Utah. Home to incredible natural beauty and spectacular national parks. From the majestic Red Rock to the trippy spires of Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, the delicate stone arches to the vast expanse of the Arches canyons, the iconic rock formations of Monument Valley to the surreal landscapes of Grand Staircase Escalante. But all of this jaw-dropping, gob smacking beauty is in the much explored southern Utah. What about the incredible but largely ignored north? Here is a great backpacking Northern Utah guide for those of you who crave the raw, the unexplored.
Backpacking Northern Utah : Main Attractions
Most people would have heard of Salt Lake City, the largest city in Utah, perhaps best known as the home to the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints – the Mormons. But what you may not realise is that while backpacking Northern Utah you can also see a national park brimming with dinosaur fossils, attractive historic towns, world-class skiing, alpine hiking with spectacular views, an island that is home to roaming buffalo and sun-scorched grasslands, cosy mountain villages and of course, the Great Salt Lake, the largest salt water lake in the western hemisphere.
Strolling the Historic 25th Street
Historic 25th Street, once derided as Salt Lake City’s badass little sister due to a high density of brothels and gang crime, is now an attractive main street filled with unique stores and boutiques, thriving restaurants and cafes, all housed in beautifully restored brick buildings. There are even views of the surrounding Wasatch mountains. Locals take pride in their lively street with regular festivals and a weekly Farmer’s Market. It is a vibrant and fun place to spend a Saturday morning in summer, with a variety of vendors selling local produce, locally made products and pretty much anything else you can think of. There are also food stalls and live music. 25th street should definitely be on your list while backpacking Northern Utah.
Experiencing the Beauty of Antelope Island
A starkly desolate place where bison and pronghorns roam, Antelope Island is an otherworldly delight. Only a short drive from Salt Lake City, it is the largest island in the Great Salt Lake and the perfect place to hike through yellowed grasslands and over rocky outcroppings. Backpacking northern Utah through this wondrous little island was quite the experience. To admire the contrast of colours from the bright white of salt flats through to the vegetation of browns, greens and reds. To swim in the super salty (and floaty) Great Salt Lake where it is almost impossible to sink. To wander within metres of wild bison and unusual looking pronghorns. And to roam about with barely a soul around, why this wondrous place isn’t more well-known, I may never know.
Discovering Mormon History in Salt Lake City
Even if you aren’t even remotely religious, a visit to the Mormon stronghold of Salt Lake City is a must do while backpacking Northern Utah. The city has beautiful architecture, a riverside walking trail, a beautiful Temple Square, 35 acres of historic buildings, bright and cheerful gardens, and the ultimate cherry on the cake -the hugely Disney-esque Salt Lake Temple. If you’re interested, the LDS Church offers free tours of a few buildings in Temple Square, where they talk about the roots of the religion, which I found pretty informative.
Exploring the Vibrant Mountain Town of Park City
I love mountain towns with their super friendly communities, and cute main streets set amongst surrounding peaks: Park City is no exception. I only got to visit for a day but Park City instantly impressed me with its beautiful downtown filled with loads of excellent dining choices, art galleries and boutiques. I even spied an original Banksy on one of the exterior walls of a building. People watching was great here with so many local outdoorsy folk of different ages, dogs in tow, going about their daily business, stopping to chat with one another on the street. In winter this town really comes into its own with world-class skiing at any of the nearby ski resorts, and it also has the World’s only ski-in gastro pub. I’m pretty sure Park City would be an awesome place to live, but visiting is the next best thing.
Hiking in the Wasatch Mountains
This iconic mountain range stretches 160 miles from the Utah/Idaho border, south through central Utah. Anywhere you go while backpacking northern Utah, these mountains will be in view. The Wasatch Range is the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, and although not as lofty as the Colorado Rockies, the Wasatch are rugged and formidable, with a red tinge that makes them glow like hot embers at sunset. There are many places to hike in these mountains. We chose to do a hike to the summit of Bald Mountain, from the Silver Lake Resort near Park City. This trail offered dramatic scenery of the Jordanelle Reservoir and surrounding peaks, windswept and exposed with only sparse vegetation. It wouldn’t be a backpacking northern Utah trip without exploring the Wasatch Mountains.
Soaking up the Small Town Charm in Logan
Cute and charming Logan, a small town about an hour north of Ogden, is a great day trip destination. With a stroll-able main street perfect for grabbing a bite to eat and exploring the shops on vibrant Federal Ave, Logan is quintessential small town America. From Logan you can continue driving further north, through the stunning Logan canyon where you can hike, and leaf peep in Fall. End the drive at peaceful Bear Lake, which straddles the border of Utah and Idaho: a refreshing spot with sandy beaches and cool waters to swim in during hot summer days.
Experience Prehistory at Dinosaur National Monument
See the wall of over 1,500 dinosaur bones at the Quarry Exhibit Hall, hike above a stunning canyon surrounded by multi-coloured rock mountains, and drive through spectacular desert landscapes – Dinosaur National Monument offers so much to see and do. Straddling the border between Utah and Colorado, Dinosaur National Monument is one of the best places in the world to see Jurassic period dinosaur remains. The park is also known for its petroglyphs, left by the Fremont people approximately 1,000 years ago. This virtually unknown National Park was a memorable destination for me while backpacking northern Utah.
Tubing the Weber River
The ultimate way to cool off in the hot summer months is tubing the Class II rapids of the windy Weber River. It is a popular pastime for locals and visitors alike. It’s two hours of blissful floating – with the occasional adrenaline rush when you hit tumultuous rapids – along a river that takes you under gorgeous red mountains, pulling up onto rocky beaches for breaks along the way. You can also get your own tubes and lifejackets (mandatory and regulated) and do it yourself, but you will need two vehicles for this. The starting lot is off of exit 112 on Highway 84, with the end lot located at exit 108. Alternatively, you can do it through a company called Barefoot Tubing which is based out of Morgan, a small town north-east of Salt Lake City. Either way – if you are backpacking northern Utah this summer, you should definitely do it!
Scrambling into Willard Canyon
Definitely not for the faint of heart, Willard Canyon is all overgrown trails, steep and narrow with slippery gravel. Make sure you wear sturdy shoes for this. We may have only ventured in part of the way, but what we did see was beautiful, as was the view of the Great Salt Lake, glimpsed while trying to navigate the precarious path. Even if you don’t try entering the canyon, it is a beautiful spot to admire the lake and the surrounding mountains and there are trails down to the small Willow Creek Park. It’s a nice stopover if you are heading between Logan and Ogden/Salt Lake City.
Getting Around in Northern Utah
As with most of the United States, northern Utah is best explored by car so if you have your own vehicle, getting around will be easy. If not, hiring a car will be your best bet and with prices starting from around $18 per day, this is a cost effective option, especially if you are backpacking northern Utah with a group and can split the cost.
Alternatively, getting between Salt Lake City Airport, Salt Lake City, and Ogden is easy and cheap with regular trains. There are also regular buses between Salt Lake City and Park City. Getting to smaller towns and natural attractions such as Antelope Island would be difficult without a car but you could look into ride sharing or taking a tour.
Accommodation in Northern Utah
Budget accommodation options in northern Utah are plentiful with lots of camping, affordable AirBnB listings, an active couch surfing community in larger centres such as Ogden, Salt Lake City and Park City and even hostels. Use this AirBnB coupon code for $35 off your first stay at a great property!
Here are a few options for accommodation while backpacking northern Utah:
Camping in Northern Utah
KOA Salt Lake City: The closest full-service RV Park to Salt Lake City, this KOA also offers spots for tents. It has a pool, a hot tub and even a camp kitchen. There is a free shuttle into Temple Square.
Jordanelle State Park: Located close to Park City in the beautiful Heber Valley, Hailstone Campground in Jordanelle State Park offers tent and RV camping with full hook-ups, on the shores of a reservoir that is popular with boaters and fishermen.
Antelope Island State Park: There are four small, basic camping grounds on Antelope Island open to tents and self-contained RVs.
Willard Bay State Park: Only a 20 minute drive from Ogden off the highway north to Logan, Willard Bay State Park offers camping right on the Great Salt Lake with a swimming beach, marina and hot showers. There are three camping grounds within the park offering tent camping and full-RV hookups.
Dinosaur National Monument: There are three campgrounds located in the Utah section of the National Monument: Split Mountain, Green River and Rainbow Park. All of the camping grounds offer basic facilities with no showers or hook-ups.
Camelot Inn and Hostel, Salt Lake City: A basic but affordable hostel offering private rooms and male/female dorms. Close to downtown Salt Lake City and Temple Square. Free parking and wifi.
Avenues Hostel, Salt Lake City: Friendly hostel in a quiet residential neighbourhood close to downtown. Private rooms and male/female dorms. Free wifi, cable TV, breakfast and parking.
Park City Hostel, Park City: Newly opened in 2016, the Park City Hostel is a beautiful space, reminiscent more of a Ski Lodge than a hostel. Roof terrace with mountain views, free parking and wifi. Welcoming and friendly staff.
Where to Eat and Drink
I by no means even came close to experiencing all that the northern Utah dining scene has to offer but I tried to at least get a feel for it. From home-cooked fare to inventive and diverse international offerings, I was really impressed by what I ate during my time here. Here is a selection of the culinary highlights of my backpacking trip to northern Utah.
Salt Lake City
Lion House Pantry Restaurant – Cafeteria style Restaurant serving homestyle fare located next to Temple Square, is housed in the former residence of the second leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints – Brigham Young. They have daily specials – we tried the artichoke chicken with mashed potatoes which was delicious – and all meals come with a free house-made roll, best spread with Utah’s famous honey butter.
JDawgs – Simple but lovingly made hot dogs can be found at Utah institution, JDawgs. They are said to be the best in Utah and are cheap to boot. Perfect for a quick meal.
Spitz – Mediterranean street food with a focus on doner kebabs, Spitz is a cheap and tasty destination for lunch or dinner in downtown Salt Lake City.
Jackalope Lounge – Salt Lake City doesn’t have a lot of nightlife, but if you are looking for a few local beers in a friendly but simple dive bar, Jackalope Lounge will do the trick. We went in the early evening and it was pretty quiet but I have heard it gets pretty busy later on.
Caffe Ibis – Located on funky Federal Ave, Caffe Ibis didn’t have a table free when we went past. This bustling cafe prides itself on their coffee, which they roast onsite. The food menu also looked delicious, with inventive salads and sandwiches with a big focus on fresh seasonal, local and organic food.
Bluebird Restaurant – Founded in 1914, this genteel restaurant with an old-fashioned atmosphere offers sit down dining with classic dishes at very affordable prices. I was so impressed with my Bluebird chicken which came in a sweet and spicy sauce and was served with perfect mashed potatoes and gravy. Their locally made pie is also definitely worth saving room for. A must visit while backpacking northern Utah.
World Famous Pho Noodle House and Grill – Quite a claim and I doubt it is actually world famous but the Pho Ga here is pretty damn awesome. I had been craving a good Pho and this place delivered.
Two-Bit Street Cafe – Fresh home-cooked food surrounded by old-timey decor, I loved their two-bit bleu chips – thick cut potato chips smothered in mornay sauce and chunks of blue cheese.
Roosters Brewing Company and Restaurant – Unlike in Colorado, Brew Pubs and Restaurants are not a dime a dozen in Utah due to it’s super strict liquor laws. Roosters was actually the only one I went to during my time in northern Utah, luckily the beer and food were both great. Sitting on their sunny front patio made the experience even better.
Lighthouse Lounge – We dropped into this dive bar on historic 25th street for a few afternoon beverages and they have a great selection of craft beer on tap including the awesome huckleberry cream ale from Laughing Dog Brewing in Idaho. Lots of local choices too.
Main Street Deli – We only had a coffee here but this little Deli, a Park City mainstay since 1977, has a buzzing atmosphere and the breakfast menu looked awesome.
Peace, Love and Little Donuts – With a eclectic selection of small donuts on offer, I was one very happy donut lover when I found this place. LOVED the strawberry french toast and maple bacon donuts but I could have easily eaten any of the beautifully displayed treats.
501 on Main – Lunch on the sun-drenched patio of 501 on Main, watching Park City life go by is one of my favourite memories of visiting this mountain town. It was hard to choose from their inventive menu but I ended up going with the lobster bisque with a side salad of beets with apricots and gorgonzola. Absolutely no regrets.
O’Shucks Bar and Grill – I didn’t get a chance to visit myself but my boyfriend’s brother lived in Park City for a while and he heartily recommends O’Shucks for a fun night out. They offer great food and drink deals from Mondays through to Wednesdays including $3 beers and wines and $3 burgers. There is also a location in SLC.
Top Tips for Budget Backpackers exploring Northern Utah
To keep your spending to an absolute minimum whilst backpacking Northern Utah I recommend sticking to the three basic rules of budget adventuring….
Hitchhike: Thumb a ride! People are generous and forthcoming. It would be a shame not to give this a shot. Hitchhiking in Northern Utah is an ace way to keep your transport costs down.
Camp: With plenty of gorgeous natural places to camp at as well as numerous campsites, Utah is an excellent place to carry a tent. If you’re craving some company or local experience, jump on Couchsurfing or Airbnb and get a kickass local taste of the place.
Cook your own food: Carry a pocket rocket stove on your backpacking trip. Use this little guy to cook up some quick meals for you and your amigos. So get cooking and save a ton of money!
Travel Resources for Backpacking Northern Utah
Utah Road Map – An easy to read road map you can buy online for your Northern Utah adventures especially if you plan on hitchhiking and camping along the way.
Lonely Planet Southwest USA (Travel Guide)– A Lonely Planet is always a great book to have handy while backpacking. There is so much to do in Northern Utah and this book lays it all out excellently.
Fodor’s Utah – It highlights the best of Utah, including awe – inspiring national parks from Arches to Zion, great hiking trails and also talks about Salt Lake City s cultural riches. If you want to explore the National Parks, this book is a great choice.
50 Best short hikes in Utah’s national parks – Lists the best hiking routes in each park that are both “must see” and accessible. It includes distances, highlights, area maps, and easy-to-follow trailhead directions to make hike selection fast and efficient. A must read for hikers.
Moon Utah– The authors include great trip strategies that utilise Utah’s amazing outdoor attractions and unique history. Provides tools that travellers need to create a more personal and memorable experience.
Checklist – A great checklist for all that you need to pack for your Northern Utah backpacking trip.
Insurance for your Northern Utah adventure
Be sure to get travel insurance sorted before you head off on a backpacking trip to northern Utah, what with its scary trails and dangerous hikes. I highly recommend World Nomads.
So there you have it, Northern Utah, an underrated gem of a region, in a nutshell. Have I convinced you to go backpacking to Northern Utah? Tell me in the comments…
Find this post interesting? PIN ME!