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Get the Outside In - Utah Terrain

Top National Parks to Visit

Mark Pyper

Posted on December 23 2018

Top National Parks to Visit

Utah’s national parks, known as “The Mighty Five”, are some of the most magnificent and popular attractions in the entire U.S. National Park system. All five parks are situated in the massive Colorado Plateau which holds the highest concentration of National Park Service units in the country outside of D.C. Because Utah’s “Mighty Five” are relatively close to one another, it’s not uncommon for travelers to hit all five parks in one trip. A 7-day trip would just hit the highlights, and a 10-12 day vacation would allow for the unique character of each park to sink in more fully.

Although the Colorado Plateau is a gold mine of natural resources, its greatest revenue generator is its scenic beauty. Any visitor fortunate enough to take in all five parks would easily see why these destinations are bucket list material for anyone who loves nature and the great outdoors. Here’s our take on Utah’s five National Parks – what to prioritize, what to avoid, and what to expect.

Arches National Park

Arches, as the name implies, hosts the greatest collection of sandstone arches in the world. If only all national park names could be so truthfully named, but alas, there is no “Mountains”, “Rocks” or “Big Lake” National Park. Because of Arches’ close proximity to mountain biking mecca Moab and its relatively flat terrain, its probably the most accessible of “the Mighty Five”. However, don’t let the ease of moving around fool you – during the summer months, the exposed red rock can easily turn into an oven, so plenty of water is a must here. Highlights of the park include Delicate Arch (see our Delicate Arch Day hike description) and Fiery Furnace, which can be accessed easily from roadside viewpoints. If you have more than a day to visit Arches, consider hiking to the less-visited “Marching Men” section, way off the beaten path in the northwest corner of Arches. Because this is a smaller National Park than most, attractions are more densely packed in and every vista has incredibly interesting and otherworldly geological formations to view.

More information: www.nps.gov/arch/index.htm

Canyonlands National Park

Because Canyonlands is so close to both Arches and Moab, visitors typically devote 1-2 days to take in both Arches and Canyonlands. For those with short itineraries, almost invariably, visitors choose to take in the Islands of the Sky section of the park. If a half-day or day is the only time allotted for this park, the Islands of the Sky section is certainly a wise choice. Arguably only second to Delicate Arch as Utah’s most iconic landmark is Mesa Arch in the Islands of the Sky district. Mesa Arch provides incredible photo opps with which to frame the extraordinary geological carvings of the Colorado River (trust us – you’ve seen a photograph of this before!). To give you a sense of how vast Canyonlands is, Needles – the other visitor center in the park – is a two hour drive away from Islands of the Sky. While Islands of the Sky is more heavily trafficked, Needles feels like more of the heart of the park. Finally, Canyonlands has the most recreational opportunities of the Mighty Five parks. Consider white water rafting down the Cataract Canyon section of the Colorado River, or take a jeep tour up some truly white knuckle-inducing roads in the Needles section of the park.

More information: www.nps.gov/cany/index.htm

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef is the most remote and newest National Park among the Mighty Five. With its remoteness comes less crowds, more chances to see wildlife, and awesome star gazing at night (Capitol Reef was recently designated an International Dark Sky Park!). Capitol Reef arguably offers the most colorful and diverse array of geology of the Might Five. From the white rocks of Capitol Dome to the intense oranges of the Temple of the Sun at dusk, there’s more variety of rock formations here than in Utah’s other National Parks. Also, at 60 miles long, you can forget about seeing the whole park, thus a list of highlights is a must. If Capitol Reef is a pit stop between Zion/Bryce and Moab, then Goosenecks Overlook, Cathedral Valley, and the Grand Wash trail would make anyone’s short list of “to do’s” within the park. Be sure to stay at the Capitol Reef Resort where you can stay in covered wagons with fire pits for a more authentic experience.

More information: www.nps.gov/care/index.htm

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce is the most compact of the Might Five at 56 square miles. Within this tight space, the centerpiece of the park is the Bryce Amphitheater, a cluster of incredibly beautiful red rock spires called hoodoos. While the Grand Canyon and Zion may be more majestic in scale, the sheer density of geological gems within the Bryce Amphitheater is equally as stunning. If driving through the park, Bryce and Sunset Points are must-sees, particularly at dusk or dawn when the sun lights up the whole amphitheater. In terms of hiking, any number of loop trails in the amphitheater will do, but we recommend the Fairyland Loop trail (see our Fairyland Loop day hike description). One word of wisdom: Even if one is camping in Bryce in the middle of summer, due to its high elevation (over 8,000 feet), it can get really chilly at night. To summarize, as one visitor recently said, Bryce is “Eye candy for the soul!”

More information: www.nps.gov/brca/index.htm

Zion National Park

Zion now ranks 3rd in terms of visitation rankings for National Parks. While never a secret, Zion’s popularity has been soaring in popularity in recent years (as have all of the Mighty FIve, for that matter). Zion is often ranked as a favorite park for those that have traveled the National Park system extensively. A lush, green canopied forest lays at the bottom of a gorgeous red rock canyon floor, creating beautiful contrasts of red and green. If time is a major limitation, then taking the shuttle from the neighboring town of Springdale through the Zion Valley to the Temple of Sinawava is the must-see attraction. If more time permits, then doing at least two of the these three hikes is highly recommended: The Narrows Trail, Angels Landing Trail, or Observation Point Trail. This canyon, with its 2,000 foot walls, pristine river, and intense colors, makes Zion an incredible experience and a real treasure of the West.

More information: www.nps.gov/zion/index.htm

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