The Mighty 5: Utah’s Stunning National Parks

Arches National Park in Utah

When it comes to national parks, the United States has its fair share of iconic ones. From the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone to Yosemite, the National Parks Service recognizes some of America's most epic landscapes and ecosystems with its 59 national parks – and that's not even counting the 350 additional memorials, monuments, historic parks, and more that the NPS manages.

But I have to confess that I think Utah really takes the cake when it comes to national parks.

Angel's Landing in Zion National Park

Angel's Landing in Zion National Park

I've suggested before that Utah may be the most beautiful state in the U.S. It has everything from snowy mountains to arid desert, and the southern part of the state is just out of this world when it comes to scenery.

Which is probably why southern Utah is home to not one, not two, but FIVE different national parks. These parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches – are collectively known as “The Mighty 5.”

And, having visited all five of them, I have to say that the name is well-suited.

Sunset Point at Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

If you are planning a road trip around the American Southwest, you won't want to skip southern Utah. And, to make it easier to decide which of the Mighty 5 parks you'll want to visit, here's what you need to know about each one.

Note: This post does contain some affiliate links to hotels I recommend. 

Zion National Park

If you're headed into southern Utah from Las Vegas (which is the route I took on my most recent Southwest road trip), Zion will be the first park you'll encounter. It became a national park in 1919, and many people cite it as their favorite national park in America. (It might be my new favorite, too!)

Entry: $30 per private vehicle

Getting around: You can drive the Mount Carmel Highway east from Zion to where it joins with US 89 any time of year (and I do definitely recommend this drive – it's gorgeous!), but for the rest of the park, you have to use Zion's free shuttle service to get around from March to October. You can park at the visitor's center or in the nearby town of Springdale and use the shuttle to get to various trailheads and lookouts.

Mount Carmel Highway in Zion National Park

Mount Carmel Highway

Mount Carmel Highway in Zion National Park

Mount Carmel Highway

What it's known for: Zion is known for its towering mountains and canyons, which were carved out by the Virgin River. It's also known for popular (if difficult) hikes like Angels Landing and The Narrows.

Angel's Landing in Zion National Park

The view from the top of Angel's Landing

If you have one day: With just one day, I would suggest tackling some of Zion's shorter hikes. Perhaps Angels Landing in the morning, and then an easy hike to the Emerald Pools in the afternoon. Or, if Angels Landing is a bit too strenuous for you, take a hike along the Virgin River, or walk the paved Pa'rus Trail. You could also rent a bike for half a day if you'd prefer to cycle rather than hike.

RELATED: I Hiked to Angels Landing and Didn't Die!

Angel's Landing in Zion National Park

The spine of Angel's Landing

Emerald Pools at Zion National Park

Lower Emerald Pool

If you have more than one day: The Narrows – the famous hike that has you exploring Zion's narrow slot canyons – takes a full day, so I would only suggest it if you are in Zion for more than one day. It's a tough trail that requires you to wade through the river, so it's usually only open during the summer months when there's no threat of rain. If there's *any* chance of flash flooding, you don't want to attempt this hike.

Where to stay: The town of Springdale is less than 5 minutes away from the entrance to Zion. The town is adorable, and has plenty of hotels and restaurants to pick from. I stayed at the La Quinta Inn Zion Park/Springdale, which is a newer property with big rooms and mountain views. (Read reviews | Book here)

Rainbow at Zion National Park

Rainbow in Springdale

Bryce Canyon National Park

The next park along the Utah parks trail is Bryce Canyon, which can be reached via US 89 from Zion. Even though it also is filled with sandstone like Zion, the rock formations here are entirely different.

Entry: $30 per private vehicle

Getting around: During the summer months, a free shuttle takes visitors to all of Bryce's popular viewpoints, but it's not mandatory here like in Zion. You can self-drive through Bryce, too, and stop off at all the viewpoints – just beware of possible snow/ice, since Bryce is at a higher elevation.

What it's known for: Bryce Canyon is known for its eroded sandstone towers known as hoodoos – the National Park Service says Bryce has the largest collection of hoodoos anywhere in the world! Stopping at all the viewpoints, therefore, is the most popular thing to do at Bryce Canyon (Sunset Point and Inspiration Point are my favorites).

Inspiration Point at Bryce Canyon National Park

The Amphitheater from Inspiration Point

If you have one day: If you only have one day at Bryce, be sure to make it to all the overlooks and viewpoints. Start all the way out at Rainbow Point, and then make your way back in: Inspiration Point, Natural Bridge, Sunset Point, etc. There's an easy rim walk between Sunset Point and Sunrise Point that's worth doing, too.

Inspiration Point at Bryce Canyon National Park

Inspiration Point

Natural Bridge at Bryce Canyon National Park

Natural Bridge

Sunrise Point at Bryce Canyon National Park

Rim walk between Sunrise and Sunset points

If you have more than one day: Get down inside the canyon if you have the time. The best hike to get up-close with the hoodoos is the Navajo Loop, which you can join up with either Wall Street (in the summer) or the Queen's Garden trail (usually open year-round) for a complete hike. Or, if you want something longer and more strenuous, check out the Peek-A-Boo Loop.

RELATED: A Foggy, Soggy Day at Bryce Canyon

Hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park

Navajo Loop

Hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park in the fog

Queen's Garden Trail

Where to stay: Bryce Canyon is kind of in the middle of nowhere, but there are a couple of hotels within a few miles of the park's entrance. I stayed at the Best Western PLUS Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel, which is large and newer and had a good free breakfast buffet (Read reviews | Book here). Nearby Ruby's Inn is also popular (and is basically the only place to have dinner near the park in the off-season).

Capitol Reef National Park

As far as national parks go, poor Capitol Reef is the park that gets overlooked the most often in Utah. If you head east from Bryce on UT-12 and UT-24, you'll drive through a portion of Capitol Reef starting in the town of Torrey – but many people don't stop. If Capitol Reef was in any other state, it probably would be really popular! But, in Utah, it's usually the park people spend the least amount of time in. (And I'm guilty of it, too!)

Entry: $10 per private vehicle

Getting around: Driving yourself is the only way to get around Capitol Reef. You'll see some of the park's famous rock formations (for free) if you're driving along UT-24, but to really see the park, you need to tackle the scenic drive within Capitol Reef's fee area.

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah

The Fluted Wall is along UT-24.

What it's known for: Located in the heart of Utah's red rock country, Capitol Reef is known for its cliffs and canyons in the Waterpocket Fold, which is essentially a wrinkle in the earth's crust.

If you have one day: One day is enough to see the highlights of Capitol Reef, which include all the stops along the scenic drive. You'll see cliffs, canyons, ancient petroglyphs, rippled rock, and more.

Petroglyphs in Capitol Reef National Park

Petroglyphs in Capitol Reef

If you have more than one day: There's some hiking to be done in Capitol Reef, including 15 day-hikes that range from short and easy to more strenuous. You can check out the hikes here. (Full disclosure: I didn't do any hiking here, so I can't recommend any specific trails.)

Where to stay: The small town of Fruita is at the center of Capitol Reef National Park, but the town of Torrey has more options when it comes to hotels. Check out the Capitol Reef Resort, which would be my top pick in the area. (Read reviews | Book here)

Canyonlands National Park

Next up is Canyonlands, in southeastern Utah near the town of Moab. Canyonlands is actually broken into three different sections: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze, and has two major visitor centers (one at Island in the Sky, and one at The Needles).

Entry: $25 per private vehicle

Getting around: Self-driving is the best way to explore Canyonlands, especially if you want to visit more than one section of the park. (There's roughly 60 miles of road between the Island in the Sky and Needles entrances, for example.)

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

Island in the Sky

What it's known for: True to its name, Canyonlands is famous for its canyons and buttes that have been carved out by the Colorado River (the same river that carved out the Grand Canyon). It's also known for its excellent mountain biking, with the 100-mile White Rim Road at Island in the Sky being the most popular trail.

Island in the Sky at Canyonlands National Park

White Rim Road

If you have one day: The Island in the Sky district is the easiest to access – it's less than an hour from Moab, and paved roads make it easy to reach all the viewpoints and trailheads. With one day, I would recommend visiting the famous Mesa Arch in the morning (it's really popular at sunrise), going to the viewpoints at Grand View Point and the Green River Overlook, and then doing a short hike out to Upheaval Dome.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch

Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park

Upheaval Dome

If you have more than one day: With an extra day, definitely drive out to The Needles, which is the second-most-accessible district in Canyonlands. The Needles is made more for hikers, with an extensive system of more than 60 miles of interconnecting trails.

Where to stay: Canyonlands is most easily accessed from Moab. I stayed in a cute Airbnb apartment (get a free Airbnb credit here!), but there are also plenty of hotels and motels in town (along with lots of restaurants) to choose from. Check out the La Quinta Inn and Suites Moab, or the Holiday Inn Express Moab.

Arches National Park

The last of the Might 5 parks is Arches, also close to Moab in southeastern Utah. This park is very different from the other four on this list, and I also think is one of the most accessible since it's only about 15 minutes from Moab and is filled with short, easy walks to see the famous arches.

Entry: $25 per private vehicle

Getting around: There are no shuttles at Arches, so you'll need your own vehicle to explore the 18-mile-long scenic road through the park.

What it's known for: The sandstone arches, of course! The park has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, along with pinnacles, cliffs, and balanced rocks. The rocks are also a brilliant orange-red, which looks great in photos.

Double Arch at Arches National Park

Double Arch

Park Avenue at Arches National Park

Park Avenue

If you have one day: In the morning, explore the scenic road and stop off at some of the viewpoints/shorter walks – Park Avenue, Balanced Rock, the Windows Section, and Double Arch would be my top picks. In the evening, hit the trail out to Delicate Arch, the most famous arch in the park and the symbol of the state of Utah. The hike is tough going up, so allow yourself 1-1.5 hours to reach the arch in time for sunset. At sunset, the sun paints Delicate Arch an incredible rusty orange color.

RELATED: Iconic Utah: A Sunset at Delicate Arch

North Window arch

Balanced Rock at Arches National Park

Balanced Rock

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park at sunset

Delicate Arch at sunset

If you have more than one day: You can see all the major highlights of Arches in just one day, but if you have a second day, consider the Devils Garden Trail hike (7.2 miles total), or perhaps a ranger-guided hike of Fiery Furnace.

Where to stay: Arches is most easily accessed from Moab. I stayed in a cute Airbnb apartment (get a free Airbnb credit here!), but there are also plenty of hotels and motels in town (along with lots of restaurants) to choose from. Check out the La Quinta Inn and Suites Moab, or the Holiday Inn Express Moab.

Know before you go

Before you head out to the Mighty 5, here are a few more tips for you:

  1. Bring water. You'll always find water bottle filling stations at the visitor centers of each park, but you usually won't find any along the hiking trails or even along the scenic drives. Zion and Bryce are at higher elevation, but still get warm in the summer. And Canyonlands and Arches get downright HOT, with daytime summer temperatures frequently reaching 100 degrees (F). MAKE SURE you have enough water with you, especially if you plan to do any longer hikes. I recommend getting a daypack with at a built-in reservoir rather than carrying just one water bottle. I like the CamelBak Aurora (70 oz), the CamelBak Aventura (100 oz), and the Osprey Raven (100 oz).
  2. Wear good shoes. If you're just doing scenic drives, your flip flops will be fine. But if you decide to tackle any of the longer hikes, you NEED proper footwear. And I don't just mean your favorite pair of hot pink Sketchers – you need hiking boots. I saw people with Converse and Sketchers on the Angel's Landing trail, and they were slipping and sliding all over the slickrock (sandstone). I love my Merrell Moab hiking boots (they're even NAMED after a spot in Utah!) – I wore them for every hike on this trip.
  3. Be prepared for every kind of weather. Many of Utah's national parks have their own little micro-climates – meaning you can never fully predict what the weather will be like. Wear layers that you can shed (or put back on), and always pack a raincoat in your daypack. (I love the Columbia Arcadia II jacket, as it's very waterproof.)
  4. Beware the sun. Getting sunburnt is the worst – avoid it by applying (and re-applying) sunscreen, and wearing a hat when possible.
  5. Get a National Parks Pass. If you do the math, visiting the Mighty 5 all in one trip will set you back $120. This is where an annual pass for the national parks comes in handy. The “American the Beautiful” pass costs $80 and is good for 12 months – meaning it will save you quite a bit of money if you plan to visit a bunch of national parks.

Which of the Mighty 5 parks would YOU most like to visit?

 

A guide to Utah's Mighty 5 national parks

 

*Note: There are some affiliate links in this post, meaning if you book/buy something after clicking, I will get a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. This is a great way for you to support my site by doing something you were going to do anyway!

65 Comments

  • Brian says:

    Love this! I’ve only been to Zion and that was just a long day trip from Vegas. Definitely plan to go back and this sounds like a great road trip! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Ty says:

    Loved this post! Maybe because I love these parks and can envision being there as I read and viewed your pictures. I also totally agree with you about the state of Utah being the most beautiful of them all! It’s amazing how varied that state is.

  • Stef says:

    This is so useful! Thank you. I’m heading there in summer and am currently planning where to go and how much time to spend. This post is coming to the right time!
    Stef recently posted..Akumal Mexico: Snorkel with sea turtles for free

  • Ijana says:

    Man I want to see more of Utah’s parks now! I’ve been to Bryce Canyon and Zion, but it was so long ago that I don’t remember them much. I’d love to do a road trip starting in Vegas and hitting all the Utah parks before heading into Colorado and seeing Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a park no one ever talks about.

  • Carrie says:

    We visited all 5 while living in New Mexico, and I absolutely agree with your post! Incredible parks, so much space to hike and never see another person. I would add that if you plan to visit multiple parks, the National Parks annual pass is a superb investment. It’s only $80/year and gives you unlimited access to every US national park and about 2,000 wildlife refuges, BLM lands, and national forests, including parking fees. Plus, 4th graders can get in free this year, courtesy of Obama, and active duty military can get free annual passes. We have the best national park system in the world!

  • Our Wanders says:

    It is such a beautiful and useful post! We are also huge fans of US national parks and yeah, Zion is one of our favorites. 😀 As for the most beautiful state though, for us nothing can beat California’s national and state parks. 😀 We haven’t been to any of the other 4 mighty ones, but Bryce Canyon and Arches are high on the list if we travel to the US again!
    Our Wanders recently posted..Crazy Spring Days In Krakow

    • Amanda says:

      California is much more diverse, landscape-wise, than Utah – so I can totally understand that! Next time you’re in the US, you should most definitely fit in Bryce and Arches!

  • Mel says:

    Amazing post! I’d love to stay in Utah for a bit to really get to know all of these parks! Beautiful photos

  • Dan Perry says:

    Thanks for sharing so many beautiful photos. They really make me want to go.
    Dan Perry recently posted..The Mausoleum of Genghis Khan

  • Anita says:

    Beautiful pictures and lovely trip reports. What time of year do you recommend going?

    • Amanda says:

      Good question! Summer is the most popular time – all the shuttles will be running, and all the roads/trails will be open. But summer is also when the parks are the most crowded, and when it gets the hottest. Spring and autumn are better for crowds/temperatures, but some roads/trails can be affected by snow/ice From mid-October to mid-May.

  • I love Utah – been to all of these parks except Capitol Reef. Even spent a week rafting through Canyonlands, which was amazing!

    I highly recommend the ranger hike through Fiery Furnace at Arches…it was super cool down there!

  • Liam says:

    You’re right. Utah really delivers when it comes to National Parks. So many amazing ones to check out. I’d love to do a similar trip. What time of year do you think is the best time to go? It looks beautiful in your photos with a bit of snow around.

    • Amanda says:

      We went in April, which I liked – less crowds, and cooler weather. Though not all the trails were open yet, and the shuttles at Bryce don’t start up until May. (Also, if you want to tack on a visit to the Grand Canyon, the North Rim also doesn’t open until mid-May.) I think early fall (like late September) would also be a great time to go, though I haven’t personally visited during that time.

  • Thank you for this post! I hoping to visit these parks in the next couple years. This post is extremely helpful. Utah seems like such a unique & beautiful place!
    Kaili Willows recently posted..NEW YORK: Hiking Breakneck Ridge

  • Nice post. And some really beautiful photos!
    Stephen Garone recently posted..College Without the Classes: A Trio of Celebrated Sites at UBC Vancouver

  • Stephanie says:

    Nice pictures! Utah has been inching up on my places to explore list and I can see why even more so! Super informative post you’ve got.
    Stephanie recently posted..How to Be A Better Photographer?

  • Debbie says:

    What airport would you recommend flying into? Planning to visit all 5 if possible. Thinking of Flying into Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.

    • Amanda says:

      We flew into Vegas, since we did a loop that also included northern Arizona. It’s also usually easier to find cheap flights to Vegas rather than Salt Lake.

  • Lili says:

    Beautiful photos! I’m not usually an “outdoor girl” but national parks and photos like this make me want to try!
    Lili recently posted..Horseback Riding Red Rock Canyon, Nevada

    • Amanda says:

      Same here! I like being outdoors (especially for photography), but I’m usually not the hiking type. BUT, I made myself do a few hikes on this trip because the parks are just too epic not to!

  • Sophie says:

    I wanna get to Utah SO badly! What a beautiful part of America! Love your photos too 🙂

  • Beautiful photographs! Great advice about the National Parks Pass. Hopefully, it manages to save travelers a lot of money.
    Mary @ Green Global Travel recently posted..Spring Outdoor Gear Review

  • Natalie says:

    You always have such great photos! I’m trying to visit more of the parks in the Pacific Northwest, but I may have to make a visit to Utah too!

  • Vinodh says:

    Great post, Amanda. Do you think 20 days is adequate for a leisurely drive through the Big 5 plus the Northern rim of Grand Canyon? Are there enough gas stations around?

    • Amanda says:

      Yes and yes! My boyfriend and I just did a trip to 4 of the 5 parks in Utah, along with Page, Arizona, and the Grand Canyon, and took 8 days. 20 days would be more than enough! Some places can be quite sparse as far as gas stations go, so my advice is to fill up when you see one!

      One note on the Grand Canyon – the North Rim is only open from mid-May to October. So if you’re traveling any other time of year, you’ll have to go to the South Rim.

  • Krisana says:

    Very helpful post. I plan to visit mighty 5 with my husband and my dad(61 years old) in this summer. Do you think he can do the trail? If we would like to stay(camping) inside the park, can we do it? What time is the park closed? Thank you so much. Your post is helping a lot.

    • Amanda says:

      Hi Krisana. Which trail are you referring to? Each park has trails at varying levels, ranging from flat and easy to very strenuous. And it of course also depends on how fit your father is!

      You can camp in the park, but only at designated campsites (which you sometimes will need to book ahead of time in the summer months). And I believe all the parks in Utah are open 24 hours a day (though of course the visitor centers operate normal business hours).

  • Great photos! We visited 4 out of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks during our West Coast road trip. I think Arches was my favourite, but it’s definitely a hard choice. They’re all stunningly beautiful! Did you do the Devil’s Garden Trail? We did. I nearly died! No, I’m exaggerating of course, but it was an adventurous hike to say the least! Barely any shade and the last part is a sand path, extra tiring. But it was worth it, the views are amazing! Especially at Double O Arch. Thanks for sharing!

    • Amanda says:

      We unfortunately didn’t have time for the Devil’s Garden trail – opted to hike to Delicate Arch at sunset instead! But that hike is definitely on my “next time” list – though perhaps not in the summer!

  • Tay says:

    Dying to visit Arches!!

  • Megan says:

    This is SO incredibly helpful! I’m planning on doing the Mighty 5 next year starting in Vegas and your guide is perfection. Knowing the length of time for different spots is great for planning stops, flights, etc. Thanks so much for writing!

  • Kathleen Cotter says:

    Beautiful and awe inspiring. Hope to go next spring. We would like to see Salt Lake City and the great Salt Lake. Do you think the ride is worth it?

    • Amanda says:

      To be honest, I still haven’t been to Salt Lake! It’s kind of far from the Mighty 5, so you would definitely need an extra couple of days to devote to it.

  • Jan Hadley says:

    Amazing photos. Can’t wait for our trip to the Mighty 5 in March .Have found your report very helpful for our planning.

    • Amanda says:

      So glad to hear that you found this post helpful! Be sure to bring some warm layers in March, too – there will likely still be snow up at higher elevations!

  • Muffy trimmer says:

    Hi Amanda! Loved your pictures and your tips! We are planning a trip in June to the Mighty 5. I’m thinking 9 days. Fly in mid morning to Vegas on a Wed and heading straight to Zion. Doing the 5 parks then heading south to Page and possibly swinging by the North Rim then back to Vegas and fly out late Thursday. Does this seem reasonable? We will have to keep moving but I’m hoping we can still thoroughly enjoy our time. 😊thanks for any input! Muffy

    • Amanda says:

      Definitely seems reasonable! That’s very similar to what Elliot and I did last year, and we only had 9-10 days, too. (I’ll be writing up a version of our exact itinerary in a few weeks!)

  • Tom says:

    Hi , my name is Tom. I’ve lived in utah all my life. Most of my vacations have been to south western and south eastern it. There are so many places in southern utah that no one will ever hear about yet are as or more unbelievable than the mighty five. Don’t get me wrong, the parks are like nothing on the planet. But when your there ask the locals about some of southern Utah’s most secret or hidden treasures. Words cannot describe.

    • Amanda says:

      Would love to hear your tips for next time, Tom!

      • tom says:

        im getting old , so the best thing i can do is to say google these places. sego canyon alien rock art, snow canyon petroglygh loop, you might have heard of a place called the wave. on the utah arizona border. you can only get there by entering a lottery in kanab utah . every morning they allow twenty people in for the day. also there is pando the tremling gaint, kodachrome basin, yant flat,babylon arch ,fantasy canyon. coral pink sand dunes, and if you want a trip of a lifetime you have to rent a house boat at bullfrog marina on lake powell and cruise down the colorado river to rainbow bridge national monument. take all your friends or family. beware of nude sunbathers. there is lots more but ill end here.

        • Amanda says:

          Awesome suggestions! There’s also a lottery for Wave permits that takes place in advance – entered twice last year, but sadly didn’t get chosen!

  • Tom says:

    If you ever come to northern Utah there are some amazing Scenic drives . Mirror lake highway takes you through what we call the High Unitas, the only mt range in the United States that runs east to west. The Alpine loop takes you up and over the top of the wasatch mts to Robert Redfords Sundance Resort, Then on to Park City. One more is hwy 89 from Logan Utah up and over the top to Bear lake , then on to Jackson hole the Grand Tetons and then Yellowstone . You drive along the Snake River on the way. What an amazing drive in the fall. Probably to much information.

  • Pat Rea says:

    Great piece, good advice. We are visiting in late April so I noted your advice. we are traveling from Salt Lake to Las Vegas and looking forward to the trip. Thank you…

  • Diana Sanderson says:

    Do NOT miss Cedar Breaks National Monument. It’s north of Zion and west of Bryce; sits at 10000ft and is spectacular. It’s small, so you can do it well within a day. Some good short hikes. My husband had a problem with the elevation, so be careful.

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