Image by Moriah Wolfe

Utah National Parks

Utah has some of the most incredible, and thus most crowded, National Parks in the country. And that's saying something.

 

They call them the Mighty Five and they are literally jaw dropping. But they can also bring you to your knees with heat, exhaustion and frustration if you don't plan properly for them. Because they are reasonably close together, many people try to "power them" in a 3 - 5 day sprint. I suggest you don't do that. They are too special and you'll mainly just be getting the photos/gift shop hoodies without experiencing the magic. But if you are going to do them all, or some of them, in sequence – then this order, or the reverse, will make that most efficient.

Image by Taylor Brandon

Logistics & Timing

If you are flying, then you will likely want to come into Salt Lake City or Las Vegas. You will need a car. In terms of when to go, crowds and heat should be your top concerns. Both get worse as you get into peak season. The best time to see them is from September - April. However, they are at elevation, significant in some cases, so winter is a thing. But they are also incredibly beautiful in the snow, so there's that.

Zion

So named for its striking similarity to the Kingdom of Heaven. And so it is. It's shockingly beautiful. I just hope Heaven isn't this crowded.

But there are some tricks to getting your Zen on in Zion:

  1. Get up early. Get tickets on the first shuttle (which is far easier to say than do, but can be done*).

  2. Hike up Angel's Landing if terrifying heights are your thing straight off (you need a permit) and then continue up the West Rim Trail. Not only gorgeous, but you'll lose the crowds in minutes. 

  3. Rent the gear in town that night and then try to be the first ones into the Virgin River the next morning for canyoneering. It's amazing. But much less so later on when it comes to resemble a high school pool party.

  4. Note that there is another, far less visited side of the park to the northwest.

*For more information about Zion crowds, hikes and shuttle buses, see this post.

Image by Yannick Menard
Zion
Angle's Landing &
Canyoneering in the Virgin

Bryce Canyon

Image by Donald Giannatti

Technically, not a canyon, but who cares? It's incredible, and probably Lori's favorite of the bunch. It's super mysterious and the hoodoos capture the light in infinite ways, such that you find you just have to keep taking pictures.

 

Most visitors just walk the rim trail which is stunning if you are in a hurry. But if you can, get up early, and do Fairyland loop one day and then Queen's Garden with Peekaboo loop the next. Early enough and you'll be alone for much of it.

Bryce with a fresh frosting

Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef and Canyonlands are the least crowded of the five, which no longer means uncrowded, but it does mean less. And like many NPs, Capitol Reef is vast, but 98% of the visitors congregate in a small section. So you really can get away from it all. It's also unique in that it was a Mormon settlement that has a year round river running through it (an oddity in Utah). The park has maintained the fruit orchards that were established by the Mormon pioneers and you can enjoy a fruit pie and ice cream after your hike.

Good hikes: Golden Throne, Kolob Canyon.

Capitol Reef.jpeg
Image by Andrey Grinkevich
Window Arch

Canyonlands

Canyonlands might be my favorite for the combination of beauty and solitude it offers. It's really like two National Parks. It's so vast that the different sections aren't even connected by road. Which means if you want to see the Northern section called Island in the Sky, you have to plan a separate day to see the possibly even more impressive Eastern section called the Needles District. There is even a third section called the Maze. I've been to the park twice and haven't made it there yet. No time (also because it sounds like something from West World). Most people who visit Canyonlands just pop into the Island in the Sky section, because it's very near the entrance to Arches. They have a quick look, and then leave. I suggest you not do that.

One of the most enjoyable hikes we did on our entire 9-month tour of the western U.S. was Chesler Park in the Needles District.

Arches

Arches will astonish. And the town of Moab, a huge tourist draw itself, is only a few miles away. Unsurprisingly, lines leading into the park can be comical. I believe it is yet another park that has now gone to timed entry only. Unlike Canyonlands, it's reasonably compact, so you can "see" the whole thing in a day, even doing a few of the best hikes. But 2 days with a night in Moab might be a better call. Either way, be the first one's through the gates in the morning.

If you plan to hike Delicate Arch, you should probably hit it first thing (many people hike it before dawn to catch the sunrise). Because it is a must have for Instagram, it becomes a circus later in the day with a perpetual queue waiting for their moment under the arch.

Image by Joshua Sukoff
Delicate Arch

There is so much more to enjoy in terms of parks in Utah. If you have the time, consider adding any of these to your journey:

  1. Kodachrome State Park - 30 minutes from Bryce Canyon

  2. Snow Canyon State Park - Between Zion and Las Vegas. Extraordinary.

  3. Natural Bridges National Monument - Can be connected when traveling from Capitol Reef to Canyonlands. Also very near Bears Ears National Monument.

  4. Dead Horse Point State Park - next to Arches and Canyonlands/Island in the Sky.

  5. Dinosaur National Monument - way up in the Northeast corner, not near anything else.