Experiencing Utah’s Past—Outdoors


Adventuring Through Time

In its thousands of years of human occupation, Utah’s story has centered on the changing, but always intimate, relationship between its places and its people. From the mysterious stone dwellings of the Ancient Puebloan culture to the trails forged by wagon trains, people have left their mark on the landscape—and, in turn, the landscape has shaped human history.

Though these historical happenings may seem remote from everyday life, there’s one surefire way to bring them vividly to life: with an in-person visit. And, fortunately for Beehive State residents and visitors, many of Utah’s most fascinating historical sites are also great places to hike, backpack, or ride a bike. Getting off the freeway and out of the car guarantees a more engaging experience, one where you can imagine the struggles and triumphs of people in centuries past.

These five options are just a few of our favorite ways to get off-road and experience some hands-on history.

House on Fire Ruins Hiking Trail, Bears Ears National Monument

The Mule Canyon area is home to a number of surviving Ancestral Puebloan buildings, but House on Fire is one of the most easily accessible (and photogenic). This two-mile out-and-back trail is a mellow mile-long hike along a creek bed, where you’ll spy the ancient buildings (actually granaries, not houses) on the cliff face to the north. Follow the rockpile cairns up for a short scramble over slickrock to the base of the ruins.

Time your arrival for late morning (around 11:00 a.m. in the summer), and you’ll be rewarded with a stunning play of light reflected across the canyon over the rocks above the buildings—producing a fiery effect that gives the ruins their name. Respect this archaeological treasure by sticking to trails, packing out your trash, and not damaging or disturbing your surroundings. Get the full details.

Photo Credit: image licensed by ingram image

American West Heritage Center Handcart Treks

Looking for an experience that’s as close as possible to that of Utah’s Mormon pioneers? Grab a few dozen of your closest friends and book a three- or four-day handcart trek across the rugged terrain of the Cache Valley. You’ll camp under the trees next to a rushing stream, enjoy authentic chuckwagon cuisine, and put your shoulder to the wheel of your own handcart. Along the way, you might also learn a few songs and dances or enjoy a costumed visit from a Pony Express rider. For prices, dates, and logistics.

Nine Mile Canyon | Photo Credit: BLM

Nine Mile Canyon, Wellington

Nicknamed “the world’s longest art gallery,” this 46-mile-long canyon (misleadingly named after the creek that flows through it) boasts historic ranches, structures, and an estimated 1,000 rock art sites featuring over 10,000 individual images. Created by the Fremont and Ute peoples in the centuries before European colonization, this rock art takes the form of both pecked-out petroglyphs and painted pictographs.

Start your journey at the Castle Country Information Center, where you can plan your visit and learn more about what you’ll see along the route. Make a weekend of it with a stay at Nine Mile Bunk n Breakfast, a private campground featuring campfire songs and hearty Dutch oven cooking. Find more planning resources at castlecountry.com.

Golden Spike National Historic Park | Photo Courtesy of Spike150

Golden Spike National Historic Park, Promontory Summit

On May 10, 1869, a brass band played as two locomotives faced each other across a remote stretch of track. Featuring a series of infamously long speeches and invocations, the ceremony culminated in the driving of not one, but four, precious metal spikes into the wooden ties that finally joined the East and West sections of the Transcontinental Railroad, uniting the country with a single transportation link.

Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, Golden Spike National Historic Park is a fascinating place to spend a day immersed in this period of history. Explore the 1.5-mile Big Fill Loop Trail, where you will walk out and back on original grade built by the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. Join the crowd for a reenactment of the Driving of the Last Spike ceremony (who knows—you might get tapped for audience participation!). Get up close and personal with lovingly constructed replicas of the Jupiter and No. 119 engines that met face-to-face on that day. Plan your trip at the National Park Service or visit Spike150 to learn about 150th anniversary events.

Mormon Flat | Photo Credit: Ken Lund

Donner-Reed Party Trail, Little Emigration Canyon

Spanning 1300 miles across five states, the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail traces the main route taken by settlers from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah. It has hikable sections along its length, but one great option for a day hike or singletrack ride is the Donner-Reed Party Trail, running through Little Emigration Canyon up to Big Mountain Pass.

This well-marked route follows the ill-fated footsteps of the 1846 Donner-Reed Party (but you’ll pack plenty of snacks, so no worries). An 8.4-mile out-and-back path winds through meadows flecked with wildflowers and up a series of rocky switchbacks. Keep an eye out for fortified breastworks built along both sides of the trail on both sides of the creek. The trail’s best for a summer visit: it’s typically snowy in spots as late as May and again in November. Find more details and a trail map.

Utah’s rich history surrounds you wherever you go in the state, and Utahns’ passion for their heritage means that much of this history has been preserved and restored. Build a deeper connection to our beautiful state by planning a trip that celebrates the past.


About Author

Molly writes about fitness and nutrition from her home in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not at her desk, you can find her teaching history, hiking the Gorge, or hitting the archery range.

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