Skip to main content

The Manual may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

Why Utah Is America’s Four-Season Outdoor Playground

Many states across the vast and majestic U.S. of A. have wonderful outdoor recreation opportunities, but these opportunities tend to be limited by that thing we call the season. There are miles and miles of sandy beaches along the eastern seaboard where warm Atlantic waters make summers idyllic, but in wintertime, much of the East Coast is rather useless from an outdoor activity standpoint. Southern California’s deserts are great for hiking and camping until summertime, when average daily highs are often above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Unless you like ice fishing, Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes aren’t much fun in winter. And so it goes.

Park City, Utah
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Until you go to Utah, that is. If you like being outdoors, there’s never a bad time to visit the Beehive State. Utah offers such a vast range of outdoor activities that you could try your hand at a half dozen different pursuits each season and still only scratch the surface. And in UT, you can enjoy many forms of recreation in multiple seasons thanks to the uniquely varied terrain and topography, which ranges from tall mountains to deserts to forests.

Clearly grasping that there’s something special to Utah when it comes to the great outdoors, in 2013 Governor Gary Herbert created the Office of Outdoor Recreation, the first such office in America (and one now emulated by several other states). The director of that office is a man named Tom Adams, who started skiing at age four, who has completed numerous first ascent climbs around the state, and who worked for vaunted outdoor hardware brands Black Diamond and Petzl and as a ski instructor before he made his life’s passions his life’s work. We spoke to Tom as well as to Danny Van Wagoner, mayor of the town of Castle Dale and an avid outdoorsman, and to Nikki Smith, noted climber, writer, and photographer who has notched more than 150 roped first ascents and 200 bouldering first ascents.

The experts have spoken. Here’s how to make the most of America’s 13th largest state.

Utah in Winter

Utah is a sublime spot for downhill snow sports. Everyone we spoke to talked at length about resort skiing and snowboarding, as well as backcountry skiing and boarding. But there are so many more winter sports one can try out here. There’s snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. There’s snow fat biking. There’s snowmobiling.

And then there’s the growing sport of ice climbing. This is a relatively new recreational sport, but it’s gaining popularity in many places around the nation and globe. Utah just happens to be a great spot for ice climbing. Tom Adams said, “Because of Utah’s unique landscape a lot of those flagship outdoor brands like Petzl, Backcountry, Goal Zero, and Black Diamond are housed in Utah. So you’re not only getting outside easily and often, but you have instant access to some of the world’s best equipment and guides for doing so, which is great for beginners and building a strong community.”

powder mountain utah
Powder Mountain / Facebook

If you want to try your hand(s and feet) at ice climbing, try Provo Canyon, just 30 miles SSE of Salt Lake City. If you prefer to stick to skiing, try heading north, instead. There’s Snowbasin. There’s Powder Mountain. There’s … a lot of places, basically.

And if you want to keep things varied, you’re in the right place. “We also have what some have coined the ‘trifecta,'” Tom Adams says. “[That’s] is when you complete three separate mountain activities in one day. You might see someone backcountry skiing in the morning, ice climbing in the early afternoon, and wrapping things up with a mountain bike ride on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in the evening. ”

Utah in Spring

Skiing and other snow activities linger well into the spring in UT’s mountains, but as the thaw sets in, the long climbing season begins. Both Tom Adams and Nikki Smith recommend rock climbing in spring, with Smith is singling out Little Cottonwood Canyon as a prime spot for getting on the rocks in springtime. Mayor Danny Van Wagoner recommends spring bouldering, with Joe’s Valley offering some of America’s premier spots for these short, unroped, highly challenging climbs.

Provo river Utah
Johnnya123/Getty Images

Mayor Van Wagoner also says that as spring returns “the desert is open to hiking and mountain biking,” the latter having been his personal favorite sport for decades. There are also superlartive opportunities for camping. A prime spot? The Little Grand Canyon, carved over the millennia by the San Rafael River. One of the more scenic spots you’ll ever see, the Wedge Overlook, is just a 30-minute drive (on dirt roads) from the mayor’s home town of Castle Dale, and you can camp above or down in the canyons any time of year, no permits needed.

Spring is also a great time for kayaking and rafting as Utah’s rivers swell with snowmelt. Check out the Provo and Weber Rivers for those, and don’t forget about the fly fishing, either.

Utah in Summer

In the summertime, Utah offers so many opportunities for outdoor excitement that you’ll need to either pick and choose or take a sabbatical to get them all in. Utah, says Nikki Smith, is “so diverse in terms of geography and climate. You have the alpine landscape of the Uintas and La Sals. The forests of the Wasatch. The red rock deserts of Moab to Zion. The unique and quiet West Desert. The solitary Salt Flats. In a few hours drive from wherever you live in Utah, you can find so many different types or terrain and climate. It makes outdoor sports possible year round for people of all ages and athletic levels.”

utah
Steven John/The Manual

Basically, if you can’t find something to do outdoors here in the summer, you’re … you’re just kind of an indoor kid.

Bouldering is one of the most popular summer recreation activities, and growing ever more so thanks to the few barriers to entry. All you need are some climbing shoes, some chalk, a crash pad, and friend to spot you. (If you’re interested in the sport, go to the Joe’s Valley Bouldering Festival in September to climb with and learn from some of the best boulder climbers practicing the sport today.)

bouldering in Utah in the summer
Steven John/The Manual

Beyond bouldering, as the last snows melt, Utah becomes one of the greatest rock climbing spots to be found. There are hundreds of mountains to explore with thousands of routes to follow, and many firsts still out there.

If you love the mountains but don’t so much care for climbing their sheer faces, there’s mountain biking, trail running, hiking, ATVing, camping, and more. On the water, be it lakes or rivers, Utah summers offer great fishing, paddling, wake boarding, and water skiing. Or if you need more speed, get a jet ski and zip over the lakes or carve your way through a narrow slot canyon.

Utah in Fall

Autumn still offers many of the same opportunities as spring and summer, such as climbing, bouldering, hiking and biking, trail runs, and certain motorized sports. Added to this is the hunting season as well as the first snows at higher elevations.

Utah during the fall
Taha Raja/Getty Images

The early to mid-fall is ideal for long days spent climbing, as the midday temperatures are mild. This is also a great season for horseback riding, as your mount won’t work up too much heat even on long rides on strenuous trails. And thanks to mild days and cool night, camping in the Utah desert is ideal during the fall. And during those chilly fall nights, Utah offers some of the best stargazing opportunities in the nation. There are myriad spots around the state where you can behold the night sky without manmade light pollution, enjoying the cosmos as it is supposed to look.

Steven John
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
Protect your skin in style this summer with the best sun shirts of 2024
Better than sunscreen and chemical-free, these tops are purpose-built to fend off those "endless summer" rays.
Man fishing on a boat while wearing an Orvis DriCast sun protection hoodie.

When it comes to dressing for the summer heat, "less is more" seems to make the most sense. Less clothing means less trapped body heat, and that makes for a more comfortable you. For the most part, that works. But this equation doesn't account for protecting your skin against the sun's harmful UV rays.

For outdoorsy types – we’re talking the most adventurous kind, like trail runners, hikers, kayakers, mountain climbers, and so on – wearing less clothing while spending a significant amount of time in the sun can actually do more harm than good. Sure, sunscreen is a thing, and you should definitely keep using it. But that’s also where another problem arises: In order to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, sunscreen — even the best natural, reef-safe sunscreen — needs to be slathered on regularly. And, if you’re spending more time outdoors than in, that gets expensive, too. That's where good sun-protective shirts (a.k.a. "sun shirts") come in.

Read more
Hiking the trail? Here are 9 tips for safe self-navigation
Plus, how to signal for help if you do get lost
Man hiking with poles near a mountain

You’re miles into the backcountry with only your instincts and your gear to point the way. In the vast wilderness, panic starts to set in. Is it this way? Or is it that way? Getting lost on the trail is easy to do and a quick transition from a tranquil to terrifying experience, especially for solo hikers looking out at an indiscernible landscape. In this case, however, that anxiety doesn’t last because you’ve brought along the correct gear to combat the fear.

Whether it’s mountain biking, trail running, camping, or backcountry skiing, you need to prepare for wild excursions. As always, The Manual has got you covered. Find the right gear here, along with the apps, guidelines, and veteran tips to keep you oriented no matter where your next off-grid journey takes you.
Map out your plan

Read more
How to improve your cycling speed and ride like the wind
Tips to help make you faster on your bicycle
Person riding a bike fast

If there's one thing that cyclists of all levels want to improve upon, it's speed. Whether you want to keep up with a faster group ride, be able to pack more miles into the day, or simply want to cover more ground every time you go out, then it's time to consider how to improve cycling speed. With a few adjustments to your riding style and stance, as well as by adding in some training sessions from time to time, you can pedal faster in no time.
Ride aerodynamically

One of the easiest -- and most immediate -- ways to improve your cycling speed is to ride aerodynamically. To do this, you can start by pulling your arms in closer to your body. Make sure they are not fully extended and that your elbows are not poking out. So, bend your arms and pull the elbows in toward your sides. This will cut down on the amount of wind resistance you are fighting against.

Read more