6 Family-friendly Adventures Within 4 Hours of Salt Lake City
As tourism restrictions fluctuate in many states and counties, be sure to review local health department updates and guidelines before traveling and keep in mind the potential impacts you may have on the communities you travel through.
Home to the Mighty Five national parks, which includes Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Capitol Reef, Utah is a state perfectly positioned for outdoor recreation and exploration. From Salt Lake City, or SLC as locals call it, families can head in virtually any direction for a quick road trip or adventurous camping trip. Below are some of Utah’s top family-friendly destinations and what to do while you’re there.
Favorite Utah Family Vacation Destinations
1) Park City, UT
Start close to ‘home’! While families shouldn’t overlook SLC itself, with its family-friendly brew pubs and restaurants and award-winning Museum of Natural History on the University of Utah campus, a short drive into the nearby Wasatch Mountains deposits you in the heart of ski country…aka the summer playground of Park City. Don’t miss the Utah Olympic Park, where anyone 16 or older can dare the thrill of an Olympic bobsled ride and everyone can be wowed by the height of the ski jump. Then head to Park City Mountain Resort for lift-assisted mountain biking and hiking, or a thrilling ride on the Alpine Slide. Explore the shopping and dining along Main Street (parents, be sure to try a cocktail at the High West whiskey flagship), and then stay by the resort so the kids have pools and woods at their disposal: the Hyatt Escala or the Grand Summit are both great picks.
2) Dinosaur National Monument, UT/CO
Three hours east of SLC, massive Dinosaur National Monument sprawls across the Utah and Colorado border. There are two visitors centers in the monument: Quarry and Canyon, which also represent the major points of access to the park. Canyon is located further east on 40 on the Colorado side, with Deerlodge Park even further east. Quarry is located on Highway 40 in Utah near the tiny town of Vernal, which is the hub for 1-day plit Mountain rafting trips, as well as Gates of Lodore rafting trips, a multi-day adventure that will take you through the heart of the monument. Before or after exploring the Green River by raft, learn more about this area’s rich prehistoric fossil and Native American history at the visitor’s center at Quarry. Check out the indoor exhibits until you’re ready to board the free open-air shuttle to the Quarry Exhibit Hall. This is a must-do: here, you’ll see the great wall of dinosaur bones embedded in the rock (preserved in this way so visitors can see how the ‘log jams’ of bones came to be, under layers of soil). You can even touch some of the 149-million-year-old fossils. Additional exhibits explain what you’re looking at, as do park rangers on duty.
3) St. George, UT
Head south from SLC on I-15 until you reach sunny St. George. It’s proximity to Zion National Park, just an hour away, is the main draw for most travelers. But lesser-known gems like Red Cliffs Recreation Area and Snow Canyon State Park are worth their own trip to the area, especially for anyone looking to avoid national park crowds. At Red Cliffs, families can look for early Jurassic dinosaur tracks on the Silver Reef Trail. It’s also a great option for families who are looking to camp. At Snow Canyon, which some say rivals Zion, venturing through slot canyons, hiking to petroglyphs and rock climbing are just a few of the highlights. Mountain biking is also abundant in the area, and if you’re staying in town, a trip to the Snake Hollow Bike Park can be a fun side excursion for families. Just make sure to bring your own bikes or rent one before you go.
4) Bear Lake, UT
Two hours north of SLC, families can find themselves in the Caribbean. No, really…Bear Lake, which sits half in Utah and half in Idaho, features water so turquoise green that you’ll do a double take. Head toward Garden City for its famous raspberry milkshakes, then settle in at Bear Lake State Park at Rendezvous Beach. Bring an umbrella or other shade shelter, as there are no trees at this lake. Bring your own stand up paddleboard, kayak or rent a variety of watercraft from Bear Lake Fun at the marina. Families can also hike the perimeter on one of the many trails zig-zagging the area.
5) Moab, UT
Welcome to the otherworldly desert escape of Arches National Park, and the oasis of Moab, where mountain bikers, 4×4 Jeep excursionists, rafters and campers all converge. If visiting in summer, hit the hikes of Moab early in the day to beat the heat, then enjoy the pool at your Moab hotel, or relax in a hammock if you’re camping at one of the many BLM or national park campgrounds in the area. Of course, the best way to experience the Moab region in the summer months is on a Colorado River rafting trip. For a short and sweet adventure, families with older kids can take on the wild whitewater in Westwater Canyon, while those looking for a longer, multi-day option can sign up for a 3- to 6-day Cataract Canyon rafting trip, which takes you into some of the least accessible areas of Canyonlands National Park.
6) Brian Head, UT
Easily accessed from I-15, Brian Head may be best known as a winter playground with skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing. Visit in summer, though, and it’s the perfect home base for mountain biking, hiking, and exploration of nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park (1.5 hours away). Hiking in Cedar Breaks (just 15 minutes away) offers views that rival that of the national parks, without the crowds. Then, introduce young kids to fishing and kayaking at Bristlecone Pond, or take mountain biking lessons at Brian Head Resort before hitting area trails.
If you do venture out to take a day trip to Bryce Canyon, start at Inspiration Point, where you can spot hoodoos, the park’s spire-shaped rock formations. Then try the Navajo Loop Trail, an easy but satisfying 1.3 mile hike for kids, or the Queens Garden Trail. Bryce Canyon’s only in-park lodge fills up fast, so stay at Brian Head Resort or rent a ski condo or cabin to have a full kitchen and laundry amenities.
Photos: Alpine Slide – Park City Mountain; Gates of Lodore rafting trip – Josh Miller; Snow Canyon State Park – Matt Morgan/Visit Utah; Paddling Bear Lake – Marc Piscotty/Visit Utah; Westwater Canyon rafting near Moab – Rob Aseltine; Cedar Break National Monument – Marc Piscotty/Visit Utah