Utah has a special place in my heart. So much so that this blog post is two years in the making.
I first visited the beehive state in 2016, only one short year after I graduated from high school, as part of an epic three week long road trip with my best friends. Then, in 2018, I returned in a different car with different friends for 10 days over spring break.
The two trips were wildly different in so many ways, but are ultimately grounded in the same awe and amazement of Utah and all of its wonders. I learned a lot about experiencing what are referred to as the “Mighty 5” National Parks, and want to share what I know so that you can also enjoy the greatest state in America.
When I visited Utah in 2016 we started in the Southwestern corner and worked our way North, East, and then back down South. This post will be organized following that itinerary, although it is possible to do the trip in reverse (which is what we did in 2018).
Zion National Park is, in my opinion, the grandest and most inspiring park in Utah. I guess you can say it is the mightiest of the Mighty 5. With its towering red walls, winding river, serpentine roads, and grassy plains, Zion consistently took my breath away. The park is also home to some of the most adventurous hikes in Utah: Angles Landing and the Narrows.
Angels Landing is a strenuous 4.8 mile hike that isn’t for the faint of heart. The easiest part of the trail consists of grueling switchbacks all the way to Scout’s Lookout, and from there the remainder of the trail turns into a scramble over slick rocks with 1,000 foot drops on either side of you. You can read more about Angels Landing in one of my earlier blog posts.
If heights aren’t your thing, then consider hiking the Narrows. Unlike Angels Landing, the Narrows hike is as easy or difficult as you make it; you can hike 2-4 miles before turning around or get a permit to do the full 16 miles. The trail takes you through the canyon via the Virgin River, so plan on sloshing through water up to your ankles with the possibility of it getting waist-deep.
While those are the two most popular hikes in Zion, there is definitely more to do in the park. Zion’s shuttle system allows you to hop on and off wherever you please, making it easy to explore every inch of the park.
Ah, Bryce Canyon. The park that looks like it belongs on Mars more than Earth.
There are so many ways to enjoy this amazing park: you can take a hike amongst the hoodoos, drive the scenic loop, or travel on horseback. The Peek-A-Boo loop is a 6 mile trail that takes you down into the canyon. Peek-A-Boo is marked as strenuous due to the elevation change, but isn’t difficult if you come prepared with proper shoes and plenty of water. While the trail was fun, nothing beats the view of the park from on top of a horse (or a mule, in my case).
If you’re lucky enough to visit Bryce Canyon during the winter or spring, you might see some snow on the ground. While it made the hiking a bit difficult, seeing the red clay covered in snow is something I’ll never forget.
Capitol Reef National Park can be a pleasant break between the other more adventurous parks. I’m sure there are difficult trails and exciting things to do in the park, but my friends and I decided to take the scenic route and use Capitol Reef as a resting point during our road trip.
The park is famous for its petroglyphs, or human-like figures painted onto the rock in approximately 600 AD. The paintings are a must see attraction in the park and most of them can be seen from the road. If you get hungry after hunting down petroglyphs, stop by Gifford Homestead. The restored farmhouse features a Natural History Association sales outlet stocked with handmade items from local artisans, but most importantly they also sell homemade ice cream and freshly baked pies.
Looking at rock art and eating comfort food is a great way to enjoy the park, but if you’re looking for more exciting things to do then consider hiking out to Cassidy Arch. The 3.5 mile moderate trail takes you to a spot where you can gaze down on an impressive arch, which will get you in the mood for the next National Park on the list.
When you think of national parks in Utah, you’re probably thinking of Arches National Park. More specifically, you probably have a picture in your mind of Delicate Arch. Ya know, the really beautiful arch that is on most Utah license plates.
Yeah. That one.
The 3 mile hike to see Delicate Arch is a piece of cake and gives you an opportunity to explore the various terrains of the park. The first time I went to Arches my friends and I slept in the parking lot in order to watch the sunrise behind the rock formation, and while it was a truly memorable experience, I wouldn’t recommend it if you value your sleep.
Arches is home to a lot of other hikes that are just as beautiful and far less crowded than Delicate Arch. I’ve visited Double Arch, the Windows, Tapestry Arch, and Broken Arch, and they were all worthwhile.
You can also do a ton of awesome climbs in Arches National Park, but I’ll talk more about that in another blog post.
Canyonlands National Park is exactly what it sounds like: a huge expanse of land full of magnificent canyons and buttes.
Two quick and easy hikes that will show you the magnitude of the park are Pothole Point and Cave Spring. Pothole Point is a 0.6 mile trail that showcases a slickrock area that is full of natural “potholes.” Cave Spring hike is a small 0.6 mile loop complete with safety ladders, cairns, and an ancient cowboy hideout.
The most popular section of the park is The Needles, an area in the southeast corner of Canyonlands that is full of tall and colorful spires.
No matter which park (or parks!) you go to, definitely try to catch a glimpse of the night sky while you’re out there. After all, half the park is after dark.
So there you have it. A comprehensive guide to Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks.
Since Utah is so amazing, there are plenty of other National Parks begging to be explored, but these 5 are the biggest and raddest. I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below and hope this post encourages you to head west.
As always, keep exploring. And if you ever need a friend to show you around the beehive state, give me a shout. I’m always looking for a reason to go back.
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me, John Miller, Paige Charlick, and Brooke Neal, and are used with permission.