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Road Trip: Las Vegas to Salt Lake City

Attractions History Tips Dave Jones September 19th, 2022
Road Trip: Las Vegas to Salt Lake City

Distance: 900 miles and 16 hours of driving, including side trips.
Span: Three states (A corner of Nevada, Arizona and Utah)

If 900 miles seems like the long way between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, it is. That's because we're looping around to include the Grand Canyon. If you're willing to forego this magnificent sight, you can opt for a more direct route between the big cities, cutting your drive time and mileage by more than half. After all, it's only one of the seven natural wonders of the world! But we understand, you're busy.

In all seriousness, even taking the more direct route, you will still have a chance to visit Bryce and Zion National parks, which will provide more than enough chasms carved into orange rock for many travellers.

But let's assume you're up for the grand tour, and hit the road to Salt Lake.

Our first tourist stop out of Las Vegas is the Hoover Dam, spanning the border of Arizona and Nevada, and once the world's largest concrete structure. The dam holds back dwindling Lake Mead, a magnet for recreational boaters and scuba divers looking for sunken relics.

Construction of the dam started in 1931 and was completed in 1936, spanning not only Black Canyon but the depths of the Great Depression. It was built to produce hydroelectric power, store water for irrigation, and control flooding. At the time of its completion, it was the greatest generator of electric power in the world, but has since been surpassed by hydroelectric projects in Washington State and, much later, China.

A major highway ran across the crest of the dam until 2015, when it was bypassed by a bridge spanning the canyon.

Despite the bypass, a million people continue to visit the dam each year. There are a few different tours you can take, ranging from $10 for the self-guided "tour" of the visitors' center, to triple that for the hour-long guided tour. On the guided tour, you get to see the power plant up close and walk through the inspection tunnels at the center of the dam. No word as to whether your fee will be refunded should you identify any developing structural flaws.

Flagstaff, Arizona is the site of the historic Lowell observatory, built in 1894. This is where the observatory's founder, astronomer Percival Lowell, saw the later-discredited canals of Mars, which led to popular theories about the red planet being home to a dying civilization, distributing water from the planet's ice-capped poles. To be fair, Percy wasn't the first to see the canals. He actually took the idea from sketches made by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, whose eyesight was failing.

Sadly for both astronomers, when the Mariner 6 probe flew past Mars in the late nineteen sixties, it photographed a landscape that far more resembled the surface of the moon than it did Venice. There was not a canal in sight.

Later, Lowell's calculations predicted the orbit of an as-then-undiscovered planet, the mysterious Planet X. Fourteen years after Lowell's death, the planet Pluto was discovered to travel very close to that orbit. Pluto was eventually demoted to non-planet status about 90 years later, when scientists decided it was too small to qualify.

On the bright side, the observatory itself still thrives. It houses one of the largest telescopes in North America and continues to do important work in astronomy. You can visit seven days a week from 10:00am to 11:00pm, except on Tuesdays when they close at 5:00. General admission is $25.

The Grand Canyon. This is the big one, the crack in geologic time, the reason you're taking the long way. What can we say that hasn't already been said about this most impressive of natural wonders? It is no pseudo canal!

Photo from within the Grand Canyon.
Photo from within the Grand Canyon.

We have two observations for you. Our first piece of advice is to relish your first sight of the canyon. Mountains are impressive, yes. But we are often exposed to them incrementally, sometimes beginning as a mere bump on the horizon. As we draw closer, they grow steadily in their majesty. And when you finally reach a mountain, standing right at the base of it, the bulk of it becomes hidden again because most mountains have convex slopes. Their peaks retreat again over their own horizon.

Seeing the Grand Canyon is something else. For most of the popular viewpoints, you drive up to a parking lot, find a space and get out of your car. At this point, all you can see are other cars, a few trees, and perhaps a visitors' center or a gift shop. And of course, your fellow pilgrims who have come to take in the view. This is where you might want to pause for a moment.

Because from here, you're going to walk a short distance to some guard-railed viewpoint. And in the span of perhaps 20 steps, a matter of a few seconds, the breadth of the chasm reveals itself to you. It's an experience you won't forget—that sudden yawning of the canyon. The best word we can think of to describe the moment is profound, a word whose literal and original meaning is "deep." And the Grand Canyon is deep: over a mile in distance and 1.8 billion years of geologic time from rim to floor.

Our one other piece of advice to first-time visitors also has to do with the Grand Canyon being, shall we say, an inverse mountain. On most hikes, your goal is to reach the summit, or at least the views available from higher elevations. You arrive exhausted, but after your goal has been achieved, it's time to start home. From here, it's downhill almost all the way, and gravity becomes your friend (provided you don't stray too far from the trail).

At the risk of stating the obvious, on a canyon hike, the first half of your journey is the easy part. But as you turn for home, your greatest exertions and often the hottest hours of the day still lie ahead of you. It's easy to find your strength ebbing at the very time when you need it most. So take plenty of water and take it slow, especially if you haven't done much "inverse" hiking.

Of course, you can bypass any possibility of hiking exhaustion by taking a helicopter tour of the canyon. These flights aren't cheap, starting at $230 per person, (plus a temporary "fuel surcharge" at the time of this writing) and lasting 25 to 30 minutes.

There's not much danger of getting stuck at the bottom of a canyon at our next stop—unless you're a scuba diver.

Just over the border, in Utah, is the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Like Lake Mead, a popular boating and fishing area has been created by plugging a narrow canyon. The resulting reservoir, Lake Powell, has a strange, almost unearthly appearance—which is probably why it was used as the shooting location for the very first Planet of the Apes movie. When the astronauts' spaceship crashes into the very blue water set against the orange, desert rocks, it's easy to believe they've landed on an alien planet.

Due to a drought that has stretched now to almost 20 years, the water level in the reservoir has fallen dramatically, and it's now surrounded by a bathtub ring of white gypsum tens of feet in thickness.

Our next stop is Zion National Park, where there are hikes and walks to explore some of the most beautiful desert and mountain scenery in all of the southwestern United States. Temperatures here make this a suitable vacation spot year round, although they will drop close to freezing during the winter nights, and afternoons in the summer can be blisteringly hot. It's an ideal climate for tent camping, with a minimal chance of rain spoiling your holiday.

The deep blue skies, layered red rock, and green gallery vegetation lining the river valleys all contribute to the almost biblical feel of the landscapes here. But that impression may just be the result of its name, Zion, bestowed upon the area by early Mormon settlers. Whatever the reason, it truly does feel like a refuge or sanctuary.

Some of the more popular hikes are Angels Landing and the Narrows—the latter less a hike than it is a "wade" through the shallow waters of the Virgin River channeled through a slot canyon. For most of the year, access to the park's many trailheads is not allowed by private cars. Instead, a free and convenient shuttle bus delivers hikers and walkers to their departure points, and picks them up at the end of the day. You're also welcome to cycle the park's looped road. Either method is a convenient way to get around the park.

Photo of a hiker enjoying a view from the Narrows hiking trail.
Photo of a hiker enjoying a view from the Narrows hiking trail.

Only another 70 miles down the road is Bryce Canyon National Park. Although not nearly as deep or wide as the Grand Canyon, the views here are uniquely dramatic. Much of the erosion of the softer rock here has been wrought by rainfall, rather than a single, dominant watercourse. The result is a landscape that is either more enchanting or more grotesque, depending on your aesthetics, than those of the Grand Canyon.

The Fairyland Loop is a standout trail, with its dramatic spindles and corrugated walls of orange rock. As you descend into the canyon, these stone monuments loom higher and higher above you. Somehow, some quite sizable pine trees sop up enough of the desert moisture to remain green year round, adding welcome splashes of green and shade to the landscape.

After leaving Bryce, we get serious about putting some miles on the odometer on a true North heading, directly towards our final destination, Salt Lake City. The next stop is Sundance.

During the winter months, the main draw of the Sundance Mountain Resort is its ski hills as well as the world-famous film festival of the same name. But even if you arrive long after the snows have melted, there are plenty of outdoor activities on offer here.

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You can choose from dozens of hiking and mountain-biking trails. Two of the most popular will take you to waterfalls: Timpanagos Falls and Stewart Falls. Neither of these hikes is technically difficult, but visitors who live at sea level may find they have to stop more frequently to catch their breath. The most developed part of the resort already sits at over 8,000 feet elevation, so the air only gets thinner as you climb from there.

For those who prefer to have their breath taken away in a less strenuous fashion, there are also zip lines and guided horseback rides. Still breathing comfortably? Open your menu in one of Sundance's many upscale dining establishments and you'll be hyperventilating in no time.

Luckily, you always have the option of getting your vacation budget back on track by skipping the hotel and staying at one of the nearby campgrounds. They're not located in the resort itself, but there are some within a practical driving range. This is a popular alternative, so most of the campgrounds fill up early in the day.

Our last tourist stop is on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium. This is an impressive inland aquarium, with exhibits representing several different habitats, including an Amazon River gallery and a deep-sea exhibit. There's also a jellyfish tank, a shark tunnel, a penguin habitat and of course, you can't really call yourself a public aquarium without a coral reef exhibit.

The deep-sea exhibit includes giant Japanese crabs, the hagfish (every bit as delightful as its name suggests) and the giant isopod. The giant isopod bears a striking resemblance to the potato or pill bugs found scurrying beneath rotting wood on land—except that these ones live deep underwater and can reach lengths of up to 16 inches.

You think that's big, wait until you see what's waiting for you outside the aquarium. Looming over the Loveland building is a bizarre, four-legged structure that goes by the official name Ecosystem Exploration Craft and Observatory, or EECO. Most of the locals just call it The Claw. The claw is a 16-storey, 200-ton structure that once served as a moving stage for the rock band U-2's concert tours during the early two thousands.

Photo of The Claw on tour.
Photo of The Claw on tour.

The Loveland Aquarium's director acquired the claw after U-2 ended one of the legs of their tour in Salt Lake City. And its legs do somewhat resemble the tentacles of an octopus, so it's a fitting—if somewhat enigmatic—monument for an aquarium.

As you return to your car and bid farewell to the EECO claw, you are less than 20 miles from your final destination on the Las Vegas to Salt Lake City road trip. Feel free to drop your rental vehicle in SLC without fear of drop-off fees, but only if you've found a match by registering with MirrorTrip before picking up your car ;)

Data collected from our Price Lab tool suggests that the average drop-off fee charged by all major rental companies for a one-way car rental from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City is $318.48 USD. Using MirrorTrip for one-way rentals on this route allows you to avoid this typical drop-off fee.

Pick-up LocationDrop-off LocationAvg. Drop-off FeeAvg. SUV Drop-off FeeAvg. Sedan Drop-off Fee
Las VegasSalt Lake City$318.48$427.03$223.32
Salt Lake CityLas Vegas$328.37$457.02$225.59
Table showing average drop-off fees charged by top tier rental companies during 2021 and 2022.

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