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Explore Utah's national parks with TPG's guide to the "Mighty Five"

April 24, 2022
22 min read
Man enjoying sunrise at Mesa arch, Canyonlands
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Editor's Note

In celebration of National Park Week, which runs from April 16-24, The Points Guy is publishing a series of articles focusing on the beauty and diversity of America's national parks. We will share personal stories from the TPG team, as well as news and tips that will help you get the most out of your next national park visit. The following story is part of this series.

Renowned for its rugged, cinematic landscapes, Utah stirs a passion for adventure. It’s no surprise that the state's Mormon pioneers found divine inspiration here in 1847 and declared “this is the place.”

The Beehive State's "Mighty Five" national parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands — preserve pine-covered peaks, surreal red-rock formations, hanging gardens, rushing rivers and cresting waves of stone that form a 240-million-year timeline of geological history.

Diverse activities ranging from hiking and biking to mountaineering and horseback riding beckon adventurous types. Wherever you go, you'll see SUVs and F-150s caked in red earth and fully loaded with mountain bikes, kayaks, paddleboards and all-terrain vehicles. But even marveling at this red-hued layer cake of buttes, mesas and deep canyons through the car window will take you to heaven and back.

So, how do you begin to plan your "Mighty Five" adventure? Here's everything you need to know to make the most of your time at Utah's national parks.

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Planning a trip

Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by stickke/Getty Images)

Most visitors fly into either Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) and rent a car.

If you have less than a week, it’s a lot more rewarding to focus on just a couple of parks. Avid hikers can easily spend a few days exploring Zion and Bryce Canyon. Meanwhile, Arches’ picture-perfect formations can be viewed in the space of a day, for those short on time.

With more than a week (ideally two), you can plan a Southwest national park road trip that takes in all of Utah’s celebrated parks. The best way to go about a longer adventure is to fly into Las Vegas, rent a car and then fly out of Salt Lake City (or vice versa).

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Post-pandemic, you can expect Utah’s national parks to be pretty busy no matter what the season. If you have plenty of time to play with, it’s worth bookending your visits with equally impressive (but much less-visited) state parks that lie east and west of Interstate 15.

Deciding when to visit depends on climate, personal interests and your aversion to crowds and heavy traffic. Each season has its charms.

During spring, wildflowers bloom in Zion's hanging gardens and Bryce erupts with magenta prickly pair cactuses and delicate sego lilies — Utah's state flower.

Spring snow melt brings dramatic waterfalls and lush landscapes. Summer is the most-crowded time of year and also monsoon season, so you'll need to be prepared for dramatic thunderstorms and intense temperatures that average 90 degrees. During the short fall season, cottonwoods glimmer in shades of amber and gold. And when winter snow dusts the red, wind-carved canyons at higher elevations, the contrast is breathtaking.

No matter when you visit, you'll have a chance to spot Utah's resident wildlife, including desert bighorns, tarantulas, condors and raccoon-like ringtails.

Related: 10 reasons to visit Utah this winter

Zion National Park

Zion National Park. (Photo by Jordan Siemens/Getty Images)

One of the nation’s most-visited national parks, Zion has a powerful effect on all who visit. Breathtaking in scale and majesty, the heavenly names ascribed by the Mormons to the park’s sandstone buttresses, sheer red-rock cliffs and slot canyons seem fitting even for non-believers. Witnessing the shifting light at sunrise or sunset is a highlight of any visit.

Zion’s dramatic views and epic ascents belie the intricate biomes nurtured at ground level. There are meadows carpeted with wildflowers, tarantulas creeping around in their nocturnal burrows, mischievous chipmunks, enchanting grottoes and hanging gardens.

While many of Utah’s red-rock parks can feel cinematic and untouchable, Zion invites interaction with the landscape. With its extensive trail network and glorious scenery, hikers will find lots to marvel at as they explore. There are trails suitable for both experienced hikers and beginners, including accessible options that provide wondrous snapshots of the topography while being easy to traverse with kids.

If you're short on time, go for a ride on the park's shuttle to see glorious display of rock formations — including the iconic Court of the Patriarchs, Temple of Sinawava and The Pulpit — from Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The road, which is closed to private vehicles when the shuttle operates, also offers swift access to the most popular trailheads. Know, though, that the shuttle only runs daily from March through November and on select dates in February and December.

Don't forget to also save time for exploring the Greater Zion area just outside the park. Snow Canyon State Park is a Martian territory of petrified sandstone dunes, lava tubes and slot canyons, while Sand Hollow State Park beckons to active types keen on spending a morning paddleboarding on indigo blue reservoirs ringed with red sand.

The gateway town of Springdale forms the base for exploration and is dotted with hotels (including worthy points options), restaurants and outfitters.

Related: A beginner's guide to visiting Zion National Park; everything you need to know, see and do

Best hikes

The magical Emerald Pools trail is everything you'd expect from its name. The lower, middle and upper pools the trail is named after have a dense concentration of algae that emit a rich emerald-green hue. The lower part of the trail (extending just 1.2 miles) leads to an enchanting hanging garden and a waterfall. It’s another two miles to reach the upper pools, which are surrounded by a natural amphitheater of red-rock cliffs.

For a more challenging hike, there's the six-mile East Mesa Trail. It leads to Observation Point, where you'll catch a glimpse of the Great White Throne framed by Red Arch Mountain, the classic image of Zion Canyon.

Angels Landing is another iconic hike you won't want to miss. Due to increased popularity, as of April 1 hikers will need to enter a lottery in order to secure a permit. Depending on your fitness level (and congestion on the trail), it takes between three and five hours to ascend the canyon’s east wall. You’ll traverse 21 hair-raising switchbacks built into the rift, which weave their way to Scout Lookout, where you'll discover jaw-dropping panoramas of Zion Canyon. The final 500 feet to the summit is tricky, with steep drop-offs and some scrambling required. Footholds and heavy chains attached to the rock face are useful, but you’ll often need to wait your turn. The 1,000-foot summit puts you at the heart of Zion Canyon's Big Bend, providing a sublime 360-degree, bird's-eye view of the area.

Should you crave another challenging experience, check out the Narrows, a 1,000-foot-deep slot canyon with water filling in on both sides from the Virgin River. Hiking the Narrows requires getting cold and wet and pushing against a strong current on the way back. Depending on how far you want to go (it stretches for 18 miles), it can be tackled in a few hours, a full day or overnight during a backpacking trip. Keep in mind, you can get away with sports gear and waterproof shoes in summer, but once it cools down it’s advisable to rent a dry suit package that includes boots and pants from Zion Adventures.

Where to stay

For points travelers, Zion is one of the easier national parks to visit. The town of Springdale, which is steps from the park’s main entrance, offers several moderately priced chain hotels.

Far and away, TPG’s favorite place to stay near Zion is the SpringHill Suites Springdale Zion National Park. It’s not quite the points bargain — especially with Marriott's recent move to dynamic pricing — but it’s still worth a stay for the modern feel, excellent location, poolside views and spacious rooms. A standard room here can be booked for 40,000 to 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night or a minimum of $273 a night.

Additionally, you can check into the Cliffrose Springdale. Just a five-minute drive from the canyon, it's part of Hilton’s boutique Curio Collection. Modern, well-appointed rooms and suites can be booked for $240 per night or at least 27,000 Hilton Honors points a night. Plentiful amenities include two heated swimming pools, a spa and restaurant.

The Hampton Inn & Suites Springdale/Zion National Park is available as well. At this property, you'll be within walking distance of town and have access to an outdoor pool and fireplace, among other amenities. Rooms start at $118 or 31,000 Hilton Honors points per night.

If you want to stay inside the park, consider Zion Lodge. The only accommodation option in the park, the lodge sits in the middle of Zion Canyon, making it ideal for Angels Landing treks. Room rates start from $230 per night.

Related: Marriott's dynamic award pricing is live — here's what it means for travelers

Bryce Canyon National Park

Queens Garden Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park. (Photo by Cavan Images/Getty Images)

Bryce Canyon’s intricate rock pinnacles (known as hoodoos) have been shaped over millennia by wind and erosion. The otherworldly landscape shifts from geologic wonders that resemble psychedelic works of art to swaths of evergreen forest that cloak sandstone peaks.

The smallest of Utah's five national parks, Bryce Canyon was designated a national monument by former President Warren Harding in 1923 before ultimately becoming a national park. It sits about halfway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, marking the eastern perimeter of the Grand Staircase, a 100-mile expanse of sedimentary rock layers that preserves more geological history than any other place on Earth.

Stare down into the park’s stunning natural amphitheater — the technical term used by geologists (rather than a canyon) — to discover fanciful windows, jutting daggers, chiseled spires and exquisite bracelet-thin archways seemingly erupting from the fantastical landscape.

Because of the park's smaller size, you can achieve a lot here in a day. Several novice trails (many of which are paved) by the park’s main entrance offer a glimpse of the area's glorious mountain scenery and profusion of flora and fauna. In fact, there are creatures everywhere, from herds of deer, pronghorn, moose and elk in the park’s outer recesses to Uinta chipmunks and golden-mantled ground squirrels that scurry brazenly on the trails.

Guided horseback riding tours are a popular way to experience the park at ground level while enjoying a classic Old West experience. You can traverse the park’s 18-mile scenic drive by car or bike, too, taking in breathtaking views of the Paunsaugunt Plateau along the way. Note that in spring and summer the route can be heavily congested with cars and recreational vehicles, so start your excursion early. Be sure to visit Bryce Point, where you can stand on a rocky headland 1,000 feet above an amphitheater of hypnotic hoodoos.

Related: 8 national parks that are spectacular in spring

Best hikes

The easy 1.5-mile Queens Garden Trail is a mesmerizing introduction into Bryce Canyon’s funky array of hoodoos, spires and sculpted rocks. The trail can be combined with the 3-mile Navajo Loop when hiking down into Bryce Canyon — a rite of passage for avid hikers — to see some of the park’s photogenic and whimsical rock formations, including Queen Victoria, Thor's Hammer and the skyscrapers of Wall Street.

An even easier option is the 5.5-mile Rim Trail, which is more of a walk than a hike and rewards visitors with awe-inspiring views of the amphitheater from distinct vantage points. A short half-mile section between the Sunrise and Sunset overlooks is even wheelchair friendly. Take this trail at sunrise or sunset to see the shifting light reveal fantastical shapes and sculpted formations in different hues of red, gold and brown.

Round out your hiking adventure with the 5-mile Peek-A-Boo Loop Trail, which culminates with a front-row view of the Three Wisemen and Wall of Windows rock formations, or the one-mile Bristlecone Loop, which winds through coniferous forest at the park’s highest elevation (9,000 feet).

Where to stay

The only place to stay inside the park is The Lodge at Bryce Canyon, a rustic option with cabins and easy access to the canyon rim. It's also the best place to stargaze in the Dark Sky Park. Rooms start at $183 per night, and reservations are now open for 2023.

Best Western Rewards members can choose from the kitschy Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn, which is a steal at 16,000 points (or $120 cash) per night, or the more mainstream Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel, which you can book for as little as 20,000 points or $299 per night.

Related: 11 mistakes travelers make on their first camping trip

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park. (Photo by Mitch Diamond/Getty Images)

Considered the "The Land of the Sleeping Rainbow" to the local Navajo Nation community because of its colorful geological formations framed by brilliant blue skies, lesser-known Capitol Reef National Park boasts the same dramatic scenery and abundance of outdoor pursuits of Utah's more popular parks without the throngs of tourists.

Its most recognizable feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long monocline warp (or step-like dip) in the Earth's crust. These tilted sandstone layers eroded over time to form an extraordinary landscape of serrated peaks, surreal domes, deep-slot canyons and mesmerizing formations that straddle different elevations and ecosystems.

Along many trails, thousand-year-old pictographs and petroglyphs stand testimony to the ancient Fremont and ancestral Pueblo peoples who inhabited the canyons from A.D. 700 to around A.D. 1300. The remote canyons also were a favorite hideout for notorious 19th-century outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, plus Mormon pioneers who fled West to avoid government persecution.

If you're a fan of films, chances are you've seen Capitol Reef's hauntingly beautiful landscapes on the big screen. They've served as the backdrop for many Hollywood movies, including "127 Hours," which was filmed just southwest of the park’s Horseshoe Canyon in the beautiful sheer-sided Bluejohn Canyon in 2010.

Related: The 20 national parks that every traveler should see once

Best hikes

Capitol Reef's trails traverse the park’s wave-like rock formations, as well as verdant cottonwood groves and barren desert. The Fruita and Fremont River districts offer the most accessible, family-friendly day hikes, with trailheads located just off state Route 24 and the Scenic Drive. The most rewarding short hikes include Capitol Gorge, a one-mile hike through a beautiful deep canyon etched with inscriptions from pioneers and miners, and 2.2-mile Grand Wash, which leads hikers into a narrow slot canyon.

The 1.8-mile, round-trip walk to Hickman Bridge skirts the Fremont River and culminates with views of Capitol Dome, named for its resemblance to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. If you keep going along the Navajo Knobs trail, which is a nearly five-mile (round-trip) hike to the Rim Overlook, you can check out the angular rock ridges of the Waterpocket Fold.

For a more remote backcountry experience, head to the Upper and Lower Muley Twist Canyons and the Halls Creek Narrows in the southern section of the park. The Cathedral Valley district is not as busy as the others, so it's not uncommon to walk for miles without seeing another soul. Take the Cathedrals Trail along the ridge line to come face to face with the soaring monoliths for which the trail is named. Note that you'll need a high-clearance vehicle to drive the scenic 580-mile Cathedral Valley Loop.

Where to stay

Right outside the park in the town of Torrey lies Capitol Reef Resort. Channeling a western theme, the property offers chic accommodations, stunning red-rock views and tasty comfort food at the Pioneer Kitchen. Rest your head for the night in a beautifully appointed cabin, teepee or Conestoga wagon when you're not taking a dip in the outdoor swimming pool or working out in the 24-hour fitness center overlooking the surrounding red-rock cliffs. Rates for standard rooms start at $229 per night.

Inside the park, you can camp at the Fruita Campground, surrounded by apricot orchards, from March 1–Oct. 31. The fee is $25 per night and reservations are essential.

Arches National Park

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. (Photo by Peter Unger/Getty Images)

Comprising more than 2,000 fantastical formations that seem cast from an artist’s mold, Arches National Park has the feel of an outdoor sculpture museum. Just a 26-mile drive from Canyonlands National Park, Arches can be comfortably combined with a visit to Canyonlands during a long weekend.

Lively Moab forms the regional base for adventure. Over the last 20 years, a string of hotels have linked the park entrance with the town’s main strip five miles away. As the area's popularity has skyrocketed, the town’s alternative vibe has faded and, for better or worse, Moab now has all the trappings and conveniences of a more mainstream gateway town. Along the pedestrian-friendly Main Street, you'll find a mix of eclectic restaurants and western-inspired bars and outfitters.

Once you make your way into Arches National Park, though, you'll quickly feel transported to another world. The park's 18-mile-long Scenic Drive showcases an array of delicate sandstone arches, deep gorges, rock catacombs and open valleys, among other natural wonders. The most recognizable red stone monoliths and monuments have official names and monikers, but sometimes it’s best to skip the guide books and maps in favor of finding a trailhead and letting the awe-inspiring landscape stir your imagination.

If you crave an adrenaline rush, you’re in luck: You'll find nearly every possible outdoor pursuit available to you here. And beyond the park’s boundaries, you can embark on mountain bike treks or sign up for a guided canoe trip on the Colorado River, which skirts Arches' southeast boundary.

Related: A family road trip to the Southwest: reader success story

Best hikes

Most of Arches’ trailheads start at parking lots located along the Scenic Drive. They tend to be short, flat, well maintained and very easy to navigate, though there's one notable exception. Delicate Arch, the emblem for “Life Elevated” (Utah’s apt license plate slogan), is one of the more challenging sights to hike to, as the path offers little shade and a few steep ascents. Still, many adventure-seeking locals and visitors flock here annually.

The moderate Fiery Furnace, named for the fiery glow it emits at sunset, is another highly regarded option. The trail winds its way amid an astonishing labyrinth of canyons, crevasses, boulders and narrows.

Additionally, there's the 2-mile, out-and-back Park Avenue Trail, where you'll get an eyeful of soaring sandstone formations topped with gravity-defying boulders, such as the Tower of Babel, the Three Gossips and The Organ. You'll meander along a flat, dry wash flecked with native flora, including junipers and cactuses.

Where to stay

Most of the major hotel brands can be found in Moab, so there are plenty of opportunities to use your points. The town's Hyatt Place has a quiet location just off the main strip, as well as a pool with a splash pad for kids and rooms and rooms outfitted with essentials like coffee makers and TVs. Complimentary breakfast is provided, too. Expect to spend 15,000 World of Hyatt points or $250 per night for a standard room during off-peak dates. Or, redeem a World of Hyatt free night certificate to cover your stay at this Category 4 property.

For a place that's centrally located in town, check into the Best Western Plus Canyonlands Inn, which boasts proximity to a range of restaurants, bars and shops. Nightly rates start at $250 or 40,000 Best Western Rewards points.

If you're looking to splurge, consider Sorrel River Ranch. The rooms and suites feature rustic-chic decor inspired by the mesas around the property, offering relaxation-focused amenities like fireplaces and porches with rocking chairs or swings. Each will set you back at least $1,275 per night.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park. (Photo by Michael Russell/Getty Images)

Spanning 527 square miles, Canyonlands National Park is the largest of Utah's parks. It boasts vertigo-inducing panoramas, gaping canyons, sheer cliffs, flat-topped mesas and towering red spires throughout its four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon.

The most popular of the four, the Island in the Sky beckons to adrenaline junkies, geologists and archaeologists. Its flat-topped mesa, which straddles a sandstone bench known as the White Rim, offers an overlook with some of the park's most awe-inspiring views from its perch 1,000-plus feet above the ground. Grab a mountain bike and ride along the 100-mile White Rim Road, a glorious loop tour that showcases Canyonlands' archetypal formations.

For a glimpse at the largest and most spectacular arch in the park, head to The Needles. A magnate for backcountry hikers, this district is known for its spectacular pinnacles and is home to the 150-foot-tall Angel Arch. It's also where you'll find lush meadows and cottonwood groves in the valleys along the Green and Colorado rivers.

Of the four districts, The Maze is perhaps the most rugged. To access it, you'll need a good GPS, a four-wheel-drive vehicle, a permit from the Hans Flat Ranger Station and significant backcountry hiking experience. The 19,200-acre sandstone labyrinth of dead ends and baffling circuitous trails is notorious for all looking the same after a while.

And in Horseshoe Canyon, you'll find some of North America's most prized examples of dwelling sites and rock art fashioned by ancestral Pueblo peoples. To see them, embark on a 7.2-mile hike from the Horseshoe trailhead to the panel known as the Great Gallery, which is etched with intricate, remarkably preserved figures that date back to around A.D. 1200.

Related: 8 survival tips for wilderness hikes

Best hikes

In The Needles, the moderate Cave Spring Trail winds among elegant spires, columns and buttes featuring 1,000-year-old Fremont pictographs. It also sits alongside several historical points of interest, including a former cowboy camp. Parts of the trail have ladders to climb, making it better suited for agile adults rather than hikers with kids in tow.

An easier option in the Island in the Sky district is the Mesa Arch trail, a popular option for photographers. The 0.7-mile loop trail, which begins at the trailhead at Grand View Point, provides hikers with incredible views of a soaring arch that straddles a 500-foot cliff and frames Buck Canyon and the La Sal Mountains.

If you plan on visiting The Maze, know that there are no established trails here. Instead, routes to rock formations like the Dollhouse and the ones in the Land of Standing Rocks are identified by cairns (human-made stone piles).

Where to stay

Like Arches National Park, most Canyonlands visitors usually base themselves in Moab. If you prefer to skip the chain hotels in town, you can sleep beneath red rocks at Under Canvas Moab, a glamping site located just seven miles north of the park entrance. The chic tents have king-size beds dressed in luxurious linens, wood-burning stoves and en suite bathrooms with hot running water. The site is open from early March to late October and offers tents from $324 per night.

You can also drive about 30 minutes from Canyonlands to the Aarchway Inn, a 97-room hotel quietly nestled among leafy grounds on the outskirts of Moab. Accommodations come equipped with minifridges, microwaves and coffee makers (among other conveniences), while public guest spaces feature amenities like an outdoor pool and a general store. You can take advantage of the free shuttle to town and complimentary breakfast as well. Rates for standard king rooms start at $330 per night.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.