If you look at visitor statistics and best national parks lists, Utah’s “Mighty 5” National Parks are really a “Mighty 3” (Zion, Bryce and Arches) and a “Pretty Strong 2” (Canyonlands and Capitol Reef).  All five are definitely worth the time, and there are some national monuments and state parks that could fill out a long trip to Utah.

Zion Valley

The Mighty 3

Zion, Arches and Bryce are famous enough that I’ll devote little space to them here.  Zion and Bryce have free shuttle buses in the main areas that help a little bit with crowds.  Because Bryce’s elevation is 8000 feet and up, it has more unpredictable weather than nearby Zion.  (There was a dusting of snow when we visited Bryce in late May, but heavier accumulations causing trail closures are not unheard-of.  It’s gorgeous in the snow.)  The Kolob Canyon area in northwest Zion is supposed to be lovely and uncrowded, but we have personally never been there.


Go see all three, they’re wonderful. Some of my links:

The Pretty Strong 2

I really like Canyonlands for its combination of great scenery and small crowds.  The Island in the Sky (IITS) area is a large mesa reached by driving over a narrow neck of rock, really more of a peninsula than an island. It rises above high cliffs that visually and geologically resemble Arizona’s Grand Canyon.  IITS includes the iconic Mesa Arch, and a number of fine short and long hikes such as Grandview, Murphy, Neck Spring (I like this one for its variety), Whale Rock, Upheaval Dome, Aztec Butte (features a Native American granary built into the summit).  For more adventure and privacy, go to the Needles area.  Some of Needles’ most interesting parts require a four wheel drive vehicle.  Highlights are Chesler Park, the Joint, Druid Arch, and the loop of Big Spring Canyon / Squaw Canyon.  If you really don’t like people, go to the Maze area.  The Maze cannot be reached without a long drive in a four wheel drive vehicle.  There are no services, so you should bring food, water, a good map and compass, and enough gasoline to get out.  (Or better still, go with an outfitting company.)  I’ve never been to the Maze, but I want to.  It is also possible to reach parts of it by boat, since the canyons in this area are formed by the Colorado and Green Rivers.

The Needles, Canyonlands

Utah’s least-known National Park is Capitol Reef.  We’ve done the hike to the Hickman Bridge formation, driven through the historic Mormon farming village Fruita, looked at some overlooks and a petroglyph, but in total spent less than a day.  A lot of the park is difficult to reach without long backpacking treks.  My guess is that the Park Service hasn’t developed it further because it gets less traffic than the parks closer to Las Vegas (Zion and Bryce).  It stays unknown, so it doesn’t get developed, so it’s less accessible, so it stays unknown.  Again, I’d like to know it better.

The Fluted Wall, Capitol Reef

National Monuments and State Parks

I have visited and written about Escalante / Grand Staircase National Monument and Goblin Valley State Park, and highly recommend both.  Escalante is huge (although recently its protected areas have been reduced), and I’ve seen only a small amount of it.  I’ve heard good things about Bears’ Ears National Monument, also recently reduced.  Cedar Breaks National Monument has hoodoos similar to Bryce, but it’s at even higher elevations and is closed for a lot of the year when the roads aren’t plowed.  We’ve never been in the area when it was open.  Dead Horse State Park is small, but has views that could easily pass for the Grand Canyon.

Some of the people in my office have said “you’re going to Utah … AGAIN?”  They don’t know what they’re missing.

Virgin River, Zion