WHEN YOU THINK OF UTAH, you don’t usually think of water. There’s the Great Salt Lake, for sure, but otherwise, Utah is usually associated with its striking desert scenery in the Great Basin and on the Colorado Plateau. During the summer months, it’s one of the driest states in the country. So if you’re a watersports enthusiast, you might not consider Utah a viable travel option.
As it turns out, you’d be dead wrong. All that dryness and desert doesn’t change the fact that Utah ranks among the top ten states in terms of boatable surface-acres of water. There are literally hundreds of places to partake in the state’s excellent watersports culture, stretching from Lake Powell in the south to Bear Lake up north. Here are some of the things you probably didn’t know you could do on the water in Utah.
1. Jet skiing
Jet skis make for some of the most fun you can have off of dry land. Rentals are available at and around virtually all of the major lakes and reservoirs, such as Deer Creek, Rockport, Echo, and Pineview.
2. Whitewater rafting
Some of the West’s most hallowed rivers cut a path through Utah, providing for all levels of whitewater rafting, from Class I to Class V. The big names are the Colorado, which enters the state at the midpoint of its eastern border and runs southwest to eventually form Lake Powell; the San Juan (pictured above), located in the southeast corner of the state and also feeding into Powell; and the Green, which flows from the northeast of the state to meet the Colorado.
With the Colorado River running through some of the country’s most scenic landscapes — Arches, Canyonlands, Glen Canyon — the best way to experience it is by kayak or canoe. Moab makes for a good base camp to organize a paddle trip, with plenty of guided tours and rentals available.
Stand-up paddleboarding (or SUPing, if you want to use the most delightful acronym ever) has been growing in popularity in recent years, and the Utah SUP scene is no exception. There are 24 state parks in Utah that offer SUPing as an activity, including on the Great Salt Lake (Antelope Island State Park and Great Salt Lake State Marina) and the Caribbean-blue waters of Bear Lake (Bear Lake State Park).
With over a 1,000 fishable lakes and a ton of streams as well, Utah is home to a legit year-round angler culture. There are 47 Blue Ribbon fisheries in the state, many of which are renowned for their fly fishing (check out the Provo and Green Rivers). Whether you’re looking for a quick day out near an urban area, or a longer excursion to more remote waters, Utah’s got it. Just don’t forget to pick up a license before you go.
For those who prefer to enjoy the water from a couple hundred feet above it, there’s parasailing, which is offered at five of Utah’s state parks: Bear Lake, Great Salt Lake, Jordanelle, Deer Creek, and Yuba. The views, both of the lakes below and the landscapes surrounding them, will naturally be astounding.
7. Water skiing
Water skiing, water tubing, knee boarding, wakeboarding…all those boatable acres make these activities a relatively simple proposition in Utah. Try the Jordanelle Reservoir near Salt Lake City, which restricts the number of boats allowed on the water in the summer to make it even more pleasant for boaters. Deer Creek Reservoir is another body of water easily accessible from Salt Lake City. And just west of Provo there’s the fantastic 97,000-acre Utah Lake.
Of course, there’s no need to improve on the experience of simply motoring around one of Utah’s scenic lakes. Bear Lake, on the Utah-Idaho border, is often called the “Caribbean of the Rockies,” thanks to its crystalline, turquoise-blue coloring. At the other end of the state is the huge and popular Lake Powell, along the Arizona border. And in between are scores of boatable bodies of water of all sizes to explore.
9. Windsurfing / kiteboarding
Another popular pastime on Utah’s waters is windsurfing, which is made available in nearly two dozen of the state’s parks. The Utah Windriders Association gives daily updates as to the quality of the windsurfing on various lakes, and there’s a school that conducts windsurfing lessons in Salt Lake City. There are also many opportunities to go kiteboarding, as shown above.
For those with a long weekend of boating in mind, an excellent choice is houseboating. There are boat-in campsites at the Yuba Reservoir, located just off I-15 in the middle of the state, and Lake Powell has houseboating options as well. Or, you can head to the 42,000-acre Flaming Gorge Reservoir near the border with Wyoming, known for its watersports and its many secluded coves that make it perfect for camping.
11. Canyoneering / canyon swimming
Utah’s canyoneering — an activity that combines hiking, rappelling, and (sometimes) swimming — is unparalleled by pretty much anywhere else in the world. Zion National Park and its surrounds, with routes like the Narrows and the Subway, make up the best-known region, but there are many others, including Escalante, the San Rafael Swell, and the area around Moab.
Yep — there’s scuba diving and snorkeling in Utah. While the salinity in the Great Salt Lake is too high for much aquatic life to survive, there are plenty of lakes, reservoirs, and pools where diving is a rewarding activity — Bear Lake, Flaming Gorge, and Homestead Crater, to name a few. You also have the geothermally heated, semi-tropical Bonneville Seabase right near Salt Lake City for a truly unique diving experience.
While motorboats and jet skis are certainly more popular, the sailing in Utah is equally amazing. The Salt Lake Tribune maintains that the Great Salt Lake is a seriously underrated sailing destination, with some of the best sunsets in the world. But probably the most recognized sailing lake is Utah Lake, with another solid option being the Jordanelle Reservoir just outside of Park City.
14. Ice skating
You might have guessed this one, seeing as Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics. Being up in the mountains and having a reputation for winter sports means that ice skating is a natural pastime in Utah. Of course, in the summer you’ll have to get yourself to an indoor skating rink, but there are plenty of outdoor rinks and skatable lakes if you’re traveling in winter.
15. Ice fishing
This is another opportunity for visitors during the colder months, and one that fills out Utah’s portfolio as a year-round fishing destination. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources recommends a number of lakes and reservoirs for ice fishers, depending on what you want to catch — there are sites with rainbow and cutthroat trout, bluegill, perch, and largemouth bass.
16. Hot tubbing
Maybe it’s a stretch to call this a water “adventure,” but Utah is known for it’s world-class ski slopes and winter sports. And after a day of being out in the cold — downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling…whatever moves you — you’ll want to get back to your lodge and warm up in a hot tub. Let the good times ensue.Feature photo: fairuz othman