It may be Mormons that first come to mind when you think of Utah, but for travelers like me the state is synonymous with national parks. Discover Utah’s Mighty 5, as they’re known, and wonder at the incredible forces of nature. The sacrifice of getting up at dawn to catch the sunrise is worth it; as are the beads of sweat that will inevitably fall off your forehead when hiking one of the numerous trails.
A day hike through the incredible desert landscape opens up to massive rock formations and towering stone spires. When night falls, simply look up to the sky and soak up the stars. Gather family or friends and discover Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks, a road adventure that’ll stick in your memory for a lifetime.
Arches National Park
In your quest to discover Utah’s Mighty 5, the first place you’ll likely end up is Arches National Park. The name comes from the vast number of arches (over 2,000), with the Delicate Arch the most iconic. Get here before sunrise and see the rays break through the arches that serve as natural frames.
However, it’s at sundown that this majestic place shines. Striking colors of red, orange, yellow and brown gets reflected across the stones, as if the sun is painting its own canvas.
Between sunrise and sunset, you’ll find plenty to do. Hiking is the obvious choice with plenty of trails that lead to spectacular discoveries. The hike to Delicate Arch is an arduous 1.5 miles each way. Bring plenty of water and comfortable hiking shoes. If possible, try to avoid the midday heat, as shaded areas are few and far between.
The Fiery Furnace is another popular hike within the park. It requires a special permit or a guided ranger tour. The latter is available from May through September and costs $16 for adults. There is a daily cap on the number of visitors that go on this hike, so be sure to reserve in advance.
Canyonlands National Park
Only a 20-minute drive from Moab, Utah, Canyonlands National Park is a haven for hikers and bikers. The park, which is divided into four districts, features a rugged landscape filled with mesas, buttes and spires. It’s deceptively large, requiring anywhere from two to six hours by car to get from one district to another.
The most-visited area is the Island in the Sky section. Not only is it close to Moab, it houses the Mesa Arch. The view from its overlook showcases a stunning panorama that’s guaranteed to take your breath away.
Before driving your rental campervan back to Moab, stop by Dead Horse Point State Park. Its jaw-dropping vertical cliffs were carved by wind, water and ice and are some of the most incredible sights you’ll see. There’s a $20 fee per vehicle and it’s worth every penny!
Capitol Reef National Park
There’s no denying that Capitol Reef National Park is one to be reckoned with. The park, with its seemingly endless landscape of colored cliffs, hidden arches, massive domes, and deep canyons seem untarnished. If you’re looking for some peace and solitude, this is the place to be.
Compared to Utah’s other national and state parks, Capitol Reef sees far fewer visitors. This is due to its location in what one can refer to as the middle of nowhere, but don’t let that small wrinkle discourage you. If you want to discover Utah’s Mighty 5, you must stop here.
Its unique geological feature, the Waterpocket Fold, is reason enough to visit and camp, but it’s really the Cathedral Valley district that’ll blow your socks off. Be sure to stop by the orchards if they’re open for picking when you visit.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Imagine yourself staring at thousands of giant stone needles that seem to grow out of the ground. That’s what you’ll come across at Bryce Canyon National Park. These hoodoos are what draw millions of visitors from all over the world and are some of the most fascinating geological formations anywhere.
Visitors to Bryce Canyon can take advantage of the free shuttle service that includes 13 stops at some of the park’s most popular areas of interest and viewpoints. It runs daily from April to October. If you want to explore deeper into the park however, go on a hike. Bryce Canyon has one for every skill level.
A couple of the popular day hikes include the 11-mile round trip Rim Trail, considered easy but including steep elevation; and Tower Bridge Trail, where you’ll get an opportunity to be up close and personal with Bristlecone pines, the oldest trees in the world.
It’s highly recommended to spend the night at the adjacent town of Bryce in order to catch the sunrise at the park. The accommodation options are limited, but adequate for an overnight stay. If you’re renting an RV, Bryce Canyon offers two campgrounds and charges $30 per night.
Zion National Park
There’s something special about Zion National Park. Apart from being the state’s first national park, it also holds an archeological history like no other. The area’s first peoples have been known to traverse these very lands as far back as 10,000 years ago. Their legacy lay deep within the stones and is carefully curated within the Human History Museum that stands near the park’s visitor center.
Zion likely tops the list for many travelers just beginning to discover Utah’s Mighty 5. Its varied landscapes include verdant valleys and red-stoned cliffs. It also offers a number of activities especially for the adventurous, with canyoneering, hiking, and rock climbing just to name a few. And if you find yourself camping for the night in the park, don’t miss the opportunity to stargaze. It’s one magical place to be.