Planning a bucket list trip to Utah’s national parks? We’ve got you covered with the top things to do in the 5 national parks in Utah, from the most popular to the hidden gems. Utah’s Mighty Five are one of a kind. The beauty of it all is that these remarkable parks are conveniently clustered together in relatively close proximity, making it feasible to experience all of them in a single memorable journey.
Visiting the 5 National Parks in Utah – Getting Started
There are two main airport options if you’re visiting Utah’s national parks from out of state – Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. St. George and Moab also have smaller regional airports but you’ll find more options by flying into SLC or LAS.
The optimal way to visit all five national parks in Utah is to fly into Las Vegas, then visit Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands in that order. Then drive from Moab to Salt Lake City and fly home out of SLC.
The parks are close enough that you can easily visit them on a single trip but far enough apart that you will want to stay in different towns along the way. There isn’t really one single place to use as a basecamp for all five.
Get started with the drive from LAS to Zion which takes you through the desert town of St. George, which is worth a stop if you have spare time. There are lots of great things to do in St. George, like riding a UTV on some sand dunes, cliff jumping at Sand Hollow State Park, or even hiking a volcano. For Utah locals, St. George is a favorite place to visit. Don’t overlook it as you plan your trip to the national parks in Utah!
But if you’re only interested in things to do at the national parks in Utah, that’s understandable. Just head straight to the charming town of Springdale and stay the night. It’s brimming with delightful shops, gem stores, art galleries, and fantastic restaurants, making it the perfect place to start your journey. And there are lots of lodging options, from Marriott hotels to campsites and glamping resorts for a touch of luxury in the wilderness.
Things to Do in the 5 National Parks in Utah
Zion National Park
Zion National Park received a whopping five million visitors last year, a testament to its incredible majesty. But don’t let those numbers deter you from embarking on this unforgettable journey. To avoid the crowds, consider planning your visit during the quieter shoulder season, and you’re in for a real treat!
Now, let’s talk about the legendary Angel’s Landing hike. This trail got so popular in recent years that in 2022, Zion introduced a permit system to manage the crowds. It’s a challenge, no doubt, with deadly drop-offs, but the breathtaking views of the soaring Zion cliffs and the valley below are worth every heart-pounding step.
If you prefer a less risky experience, the Zion Canyon Overlook offers similarly stunning views on an easier 1-mile round trip hike.
Zion’s efficient shuttle system is your best friend for exploring the park’s wonders. With nine different stops, you can easily hop on and off the shuttle to discover the highlights for yourself. If you’re up for some adventure, there are exhilarating longer hikes like the Subway or the Narrows waiting for you as well.
The Subway and The Narrows are both popular slot canyons at Zion National Park. The Subway is a long-distance hike that requires wading and at times swimming through cold water, as well as scrambling over boulders and waterfalls. It’s only for very experienced hikers and requires a permit. Doesn’t it sound like an adventure, though?!
As an alternative, the Narrows (the bottom-up route) isn’t as intense. It’s also an out-and-back hike without any particular viewpoint or end destination, so you can simply hike as far up as you desire before turning back around.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Once you’ve finished at Zion, you’ll want to pack up and head over to Bryce Canyon National Park, located just 90 minutes from the East entrance of Zion. And the good news is the drive is incredibly scenic and takes you through the Mt Carmel tunnel – a 1-mile tunnel under the Zion cliffs.
Stop in Mt Carmel Junction for a meal and a slice of pie at the famous roadside diner, Thunderbird Café. Next stop, Bryce Canyon!
Bryce Canyon National Park is a stunning natural wonderland known for its unique and captivating rock formations, amphitheatres, and thousands of hoodoos. If you’ve never heard of the Hoodoos, they are essentially huge limestone pillars with an orange hue.
The coolest way to experience the uniqueness of the hoodoos is to take the Navajo Loop trail and hike down into the natural amphitheatre. You’ll traverse steep switchbacks and pass by famous features like Wall Street and Thor’s Hammer. These unique sights are what make this one of the best hikes – make sure it’s high on your Utah bucket list!
Navajo Loop is only 1.7 miles so you’ll have time to hike other trails as well. The park offers a variety of hiking trails that cater to different skill levels. Besides the Navajo Loop, the most famous hike is the Queen’s Garden Trail.
The longer Fairyland Loop and Peekaboo Loop provide even more impressive views. Or if hiking is a bit too slow-paced for you, then you could try your hand at horseback riding along the trails for a great Old West experience. Ruby’s Horseback Experience and Canyon Trail Rides offer some fantastic guided tours.
Another popular thing to do at Bryce Canyon is riding a bike among the incredible scenery. One option is to rent e-bikes and go for a leisurely ride on the 17-mile Red Canyon paved bike trail. Or for the adrenaline junkies, you can go mountain biking at nearby Red Canyon which offers similar scenery as Bryce Canyon.
Whatever you do, make sure you end your day at Sunset Point for a great photo opp. Bryce Canyon is renowned for its stunning sunrise and sunset views. Watching the changing colors and shadows as the sun rises or sets over the hoodoos is a mesmerizing experience. Sunrise Point and Sunset Point are two popular spots for this.
Don’t wear yourself out too bad with all the hiking and biking, because you’ll want to stay awake for the out-of-this-world stargazing. The clear, high-altitude skies provide exceptional opportunities to view celestial wonders. Rangers offer nightly sky programs and you’ll be able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.
For lodging near Bryce Canyon, Ruby’s Inn is a great option with a cool rustic vibe that makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time to the Old West. It’s now owned by Best Western, but it’s been around for over a hundred years.
Capitol Reef National Park
The next stop on your journey through the five national parks in Utah is Capitol Reef National Park.
To get there from Bryce Canyon, take Highway 12 through Escalante – it’s considered one of the best in the country. If you have more time to explore, you could easily spend a couple of days exploring the vast Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and its many slot canyons and other landmarks.
Capitol Reef is probably the most underrated of Utah’s Mighty 5. One of the most unique things to do in the five national parks in Utah is explore the mix of ancient Native American and 1800s pioneer history found at Capitol Reef – it’s what makes this park so unique.
Start your day by checking out the petroglyphs left by the ancient Fremont people as well as the historic buildings built by Mormon pioneers. Then head over to the Gifford Homestead, where you can walk through fruit orchards and order some fresh-baked pie inside an old pioneer cabin. Don’t wait until late in the day because the pies always sell out.
Work off that sugar rush by taking a hike – Cassidy Arch or Hickman Bridge are the most popular. Hickman Bridge is an impressive natural bridge but the trail itself is just as stunning. The trail takes you through a scenic desert landscape, with opportunities to view ancient petroglyphs along the way. The hike is relatively short at 1.8 miles and accessible for most skill levels.
The Cassidy Arch Trail takes you on a moderately challenging hike to reach Cassidy Arch, named after the notorious outlaw Butch Cassidy. The trail offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, with colorful canyons and rock formations. The arch itself is an impressive natural formation, and the hike provides an opportunity for a great photo op.
One of the coolest things to do in Utah’s National Parks is glamping. Luxury camping in Utah’s most pristine wilderness is a truly memorable experience. In keeping with the history theme of Capitol Reef, you can either go glamping in a conestoga covered wagon or a Native American-style teepee.
Both are really cool options and surprisingly spacious inside. One wagon can easily fit a family of six with a king bed, bunk beds, and a couch! There’s a luxury option at the Capitol Reef Resort or a budget option at the Broken Spur Inn.
Arches & Canyonlands National Parks
Your Utah national parks journey culminates in the vibrant town of Moab, where you’ll find yourself in close proximity to not one, but two spectacular national parks. It’s a bit paradoxical – on one hand, you have a national park so popular that it now requires reservations to manage the hordes, while on the other, you’ll encounter the least-visited gem among Utah’s national parks.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is a hidden treasure that beckons you to escape the bustling crowds. It’s a colossal expanse, most of which remains untouched by the average visitor unless they’re up for some rugged backcountry exploration. However, fear not, as there are still numerous accessible landmarks that will leave you awestruck.
Mesa Arch stands out as one of the best, especially if you recall it from that iconic Windows 7 wallpaper over a decade ago. Ever since, capturing the arch during sunrise has become a bucket list shot for almost all aspiring photographers. Admittedly, you’ll share the moment with other enthusiasts and their tripods, but trust us, it’s absolutely worth the experience.
After an early morning hike to witness the sunrise at Mesa Arch, you’ll return to the adventure mecca that is Moab. The options for thrill-seekers are endless – from whitewater rafting on the Colorado River to tackling the renowned Slick Rock or Porcupine Rim on your mountain bike.
Alternatively, you can embark on a thrilling desert journey in a Jeep or UTV. Local outfitters are at your service for guided tours, and having an expert along for the ride is highly recommended.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park boasts over 2,000 natural arches and the best hikes at Arches are easily doable in a single day. Double Arch, immortalized by the opening scene of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” is a must-see.
Then there’s the Landscape Arch, the world’s longest arch. Yet, the most iconic of them all is the Delicate Arch, an unofficial symbol of Utah itself, adorning everything from license plates to the Utah Jazz’s home court.
But don’t forget to reserve some time for your evenings in charming Moab, where you’ll discover a wealth of shops, diners, breweries, and surprisingly exceptional restaurants.
As you make your way back to Salt Lake City from Moab, you’ll embark on a journey lasting approximately 3 ½ hours, primarily a travel day.
With these tips, you can visit all 5 National Parks in Utah on one trip. However, if you find any spare moments, consider dedicating a few hours to exploring the cultural landmarks and attractions of Utah’s capital city. Historic Temple Square and City Creek offer some great dining, shopping, and sightseeing that may be a nice change of pace after several days in the outdoors before reacquainting yourself with reality.
About the Author
JJ Haglund is the creative mind and adventurer behind The Minivan Bucket List. She loves traveling with her family, especially road-tripping around their home state of Utah.
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