“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
One of the many perks of living along the Wasatch Front is having Southern Utah within our reach. People travel from all around the world to experience the spectacular national parks located in our state. Those of us lucky enough to live in the Salt Lake area are able to drive to Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, or Zion within a matter of hours.
Known as “The Mighty 5”, Utah’s collection of national parks has a bit of everything: deserts and forests, arches and canyons, hoodoos and goosenecks. Here is a quick summary of what we love most about each of these places as well as ten insider tips to make the best of your national park adventure.
Drive time from Salt Lake City: 3 hrs. 45 min.
Arches is home to Utah’s most iconic natural landmark, Delicate Arch. This impressive formation is something you really have to see to believe. But it is just one of more than two thousand arches in this park. Much of Arches can be seen in a single day from the comfort of your car (an 18-mile scenic drive). However, there are hikes suitable for all abilities and endless options for exploration. In addition to Delicate Arch, other highlights include Devil’s Garden, Park Avenue, and a ranger led excursion into Fiery Furnace. You’ll definitely want to spend at least a few days in Arches.
Drive time from Salt Lake City: 4 hrs. 15 min.
Bryce Canyon is known for its irregular spires or ‘hoodoos’ but there is much more to this park than it’s interesting formations. Situated at the top of the Grand Staircase at about 8,000 feet, Bryce stays cooler than the other parks in the summer. In the winter the park is often covered in snow, creating an otherworldly mix of red dirt and white powder. A favorite park among wildlife enthusiasts, Bryce is home to Utah Prairie Dogs, Prong Horn Deer, and a wide variety of bird species.
There are numerous viewpoints along the 37-mile scenic drive, making it a great park for people who prefer to see the sights without venturing far from the car. For the more intrepid visitor, there are plenty of trails that descend into the canyons. Horseback riding and snowshoeing are also popular ways to experience Bryce. A shuttle service is operational from April through October to relieve congestion.
Drive time from Salt Lake City: 4 hrs.
Canyonlands is the largest and most rugged of the national parks in Utah. It is divided into four districts; The Maze, The Rivers, The Needles, and Island in the Sky. The Needles and Island in the Sky are the most easily accessible and where most visitors go. There are a few short (a mile or less) hikes to overlooks, arches, and archaeological sites in each of these districts. Numerous commercial guide companies, such as Rim Tours and Canyonlands Field Institute, offer mountain bike or river float trips for those interested in a more immersive experience.
Drive time from Salt Lake City: 3 hrs. 45 min.
Capitol Reef is Utah’s hidden gem. This park is rich in both scenic beauty and historical artifacts. Visitors are able to get a close-up view of rock art panels made by the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people, who lived in the area for approximately a thousand years. There are a number of relatively flat hikes, making this park a favorite for families with young children.
Take a stroll through orchards planted by pioneers in the historic Fruita settlement. Depending on the timing of your visit you can pick fruit from the peach, apple, cherry, apricot, or pear trees. And, yes, you should save room for pie.
Drive time from Salt Lake City: 4 hrs. 45 min.
Zion National Park is a common item on bucket lists and for good reason. There are epic hiking trails through slot canyons and along ridges with stunning views. This park is close to both Las Vegas (a two and a half hour drive) and Salt Lake City (about four hours). Zion’s location and reputation make it one of the most visited parks in the nation.
Due to large crowds and the risks associated with many of the hikes, it is critical to check with the ranger station about special regulations and permits. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the park’s shuttle service before traveling to Zion. Certain shuttle routes require reservations during the peak season.
We recommend a walk along the Virgin River on the Pa’Rus Trail and the short hike to Emerald Pools. The Mount Carmel Highway connects the south and east entrances of the park. This drive is an adventure in itself; a winding road through tunnels and along cliffs with drivers from around the world in large, unwieldy vehicles. Nearby attractions and accommodations: The cities of Cedar City (an hour from Zion), St. George (40 minutes from Zion), the town of Springdale immediately outside Zion, the ghost town of Grafton.
10 GENERAL PLANNING TIPS
1. Visit the parks in the spring or fall when temperatures are milder and the crowds are smaller. If your schedule requires you to visit in the summer, plan outside activities for the morning or evening hours when it’s cooler.
2. Make reservations for accommodations well in advance. Most campgrounds and lodges within the parks are fully booked throughout the peak season. There are many options in the communities surrounding the parks, from RV parks and cabins to private rentals and hotels.
3. Be ready to bust out some old school navigation skills. Many of us are reliant on our personal devices for getting around but many remote areas in Utah do not have cell coverage. Make sure to have printed itineraries and maps.
4. Many international tourists opt to visit the national parks in Southern Utah as part of the larger Grand Circle tour. If you have a month or more for a trip, consider trying this route through the Southwestern United States with the largest concentration of national parks and monuments.
5. While all five parks are relatively close together, the drive time between them ranges from a couple hours to a full day, depending on your route. Some of the parks are easier to combine than others. For example, Arches and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands are near the town of Moab and are approximately half an hour apart. Bryce and Capitol Reef are connected by Highway 12 through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a truly unforgettable scenic byway. Peruse some other suggested itineraries from visitutah.com.
6. Allow a generous cushion of time for unexpected detours. The land designated by the federal government as national parks is only a fraction of the vast and spectacular region of Southern Utah. You will be amazed by how much more there is to explore.
7. Plan to stay up past sundown. All of the parks except Zion have been designated as Dark Sky Parks from the International Dark-Sky Association, meaning they have minimal light pollution and are excellent places to stargaze.
8. Utah is a desert and temperatures can be extreme. Always be prepared with plenty of water, sunblock, a warm layer for cooler temperatures, and appropriate footwear. Know and follow the safety regulations of each park.
9. Start at the visitor center. All national parks have Junior Ranger Programs which add an element of accomplishment for kids (a badge for completing a workbook!). Many parks also offer evening ranger lectures, ranger-led hikes, and astronomy talks. Make the most of your visit by taking advantage of these educational opportunities.
10. Carefully research the areas you plan to visit, as well as the length and intensity of any hikes you’re interested in. Some hikes require permits or a guide. Check each park’s website and the visitor centers to find out about special arrangements that need to be made in advance.
PICK YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
Whether you’re hoping to take in breathtaking views from the driver’s seat or planning a backpacking trip into the pristine backcountry, these parks will not disappoint. Each one stands alone with its spectacular landscape, distinct history, and unique surroundings. Here are some additional planning resources:
https://www.sunset.com/travel/national-parks/utah-national-parks (winter adventures)
Interested in learning more about the geology of Southern Utah? Here is a brief explanation of the Colorado Plateaus Province from the Parks Service:
And Some Parks Inspired Paintings: