Historic Sites In Utah. More Than Just Parks has 10 incredible must-see sites for you to visit.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I’m going to give you my list of the Top 10 Historic Sites In Utah that you’ll want to see.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as opposed to national parks.
Now if you’re planning a trip to the Beehive State then one book that I highly recommend is: Utah Bucket List Adventure Guide & Journal: Explore 50 Natural Wonders You Must See!
Without further ado, let’s dive in!
Historic Sites In Utah
10. Rainbow Bridge National Monument
We begin our amazing list of the Top 10 Historic Sites In Utah with the Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
At 290 feet tall, 275 feet wide, and a thickness of 42 feet at the top, Rainbow Bridge is one of the largest natural bridges in the world.
Beyond that, the arch itself is breathtakingly beautiful and absolutely massive in person located in the Lake Powell region of Utah.
Getting to the monument is actually easy… if you have a boat in Lake Powell. If this is the case you can pull your boat right up to the trailhead and hike an easy mile to get there.
For most of us, however, getting there involves an arduous multi-day hike through the desert after obtaining a permit from the good folks at the Navajo Nation.
A Short History Of Rainbow Bridge
Rainbow Bridge was known for centuries by the Native Americans who lived in the area.
Native Americans living in the region have long held the bridge sacred. Ancestral Puebloan residents were followed much later by Paiute and Navajo groups.
According to the National Park Service, by the 1800s, Rainbow Bridge was also seen by wandering trappers, prospectors, and cowboys.
Not until 1909, though, was its existence publicized to the outside world.
Two separate exploration parties-one headed by the University of Utah’s Dean, Byron Cummings, and another by government surveyor, W.B. Douglass – began searching for the legendary span.
Eventually, they combined efforts. Paiute guides Nasja Begay and Jim Mike led the way, along with trader and explorer, John Wetherill.
Men and horses endured heat, slickrock slopes, treacherous ledges, and sandstone mazes. It was quite an amazing trek!
Late in the afternoon of August 14, coming down what is now Bridge Canyon, the party saw Rainbow Bridge for the first time.
The next year, on May 30, 1910, President William Howard Taft created Rainbow Bridge National Monument to preserve this “extraordinary natural bridge, having an arch which is in form and appearance much like a rainbow, and which is of great scientific interest as an example of eccentric stream erosion.”
Rainbow Bridge Has Had Some Notable Visitors
After the initial publicity, a few more adventurous souls journeyed to Rainbow Bridge. Teddy Roosevelt and author Zane Grey were among those early travelers who made the arduous trek from Oljeto or Navajo Mountain to the foot of the Rainbow.
Visiting Rainbow Bridge was made easier with the availability of surplus rubber rafts after World War II, although the trip still required several days floating the Colorado River plus a 7-mile hike up-canyon. By the early 1950s, people could travel by jet boat from Lees Ferry, then make the hike—a trip totaling three days!
What Teddy Roosevelt and his contemporaries witnessed—evidence of the significance of Rainbow Bridge to early and present day Native American cultures—is difficult to discern today.
Since then, much archeological evidence has been lost as Lake Powell, along with thousands of visitors, arrived. The Glen Canyon Dam was authorized in 1956.
By 1963, the gates on the dam closed and rising Lake Powell began to engulf the river and its side canyons. Higher water made access to Rainbow Bridge much easier, bringing thousands of visitors each year. (Source: NPS)
9. The Beehive House
At #9 on our list of the best historic sites in Utah is The Beehive House.
The Beehive House is located one block east of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah.
From 1855 to 1877, it was the primary residence of Brigham Young, the second President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
It also served as the offices for the Church and, for a short time, Young’s work as governor of Utah Territory.
The Successor To Joseph Smith
As successor to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young led the migration west in 1846–47 to the Rocky Mountains and founded Salt Lake City.
He was sustained as President of the Church on December 27, 1847.
As Church President and Territorial Governor of Utah, Young established Latter–day Saint settlements in Utah and throughout the American West.
Under his direction, construction commenced on the Salt Lake, St. George, and Logan temples.
He brought the telegraph and the railroad to Utah and encouraged cooperative industry among Latter-day Saints, and he encouraged excellence and refinement in every aspect of life.
He died August 29, 1877, in Salt Lake City, after nearly 30 years as Church President. (Source: The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)
Two other Presidents of the Church later lived and worked ath the Beehive House. They were: Lorenzo Snow, from 1898 to 1901, and Joseph F. Smith, from 1901 to 1918.
Today, local volunteers give free tours of the home year-round. The tour focuses on Brigham Young’s role as a prophet and community leader and on the private life of his family.
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Take A Deeper Dive
Brigham Young played a key role in the circulation of the Mormon Reformation with his emphasis on plural marriage, re-baptism, and passionate preaching and oration.
He also introduced various controversial doctrines, such as blood atonement and the Adam-God doctrine, both of which were rejected by other church leaders.
To learn more about this extraordinary figure, I recommend: Brigham Young: A Concise Biography of the Mormon Moses by Ed Breslin.
I also recommend: Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet by John G. Turner.
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8. Bonneville Salt Flats
Coming in at #8 on our list of the best historic sites in Utah is the Bonneville Salt Flats.
As a former history teacher, one of my favorites questions was: Was there anything before history?
The answer is yes. Before history there was prehistory.
Prehistory is the vast period of time before written records or human documentation. It includes the Neolithic Revolution, Neanderthals, Stonehenge, the Ice Age and much more.
The Bonneville Salt Flats are a geologic wonder which is an integral part of prehistory.
One Of The Earth’s Most Unique Landforms
According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Bonneville Salt Flats are one of Earth’s most unique landforms.
The salt flats are about 12 miles long and 5 miles wide and are comprised mostly of sodium chloride, or table salt.
Located 120 miles west of Salt Lake City in Tooele County, Utah, the salt flats are a 30,000 acre expanse of hard, white salt crust on the western edge of the Great Salt Lake Basin in Utah.
Like the Great Salt Lake, the Salt Flats are a remnant of Lake Bonneville, which covered over one-third of Utah from 10,000 to 32,000 years ago.
The salt flats are on the National Register of Historic Places, are designated as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, and are managed as a Special Recreation Management Area.
7. Jurassic National Monument
Coming in at lucky #7 on our list of the best historic sites in Utah is Jurassic National Monument.
You don’t have to be a fan of the Jurassic Park film series to enjoy this incredible place.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry (CLDQ) at Jurassic National Monument contains the densest concentration of Jurassic-aged dinosaur bones ever found.
Over 12,000 bones (belonging to at least 74 individual dinosaurs) have been excavated at the quarry.
Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry has helped paleontologists learn a great deal about the Jurassic period, yet the site presents at least as many mysteries as it helps to solve.
Curiously, more than 75% of the bones come from carnivores, primarily Allosaurus fragilis. With more than 46 individual specimens of Allosaurus, scientists have been able to deduce much about how Allosaurus aged and compare individuals to better understand intraspecies diversity.
As a visitor to this amazing place, not only do you get to see the area where the dinosaurs roamed, but you also have the opportunity to take in a “wall of bones” and even touch a dinosaur bone that dates back millions of years.
More About Jurassic Park
Now if you’re a fan of the Jurassic Park film series then you might remember those dinosaurs roaming around a make believe island off of the coast of Costa Rica in the sequel to the original Jurassic Park.
Actually, those memorable scenes were shot in the Fern Canyon of Redwood National Park.
Due a little research and you might uncover the fact that the ferns which cover the canyon’s walls and give the “Lost World” an otherworldly look can be traced back to the time of the real dinosaurs. So, whether your goal is a little cloning or a little clowning, why not pack up for an incredible road trip to the land of the tall trees, but no large pets please.
6. Natural Bridges National Monument
We conclude the bottom half of the Top 10 Historic Sites In Utah at #6 with Natural Bridges National Monument.
People repeatedly occupied and abandoned Natural Bridges during prehistoric times.
They first began using this area during the Archaic Period, from the year 7000 BCE (Before Common Era) to 500 CE (Common Era).
Only the rock art and stone tools left by hunter-gatherer groups reveal that humans lived here then.
According to the National Park Service, three hundred years after their ancestors left, the farmers returned. They built homes of sandstone masonry or mud-packed sticks, both on the mesa tops and in alcoves in the cliffs.
South facing caves provided passive solar heating and cooling. The farmers often chose sites near seep springs where water could be found.
Utah’s First National Monument
It’s Utah’s first national monument and visitors to this incredible place will discover three majestic natural bridges.
Declared a National Monument in 1908, the bridges are named “Kachina,” “Owachomo” and “Sipapu” in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.
Hiking At Natural Bridges
Among the incredible hiking trails at Natural Bridges are the following:
- The Full Loop which is 12-miles (19.3 kilometers) and passes all three natural bridges as it winds through the canyons and over the mesa top. This trail is primitive and strenuous. Pets are not allowed on this trail (service animals are). Stop at the visitor center for updated conditions and detailed directions.
- The Sipapu-Kachina Loop which is 5.7 miles (9.2 kilometers) and passes by Sipapu and Kachina Bridges, through canyons, and over the mesa top. This trail is primitive and strenuous. Pets are not allowed on this trail (service animals are). Stop at the visitor center for updated conditions and detailed directions.
- Kachina-Owachomo Loop which is 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometers) and passed by Kachina and Owachomo Bridges, through canyons, and over the mesa top. This trail is primitive and strenuous. Pets are not allowed on this trail (service animals are). Stop at the visitor center for updated conditions and directions. (Source: NPS)
Camping is available and campsites are first-come, first-served and open year-round. Each site has a fire grill, picnic table, and tent pad, but no running water, electricity, or hookups.
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The Top 5 Historic Sites In Utah
5. Parowan Gap Petroglyphs
We’re on to the Top 5 Historic Sites In Utah. At #5 we have Parowan Gap Petroglyphs.
What’s so wonderful about our historic sites in Utah is that so many feature a history of long, long ago.
A case in point is the Parowan Gap Petroglyphs.
Geologic History Of Parowan Gap
Approximately 15 million years ago, a long slender section of sedimentary rock sheared from the earth’s crust along parallel fault lines. This up-thrown block, later named the Red Hills, began to inch its way above the surrounding valley floor.
At the same time the block was rising, a stream was cutting a path perpendicularly across the ridge. For millions of years the uplifting of the ridge and the down-cutting of the stream remained in equilibrium.
The petroglyphs here are thought to be the work of several cultural groups and represent a long period of use by Native cultures. What these designs mean is still unknown.
Archaeologists debate that they represent concepts, ideas or actual happenings. Perhaps they were part of a religious activity or hunting ritual.
As for the local Native Americans, they consider them to be an important part of their cultural history relating stories of their ancestor’s lifeways.
A Superb Gallery Of Native American Rock Art
Parowan Gap is a nationally recognized extravaganza of petroglyphs–a superb “gallery” of Native American rock art. Here one can witness what is at least a 1,000 year accumulation of artwork pecked into the rock.
Geometric designs, images of lizards, snakes, mountain sheep, bear claws and human figures adorn the smooth canyon walls of the pass.
While we don’t know the precise age of these petroglyphs yet, we do know that the agriculturally based Sevier-Fremont lived in the area over a thousand years ago.
There is little doubt that some of the designs were made by this group, or perhaps even the earlier nomadic Archaic peoples.
Researchers believe that the semi-nomadic ancestors of the present day Southern Paiute also created some of these figures. (Source: Utah.com)
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4. Dinosaur National Monument
We’re on to the final four of our best historic sites in Utah. At #4 we have Dinosaur National Monument.
What a hidden gem straddling the remote northern corners of two states, Colorado and Utah. The common refrain here is that if you’re interested in dinosaurs you’ll love this monument – which is true, but it vastly undersells this sprawling and immensely beautiful monument.
In addition to the famous dinosaur quarry and countless immaculately preserved dinosaur bones and skulls from various species, the park is home to over 200,000 acres of outdoor grandeur.
Here you can peer into the depths of stunning red rock canyons, whitewater raft the world-class Green or Yampa rivers, explore historic cabins and ponder ancient petroglyphs, camp out under a star-studded sky, and of course hike numerous trails venturing into the rugged and beautiful surroundings.
And while you’re there be sure to check out the Quarry Exhibit Hall which allows visitors to view the wall of approximately 1,500 dinosaur bones in a refurbished, comfortable space.
Here, you can gaze upon the remains of numerous different species of dinosaurs from the Late Jurassic period, including Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus along with several others.
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Historic Sites In Utah
3. Golden Spike National Historic Site
Coming in at #3 on our list of the best historic sites in Utah is the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
We move from our geologic past to our more recent past with the incredible story of the Transcontinental Railroad.
The completion of the first transcontinental railroad revolutionized travel, connecting areas of the Western United States with the East.
Prior to its completion, traveling to the West Coast from the East required months of dangerous overland travel or an arduous trip by boat around the southern tip of South America.
The railroad ensured a production boom, as industry mined the vast resources of the middle and western continent for use in production.
The Last Spike Site
Visitors to the Golden Spike National Historic Site can see the location of the Last Spike Site, 1869 railroad construction features, walk or drive on the original railroad grade, and get an up close view of Victorian era replica locomotives.
While there you can also learn about the amazing people, places and stories which were a part of this incredible technological achievement.
To learn more, I recommend: Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen Ambrose.
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2. Bears Ears National Monument
In the runner-up spot at #2 on our list of the best historic sites in Utah is Bears Ears National Monument.
As one of the many premier outdoor destinations in the state of Utah, Bears Ears National Monument should be on the bucket lists of every public lands enthusiast.
Bears Ears National Monument protects some of the most beautiful and unique lands in the southwest including both natural and cultural wonders.
The Bears Ears region provides opportunities for world-class recreation.
Every year, visitors to the Bears Ears region enjoy many recreation activities, including hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, river rafting, and riding off highway vehicles.
The Battle To Preserve Bears Ears
The Bears Ears Cultural Landscape in Southeast Utah includes archaeological sites, cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and ancient roads that tell stories of diverse people over the course of 12,000 years.
After years of collaboration between the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition and others, along with the public comment process, President Barack Obama named Bears Ears a national monument on December 28, 2016, and protected 1.35 million acres of land for one of the most significant cultural landscapes in our history.
On December 4, 2017, President Donald Trump announced his decision to revoke Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah and replace it with two much smaller monuments.
This action removed protections from more than a million acres that include thousands of extraordinary archaeological sites vulnerable to looting and vandalism.
On October 8, 2021, President Joseph Biden issued a proclamation restoring Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah.
With this action, full protections are back in place for Bears Ears, an area rich with archaeological resources, prehistoric cliff dwellings, paleontological resources, and sites sacred to many Native American tribes. (Source: National Trust For Historic Preservation)
Three Main Areas To Visit In Bears Ears
There are three main areas on BLM-managed lands where you may consider recreating within Bears Ears National Monument:
- Indian Creek: It’s a scenic corridor along Highway 211 where visitors can enjoy a number of recreational activities. Climbers flock to this area in the spring and fall to test their skills on some of the best crack climbing routes in the country. Bird watchers keep their eyes peeled for raptors like Golden Eagles and Peregrine Falcons, which make their homes on Indian Creek’s sheer, dramatic cliffs.
- Cedar Mesa & Comb Ridge: They are large landforms located in the southern portion of Bears Ears National Monument. These areas contain many cultural resources, which draw the attention and admiration of many recreationists. Backpackers and day hikers alike enjoy rugged routes through the deep gorges of Grand Gulch and the many canyons within Comb Ridge.
- San Juan River: It winds through some of the most spectacular views in canyon country, abound with natural and cultural resources. Boaters enjoy the San Juan River by raft, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, or packraft! A permit is required to float on the San Juan River year-round, including permits issued by lottery for launch dates from April 15th through July 15th. (Source: BLM)
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The #1 Historic Site In Utah
1. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Our selection as the #1 historic site in Utah is Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Now you have may have noticed that we have omitted Utah’s Amazing National Parks from our list of historic sites.
Have no fear, however, as More Than Just Parks does provide an excellent article on Utah’s National Parks.
If you’re interested in learning more then check out: 14 MIGHTY Utah National Parks & Monuments To Visit.
It’s Larger Than All Of Utah’s National Parks Combined
As for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, at 1.87 million acres it’s more than double the size of all 5 of Utah’s National Parks combined and every bit as spectacular.
This Rhode Island-sized national monument is a 200 million year old red rock cathedral of time.
Vast canyons, striking cliff-faces, rugged desert wilderness, and ancient history collide here making for an epic southwestern mecca. The “staircase” steps thousands of feet over five different life zones from coniferous forests to low-lying desert revealing millions of years of truly awesome geological history.
Recreation opportunities here are seemingly endless including hiking, biking, fishing, canyoneering, climbing, rappelling, swimming, camping, backpacking, and so much more.
How Did It Get Its Name?
I don’t know about you, but that’s the first question I asked when I began researching this national monument.
The monument is named for the series of topographic benches and cliffs that, as its name implies, step progressively up in elevation from south to north.
As the landscape shifted over the millennia from lakes to sand dunes to rock, the Grand Staircase was formed by tectonic uplift along the Colorado Plateau, which fanned out and exposed the various layers of sediment and rock.
Restoring The Boundaries – Trump Strikes Again!
During his presidency, Donald Trump issued a proclamation slashing Grand Staircase–Escalante by roughly half.
This would leave nearly a million acres of federal public land open to harmful developments—such as mineral exploitation, coal mining, new road construction, the use of mechanized vehicles, and oil and gas drilling—that could ruin vital parts of this national treasure.
On Oct. 8, 2021, President Joe Biden issued Presidential Proclamation 10286 restoring the boundaries for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
A Monument Which Spans Five Life Zones
The Monument now spans across nearly 1.87 million acres of America’s public lands in southern Utah, and is an outstanding biological resource, spanning five life-zones – from low-lying desert to coniferous forest.
When visiting, you’ll be traveling the land of the Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people, who were experts at farming this rugged land and built granaries to store what they grew.
Their descendants, including people from the Hopi, Paiute, Zuni, Ute, and Navajo tribes, have strong ties to this land today, leaving behind rock art panels, occupation sites, campsites and granaries. (Source: BLM)
Map Of Historic Sites In Utah
List Of Historic Sites In Utah
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Bears Ears National Monument
- Golden Spike National Historic Site
- Dinosaur National Monument
- Parowan Gap Petroglyphs
- Natural Bridges National Monument
- Jurassic National Monument
- Bonneville Salt Flats
- The Beehive House
- Rainbow Bridge National Monument
About The People Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and proud dad of these two guys hopelessly obsessed with the national parks.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested joining the adventure, sign up below!