Even if you didn’t know much about Utah before moving, the national parks are one aspect you’re probably pretty familiar with. A tourism campaign launched in 2013 has brought Utah’s “Mighty 5” to national attention – some would say too accurately. Visitor numbers increased by an average of half a million visitors in each of the three years after the campaign began. They are now one of the most visited national parks in the country and attract between one and five million visitors every year.
But how well do you really know Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion National Parks?
If you think the attractions are in the name – arches, canyons, heavenly views – think again. Although all five of them are well equipped, there is much more to see. Check out the rivers, stars and even orchards.
Here’s what you should know about Utah’s Mighty 5:
Although Arches is the second smallest of Utah’s national parks, it has a monumental presence. The outline of Delicate Arch is known around the world and has become synonymous with the state. It’s even embossed on our license plates. As a result, approximately 1.5 million people visit the park annually, many of whom are determined to make the 3-mile round-trip hike to the 60-foot-tall structure.
Delicate Arch is just one of nearly 2,000 natural sandstone arches in the park. Other popular ones include Landscape Arch and Double Arch. Both can be reached in less than a 2 mile round trip hike. Many others can be viewed from the road along the 22-mile scenic drive around the park.
If you go to the park between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. from April 1st to the beginning of October, you need a reservation. Arches implemented a timed-entry pilot program two years ago to spread traffic and prevent temporary closures, and it looks like it’s here to stay. Reservations cost $2 and you must arrive within your chosen one-hour time slot (some wiggle room applies). You can also purchase your park entrance ticket when you make your reservation. In 2023, that costs $30 per car for a seven-day pass or $55 for an annual pass.
No, hoodoos are not enchanted structures, although they do seem otherworldly. The thin towers, often topped by a bulbous rock – raising questions about why they haven’t collapsed – are the main attraction in Bryce Canyon National Park. Each year they attract more than 2 million people to the park, which at 35,000 acres is the smallest of Utah’s Mighty 5.
Wind, water and frost combined to create the hoodoos, but they are not the only spectacular product of erosion in the park. Natural amphitheaters, like the one named after the park, are also worth a visit.
If it’s too dark to look further up the hoodoos, look higher up for some of the best stargazing in the country. Bryce is a designated International Dark Sky Park due to the lack of light pollution and the abundance of astronomy programs. The Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival takes place every June.
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Because of its elevation – ranging from 6,600 to 9,100 feet – Bryce is a great escape from the heat that plagues the other Mighty 5 parks in the summer. However, in winter it can be very cold and snowy. However, the park remains open for the most part at all times of the year. Only the roads to Fairyland Point and Paria View are closed for the season after the snowfall, but the main road to the park may be closed for up to a day after a storm to allow plows to clear it.
Admission to Bryce Canyon is $20-35 and passes can be purchased at entrance stations or online. No reservations are required.
Canyonlands National Park is for adventurers. Covering 337,000 acres, it is Utah’s largest national park and is divided into four districts, each offering its own recreational opportunities. They are: Island in the Sky, The Maze, Needles and The Rivers.
Island in the Sky is the most visited district, primarily because of its proximity to Arches National Park. It is a plateau on sandstone cliffs overlooking deep gorges. It is also the primary trailhead for two off-road trails: the Shafer Trail and the 100-mile White Rim Trail. Both require a vehicle with four-wheel drive, high ground clearance and low gearing. Motorcycles, mountain bikes and e-bikes are also allowed, but ATVs, OHVs and UTVs are not. A permit is required for the White Rim Trail. The journey usually takes at least two days and the bicycle journey takes at least three days. Pets are not permitted in the hinterland.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Needles district and The Maze, the two most remote areas of the Canyonlands. The Needles is like a Mighty 5 sampler pack full of hoodoos, arches, amphitheaters and rock art, as well as numerous hiking trails. Check out the Chesler Park Loop Trail, which winds through a red rock canyon, or the Joint Trail, known for its narrow slot canyons. The labyrinth more than lives up to its name. Because there are few trails, hikers in this area wind through slot canyons and over rock formations without another person, water source, or cell tower in sight. In 2008, it was the most dangerous hike in America according to Backpacker magazine. A permit is required for overnight camping.
Hiking not your thing? Try rafting or floating through the Rivers District, where the Colorado and Green rivers converge. Some of the views from the confluence include views of Dead Horse Point, Shafer Canyon and Musselman Arch.
Admission to Canyonlands costs $15 to $30. Passes can be purchased at toll booths or online.
Wrinkles are generally not viewed with awe, except in Capitol Reef National Park. A geologic monocline — a nearly 100-mile-long fold in the Earth — is the star attraction of the second-largest but second-least visited Mighty 5 in Utah. The monocline, also called the waterpocket fold, formed when tectonic forces caused the Earth’s crust to buckle. Since then, erosion has exposed the various layers of rock, revealing a palette of reds, golds and grays.
In stark contrast to this desert landscape are the park’s numerous orchards. Located just a few miles from the visitor center, the trees were planted in the fertile Fremont River Valley in the 1880s by pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The orchard includes varieties of apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears and plums that the public can pick when ripe for a fee.
There are several short hikes to cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges along State Route 24 outside the park boundaries. A fee of between $10 and $20 is required to enter the park. It can be purchased at a toll booth or online. Due to the park’s lack of shade, the best months to visit are March to June or September to November.
Zion is considered a heavyweight among Utah’s national parks. Its towering red cliffs, sweeping vistas, slot canyons and wide green river attract the third-most visitors of any national park. The majority of these nearly five million people squeeze into the 10-mile stretch between the visitor center and the Narrows in Zion Canyon, accessible only by shuttle bus. However, those who venture to the east entrance will find plenty of discoveries and slightly lighter crowds. It’s currently undergoing a facelift and offers perhaps the best view of the park from the Observation Point.
To tame the crowds, Zion requires permits for two of its most popular hiking trails: Angels Landing and The Subway. A permit must also be obtained to hike through the Narrows from top to bottom. Anyone hiking through the Narrows should also keep a close eye on the weather conditions. Often flooded with water, the “trail” is typically closed for several weeks each spring when snowmelt raises the flow of the Virgin River to unsafe levels. During the mid- to late-summer monsoon, the river is also vulnerable to potentially deadly flash floods.
A weekly park pass costs $20-35 and must be purchased at one of the entrances. Children up to 15 years have free entry.