For most travelers, a visit to just one of our nation’s 59 national parks is considered a trip of a lifetime. Now imagine multiplying that feeling by five! And not just any five national parks; Utah’s Mighty 5: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. This cluster of American natural treasures located in southern Utah features ancient and awe-inspiring red rock formations, epic towers, colossal landforms, other-worldly geological landscapes, enormous monoliths, stunning vistas and natural scenery all around. The Mighty 5 region is also world-renowned for its nightlife, as it is an excellent area to enjoy the peacefulness, tranquility and calm of some of the world’s darkest skies, perfect for stargazing and viewing the moon, constellations and other celestial bodies.
Given all that these enchanting national parks have to offer the modern-day traveler, a visit to one is sure to be unforgettable. In fact, the Utah Office of Tourism website created “The Best Week of Your Life Itinerary,” which includes stops at all five national parks, and provides travelers with fun and incredible views, experiences and places to visit while road tripping between these spectacular national parks.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park contains hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, giant balanced rocks and more than 2,000 natural stone arches, including Delicate Arch, which is one of Utah's most iconic features and accessible to visitors via a 1.5-mile hike. Other easy hikes that are available in Arches include the Park Avenue Trail and trails in the Windows Section of the park. Experienced hikers can enjoy some of the longer trails in the park, such as Double O Arch, Tower Arch and Landscape Arch.
On your way to Arches National Park, be sure to check out some of the area’s other great sites, including Castle Creek Winery, which is located on a historic working ranch and produces more than 30 award-winning wines. Also, while not as well-known to visitors as Arches, Dead Horse Point State Park boasts many trails for hikers to enjoy the views and surroundings, including a 2,000-foot drop to the Colorado River. For a true outdoorsy experience and the chance to enjoy Utah’s geologically rich desert landscape, stay at Moab Under Canvas, which is located near the entrance to both Arches and Canyonlands national parks. It features tent and tipi suites with separate bedroom and lounge areas, and wood-burning stoves.
Canyonlands National Park
Consisting of 337,598 acres of land, Canyonlands National Park is Utah's largest national park. It boasts dizzying views thousands of feet down into deep gorges carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers, and views soaring thousands of feet up to red rock pinnacles, cliffs and spires. The park includes four districts—Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze and the rivers themselves. While these districts all share a common primitive desert environment, each has its own character and interesting features. Island in the Sky is the most accessible district, and offers expansive views from many overlooks, as well as several hikes. The Needles offers more of a backcountry experience, requiring some hiking or four-wheel driving. The Maze is a remote district that requires more time and planning to see the attractions, and the Green or Colorado rivers offer unique ways to experience the park.
On your way to Canyonlands, check out the Hole N” The Rock, which is a 5,000-square-foot home carved out of a huge rock in Utah’s Canyonlands Country. It features a unique gift shop and trading post, as well as an exotic zoo, the largest collection of Lyle Nichols metal sculptures, antiques, Native American pottery and jewelry and a general store. Visit Goblin Valley State Park to see the sandstone goblins and formations that are often compared to Mars. And don’t forget to stop by Moab Brewery for one of its hand-crafted ales, such as the popular Dead Horse Ale, which takes its name from a scenic overlook near Canyonlands National Park.
Capitol Reef National Park
Extending nearly 100 miles, Capitol Reef National Park is filled with cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geological “wrinkle” on the earth. Sandstone formations; rock art petroglyphs of the early indigenous people of the Fremont Culture; and large fruit orchards of Fruita, an early pioneer settlement contribute to this park’s rich cultural history. Capitol Reef is a hiker’s dream, with 15 day-hiking trails, and many options for serious backcountry hiking excursions.
The road to Capitol Reef National Park from Canyonlands is chock-full of beautiful places to see and great places to visit. Located just west of Capitol Reef is Boulder Mountain. Here, you can find more than 50,000 acres of forest and meadowlands on top of the steep slopes and cliffs located inside of Dixie National Forest. It boasts more than 50 fishable lakes, and the highest timbered plateau in North America is located here. Also be sure to check out Anasazi State Park Museum, which features an Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) village that was likely occupied from A.D. 1050 to 1200. Visitors can tour a life-sized replica of an ancient dwelling and check out artifacts excavated from the original site.
If you need accommodations while on the road to Capitol Reef, consider staying at Cougar Ridge Lodge, which boasts a cozy, rustic cabin design and offers a range of activities, like guided hikes, hunting, fishing, woodworking, stone carving, bowling, indoor golfing and more. In addition, Kiva Koffeehouse is a great option for travelers in need of homemade food, gourmet coffee and even an overnight stay, as it has two 700-square-foot cottages, each complete with a jetted tub, fireplace and spectacular views.
Speaking of food, for a true sustainable farm-to-table experience, visit Hell’s Backbone Grill in Boulder, Utah. Guided by the principles of organic farming, sustainability and Buddhist values of right livelihood, the restaurant’s farm utilizes techniques such as companion planting and relocation and weeding by hand (or by the mouths of two rescue goats). What’s more, the vegetables, herbs and flowers are all used in the restaurant (or are frozen, dried and canned for future use).
Bryce Canyon National Park
From Capitol Reef, head to Bryce Canyon National Park, which is known as Hoodoo Country because it features the largest collection of hoodoos (odd-shaped pillars of rock left standing from the forces of erosion) in the world. The rim at Bryce Canyon ranges from 8,000 to 9,000 feet, and its pink cliffs and brilliant hues offer an incredible experience. Plan to hike one of the many trails at the park, and be sure to take advantage of the National Park Services’ Dark Rangers program, in which park rangers and volunteer astronomers conduct a night sky program, which includes a one-hour multimedia show followed by 90 minutes of stargazing with telescopes.
There’s more outdoor fun on the road to Bryce Canyon. Skiers of all levels can enjoy the trails at Brian Head Resort, which offers beautiful views of Utah’s red rock country, and when the snow melts, the trails are open for mountain bikers. A stop at Cedar Breaks National Monument is also worthwhile for its hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping and views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” A ride along Scenic Byway 12, which is considered one of the most beautiful drives in Utah and spans 124 miles, provides a glimpse of some of the most remote and rugged landscapes in the state.
Zion National Park
Zion is Utah’s most visited national park, welcoming more than three million visitors in 2012. It offers some of the best hiking in the state for visitors of all abilities, and its sweeping vistas, natural arches and soaring sandstone cliffs of cream, pink and red provide an unforgettable experience. Some of the popular easy hikes include the Pa’rus Trail and the Riverside Walk, as well as the Emerald Pools Trails, the Weeping Rock Trail and the Canyon Overlook Trail. Experienced hikers can tackle the Hidden Canyon, Observation Point and Taylor Creek Trails.
Traveling to Zion National Park is fun and beautiful, too. Stop by the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which offers great hiking trails, especially the Spooky Gulch and Peek-a-boo trails, which are ideal for beginner to intermediate hikers in the Escalante Canyons section. More advanced hikes and climbs can be found in the Grand Staircase portion. Also consider exploring the trails and dunes surrounded by ancient lava flows and red Navajo sandstone at Snow Canyon State Park, and Sand Hollow State Park, which is the newest state park in Utah, and also one of the most visited because of its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape. If you are in need of overnight accommodations, Red Mountain Resort is a solid choice for a relaxing stay. Another worthwhile stop is a tour through Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, which is home to approximately 1,700 rescue animals.
With so many amazing things to do and see in Utah’s Mighty 5 region, it’s no wonder many travelers have this trip through these impressive and beautiful national parks on their itinerary. And once you cross off the Mighty 5 from your bucket list, make sure to visit the best national parks in California!