“We are all made of starstuff.” Carl Sagan’s words ring true, especially in the rugged landscape of Utah, set against the backdrop of a million stars, which make up the “nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies.” Stars have ensnared the human mind for centuries, and our deep desire to find more about them has brought people together from around the world. A glimpse of the Milky Way, where our pale blue dot of a planet seems inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, is as close to a magical experience as you can ever get. Utah, home to some of the finest certified International Dark Sky Parks, is truly a land of starry delights.
While Utah’s wondrous landscapes are an incredible experience during the day, the night is when the state truly shines. The Beehive State boasts of some of the finest dark skies in the world, and is a mecca for astro tourists to come and explore one of the 24 International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) certified areas that are ideal for stargazing.
For those looking to explore the state via a stunning stargazing road trip, there is little that competes with Utah’s scenic byways, making up hundreds of miles of travel experiences as you traverse across the state’s vibrant topography. 28 scenic roads provide the ideal getaway into
Utah’s cultural ethos, local way of life and its myriad scenery. Utah’s state parks, national monuments and the Mighty 5® —its five national parks—make for a stunning experience. Even better, all the national parks are certified Dark Sky Parks, that merge their vivid day landscapes with awe-inspiring night time views.
With its striking rock formations and canyons, Capitol Reef National Park’s sandstone domes double up as stargazing paradise, offering night sky tours, full moon works, starting from late June right up to October. A comfortable drive up the Capitol Reef Country Scenic Byway also allows you to stretch your legs and spend your days hiking through the park’s slot canyon.
Close to Capitol Reef National Park is the quiet town of Torrey. An idyllic town with trees and cliffs forming a picturesque backdrop, Torrey is one of Utah’s Dark Sky Communities. Head to the town to learn more about how their efforts to protect their night skies, including improving outdoor lighting to reduce light pollution, ensured the national park’s grand stand in the Dark Sky Parks community.
The next destination allows travellers to experience Utah in the most American way possible — a road trip across the iconic All-American Road: Scenic Byway 12. A destination unto itself, Scenic Byway 12 is an epic road that connects Capitol Reef to Utah’s second Mighty 5®, Bryce Canyon National Park. A longstanding stargazing favourite, this national park holds a yearly Astronomy Festival. The centre for one of America’s oldest Astronomy projects, Bryce Canyon is the grand guardian of the darkness that lights up the night sky. Kodachrome Basin, en route to Bryce Canyon, makes for a great pitstop on the byway to indulge in another night of stargazing while you stay in a nearby hotel.
A scenic drive from Bryce Canyon National Park takes travellers to Cedar City, where a natural red rock amphitheatre at Cedar Breaks National Monument makes the perfect stage for a celestial performance by millions of stars. A different route from Capitol Reef takes you to the towering mesas and cliffs of Canyonlands National Park where outfitters provide different stargazing activities around the year. Another park that makes for the perfect after dark rendezvous is Arches National Park, where over 2,000 sandstone arches form the perfect screen for a date with the night sky.
Beyond the state’s Mighty 5®, multiple state parks also offer stargazing opportunities, such as Dead Horse Point State Park, which was the first Utah state park with an IDA certification. A visitor centre and art gallery offer a primer to the park’s geology and is also a centre for astronomy talks among enthusiasts and experts. Goblin Valley State Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument and Rainbow Bridge National Monument are among other favourites for stargazing, away from the hustle bustle of the cities.
But the stars in the sky are not the only claim to fame for Utah.
Utah’s panoramic roads with endless landscapes that change contour and colour at every corner are any cinematographer’s dream. From sets for futuristic films to a foreboding backdrop for a western, Utah’s landscapes have featured prominently in many movies and series over the years. Add a touch of cinematic history to your itinerary with a tour of America’s Film Set®.
A three-day Northern Utah road trip takes you through the mountains, desert flats and cityscapes that have featured in Sundance specials such as ‘Brigsby Bear’, ‘SLC Punk!’, ‘Nine Days’, ‘Hereditary’ and ‘Frozen’. For fans of the classic Thelma & Louise, set on a road trip that takes them supposedly from Arkansas to Arizona, you’ll be surprised to know that the film was shot in Utah, especially the iconic ‘Grand Canyon’ scene, shot in Fossil Point outside Moab. Set out on the Dead Horse Point Mesa Scenic Byway and dip your feet in destinations like Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and the very unique ghost town of Cisco.
Moab has long been directors’ favourite set, with its rugged landscape featuring in movies like ‘Rio Grande’, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ and ‘Star Trek’. A movie museum near the Arches National Park will enthral you with interesting props and memorabilia from local films, including ‘Thelma and Louise’. In the quaint town of Cisco, where parts of the same film were shot, a project called Home of the Brave allows artists from around the world to find the peace to work on their projects. Fans of the High School Musical series can head to Salt Lake City, where Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez danced their way into our hearts at the actual East High.
It is quite possible that an image of Utah pops up in your mind whenever you think of the Western. From Salt Lake City, make your way to Kanab, a base camp for adventurers which is also called ‘Little Hollywood’, and rightly so. On the US Highway 89, follow the footsteps of Robert Redford’s iconic film, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, which was shot across locations which include the ghost town of Grafton, Snow Canyon State Park, the city of St. George and Zion National Park. In Kanab, make sure to add a day visit to Johnson Canyon Western Movie Set, where the classic Gunsmoke was shot, to your itinerary. For diehard fans of the Western, Western Legends Roundup Festival in Kanab is a must-attend.
Whether it is in search of star-studded skies or lands graced by Hollywood stars, the desert state of Utah, with its myriad shades of canyons, mountains and forests, offers an experiential versatility that is enthralling and unmatched.