Weekend Alternatives in Northern Utah and Idaho
During summer, when Utah’s national parks get overcrowded, those in the know head north to some of Utah and Idaho’s best hidden gems. It’s a great opportunity to explore amazing places that you might have been on the backburner until now.
Find a new favorite among these five great getaways:
Dinosaur National Monument
Distance from Salt Lake City: 188 miles; 3-hour drive
Whether you want to hike, bike, raft, or just relax, Dinosaur National Monument has something for everyone. You can hike on short interpretive trails or take longer hikes to find solitude among the many fossils and incredible landscape. The three-mile Sounds of Silence Trail gives a great overview of the park’s features and wide open views of Split Mountain. Rangers are on hand to explain the expansive history of the fossils on display and tell you the best sites to visit. For a different perspective, book a rafting trip down the Green or Yampa Rivers. With plenty of drops and obstacles, this will give you the wet and wild adventure you’re looking for.
For a more relaxing weekend, visit the Rainbow Park and Island Park areas to watch those rafters float by while enjoying the view from your beach chair. Take a short walk to the McKee Springs petroglyph panels to see human-like designs and figures carved by the Fremont people over 1000 years ago. See what life was like for homesteading ranchers in 1880s by exploring Ruple Ranch, where old corrals and a loafing shed remain today. When night falls, sit under the dark sky at one of Rainbow Park’s primitive campsites to experience the starlit skies of this remote wonder.
Sawtooth National Forest
Distance from Salt Lake City: 330 miles; 5.5-hour drive
Sometimes just crossing a state line makes everything feel different. The Sawtooth Scenic Byway in Idaho features breathtaking views of towering mountains, rushing rivers, and the forest of the Sawtooth Valley. The drive from Sun Valley to Stanley spans 60 miles of this scenery, including 8700-foot Galena Peak where you’ll want to get out and take in the view while you stretching your legs. Stop in Ketchum, Idaho to see Ernest Hemingway historic sites or take a dip in the popular Frenchman’s Bend Hot Springs.
Watch for wildlife like antelope, deer, and wolves as you finish the drive to Redfish Lake. Stay overnight in the historic Redfish Lake Lodge, or rent a cabin for the whole family by the water. Spend the night hanging around a roaring fire then get an early start to the day kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding on the lake.
Craters of the Moon National Monument
Distance from Salt Lake City: 260 miles; 4-hour drive
Where can you see otherworldly landscapes and beat the summer heat? Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. This massive lava field was created thousands of years ago and today it provides an unusual and amazing weekend destination. Start your day by checking out one of the short trails with exhibits to learn about the volcanic landscape. The Inferno Cone Trail takes you up a short, steep path to an amazing panoramic view, and the Broken Top Loop gives you a look at almost all of the volcanic features in under two miles.
Now it’s time to get out of the sun and into the lava tubes. Just the term “lava tubes” should fill you with excitement, and these caves won’t disappoint. The Caves Trail leads you to several underground options, but Indian Cave is the largest and easiest to navigate. You’ll need a flashlight or headlamp, but the sun pokes through some of the collapsed ceiling, letting in wide shafts of light and creating an amazing visual as you emerge from the total darkness. If you feel confident, explore some of the darker and more challenging tunnels along this route.
Distance from Salt Lake City: 240 miles; 4-hour drive
Back in Utah, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area boasts excellent mountain biking, trout fishing, and boating. Take a canoe or paddleboard and enjoy the serene views of beautiful red rock rising from the waters. On the Dutch John side of Flaming Gorge, visit Red Canyon Lodge to book one- or two-hour horseback rides along the canyon rim.
If you prefer pedaling to splashing and trotting, take your mountain bike to the Dowd Trail for expansive views of the Gorge looking into Wyoming, or try the Basset Springs Loop for more advanced downhill riding. Make it a full weekend and spend the night at one of the on-site campgrounds along the canyon rim, or among the stands of spruce and aspen.
Spiral Jetty and Golden Spike
Distance from Salt Lake City: 100 miles; 2-hour drive
Short on time? Robert Smithson’s fabled land art masterpiece, Spiral Jetty, lies just two hours from downtown SLC. The huge, twisting creation stretches was built in 1970 and coils 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake, popping in and out as the water level fluctuates. It’s beautiful from a higher vantage point, but you can also get up close and walk out on to it. The remote location is a peaceful place for meditation or even a picnic. Stay for sunset and enjoy the dark skies away from the city.
Round out the trip with a stop along the way at Golden Spike National Historical Park. This year is the site’s 150th anniversary and you can visit to view historical films, see replicas of the steam locomotives that built this country, and even watch a reenactment of the driving of the spike that connected East and West by rail.
Don’t miss the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge for an auto tour that features hundreds of bird species. Dozens of the species make their nests in the refuge throughout the year among the marshes and open waters. A great stop for catch unique wildlife in their element.
There are so many options to explore beyond Utah’s national parks, so head north this summer to check out these lesser-visited adventure destinations.