The warming weather brings thoughts of new adventures, and with that comes the time to plan this year’s spring and summer outdoor travel. In Utah, vacations are commonly defined by asking, “Where should we point the car and roll this weekend?” You can take off in any direction, drive a few minutes or a few hours and land somewhere scenic, adventurous and exciting. We live in and around the places represented by the postcards visitors to our state send home each year.
Of the many options available to us, visiting national parks is quickly becoming a more popular choice. Last year park visitation was up at a time when travel, in general, was down. This growth can be partially attributed to locals staying close to home and visiting the natural wonders in our own backyard. This year, spend your vacation enjoying the most photographed and most coveted outdoor playgrounds in the world, Utah’s National Parks. Utah is home to five of the nation’s most popular parks, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion National Park, which draw patrons from all around the globe.
Arches, located near Moab, is most famous for Delicate Arch, the rock formation depicted on many Utah license plates, billboards and advertisements involving Utah travel. According to the National Parks Services, Arches contains the world’s largest concentration of natural stone arches. The 73,000-acre region has over 2,000 of these “miracles of nature.” The park’s roads are designed so you can see several of the most popular rock formations and arches right from the road and turnouts. A short walk along the designated trails and loops will lead you from the road to many of these sights.
There are over 20 designated hikes in the park, too many to go into detail here, but you may want to visit Delicate Arch (the most recognized arch), Landscape Arch (the largest arch on the planet) and Double Arch (the most concentrated area of arches in the world). For a more technical, challenging adventure, check out Upper Salt Wash and enjoy seeing quicksand, muddy water holes, choked gulches and classic desert hiking.
Canyonlands, located near Moab, is host to sections of the Colorado and Green rivers, both well-respected for their whitewater rafting. The park is also famous for four-wheeling, biking, and hiking. The ancient Native American area features rock art, pictographs, and archeological sites. Try hiking the Big Spring/Squaw Canyon Loop for a fun, intermediate level day hike up one canyon and down another. The Mesa Arch is a quick hike to an impressive arch, best seen at sunrise. For a longer hike, visit Upper Salt Creek trail which spans more than 22 miles across Canyonlands and has spectacular views including access to Angel’s Arch.
Canyonlands is also home to the scenic Cataract Canyon, with beautiful scenery, 2000-foot cliff walls, and Utah’s best whitewater rafting. This can be done in one day via jet boat but is best experienced on a multi-day trip. Expert level guiding skills are required to maneuver up to Class V whitewater rapids safely. A guided tour is strongly recommended if you have not run this section of water before.
Bryce Canyon, located near Panguitch, is easily recognized for its brilliant display of red, orange, pink and white hoodoos. The naturally-formed rock spires jut up from the earth like a gigantic art project constructed over thousands of years. The rim of the spires is veiled by beautiful high country desert pines, which give a dramatic contrast of colors between the dark green of the pine and the brilliant reds of the rock.
This park offers a handful of options to fill either a day or week, like auto touring, hiking, biking and horseback riding. If your time frame is limited, drive to the southern end of Highway 63, the park’s highway running along the rim of the plateau, and work your way north. There are over a dozen designated pullouts where you can stop and enjoy the grandeur of these amazing rock formations. Views from within the perimeter of hoodoos are even more magnificent than from the rim. Navajo Loop offers close up views of the spires and can be hiked in a variety of ways.
Many bikers have discovered the inner beauty of the park while enjoying a shuttled, downhill bike ride, winding through the hoodoos along the many trails in the park. For those looking to explore deep into the park and see the far reaches of the spires and backland, horses are permitted and also available for hire.
Places to stay near Bryce Canyon: Ruby’s Inn
Capitol Reef, located between Lake Powell and Salina along remote state highways, has a series of intriguing geological features: twisting canyons, massive domes, monoliths, and spires of sandstone. This park is best known for its canyoneering and horseback riding.
There’s no fee to travel on Highway 24, which runs directly through the park and accesses many popular attractions: historic orchards, rock art panels, Hickman Bridge and Freemont River Waterfall. For $5 you can access the park’s scenic drive, a 25-mile highway with excellent views of natural rock formations and historic sites from early pioneer settlers. Those traveling on horseback will have the opportunity to enjoy the park’s landscape and geological diversity from the comfort of a saddle.
The canyoneering in Capitol Reef is comparable to Zion, but many will attest to the added benefit of the solitude found. For short, easy canyoneering, check out Headquarters Canyon or Surprise Canyons. For something more strenuous, look into Halls Creek Narrow, a 22-mile narrow canyon hike with waterholes and slot canyon hiking.
Zion, Utah’s oldest national park, is located near St. George. Known for amazing hiking, canyoneering, and climbing, Zion has a seemingly endless number of activities available. No matter what kind of hike you are looking for, short and easy to long and strenuous, Zion offers it.
Angel’s Landing is one of the most famous hikes in all of Zion. It’s beautiful, surrounded by amazing red rock and is far above the ground! Rising over 1,400 feet you’ll have an angel’s view of the park. Caution is advised to those afraid of heights.
For canyoneering adventurists, these hikes are a must: The Narrows, The Subway, Orderville Canyon and Mystery Canyon. In the early season, The Narrows is more of a swim than a hike, with many water holes overflowing with spring water run-off. However, if you bring an inner tube, upon your return you can float down much of what you just hiked up, bonus! The Subway is a beautiful slot canyon, in some places completely closing over you. Much of the hike is at the bottom of a steep canyon and has a small stream rolling down the red rock surface below you as you hike, oftentimes serving as the trail. This section is refreshing, but don’t be fooled. This is a strenuous hike with rope descents, water holes and a steep hike out.
If you enjoy being hundreds or thousands of feet up a sheer rock wall, Zion offers the most big-wall climbing in the United States. This area is surrounded by cliffs and provides lots of climbing options, including easy access sport climbs with solid anchors.
No matter which park destination you choose, you’re bound for a good adventure. Utah’s National Parks are chuck-full of beautiful features, great activities, and breathtaking scenery. Take it easy or go crazy, these parks have it all. However, the information on the parks in this story is extremely limited. Thorough descriptions of these areas can be found in many guidebooks available at REI, Amazon.com and the local library. Or read online at utah.com, utah.gov, us-parks.com, driveawayvacations.com, and nps.gov. Get out and enjoy traveling in the warming weather!
Jonathan Cracroft is a professional photographer and contributor to a number of outdoor publications. He loves spending time outdoors and enjoys sharing stories and photos from his adventures around the globe.
Bob Grove is the owner of DriveAway Vacations and Wild West PR & Marketing Alliance. He’s been promoting places to go, things to do and sights to see within a half-day drive of Salt Lake City since 1993.