Everything You Need to Know about the Mighty 5

From natural rock arches to gravity-defying hoodoos and narrow slot canyons, Utah’s national parks are filled with beauty

From majestic mountains to rust-colored rock formations, Utah offers breathtaking scenery unlike any other state. Known as the Mighty Five, Utah’s national parks are home to some of the most iconic spots in the U.S. National Park System.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s national parks are located in the southern part of the state. Visiting all five parks is a seven-hour, 370-mile endeavor, and that’s excluding the additional time and distance required to explore each park.

Be mindful of the seasons when planning your trip to Utah’s national parks. Many of the roads and hiking trails as well as the accommodations and nearby restaurants are closed during the winter months. Therefore, it’s best to plan your trip to Utah’s national parks for the spring, summer, or fall.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Best known for Delicate Arch, this sliver of a sandstone arch is a can’t-miss sight at Arches National Park. The hike to the base of Delicate Arch is on a 3.2 round trip trail with an elevation increase of 480 feet. However, the Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail is a half-mile alternative that still offers amazing views of one of the most famous rock formations in the world.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With varying degrees of difficulty, there are many other arches to experience at Arches National Park. One of the most accessible views is Sand Dune Arch. Just a short stroll from the parking lot, visitors follow a sandy footpath to explore this arch carved out of the sand dunes. Surrounded by juniper forests, the Turret Arch is accessible via another relatively easy 1.2 mile loop in the Windows area. On the other end of the hiking spectrum, the Double O Arch Trail is a moderately challenging 4.2 mile hike.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

The largest of the Mighty Five, Canyonlands National Park is divided into four distinct districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the Rivers. Because it’s an easy drive from Moab and offers amazing views from a paved scenic drive, Island in the Sky is the most visited part of Canyonlands. At 6,000 feet the view from Island in the Sky looks down at cliffs 2,000 feet tall that arise out of a magnificently gouged and painted landscape.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the easiest hikes at Canyonlands National Park is Mesa Arch. This relatively flat half-mile loop is a gorgeous spot to watch the sun rise through the arch. Other easy hikes in the Island in the Sky section include the White Rim Overlook (1.8 miles), Grand View Point (2 miles), and Murphy Point (3.6 miles).

As your itinerary and interests allow, consider exploring the other districts of Canyonlands. Each of these offers an off-the-beaten-path backcountry experience.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Although geologic history is stressed in every park, at Capitol Reef—ranging from 80 to 270 million years old—this is what defines it. Capitol Reef is a world of spectacular colored cliffs, hidden arches, massive domes, and deep canyons. Much of the beauty of Capitol Reef can be seen from Utah Highway 24, which bisects the park, connecting the towns of Fruita, Torrey, and Loa. Just east of the Visitor Center, turn south on Camp Ground Road to access the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. This 25-mile paved road offers great views of the Golden Throne mountain peak and Slickrock Divide.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you need a break from delicate stone arches, striped rock mountains, and deep canyons, explore the 200-acre Fruita Rural Historic District. Founded by Mormon settlers toward the end of the 19th century, Fruita was an isolated but self-sufficient agrarian community. Stretch your legs with a stop at the one-room log cabin schoolhouse where you can peer into the restored structure for a glimpse of life as a school child in 1896.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its extensive array of hoodoos crafted by Mother Nature. Hoodoos are created when water, wind, and other elements chisel away at soft rocks. As they erode, large chunks of rock remain impossibly balanced atop thin stone columns.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most notable views at Bryce Canyon National Park is from Bryce Point. Although breathtakingly beautiful at any time of day, if you catch the sunrise or sunset it looks as if the hoodoos are on fire as the rays shine on the rust- and pumpkin-colored rocks.

Bryce Canyon was named after Ebenezer Bryce, one of the Mormon pioneers who settled in the area in the mid-1800s.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

At the other parks, your line of sight extends out toward the horizon as well as down into the canyons. At Zion you look straight up. Some of the tallest cliffs in the world flank you on either side, meeting the sky at a point that strains both the neck and the imagination.  Zion features high plateaus and deep sandstone canyons carved by the Virgin River. Take in the scenery by driving the Zion-Mount Carmel Scenic Highway with its mile-long tunnel and hairpin-curved switchbacks through the mountains.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the best hikes in Zion National Park is the Zion Narrows Riverside Walk. This tree-lined two-mile out-and-back paved trail hugs the Virgin River and treats hikers to a waterfall, hanging gardens, and weeping rocks. To add to the adventure, continue hiking the Narrows. This popular hike in the Virgin River is a bit more strenuous and picks up where the Riverside Walk ends.

Worth Pondering…

I believe the world is incomprehensibly beautiful—an endless prospect of magic and wonder.

—Ansel Adams