Back in 2014, when I first came to the U.S. to work as an au-pair for a Colorado family, I had never experienced the American West in person. I'd seen it on tv and in my dad's old Western movies, but being from northern Sweden I couldn't quite fathom the size and depth of different landscapes in the western United States. That is, until I finally got to visit Utah's Mighty Five national parks.
Since Kelly and I met we've made the road trip many times, and it continues to be our favorite route to drive. The national parks in Utah are not that far from each other (visiting all five parks require about 19h of driving, and can comfortably be done in about 7-8 days), but they all have a very distinct vibe, with varying landscapes and scenery. To help you plan your own Mighty Five road trip, we've put together a list of all of Utah's national parks - complete with all the must-see spots and can't-miss trails!
And ps. If you're in need of a backpack for your next national park adventure, be sure to check ours out right here!
Stop #1 Arches National Park
Arches National Park contains the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches with over 2,000 arches located within the park’s 76,518 acres. Although the park is known for its arches it also contains an astounding variety of other geological formations like colossal sandstone fins, massive balanced rocks and soaring pinnacles and spires. There's a paved scenic drive going through the park that takes visitors to many of the major viewpoints, and although the drive technically only takes about 3 hours, you'll probably want at least one full day in order to get out and explore all the areas (and we'd definitely recommend an extra day if you have a flexible schedule). In addition to the scenic drive there's a wide variety of trails, from short twenty minute walks leading right up to many of the largest arches in the park, to more adventurous hikes into lesser seen areas.
(The famous Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. Click here to shop the Classic backpack for your next adventure!)
Must See Spots:
1. Delicate Arch: This is the arch you'll see on all the Utah license plates, and probably the most famous arch in the country. There are two viewpoints from where you can see the arch, one requires no hiking and the other is a moderate hike. To get up close and personal with Delicate Arch you'll need to do the 3-mile hike (which is absolutely worth it - it's a beautiful hike and nothing quite compares to seeing the arch up close).
2. The Windows Section: Considered by many to be the heart of the park, here you’ll find a large concentration of arches and it is one of the most scenic locations in the park.
3. Park Avenue and Courthouse Towers: This is the first section of the park that all visitors see when driving in and, for me at least, it’s one of the most remarkable. Visitors can walk among the massive monoliths and towering walls to see views of the nearby La Sal Mountains.
Stop #2 Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is the largest park in Utah, and is packed to the brim with out-of-this-world views! The park spans across 227,598 acres (that's the size of 172,000 football fields) and is divided into 3 sections - the Needles, the Maze, and Island in the Sky. Located just 32 miles outside of Moab, Island in the Sky is the most accessible part of Canyonlands. The Island in the Sky offers many pullouts with spectacular views along the paved scenic drive, as well as a wide variety of hiking trails ranging from short 30 minute walks on the mesa top, to overnight expeditions all the way down to the Colorado River.
Must See Spots:
1. Mesa Arch: Mesa Arch is one of the park’s most recognizable sights, and is located at the end of a very easy 0.5 mile trail. This cliff-edge arch has stunning views towards the La Sal Mountains and is best enjoyed at sunrise (although it's an impressive sight at any time of day).
2. Shafer Overlook: This is a bit of a lesser-know overlook which means you can usually have a more private experience than at some of the other viewpoints. The view from Shafer Overlook perfectly captures the many geological features that make Canyonlands so special, and in our opinion it's a must-see stop.
3. Visitor Center Overlook: Canyonlands wastes no time trying to impress first-time visitors. One of the best views in Island in the Sky can be found just across the street from the visitor center.
Stop #3 Capitol Reef National Park
If you ask us, Capitol Reef is a bit underrated compared to the other national parks in Utah. Although the park receives less visitors than it's neighboring parks (Capitol Reef gets about 1.2 million visitors per year while Zion gets 4.5) anyone we've ever talked to that has visited the park raves about the nature, the trails and all the sights and history in the park. The Scenic Drive in Capitol Reef takes about 90 minutes round trip and is a great way to experience the best of the park. There are 11 official stops and together they do a great job of sharing the history of the park. For those who'd like to explore the park on foot there are lots of options, from easy one-mile trails to full-day hikes.
(@hello_mallory taking in the views at the Gifford Homestead in Capitol Reef. Click here to check out the Classic backpack she's wearing in the photo!)
Must See Spots:
1. Gifford Homestead: Before you start the drive along the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, make sure to stop by the historic Gifford Homestead. The farm was established by pioneer settlers, and was sold to the National Park Service in in 1969 - 2 years before Captiol Reef was declared a national park. Today the homestead is open for visitors to explore, and from March to October you can even purchase fresh baked bread and pies made with the apples from the orchard next door.
2. The Petroglyphs: Capitol Reef is home to many ancient petroglyphs, carved by the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan people who lived here between 600-1300 A.D. There are multiple places around the park where you can see the petroglyphs, with the most pristine example located 1.5 miles east of the visitor center on Highway 24.
Stop #4 Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park impresses its visitors with bizarre rock formations, towering hoodoos and sandstone pillars. Although Bryce Canyon is very impressive, it is on the more compact side when it comes to national parks and can comfortably be done in one day. (If you only have a half day you could make it work too - you should still have enough time for a 2-3 mile hike and stopping at all the popular viewpoints.)
Must See Spots:
1. Bryce Amphitheater: Start off with the most recognizable part of the park, Bryce Amphitheater. There are many different ways to experience the amphitheater, with the most popular option being an easy hike between the most famous viewpoints in the park - Sunset and Sunrise Points. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can also hike down into the canyon itself to admire the hoodoos up close.
2. Navajo Loop Trail: This hike is only 1.5 mile long, but if you have time for just one hike in the park this is the one we'd recommend. The Navajo Loop Trail is often considered the best trail in Bryce - and for good reason. The iconic Navajo Loop Trail begins and ends at Sunset Point, travelling by switchbacks down between narrow walls of colorful limestone with views of towering Douglas-fir trees and the park's most famous hoodoo: Thor's hammer.
Stop #5 Zion National Park
Zion is the most popular of the Mighty Five parks, and its location is a key reason why. Just about two-hours from Las Vegas, Zion can be visited on a day trip (although we do recommend spending a bit more time than that). It’s also close to St. George, Utah, which is also a popular outdoor recreation hub. Being the most popular park in Utah, Zion definitely tends to get larger crowds as well. If you're able to, we recommend visiting during off-season, when trails are less crowded and lines for the shuttles aren't as long. No matter when you visit though, the park is absolutely stunning and well worth it!
The small town of Springdale right outside the park has everything you need when it comes to lodging, restaurants and shops, and there’s also a free shuttle system connecting the hotels with the National Park, so you don’t have to worry about finding a spot in the park itself. Because of the parks popularity, driving has become very restricted and a shuttle system is used to get around inside the park as well (a bit of a different experience from the other national parks in Utah, where you can pretty much park right by each sight/trail head). Make sure to plan accordingly and bring a backpack with plenty of water and food (if you're looking for a new pack, we can recommend the Classic backpack for day trips) - you might not have a chance to make it back to your car until the end of the day.
Must See Spots:
1. Angel's Landing: Although this is a very popular hike, it’s also one of the most strenuous in the park. It's a difficult trail not just because of the length and elevation gain, but also because of the nerve wracking height and steep drops. The trail follows a narrow spine to the final viewpoint roughly 1,500 feet above the canyon floor, where you can take in the full beauty of the park. If this sounds like a bit much to you (we don't blame you - those drops really are nerve-wrecking) we recommend hiking the beginning of the trail up until the point where the spine begins. This way you get to experience the truly amazing views from the switch backs, without having to do any of the scary stuff!
2. Zion Canyon Overlook Trail: This is another great option if Angel's Landing seems a bit too intense. Zion Canyon Overlook Trail is a 1 mile long hike that will take you to one of the best viewpoints in the park. Although it's a short trail, it's rated as moderate so make sure to be properly prepared.
3. The Narrows: If you're visiting Zion National Park in the summer this is a hike you won't want to miss. The Narrows take you through the slimmest section of the Zion Canyon, and most of the "trail" is just walking up streams through the Virgin River. You'll need to wade and swim through most parts of this hike, which is what makes it perfect for the hot summer months. The whole hike is a 16-mile long out-and-back trail, but you can turn around at any point making it as short or as long as you'd like.
There are many different ways to road trip to Utah's Mighty Five, and this guide is just one of the options. You can alternate the route, and spend more or fewer days in any of the parks, depending on your flexibility and your interests. No matter how you do it, it will be the experience of a lifetime!