Five national parks stud the southern portion of Utah. Nicknamed “The Mighty 5”: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks flaunt astounding and diverse geological beauty.
ZION NATIONAL PARK
Named for the Old Testament city of Jerusalem, “Zion” often generally refers to a kind of promised land or heaven. It’s easy to see why early Mormon settlers designated the area as such. Towering rock walls, striped red and white with Navajo sandstone, dwarf visitors standing at the bottom of the canyon. The Virgin River has eroded spectacular slot canyons starting from its origin in the 9,000-foot Markagunt Plateau.
Hikes abound throughout the 147,000-acre park, but hiking the Narrows up the Virgin River should be on all bucket lists everywhere. Much of the hike requires trekking in the water—special aquatic shoes and a wooden walking stick are highly recommended and available at Zion Outfitter near the entrance of the park. Smooth, undulating canyon walls frame mountain vistas and waterfalls while the bright-blue sky plays peekaboo from bend to bend. Bring a lunch, some layers and a waterproof camera case, and be prepared to stop every 10 feet to snap yet another mind-blowing photo.
Two hikes that offer views from the top down are Angels Landing (5.4 miles) and Canyon Overlook Trail (one mile). The first should only be attempted by well-conditioned hikers without a fear of heights, as the top of the trail contains sheer drop-offs aided by handrail chains and no guardrail at the summit. But the views are choice including the Great White Throne, Red Arch Mountain and the entrance to the Narrows. Angels Landing is not recommended for young children; however, Canyon Overlook Trail is the perfect counterpart—a mostly level trail and short walk lead to a big panoramic payoff featuring Bridge Mountain, the West Temple, Towers of the Virgin and the Streaked Wall. After a brief ascension from the parking lot near the east entrance of the Mount Carmel Tunnel, the trail quickly winds back into the wilderness, hugging red rock walls looming over Pine Creek slot canyon, through an overhanging cave perfect for big imaginations.
For a slightly more mellow adventure, rent inner tubes (Zion Outfitter or Zion Adventure Company) and float down the Virgin River just south of the entrance to the park through the adjacent town of Springdale. Tubes can be left in a designated pile at the exit. If your kids are old enough to attempt this on their own, be sure to wave from your balcony or one of three hot tubs at the Cliffrose Lodge as they float by.
In addition to the rustic Zion Lodge and three campgrounds within the borders of the park, many wonderful accommodations are available in Springdale. The aforementioned Cliffrose Lodge offers beautiful, comfortably appointed suites with fully furnished kitchens and family-friendly amenities such as a pool, large lawn with games, lobby marketplace and a guest bar for Mom and Dad. Hot breakfasts can be delivered to guest rooms (for a fee).
Zion claims the prize for best dining options near a Utah national park thanks to the thriving town of Springdale next door. Sol Foods Supermarket offers a wide range of grocery and prepared items. Locals and visitors alike swear by the Mexican cuisine at Bit & Spur. And 9 East, located at the Desert Pearl Inn, rivals farm-to-table restaurants in metropolitan areas with its Mediterranean-inspired cuisine and brick-fired pizza oven.
Zion National Park is open year-round. Seven-day entrance passes are $25 per vehicle. During peak season, visitors must park their cars and utilize the free shuttle system once inside the park boundaries. Temperatures can reach close to 100 degrees during summer months; consider a visit in the winter off-season when weather and crowds are much more palatable.
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Best known for its amphitheaters of hoodoo rock formations, Bryce Canyon has an otherworldly feel. For millions of years, water has seeped into the salmon-colored sandstone. With each freeze and thaw, the water breaks apart a little more of the rock, first forming fins, then windows, and finally the pillars called hoodoos. Rows of pillars make magnificent terraced amphitheaters when viewed from the rim. In the winter, the snow-dusted amphitheaters resemble a powdered-sugar-dusted Bundt cake.
Experience the hoodoos from the ground floor with the Navajo Loop Trail (1.4 miles) that leads down from Sunset Point through iconic hoodoo structures like Wall Street, Twin Bridges, and Thor’s Hammer. Longer hikes include the Fairyland Loop Trail (8 miles) and the Peekaboo Loop Trail (5.5 miles), but the granddaddy premier hiking experience is the Under the Rim backpacking trail (23 miles one way with free shuttle return).
Bryce Canyon is a great “drive-thru” park—the 18-mile scenic drive around the rim offers many viewpoint stops, like the aptly named Inspiration Point. If you don’t want to do the driving, hop on a free shuttle bus leaving from Ruby’s Inn, with stops at the Visitor Center, viewpoints, and trailheads. Rim trails contain specimens of Bristlecone pine trees—the oldest trees in the world with some close to 5,000 years old.
Located at roughly 8,500-feet above sea level, Bryce Canyon is a stargazer’s paradise. Utah is home to eight of the nation’s 16 designated Dark Sky Parks. In addition to park rangers, some of Utah’s parks have “dark rangers”—celestial-minded staff who lead periodic star talks. While Bryce doesn’t technically have this designation yet, they have hosted the Bryce Canyon National Park Astronomy Festival annually since 2000 (June 21–24, 2017), featuring solar viewing, rocket building/launching, constellation tours and telescope stargazing opportunities.
Bryce Canyon National Park is open year-round. Seven-day entrance passes are $30/vehicle. Camping is available within the park at Sunset and North Campgrounds; lodging is available at the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge or Ruby’s Inn (try a tepee!). If you’re headed to Capitol Reef next, spend a night at Shooting Star RV Resort, offering a fleet of Hollywood-themed Airstream travel trailers.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
Arches National Park is home to the largest proliferation of natural arches in the world—more than 2,000 within its 73,000-acre border. Thick salt beds left by an ancient inland sea were subsequently covered by rock. Over time, the salt shifted under the weight of the rocks, creating faults and domes on the surface. Wind and water eroded the upper layers into fins, spires, balanced rocks and arches.
With a scant eight inches of rain per year, piñon pine and juniper scrub eek out a thirsty existence in the dry, rust-colored landscape. The scenic 18-mile drive (one way) takes four to five hours to complete if you stop at each viewpoint for 10 minutes. If you only have time for one stop, make it at Delicate Arch Viewpoint—the world’s most famous arch depicted on the Utah license plate.
Obviously, there is much to see, but when to see it at its glorious best takes some scheduling. For features like Moab Fault, Landscape Arch, the Great Wall and Cache Valley are best viewed (and photographed) as the sun rises. Park Avenue, Balanced Rock, Garden of Eden, and the infamous Fiery Furnace* light up best with the setting sun. *Note: A permit is required for Fiery Furnace’s confusing labyrinth of sandstone canyons. Tickets are available up to seven days in advance at Arches Visitors Center—$6 per adult self-guided permit; $16 per adult for highly recommended ranger-led tour.
Landscape Arch’s delicate 306-foot span makes it possibly the longest stone span in the world. It is an ancient formation and won’t be around forever making it a “don’t miss” feature of the park. The easy trail (1.6 miles) gets crowded quickly, so get an early start. Continue on the trail to Double O Arch (4.2 miles)—a rare formation of one arch on top of another.
Arches National Park is open year-round. Seven-day entrances passes are $25 per vehicle. Camping is permitted within the park at Devil’s Garden Campground, however it is closed until November 2017 due to a major construction project. In the nearby town of Moab, glamp it up in a luxurious tent or tipi at Moab Under Canvas after grabbing a cold beer at Moab Brewery.
CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
Located near Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park contains similar elements to both Bryce and Zion with far fewer crowds. The name is derived from the white dome-like rock formations (like the domes of our nation’s capitol) and the word “reef” refers to the uplifted landmasses. Colored cliffs, hidden arches, massive domes and deep canyons adorn this underappreciated gem. Potholes created from a mammoth buckling of the earth’s surface fill with rainwater at descriptively named 100-mile Waterpocket Fold.
Unlike the other Mighty 5, there are no entrance fees to access Capitol Reef with the exception of a $10 per vehicle fee for the scenic drive behind the Visitor Center. So few people visit this park that you might have some hikes all to yourself. Hike to Hickman Natural Bridge (two miles) to view the 133-foot span and a white sandstone dome. Afterward, stop for a sweet juicy bite at a u-pick orchard in the historic Mormon community of Fruita.
Capitol Reef National Park is open year-round. A resistance to infrastructure development over the years means very little artificial lighting, which makes this area one of the designated Dark Sky Parks. Experience the night sky much like it has been since the pioneer days.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
If size corresponds to age, Canyonlands is the great-grandma of the Mighty 5 at 527 square miles (that’s over 337,000 acres). Four designated districts carve the park into manageable pieces, each with its own visitor center. Navajo and Wingate sandstone were laid down as immense sand dunes during the Mesozoic Era and are joined by five other types of rocks.
The Needles District contains the most hiking trails—about 74 miles of options of which the most popular are Cave Spring (0.6 mile) known for ancient Puebloan rock art, Pothole Point (0.6 mile) perfect for families with small children and Slickrock Foot Trail (2.4 miles) that stays high throughout lending four panoramic viewpoints. Backpackers should head to the ultra-scenic Chesler Park Loop (5.4 miles) for a hug by Mother Nature as they squeeze through the Joint.
Within the Sky District is a section called the Island with several well-maintained, family-friendly hikes. This district is also where Mesa Arch is located—the West’s most photographed landform. A keyhole view of White Rim country rewards hikers who finish this easy path (0.5 mile). Watch small children at the arch—it’s perched on the edge of a 500-foot cliff.
The Maze District is a truly remote landscape of twisted sandstone best traveled by those who consider themselves rugged individuals. One of the district’s rare loop trails, the Harvest Scene Hike (8.7 miles) leads visitors to a 3,000-year-old example of rock art in addition to many other sights like the Chocolate Drops formation on the canyon rim and Petroglyph Fork.
The Green and Colorado Rivers comprise the fourth district. Above their confluence, the rivers offer miles of flat water ideal for canoes and kayaks. But after their juncture in Cataract Canyon, the water speeds up, crashing with power for 14 miles of Class III–V rapids. Guided rafting trips are available through dozens of local outfitters.
Canyonlands National Park is open year-round (though some facilities close in winter). Seven-day entrance passes are $25 per vehicle. Camping is available in the park at Squaw Flat and Willow Flat Campgrounds. Camping and yurts are available outside of Canyonlands at Dead Horse Point State Park—a designated Dark Sky Park.