The United States has 58 designated national parks with hundreds of other variations of national land [monuments, refuges, historical sites, etc]. Some of these parks are well known with stunning photos of their iconic views splattered all over Instagram. Others are a bit more stealthy about their beauty. The national parks in Utah are a bit of both. We can probably easily recognize the views of Zion Canyon from the well known Angel’s Landing trail, but the narrow washes of Capitol Reef are a bit more secretive. All of these places are stunning in their own way, so let’s chat about some of the best trails and adventures at each of Utah’s national parks.
Arches National Park
You’ll quickly discover how Arches National Park got its name as it is home to more than 2,000 natural stone arches. Some are massive and well-known such as Delicate Arch, while others are hidden away. Just minutes outside of Moab, Utah this park tends to be quite busy year round with drivers, hikers, bikers and backpackers.
If you’re pressed for time a drive through the park will give you access to stunning views of the arches and other rock formations from a far. You will want to allow at least 1.5 hours for the most basic drive thru to allow for traffic, parking and short walks to viewpoints. The more time, the more you get to gawk!
The best way to explore this park in on foot, along the many trails that lead to arches, viewpoints and other rock formations. Give yourself at least one full day to see it all, especially if you want to hike up to any of the arches for larger than life photos. For a more up close and personal experience consider getting a permit for an overnight backpacking trip. There is a designated window of time to get permits at the Arches Visitor’s Center and they cost $7 per person, but with a little extra time on your feet you’ll feel like you have the entire desert to yourself.
Other ways to explore the park include horseback riding, canyoneering, rock climbing, road cycling and a variety of ranger-led programs. At the very least…drive thru and take a peek from as many viewpoints as possible. This will show you just enough of the park to pull you back for a longer trip next time!
At Bryce Canyon National Park you’ll be able to see and explore the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos, or irregular columns of rock created by wind and water erosion. Bryce Canyon is tucked away in Southern Utah, about 2.5 hours away from Saint George, Utah. You’ll need to make a big of a drive to get there, but it will be worth it for the hiking, horseback riding, scenic drives and stargazing.
The drive through Bryce Canyon is actually an out and back, so feel free to leapfrog through the viewpoints in each direction to break up the time in the car. At the southern end of Park Road has a large parking lot with many hiking trails [some are closed due to wildfire restoration, check with the rangers for current trail conditions]. Another great place to hike around within Bryce Canyon is closer to the Visitor’s Center. You can do a shorter out and back hike or make a full day of it by starting at the Bryce Point Trailhead and finishing near Sunset Point Trailhead [with a little help from the free shuttle buses].
For a little more adventure consider a horseback riding tour into the canyon. You’ll definitely want to make reservations in advance, as this is a popular option. The tours meet at the Bryce Canyon Lodge and you can choose your tour based upon route and distance. It is an experience…the horses are very comfortable on the edge of trails, even when you’re not!
Within the boundary of Bryce Canyon National Park there are a few lodging options include the Bryce Canyon Lodge as well as multiple campgrounds. If you’re lucky enough to stay in the park overnight definitely head to the Visitor’s Center for stargazing. They offer a variety of astronomy events, including the Annual Astronomy Festival, that give you a chance to view the sky through massive telescopes.
This is one of the most complex park systems in Utah. Canyonlands National Park is divided up into four different districts, figuratively and literally. The main canyon was created by the Colorado River with a multitude of offshoot canyons that have been eroded by the tributaries flowing into the Colorado River and Green River. Each district of Canyonlands is removed from the others and requires specific driving directions. If you want to truly see this national park you’ll need to give yourself a few days and a lot of road trip snacks. Luckily the Island in the Sky district is within an hours drive of Moab, Utah so you can see a tiny nibble of the park without much effort.
Island in the Sky // As the most accessible district this is easily one of the most popular places to visit within Canyonlands National Park and the home of the main Visitor’s Center. It is about a 45 minute drive from Moab.
The Needles // To get to this The Needles district you’ll spend about 1.5 hours in the car when you start in Moab. You’ll drive along some remote roads that weave through the Indian Creek area of Bears Ears National Monument. It’s a beautiful drive, but call the rangers before you make it as you may not be able to see much without a 4WD or off-road equipped vehicle.
The Maze // This is definitely the least accessible district and requires at least 6.5 hours of driving from Moab. The Maze district also requires a 4WD, high-clearance vehicle with a skilled driving. It is no surprise this is one of the least visited areas, so if you make it out there be sure you’re fully prepared to rough it if anything goes wrong.
The Rivers // There is no vehicle access to the Colorado River or Green River within Canyonlands National Park boundaries. If you want to spend time on these rivers you’ll need to launch onto the Green River near the aptly named town of Green River. You can also launch onto the Colorado River near Moab. Once on the river it will be calm above The Confluence [where the rivers combine] but fast moving white water below. If you simply want to check out the river from the cliffs above a hike, bike or OHV tour along the White Rim Trail may be just what you need.
As you can see, Canyonland National Park has a LOT to offer. If you don’t have a week to dedicate to this park, check out the drive around Island in the Sky and maybe a day hike down to the White Rim Trail. This option will get you out onto the trails and viewpoints, rather than trap you in the car.
This is the least visited national parks in Utah but that’s not saying much considering how incredibly popular the other parks are. Capitol Reef National Park actually has a bit of everything — deep canyons, steep cliffs, natural bridges and unique rock formations. The park encompasses the Waterpocket Fold, which is a geological monocline [or a “wrinkle in the earth”]. Once you arrive at Capitol Reef you’ll notice it has a lot of buildings and human history within the park. People lived, worked and thrived in the Waterpocket Fold all the way up to the 1800s, when Mormons populated the area. Many structures are still standing and you can pick apples from one of the many orchards.
You can drive through a small section of the park by simply following along Highway 24. There are a few pull-offs and short hikes, but if you really want to see the park you’ll need to spend more time there. To get a bit further into the park, without leaving your car for long, you can take the Scenic Drive Route south from the main Visitor’s Center. It is an out and back route with access to other popular roads if you want to explore more. Be sure to stop by the Visitor’s Center to get information on the road conditions as some off-shoot roads are not regularly maintained and can be majorly affected by even small amounts of rain.
If you’d like to get out and do some self-propelled exploring there is a wide range of hiking trails throughout the park. With a permit, available at the Visitor’s Center, you can venture out into the wilderness for a backpacking overnight. You can also take horses into the backcountry with a permit. Bicycles are allowed within the park and on roadways, but not on single track or dirt trails.
Zion National Park is easily the most visited national park in Utah [+ the fourth most visited in the country] so expect crowds and allow extra time for the mandatory shuttle buses. Don’t let these crowds deter you…everyone is flocking to this park for a reason. It is amazing. Within Zion you’ll find narrow slot canyons, sweeping overlooks and exposed trails. No matter the season, the park will blow you away with its beauty.
There are three official entrances into Zion National Park with the South Entrance near Springdale, Utah easily being the most popular. The South Entrance is less than a quarter of a mile away from the cafes, stops and hotels of Springdale. When using this entrance during peak season arrive early to get access to parking and be prepared to wait in line at the gate. From the South Entrance you’ll have easy access to the shuttle buses that will take you up into Zion Canyon. The most iconic trails and views will be found within Zion Canyon. This includes Angels Landing, The Narrows and Emerald Pools, among others.
If you’re looking to get away from the crowds of the South Entrance you have a few options, but you’ll want to either visit or call the rangers as these others areas may be closed for restoration or construction. For anyone driving down from Bryce Canyon National Park [or just coming south on Highway 89] the East Entrance will ease you into the park via the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Anyone traveling along Interstate 15 will have easy access to the Kolobs Canyon Entrance. While a visit into the core of Zion National Park — Zion Canyon — is necessary, the other entrances also offer up incredible views and trails. Plan time to see it all if you can!
As you can see…the Big Five National Parks of Utah have a lot to offer. A road trip through Southern Utah that visits all of these parks is the ideal way to adventure, but not everyone has that much time. Wherever you decide to explore, you will not regret it. There’s a good chance you’ll have the area back on your to-visit list shortly after you leave!
Whether you’re hoping to visit all of these parks in one big adventure or if you need to pick and choose your adventure, let us help you! We have been exploring this area since 2014 by car, foot and horseback. We would love to get you out there to see it all, the way you want to. Find out how we can help with a simple conversation or take away all the stress by planning it all for you >> Book Your Adventure Today!