Utah's 5 Mighty National Parks
Each year millions of visitors pass through Utah. As many of them travel home, they begin to realize that Utah is one of the most scenic states in the country. Without a doubt, Utah’s five national parks; Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches, showcase Utah's backbone of beauty. Each national park has its own unique characteristics and attractions. Altogether, these magnificent parks are dubbed "The Mighty Five".
Zion is the most popular national park in Utah. Over 4 million people visited Zion last year. The park has seen a 61% increase in visitation since 2006.¹ In Essence, 4 million people cannot be wrong. Zion is a world-class destination.
Zion Is For Hikers
In order to appreciate the magnitude of Zion Canyon, you must take a hike. Whether you're an avid backpacker or you just like to take a leisurely stroll, Zion has something you can appreciate. Angels Landing and The Narrows are certainly the most popular hikes in the park, however, they are also the most strenuous and nerve-wracking. The reward for these hikes is an unforgettable experience that will live in your mind forever. Nevertheless, these hikes are not for everyone. The Watchman Trail and Riverside Walk are for some of us who don't enjoy death-defying heights and walking straight up an unpredictable river. These two trails are under 3.5 miles and have less than 400 feet of elevation change. Although the trails might be a little less exhilarating, the views seen along these trails are just as breathtaking.
More To Zion
There are various other activities that can you can enjoy when visiting Zion National Park. Take a drive down the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. Along the way, you can see some amazing views of the park that many people do not see. Keep your eyes open for elusive desert bighorn sheep and other unique wildlife. The Zion Human History Museum is open to all to learn about the rich human history of the park.
All things considered, Zion National Park is for everyone. If you have to choose only one park to visit, Zion is the one.
In 1874, Ebenezer and Mary Bryce, along with their 10 children moved to the valley near Bryce Canyon. While living near the canyon, Ebenezer worked to build a road for hauling timber and soon other settlers began calling the area where he worked “Bryce’s Canyon”. Life was not easy for the Bryce family. The family only lived in the area for about 5 years before heading off to Arizona. Ebenezer’s legacy lives on through the name of the park and his infamous reflection on life in the area when he claimed Bryce Canyon was “one hell of a place to lose a cow”.
Point To Point
Bryce Canyon National Park is only an hour and a half drive from Zion and 4 hours from Salt Lake City. By and large, most visitors stick to the road and the several must-see "points" (overlooks) throughout the park. After passing the visitors center, Sunrise & Sunset Point are the first overlooks you will come to. These two overlooks are some of the most popular for taking "golden hour" photographs of the hoodoos and formations below. Keep driving down the Bryce Canyon road and you will come along Inspiration, Bryce, Piracy and finally, Rainbow Point.
Stay Up Late
Bryce Canyon has some of the darkest skies on the planet. Think about this: in most rural areas of the United States, 2,500 stars can be seen on a clear night—but at Bryce Canyon, the night sky is so dark you can see 7,500 stars on a moonless night! The park has some great stargazing programs and opportunities. Plan to spend some time with the park rangers as they guide you through a 90-minute telescope session or, much like Great Basin National Park, join the “Dark Rangers” on a moonlit hike through the park.
Capitol Reef National Park is probably the most underrated of Utah’s 5 national parks. Despite this fact, Capitol Reef has the best of both Zion and Bryce Canyon, but without the crowds. The park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic wrinkle on the earth extending almost 100 miles.
The most commonly visited part of the park runs along the 10-mile Scenic Drive: The Fruita Area. This aptly named part of the park is lush, green and fertile and hosts a thriving orchard of approximately 3,100 trees. Fruita was settled in the 1880’s byMormon settlers who planted orchards of cherry, apricot, peach, pear, plum, almond, walnut and apples. No more than 10 or so families lived in Fruita at one time and the last resident of the area moved away in 1969.
The National Park Service now maintains the orchards. Visitors are welcome to explore these areas and to stroll through any unlocked orchards and consume any ripe fruit they desire. During the "Harvest Season," you can collect produce from the orchards for $1/lb.
The Cathedral Valley
If you're up for some adventure and have plenty of time, then head to the Cathedral Valley. The Cathedral Valley District of Capitol Reef is along an unpaved 58-mile loop road. The Valley lies to the northern edge of the park. You can travel the roads with high clearance vehicles, but with common weather events, the road can become extremely muddy and impassable. There are several stunning vistas along the drive with amazing views of the park’s dramatic geological formations, such as Temple Of The Sun & Moon, Walls Of Jericho, & Glass Mountain.
Canyonlands National Park preserves colorful canyons, mesas, arches, and spires. For the most part, water and gravity have been the prime architects of this land. The mighty Colorado and Green Rivers collide in the center of Canyonlands National Park to create several different park districts.
Island In The Sky
Every overlook offers a different perspective of Canyonlands' spectacular landscape. Island in the Sky is the most accessible of Canyonlands' districts to visit in a short period of time. There are many pullouts with spectacular views along the paved scenic drive. Island in the Sky district is bustling when you consider how few venture to other districts of the park.
Needles & The Maze
The Needles District has an extensive trail system that includes beautiful destinations like Elephant Hill, Chesler Park, Tower Ruin & The Confluence Overlook (which provides a great view of the Colorado and Green Rivers coming together). The notorious Maze District lies west of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The Maze is one of the most remote and difficult to reach sections of any national park in the lower 48. If you dare to venture into this wild and rugged portion of the park, make sure you prepare, because if you do not, The Maze will make sure you regret it.
Arches National Park has the worlds greatest concentration of natural arches in the world, hence the name. An “arch” must span at least 3 feet in any direction to qualify as one of the National Park’s 2,000 plus arches. Many of these beautiful arches are easily accessible on the park’s 18-mile one-way road and its numerous hiking trails.
It's important to realize that if you have come to Arches to see Delicate Arch, you must exit your vehicle. The arch can only be seen from a distance in a small parking area, or by taking a hike. In essence, the hike to see the worlds most famous arch is one of the most inspirational hikes in the national park system. This 3-mile hike is not extremely difficult, however, it's not a stroll down the beach either, so bring plenty of water. This trail can be pretty busy, so if possible, visit in the shoulder season.
As you leave the parking lot and begin down the trail, you will pass the old Wolfe Ranch cabin. You will then pass a wall of Ute Indian petroglyphs. As you continue climbing, the trail turns to "slickrock", a smooth stone. About the time you begin to question yourself why you decided to take this trail, you come to a narrow passageway with a rock wall on one side and a drop off on the other. As you come to the end of the wall and turn, you see it—Delicate Arch—and your breath is taken away.
With easy access to both Arches & Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah becomes a great basecamp for adventure. Moab has all of the amenities: restaurants, lodging, guides, outfitters, rentals and anything else you would ever need. When you plan your Utah national park road trip make sure to make Moab a destination. Moab’s unique combination of beautiful scenery and two nearby national parks make it one of the most interesting destinations in Utah.