Utah-opia! Exploring Utah’s National Parks

There’s few places in the world that rival Utah’s natural beauty. Copper-colored sandstone arches, jaw-dropping gorges and dramatic geological wonders make up a good portion of the lower half of the state. At the moment, I’m visiting my fifth and final park in The Beehive State”.

“Wow” is really the best way I can describe these natural wonders. Each vast preserve has its own personality and formations that you won’t find anywhere on the planet. If you’re a go-getter and would like to visit them all, you can do it in a week.

A week? Yes, a week… or 8 days if you do all these stops, see a few highlights in Arizona and catch a flight home the next day. 

Kanab, Utah Bill Wiatrak

The least expensive way to start off your journey is to fly into Las Vegas and rent a car. Arrive on a weekday and you can always find a great deal on a hotel a fraction of the price of the weekend rate. Secondly, you’ll need to buy a national park one year pass at Zion national park once you arrive there.

The pass costs $80, but will pay for itself off since each entrance fees for each park can cost up to $35/vehicle for one day admission. The pass is good for parks all over the US for an entire year. If you’re over 62 you can get a lifetime pass for the same price. Active military is free.

Zion National Park, Utah Bill Wiatrak

Leave Vegas early and head toward Zion National Park. Zion is an extremely popular park because of its great trails, easy accessibility and diverse formations. The road runs right through the center of the preserve so you can stop for a hike or park your car and take a shuttle to the area you want to visit. The most popular hike is Angel’s Landing. It’s a dangerous rugged hike that attracts climbers from all over the world. There’s lots of shorter hikes if you’re not looking to be that committed. Unless you’re staying in the lodge, you’ll have to park your car and take the shuttle to the trail heads. 

Arches National Park, Utah Bill Wiatrak

If you want to stay in a real town after Zion, Kanab is a great stop with its nostalgic motels, restaurants and is only 30 minutes south of the park turnoff. It’s a good choice if you’re planning on including the North Rim of the Grand Canyon or Lake Powell on your itinerary. The area around Kanab was a popular spot to shoot western movies a few decades ago and there’s a set for the original Gunsmoke TV show on one of the back roads. The remains are a crumbling mess so you won’t be able to get past the fence, but you can saunter over to the Little Hollywood museum for some photos with their western facades in back. There’s also the nearby Pink Coral Dunes state park if you’re not too tired from hiking in Zion.

Bryce Canyon Trail, Utah Jennie Timar

Bryce Canyon is one the easiest parks to visit and has a sunset and sunrise viewpoint trail. If you’re staying overnight, you can visit both lookouts at opposite times of the day. Bryce is like no other place with giant vermilion sandcastle formations that seem to defy gravity. The amphitheater is the largest grouping of hoodoos and is a good place to take a hike into the valley below. It’s otherworldly appearance will make you wonder why you’ve never seen it in a Star Wars movie. You might be able to grab some elk chili at its lodge during cooler times of the year. 

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah Bill Wiatrak

Leave Bryce early in the morning to make the 2.5 hour drive to Capitol Reef National Park. CRNP gets less press than Utah’s other parks but it’s definitely a worthwhile stop. You can take the highway straight through (free) or treat yourself to some spectacular views on its scenic drive. Capitol Reef gets its name from the 100 mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust that makes a “reef” with formations that vaguely resemble the top of a capitol building. There’s a nice hike to a natural arch, ancient petroglyphs and dramatic canyons that have to be seen to be believed. Make a short stop at the historical Gifford House to have some homemade pie, ice cream or cinnamon rolls. The main road is easy to navigate, but the dirt roads are better reached by 4WD. At the end of the scenic road, turn around and head east 2.5 hours towards Moab.

Moab is located between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and is a literal oasis for travelers. Theres not much between Kanab and Moab, so the assortment  of hotels, restaurants and bars is a welcome sight while you’re dusting off your boots. Hotel prices can be high in Moab, so plan early and consider other options such as AIRBNB. You’ll want to spend two nights to allow yourself enough time to visit both parks. 

Arches National Park, Utah Jennie Timar

Arches is the closest and easiest of the two reserves. You’ll be instantly impressed by the entrance lookout with its sheer cliffs and colorful formations. The National Park service chose the perfect name for this park since over 200 arches have been documented within its boundaries. The most famous one is Delicate Arch and requires a 3 hour hike to get close. There’s a lookout for us lazier travelers that allows one to see it in the far distance with no hiking. Delicate Arch is the poster child for nearly every Utah publication and you’ve no doubt seen its image countless times. Landscape arch is also very popular hike and only involves a 1.6 mile walk. If you are wrapping up your day at the park, you can catch sunset at the north window and south window for spectacular views. A picture of you posing in the center of the giant window might be the best photo you’ll ever take. It is epic. The gnarled trees that dot the area make every view look like an Ansel Adams print.

Canyonlands National Park, Utah Bill Wiatrak

After an overnight rest in Moab, you’ll be ready for your next adventure. Canyonlands is the most geographically challenging of Utah’s parks. There’s 2 parts to the park (not including the difficult to reach “maze”) and both are only accessible by unconnected roads. The easiest drive is 40 minutes from Moab and is made up of about 20 miles of roads that provide access to some amazingly dramatic scenery completely unlike the other parks. This section includes an area called Island in the Sky because it is a flat area that has such higher altitude than the valleys below, it almost feels as if you’re floating above it. Mesa Arch might be the coolest arch you’ll ever see. Shafer canyon overlook is ridiculously high above the canyon below with insane drop-offs. There’s lots of hiking trails, but there’s plenty of sights just a few minutes from the road. 

Petroglyphs, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah Bill Wiatrak

The lower half of the park is called Needles and it’s entrance is about 1.5 hours south of Moab. It’s less visited than the north but is a popular choice if you want to squeeze in one more national park day on your trip. The two halves of the park are completely different topography.

Monument Valley, Utah Bill Wiatrak

A few hours south of Moab will bring you to Monument Valley on the border of Arizona. Monument has the most recognizable view of any park. You’ve seen it in dozens of western movies. It was even the setting for the drive in theater in the film Back to the Future. This park is not part of the NPS, rather it’s part of the Navajo reservation and has a separate admission fee of $20 not included in your pass. The scenery is beautiful but you can’t really experience it unless you take a tour from one of the locals into the valley or visit the restaurant/hotel and walk to the observation area. It is magnificent and you’ll find yourself taking a dozen pictures of the same view. If you can arrange a night at the View Hotel, you can watch the sun go down, enjoy some native American cuisine at the scenic restaurant and watch some John Wayne videos on Netflix filmed in the valley. 

Antelope Canyon, Page, Arizona Bill Wiatrak

Leave after sunrise and head straight to Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona 2 hours west. Antelope Canyon is also one of the most photographed canyons in the world. There’s an upper canyon and lower canyon option. This is also tribal land, so you’ll be paying the locals for a ride and guide to the canyon. If you arrive early, you can beat the crowds and get amazing photos of this natural wonder. After your tour, head to nearby Horseshoe Bend.

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona Bill Wiatrak

Horseshoe Bend is another landmark that you have probably seen a hundred times and never knew where it was.  It’s free to visit and about a 15 minute walk from the parking area. It’s a giant river canyon shaped like, well.. a horseshoe. It’s stunning.

From Page, head 4 hours west back to Vegas to spend your final night at your choice of Vegas hotels. Want to change it up? Stay at a classic casino hotel in Fremont street. Need some luxury? You can’t do much better than a corner suite at the Aria

As you drift off to sleep, mentally congratulate yourself. You successfully visited every national park in Utah, drove 1200 miles, and saw two amazing landmarks in Arizona. Have extra time and want more Arizona? Check out this amazing itinerary.

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