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Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks

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Now that I am officially a Southwesterner, I can’t help but get excited about all the regional destinations that are right in my backyard! Whether it spots like Las Cruces or Santa Fe, new explorations in Tucson, or planned trips to Albuquerque and Page, we are going to have plenty to do and we will be spoiled! Another area that I feel truly blessed to be near is the wonderful state and national parks in Southern Utah including its Mighty 5.

During our year on the road, we spent over 45 days in Southern Utah which allowed us to visit the Mighty 5. Utah is graced with a multitude of beautiful state and national parks, but these 5 are standouts: Zion National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park. The best part of all is that they are in relatively close proximity to each other. If you are starting in Zion and finish in Canyonlands, the total drive is 10 hours. That can be done in a week, less if you push it.

Whichever one of the Mighty 5 you choose, you will not be disappointed! Be sure to pack a National Park Annual Pass to save money on entrance fees!

Zion National Park

utah mighty 5 - zion national park virgin river at sunrise
Photo credit: Sel & Poivre Photography

We’ve been to Zion National Park twice, once in May of 2012 when we spent 2 days and then again this past January for 2 weeks. Zion has great hikes including the famous Angel’s Landing and Subway, along with the Overlook Trail; a great scenic drive where you can see spots like the Checkerboard Mesa; and stunning vistas and rock formations inside Zion and from Kolob Canyon. It’s beautiful all year round with plenty to photograph.

More with Zion National Park:

Zion National Park in the Winter
Weekly Wanderings #53 – Zion
Weekly Wanderings #54 – Zion & On the Road
Things to do while Staying near Zion National Park

Locations: Entrances at Springdale, UT 84767 OR State Route 9 West (24 miles after the Mount Caramel Junction). There is a separate entrance for Kolob Canyons which is at Exit 40 off of Interstate 15.

Canyonlands National Park

utah mighty 5 - Canyonlands National Park Horseshoe Bend Arial View
Photo credit: Sel & Poivre Photography

Canyonlands is another park we visited twice, the first time in 2012 (when we suffered from dust storms) and then again last year. This is the largest park in all of Utah and is broken up into 3 districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, and The Maze. I think it’s safe to say that most people visit the Island in the Sky because its entrance is the one closest to Moab plus you need a 4×4 off-road vehicle to visit the Maze.

We visited all 3, but would love to see more of the Maze, it takes 15-20 days with no services to get through the whole thing, so you have to pack in your own fuel, water, etc. Highlights in the Island in the Sky: the Mesa Arch, Grand View Point, Green River Overlook, Shafer Canyon Overlook (or drive a bit of it as we did!), and Upheaval Dome. In Needle don’t miss Elephant Hill, Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook, Cave Spring, and Roadside Ruin.

More with Canyonlands National Park:

Canyonlands National Park
7 Things To Do in Moab

Locations: Island of Sky entrance: From US 191 turn onto UT 313 and drive 22 miles, (you will also pass Dead Horse Ranch State Park which is really cool!) the park is 40 minutes from Moab. Needles District: from US 191 take UT 211 for 35 miles, it’s 90 minutes from Moab. Directions to the Maze are considerably more difficult, first, you have to get to the Hans Flat Ranger Station, a turn-off just past Goblin Valley State Park, which turns off is a dirt road that goes for nearly 50 miles. Once you get there, the canyons of the maze are another 3-6 hours on high-clearance 4×4, so you really have to know what you are doing to get there!

Arches National Park

If you are visiting either the Island of Sky or Needles areas of Canyonlands National Park, it’s an absolute must to also visit Arches National Park, particularly if you are staying in Moab since the entrance is only 5 miles from town! It’s one of the smallest parks and totally doable in a day, but if you have more time, you should make it. We did a few sunrises there, sunsets are a lot more crowded, but there are great moderate hikes for just about anyone. Highlights of the park include Delicate Arch (and many other arches), the Three Gossips, Balanced Rock (and many other rocks), Fiery Furnace and so much more including off-road drives (when they are open) on Potach Road.

More with Arches National Park:

Arches National Park
7 Things To Do in Moab

Location: Right off of Highway 191, 5 miles north of Moab.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Granted, we visited Bryce Canyon in March so it was cold, but the burnt orange peaks covered with snow were absolutely spectacular from the Rim Trail and Inspiration Point. And the cold, crisp air made hiking a breeze, as long as we bundled up! We had warmer days that allowed us to really enjoy the Queen’s Garden Trail and the Navajo Loop Trail. There is a wonderful bike trail running from the Lodge just outside into the park that is very family-friendly. The vistas will blow you away!

Location: From US-89 take UT-12 East until UT-63 south to the park.

Capitol Reef National Park

utah mighty 5 - Capitol Reef Gypsum Sinkhole Trail
Photo credit: Sel & Poivre Photography

Last but not least, because it’s my favorite, is Capitol Reef. To me, this park had a little bit of everything. Red canyons and rock formations, small arches, great off-road trails, and pie. Maybe that’s what did it. The park hosts an exhibition in the Fruita Historic district depicting how Mormon pioneers settled the area and one of the things they did was grow fruit. The orchards are still there today and used in the pies sold in the park! I can still picture the monoliths we visited on the Cathedral Valley Scenic Backway in my head. It was such a heady experience (a) driving to them and (b) standing at the bottom of them. And the sunsets from the overlooks? Stunning!

More with Capitol Reef National Park:

Offroad Capitol Reef
Weekly Wanderings #12 – Capitol Reef

Location: You can access the park from either I-70 or I-15, the directions are a bit link, so I’m going to link you to the NPS site, but basically the park entrance is off of UT-24.

More on our National Park:

Happy 100 Years to the National Park Service!!
America’s Treasure – National Parks

How much I loved Utah. When the universe was handing out pretty landscapes to the states, I think Utah got back in line a few times. Southern Utah in particular. And best of all it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump away from our new home in Phoenix!

How about you? Have you been to Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks? Do you have a favorite? Do tell!

For a visual summary of this post, check out my Mighty 5 web story!

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Utah Might 5 National Parks
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