Utah’s Mighty 5: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands & Capitol Reef

Story and photos by Dave Stamboulis

Utah may boast the American West’s most diverse topography, ranging from snowy peaks and alpine forests to magnificent canyons, high desert scenery, slickrock mesas and a wealth of outdoor opportunities awaiting intrepid adventurers, from hiking through the escarpments of Paria Canyon to scrambling through slot canyons like Buckskin Gulch – or being lucky enough to get a lottery permit to go visit the psychedelic colors and formations of the famed “Wave.” Utah also happens to have five of the most stunning national parks in the United States.

Zion National Park

Zion was Utah’s first national park, and also tends to be its most crowded, for obvious reasons. Visitors come here to wade ankle-to-chest deep through the famous Narrows, a series of slot canyons that follow the Virgin River through classic colorful Utah canyon scenery. Even better, if you’ve got a head for heights, spend the day hiking up to Angels Landing, which climbs a spine 1,488 feet above the canyon floor, giving stupendous views of the entire park and surroundings. The final section of Angels Landing is exposed and there are chains and cables to guide hikers, so you’ll want to be sure-footed here. For families, strolling to the Emerald Pools near Zion Lodge is a relaxing way to take in some gorgeous scenery without too much exertion. Note that permits are required for the Angels Landing hike and you’ll need to check the weather forecast and water level before venturing into the Narrows (pictured below).

Bryce Canyon National Park

I first went to Bryce as a teenager with my family, and like so many others, we parked at the rim, walked out to the viewpoint, and then my jaw just dropped. Below me was a canyon filled with hoodoos, skinny rock spires sculpted by erosion ranging in every pigment of magenta, pink, red and crimson imaginable. Bryce feels like an outdoor lovers’ Disneyland and you’ll want to just run down the maze of trails into the magical valleys below, although like the Grand Canyon, remember that the hardest part of hiking here comes last, as you have to climb back up. There’s a lovely Rim Trail that gives all sorts of angles and takes you out to the aptly named Sunset or Sunrise Points, but the Fairyland or Navajo Loop trails will take you down into the canyon past spectacular hoodoos with evocative names such as Thor’s Hammer or Wall Street. If you are lucky enough to be in Bryce on a late fall day when the first snow falls, it’s pretty magical, with the colorful hoodoos topped by a dusting of white powder.

Arches National Park

Arches is perhaps Utah’s most iconic park, noted for its over-2,000 sandstone arches, best appreciated in the early morning and late afternoon, partially to avoid the intense midday sun and heat, but also to see the superb orange hues as the arch formations light up. Delicate Arch is the top draw here, a 50-foot freestanding arch which is the symbol of the state of Utah, found on its license plates, and the 3-mile roundtrip hike here draws photographers and nature lovers from around the world. Other spots to check out are the North and South Window, two arches where you can look through to the desert landscape below. Famed environmental activist and author Edward Abbey spent two seasons as a park ranger in Arches, and his experience here inspired him to write Desert Solitaire, one of the best reads you’ll come across about this part of the West. An added bonus is that Arches is near Moab, Utah’s top outdoor resort town, making it possible to pair red rock adventures with craft beer and stylish accommodation.

Canyonlands National Park

You’re going to have to work hard if you really want to explore the Canyonlands, but if you want to see some of the West’s most hidden and wild scenery, 337,000 acres of canyons, mesas, buttes, arches and spires that will leave you in eternal awe, make the effort to get to some of this huge park’s different zones. You can explore the park by boat in the Rivers area, rafting on the Green or Colorado rivers, you can hike or 4-wheel it into the Needles backcountry area, or even rappel into the Maze, where you’ll need a map, compass and the skills for negotiating steep slickrock and canyons. For something a bit easier, visit the most accessible part of the park, Islands in the Sky, where you can drive to the amazing Mesa Arch, a pothole arch that gives a window view out into the vastness of the Canyonlands, and is noted for its underside lighting up right at sunrise. You can even see the La Sal Mountains in the distance from here, fronted by 500-foot high Washer Woman Arch and nearby Monster Tower, part of the colorful sandstone features that make up this spectacular place.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef is Utah’s least visited or known national park, and most visitors just pass through on their way to the others. Here you will find golden sandstone, unique rock formations, vermillion cliffs and natural bridges, many of which you’ll have mostly to yourself, which cannot be said of Utah’s other national parks. The park sits on a 100-mile geologic wrinkle of the earth (known as a monocline) called the Waterpocket Fold. The Fruita District of the park has 15 day-hiking trails that range from high cliffs to twisting gorges. For more serious backpacking, head to the remote areas of Cathedral Valley or wade or even swim through the colorful canyon of Sulphur Creek.

Spring and fall are the best times to explore all of these national parks, with fall visits offering bright yellow cottonwood and aspen tree leaves contrasted against the red sandstone cliffs, glowing arches and striking rock and hoodoo formations.