Now more than ever, national parks offer a much-needed breath of fresh air. Author, Arches National Park Ranger, and environmental advocate Edward Abbey said it best: “We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.” The US state that Abbey himself escaped to? Well, that would be Utah, of course.
Utah boasts some of the world’s most impressive geologic curiosities, from Zion’s steep sandstone cliffs to Bryce Canyon’s wacky hoodoos, Capitol Reef’s jagged earth-fold to Canyonlands’ maze-like plateaus, and Arches’…um, arches.
Each of Utah’s national parks boasts its own array of fossils and red rock fins, high elevations, and starry night skies. The “Beehive State” also offers unbeatable centralized access to the Southwest, and most of Utah’s national parks are only an hours-long drive from the national parks in Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico.
The more beautiful the state, though, the more difficult it can be to choose what to explore in first. Here, the parks are ranked for your consideration, but don’t let us keep you from seeing just one or two! Utah is a state best experienced when exploring all the wonders it has to offer.
Zion National Park
Utah’s oldest national park was established in 1919 in order to protect the landscape around Zion Canyon: a spectacular sandstone wonder marking the intersection of the Colorado Plateau, the Mojave desert, and the Great Basin. About 100 years later, Zion National Park sees almost 4.5 million visitors each year who come to explore the 230 square miles of wilderness trails and overlooks from 2,000-foot cliffs throughout the park.
Though a hike through Zion can take serious trekkers between 3,666 and 8,726 feet in elevation, what’s great about this park is its range of activities for wilderness explorers of all expertise levels. More than 90 miles of trail systems spread throughout 124,406 acres of wilderness are dotted with dozens of camping sites and backcountry hikes.
Some of the easier hikes are certainly kid friendly, like Pa’rus Trail (combining an easy hike with a dip in the Virgin River), Lower Emerald Pools Trail, Weeping Rock Trail, and Riverside Walk Trail. There are also more strenuous hikes, like Angels Landing, which give a breathtaking view of Zion Canyon.
The most classic hike in Zion — and one of the most beautiful in the American Southwest at large — is the Narrows, which goes through 10 miles of Zion Canyon at the north fork of the Virgin River. Whether you decide to do an overnight through-hike or go from the bottom of the Canyon up onto its ridges, you’ll wade through emerald stretches of the river for miles at a time.
No matter what you choose to do, you should consider doing it in the fall. And you should spend at least a couple of days here, either before or after taking a 5-hour road trip toward Moab’s Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.
Arches National Park
Named for some 2,000 arches found throughout this 73,234-acre wonderland, Arches National Park boasts a natural landscape unlike any other on Earth. Over the course of the last 300 million years, geologic forces shaped the spires, pinnacles, and ever-so-precariously balanced boulders into the national park that now wows over 1.5 million visitors each year.
You should take at least an afternoon — if not a full day — to drive through the park’s 36 mile loop. There are plenty of chances to stop off and wander along the way. At each pull-out, you’ll be able to marvel at ancient sand dunes and massive, stand-alone domes, sweeping desertscapes, and the layers that make up the park’s colorful badlands.
Some of the shortest trails are the busiest ones, like the view of the park’s largest arch, Landscape, which rings in at 306 feet from base to base. The iconic Delicate Arch (as seen on Utah’s license plates) can be accessed after a 2-3 hour hike and shouldn’t be missed. Along the way, you’ll also spot a few petroglyph panels made by Puebloan, Fremont, and Ute peoples who settled in the arid lands next to Wolfe Ranch, a shack built in 1898, which still stands near the parking lot where you exit for your pilgrimage to Delicate Arch.
A drive through Arches will only pique your interest in this beautiful landscape. More strenuous hikes, like the Primitive Trail to Devils Garden, allow you to explore the depths of this park, the vast majority of which is completely inaccessible from paved roads.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Smaller and more remote than either Arches or Zion is Bryce Canyon National Park is technically not quite a canyon. More aptly, this national park is a hoodoo heaven, home to more hoodoos than anywhere else on Earth. These thin, almost impossible-looking red rock spires jut out from the ground like a “fairy chimney,” one of the colloquial names for rocks that can reach up to 200 feet high. These pinnacles make up the majority of Bryce Canyon National Park. While at Bryce, keep an eye out for Utah’s Paunsaugunt Plateau, a collection of hoodoos that look almost like castles formed from millions of years of wind, frost, and streams.
Bryce Canyon offers a solid variety of hiking trails (and winter skiing!), so you can watch the sun rise from behind pink cliffs or set into orange valleys before you take advantage of backcountry campgrounds and dark skies. Road trippers can access the highest point in the park at Rainbow Point, the end of an 18-mile drive that brings you 9,105 feet above sea level and to an overlook of Bryce Canyon’s portion of The Grand Staircase.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is a four-in-one wonderland. This incredibly vast national park is divided by the Green and the Colorado Rivers into four distinct regions with three districts, known as Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Needles. Though they’re all technically “Canyonlands,” and the terrain throughout every inch of the park is worth viewing, most visitors choose to explore one district a day, as it can take hours to travel between the three. Because Canyonlands is also a quick 30 minutes from Arches National Park and located just outside the great little travel hotspot city of Moab, Utah, it’s the perfect place to spend a day or two sightseeing by car. Feeling crazy? Because both parks are so drivable, you can actually hit the highlights of both Arches and Canyonlands in one day.
Island in the Sky is the closest to Moab, and it’s a fantastic name for an otherworldly place that’s still doable by car, with a 34-mile loop up thousand foot elevations and down into the valleys that run through red rock canyons. Along the way, you can stop off for scenic basin views like Grand View Overlook, which lies at the end of a one-mile sandstone staircase, or you can hike to beautiful and desolate Mesa Arch.
Don’t stop with a simple hike or car ride through Canyonlands. Other districts, like the Needles, offer more intense backcountry hikes but pay off with more remote and dazzling landscapes. Or, go west of the Green River at the Maze where you can four-wheel drive ATVs through the park, or take on some of Utah’s most intense hikes. Like the rest of Southern Utah, Canyonlands offers some of the best rock climbing in America, so our more confident canyoneers have plenty to do in this national park.
Capitol Reef National Park
Just 2 hours west of Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, Capitol Reef offers a rugged oasis of red rock arches, sheer cliffs, and unbelievable bridges all along a geologic wonder called the Waterpocket Fold. This 100-mile wrinkle in the earth is some 7,000 feet higher to the west than to the east and is the defining feature of Capitol Reef, best viewed on the park’s classic Scenic Highway 24 down to the uniquely golden Navajo Sandstone mountain aptly known as the “Golden Throne.”
For visitors looking for a low-key drive through canyon country, Capitol Reef’s scenic highway may be the best way to check out Utah’s grandeur. But the route is just about the only paved section of the park. More adventurous hikers won’t be disappointed by the park’s trail offerings, like Burr Trail, which crosses the Waterpocket Fold and intersects with the popular trail loop along the scenic highways and Notom-Bullfrog Road. At any given point along the hike, trekkers are likely to happen upon slot canyons and backcountry trails. Three of the most popular slot canyons that can be accessed from Notom-Bullfrog Road are Burro Wash, Cottonwood Wash, and Sheets Gulch.
Capitol Reef will make modern-day hikers feel like real explorers. The park is full of unique pioneer history that’s still accessible to this day. Visitors can visit Fruita Campground to find (and freely pick from) a whole lush orchard area of fruit trees planted by 19th-century pioneers, purchase goods made with that same fresh fruit at a little country store on site, or settle in to watch the sunset along banks of the Fremont River. Whatever you do, you’ll find a beautiful scenery of red cliffs. While Capitol Reef rings in last on this list, it’s surely not the least and shouldn’t be missed.