A Complete Guide to a Utahn Spring Break for Non-Skiiers

While vacationing in Utah is typically associated with skiing, snowboarding, or mountain biking, the state has numerous tourist hotspots worth exploring, especially in the spring. At the tail end of the skiing season, there is usually still enough snow in the mountains to get a solid day or two in the snow, and the heat of summer hasn't taken hold over the arid desert areas of the state.  The compromise of a spring visit ensures that a seven day trip to the state will have plenty for everyone.

When my sister visited us in Las Vegas, we made sure that she got the best that Nevada - and California - had to offer her within that one week, and we wanted to make her trip to Utah just as amazing.  Flying in Friday night, and leaving the following Saturday evening gave us roughly seven days to explore as much of the state as possible without completely losing the relaxation that should accompany every vacation.  Our itinerary focused a little more heavily on the domestic and cultural aspects of the state than the rugged outdoors, but can serve as a starting point for anyone unsure of what they want to do when they visit.

Day one: Explore downtown

We started our Saturday morning by hiking Donut Falls, and we learned a few lessons worth mentioning here.  First, during the early spring, this is not an "easy" trail. At 7,200 feet, its description as being part of the "Great Cottonwood Canyon" can only be described as misleading. Additionally, you need to come prepared to walk more than the advertised 3.7 miles, since the last two miles of road leading up to the trail head will be closed to vehicular traffic during htis time of year.  The entire trail was snow-covered, and the end of the hike was particularly difficult, involving ropes and steep, iced, inclines; so if you do hike it in the early spring, make sure you come with durable ice cleats like these (or these, but not these).

We finished with the hiking around noon, and then drove north to downtown Salt Lake City.  Around this area we first stopped by Randy's Record Shop, Ken Sander's Rare Books before parking at the City Creek where we took advantage of the warming weather to enjoy walk around the outdoor mall before visiting the neighboring Leonardo Science and Technology Museum.

It's important to note that while the city of Salt Lake is fairly large, many organizations are closed on Sunday and close early throughout the week, so plan accordingly.  We decided to do most of these downtown stops on the Saturday to avoid just this, and to give us enough time to wrap up early enough to make the four hour drive to Moab.

DAY Two: Moab

We checked into a Hilton in downtown Moab for the night. In the morning, we set off to drive Dead Horse Point and Canyonland before hiking in Arches National Park.  We were out just after sunrise and stayed out until about 5pm when we returned to freshen up and go downtown for some grub.

In hindsight, driving Dead Horse Point and Canyonland didn't add enough to the trip to justify the added effort for a one-day only visit.  In addition, we did require some modest gear for this portion of our trip, so make sure you that pack accordingly or you'll end up paying outrageous markups near the park:

  • One Camelbak per person
  • Lunch stuff (sandwiches, nuts, cliff bars, bottled water, etc)
  • Sunscreen
  • Hiking boots or sturdy running shoes you don't mind abusing
  • A hat
  • You will not need the ice cleats for a visit to Moab this time of year, as the average temperature is already pushing 75 degrees or more.

It's also worth noting that entry into both Dead Horse Point and Canyonland is free, and admission into Arches National Park is free if you get there before the gate attendant arrives (usually 8 AM). All-in-all, the road trip to Moab was fairly exhausting but, in addition to being amazing on its own, it helped make travelling to the Dinosaur National Monument the next morning a little easier and scenic.

Day three:  Dinosaur National Monument

The next morning we packed up our hotel room, and took off just after breakfast to head to the Dinosaur National Monument. We arrived just after it opened at 9 AM, and stayed until about 2 PM when we packed up to make the commute back to Salt Lake City.

This park was somewhat underwhelming given the three hour drive it took, one way, to get there. However, the drive to get there was some of the most breath taking views I have seen during my two years living in Utah. I would really caution against coming here in the summer time, because seeing the massive Strawberry Reservoir iced over in the Wasatch Mountains was really part of the joy of visiting the monument.

day four: Hiking and arcades

We needed a little bit of a break after that whirlwind of a trip, so we spent today hiking Bell Canyon and Bridal Falls before having an outdoor picnic at Liberty Park and a nightcap playing games at Boondocks.

DAy Five: Museums and Antelope Island

We started our day at Antelope Island before making our way downtown to enjoy two of the Museums of Salt Lake City:  The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and The Pioneer Memorial Museum before grabbing dinner at Ikigai and catching a showing of The Lion King at the Eccles.

There are a couple of very important lessons to learn from this day! First, the The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art totally sucks. Second, Antelope Island, is much larger chunk of your day than you probably realize. Ignoring the idea of hiking or biking the massive island, simply driving around and doing a few modest (<2 miles total) hikes took well over three hours.

The same thing can be said about The Pioneer Memorial Museum; with hidden rooms and nooks and crannies stuffed with rich history about the pioneer women that made it possible for early Utah to survive, you'll spend more time here than you intend.

Finally, Ikigai is a very unusual Japanese restaurant. With options to sit on the floor, and no sushi options, it's probably not going to be what you're expecting.  However, it's well worth the visit when you're downtown. The food is exceptionally rich, with beautiful plating and playful flavors, and the service is phenomenal; it's almost as if its chefs compete with its servers for the the main draw of the restaurant. 

P.S. Get the brussel sprouts and cheesecake.

Day Six: Museums and Golfing

Day six was taking advantage of the University of Utah's contributions to the art/culture scene of Utah with the Red Butte Garden, the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the "Living Room" Hike, before we headed to Lucky 13 for some grub and cheap beers and then Top Golf for some golf/arcade hybrid games.

The Red Butte Garden is likely far more breathtaking later in the spring, after the flowers have all had an opportunity to bloom, but the park was entirely empty except for us making an earlier visit in the year serene and peaceful.  The Natural History Museum of Utah, by contrast was insanely popular when we visited, but we were still able to thoroughly enjoy the museum; we did not allot nearly enough time for the entire thing though, so when you visit - allow for about 5 or 6 hours to view the entire museum.

I feel like Top Golf needs some explaining.  The concept is a lot like bowling and horseshoes: You rent a bay by the hour ($45 after 5pm) and you then take turns driving microchipped balls to various pits in the ground for points; the further and more difficult the pit, the more points you receive.  Waitresses and hosts bring you food and alcoholic beverages to your bay, which has a table and chairs, for you to enjoy while others are playing.  It's dangerously fun, even as someone who loathes golfing, but expect to spend a little more than you'd anticipate; all together I think the three of us spent around $100 for the hour, dinner, and 4 beers.

Day Seven: Park City

On our last full day with my sister in town, we decided to go on a snowmobile tour with the Red Pine Adventure company.  We entertained the idea of skiing, but decided against it given how active we'd been and our complete lack of experience in everything skiing related.  We didn't take a whole lot of pictures, but the two hour snowmobile tour was worth every penny and absolutely something I recommend if you're in the state during early spring!

Visiting in the SUmmer?

If you opt for a summer trip, in lieu of Spring Break, then most of what Utah has to offer stays the same.  Simply swap out the two day trip to Moab and Dinosaur National Monument for one of the following:

  1. Two day trip to St. George, where you can hike Zion and catch a Broadway show at the Tuacahn
  2. Two day trip to see the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park.

Both of these options are phenomenal with Zion and the Tuacahn being a little bit easier (and four hours closer), and Yellowstone being more memorable. At that point, it really comes down to your personal preferences,what your goals for the vacation are, and whether or not you think you'll be closer than eight hours to Yellowstone National Park.

Think I missed some important Utahn hotspots?  Let me know in the comments.