Inside Info on Visiting the Best National Parks in Utah
Hear from park professionals on what makes these attractions so special
Be prepared for lots of photo ops when you explore these dynamic locations in the Beehive State.
Utah is a special paradise for national park lovers. The state is home to the Mighty 5, the best national parks in Utah—several stunning, diverse destinations all within a few hours of one another. That’s good, because there’s no way you’d be able to choose just one.
“All of the Utah parks are just phenomenal,” says Erin Whittaker, supervisor of interpretation at Zion National Park. “We’re just blessed by amazing geography.”
Whether you’re marveling at hoodoos (irregular columns of weathered rock) and sandstone towers in Bryce Canyon and Arches, hiking Zion’s narrows, taking in a golden sunrise at Canyonlands, or stargazing in Capitol Reef, a visit to any one of the best national parks in Utah will be an adventure that will leave the whole family in awe.
View unique landscapes at Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park
Find the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world when you visit Arches National Park.
Only a short drive from each other, and close to hotels in Moab, two of the best national parks in Utah—the southeastern attractions of Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park—offer a stunning lesson in geology.
In Canyonlands, deserts suddenly drop off into deep canyons. The Needles district, named for the colorful Cedar Mesa Sandstone spires, offers some of the best hiking in the park, and mountain bikers will face a challenge on the 100-mile White Rim Road in the Island in the Sky district. Though it may seem out of place in the midst of Canyonlands’ desert, Cataract Canyon offers some of the best whitewater rafting west of the Mississippi.
To get the full effect of Arches National Park’s immense landscape, take the 18-mile scenic drive across the plateau. You’ll quickly understand why Arches is not only one of the best national parks in Utah, but one of the most popular parks in America. Take a hike on one of the park’s trails—many of which are great for kids and families—and check out some of the 2,000 natural sandstone arches that give the park its name.
See Bryce Canyon National Park at its best in winter
The otherworldly landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park—dotted with red stone hoodoos, natural bridges and thin rock fins—is gorgeous year-round, but Kathleen Gonder, the park’s chief of interpretation and visitor services, prefers the park in the winter months.
“If you come between November and March, you avoid the high congestion we can get in the summer months,” she says. “Plus, I love the way the canyon looks with a little bit of snow.”
No matter what time of year you visit, Gonder says it’s wise to pack warm layers. “People don’t realize how high in elevation we are,” she says. “They think southern Utah is all warm desert. But we’re at 8,000 to 9,000 feet; even in July you’re going to want thick socks and a jacket when the sun goes down.”
Easily one of the best national parks in Utah, Bryce Canyon—which is about a 90-minute drive from Cedar City hotels—offers activities for the whole family, from hikers to stargazers. “Several nights a week we bring out telescopes,” Gonder says. “Most people from metropolitan areas have never really seen the stars. They’ll point out what they think is a bank of clouds and we say, ‘No, that’s the Milky Way.’ To be able to help people have that experience here in our park is really incredible.”
Gaze at the stars while visiting Capitol Reef National Park
Night time is the right time to pay a visit to Capitol Reef National Park.
If night skies are what you’re after, Capitol Reef National Park is a can’t-miss destination among the best national parks in Utah. During the day, you can enjoy a hike along Capitol Reef’s trails, which meander through canyons and up sandstone bluffs to hidden arches and colorful domes.
Visit the community of Fruita—not far from hotels in Caineville—which was settled just after the turn of the century by Mormon pioneers. Though most of Fruita’s residents have moved away, you can learn about their history by visiting the Fruita Schoolhouse, the Gifford Homestead and the Blacksmith Shop. The town’s orchards are still standing, too, and you’re welcome to pick whatever fruit is in season. Just pay a small donation for what you pick.
The real show, though, happens when the sun goes down. Located far from any light pollution–emitting cities, Capitol Reef is a designated International Dark Sky Park. Even if you’re an experienced stargazer, things look a little different from here: the dry air on the Colorado Plateau actually makes the stars appear brighter than usual.
Feel small in all the best ways at Zion National Park
Witness the massive landscapes at Zion National Park, the first national park established in Utah.
When you enter Zion National Park, it will surely take your breath away. While the other Mighty 5 parks put you on a plateau, or on the rim of a canyon, Zion, which is about an hour’s drive from hotels in St. George, invites its visitors down to the canyon floor. Here, the Virgin River has been carving its way through the rock for thousands of years.
“It’s almost like you’ve been dropped at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” Whittaker says. “People are blown away by the majesty of it; everywhere you turn is a photograph.”
According to Whittaker, the park’s five most popular attractions are Lower Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock and Riverside Walk—all of which are moderate hikes—plus Angels Landing and The Narrows. Angels Landing requires hiking along a narrow ridge with a 1,300-foot sheer cliff on either side. There are chain railings to help you keep your balance, but it’s not a great idea for small children. The Narrows isn’t like any other hiking trail you’ve explored; the hike puts you right in the deepest section of the canyon, in the Virgin River. As you might imagine, that one’s best done in the summer months.
If you are visiting Zion in the summer, though, be aware that parking can be tough during the park’s busiest time of year. “There are only about 400 parking spaces along the scenic drive, so we have limited parking, and we run a shuttle to the popular points in the park,” Whittaker says. Overflow parking is provided in the nearby town of Springdale, but you’ll want to get there early.
No matter what time of year you visit, Zion is an experience you won’t soon forget. “You’re right in the middle of this unbelievable landscape,” Whittaker says. “It makes you feel really small, in a really big way.”
More to Explore
Secret National Parks
Set your GPS for one of these lesser-known American treasures.
NYC National Parks
Hear from a National Park ranger on how best to experience these Big Apple attractions.
California National Parks
Experts share their insights on traveling to—and through—some top scenic Golden State areas.