There’s no doubt that pretty much all of the national parks in the United States are well worth visiting. They offer breathtaking scenery, wildlife, scenic drives, hiking, kayaking, fishing, camping, and more. After all, they’re designated as National Parks for a reason!
Today we’re taking a close-up look at the 5 national parks in Utah, known as “The Mighty 5” (we’ve been to all of them… repeatedly… and know you’ll love them, too)!
- 1) What Are the 5 National Parks in Utah?
- 2) Which of the Mighty 5 National Parks Is Most Worth Visiting?
- 3) Have You Visited Any (or All!) of the 5 National Parks in Utah?
What Are the 5 National Parks in Utah?
The Mighty 5 are the five magnificent national parks in the state of Utah. Managed and maintained by the National Park Service, each park has more to offer than words and photos on a page can convey. Given the opportunity, we encourage everyone to visit any or all of these parks.
Road trips almost anywhere in Utah offer breathtaking scenery, but the truly “Mighty 5” that are Utah’s national parks offer particularly awe-inspiring wonders of nature to explore and embrace.
The Mighty 5 are:
- Zion National Park
- Arches National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
Let’s take a look at each of these iconic national parks and the unique features and experiences they have to offer to their visitors.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park is one of our favorite places on Earth. Famous for its outrageous hikes and stunning canyons, Zion National Park is a glorious place to be. (It is possible that Peter is biased though, as this was the very first national park he ever visited, in 1994.)
Located adjacent to the little town of Springdale in southern Utah, this exquisite national park offers some A-MAZING hiking opportunities. There are easy half-mile paved trails, multi-day backpacking trips, as well as extraordinary trails for every hiking level in between.
In Zion Canyon, you’ll find some very popular hikes like Angels Landing and Emerald Pools, but there are many less-traveled trails throughout the park, too.
Canyoneers are particularly enthralled with Zion National Park for its stunning red rock.
And yes – it’s true – there really are chains to the summit of Angels Landing, (a 5-mile round trip with a 1,500-foot elevation gain).
As mentioned, Peter’s first-ever national park visit was to Zion back in 1994, and he summited Angels Landing at that time. That visit sparked an indelible love of the outdoors that planted a seed that led to us eventually becoming full-time RVers.
Ever since, when we have the opportunity to return to Zion, we hike Angels Landing to the summit.
One of Zion’s most iconic, and unique, hikes is The Narrows, where you hike right up the Virgin River. That’s right, with some rented canyoneering boots (available locally from Zion Adventures), you can hike through the water into the breathtaking beauty of the Virgin River Gorge.
Winter camping in Zion is spectacular as well. Back in 2017, we decided to make a winter visit to Zion, and we were glad we did. What a winter wonderland!
One great thing about winter camping in Zion is the lack of crowds (possibly due to the 15° nighttime temps!) As you’ll see in this video, this campground was virtually deserted but the scenery was extra breathtaking. (Snow-covered red rock cliffs? Yes, please!)
Arches National Park
Arches is another of our favorite national parks. Why? Well, for the arches, of course! But we’re not alone in our love for this wondrous place, as Arches is one of the top-rated national parks in the country.
Northwest of Moab, this awesome park is home to over 2,000 arches amidst more than 73,000 acres of sandstone, balanced rocks, hoodoos, and more.
One spot that’s a must-see as the evening sun gets low in the sky is Delicate Arch. If you haven’t been… GO! Seriously, it’s worth every step the challenging 3-mile round-trip. We go every single time we visit this super park.
We also recommend checking out Park Avenue, Balanced Rock, The Windows, Double Arch, Devils Garden, and Landscape Arch (the longest natural arch in the world). There’s so much to do in Zion that you could spend weeks enjoying it all.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is noted for being similar to the Grand Canyon, only smaller. But make no mistake – Canyonlands may be less “grand” in terms of size, but it’s no less grand in terms of wonder.
527 square miles. That’s how expansive this incredible national park is. The deep canyons, pinnacles, mesas, and cliffs were formed by the various tributaries and currents of the Green and the Colorado rivers.
For introverted hikers, there are incredibly remote areas of Canyonlands National Park to enjoy. The Needles district is very remote, while The Maze is downright ominous to access!
By contrast, the more populated “Island in the Sky” district is easily accessible. It boasts Mesa Arch, one of the most photographed pieces of geology in the western United States (check out the sunrise photo at the top of this post to see why).
As you might imagine, there’s some pretty fantastic rafting in Canyonlands, including some Class V rapids in Cataract Canyon. You can also choose areas where you’ll drift gently past miles of impressive cliffs.
Canyonlands National Park holds the distinction of being the largest of The Mighty 5.
Bryce Canyon National Park
If you’ve never seen hoodoos (the tall, spindly rock formations created by millions of years of erosion), Bryce Canyon National Park is a great place to experience their impressive presence.
Every hoodoo began as a simple land formation, such as a plateau. Over time, rain, snow, and wind eroded the rock, silt, and sand, and what’s left is a very tall spire shooting out of the bottom of a dry basin.
These are hoodoos, and Bryce is famous for them. In fact, Bryce is really all about the hoodoos. The best-known hoodoo in Bryce is Thor’s Hammer, named for the Norse God of Thunder, controller of air and storms.
Visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park will be inspired by the hiking, camping, and horseback riding experiences available.
In winter, Bryce is not only less crowded but is also one of the very few national parks that offer cross-country skiing. Just imagine moving through the snow with those stunning cliff walls at your side!
Capitol Reef National Park
The least known of the Mighty 5, Capitol Reef National Park may not rival the four other national parks in Utah in terms of popularity, but it’s no less impressive in its own mighty way!
The red rock hiking in Capitol Reef is hard to beat, with many trails coming out of the town of Fruita (where you can pick your own fresh fruit!) and rolling through the various environments within the park.
If you’re interested in a slow-paced park visit, Capitol Reef may be the perfect place for you. The easy scenic drives, the slow and steady hikes, the petroglyphs, and the historic look at the area’s settlers and miners add up to an awesome experience.
The slot canyons are fantastic and the famous Waterpocket Fold is a sight to behold, courtesy of an impressive number of scenic outlooks.
In fact, the Waterpocket Fold is the defining feature of Capitol Reef. This 100-mile geologic landform is sometimes referred to as a “wrinkle in the Earth”. It formed between 50 and 70 million years ago when an ancient buried fault was reactivated, causing a lifting of the Earth’s crust.
There are three scenic routes where the Waterpocket Fold can be viewed.
Which of the Mighty 5 National Parks Is Most Worth Visiting?
Honestly? They’re ALL worth visiting! And if you have to choose, you really can’t go wrong. (Okay, Zion & Arches are our favs, but don’t tell anyone!)
One piece of advice we’d offer is that if you’re heading out to do some hiking, backpacking, cross-country skiing, or mountain biking, be sure to bring along a good supply of water. You don’t want to be without it in any season, especially in the high desert where all of these parks are located.
There are several great ways to be sure you have access to a sufficient amount of safe water. We’ll link to a few good products here, and add that it’s never a bad idea to have a second source of fresh water on hand, such as a LifeStraw filter for everyone traveling.
All of the following are available in various sizes:
- Hydration Pack For Runners- 100% Hands-Free Hydration. This pack is for Running and hydrating without breaking your stride. The Hydrosleeve pouch...
- Running Hydration Pack with Anti-slosh Pouch made from BPA and PVC free TPU. Hand Water Bottles and the waist belt will slosh as you drink it,but our...
- Premium efficiency and design
- Storage tuned to the each season
- Offers 20% more water per sip
- Leak-proof cap is easier to open and close
- SATISFY YOUR THIRST FOR ADVENTURE: Lightweight and comfortable hydration backpack; This pack is a terrific companion to keep you hydrated while...
- FREE HYDRATION BLADDER: 2-Liter; Durable, kink-free sip tube and push-lock cushioned bite valve; Large 2-inch (5 cm) opening for ice and easy cleaning
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- Removes Microplastics: Removes The Smallest Microplastics Found In The Environment (Down To 1 Micron), And Reduces Turbidity Down To 0.2 Microns
Have You Visited Any (or All!) of the 5 National Parks in Utah?
If you’ve visited any of the Mighty 5, we’d love to hear about your experience. Which is your favorite? Drop us a comment down below!
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Sunday 7th of August 2022
I think that you should go back to Zion and for a 30th Anniversary hike to honor Peter’s first-ever national park visit. It might be fun to plan it in mid-October and to let your patreons know.
That way we could organize a little congratulations party for Peter and John. (Especially if one ends up carrying the other down the last 300 feet. ha ha).
Sunday 7th of August 2022
Ha! Ha! We'll let you know if we schedule that event! 😉
Sunday 7th of August 2022
We did the 'BIG 5' back in 2020 plus several more. While in Hurricane this Spring we did Cedar Breaks National Monument and KOLOB Canyon, which is part of ZION. If you're going to Canyonlands you might as well check out Dead Horse Point State Park. We didn't try the White Rim Trail because that is a full day (maybe 2) day trek but we did do the 45 mile Shaffer Trail starting from the top and going down (I recommend that direction so you can see over the hood of your vehicle :-) ). Capitol Reef was great, especially in the Fall when the fruit is ripe, and of course you should stop by the Gifford House and pick up some of their pies. We want to go back and do more of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Natural Bridges National Monument is close by as well and the Toadstool Hoodoos Trailhead is a neat hike it to see the 'toadstools.
Sunday 7th of August 2022
Agreed! My wife and I did the 5 National Parks in Utah in April and May of this year and they were definitely some of the high points of our past 10 months on the road.
We especially enjoyed Angels Landing- although that involved some very advanced pre-planning now that the last (chained) section of that trail requires a permit- granted solely by lottery and months in advance. Not to mention that the park itself is one of the most popular of all the National Parks, meaning that reserving a campsite within the park required one of those “logged into recreation.gov with fingers hovering over the reserve button of a pre-chosen site BEFORE 7am” mornings…6 months in advance of our visit. It honestly felt very much like trying to secure tickets to a farewell concert tour of The Rolling Stones- if you slip up or hesitate for even a few seconds-literally- all the RV sites that have opened up for that day are gone. No exaggeration. The remainder of the campsites (all the tent sites that are not RV suitable anyways) are typically also gone within minutes. Not to stray too far off topic, but Zion was a very real example of what RVing in National Parks involves these days. The days of “just going” to most National Parks are long gone. Visiting any popular park is going to require LOTS of advanced planning- or even more luck (ie: to win a “next day” lottery, for example, or pick up a spot that has opened due to a cancellation or no-show). Again, not to rain on the parade, but Zion was one of our most aggressively pre planned park visits to date. The upside, of course, is that it all worked out and we had a wonderful visit, enjoying Angels Landing along with several other hikes, bike rides and general sightseeing in the area.
Likewise, The hike up to Delicate Arch was worth every step. Arches also requires a little more pre planning to access these days given that the park issues timed vehicle passes to limit the traffic within the park. Ultimately this is a very good idea, providing a much more enjoyable experience for all those who are visiting. The roads, parking areas and trails are much less congested than they had been in recent years, and the rangers are no longer having to completely close the park to visitors on peak days when it would literally fill to capacity. Again, not quite the challenge that Zion was, but anybody planning to visit Arches (during peak season, at least) needs to do their homework and due diligence on recreation.gov to be sure they have what they need to get in.
Bryce was another favorite, and we enjoyed several popular hikes throughout the park, along with the scenic drive on our first day just to get oriented and a good overview of the park. The crowds at Bryce were not bad at all (although we were pretty early in the season) and we stayed outside the park, so finding a spot to camp was relatively easy. The scenery at Bryce is breathtaking and if you’re someone who’s not willing (or perhaps able) to hike, this is, much like The Grand Canyon, a park where you can find an overlook on a rim trail and enjoy much of the grandeur of the park without walking more than a few yards at a time.
Canyonlands and Capitol Reef were definitely the most quiet and least populated of the 5 parks, so again, finding camping was relatively easy and we enjoyed the quiet, slower pace and open vistas that these parks had to offer.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which, although a National Monument and not a National Park, is in the same general area as the other parks, offers some similarly spectacular scenery, interesting hikes to slot canyons and waterfalls, and great opportunities for dispersed camping/boondocking in its vast open areas.
Thanks for highlighting the beauty of these 5 parks. I hope I haven’t been too much of a killjoy concerning logistics of visiting- maybe that’s a separate topic for another day? I’m sure anybody who already RVs is well aware of the challenges and knows it’s just part of the package, but anybody new to RVing, or who hasn’t been out in the past 10-20 years needs to be aware of some of the pre planning requirements so they don’t just show up only to find out they can’t get into their destination- which could be a huge disappointment, particularly if they’ve travelled many miles/days just to get there.
Bottom line- it can be tricky to plan, but it’s all well worth the effort!!!
Sunday 7th of August 2022
@Tim Howlett, Very well said. Couldn't agree more about the crowds. We were out there in the Fall of 2020 so the only reservations required then was for the tram in ZION plus the weather is quite pleasant that time of year.