A once in a lifetime winter road trip across America’s film set

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Utah has colossal landscapes to make the soul sing. They look familiar from the pages of National Geographic and Clint Eastwood movies, but the real deal makes you gasp in amazement. There's nothing more American than a road trip, and no better American road trip than the one through Northern and Southern Utah.

The tarmac winds past ancient petrified sand dunes, rusted sandstone cliffs, pink mountains and labyrinths of canyons. This is Wild West celluloid come to life, and you can drive off into the sunset feeling like a hero.

America's film set can get crowded with people following in the footsteps of Thelma and Louise, and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible II. Travel in winter, though, and you'll find solitude with your sense of adventure. The skies are often blue, and you can still drive and hike, plus snowshoe and cross-country ski too.

Fly into Salt Lake City and you can even fit in a week's skiing or snowboarding first. Eleven ski resorts are within an hour's drive from the city. Snowbird, which has the state's longest ski season, is just 40 minutes from the airport. Solitude has terrific intermediate powder slopes, and top-rated Deer Valley more excellent skiing.

Snowbird resort.

A taste of the views on offer at Snowbird resort. Photo: Marc Piscotty.

Then get your motor running towards Southern Utah, first stop Moab, an adventure-sports centre on the doorstep of Arches National Park. Encourage your inner Indiana Jones (the opening sequence of The Last Crusade was filmed in Arches) amid a maze of teetering boulders, red pillars like skyscrapers, and the world's largest assortment of natural rock arches.

Arches National Park is compact, visitor-friendly and crisscrossed with walking tracks, most open in winter; even the campground remains open. The 70-kilometre loop drive is magnificent. Highlights are the precarious Balanced Rock and Delicate Arch, which features on Utah license plates. At night, you'll be thrilled by the Milky Way glimmering from some of America's darkest skies.

Arches Delicate Arch.

The Delicate Arch has become a widely recognised symbol of the state of Utah. Photo: Sandra Salvas.

Also near Moab is Canyonlands National Park, whose Sky Visitor Centre remains open all winter and is the gateway to a maze of valleys and cliffs. National monuments encourage short detours as you head south: soaring buttes, rock arches, ancient Native American ruins. Stay in Mexican Hat and prepare for the next day's magnificence.


Monument Valley looks instantly familiar to anyone old enough (or retro enough) to appreciate westerns. Many a stirring Hollywood movie has featured stagecoaches rattling through the valley's eroded buttes. Time to cue the stirring score to The Magnificent Seven on your iPod as you meander the 27-kilometre loop trail, which in winter is blissfully tranquil. You'll want to return before sunset, when the buttes glow like orange beacons.

Monument Valley.

Monument Valley is one of the most photographed points on earth. Photo: Michael Kunde.

It's a haul west from here into southwest Utah, but your reward comes when the desert splits into a vast valley. On either side, red and white cliffs rise 600 metres. This is Zion National Park, encrusted with half-frozen waterfalls like a wintery vision of heaven. An excellent system of well-maintained trails gets casual walkers into the scenery, although even the famously challenging Angels Landing hike is usually open in winter.

Temple of the Virgin - Zion National Park.

The striking Temple of the Virgin in Zion National Park. Photo: Sandra Salvas.

Brian Head, one of Utah's best ski and snowboard resorts, is nearby if you're keen to ski surrounded by dramatic red rock. Otherwise, take a snowmobile ride across frozen meadows for a look at Cedar Breaks National Monument and its "painted" cliffs.

Brianhead Ski Resort.

Brianhead Ski Resort is a must-visit for keen skiers and snowboarders. Photo: Adam Clark.

As you head back north, Scenic Byway 12 leads to Bryce Canyon, a vast amphitheatre filled with rock pillars known as hoodoos. Prepare for high-altitude cold and deep snow (good hiking boots are a must) and explore, because even the briefest walk is wondrous. Pink and red formations tower above, dramatic in the snow. Take to snowshoes or cross-country skis into landscapes with barely a soul around. Landscapes big enough for an epic movie, and adventures to match.

Scenic Byway.

Bright white snow meets dark pink and red formations along Scenic Byway 12. Photo: Sandra Salvas.

To plan your trip, VisitUtah.com has more information, including travel guides, maps and itineraries to its winter wonderlands. To see all of the incredible film locations throughout the state, a movie highlight reel and build your own movie story click here.