Utah national parks are amongst the most beautiful in the United States. Travel through Utah parks offer not only breath taking beauty, but you will enjoy some of the best hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking in the world. If you enjoy connecting with nature, there are beautiful places for camping. Maybe you prefer to be pampered in any one of Utah’s national parks lodges and spas. There are five national parks in Utah, known as the “Mighty Five”. Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands.
All offer spectacular views and endless options for adventures. Whether you are a baby boomer, a family with children or you are young and looking for a thrill, you will find what ever you are looking for in Utah national parks, the Mighty Five.
The sandstone canyons of Zion National Park were carved out eons ago by what is today known as the Virgin River. What was left behind is some of the most spectacular scenery you will ever see. You will feed your soul in Zion as you take in the monolithic red and coral cliffs on either side of the canyon with their changing colors, from sunrise to sunset.
I have done a lot of camping, but the Watchman campground is one of my favorites. To wake up in the morning to the glow of the sun shining on the pink sandstone, the blue sky, quaking aspens and the smell of breakfast in the air, well there is simply nothing quite like the feelings that come with that.
Watchman is situated along the Virgin River, so in the summer when it can be quite warm you can cool off in the cool water.
There is also South Campground in Zion and the Lava Point Campground located about 1 hour outside of Zion canyon. Campgrounds uusally fill up by mid morning and they are almost full every night mid March through November. Reservations for Watchman can be made and it is highly recommended so you won’t be disappointed.
You have options to tent camp or bring in a recreational vehicle. There are electrical hookups and public restrooms. Showers are pay. There are several camp sites for large groups.
There is a beautiful lodge within Zion’s canyon walls, of course, Zion Lodge. You can stay in a cabin with a fireplace or you can have more of a trditional hotel room or a suite. The grounds are beautiful, many hiking trails begin right off the property.
The little town of Springdale is just outside the entrance to Zion and you will find a selection of hotels there.
There is hiking for ever levels of skill. There are hikes you can complete in 30 mins, or hikes that will take you the entire day. There are hikes that are more like walks, like the River Walk leading up to the entrance of the Narrows. On that walk/hike, just about anyone can enjoy that beauty. Strolls, wheelchairs, it’s beautiful, but quite easy. Just catch the shuttle to the top.
Then there is the mother of all hikes which we will take you to the top of the canyon, with a gorgeous overlook…..Angel’s Landing.
All of the hiking trails are very well maintained. Wear very comfortable hiking shoes, start early in the morning, particularly on longer hikes to avoid the heat of the day and carry plenty of water.
Zion has numerous climbs for all levels of expertise. There are grade IV & V entry level climbs like the Prodigal Son, Touchstone and Moonlight Buttress. There is also plenty to do for those who are really looking for a challenge. Long routes and short if you don’t have a lot of time. With a total of 274 climbs, you have lots of choices.
The Narrows is my favorite, but then I’m partial, because I actually completed it, going 8 miles round trip. It is a gorgeous hike through the waters of the Virgin River.
The Narrows rates from easy to strenuous. The further up into the sand stone slot canyon you go, the deeper the water and the more difficult it becomes. The nice thing about the Narrows is that it is beautiful all the way. When it becomes to difficult you can turn around and go back.
You do need to have good ankles and knees because not only will you be walking through the water, but you will be walking over rocks the size of baseballs and bowling balls, pretty much the whole way.
Be sure to head the warning signs regarding possible thunder storms, even if it doesn’t look like rain to you. Flash floods are a real possibility, they do happen and people have lost their lives ignoring the warning.
We rented special boots at the campground. I highly recommend them. We saw people wearing nothing on their feet to flip flops and Mary Jane shoes. They didn’t get that far so if you want to go far into the canyon, wear good shoes.
Be prepared to get wet. You will to one degree or another. Have cameras in waterproof cases, a ziplock bag will work in some cases. Several from our group lost their footing and fell in, even though we were only thigh high at the most, but the water was moving, so it’s easy to lose your footing.
If you don’t have a walking stick, good idea to have one. I had two and I don’t think I would have made it without them. They had sharp point that I was able to firmly plant between the rocks. If there are any left, you can borrow a walking stick at the same place as you get the boots. The walking sticks are free.
If you feel you can do it, it is so worth it. We made it about 25 mins beyond Wall Street. Not to far after that, it was waste high water, then chest high and then you had to swim.
Don’t push yourself to far thinking the trip back will be easy. It’s not. It’s almost as difficult because you are dealing with moving water at all times and sometimes it’s deeper and rushing. For some reason we all agreed it seemed to appear deeper on the way back down.
This trail is the most thrilling of them all. I have never been because I detest edges, especially when they are very high up. Angel’s Landing is just that. But I do have friends who haved done it. One of them was 64 years of age at the time of his climb. So if you are in good health and have the stamina to make the 5 mile hike with an elevation gain of 1488 feet, then do it. It will take you about 5-6 hrs, so start very early in the morning to avoid the heat.
Bryce Canyon is know for it’s hoodoos. This is the largest collection of hoodos in one place. Photographs are beautiful, but they can not do Bryce justice. The wind and water of time have shaped these eerie sandstone sculptures. It’s as if they are standing guard. Red, orange and white towers offer an exceptional view from above.
There are a couple of nice campgrounds to chose from at Bryce. The North Campground is close to the visitor center, Bryce Lodge and the reason you are there, the Bryce Canyon amphitheater. There is sun to warm you and plenty of shade thanks to the Ponderosa pines. They have both RV sites and camping sites. The campground fills up by late afternoon so don’t plan on coming in late and getting a spot. You can make reservations for the RV spots.
Sunset Campground is about 1.5 miles from the parks visitor center. You will get equal parks sun and shade courtesy of those beautiful Ponderosa pines that surround the campground. During the summer there is a laundry facility and showers.
There are several hiking trails in Bryce, most originating from the rim. The easiest is the Rim Trail, with a gain of just 200 feet, spanning the rim of the amphitheater of hoodoos. You will be shuttled back to the parking lot at the end of the trail if you choose.
The Mossy Cave Trail takes you down into the amphitheater for a close up of the hoodoos. You will decend 1000 feet to the bottom following a stream. There you will see a grotto, with hanging moss in the warmer months and icecicles in the winter.
The Navajo Loop Trail is the most popular of Bryce’s hiking trails. You will decend through Wall Street, passing the Silent City. It is 800 feet down one side and about 800 feet back up the other side.
It’s a good idea to start early before the afternoon heat, wear comfortable shoes especially on the longer hikes, wear sunscreen and have enough water. Remember the humidity is very low and it’s easy to become dehydrated.
Inside of Bryce Canyon bikes are only allowed on paved roads. There are several trails nearby for some spectacular mountain biking, both single and double track trails.
Dave’s Hollow is a double track trail. If you take the whole loop it is 12 miles through towering pines and meadows.
Casto Canyon is a 17 mile one way trail, passing incredible rock formations. The ride starts along Hwy 12 and ends on it too. You may want to catch a shuttle on the way back. Those are offered by Ruby’s Inn.
There is also Skunk & Badger, a moderate to advanced 18 mile loop. Thunder Mountain is a technical single track taking you 7.8 miles.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is the lessor visited national parks in Utah when compared with Zion and Bryce. But don’t let that deter you. Capitol Reef is vast and another world unto itself. You can explore beautifully colored cliffs, magnificent canyons, enormous domes and some of the most beautiful sandstone arches the world has ever seen.
Because of it’s vastness, you will need to put in a bit more effort to see the beautiful sites that Capitol Reef has to offer. The plus is that if you are looking to avoid the crowds, this is where you want to be. There are great trails and excellent camping sites.
Capitol Reef Camping
Wonderland RV Park and Campground is located just outside of Capitol Reef. All of the sites have grass and shade. Full hookups, sparkling clean restrooms and showers & laundry. There are pull through and back in sites. Tent sites and some cabins. Free wifi and cable TV.
Thousand Lakes RV Park and Camground is 6 miles outside of the Capitol Reef National Park. They offer a full range of accomadations, pull throughs, tent site and cabins that will sleep up to 6 people. There is a covered pavillion with tables for gatherings. They have special touches like muffins in the morning, pool, playground and even a western cookout. All of that PLUS incredible views.
There are more than a dozen hiking trails that are easily accessed from the scenic drive that runs through Capitol Reef and off of SR 24. There are hikes for families with children and those for those looking for a more strenuous challenge. There are even some overnight backpacking trails.
Sulfer Creek trail is one that I have been on. It’s a 5 mile hike, but relatively easy. You will walk through a stunning slot canyon carved through the red sand stone.
Hickman Bridge and Navajo Knobs give you three options. You choose the time you have and how difficult of a hike you would like it to be. You can take the 1.8 mile Hickman Bridge hike that will take about 1.5 hrs. There is the Rim Overlook, that you can complete in about 3-4 hours. Then there is the 9.4 mile hike to Navajo Knobs that will take about 6-8 hours.
There is the Grand Wash hike which is fairly easy, with an elevation change of just 200 feet and about 2.2 miles. You can continue on into Cohab, to the Frying Pan and Cassidy Arch, both of these becoming a bit more difficult.
Other hiking options are various other slot canyons, the Lower Muley Twist Canyon, slick Rock trail which is very long at 25 miles and the Boulder Top Trails
Arches National Park
Arches is conveniently located in close proximity to Moab. Arches is known for sandstone monoliths, delicate arches and mountains with windows. There are 2000 arches with names inside of the park. On average these arches fall at the rate of one per year. Sandstone is constantly changing with the wind and rain, so use caution, speak softly and tread lightly.
Moab is a mountain bikers mecca. But it’s not just bikers who flock to Moab. The surrounding areas of Moab offer hiking, river rafting, and four wheeling too. Spend the day with your outdoor activities and your evening getting a massage, a pizza or enjoying Moab’s fine dining options.
There are 24 BLM maintained campgrounds in the Moab area and one campground inside of Arches National Park, Devils Garden Campground. Open year around, there are 50 camp sites, and 2 group sites. Reservations are a very good idea especially in peak season.
There are quite a few privately owned campgrounds in the area too.
There are lots of hotels and motels to chose from. All price points are available. For more information on lodging in Moab, I would recommend looking at this accomadations list.
For those of all hiking abilities there is a plethora of hiking trails. Trails that wander all through the area giving you an up close look at all of the sandstone arches. If you are really motivated you could see all of the 2000 arches in a 2-3 days.
Moab is one of the premier mountain biking locations in the world. No matter what your skill level, there are nearly endless biking trails. The top 3 biking areas are Slick Rock which includes Spanish Valley and Sand Flats. Amaska Back Area and Gemini Bridges and Beyond.
Slick Rock Trail is 10 miles of Difficult riding. Pipe Dream is almost 5 miles and is also rated as Difficult. Prospector is Intermediate to Difficult, about 1.5 miles.
Within the Amasa Back Area there are 6 main trails, ranging from Intermediate to Difficult and 3 trails that are Technical.
Gemini Bridges Road and Beyond has 11 trails and roads that are good for 4 X 4s too. Ratings start with Easy through Difficult. Some trails you will need to be shuttled to and from. All around great fun!
The surrounding area of Arches National Park provide some great river rafting. There are several river rafting companies to chose from.
Canyonlands National Park is raw adventure. No frills here, but the beauty and adventure oppurtunities will invigorate your soul. Deep canyons carved into red sandstone, walking paths no wider than your body. Cliffs that drop off so far it will take your breathe away leaving you feeling is if you are standing on the edge of the world.
Camping & Lodging
There are no hotels or eating facilities inside of Canyonlands National Park. There are 2 campgrounds, one at the Needles and the other the Island in the Sky. Both of these campgrounds have limited services, no hookups.
There is plenty of lodging in Moab, look again at Arches National Park above.
The entrance to Canyonlands is about 30 mins from Moab. All of your services would be best accessed there. Mountain biking, rafting companies will all be found there.
Utah’s national parks will make their way into your soul, you will always go back, time and again.