Best Utah National Parks

As a mid-west state, Utah is known for its dry, semi-arid climate, though some mountains feature a variety of climate sand, and the best way to experience the diverse landscapes of Utah is by hiking through them! There are some very remote areas that are accessible only to serious backpackers, but routes to other stunningly beautiful scenes are merely "pleasant walks."

A rugged and geographically diverse state and at the convergence of three distinct geological regions: the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau; Utah is home to five National Parks as well as a handful of National Monuments. The Mighty Five National Parks, as they’re more commonly referred to, each possess a distinct landscape and history, making for an unforgettable road trip through canyon country. 

Angel's Landing, Zion National ParkZion National Park

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park with the park’s principal feature, the Zion Canyon, receiving its name from the Mormons who discovered it in 1858 and settled there in the early 1860s. A portion of the area was first set aside as Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909 and the monument was enlarged and renamed Zion National Monument in 1918 and was established as a national park in 1919. A prominent feature of the 229-square-mile (590 km2) park is the Zion Canyon, which is 15 miles (24 km) long and up to 2,640 ft (800 m) deep. The canyon walls are reddish and tan-coloured Navajo Sandstone  eroded by the North Fork of the Virgin River, The lowest point in the park is 3,666 ft (1,117 m) at Coalpits Wash and the highest peak is 8,726 ft (2,660 m) at Horse Ranch Mountain.

Zion National Park is home to pathways where ancient native people and pioneers walked. You can gaze up at massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky or experience wilderness in a narrow slot canyon. Zion’s unique array of plants and animals will enchant you as you absorb the rich history of the past and enjoy the excitement of adventures.

Our favourite hikes:

1. Angels Landing is a must-do and the sheer cliffs aided with a chain bolted into rock makes it the most exhilarating hike around! You’ll need a full day for this one and make sure to bring plenty of water.

2. Observation Point, aptly named, with the view taking in 270 degrees of the canyon, from the white cliffs and hideaways of Echo Canyon to Angels Landing, which is directly beneath you in every sense of the word.

3. Emerald Pools, the park’s jewel collection, a series of desert oases separated by lush vegetation, waterfalls and red rock monoliths. The trip to the first pool is quick and easy — great for kids, people in wheelchairs or the elderly.

Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon National ParkBryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is much smaller (55 square-mile - 145.02 km2) though sits much higher than Zion National Park. It lies within the Colorado Plateau and straddles the south-eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau west of the Paunsaugunt Fault. Bryce Canyon is distinctive due to geological structures called hoodoos, formed by frost weathering and stream erosion of the river and lake-bed sedimentary rocks. Bryce Canyon was not formed from erosion initiated from a central stream, meaning it technically is not a canyon. Instead headward erosion has excavated large amphitheatre-shaped features in the Cenozoic-aged rocks.

The red, orange, and white colours of the rocks provide spectacular views for hiking and you can easily sightsee using the scenic drive, which provides access to 13 viewpoints over the amphitheaters. The park has eight marked and maintained hiking trails that can be hiked in less than a day with a few trails that intersect so you can mix & match parts of multiple trails.

Our favourite hikes:

1. Fairyland Loop Trail begins at Fairyland Point, at the northern portion of the park, and takes you through spectacular hoodoos and scenery along the rim and into the canyon; including a spur trail to Tower Bridge. This hike is considered strenuous due to its length and meandering trails with multiple elevation changes. It also includes a portion of the Rim Trail from Sunset Point to Fairyland Point.

2. Peek-a-boo Loop Trail is an all-time favourite that boasts magnificent hoodoo spires and numerous rock windows. Also accessible from the Sunset Point, it’s the most straightforward and scenic route in the Park, descending down the Loop Connector via switchbacks, plunging into the neighbouring canyon by navigating a series of hairpin turns down the hill. 

Canyonlands National ParkCanyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park wasn’t legislated into law until 1964 therefore making it the newest parks out of the Mighty Five in Utah state. The park is divided into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the combined rivers—the Green and Colorado—which carved two large canyons into the Colorado Plateau. While these areas share a primitive desert atmosphere, each retains its own character.

The Island in the Sky district is a broad and level mesa in the northern section of the park, between the Colorado and Green rivers, with many viewpoints overlooking the White Rim, a sandstone bench and the rivers. The Needles district is located south of the Island in the Sky and on the east side of the Colorado River. Red and white banded rock pinnacles are a major feature of the area with various other naturally sculpted rock formations including grabens, potholes, and arches, all easily accessible on day hikes. Stone and mud dwellings are well-preserved here, from when the Ancestral Puebloans inhabited the area. The Maze district is located west of the Colorado and Green rivers and is the least accessible section of the park, and one of the most remote and inaccessible areas of the United States.

Our favourite hikes:

1. Chesler Park Loop Trail is a full day loop hike in the Needles District that sees you exploring the seclusive desert through impossibly shaped canyons, passed melting-ice-cream rock formations and across broad, grassy meadows that seem out-of-place. If you only have one day here – definitely check this one out!

2. Mesa Arch Trail is a much easier, shorter walk to an arch perched on a cliffs edge and is the perfect spot for a sunrise hike! Located on the Island in the Sky district, you’ll have vast views of canyons, rock spires and the La Sal Mountains in the distance with plenty of informative signs regarding the surrounding plant life along the trail

3. Upheaval Dome Trail is a puzzling geological feature within the park, and you’ll find information on the two possible theories on what caused the dome along your hike. The trail stops off at two overlooks along the rim of the crater, and you can choose to only hike to the first one or go further toward the dome where the trail becomes trickier.

Balanced Rock, Arches National ParkArches National Park

Arches National Park contains the highest density of natural arches in the world, including the well-known Delicate Arch. The park lies above an underground evaporite layer or salt bed, which is the main cause of the formation of the arches, spires, balanced rocks, and eroded monoliths in the area. Originally named a national monument in 1929, and re-designated as a national park in 1971, the landscape of contrasting colours, landforms, and textures is unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks.

Water shapes the environment more than any other force, with rain eroding the rock and carrying sediment down washes and canyons to the Colorado River. In winter, snowmelt pools in fractures and other cavities, freezing and expanding, breaking off chunks of sandstone, with small recesses developing and growing bigger with each storm. Eventually this process turns fractured rock layers into fins, and fins into arches! 

Our favourite hikes:

1. Delicate Arch Trail is a short hike in the National Park to Utah's most recognizable natural arch. Along the steadily uphill trail, you'll also pass the Wolfe Ranch cabin and a wall of Ute Indian petroglyphs too.

2. Devils Garden Loop Trail is a wonderful hike that allows you to see up to six natural arches including the Landscape Arch near the start of the loop. The trail begins with a moderately steep descent of Fin Canyon and you can take a detour to Private Arch halfway down if you like. Some parts can become treacherous when the rock is wet or snowy and it’s not for the faint hearted.

Capitol Reef National ParkCapitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles. It’s often overlooked for its more glamorous neighbours, Bryce & Zion, but it’s packed with excellent hiking trails, really fascinating Mormon buildings as well as 19th Century graffiti from pioneers at the time.

Designated a national monument in 1937, the park was named after its whitish Navajo Sandstone cliffs with dome formations that run from the Fremont River to Pleasant Creek, similar to the white domes often placed on capitol buildings. Most of the park is arid desert with a short scenic drive to visit the highlights and hundreds of trails leading into scenic backcountry. It doesn’t take long to get from one side of the park to the other, so you can comfortably pack a lot into just a day.

Our favourite hikes:

1. Cassidy Arch Trail is a spur off of the larger Frying Pan Trail and the Arch sits above the Scenic Drive with spectacular, photogenic at almost any angle. The trail is easy to navigate and you’ll gain elevation rapidly via well-made switchbacks leading up the canyon wall before skirting the canyon rim and ascending further to the central location of the Arch.

2. Cohab Canyon Trailhead sits at the base of a pastel-colored Chinle slope composed partially of soft clay. Above the Chinle is the mighty Wingate sandstone—near-vertical cliffs, rich in iron, flaunting a remarkable orange hue—into which much of Cohab Canyon is carved. Perhaps the most striking feature on this hike is the thousands upon thousands of Swiss cheese-like holes in the Wingate walls, you feel like you’re walking amongst large beehives!

If you are planning a trip into some of Utah's National Parks, don't forget to read about the best hikes in Utah, and make sure you get the most of your trip by visiting at the best time of the year!

Bring me to North America

Written by Tory

Born in the capital of the South Island (Christchurch... apparently!), Tory spent the first ten years of her life in Twizel - Town of Trees before heading North for University in our real Capital city, Wellington! Having travelled to Thailand for a school exchange at 17, the travel bug began as her explorations reached Nepal and Tibet before living in Australia, Peru and Canada over the years.