Utah’s Big 5 National Parks

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Utah is located in the central western portion of the United States. Surrounded by mountains, arid desert regions, and scattered forests, it’s the second driest state in the US with a population of about 3.2 million.  Along the eastern and southern portion of the state lies the Colorado Plateau, parts of which have been worn down over time creating incredible red rock formations! It’s there that you can explore “Utah’s Mighty 5” big epic National Parks.

Going from East to west, Utah’s Big 5 National Parks are:

  • Arches
  • Canyonlands
  • Capitol Reef
  • Bryce Canyon
  • Zion
Utah Mighty big 5 national parks on a map

The area of the Colorado Plateau was once inhabited or visited by the ancestral Puebloans, and Fremont people. More recently other native tribes such as the Ute, Paiute, Navajo, and Hopi have called this place home. Afterwards white settlers came into this region. The land has significance to many, including today where people come to enjoy the beauties of nature!

Best times to visit would be the spring and fall. Summers get pretty hot and also crowded, however it can be busy during the spring and fall too, and there are now permit systems in place for some of the parks or trails to help with the increased traffic. The winter in any of these places would be beautiful too! Few people and with snow it looks gorgeous-however there could be road closures so best to double check and be careful if you plan to go then.

We visited all of these parks in October on our epic Grand Circle road trip! The weather then was beautiful, sometimes was warm enough to wear shortsleeves, and other times we needed our warm coats.

When visiting the parks, I always recommend stopping at the visitor’s centers and driving the full length of the park roads(or taking the park shuttle), and stopping at each viewpoint.

If you’re worried about going on your own, there are also a bunch of guided tours that you can take exploring Utah’s National Parks as well!

Here’s a little bit about each one of the national parks and the top sites not to miss!

Arches National Park

Delicate Arch
Delicate arch

Arches was first designated a National Monument back in 1929 before it became a national park on Nov 12, 1971. It contains over 2,000 arch formations, as well as tall spires and boulders, rock “fins”, and cliffs. The beautiful La Sal mountains can be seen in the distance to the northeast.

Arches is located right on the outskirts of Moab. If you’re driving headed west it’ll come up on your right, and you’ll drive through the entrance station and visitors center, up a windy road to the main sections of the park.

There are several pull offs and sites to see, you can spend one nice long day exploring the park!

*As of 2022 from April to October you need a timed entry permit to visit the park due to overcrowding!

landscape arch
Landscape Arch

Must see Landmarks:

  • Delicate Arch – The most iconic arch in the park, found on stamps, postcards..anything associated with Utah! You can see it at a distance from a pull off viewpoint, or hike to it and get up close!
  • Landscape Arch – You have to walk about a mile to see it, but the hike to it is beautiful, and it’s the longest arch in the park at 306ft! Pieces of it broke away in the recent past so it’s worth seeing while it’s still hanging up there.
  • The Windows section – has several beautiful huge arches that you can easily walk right up to!
  • Balanced Rock – an easy pull off and walk around some cool rock formations.

Closest town to stay in: Moab. There are campgrounds, but no lodging inside the park.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands views
Canyonlands Island in the Sky sits atop a plateau, overlooking the Colorado and Green Rivers.

Canyonlands was established as a National Park on September 12, 1964. Back in the 1800-1900’s trails were made throughout the lands by cowboys for moving livestock to find pasture. Later in the 1950’s roads were built and used for uranium prospectors seeking to mine the ore. Today tourists come visit the amazing vistas on nicely paved roads!

There are 3 main sections to Canyonlands that you can explore. The most popular is section that everyone goes to is the Island in the Sky district, which is right next to Moab. The Needles district is located about 1.5hrs to the south, and has its own visitor’s center. Then there’s the Maze district, which is meant only if you’re equipped with a high clearance 4WD vehicle and ready for back country exploring brining all your own supplies.

Mesa Arch Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch. Get here for sunrise for an even nicer view!

Plan for at least a day to see the sites in Island in the Sky. More if you want to explore further and visit the Needles district, etc.

Must see sections of Island in the Sky:

Closest town to stay in: Moab. There are campgrounds, but no lodging inside the park.

Capitol Reef National Park

scenic drive
The road heading into Capitol Reef.

Capitol Reef became a National Park on December 18, 1971. It contains a huge cliff like rock formation called the Waterpocket Fold which is about 100 miles long! There are many trails to explore, historic sites, and even an apple orchard and store that sells delicious fruit pies.

The historic settlement of Fruita is located here, where you can see an old school house and cabins from back in the day when Mormon settlers first came about.

Fruita, Utah
This part of the park was like a small oasis amidst all the arid, red rock lands surrounding it.

It’s a beautiful park that doesn’t get as crowded as others with many things to do and see, worth visiting for at least a day or two!

Must sees:

  • Historic buildings & apple orchard. The greenery around the river is just beautiful against all the red rocks!
  • Capitol Gorge Trail

Closest town to stay in: Torrey. There are campgrounds, but no lodging inside the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Amphitheater and hoodoos
Thousands of hoodoos fill Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon officially became a National Park on February 25, 1928. Years before tourists had been coming to see the canyon ever since it was discovered. Best known from its iconic formations call “Hoodoos”, Bryce contains the highest concentration of them in the world! It’s also the highest national park out of all these in terms of elevation, so gets a little bit more chilly than the other parks.

We had a great time visiting Bryce for a full day, but wish we had a bit longer to do more of the many hiking trails! The views along the road are breathtaking, a shuttle runs during the busy months, I suggestion stopping and seeing all of them, but if time doesn’t allow then at least check out the ones I listed below for the most iconic scenes!

Hiking fairyland loop trail in Bryce Canyon
Go for a hike into the canyon, it’s so amazing to see the formations up close!

Must see viewpoints:

  • Inspiration Point
  • Bryce Point

Closest town to stay in: Either at Bryce Canyon Lodge inside the park, or directly outside there are a couple places to check out, as well as campgrounds.

Zion National Park

Red cliffs of zion national park

On November 19, 1919, Zion was established as a National Park.  Before then it had been protected under the name Mukuntuweap National Monument. The name was changed to Zion, what the Mormons called it, to potentially attract more visitors.

Located around the Virgin River in southwest Utah, Zion’s red canyon cliffs surround a green fertile valley. It’s truly a beautiful place!

Most Iconic hikes:

  • Angel’s Landing – An over 5 mile hike up winding switchbacks and hike on a narrow cliff-face this isn’t for everybody! But the views look incredible! *There is now a permit system for this hike that you have to apply for before going.
  • The Narrows – A long walk through the Virgin river down a narrow slot canyon.
the virgin river in zion national park
The Virgin River near the start of the Narrows

If you’re not big into hiking don’t worry, there’s plenty of smaller trails and things to see while spending a whole day there!

Closest town to stay in: Springdale. There are also campgrounds and a lodge inside the park.


For further reading, check out the following guidebooks and maps:

Also, Get Your Guide offers many small group tours to any of Utah’s National Parks!


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