Highlights in Utah National Parks for Adventurers & Families
By Aaron Lovell
Happy Birthday, National Park Service!
The United States’ first national parks are older than 100 years, but the Park Service itself began in August 1916. And there’s no better place than the Mountain West, especially Utah, for national park access. Most Utahns live within a 12-hour drive of 24 national parks—that doesn’t include monuments—making it tough to decide which to visit first.
Luckily, Utah is also home to five national park gems, and this weeklong road trip itinerary is an easy way to them this summer while commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the National Parks.
The under 1,000-mile route (without side trips) includes recommended activities for adventurers and families in 5 Utah National Parks. Start/end point for both trips is the Utah State Capitol building.
Utah National Parks Itinerary
1 A.M. travel to and explore Arches before moving on to avoid crowds. 232 miles
2 Explore Canyonlands; maybe split time in Needles & Island In the Sky.
3 A.M. travel to Capitol Reef; visit Fruita area & Gifford House. 137 miles
4 Burr Trail to Boulder; hike along the way; continue to Bryce Canyon. 152 miles
5 Spend the day hiking in Bryce Canyon.
6 A.M travel to Zion via Hwy 89; visit sites on the east side of park. 72 miles
7 A full day in Zion Canyon is barely a taste, but you’ll be back.
8 Travel back home; be sure to visit Kolob Canyon on the way. 309 miles
NOT-TO-MISS SITES AND HIKES IN UTAH NATIONAL PARKS
Arches National Park
Devils Garden Trail with Primitive Loop (7+ miles, depending on side trips) After spending a half-day driving, stretch your legs on this hike at the end of the main road in Arches. The longest maintained trail in the park, this hike sees fewer visitors than better-known sites. Crowds are especially nil on the primitive loop section, which offers a short detour to Private Arch.
Sand Dune, Skyline & Broken Arches (about a 3-mile RT) Traveling with young children who aren’t quite ready for a 7-miler? Try this easy trail. Park at the lower end of the Devils Garden campground and follow the Broken Arch Loop, making side trips to Sand Dune and Skyline arches. For a shorter hike, skip Skyline and follow the road south from where the loop connects with it back to the campground trailhead.
Canyonlands National Park
The Squaw Flat Campground Trailheads in the Needles District The gateway to some of the most adventurous day hikes in the park, trails here can be combined to almost any length. The Big Springs-Elephant Canyon Loop (about 11 miles) has great vistas of The Needles and other formations. A couple of ladder climbs link the two trails, which are mostly on slickrock.
Island in the Sky Canyonlands’ most family-friendly district. Combine a few short hikes in this area: Crater View Trail (1 mile) offers a view of Upheaval Dome, a geological enigma; nearby Whale Rock (.5 mile) is a hunk of sandstone Captain Ahab would have appreciated; Aztec Butte (.6 mile) passes a granary built by Ancestral Puebloans; and Mesa Arch (.5-mile loop) leads to one of the park’s most iconic features.
Capitol Reef National Park
Cathedral District If you have a high-clearance vehicle (preferably 4×4), visit this remote backcountry area where several unmaintained hikes lead to sites like the Temples of the Sun and Moon, a Gypsum sinkhole, and other rarely visited features. Take a map, and hope for good weather.
Surprise and Headquarters Canyons On your way out of Capitol Reef, visit two kid-friendly slot canyons by heading east to Notom-Bullfrog Road and follow it south along the backside of the Waterpocket Fold. Pass the Burr Trail junction and look for the trailheads for Surprise Canyon (2-mile RT) and Headquarters Canyon (3.2-mile RT). When you’re finished, take the Burr Trail to Boulder and Highway 12. Bryce Canyon is only 77 miles away.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The Fairyland Loop (8 miles) A less-visited but gorgeously “enchanting” (and strenuous) hike. Best access is at Fairyland Point, which lies at the end of a road north of the Visitor Center. Tower Bridge, the Chinese Wall, and the Sinking Ship are only a few of the seldom-viewed sites you’ll take in.
Tropic Trail (3.6-mile RT) Bryce hoodoos are best seen from below. But the steep hikes from the rim can be tough for young children. Instead, consider the Tropic Trail, a 1.8-mile (one-way), gentle climb from the end of Bryce Way in Tropic. It leads right to the 3-mile Peekaboo Loop and continues to the Navajo Loop in the most popular section of the park. After hiking back to the car, drive 10 miles up Highway 12 to explore the rest of Bryce Canyon.
Zion National Park
Hidden Canyon and Observation Point Take the shuttle to the Weeping Rock stop and combine Hidden Canyon with Observation Point (about 10 miles total) for a uniquely Zion experience. Hidden Canyon is a short, steep climb into a cool hanging garden of Eden. Hang onto the chains for the exposed last bit of the hike. Head back down to the main trail and continue up to Observation Point, which overlooks Angel’s Landing and provides an incredible vista of Zion Canyon.
Kolob Canyon After exploring Zion, visit this area of the park as you head north. The Lee Pass Trailhead is a 5-miler up the middle fork of Taylor Creek with several stream crossings, pioneer cabins, and great scenery that keeps it interesting. If you’re short on time, drive to the end of the road and take a one-mile stroll on the Timber Creek Overlook Trail, one of the best “high value, low effort” hikes around that’s great for younger children.