Photo by jared ropelato/Shutterstock
Utah’s many national parks are full of wild and wonderful scenery.
You’ll find the best of Utah’s gravity-defying rock formations, vast and colorful canyons, and surprising water features in the state’s many public spaces.
You likely know Utah’s big-name national parks, Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef, known as the Mighty 5. But 80 percent of the state is dedicated for public use, and plenty of lesser-known monuments offer mazes of slot canyons, deposits of dinosaur fossils, and lands free of modern-day footprints. With so many parks and monuments to choose from, below are eight of Utah’s best.
More than 2,000 natural arches dot east-central Utah, an impressive number unequalled anywhere in the world. But if you’ve been to Arches National Park years ago, you haven’t seen it as it is today; the forces that shaped the landscape continue carving, elongating, and widening each formation until its inevitable collapse.
Most visitors’ first stop is Delicate Arch, the largest freestanding arch in the park. There’s a lack of shade and challenging slickrock terrain along the three-mile, round-trip hike to the solitary arch; still, expect crowds in summer—especially at sunset.
Other notable (and more accessible) landmarks include Landscape Arch, the North and South Windows, and Balanced Rock, all of which can be reached via two-mile or shorter hikes. They’re by no means unworthy of their delicate cousin—the 306-foot-long Landscape is one of the longest arches in the world.
Tip: Arches appears lifeless, but most critters here are nocturnal. Stay to stargaze from the Garden of Eden viewpoint or Balanced Rock picnic area, and the cosmos won’t be the only stars of the show.
Over four million people visit Zion National Park annually, making it the fourth-most-popular park in the 61-park system. Here in Utah’s southwest corner, the Virgin River carved through 2,000 feet of porous sandstone, forming a canyon so grand it needed a name equally majestic: In Hebrew, “Zion” means “promised land.”
The 2.7-mile vertiginous hike to Angels Landing isn’t for everyone, but if you make it to the top, the awe-inspiring view makes it clear why paradisiacal names pervade in this rugged wilderness of vertical walls painted in oranges, reds, and greens. Less dramatic hikes to The Narrows via Riverside Walk or the Upper and Lower Emerald Pools are similarly memorable.
The seasons drastically change Zion’s landscape; cottonwood trees glow gold in the fall, the ridges shine with snow in winter, and ephemeral waterfalls and pools spring to life in summer. There’s no bad time to visit Zion.
Tip: Private vehicles are prohibited along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive during high season. Bicycle the 17.2-mile main drag as an alternative to using the shuttles. Permits aren’t required; just be sure to yield to buses.
At Bryce Canyon’s edge, the world drops off into a scene of geological carnage—the past 60 million years have done a number on this section of southern Utah, turning it into the world’s largest collection of hoodoos.
The park’s 18-mile scenic drive takes you by a slew of amphitheaters. But at 12 miles long, three miles wide, and 800 feet deep, Bryce Amphitheater steals the show. (Not a sheer, river-carved canyon, the famous, bowl-shaped, sloping formation is actually an amphitheater.) You’ll find the best views at the first four main overlooks.
Hike down into the rocky landscape via the 2.9-mile Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop Trail, or pair it with the Peekaboo Loop to complete the comprehensive, 6.8-mile “Figure 8 Combination” across the theater’s floor.
Tip: From Yovimpa Viewpoint, you can see all the way to the Kaibab Plateau—the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Southwest of Moab, Canyonlands National Park features the best aspects of your favorite Southwestern parks: canyons carved by the Colorado, massive red-rock arches, fields of hoodoos. Consider this “Utah Landscape 101.”
Chalk up the sparse crowds to a lack of accessibility, not a lack of grandeur: Canyonlands has four separate districts, and you can’t access one from another. Island in the Sky is the most popular and accessible. Here, head to Grand View Point for panoramas of the White Rim sandstone cliffs or hike the mile circumference of the impact crater, Upheaval Dome.
With one paved road, the Needles district is rugged and difficult to navigate, so its many trails are consistently quiet. The Maze district is harder still to access. The Colorado and Green rivers make up the fourth district; parts of both are calm enough for kayaking.
Tip: Mesa Arch is positioned perfectly for sunrise photography. No need to get up at dawn—the sun hangs beneath or behind the arch well into the morning.
The Waterpocket Fold is the throughline of Capitol Reef National Park, a nearly 100-mile wrinkle of central Utah replete with colorful canyons, tortured desert, and numerous bridges and arches. The 25-mile, round-trip Capitol Reef Scenic Drive is a good introduction to this stark, twisted landscape, but you’ll want to get out of the car for the two-mile trek to the natural, 133-foot Hickman Bridge and for the views at Panorama Point.
The unforgiving desert softens into farmland near the visitor center. There, pick fruit in active, open orchards or simply get a pie from Gifford Homestead between hikes. Mormon pioneers farmed these orchards as early as 1880, although the area’s human history dates back 9,000 years. Spot Fremont-culture pictographs and petroglyphs throughout the park, and enjoy up-close views along the one-mile Capitol Gorge Trail.
Tip: Take the Capitol Gorge spur at the end of the scenic drive. From its terminus, hike one mile into a slot canyon where you’ll find the Pioneer Register—names of courageous settlers who traveled here starting in 1871—etched neatly into the rock.
The 210,000-acre Dinosaur National Monument straddles the Colorado-Utah border, but if you’re here for fossils, stick to Utah. You can see over 1,500 dinosaur fossils in the Quarry Exhibit Hall alone. Located near the Quarry Visitor Center, the hall features a fossil-filled, exposed cliff face encased in glass, as well as 150-million-year-old specimens you can touch.
While it lacks archaeological remains, the Colorado side of the monument boasts spectacular canyon scenery. At the end of Harpers Corner Scenic Drive, a steep, unpaved road winds down to the confluence of the Green and Yampa rivers. Here, sheer cliff faces cage the waters in Echo Park, the most dramatic point of the Yampa River Canyon.
Tip: On the Utah side, take the less-traveled Tour of Tilted Rocks, a 10-mile scenic drive along the Green River. Keep an ear out for yipping coyotes or prairie dogs rustling in the sagebrush.
Grand Staircase–Escalante was the final frontier of the Lower 48: South-central Utah’s Escalante River was the last of its kind to be mapped and named; it remains one of the remotest areas in the country. Here, there’s still room for discovery.
The antithesis of a dry, desolate wasteland, the Escalante Canyons area features active waterfalls, riparian corridors, and sculpted slickrock. Calf Creek Falls Recreation Area has two 100-foot-plus falls accessible via a six-mile, out-and-back trek, and the slot canyons of Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch are fantastic for canyoneering.
Tip: The 2.8-mile trek to Buckskin Gulch, in the slot-canyon wonderland of Grand Staircase, is a canyoneering experience that rivals Antelope Canyon, with fewer crowds and no guide required.
Cedar Breaks National Monument appears to be a smaller-but-deeper Bryce Canyon. But at 10,350 feet above sea level, this three-mile-wide, 2,000-foot-deep amphitheater tells a much different story: Not only are the exposed rocks different and sometimes more colorful, but the factors that sculpt the land are also less kind. Cedar Breaks receives far more snow and rain than Bryce, so the landscape is eroding at a phenomenal rate. The parking barriers, right on the rim, have already been moved once.
Two main trails—Sunset and Spectra Point & Ramparts Overlook—offer great views into the amphitheater. Other paths meander through tranquil meadows and by small lakes, unlikely scenery near a half-mile-deep canyon. The shortage of trails seems like an argument against Cedar Breaks, but it’s perhaps one reason this park is blissfully crowd-free.
Tip: If you dream of catching sunset alone at a stunning national park site, go to Cedar Breaks. You’ll get all the vista with none of the crowds.
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