Utah is so much more than Salt Lake City and Skiing. If you venture south in the state, you’ll find yourself among some of the most stunning landscapes in the world. The otherworldly red rocks can make you feel like you are, indeed, on another planet. We’ll break down the 5 National Parks in Utah, so you can figure out which is best for you, your party, and your interests.
When To Go To the National Parks in Utah
We know, it’s easier to get away during the summer, but if it’s at all possible to avoid the summer months, we STRONGLY advise that you do so – for a few reasons. First and foremost, Southern Utah can be blisteringly hot during the summer. You’re in the desert, so it’s hot and arid with very few trees or shade. If you can only come during the summer, please come prepared with plenty of hydration (due to the dryness and heat, I’d consider adding some electrolyte supplements like Nuun to your water), sunscreen, hats, etc. I’d definitely consider some cooling towels to help mitigate the heat.
The parks are also the most crowded during the summer. So much so that some parks will prohibit personal cars on the paved road through the park during the summer months, forcing you to park and take tram busses through. The bottom line is, though, that these parks are best experienced without the throngs of crowds that flock here in the summer months.
If you can come during the spring or fall, you’ll encounter much more mild weather, lower crowds, and an all around more pleasant time. The winter can also provide some perfect days, but the days and, especially, nights can be surprisingly chilly.
How To Get To the National Parks in Utah
If you’re traveling in from outside of the state, aim to fly in to Salt Lake City or Las Vegas. Grand Junction, Colorado also offers good access, but flights in and out can be a little hard to find, and pricey if you do find them. If you’re looking to hit all 5 parks, consider flying into Las Vegas and flying out of Salt Lake City, so you can do the full loop without backtracking several hours.
A car will be a must to travel between and in the parks. If you’re aiming to tackle any of the dirt roads, be sure to rent something with AWD or 4WD. I’d still not recommend tackling any of the more advanced off-roading areas unless you’re there with your own vehicle.
Arches National Park
If you think about national parks in Utah, the image that probably comes to mind is Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. It’s such an iconic image that it’s on the license plates in the state! Arches is home to the most dense collection of natural stone arches in the world with over 2,000 documented throughout the park. With some fabulous hikes from the easy, quick hikes to the North and South Windows, to the, roughly, 3 mile round trip up to Delicate Arch (there is no shade on this hike, so plan your timing accordingly). For the serious hikers, apply for an individual permit or arrange for a ranger-led trek through the maze-like landscape of the Fiery Furnace.
Located close to the town of Moab and Canyonlands, so if variety is what you’re looking for, grab a hotel in Moab, and explore this unbelievable park.
Canyonlands National Park
Located right across the road from Arches and very close to Moab, Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah. Formed by the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, Canyonlands has vast wonders for explorers of all skills. It’s split into 3 zones known as: Islands in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Much of Needles and the Maze are accessible by permit only. They should only be attempted by experienced hikers or off-roaders. Islands in the Sky is drive-through with some absolutely breathtaking vistas and short hikes. One of the best places to catch a sunset is at the Green River Overlook. If you’re an early bird, take the short hike (about 20-30 minutes round trip) to Mesa arch to see one of the most stunning sunrises in the world.
With close proximity to both Arches National Park and Moab, this is great for those looking for easy hikes, stunning views, and variety for lodging and food.
Zion National Park
Zion is, possibly, the most iconic national park in Utah. Located about an hour east of St. George in southern Utah, Zion National Park has an unbelievable variety of experiences for all skill levels. The south entrance, at Springdale, is the most popular and brings you right into Zion Canyon. With soaring sandstone cliffs, while the east entrance, off of Route 9, brings you to the quieter, cooler, east side. The South Entrance has easy access to some of the best climbing walls in the world. Legendary walls like Moonlight Buttress, where you can watch world-class climbers doing their death-defying thing. Legendary hikes like Angel’s Landing for those not afraid of heights, and the Narrows (rent the water shoes, trust us), are bucket-list events for many adventurers. On the East side, hike out to Observation point for one of the best views in the entire park.
Springdale, at the south entrance, is a bustling town with lots of lodging and dining options. Be sure to pick your dates carefully for Zion, in particular. As it’s the most popular park in the state, it can get quite crowded.
Capitol Reef National Park
The baby of all of the Utah national parks, officially designated as a national park in 1971, Capitol Reef offers a quieter, less crowded national park experience. With adventures for everyone from experienced canyoneers to those looking for a leisurely drive, there’s something for everybody. For hikers, start at the Fruita area by the visitor’s center, for an abundance of choice of hiking trails. The Chimney Rock loop is not to be missed, with incredible vistas and a relatively easy trek. For drivers, the Scenic Drive is a gorgeous 8-mile stretch with some epic dirts roads for the avid off roaders. Do pay attention to the difficulty ratings, as some of the roads are quite challenging and not for the first-timers).
With the main entrance located in Torrey, UT, there’s a variety of lodging options from camping to glamping. Capitol Reef is not to be missed, especially for those seeking a little more peace and quiet.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Last, but certainly not least, is the majestic sandstone spires of Bryce Canyon National Park. Situated at a higher elevation than the other national parks in Utah, Bryce reaches altitudes of 8-9,000 feet. If you are someone who struggles with altitude, please take note. While you won’t, necessarily, be at risk of AMS here, the altitude can cause problems. You’ll feel it here.
The contrast between the vivid red rocks and the lush green alpine forest is simply stunning. The Rim Trail is an easy 5.5 mile trail good for families with breathtaking views from above of the Bryce Amphitheater. For longer, backpacking treks, check out the Under the Rim Trail. Horseback riding through Bryce is one of the bucket-list experiences you never knew you needed. It can also be a nice break for those struggling with the altitude but who still want to see all that Bryce has to offer. Don’t hesitate to check out Bryce in the winter, either, as this park is just as magnificent covered in snow as it is in the peak of summer.
The gate to Bryce is located in Bryce Canyon city that has a few lodging and restaurant options. If you’re looking for a little more variety, the nearby town of Panguitch sits about a 30 minute drive to the gate. It offers more options and bang for your buck.
*Suitcase Daze is reader supported. We may earn a small affiliate commission on any purchase made through the links on the page at no cost to you. The opinions remain my own, and I only recommend products I would use myself.