Are you a nature lover looking to spend your vacations in a place that is beautiful, easy to reach, and has the highest concentration of incredible natural wonders. Look no further, then there is only one answer: Utah! Located in the southwest part of the US, Utah delivers on stunning scenery, exceptional hiking, and even water sports in a red rock country desert, in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Utah is where you will find The Mighty 5 National Parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonland, and Capitol Reef. If that is not enough, how about a smaller version of Arizona’s Grand Canyon – Dead Horse Point State Park? Add to it 42 more state parks and natural areas, and you would understand why, without a doubt, Utah is the most fantastic state for nature lovers. Read on to explore what the state has to offer.
WHY UTAH IS THE MOST AMAZING STATE FOR NATURE LOVERS
My first visit to Utah over 30 years ago was a realization of my American dream. For years, even before I arrived from Poland to the USA in 1987, I pictured myself among the stunning red rock desert. My first opportunity to visit the state came when my son was born. I took a leave of absence from work and decided to travel as much as possible. It was not an easy task with an infant, but that did not scare me away. I had no doubt where to go first- Utah and Arizona, both to this day, my favorite states. During this 3 week trip, we checked seven national parks off my list, including of course, The Mighty 5 Utah National Parks. Since then, I returned many times and still hoping for more.
MIGHTY 5 UTAH NATIONAL PARKS
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon’s beauty put me in tears the first time I saw it. Since then, I visited it in different seasons, and each time its scenery delivered something new and fascinating. Hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park is a delight. You will find there about sixty miles of trails among detailed sculptured red rock formations called hoodoos. Trails go along the rim and drop down into the amphitheater. Make sure to step down and discover the park’s magic from within.
If you have time just for a quick glimpse, one 18 mile road runs the length of the park and ends at Rainbow Point overview. There are 13 viewpoints along the road. Other than hiking, horseback riding, biking, and ATV tours are popular activities year-round. Cross-country skiing and sleigh rides are also available in winter. Far from major cities, Bryce is famous for its dark skies. Over 7,500 stars can be seen by the naked eye there.
Learn more about Planning a Trip to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Zion National Park
For many, Zion is the king of Utah’s national parks. The first Anglo-European settlers, Mormon pioneers, arrived in the area in the late 1800s. They named the area Zion, which is ancient Hebrew for sanctuary or refuge.
Situated in the southwestern corner of Utah, near the Nevada and Arizona borders, Zion National Park is easily accessible from State Route 9 or Interstate 15. The highlight of the park is an expansive canyon averaging 2,000 feet deep.
Hiking is the most popular activity in Zion. Here you will find two of Utah’s epic hiking trails Angels Landing heart pumping five-mile trail (in and out) and The Narrows at the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. The Angel Landing is very challenging if you are afraid of heights but so worth the effort. I am proud to say that I finished it even though my legs were rather shaky at the end.
The Narrows trail is basically the Virgin River. The canyon is so narrow, the river covers its bottom in many spots, which means you have to wade or swim to proceed. Make sure to check the weather forecast before you take this hike. In the case of heavy rain, there is no place to hide from rushing water. Hikers lost their lives there.
Not as isolated as Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion has all city conveniences right next door in Springdale, Utah. This is where you will find excellent accommodation, including my favorite Holiday Inn Express and all kinds of tours and adventure activities. If for your lodging you prefer a real feel of the Old West, I recommend Zion Mountain Ranch on the other side of the park.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is located on the Colorado River just 4 miles north of Moab, Utah. This is a fantastic park, unlike any other in the world. The park is known for having over 2,000 natural sandstone arches. This number is continually changing, with some arches collapsing and others being created. Other features include balanced rocks, beautiful pinnacles, and massive fins.
Just like in other national parks of Utah, hiking is the main activity in Arches National Park. Many trials are considered easy to moderate, so you do not need to be in excellent shape to reach the park’s famous attractions. These trails provide access to incredible viewpoints of panoramic views and some arches that are not visible from the road. Some of the trails even travel under arches. Compared to other Utah’s national parks, Arches N.P. has little terrain for backpacking.
Make Moab, Utah your base for visiting not only Arches National Park but also Canyonland National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, each one with its own distinctive character. Moab also had an undisputed reputation as a mecca for mountain bike enthusiasts. Jeep tours from there in each direction are also available there. See why Moab is an adventure lover’s paradise.
Canyonland National Park
Even though I visited Canyonland twice, I do not feel I even touched on its beauty. I experienced it only from the road and short walks, but I know there is a massive area inside that is still waiting for me to be discovered. Why did I not see it yet? Because I am afraid to venture in on my own or even in a small group.
Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah and the most underdeveloped. It should not be taken lightly. Getting lost in its vast desert could be dangerous. I am hoping next time to take a jeep tour into its remote areas and possibly camp overnight. The park is famous for one of the darkest night skies in North America, and it is a popular destination for stargazers.
Still, there is an easy way to see its highlights. Start with a visit to the Island in the Sky district, a massive 1500 foot mesa, only 32 miles from Moab. The area offers many pullouts with spectacular views along the paved scenic drive. You can also take a few short hikes from the road.
Biking is a very popular activity in Canyonland National Park. With hundreds of miles of four-wheel-drive roads, Canyonlands offers ideal terrain for day and overnight mountain bike trips. For those looking into some water attractions among spectacular scenery, The Colorado and Green rivers are ideal in some sections for canoes, kayaks, and other shallow watercraft. For thrills seekers, the combined flow of both rivers rushes through Cataract Canyon, creating a world-class stretch of white water.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park, the second largest of Utah’s The Mighty 5, is much less visited than others due to the rather remote location and perhaps because there is no apparent central attraction. Still, with its colored cliffs, narrow canyons, ridges, arches, spires, and domes, the park is another example of Utah’s glory. Its name comes from the resemblance of the many whitish Navajo sandstone domes to the US Capitol building.
Just like in the rest of Mighty 5, Capitol Reef National Park hiking and backpacking are major activities. The park offers well-maintained trails, starting either along highway 24 or the park’s scenic drive, and leading to arches, overlooks of the Fremont River, viewpoints of the reef, or along deep gorges. Opportunities for off-trail hiking and remote backpacking abandon. I love this park, but again, I would not want to be lost there.
For lodging opportunities around Capitol Reef National Park, click here.
BEYOND THE MIGHTY 5 NATIONAL PARKS – UTAH OTHER NATURAL ATTRACTIONS
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Monument Valley is a Navajo Nation’s equivalent to a national park. Located far from major cities and overshadowed by Utah’s The Might 5, Monument Valley seems to be forgotten despite being featured in many Hollywood movies. And that is a good thing. I can’t even imagine flocks of tourists invading it and disturbing what the area is about – the Navajo place of worship. Spend at least one night there and check for yourself how serene, beautiful, and spiritual it is.
Learn more about Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and its painful past.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Despite its close proximity to Moab, another stunning Utah’s attraction Dead Horse Point State Park remains practically deserted even in high season. Photographers love it, but regular tourists skip this jewel most likely because of its state versus national ranking. They do not know what they are missing. The park is a smaller version of the Grand Canyon! Most people think that the famous end scene from Thelma and Louise movie was filmed in the Grand Canyon, but in fact, it took place in this relatively unknown park.
If you like dirt roads, this nature ride is meant for you! Cottonwood Canyon Road, Utah, a water-carved canyon cutting through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument starts along US 89 and ends at Kodachrome Basin State Park. The entire length is 46 miles. This is a relatively easy drive, but some sections of the road are steep and narrow. Four-wheel drive is recommended.
The scenery is one of a kind. The walls of the canyon are red, pink, and white, with patches of greenery. There is a lot to explore along the road. Great hiking trails lead to slot canyons, arches, and springs. The major attraction is a unique sandstone double arch called Grosvenor Arch.
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
To escape the heat of summer, head to Flaming Gorge Recreational on Utah’s and Wyoming’s border, where you will find excellent hiking and water sports among red cliffs of the reservoir. The area provides varied recreational activities such as boating, waterskiing, parasailing, swimming, and fishing. Below the lake, the Green River is renowned for trout fishing and rafting. The area is unknown, peaceful and stunningly beautiful. In my opinion, a perfect family destination for fun and relaxation. Learn more about Flaming Gorge Area.
What I described in the post are just a few major attractions I visited, but the state has so much more to offer. Check this map of Utah’s natural attractions and see for yourself. Just driving around Utah is an experience you will never forget.