Utah has two dissimilar regions sharply divided by the Wasatch Range (part of the Rocky Mts.), which runs generally south from the Idaho border. To the east of the Wasatch rise high mountains and irregular plateaus; along its western foothills lie the major cities of Utah, while farther west is the Great Basin. In the northeast the snowcapped Uinta Mts. reach the state's highest elevation in Kings Peak (13,528 ft/4,123 m). The dissected Colorado Plateau stretches southward, rugged and largely uninhabitable except in isolated river valleys. Deep, tortuous canyons cut by the Colorado River and its tributaries impede travel but create vistas of remarkable grandeur.
Western Utah, part of the Great Basin, was once submerged beneath an extensive Pleistocene lake, Lake Bonneville. For many thousands of years the water level in the lake fluctuated, finally subsiding entirely to leave behind a salt-strewn desert, wide expanses of arid but nonalkaline soil, and a series of lakes. Great Salt Lake, the largest of these, has through evaporation reached a concentration of mineral salts several times that of the ocean. Gulls, pelicans, and blue herons are found around the lake and on its islands. Much of the lake shore is bordered by mud and salt flats. The haze-covered Oquirrh Mts., rising south of the lake, dip to form pleasant beaches at the water's edge, then emerge as islands within the lake and rise again in the Promontory Mts. on the northern shore.
Utah Lake, to the south, is the largest natural body of freshwater in the state and drains into Great Salt Lake through the Jordan River. Between Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Range and curving southwest toward the Arizona line is the river-crossed Wasatch Front, an agricultural strip that is the center of the life of Utah. Major cities are situated on terraces left by Lake Bonneville.
Irrigation of the rich but arid land has long been crucial to Utah's agricultural development. Major reclamation projects, such as the Weber River, Weber River Basin, Moon Lake, and Strawberry Valley projects, assist numerous private enterprises in storing water for distribution and in aiding flood control. The Central Utah project carries water from streams in the Uinta Mts. through a vast complex of dams, reservoirs, tunnels, canals, and aqueducts across the Wasatch Range to the Salt Lake valley. Lake Powell, the reservoir of Glen Canyon Dam just beyond the Arizona line, and Flaming Gorge Dam are important parts of the Colorado River storage project in Utah.
The state's unusual geologic history has produced many natural wonders, most notably Great Salt Lake and the spectacular Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. Other attractions are Canyonlands and Arches, national parks; Cedar Breaks, Dinosaur, Grand Staircase–Escalante, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, and Timpanogos Cave national monuments; Glen Canyon National Recreation Area; and Golden Spike National Historic Site (see National Parks and Monuments, table). The Bonneville Salt Flats are famous as an automotive speedway. There are many national forests and a number of Native American reservations. Capitol Reef National Park contains ancient cliff dwellings (see cliff dwellers), glyphs, and other prehistoric artifacts.
Salt Lake City is the capital and largest city; it is also the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which founded the state and to a large extent still dominates it. Other important cities are Ogden and Provo.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.