The West-Central landlocked state of Utah is one of the most unique and attractive parts of America. The iconic, seemingly hand-sculpted rock formations and stark canyons throughout the desert-scape make up one of the most recognizable landscapes on the continent. Utilizing its alluring physique, the Beehive State has formed five national parks and 45 state parks, plus national monuments and recreational areas, scenic byways, and many historic sites and trails. Sprinkled amongst these tourist magnets are welcoming communities that form the foundation of both wild adventures and soothing retreats. These are eight of the most charming small towns to check out.
Just over 30 miles East of Utah's capital, Salt Lake City, Park City welcomes fans of year-round outdoor recreation and cinephiles from around the world. Situated within the Wasatch Range (just North of Wasatch Mountain State Park), and bordered by two ski resorts (to the West and South), as well as the Jordanelle Reservoir (plus Jordanelle State Park), this host of the 2022 Winter Olympics really does have it all. Visitors can hit the slopes or the links (sometimes even on the same day), go boating and/or fishing, set forth on the trails, or grab a scenic campsite for a few nights. Park City is also one of three major locations for the acclaimed Sundance Film Festival, which rolls into town each January.
From Park City to Garden City, these communities deliver on their charming names (though the latter is more blue than the expected green). This Rich County town rests on the Southwest shore of Bear Lake, in the Northeastern corner of the state. Dubbed the "Caribbean of the Rockies," Garden City is a refreshing contrast to the arid (albeit beautiful) landscape throughout much of Utah. Grab a spot on the beaches of Bear Lake State Park (some sandy, some pebbly) and enjoy the view of 70,000 acres of water framed by modest mountains and clear skies. Or if a Sunday drive is what you seek, backtrack down the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway (exceptionally colorful in the fall), of which Garden City is the Northern terminus.
The red monoliths and picturesque canyon of Zion National Park draw nearly five-million annual visitors. Therefore, it is a good strategy to have a nearby base camp to wait out the weekend crowds. The town of Springdale sits on the South side of the park and perfectly compliments the adventure. With just over 500 permanent residents, there is a laid-back and spacious feel to this place, but given the consistent amount of tourism, there is also enough to keep one entertained and satiated. The steep, striated walls dance in the early morning glow, boosting the excitement for the day's explorations but also inspiring creations of local artists. Springdale features fine art galleries, top-tier photography collections, authentic Native arts and crafts, and shops full of unique jewelry, gems, and mineral concoctions.
Though firmly landlocked, the high altitude of Torrey (6,830 feet) still makes this a refreshing summer getaway spot or a crisp, fun-filled winter destination. This Mormon Pioneer-founded town's rose-colored cliffs and baseline greenery sets a pleasant stage for an unplugged holiday. Plus, this tiny Wayne County community is only eight miles West of the Capitol Reef National Park North Entrance and part of the Capitol Reef Country Scenic Byway (S.R. 24). This is, therefore, a perfect spot from which to explore the 241,904 acres of ancient and battered pastel landscape. Torrey is also a dropping-in point for the 123-mile-long Scenic Byway 12 (i.e., Utah's All-American Road).
East-Central Utah's adventure hub, Moab, is a great place to launch several state and national park excursions, as well as scenic drives that hit the main highlights of this expressive landscape. The Colorado River rolls through the North end of town, marking the Southern boundary for Arches National Park and leading the way Southwest into Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. There are also thousands of square miles of Bureau of Land Management terrain, open to all backroad adventurers and car camping enthusiasts. And while the surrounding exterior is hard to overstate, the accommodating streets of Moab are well worth devoting some time to. Take a walk on a sunny day (which is almost every day here) through downtown to scout the artisanal shops, sip some microbrewery suds, and enjoy a few classy meals at the acclaimed restaurants.
In the Southwest corner of the state, just North of the Arizona border, the small city of Kanab is another gem for enjoying the desert beauty and making day trips to some of the nation's best parks and monuments. The anthropomorphic hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park and the rugged Martianscape of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument await to the Northeast, radiant Zion Canyon National Park sits to the Northwest, and the overwhelming majesty of the Grand Canyon is less than 80 miles South of town. Once again, it is not only the side trips that make Kanab so appealing, for its core setting is so picturesque that many major movies have been shot here, giving it the nickname "Little Hollywood." To further ramp up the charm factor, try staying at BaseCamp37 – a glamping site with well-stocked safari-style tents.
Less than an hour's drive North of Salt Lake City and just minutes East of Ogden, Huntsville marries lake life (an alternative to Great Salt Lake, that is) with the ski slopes and scenery of Ogden Valley. Situated on the East side of the curvaceous Pineview Reservoir, this Weber County town can be a spot for a wet and wild summer, but it is also sandwiched between the Nordic Valley Ski Resort (to the North) and the Snowbasin Resort (to the South), which can also be enjoyed by hikers and bikers in the fair-weather season, or indulged by powder-loving tourists during peak season. A cool novelty right in the heart of town is the Shooting Star Saloon – Utah's oldest continually-operating watering hole (established in 1879) that also serves up famous burgers.
Just 15 miles South of Park City, the humble city of Midway offers an unexpected taste of Switzerland – not only because of the aesthetic of the Wasatch Range but the 18th-century Swiss immigrants that founded their new home here. So don't miss the annual Swiss Days festival that kicks off every August. Midway also enjoys immediate proximity to the highly-rated Wasatch Mountain State Park (complete with two golf courses and miles of pristine trails), multiple ski resorts, and the long and slender Deer Creek Reservoir, which is supported by the wholesome Deer Creek State Park. Another highlight specific to Midway is the Homestead Crater – a geothermal spring within a 55-foot-tall limestone covering that is not only a lovely spot to relax but is also the only warm scuba diving destination in the lower 48 states.
Utah is as badass as it is charming. There's something about the taxed terrain that evokes both exhilaration and tranquility. And with year-round activities to suit all persuasions, it is no wonder why this inland state pulls so many visitors away from the coasts and major American cities. A small-town getaway is a time to unwind and try new things. And a vacation around any of these eight Utah communities will all but guarantee both.