Few ranges pack in more drama per square mile than Utah’s Wasatch. For starters, there’s the steepness: Rising abruptly from the valleys east and west of the range, the near-vertical mountainsides make Salt Lake City skyscrapers look lilleputian. Then there’s the spectacle of the celebrities who roost at Park City and Deer Valley, two luxury enclaves where cocktail prices seem as high as the surrounding peaks. So follow the example of the smart Utahns who use these mountains as their Central Park, prime territory for after-work hikes and weekend campouts. Not every paradise hides at the back of beyond. Some, like the Wasatch, sit at your doorstep.
At 3.7 miles one way, the hike to Lake Blanche isn’t the shortest or easiest route in the range, but it rewards the extra effort with superlative views: Even jaded Wasatch hikers swoon at the sight of this mountain cirque surrounding opaline water. Take Big Cottonwood Canyon Road/State 190 for 4.3 miles, turn right into the Mill B picnic area, and drive east to the trailhead. bit.ly/1jjiOWJ.
Mt. Timponogos Affectionately nicknamed Timp, this hulking pyramid is the Wasatch’s most revered landmark. It also boasts the best views (located in the middle of the mountain chain, it offers stupendous panoramas of the surrounding summits) and the best bragging rights for tagging the top: Even the “short” route is 13 miles round-trip. Bit.ly/1jNhA5w.
Alpine Loop Scenic Byway
Insist on riding shotgun for this 20-mile tour among summits so majestic, they make it hard to focus on asphalt. Starting in Orem, take US Route 189 east through Provo Canyon for 8 miles, then hang a left onto Utah Highway 92. Its two lanes twist past Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort before exposing stunning ridges and peaks (which glow with yellow aspen leaves in late September). utah.com.
best fancy resort
Montage at Deer Valley
A luxury getaway that cloisters guests from Park City congestion, Deer Valley’s Montage recalls an Italian palazzo, with wall tapestries and polished stone floors—which might feel too contrived for Utah, except for the impeccable service that makes every guest feel like the lord or lady of the manor. From $325; montagedeervalley.com.
This 30-site campground in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest east of Provo offers panoramas aplenty. Most sites feature front-row views of Mt. Timponogos, and hiking the Timpooneke Trail (its southern terminus is close to the campground) leads to vistas of Wasatch peaks and wildflowers. You can make the 14-mile round-trip hike to Timp’s 11,752-foot summit, or watch the campground’s beavers maintain their shimmering pond. From $2; reserveamerica.com.
Albion Basin to Brighton Ski Resort
Linking Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons requires relatively little effort (you start at 9,500 feet and climb to passes, not summits), yet the 7.5-mile round-trip hike gives you amazing vistas. Park at Alta ski area and catch the weekend shuttle to wildflower-filled Albion Basin (or take the easy 1-mile trail). Then hike up the Catherine’s Pass Trail to Catherine’s Pass, for wide-screen views of peaks and lakes before heading down the equally lovely Lake Mary Trail to Brighton. Take Little Cottonwood Canyon Rd./State 210 for 11 miles to the trailhead; bit.ly/1oKDZR.
Wasatch Mountain State Park
Completed in 2011, Eagles Nest and Falcons Ledge cabins remain off the radar for most Utahns, who haven’t yet discovered these rustic one-room escapes. Book one before the crowds catch on. Set across from the park’s group campsite, neither cabin is particularly private, but the log bunk beds and wood-paneled walls lend a quaint charm, and the location makes a great home base for area hikes. $60; sleeps 8; stateparks.utah.gov.
Silver Fork Lodge & Restaurant
Tuck into tangy sourdough pancakes (made from a 70-year-old starter) at this Big Cottonwood Canyon institution. Get cozy inside, beneath a timbered ceiling, or dine on the deck with its views to Honeycomb Canyon. $; silverforklodge.com.
High West Distillery & Saloon
This Park City eatery appeals to locals and visitors alike--especially in summer, when ski designers and realtors belly up to the bar to toss back aged whiskeys, soak up the modern Old West ambiance, and fill up with steaks and bourbon-glazed cod. $$$; highwest.com.
Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie, Midway Country Corner
Nothing about the farm town of Midway prepares you for its world-class baked goods. Yet exquisite wedding cakes fill the Corner’s storefront windows. Then there’s the Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie, which owner Susan Fox touts as her specialty. And we agree: This frosted version bests all chippy competition. midwaycountrycorner.com.
There’s nothing soft about the San Juan Mountains. Fourteen of Colorado’s 58 Fourteeners are clustered here, making this one of the highest portions of the Rockies. Only the hardiest miners and ranchers ventured into these chilly peaks, and even today, residents are tougher-skinned than most.
City comforts sit far away--the biggest population center, Durango is a lively town, not a metropolis--and the unpeopled landscapes make visitors feel like pioneers. In the San Juans, basic hikes and drives become epic adventures, and rambling off the beaten paths guarantees a true test of mettle. Just a few hours in this range leaves visitors bedazzled.
That makes it a magnet for international travelers hoping to glimpse the real American West and for magnates needing a reality check. Ralph Lauren owns a ranch here, though the weathered gate that reads Double RL looks as unpretentious as any homesteader’s. Here, the mountains are ostentatious enough.
Proof that spectacular scenery doesn’t always require sweat equity, Spud Lake is gorgeous. And getting here is an easy 1.1-mile (one way) hike through mountain-rimmed meadows and aspen glades—making this a prime fall-color ramble. From Durango, take US 550 north for 27 miles, turn right on Old Lime Creek Rd./Forest Rd. 591 (it’s unpaved so a high-clearance vehicle is recommended), and continue 4 miles to trailhead. fs.usda.gov/sanjuan
Handies sits amidst a glut of other Fourteeners, so the view from its 14,048-foot summit is one of the state’s best. The American Basin trailhead lies near tiny Lake City, and the distance from major cities helps ensure unspoiled vistas that make the 5-mile round- trip seem like a jaunt to paradise. From Lake City, drive 2.5 miles south on State 149, turn right toward Lake San Cristobal, go 20 miles (road turns to dirt), and then left toward American Basin (4-wheel drive recommended). blm.gov
U.S. 550, Ouray to Durango
Topping three mountain passes (Red Mountain, Molas, and Coal Bank Pass, all about 11,000 feet), this highway twists between jagged mountains for 70 miles. Pop some Dramamine for the 33-mile Million Dollar Highway segment linking Ouray and Silverton, where S-curves and drop-offs make the 25-mph speed limit seem reckless. cotrip.org
best fancy resort
Dunton Hot Springs
From the outside, the cabins look rough-hewn. But expect world-class pampering here, from the steaming mineral springs to the farm-to-table meals. Should staying in a restored ghost town seem too urban for your tastes, consider Dunton’s new sister property, Dunton River Camp: Its eight tents sit beside the trout-choked Dolores River. From $900 all-inclusive; 2-night min.; duntonhotsprings.com
Little Molas Lake
These 10 primitive campsites in the San Juan National Forest are as scenic as famous Molas Lake Campground nearby--but without the noise of its generators and traffic. Instead, Little Molas Lake feels worlds away from civilization. Bring your own water. Free; www.fs.usda.gov/sanjuan.
This Weminuche Wilderness trail sees more hikers than most Colorado escapes. But the scenery makes up for the lack of solitude. The high-alpine valley is famous for its mountainscapes and unique approach: You take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to the Needleton stop, then hike 6 miles one-way on the Needle Creek Trail to Chicago Basin. Camp overnight to enjoy the views, then return on the next day’s 3 p.m. train. Train: From $90; durangotrain.com. Trail: www.fs.usda.gov.sanjuan.
Last Dollar Hut
Part of the San Juan Hut Systems, Last Dollar makes an unbeatable base camp. Perched at 10,980 feet, the eight-person cabin overlooks huge swaths of the northern San Juans. The catch? All beds are single bunks, it’s a quarter-mile hike from your car, and reservations must be last minute (the hut is only available to hikers when hut-to-hut bikers aren’t staying there). But once you’re in this eagle’s nest, you’ll feel a million miles away from it all. $30/person; sanjuanhuts.com
Baked in Telluride
Locals grieved when a 2010 fire wiped out Telluride’s decades-old bakery. Now rebuilt, this buzzing spot continues to turn out tender bagels, muffins, and especially heavenly doughnuts. $; (970)728-4775.
Opened in 1972, this Durango institution hangs its Stetson on steak. Yet despite the cowboy décor, it’s no throwback: When chef Ryan Lowe became general manager in 2011, he pushed the menu into the 21st century with sustainable seafood and beef raised without hormones. $$$; orehouserestaurant.com.
Trail Town Still
Hidden in a Ridgway strip mall, this wood-planked saloon pours home-brewed spirits, from cinnamon whiskey and agave liquor to classic gin. The bartenders’ friendly chat will have you warming your barstool long after you’ve emptied your glass. $; trailtownstill.com.