The Best of Utah's 5 National Parks
Throughout Utah, time and erosion have carved incredible landscapes, at times giving you the feeling that you are on another planet. With so many unique natural wonders, Utah has a whopping five national parks. If you plan your trip well, it is possible to visit a few, if not all, in one trip. After traveling through Utah we have put together our top picks for seeing the best each park has to offer.
Zion National Park (1 - 3 days)
The heart and soul of Zion is Zion Canyon, whose steep red walls stretch more than 2000 feet above the Virgin River. A number of hiking trails criss-cross up the canyon walls for breathtaking views of the park’s unique landscape.
At just over 2.5 hours from Las Vegas, Zion is a must-visit for its ease of accessibility. For this same reason, it’s also Utah’s busiest park. An ideal time to visit is mid-week or during the shoulder season (outside of April to October). If you can’t swing either, we recommend planning your exploring in the park in the early morning and late afternoon/early evening hours. During our visit on the days leading up to the Memorial long weekend in late May, it was extremely difficult to find parking between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm. We started out on the trails either first thing in the morning or late afternoon (after 4 pm) and found far more solace than when we started with the crowds at 10 am.
The Narrows (pictured below on the left): This hike is rated as one of the top ten hikes in North America and for good reason. The trail is the Virgin River! The effort it takes to ford the river varies depending on water levels meaning you could be wading through ankle to waist-deep cold water. In any case, it is well worth the reward. The further you wander into the narrowing canyon, the smaller you feel beneath the towering walls of one of the world’s most famous slot canyons.
Hike details: The hike is up to 10 miles round trip, but it is in-and-out so you can wander in as far as you have time for. Most people hike in and out for a couple hours. It typically takes less time on the return because you are not going against the river current.
Note: Although this trail is open year-round, it is only when water levels are low enough to be considered safe (under 150 cubic feet per second). It is typically closed during the spring snowmelt and during periods of heavy rain. You can check the previous and current daily flow rates here.
Kanarra Creek (pictured above on the right): Although technically outside of Zion, this trail lies just outside Kolob Canyon (the northern section of the park). It is located off the I-15, south of Cedar City and just east of the town of Kanarraville. The easy trail leads up a shallow river (which at times you have to wade through), and into a slot canyon ending at a beautiful waterfall. Depending on water levels and your hiking skills, adventure seekers can try climbing up the falls, then continuing up the canyon over a second waterfall to a small swimming hole.
Hike details: 3.5 miles, easy, little elevation gain, 2 hours round-trip to the first waterfall.
Note: The trail is not open after heavy rains, so check here in advance of your travel to confirm the trail is open. There is a $12 access permit required to do this hike, which you can purchase online or at a kiosk located at the trailhead. We recommend purchasing online in advance as they limit the number of hikers on this trail to 150 people per day.
Angel's Landing (pictured below): Hikers climb an adrenaline rushing 1,500 feet up the canyon wall then scale along a narrow ridge clinging to a metal chain, letting go only to bypass oncoming hikers. Despite feeling like a Utah right of passage, the views from the top are spectacular and the experience provides you with a great story. In fact, Angel’s Landing and the Narrows are two of the top five most memorable hikes we have ever done.
Hike details: 5.4 miles, 1500 ft elevation, strenuous, 3 - 5 hours.
Hidden Canyon: This hike is a good alternative if you are not sure if you can handle the hike to Angel’s Landing. It also has fewer crowds and is less strenuous. The trail has brief sections with chains as it skirts along the canyon wall but is nowhere near as long or steep. After climbing the canyon, you are led into a lush ‘hidden canyon’ where you can explore for a mile or so and cool off underneath the trees.
Hike details: 3 miles, 940 ft elevation gain, moderate, 2 - 3 hours.
Note: As of winter 2019, this trail is closed due to rockfall damage. Check in at the visitor centre or on the park’s website listed below to see if it has been re-opened during your visit.
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway: This scenic drive begins at the park’s east entrance and winds its way around hairpin turns and through a tunnel all while giving jaw-dropping views. If it works with your itinerary, enter the park through the east entrance for a five-star introduction to Zion. Stop at the Canyon Overlook trail (1 mile, 1 hour) for a short climb to a great viewpoint into Zion Canyon.
Bryce Canyon National Park (1 - 2 days)
Another other-worldly spot in Utah, Bryce Canyon is famous for towering multi-coloured limestone rock formations known as hoodoos. Not really a canyon at all, the hoodoos stand like a frozen army in a series of natural amphitheatres. You can hike down into the amphitheatres and stand among the rock giants or admire the view from above. We recommend both of course!
Given the small size of the park and the single road that leads in-and-out, you could probably visit all the highlights in one day. If time permits, spend a few nights camping for free on the park’s neighbouring public lands to take it all in.
Bryce Canyon Highlights
Bryce Amphitheater: The park’s main road passes plenty of viewpoints into the amphitheaters. Stopping at each one will give you a unique perspective. Be sure to watch the sunrise from Bryce Point, one of the highest viewpoints along the drive. As you leave the park, Fairyland Point Overlook offers one of our favourite vistas.
Navajo Loop/Queens Garden Trail (pictured above and below): This is the main hiking trail that offers a quick taste of everything the park has to offer. It’s a very popular trail and can get quite crowded so we also recommend hiking the Peekaboo Loop Trail further in the park to experience the scenery in more solitude.
Hike details: 2.6 miles, 623 ft elevation gain, moderate, 2 - 3 hours
Peekaboo Loop: This trail is rated as more difficult than the Navajo/Queens loop, but offers a much nicer experience to wander among the hoodoos. Another option for this trail, albeit more costly, is to trail ride it on horseback.
Hike details: 5.2 miles, 1,453 ft elevation gain, moderate to strenuous, 3 - 5 hours.
Capitol Reef National Park (1 - 3 days)
Capitol Reef is where you can experience the best of Utah’s strange and incredible rock formations with just 10% of the crowds (or hardly anyone at all)! As Utah’s newest national park, it hasn’t been commercialized to the same scale as the other parks so most roads are unsealed. It is therefore best suited for true adventurists who want to get off the beaten (and paved) path.
The name is again misleading here because there is no reef. In fact, at times it feels as though you are in the farthest place on earth from an ocean! The park protects a unique rock formation called the Waterpocket Fold. This is a massive 100-mile long fold in the earth’s crust that was created during the rising of the Colorado Plateau. Over millions of years, erosion slowly revealed the warped layers of rock the park now protects. The fold is fairly hard to differentiate from a standard mountain range when viewed up close in the main section of the park. We found the most impressive views were actually from the park’s south entrance. Here, you are able to see the waves of rock punch up across the horizon from a higher altitude.
Capitol Reef Highlights
Entering the park from Burr Trail Road (pictured below): The added distance necessary to enter the park from the more remote southern entrance is rewarded with an excellent view of the Waterpocket Fold. Burr Trail Road takes you through a scenic red-rock canyon and up to a high-plain. In the distance, waves of rock begin to rise across the horizon before you begin the exhilarating drive down into the park. It’s an epic entrance that you pay for with a 3.5 hour drive to the main section of the park, most of which is along a washboard dirt road. Luckily, halfway along the drive, there is a free primitive campground to break up the bumpy journey and enjoy a campfire under Utah’s gorgeous dark skies.
Sunset at Sunset Point Trail (pictured below left): Save this short 0.6 mile round trip trail for the end of the day when the sun lights up the sandstone cliffs in magnificent hues. Stop for a look at Gooseneck overlook where you can view a winding canyon carved out by a snaking river.
Hickman Bridge Hike (pictured below right): This 2 mile round trip trail takes you to a 133-foot natural bridge. It’s an incredible sight worth the short hike, especially if you aren’t going to Arches National Park on the same trip.
Cathedral Valley and Temple of the Sun (pictured below): Leave civilization behind for a day or two and view some awe-inspiring and otherworldly looking landscapes in the northern reaches of the Waterpocket Fold. The road leading into Cathedral Valley is a lightly trafficked, unsealed 57.6 mile (92.7km) drive which takes approximately 9 hours round trip. That’s excluding stops at viewpoints or hikes. It’s a long journey so arrive prepared with a full tank of gas, plenty of water and food supplies.
To make the drive you need a high clearance vehicle as you must ford a shallow river to begin the drive. After several hours in the car, you arrive at Cathedral Valley. It’s an impressive sight not just because of the long build-up, but because it’s like a scene out of a Star Wars film. There is a primitive campground here which you can use to break up the drive, explore the area’s trails and enjoy the stars. In the valley are two incredibly large monoliths worth stopping at - the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon.
Note: The Cathedral Valley loop road is open year-round, but be sure to check-in at the visitor centre for current road conditions. Some sections of the road are clay which becomes very difficult to drive on when wet. Because the road has very little traffic, be prepared for unexpected delays with extra fuel, food and water as it could be several hours or days until you receive assistance.
Arches National Park (0.5 - 1 day)
Just five minutes north of the outdoor adventure destination of Moab, lies a wonderland of over 2,000 natural arches. The concentration of natural arches formed here as a result of millions of years of rare geological conditions. The lengthy process of which is masterfully summarized in the beautiful visitor centre at the park’s entrance.
Despite being so widely known, the park is actually quite small in comparison to other Utah parks and only has twenty miles of paved roads. It is so easy to explore that many visitors only spend a couple of hours here. We recommend taking your time and enjoying the sights and trails over a full day.
Arches National Park Highlights
The park's most photographed attraction and a state symbol, the 52-foot high Delicate Arch frames a stunning view of the snow covered La Saal Mountains in the distance. Climbing the Delicate Arch Trail takes you right up to the arch itself for the most popular place in the park to watch the sunset. Enjoy watching the last light of the day illuminate the arch in a deep red glow and bring flashlights for the hike back down.
Hike details: 3 miles, 613 feet elevation gain, moderate, 2 - 3 hours.
Note: This is not a short “lookout” walk and should be completed with proper footwear, sun protection and plenty of water.
Landscape Arch is the largest natural arch on the planet, but not for long. This long, thin and fragile arch has dropped pieces as large as cars in the last few centuries. To hike the Landscape Arch trail, begin at the Devils Garden trailhead.
Hike details: 1.6 miles, 259 feet elevation, easy, 30-45 minutes.
An easy, 0.5-mile path leads to Double Arch where the roof of a wedge-shaped arch has caved in to create an enormous skylight that many visitors use as a spot to take photographs.
This section of the park is named for the golden late afternoon glow that lights up the high-walled labyrinth of narrow canyons. It is strongly recommended that hikers enter on a ranger-led guided hike as there are dangerous drop-offs and it is often difficult to find the trail.
Canyonlands National Park (0.5 - 1 day)
Canyonlands is located close to Arches making it a convenient stop during your time in Moab. The park is split into two parts. In the north, the Island in the Sky section lies about a 40 minute drive from Moab. 15 miles south, but a 137 mile drive, lies the smaller, more remote and much quieter Needles section.
From the high vantage points in the Island in the Sky you can gaze below across a large dramatic desert landscape that has been feverishly carved out by the Colorado River. On our trip we had recently visited the Grand Canyon and felt it lent a similar sensation. We therefore recommend leaving this park off your itinerary if you are going to the Grand Canyon on the same trip and are limited on time.
In the Needles, most of the highlights can only be accessed with a four-wheel drive. There are a couple shorter day hikes accessible on paved roads, but they do not provide the impressive effort to reward ratio found in the Island in the Sky. These trails only give you a view of the namesake sandstone spires from a significant distance. To get close to the Needles you have to hike in on long backcountry trails. So unless you have a 4WD vehicle or time to hike deep into the Needles, we would recommend skipping this section.
Canyonlands National Park Highlights
Island in the Sky
Overlooks along the rim give panoramic views of the expansive canyons below, which are best viewed in the early morning and late afternoon light. There are several pulls off to admire the views and a few short trails to enjoy dramatic vistas. Our favourites were the Green River Overlook, Grand View Trail and Mesa Arch.
You can gain a new perspective of the landscape and enter the canyons on a jeep tour. The tours start at around $100 per person and take you into the canyons for anywhere between a few hours and a few days.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Although not technically in Canyonlands National Park, this State Park is a literal step off the road into Canyonlands and gives another beautiful view of the work of the Colorado River. Where the views from Island of the Sky are almost bird’s eye-like, here you can get much closer to the river and the twists and turns of the canyon. There are covered picnic shelters right along the canyon rim and walking trails to explore different views. This state park is also popular for mountain biking with over 16 miles of trails. Moab has several rental shops to get bikes and racks too if you need one.
So how much time do you really need?
In total, seeing all five parks on a round trip from Las Vegas would be about 1000 miles of driving, or 16 hours. If you add up the minimum time we recommended at each park, 4 days really isn’t enough to cover this much ground. This would mean long days skimming the surface of each park after rushing the drive between them all. On a comfortable timeline, it would take about 10 days to see all five parks (but of course you could go for longer). No matter how much time you have for your trip, the best way to enjoy Utah is to pick and choose the highlights you really want to see and do them well.
We have created a map that we hope will help visualize the location of each park, as well as what may be possible for your trip (given the starting and ending location. If you have any questions, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org as we are always happy to provide additional information!
Important Utah Travel Tips
Utah’s beautiful landscape is also extremely dangerous. Please be very careful when exploring and keep the following dangers in mind:
Heat: In the summer months (June to August) the temperatures can rise over 100F (37C). As most of Utah’s landscape is very rocky, there are very few trees to provide shelter from the sun. When walking on the trails, the rocks reflect the heat onto you making the ambient temperature feel even hotter. Dehydration and heat exhaustion are both major risks when exploring Utah’s national parks. During our travels through Utah in May it was over 100F most days (particularly in Moab) so we explored the parks from 7 am - 11 am and 4 pm - 8 pm which helped us avoid exposure to the hottest part of the day.
Water: Following the last point, always bring extra water with you as dehydration is the number one reason people have to get rescued. On a hot day, dehydration and sun exposure can cause you to become disoriented, increasing the risk of losing the trail. Most trails are on slick rock, so there are no footprints to follow making it very easy to mistakenly step off the trail and get lost. It is also harder to orient yourself with landmarks as your surroundings are often only rocks. Keep hydrated and always pack along extra water. We also regularly drank Gatorade to help our bodies ward off dehydration and evening headaches.
Slot Canyons: When the land’s surface is covered in rock, water is not able to seep into the ground like it can with soil. Instead, the water carves out a path of least resistance through the rock. Over time this becomes a deep and narrow canyon called a slot canyon. While slot canyons are beautiful to explore, they can be extremely dangerous. Even if a rainstorm passes overhead 100 miles away, the water can quickly collect and travel to the mouth of the canyon where is it forced through the narrow opening with intense force at incredible speed. In a matter of seconds, water can fill the slot canyon leaving you no time to escape. Always check with a local guide, or information center to find out if it is safe to enter a slot canyon.
Road Closures: Check road conditions and closures. Flash flooding can leave an area open one day and closed the next. National Park websites are always updated, and it is imperative to respect the closures to avoid getting stranded in a remote area.