Utah’s backcountry is as wild and diverse as they come. Whether it’s your first visit or you’re coming back to explore lesser-known areas, a local guide can help distill must-experience adventures for your trip. Local guides around Utah know how to avoid or navigate the crowds, get to scenic views you might not have found on your own, and most importantly, explore safely. Not to mention you’ll get a full lesson on the history, geology, and ecosystems of the landscapes you wander through. You’ll also learn more about Leave No Trace principles so you can help protect the places you visit. “I always hire a guide when I go somewhere new,” says Rick Green, owner of canyoneering outfitter Excursions of Escalante. “They know all the good beta.” If you book a trip, you won’t have to handle the logistics, figure out where to rent gear, or even cook your own meals, meaning you spend more time relaxing or fully tuned into the adventure and less time planning. We asked Green and a few of Utah’s other top outfitters about their favorite trips around the state. Here’s what they suggest.
1. Stargaze With an Astronomer Near Zion National Park
Utah is easily one of the best places in the world to stargaze. Here, you’ll find dozens of places certified by the International Dark-Sky Association, which recognizes places where the night sky is insulated from light pollution. The only thing better than getting to stare up at the Milky Way with the naked eye? Going with an astronomer who can answer your burning questions about the universe. Matthias Schmitt, the Dark Sky Coordinator for Cedar Breaks National Monument, is the head astronomy guide for Stargazing Zion. On the tour, just after sunset, you’ll go for a scenic walk as the sky darkens and then settle into comfy, stargaze-friendly chairs. You can ask whatever questions you want, he says, even if you feel like you should already know the answers. “We want people to lose their fear of science,” he says.
2. Or Enjoy Ranger-Led Stargazing at Cedar Breaks National Monument
If you didn’t get enough star time in Zion, many state and national parks and monuments have their own ranger and guide programs, which are often free or inexpensive and family-friendly. Schmitt recommends visiting Cedar Breaks National Monument in the summertime for stunning stargazing. Cedar Breaks is at roughly 10,000 feet of elevation, so the park’s ranger programs generally start in late spring or early summer once all the snow is gone.
3. Go Backpacking in Bears Ears National Monument
The vast area that encompasses Bears Ears is one of Utah’s most unique and storied corners. Book a guided tour with Ancient Wayves—the only indigenous-owned and run outfitter operating there—to explore the area’s rich history on an overnight trek through Grand Gulch. “It’s a vast system of canyons, and there’s so much to see regarding the archaeology and geological features and wildlife,” says Louis Williams, founder of Ancient Wayves. There’s a strict cap on the number of people allowed into the area each day, so you’re likely to experience true solitude.
4. Take an Archaeology-Focused Boat Trip Down the San Juan River
Get a new perspective on the desert with a river rafting tour led by Ancient Wayves indigenous guides. You can book a 150-mile, 8-day trip spanning the river from Montezuma Creek all the way to Lake Powell, or a tour as short as a single day. You’ll paddle and float through the canyons in inflatable kayak-like boats called Duckies, and Ancient Wayves will handle all the cooking—delicious Navajo tacos, corn casserole, and other traditional Navajo foods unique to the Four Corners area.
Fun fact: Ancient Wayves will start running boat tours of the San Juan River this spring, as the first Native-owned company to obtain a commercial river license.
5. Raft Ruby Horsethief Canyon and/or Westwater Canyon
Book a guided tour with education nonprofit Canyonlands Field Institute to dive deep into the geologic history of Ruby Horsethief and Westwater Canyons. “This is a stretch of canyon where you can see incredible geology,” says guide Brennan Patrick Gillis, and going with a guide means they’ll be able to point out exciting formations and wildlife you may have missed on your own. “It’s hard to beat spending time on the river,” he says, adding that rafting is the best of backpacking and car camping rolled into one: “You basically just need to show up on the boat ramp with a sense of adventure and some sunscreen, and that’s it.” Even if you forget the sunscreen, your guide has you covered. Gillis says CFI’s team is highly trained to handle any situation that may come up on the river, so even if you have no experience, you can enjoy a multi-day boating trip.
6. Go Canyoneering in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is one of Utah’s most beloved and rugged areas, encompassing a vast expanse of red rock desert riddled with slot canyons. Many of them don’t even have official names, says Excursions of Escalante’s Green, and they can be hard to find if you’re not already experienced in the area. Instead of booking a specific canyon tour with his team, Green hand-selects experiences based on the group he’s taking out, to make sure their skills match the terrain. “Each day, I have about 30 canyons to choose from,” he says. He chooses based on how busy the town is and where they’re likely to find the most solitude, how many times his guests have gone canyoneering—which involves rappelling and rope work to get in and out of the slot canyon—and the weather. When you’re trekking through slot canyons in particular, it’s vital to understand how to analyze the weather and make sure you don’t risk getting caught in a deadly flash flood, which is why tapping into local knowledge is so important. After you’ve gotten to know each other a bit, Green’s team will be happy to give you recommendations for other hikes to do in the area for the rest of your stay, based on what your group is most likely to enjoy. “A good guide will start to teach you,” Green says. “We like to open more doors and opportunities.”
7. Hike Arches National Park with Fewer Crowds
Arches National Park has recently instituted a timed entry reservation system to manage the number of people coming into the park on a daily basis. Gillis says that’s made it quieter, and therefore more enjoyable to visit its most easily-accessible front-country spots. Get a deeper understanding of the geology of Arches by booking a ranger-led hike or tour. You can take, for example, a free, hour-long guided walk to the Windows Area—a part of the park with a high concentration of arches—or book a $16 ranger hike to the Fiery Furnace area, which also requires an individual self-exploration permit if you don’t go with a guide.
8. Tour Bryce Canyon on Horseback
Bryce Canyon National Park is “epic country” for horseback riding, according to Green. He recommends going with Canyon Trail Rides, whose experienced guides will take you on the scenic ride of a lifetime through either Bryce or Zion national parks. As you ride along winding trails past red rock formations, you’ll get to sit back and enjoy the ride while your horse or mule does most of the hard work. Bryce Canyon trips will take you on a full tour of the canyon, a 3-hour adventure that includes views of the Wall of Windows, a stunning wall of hoodoo rock formations with peek-a-boo “windows” to the open sky.
9. Take an ATV Tour Through Sand Hollow State Park
Utah has guided experiences at every speed. Green recommends checking out Mild to Wild Rhino Tours for great vistas on days when the weather is a bit too risky to head out into a slot canyon on foot. The company has two speeds of ATV adventures for guests: “mild side,” where you drive under careful instruction of a guide riding with you, and “wild side,” where you’re the passenger while an experienced guide zips around mountains of sand. “Guests love those trips,” Green says. At either speed, you can expect to see great views of Zion National Park and far fewer crowds.
10. Go for a Mellow Float Down the Virgin River
Also near Zion, the Virgin River is a great spot for tubing with Tube Zion, a sister company to Stargazing Zion. Floating the river takes about 80 to 90 minutes, and a guide will pick you up in a shuttle at the takeout point so you don’t have to schlep your tube back upstream. Keep your eyes peeled on the adventure for wildlife—you may see many species of birds, frogs, fish, and lizards.
BONUS: Fly Fish in Paradise (Literally)
Although not a Southern Utah destination, Green couldn’t leave out his favorite option for guided fishing in Utah. He recommends anglers head to the south end of Cache Valley to the town of Paradise, where you can check into Sportsman’s Paradise, a members’ club that offers guided day trips. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” Green says. “Big peaks, rolling grassy foothills, and excellent fishing and guides.” Drop your line for a wide range of trout, including rainbow, cutthroat, cutbow, splake, golden, brown, and steelhead.
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