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Escape to Nature: The 12 Best Utah National Parks

The United States has a large number of well-known national parks. With its 63 national parks, the National Parks Service recognizes some of America’s most epic landscapes and ecosystems and manages the 350+ additional memorials, monuments, historic parks, and more.

These National Parks are among the world’s most popular, scenic, and photographed national parks among tourists worldwide. From Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos to Canyonlands’ vastness, Zion’s grandeur, to Capitol Reef’s lonesome vistas, national parks cater to everyone.

The amazing Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and many more awe-inspiring destinations can all be found in national parks. These national parks offer some of the most stunning Western landscapes and significant geologic history in the United States National Park System.

They are widely regarded as among the best in the country. They allow you to get off the beaten path and explore on foot, by boat, in a Jeep, or on horseback.

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It isn’t easy to choose just one to recommend as a starting point. Anyone would enjoy spending a few months visiting these parks and discovering new places to visit.

These National Parks are rich in history and scenery that any visitor can appreciate, with these outstanding national parks regarded as their “jewels.”

1. About National Park

Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks are all in southern Utah.

If you plan to walk to any natural wonders, be sure to carry plenty of water with you. If you plan on hiking any of the trails, give yourself more time. The scenic drives should take at least one day in each National Park.

At US 191 and I-70, Moab is the nearest town or campground to Arches National Park. Wind and water have carved seven arches from the road out of the soft sandstone. The red rocks of the Arches are probably the most photographed.

Take US 191 and Route 211 south of Moab to reach Canyonlands National Park, Utah’s largest national park. If you follow the hiking trails, there are a plethora of arches to see. Sandstone has been used to create turrets and spires.

The colorful formations shift from reddish-brown to light gold to flaming orange and deep red throughout the day. The closest city to Zion National Park is St. George, located off I-15 in southern Utah. Off I-15, Route 9 leads to Zion National Park.

The hill on which the Temple was built in Jerusalem is named Zion. The Court of the Patriarchs, visible from the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, is a group of sky-high monoliths.

1.1. Arches National Park

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Arches National Park is 80 miles southwest of Grand Junction, Colorado, located in eastern Utah. The park is open all year and offers scenic drives, hiking, and camping.

The 47,000-acre scenery of this national park contains over 2,000 sandstone arches. These subtle sandstone structures have been imprinted by millions of years of geological history in this rugged, high desert setting.

Delicate Arch, the park’s most well-known landmark, offers a panoramic view of mesas, canyons, and the Colorado River from its high vantage point.

Landscape Arch (the longest stone monument), Fiery Furnace, Courthouse Towers, Devil’s Garden, Parade of Elephants, and Tower of Babel are other notable stone monuments.

A 40-mile scenic drive takes place in the park’s wonders, and their area units a variety of stopping points, where guests will get out and follow marked trails or relish scenic viewpoints.

Throughout the park, guests can relish the windowed arches, soaring spires, and ancient hoodoos (tent rocks or spires) that frame the gorgeous vistas of this park.

We can assure you that Arches National Park, of all the National parks, is filled with scenery that brings out the child in all of us.

1.1.1. Highlights

The iconic Delicate Arch is featured on the Utah license plate and is the arch that everyone plans their trip around. The hike up to Delicate Arch isn’t easy because it involves a steady ascent and some sandstone navigating, but it’s doable for most visitors.

With a span of 306 feet of weathered sandstone, Landscape Arch is the world’s largest arch. This one is a must-see on your trip to the Arches and is only 1.5 miles round trip.

The Double O Arch is a one-of-a-kind arch atop another arch. This 4.1-mile out-and-back hike is more challenging, especially during the summer heat, so plan and bring plenty of water.

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1.2. Bryce Canyon National Park

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One of the best national parks, Bryce Canyon National Park, is about 120 miles northeast of St. George in southern Utah.

The park is open all year, though some roads may be closed due to snow in the winter. According to the National Park Service, Bryce Canyon has the world’s most extensive collection of hoodoos.

The lush greenery of pines falls away at the rim of Bryce Canyon, revealing an 8,000-foot drop into an arena of spectacular, brilliantly colored limestone rock formations high atop the Paunsaugunt Plateau.

This canyon, surrounded by pink and orange cliffs, is filled with stunning red rock hoodoos formed over millions of years by the interaction of wind and water.

Summer sunsets are the best time to see the brilliant colors in this national park, though it is open all year.

Visitors will be able to see rock formations such as Queen’s Garden, Sinking Ship, Fairyland Canyon, and Inspiration Point while traveling along the 37-mile scenic drive.

Hiking with a ranger and riding horses are other excellent ways to explore Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park.

1.2.1. Highlights

The Wall Street Trail is a breathtaking hike through Bryce Canyon’s well-known otherworldly scenery.

Sunset Point is the iconic Bryce Canyon overlook, where visitors are amazed by the mind-boggling beauty and concentration of hoodoos and rock formations.

Sunsets here are not to be missed.

Inspiration Point is aptly named; from here, you can gaze out over the vast landscape that makes up this distinct region of Utah. There are hoodoos, mesas, ponderosa pines, cedar, and gorge-striped hills as far as the eye can see.

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1.3. Canyonlands National Park

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Canyonlands National Park is about 110 miles southwest of Grand Junction, Colorado, in southeastern Utah. The park is open all year.

The scenery in Canyonlands, Utah’s largest national park, is breathtaking, whether you’re looking down thousands of feet to the Colorado and Green Rivers or up hundreds of feet to red rock pinnacles and spires.

The rivers have divided the park into three distinct areas, each named after a unique vista: Island in the Sky, Needles, and The Maze, the most remote district.

Canyonlands, known for its white-water rafting, 4-wheel drive trails, and mountain biking trails, has a lot to offer visitors to this Utah national park.

Furthermore, one feature that distinguishes this national park is a section of petroglyphs left by the Fremont people (Native American tribe).

1.3.1. Highlights

The Needles, located in the park’s southeast corner, is named after the multi-colored sandstone spires that dominate the area. The Needles area has numerous hiking trails and 4WD roads that lead to fascinating ruins.

Mesa Arch is the park’s most photographed feature, and it’s where most visitors flock to get their photos of this arch with a view. The best time to visit is at sunrise, when the sun shines brightly through the arch, illuminating the vast landscape.

Shafer Trail is regarded as one of the best 4WD trails in the United States. You can put your high-clearance four-wheel-drive SUV to the test on this demanding, unpaved, and downright scary road.

Click here to learn more about Utah National Parks.

1.4. Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City in south-central Utah. Hiking, camping, and scenic drives are available throughout the year.

Although it is probably the least well-known, it is unquestionably one of the best. There are no crowds, plenty of scenery, and a small town (Torrey) nestled against the park with restaurants and niceties that will surprise you.

There are numerous excellent day hikes and truly extraordinary stargazing opportunities.

The Water Pocket Fold, a 100-mile-long warp of rock rising from the earth, is the park’s most prominent geological feature. A fault beneath the earth’s crust pushed up the rock layers to form a monocline, better known today as the Capitol Reef, 70 million years ago.

Hickman Bridge, the Temple of the Sun and Moon, Cathedral Valley, and Capitol Dome are just a few of the fascinating sandstone formations that make up the rest of the park. Along a 25-mile scenic drive, you can see these and other sights.

Fruita, an 1800s pioneer town known for its abundant apricot, apple, cherry, pears, and peach orchards, is also preserved within the park.

This Utah national park offers a variety of activities, including fruit picking, a nature center, children’s activities, afternoon ranger talks, and bird watching.

Numerous hiking options are available, ranging from easy family walks like Sunset Point Trail to more challenging hikes like Navajo Knobs, an intensive trail that prizes hikers with stunning panoramic views at the end.

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1.4.1. Highlights

Hickman Bridge is an easy two-mile trail (1 mile each way) leading to a magnificent sandstone arch. Early Fremont ruins and a smaller arch are also visible on the trail.

Grand Wash is a spectacular gorge that cuts through the Water Pocket Fold geological formation of the Capitol Reet. The trail follows a flat wash for just over 6 miles, but most visitors prefer to stop and explore the half-mile narrows (shown above) before returning.

In 2015, Stargazing Capitol Reef was designated as an International Dark Sky Park, and with good reason. Some of the best stargazing opportunities in the United States can be found over Capitol Reef at night.

Click here to learn more about Utah National Parks.

1.5. Zion National Park

Zion National Park is 45 miles northeast of St. George in southwestern Utah. The park is open all year and provides hiking, camping, a shuttle service up Zion Canyon, and breathtaking views.

Zion National Park is one of the oldest and most visited national parks, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2009. With nearly 3 million visitors per year coming to see its soaring towers and massive monoliths, the park has come to rely on its internal transportation system to keep the fragile ecological park system running.

Open-air shuttles transport visitors around the park to see spectacular formations such as The Great White Throne and Angels Landing.

Many unusual species (such as orchids and evening primrose) can be commonly grown in the Virgin River’s grottoes, while drier areas support various flora. Every day during the summer, Zion National Park offers free guided hikes, interpretive tours, audiovisual programs, and evening lectures.

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1.5.1. Highlights

The Watchman is, without a doubt, the park’s most prominent feature. This sandstone mountain juts out from Zion’s well-known cliffs, offering sweeping views of the entire park. It’s the best view from the bridge near the main canyon’s entrance.

Kolob Canyon, where you can get away from the crowds and take in the breathtaking scenery, makes this part of Utah unique.

Along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, Checkerboard Mesa is a fascinating piece of geology. At this vantage point can be seen as a sandstone mesa with checkerboard marks carved deep into the stone. This natural occurrence is sure to pique the interest of your younger companions.

Click here to learn more about Utah National Parks. 

1.6. Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument is located in northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah, about 110 miles south of Grand Junction, Colorado. The park has dinosaur fossils and rock art and provides scenic drives, hiking, and camping.

Earl Douglas, a paleontologist, discovered eight dinosaur vertebrae in the arid badlands of eastern Utah. He’d stumbled upon the world’s most significant acquisition of dinosaur fossils.

In this area, the remains of ten different dinosaur species have been discovered. The excavated fossils can be found in the Carnegie Museum, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Denver Museum of Natural History.

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1.7. Golden Spike National Historical Park

Golden Spike National Historical Park is located in northern Utah, about 85 miles northwest of Salt Lake City. The park is open all year and allows visitors to watch steam locomotives and discover more about railroad history.

On May 10, 1869, officers from the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads gathered in Promontory Summit, Utah, to commemorate the intersection of the railroads from coast to coast.

The first transcontinental railroad line in the United States was completed with the insertion of a golden spike.

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1.8. Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument is located approximately 150 miles south of Grand Junction, Colorado, southwestern Colorado, and southeastern Utah. From spring to autumn, the park is open.

The park provides camping as well as tours of thousand-year-old pueblo ruins. Within the park’s boundaries, six pueblo communities are protected.

Dwellings, kivas, and multi-story ruins are among the structures in the park. The visitor center and the Square Tower Group of structures are the only units on Hovenweep that can be reached via paved road.

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1.9. Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument is located in southeastern Utah, approximately 43 miles east of Blanding. The park is open all year and provides camping, hiking, and a stunningly scenic drive.

This park, located east of Lake Powell, features three rock bridges carved by erosion into the sandstone of the Colorado Plateau.

Visitors can enjoy a 9-mile scenic drive that takes them to overlooks with spectacular views of the park’s three natural bridges, Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo.

Many trails ultimately lead to bridges if you want a closer look.

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1.10. Cedar Breaks National Monument

Cedar Breaks National Monument is located 65 miles northeast of St. George, Utah, in southwestern Utah. The park has beautiful scenic drives and hiking trails. From late spring to late fall, the park is open.

The park is much higher than other Colorado Plateau parks. The visitor center is situated at a height of 10,000 feet. During the winter, the park is completely covered in snow.

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1.11. Timpanogos Cave National Monument

Timpanogos Cave National Monument is about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City in Northern Utah. Depending on the season, the park is open from spring to fall.

The park’s three caverns are filled with formations that visitors can see. Rare green and yellow formations within the caves are among the highlights. Visitors must be on tour to see the caves.

It’s worth noting that visitors must hike 1.5 miles and gain 1,000 feet in elevation to get to the cave entrance.

The hike begins at a height of 6,730 feet above sea level and ends at a height of 6,730 feet above sea level. The path to the cave entrance is paved, but the hike can be challenging due to the altitude.

Click here to learn more about Utah National Parks.

1.12. Rainbow Bridge National Monument

Rainbow Bridge National Monument is about 125 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona, in southern Utah. It is possible to visit the park at any time of the year.

Rainbow Bridge is the largest natural rock bridge in the world. The bridge is 290 feet long from bottom to top and 275 feet wide. The bridge’s height is 42 feet, and its width is 33 feet.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area manages the park. Most visitors arrive at the park via a commercial boat tour departing from Lake Powell.

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2. Things to Keep in Mind Before You Go

2.1. Bring Water

Water bottle filling stations are always available at each park’s visitor center, but you won’t find any along the hiking trails or even on the scenic drives.

Although Zion and Bryce are higher in elevation, they still get hot in the summer. And Canyonlands and Arches get downright hot in the summer, with daytime temperatures regularly reaching 100 degrees (F).

Ensure you have enough water, especially if you intend to go on longer hikes.

2.2. Wear Comfortable Shoes

If you’re going for a drive through the countryside, your flip-flops will suffice.

However, if you decide to take on any long hikes, you will need proper footwear. I’m not talking about your favorite pair of hot pink Sketchers – you need hiking boots.

2.3. Be Prepared for Any Weather

Many of Utah’s national parks have microclimates, which means the weather can never be completely predicted.

Wear layers that you can shed (or put back on), and keep a raincoat in your daypack. (I adore the Columbia Arcadia II jacket because it is incredibly water-resistant.)

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2.4. Be Wary of The Sun

Sunburn is the worst; avoid it by using (and re-using) sunscreen and wearing a hat whenever possible.

2.5. Purchase a National Parks Pass

If you do the math, visiting all Mighty attractions in one trip will cost you more than $150. This is where a national park annual pass comes in handy.

The “America the Beautiful” pass costs $80 and is valid for a year, which means it will save you a lot of money if you plan on visiting a lot of national parks or trails like the Spanish National Historic Trail.

Closing Thoughts

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