my heart a little bit. Public lands are supposed to be public, but they should also be a little bit wild.”
This issue has weighed heavily on my heart for a long time now, but seeing the drastic changes at Horseshoe Bend made it all the more poignant. If you decide to visit Horseshoe Bend while in Arizona, please treat the place with respect.
The last hidden gem in Arizona is a place that is utterly unique: Antelope Canyon. This sandstone slot canyon lies on the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation, so the only way to access it is by taking a tour with Navajo tour guides. When my friends and I initially planned our trip out west we budgeted money specifically for this tour. Here’s a list of the various tour operators that take people into Antelope Canyon.
The tour that we ended up going on wasn’t too expensive, and it was definitely worth it. Our tour guides were super helpful and informative; one tour guide in particular even told us the best settings to put our cameras on in order to get the best photos.
As we stepped down the ladder and into the slot canyon we were surrounded with rich and vibrant tones of red, orange, yellow, and purple. Wave-like ripples and intricate patters could be found in every direction, and in certain spots along the hike our tour guides pointed out various formations; in one section the light coming into the canyon looked exactly like a whale, and in another spot there was the head of a woman.
If you plan a visit to this special spot, keep in mind the importance of the land to the indigenous people. This excerpt from the Navajo Tours website explains the significance of Antelope Canyon:
The Navajo Tribe considers the Canyon to be spiritual and sacred to the Navajo culture and way of life — they even stop and frame their minds in the correct, respectful manner before entering. In a sense, the Navajo consider Antelope Canyon to be a symbol of the gifts of Mother Nature, the passage of time, and the fact that there are things larger and greater than themselves. Every four years, the Navajo people have the Canyon blessed as they give thanks to the natural elements of the world that helped to form its unusual shape. Due to its importance to their heritage, the Navajo Tribe made Antelope Canyon a Navajo Tribal Park in 1997, and it has only been accessible by permit since that time.
As is the case with all public land and natural spaces, be sure to treat Antelope Canyon with respect and follow Leave No Trace principles.
I’m so excited to finally share with ya’ll some of my favorite spots in Utah and Arizona. Feel free to add these locations to your itinerary if you’re traveling out west, but remember to always treat the land with respect and to leave these places better than you found them.
If you are interested in talking about the unintended consequences of developing public land and the double-edged sword of accessibility, let me know and I would love to chat with you about it.
Until then, keep on adventuring friends.
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption.