National Parks in Utah: Explore the Best Utah National Parks

National Parks in Utah hold a special place in the hearts of outdoor enthusiasts, and their significance is encapsulated in the keyword “national parks in Utah.” Although Utah may not boast the highest number of national parks like California, its landlocked beauty is unparalleled. Utah’s national park system is revered as the best and most spectacular in the nation, drawing people worldwide to witness its natural wonders.

National Parks in Utah: Explore the Best Utah National Parks

What makes Utah a haven for outdoor enthusiasts is the fact that 80 percent of the state reserved to public use. The diverse and breathtaking landscapes provide a unique experience for those seeking adventure in the great outdoors.

Utah is home to the renowned “Mighty 5” national parks—Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Nestled in southern Utah, each park boasts distinct features and nature, showcasing some of the most stunning Western landscapes and significant geological history in the entire National Park System of the United States.

In addition to the “Mighty 5,” Utah hosts 12 protected areas managed by the national park system, including National Monuments, National Recreation Areas, and National Historic Trails. Each area competes with the Mighty 5 in beauty and offers a rich tapestry of natural wonders.

In the following sections, we explore each of Utah’s remarkable national parks, offering insights and overviews of the best things to see and do in these captivating landscapes.

National Parks in Utah Map

National Parks in Utah

National Parks in Utah: Arches National Park
Arches National Park, Utah

1. Arches National Park

Located in southeastern Utah, Arches National Park is a geological treasure that captivates travelers with its dramatic landscapes. Positioned near the town of Moab, renowned for its outdoor activities, Arches is the youngest of Utah’s “Mighty 5” parks, established in 1971.

This park is a testament to the forces of time and nature, boasting over 2,000 natural sandstone arches formed over millennia. Beyond its iconic arches, Arches National Park’s terrain is scattered with spires, balanced rocks, and expansive vistas.

Hiking in Arches National Park

Arches has a network of more than 14 trails, providing you with opportunities to experience these geological wonders firsthand.

Among these, Delicate Arch reigns as the park’s crown jewel, its image immortalized on Utah’s license plates. The trail to Delicate Arch covers a 3-mile roundtrip and ascends 480 feet in elevation. Along this trail, you’ll encounter the historical Wolfe Ranch cabin and ancient Ute Indian petroglyphs, gateways to understanding the human history etched into this landscape. Though the trail’s popularity can lead to crowds reminiscent of urban scenes, an early morning ascent can ensure a more tranquil experience and a parking spot ahead of the masses.

The Devil’s Garden area is a central starting point for various trails leading to arches and towering spires. Here, you’ll find access to Landscape Arch, North America’s longest natural arch. For a seamless exploration, download the official trail map in advance, offering insights and guidance for trails leading to Landscape Arch, Double O Arch, Balanced Rock, and the Dark Angel Trail.

If you’re short on time or prefer less challenging hikes, discover the grand formations along shorter trails like Park Avenue Trail, Double Arch Trail, and The Windows Loop, Panorama Point, all easily accessible from the main road.

If you are up for a challenge, the Fiery Furnace presents an opportunity for in-depth exploration under the guidance of a park ranger. This intricate maze of sandstone canyons offers a demanding yet rewarding journey. Due to high demand and limited slots, securing reservations for Fiery Furnace hikes is necessary.

Camping in Arches National Park

Camping options within the park are limited to the Devils Garden Campground, available by reservation from March 1 to October 31. If you miss out, fear not—plenty of camping options are available outside the park along Route 313.

For the more adventurous camper, explore Bureau of Land Management (BLM) free camping options, ensuring you’re well-prepared for this unique camping experience.

During the summer, avoid campgrounds along the Colorado River; though offering spectacular views, water attracts annoying black flies that can spoil your experience.

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Arches National Park, Utah

Practical Tips for Your Visit

Arches has just one primary entrance, prone to congestion during peak season. Opt for the less crowded gravel Salt Valley Road (BLM 145) to skip the long lines.

When planning your adventure to the national parks in Utah, consider combining your visit to Arches National Park with nearby Canyonlands National Park. These two stunning parks are close, making optimizing your time and travel logistics easy. Experiencing both in one trip allows you to use the same living arrangements, adding convenience and ensuring a smooth transition between each park’s unique landscapes.

Closest Cities

  • Moab, Utah: 5 miles (8 km) southeast of Arches National Park.
  • Green River, Utah: 50 miles (80 km) west of Arches National Park.
  • Grand Junction, Colorado: 115 miles (185 km) northeast of Arches National Park.

Closest Closest Airports

  • Canyonlands Field Airport (CNY): 18 miles (29 km)
  • Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT): 115 miles (185 km)
  • Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC): 235 miles (378 km)
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Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

2. Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is situated in southwestern Utah, near the town of Bryce. Known for its distinctive geological features, Bryce Canyon is part of the “Mighty 5” national parks in Utah. It is the smallest national park in Utah.

Bryce Canyon National Park emerges as the most visually stunning destination among all the national parks in Utah I have visited.

The park’s primary draw is its high concentration of hoodoos – tall, thin rock spires that appear to be the work of an otherworldly sculptor. These geological formations are sculpted from the forces of erosion, frost-wedging, and the incessant work of wind and water, boasting the highest concentration of rock hoodoos anywhere on Earth.

Bryce Canyon is also characterized by a series of natural amphitheaters, each brimming with these fantastic rock pillars, etching the park’s reputation as a geological marvel.

The 36-mile Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive (Road 63) is the most popular way to explore Bryce, offering 20 viewpoints with parking spots. Unmissable locations along this route include Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Swamp Canyon, providing awe-inspiring views of the park’s mesmerizing landscape.

To truly grasp the grandeur of Bryce Canyon, witnessing the Bryce Amphitheater at both sunrise and sunset is a must. For breathtaking sunsets, explore Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point, each offering a unique perspective on the mesmerizing hues of the canyon. Sunrise, Inspiration, and Bryce Point are equally enchanting for sunrise views.

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Bryce Canyon National Park. Hiking down the canyon.

Hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park

But to immerse yourself deeply in the heart of Bryce, you must venture beyond the rim and hike down into the canyons. With 16 established trails weaving through the park, there are pathways suited for all levels of adventurers. Downloading the official trail map before your visit is an excellent way to plan your journey.

For a quick yet fulfilling experience, take the Navajo Trail down to the canyon floor, where the switchbacks of Wall Street provide an unforgettable journey.

For those with two to three hours to spare, combine the Navajo and Queen’s Garden trails for a loop that begins at Sunset Point, descends to the canyon’s floor, and ascends at Sunrise Point, allowing you to traverse the canyon rim back to your starting point.

And if you can dedicate the entire day, the Peekaboo Loop Trail offers a more extensive encounter with Bryce Canyon’s mesmerizing landscape.

Camping in Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon offers two campgrounds for those wishing to stay overnight: North Campground and Sunset Campground.

These campgrounds fill up quickly, particularly during the high season, with North Campground operating on a first-come, first-served basis throughout the year. Sunset Campground is reservation-based from May through October.

However, due to the high elevation (2200M), camping in Bryce can be chilly with the potential for snow, even in summer months. For a more comfortable experience, I prefer camping outside the park at lower elevations, such as the KOA campgrounds in Cannonville or at the Kodachrome State Park campgrounds.

Practical Tips for Your Visit

During peak tourist season, the park quickly fills, with all parking spots typically occupied by 9 am. To avoid disappointment, aim to arrive early.

The second option is to access the park from the bottom of the canyon via gravel Bryce Way Road from the town of Torrey.

Weather in Bryce Canyon is always unpredictable, with sunny days suddenly yielding to snowfall or thunderstorms. On my first visit in May, a warm day at +20℃ (68℉) transformed by day’s end with 5 inches of snow, while August visits brought thunderstorms and freezing rain. Layered clothing is, therefore, essential when packing for Bryce Canyon.

Closest Cities

  • Bryce Canyon City: This is the nearest town, located just outside the park.
  • Tropic, Utah: 11 miles (18 km). east of Bryce Canyon, Tropic provides a closer option for services and accommodation.
  • Panguitch, Utah: 24 miles (39 km) Panguitch is a larger town with various amenities.
  • St. George, Utah: 155 miles (185 km)

Closest Closest Airports

  • Bryce Canyon Airport (BCE): Located around 1 mile (1.6 km) from the park, it offers limited services.
  • Cedar City Regional Airport (CDC): 83 miles (134 km)
  • St. George Regional Airport (SGU): 135 miles (217 km)
  • McCarran International Airport (LAS): 275 miles (435 km)
National Parks in Utah: Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park, Utah

3. Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park, the largest of the “Mighty 5” national parks in Utah, sprawls across 330,000 acres of diverse landscape. It features buttes, arches, mesas, and rock canyons carved by the forces of nature. Located in southeastern Utah close to the city of Moab, Canyonlands is a vast and untamed wilderness area offering solitude and adventure.

Carved into existence by the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, Canyonlands National Park is divided into three distinct districts: Island In The Sky, the Needles, and the Maze.

The vastness and remote access between these districts make Canyonlands the most challenging park to explore among the national parks in Utah.

Traveling inside the park from one district to another takes time—roughly 150 miles and approximately 2 hours from Island In The Sky to the Maze, while the drive from the Needles to the Maze is about 200 miles and takes around 3 hours.

Due to its immense scale, exploring all three districts in one visit is an ambitious endeavor, akin to visiting three separate parks.

Canyonlands Island in the Sky District

Island in the Sky is the park’s most accessible and visited district. It is conveniently located closest to Moab, a short distance from Arches National Park, and offers scenic drives, overlooks, and various short hiking trails.

The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is the perfect starting point to discover the district’s highlights, including the Mesa Arch that frames the rising sun, the expansive vistas from Grandview Overlook, Shafer Trail Viewpoint and the mysterious Upheaval Dome.

Canyonlands Needles District

In sharp contrast to the high desert landscape of Island in the Sky, the Needles district dazzles visitors with its colorful rock formations, named for their sharp, spire-like shapes

While it may be less frequented than Island in the Sky, visitors who venture here are rewarded with fewer crowds and jaw-dropping scenery.

The Needles district features over 60 miles of interconnecting trails that delight hikers of all levels, from the casual to the committed. There are backcountry roads suitable for 4×4 vehicles, and the area offers campgrounds and stunning overlooks for those who want to stay and explore further.

The Maze District

The Maze is Canyonlands’ most remote and least accessible district. It is a true wilderness experience requiring a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle for off-road travel, and it presents challenges even for seasoned explorers.

There are no marked trails, and the rugged terrain demands self-sufficiency and caution. This district offers an unparalleled sense of isolation, but due to its complexity and difficulty, it is recommended only for experienced drivers and hikers.

Planning is essential, and all adventurers should arm themselves with a detailed map of the Maze District and a well-thought-out itinerary.

The White Rim Trail (Loop)

The White Rim Trail, located within the Island in the Sky district, is an iconic path renowned for its dramatic desert vistas. This 100-mile loop trail takes travelers below the mesa top, allowing them to witness close-up views of the canyons and basins that define Canyonlands.

The trip typically spans 2 to 3 days by vehicle or 3 to 4 days by mountain bike, traversing the Green and Colorado Rivers’ paths.

Camping is available along the trail, but sites require advanced booking and a valid permit obtained from the visitor center.

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Canyonlands National Park. The White Rim Trail

Tips when Visiting the Park

When planning a trip to Canyonlands, consider that spring and fall are the ideal times for a visit. The temperate climate during these seasons offers a reprieve from the harsh summer heat and winter’s biting cold.

While exploring the park, don’t overlook a trip to nearby Dead Horse Point State Park, which offers some of the most spectacular views over the Canyonlands terrain, with the Colorado River and White Rim Road below.

Opt for the rustic journey along the gravel Long Canyon Road for a scenic entrance to the Island in the Sky district from Moab. This route offers a visual prelude to the striking vistas that await in Canyonlands.

As you plan your excursion to one of the best national parks in Utah, remember that Canyonlands’ vastness requires time and preparation for thorough exploration.

Closest Cities

  • Moab, Utah: The town of Moab is the gateway to Canyonlands National Park, located just a short distance away from the park’s entrance, approximately 5 miles (8 km).
  • Green River, Utah: 50 miles (80 km).
  • Blanding, Utah: 75 miles (120 km) away.

Closest Closest Airports

  • Canyonlands Field Airport (CNY): 18 miles (29 km) north of Moab.
  • Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT): 110 miles (177 km) northeast of Canyonland.
  • Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC): 230 miles (370 km) north of the park.
  • McCarran International Airport (LAS): 430 miles (692 kilometers).
National Parks in Utah: Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

4. Capitol Reef National Park

Located in the heart of red rock desert country, Capitol Reef National Park stands as a hidden gem among the national parks in Utah. Tucked away in south-central Utah, this park is less crowded, offering visitors the solitude and untouched scenic beauty that only nature can provide.

The park’s defining geological feature is the Waterpocket Fold—a 100-mile long warp in the Earth’s crust. This classic monocline, a barrier of rock layers uplifted nearly 70 million years ago, is a monument to the natural forces that have shaped the landscape.

Visitors to the park can also explore the historic pioneer town of Fruita, renowned for its vast orchards bearing fruit such as apricots, apples, cherries, pears, and peaches. Despite being one of the lesser-known national parks in Utah, Capitol Reef offers an intriguing mix of natural wonders and prehistoric villages with petroglyphs.

Capitol Reef Scenic Drive

The Capitol Reef Scenic Drive is the perfect introduction for those new to Capitol Reef. Stretching 8 miles deep into the Waterpocket Fold, this route offers stunning insight into the park’s grandeur.

Allow approximately an hour and a half to complete the round trip, which includes the dirt spur roads of Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge.

At the end of the scenic drive, Capitol Gorge beckons with a 1.5-mile round-trip hike that leads to the historic Pioneer Register carved into the canyon walls..

Cathedral Valley

Cathedral Valley, positioned in the park’s northern reaches beyond the lush orchards of Fruita and the Visitor Center, is a testament to Capitol Reef’s rugged beauty.

To truly appreciate the mind-bending beauty of Capitol Reef, you need to venture into the solitude of Cathedral Valley. From my perspective, it is the park’s most remarkable and least visited area, providing a sense of untouched wilderness that is becoming increasingly rare.

Cathedral Valley’s loop drive showcases some of Capitol Reef’s most awe-inspiring landscape landmarks, such as the Temple of Moon, the Temple of the Sun, and the Lower South Desert Outlook.

The full loop is a journey of about 57.6 miles (92.7 km) and requires 6-8 hours to complete.

The drive through Cathedral Valley requires a high-clearance vehicle and, due to the area’s remoteness, remains a road less traveled that promises a unique and captivating adventure.

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Capitol Reef National Park, Utah. Cathedral Valley. Temple of the Sun.

Hiking in Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park boasts over 13 hiking trails that traverse diverse terrain, with each path offering a unique glimpse into the park’s geological and scenic beauty.

The Cohab Canyon Trail is among these, featuring remarkable vistas and access to three enchanting slot canyons.

For a historical twist, the Cassidy Arch Trail brings hikers in the footsteps of famed outlaws, while the Hickman Bridge Trail unfurls a natural stone arch of impressive proportions.

The Frying Pan Trail connects hikers with the grandeur of Capitol Reef’s landscape, carving a path through the park’s rich tapestry of natural wonders.

A downloadable official hiking map is available to help visitors navigate the trails.

Camping in Capitol Reef National Park

Fruita Campground, the only developed campground in the park, sits alongside the Fremont River, offering well-maintained facilities and easy access to park attractions.

For a more rugged experience, Cedar Mesa Campground provides five primitive sites on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Cathedral Valley Campground, perched at 7,000 feet above sea level, offers six primitive sites with stunning views of the high desert scenery. I consider it to be the premium camping spot within the park.

Backcountry permits are available free of charge at the visitor center for those looking to venture further into the park’s wilderness.

Best Time to Visit Capitol Reef

The optimal periods to visit Capitol Reef are the shoulder seasons, avoiding the extreme summer heat exceeding 40°C (104°F) and the chilly winter months. These milder times of the year offer the most pleasant experience for exploring the park’s diverse landscape.

Closest Cities

  • Torrey, Utah: 2 miles (3.22 km)
  • Boulder, Utah: 41 miles (65.98 km)
  • Loa, Utah: 46 miles (74.03 km)
  • Hanksville, Utah: 60 miles (96.56 km)

Closest Closest Airports

  • Wayne Wonderland Regional Airport: 4 miles (6.44 km)
  • Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT): 201 miles (323.48 km)
  • Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC): 233 miles (375.01 km)
  • McCarran International Airport (LAS): 390 miles (630 kilometers).
National Parks in Utah: Zion National Park
Zion National Park, Utah

5. Zion National Park

Zion National Park is located in southwestern Utah, approximately 45 miles northeast of St. George. It is the oldest and most visited national park in Utah, making it one of the prime destinations in the state. Despite being one of the smaller parks at 229 square miles, it stands out as one of Utah’s finest offerings.

Situated at a lower elevation of 3934 feet (1199m) compared to other Utah parks, Zion National Park boasts a more lush and green environment. The centerpiece of the park is the Virgin River, which, over millennia, has carved through the stunning Zion Canyon.

Zion is renowned as the second most visited national park in the United States, drawing 5 million visitors annually, with its mesmerizing landscapes. However, this popularity comes at a cost, as the park tends to be crowded throughout the year. Navigating the crowds is a significant challenge for visitors eager to explore this magical place.

Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon stands out as the most visited area, with its sheer walls and verdant valley floor hosting a multitude of trails and viewpoints.

Due to its popularity, Zion National Park has implemented a free shuttle system to alleviate traffic and preserve the natural beauty. This shuttle service, in place from mid-February through November, ferries guests from the visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava at the end of the scenic drive. Stopping at all key trailheads and points of interest along the way, the shuttles arrive every 10-15 minutes, simplifying park navigation.

However, with popularity comes crowds, and by mid-morning, the lines for the shuttle can stretch long, with waits exceeding an hour. Therefore, an early start is crucial to avoid the post-9 am rush and ensure a more tranquil and enjoyable visit within this iconic part of the national parks in Utah.

Guests overnighting at Zion Lodge have the exclusive benefit of car access to Zion Canyon. For all others, the shuttle remains the sole means of travel within this part of the park.

Notable Landmarks and Trails

Angels Landing and the Subway are Zion’s most famous and most challenging hiking trails, but they require permits to ensure trail preservation and manage the crowds. Permits are obtained through a lottery that occurs seasonally and a day before your intended hike. The application process involves a $6 fee, and successful candidates will pay an additional $3 per person to embark on their permitted trails.

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Zion Nation Park, Utah. Angels Landing Trail.

The Narrows, another quintessential Zion hike, has hikers trekking in the North Fork of the Virgin River as it carves through a majestic slot canyon. It is important to note that the trail can close during high water periods, generally from mid-March to mid-May, for visitor safety.

Beyond these iconic hikes, Zion brims with trails that cater to all tastes and ability levels.

  • The Emerald Pools Trail (1.5 to 3 miles) dazzles with its water features and verdant outlooks.
  • For those seeking impressive views without a strenuous journey, the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail (1 mile) offers one of the park’s most spectacular vistas for minimal effort.
  • Other notable trails include The Watchman (3.3 miles), a short and pleasant route, and the challenging Observation Point Trail (8 miles), which affords a classic expansive view of Zion’s landscape.

Camping in Zion National Park

When it comes to camping within the park, Zion offers several options. Zion South Campground and Zion Watchman Campground, both near the South Park Entrance, feature well-appointed amenities but require advance reservations due to high demand. These popular spots fill up quickly, so early booking is crucial.

For a rustic experience without the cost, the Lava Point Campground is a prime choice. It’s open from May to September, provides seven campsites, and operates on a first-come, first-served basis. Situated about an hour’s drive from Springdale via Kolob Terrace Road, Lava Point’s higher altitude means cooler temperatures during Zion’s hot summers.

For those looking beyond established campgrounds, numerous Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas around the park offer free camping options.

Additionally, backcountry sites are available within Zion for a more secluded and primitive camping venture. These require a permit from the Visitor Center up to three months before your trip, and campers must come equipped for a self-sustained outdoor experience.

Tips When Visiting the Park

Aim to catch the first shuttle of the morning to enjoy the beauty of Zion’s most sought-after hikes. This early start can mean relative solitude on the trails, allowing you to appreciate the park’s majesty in peace.

During peak season, one of the best ways to escape the crowds is to explore the lesser-known Kolob Terrace area or Kolob Canyons, which offers its own array of stunning scenery and trails without the bustling tourist traffic.

Lava Point Campground is an excellent choice for campers, especially in the sweltering summer months. Located at a higher elevation, it offers a reprieve from intense heat and provides a quieter camping experience amid Zion’s grandeur.

Closest Cities

  • Springdale, Utah: mile (1.6 km) south of Zion National Park
  • Hurricane, Utah: 17 miles (27.4 km) west of Zion National Park.
  • St. George, Utah: 49 miles (78.9 km) southwest of Zion.

Closest Closest Airports

  • Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC):307 miles (494.5 km) north of Zion.
  • McCarran International Airport (LAS): 170 miles (273.6 km) southwest of Zion.

Other Areas of Utah Maintained by National Park Services

  • California National Historic Trail
  • Cedar Breaks National Monument
  • Dinosaur National Monument
  • Escalante National Monument
  • Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Lake Powell)
  • Golden Spike National Historical Park
  • Hovenweep National Monument
  • Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail
  • Natural Bridges National Monument
  • Old Spanish National Historic Trail
  • Pony Express National Historic Trail
  • Rainbow Bridge National Monument
  • Timpanogos Cave National Monument
by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.

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