The “Mighty Five” Utah National Parks should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef are home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the United States. They are also close enough that you can visit all five in a week or ten days
Fly into Salt Lake City, pick up your rental car and set off for your adventure. You can travel east to west or vice versa to see the parks. If you are starting your trip on a weekend, head to Moab first so you can end at Zion on a weekday.
Moab is an easy four-hour drive from Salt Lake City. The highway crosses over the Wasatch Range, through the towns of Price and Green River and into Moab. Moab has some of the best mountain biking in the world and is the gateway to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. During the summer you should make reservations in Moab as hotels and campgrounds fill up quickly.
Delicate Arch is probably the most famous landmark in Utah, but Arches National Park has thousands of arches, pinnacles, and towers rising into the sky. The sun highlights the brilliant red hues of the rocks during sunrise and sunset. Delicate Arch is quite a hike and it is all uphill. If you have a camera with a nice zoom lens, you can get a good view of it just a short walk down the paved trail before you have to start uphill. A scenic drive winds through the park, but because it is the only main road, traffic will be heavy at peak times. At least while you sit in traffic you have beautiful vistas. They also always seem to be doing road construction. Bring your patience along with your camera.
Drive back through Moab and head to Canyonlands. It is about twenty-six miles from Arches to Canyonlands. On the way, make a detour into Dead Horse Point State Park. The point rises 2,000 feet above the Colorado River and provides a stunning view of the gorge and the La Sal Mountains.
Like the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands was formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. The landscape is more open than the Grand Canyon. The canyons and buttes are more distant but they give the park a feeling of vast, emptiness. There are four distinct sections to the park but access is not contiguous and requires hours of driving. The Island in the Sky drive provides a panoramic overview of the park and is the most accessible. Mesa Arch is another iconic photography spot in the early morning.
From Canyonlands, head west to Capitol Reef. Capitol Reef is the least visited park and much less crowded. You drive through a portion of the park on UT-12 and UT-24, but it is worth taking the time to drive through the fee portion of the park. Wild turkeys roam along the river banks and ancient petroglyphs can be seen throughout the park.
Bryce Canyon is an eerie world of rock spires called “hoodoos”. Bryce has the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world. The walk along the rim of the canyon is flat and there are benches where you can sit and take in the wonder before you.
Zion can be very crowded during the summer months and on holiday weekends. The National Park Service has limited vehicle access to Zion Canyon from March through November. They do provide shuttle service, but you can expect long lines. Early spring and late fall are less busy, but you need to be mindful of the weather at the upper elevations. Snow can still be present during the spring and fall months.
The drive into Zion Canyon changes elevation giving you an opportunity to experience the varied geography of the park. The Virgin River cuts through the canyon. The Riverside Walk is wheelchair accessible and takes you up to the Virgin River Narrows. The hike to the Narrows itself is strenuous and involves wading through the river.
From Zion, it’s a three-hundred mile drive back to Salt Lake City. If you have time, detour into Cedar Breaks National Monument. There is a five-mile scenic drive through the park that highlights the sub-alpine geography of the park. Be aware that the park is at 10,000 feet so you may experience breathing problems and shortness of breath. If you are into star-gazing, the park hosts a variety of “star parties” during the summer and winter months.
Southern Utah is a unique place and the “Mighty Five” highlight the myriad geography, culture and natural beauty of the state.
Note: The entrance fees for all five parks add up to more than the cost of an annual National Park pass. You can purchase a pass at the first park. Alternatively, if you have the time, when you leave Salt Lake City, detour over to Timpanogos Cave National Monument. There is a steep uphill hike to the cave, but there is a nature trail that is not as strenuous. You can purchase a pass there.