Top 5 National Parks in Utah

Jenn Martin
The Subway Pool at Zion National Park
The Subway at Zion National Park

The plunging canyons and red rock cliffs of Utah attract outdoor enthusiasts the world over, and the state's most famous national parks have collectively been dubbed The Mighty 5®. Thanks to their stunning geology and unique outdoor adventures, all five come highly recommended by numerous sources, including National Geographic, the Guardian and Lonely Planet.

Utah's Mighty 5 National Parks

Zion National Park

Zion is the first name in Utah National Parks (literally - it was the first national park in Utah). Known for its steep red cliffs and unique geological features such as the Subway, this park draws three million visitors annually. While a private website dedicated to the park claims that seasoned travelers find Zion to be particularly "user-friendly," the National Parks Service claims that planning a trip to and visiting the park can be difficult. Be sure to research what's involved in visiting Zion before planning a trip.

Zion can be reached conveniently from Las Vegas (2.5 hours) and Salt Lake City (4 hours), and its frequent, free and easy-to-use shuttle system transport guests from the nearby town of Springdale and throughout the park itself. Zion Lodge offers motel rooms and cabins inside the park and is home to the Red Rock Grill Dining Room. Those intending to camp can choose from Lava Point, Watchmen Campground or South Campground.

Key Zion Features:

  • Geology: Zion's popular Grand Staircase reveals the park's remarkable geology with exposed rock layers that have been formed over billions of years.
  • Ranger tours: Free tours put on by the knowledgeable and passionate park rangers can take the form of walks, talks or bus trips. Ranger tours are conducted daily and fill up quickly.
  • Unique outdoor activities: In addition to simple hiking trails, Zion offers climbing and canyoneering for those looking for a different kind of adventure.

Canyonlands National Park

Green River in Canyonlands National Park
Green River in Canyonlands National Park

Separated into four sections by the Colorado River, the entire expanse of Canyonlands has been carved out of Utah's renowned red rock. The four sections of the park - the Island in the Sky, the Maze, the Needles and the Rivers - can be hard to travel between because there are no roads that bypass the Green or Colorado Rivers to connect them. However, each district has a unique character and geography that contributes to the park's reputation as a must-visit Utah park.

Commercial flights operate to Grand Junction, Colorado and Salt Lake City Utah (two and four hours away from the Island of the Sky park entrance), but no public transportation runs to the park directly so visitors will require a car. Each section of the Canyonlands must be approached from a different direction, so allow for several hours of travel time. Once inside the park, visitors can camp at two campgrounds, one in the Needles and one in the Island of the Sky, but must venture outside the park for alternate accommodations and restaurants.

Key Canyonlands Features:

  • Stargazing: Thanks to its remote location, Canyonlands has been dubbed an International Dark Sky Park.
  • White water rafting: The mighty rivers of the Canyonlands provide 14 miles of Class III-V white water rafting.
  • Unique park districts: Each district offers something unique, from the desert spires of the Needles to sweeping canyon views of the Island of the Sky.

Arches National Park

Arch in Arches National Park
Arches National Park

This park has the largest concentration of stone arches in the world (numbering over 2,000), and the famous Delicate Arch is printed on Utah's license plate. The park is located in southeast Utah, five miles north of Moab. Public transportation will take visitors as far as Green River or Grand Junction, but it's recommended that visitors rent their own car and take the scenic drive north from Moab and through the park's 18-mile stretch of meandering canyons and breathtaking rock formations.

There is one campsite located inside the park (closed for the majority of the 2017 season due to road construction), but backcountry camping is also possible as long a groups secure the proper permits and camp at least one mile from the road. Additional accommodations are available at several campsites, hotels and guesthouses outside of the park in Moab.

Key Arches Features:

  • Arches: The arches themselves dominate the must-see attractions, taking seven of the top 10 spots from TripAdvisor. Make sure to stop by the Landscape Arch which, at its thinnest spot, is a mere six feet wide yet manages to span 290 feet.
  • Scenic drive: You can travel all the park's paved roads and see many of its attractions in approximately four and a half hours.
  • Photo ops: There are stunning photography opportunities, including capturing sunrise and sunset at various points throughout the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Hoodoo landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park

Just as Arches is known for its concentration of arches, Bryce Canyon is famous for its collection of hoodoos - the largest in the world. These unique pillars of rock along with the park's natural amphitheaters of stone draw 1.5 million people every year, eager to take in the park's unique scenery and explore via foot, horseback, ATV or sleigh rides (in the winter).

The major airport hubs of Las Vegas and Salt Lake City both sit about 270 miles from the park. There is no public transportation to the park so visitors are encouraged to rent a car or charter a bus for larger trips. Free shuttles operate within the park, taking visitors to the most popular points of interest. North and Sunset campgrounds service those wishing to camp inside the park, and both are located close to the Visitor's Centre and the Bryce Amphitheater. Plenty of additional lodging, including campgrounds, hotels, B&Bs and RV parks, is available in the surrounding towns.

Key Bryce Features:

  • Festivals: Bryce is home to several popular festivals, including the annual Astronomy Festival in June and the annual Bryce Canyon Geo Fest in July.
  • Sunrise/sunset viewing: Sunrise is breathtaking, and the park's spectacular sunset illuminates the park's hoodoos. Try viewing from the aptly named Sunset viewpoint.
  • The rim trail: An easy and accessible hike around the canyon's rim will give visitors a great view down into the famous Bryce formation.

Capitol Reef National Park

Sunrise in Capitol Reef
Sunrise in Capitol Reef

Utah parks seem to play in superlatives, and Capitol Reef is no exception. The park, though the most remote and least visited of the Mighty 5, is home to the Waterpocket Fold, an S-shaped rock formation that winds through the park's 100 miles and is the world's longest monocline.

The park must be reached by car (or another form of private transportation) and it can be accessed from the east/west via Interstate 70 or the north/south via Interstate 15. There are no restaurants or lodges inside the park, though the charming Gifford House sells baked goods and basic refreshments in high season (March to October). Inside the park there is one developed campground with 71 sites as well as two primitive campgrounds. There are also campgrounds, cabins and other accommodations available in Reef County.

Key Capitol Reef Features:

  • Scenic drive: Allow half a day to drive the 25-mile stretch that will lead you past the park's famous formations and many trailheads.
  • Gifford Homestead: This house reflects the pioneer spirit of the Fruita Valley with river walks, fruit orchards and the original 1908 homestead.
  • Hike the Hickman Natural Bridge: "Perhaps one of the best park walks in all of Utah" according to the Utah Office of Tourism, this hike affords great views of the park's signature white sandstone dunes.

Utah's Unique Natural Beauty

The Mighty 5 of Utah all have something that no other park does, be it the most hoodoos in the world, the longest exposed monocline or a Grand Staircase that reveals billions of years of rock layers. Each park has unique geology that is well worth the visit and makes Utah one of the most interesting places in North America for nature lovers.

Top 5 National Parks in Utah