A Guide to the Best Utah National Parks

From the steep, sublime Zion Canyon to the imagination-igniting hoodoos of Bryce, here’s how to uncover the best of all five Utah national parks

Welcome to the land of red rock canyons, panoramic views framed by arches, and sandstone spires. Over 75 percent of Utah belongs to the public through sprawling national forests, expansive wilderness, charming state parks, and five Utah national parks.

All of Utah’s national parks are located in the state’s southern half. From steep yet sublime Zion Canyon to the imagination-igniting hoodoos of Bryce and the iconic Delicate Arch, the Mighty Five are worth the hype. And for every must-see highlight in these parks, there are at least a dozen secret sights, quiet trails, and roads less traveled. 

So, how to outsmart the crowds? The simplest answer is to go when others don’t. This might mean a winter visit when snow makes those hoodoos extra enchanting and temperatures are far more tolerable than the extreme heat of summer.

All Utah national parks are also open 24/7 meaning you can plot a sunrise tour or a stargazing mission. But keep in mind that if you visit in the off-season (roughly November to February), the operating hours of visitor centers and local restaurants vary—although during this time you’ll find cheaper lodging.

Planning pays off handsomely here: A few popular hikes require permits that open months in advance and the most coveted campgrounds and lodges (especially those within park borders) often book out a year ahead. Many of these reservations are available at www.recreation.gov. From east to west, here’s the best of Utah’s national parks including essential sights, hidden gems, and pro tips for making the most of every visit. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

The first national park established in Utah (and the 13th in the U.S.), Zion—with its towering canyon walls and hanging gardens—makes many a bucket list. The park has grown so popular that during peak season (March to October), its main road now closes to private vehicles meaning visitors must ride a shuttle. The loophole is that you can bike this nearly flat scenic drive and e-bikes and bikes are available to rent in nearby Springdale.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to hike the sought-after Angels Landing trail, you’ll need to apply for a permit two to six months before your visit. If you can, stay in nearby Springdale or at Zion Lodge—wherever you stay in or near Zion, book as much as 13 months ahead when reservations open. When you’re ready to ditch the tourist circuit, explore the Kolob Canyons section of the park or the quieter trails off Kolob Terrace Road.

Zion has three campgrounds. Watchman Campground is open year-round with reservations from early March to late November and first-come, first-serve during the rest of the year. South Campground and Lava Point Campground are open seasonally.

>> Read my full travel guide to Zion National Park here

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park 

Bizarre spires formed over millions of years are the main attraction at Bryce. After all, there’s a higher concentration of these hoodoos here than anywhere in the world. The best (and fastest) way to satiate your hunger for hoodoo views is by taking the Navajo Loop from Sunset Point or Queen’s Garden Loop from Sunrise Point off the park’s main drive. For a more immersive trek, follow one of those trails down to Fairyland Loop or try part of the 23-miler Under-the-Rim Trail.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get some hoodoos all to yourself, take the back entrance into Bryce Amphitheater via Tropic Trail from the tiny town of Tropic where you can also grab lunch at a state-favorite: i.d.k. Barbecue. Explore a quieter hoodoo landscape by biking Red Canyon Path (paved) or Thunder Mountain Trail (dirt). The ideal base camp for the park is the historic Lodge at Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon National Park has two campgrounds, North and Sunset, located near the Visitor Center, Bryce Canyon Lodge, and the main Bryce Amphitheater. North Campground is reservation-based May 27 through October 15 and first-come, first-served October 16 through May 26. Sunset Campground is first-come, first-served April 15h through October 31st.

>> Read my full travel guide to Bryce Canyon National Park here.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park 

A 100-mile geologic wrinkle in the earth known as the Waterpocket Fold is responsible for the majestic environment at Utah’s quietest national park. Unique attractions include petroglyphs and the historic Fruita Orchards which the park still maintains. Try fresh pies made with local fruit like peaches or apples at Gifford Homestead near the park entrance. Then wander down Capitol Gorge—a canyon that once served as the main highway through the area—or brave the steep trail to Cassidy Arch where Butch Cassidy is rumored to have escaped the law.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You, too, can escape (from other travelers, that is) if you have a good 4WD vehicle. Notom-Bullfrog Road leads to Lake Powell and intersects with Burr Trail Road, another backcountry route. Burr Trail leads to Boulder, a gateway town to Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and home to what’s arguably Utah’s best restaurant (Hell’s Backbone Grill; open spring through fall, reservations recommended). Boulder’s close but Torrey’s closer—stay in one of the lodges in this little town just 5 minutes from the park.

Adjacent to the Fremont River and surrounded by historic orchards, Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef has 71 sites. Each site has a picnic table and firepit and/or above-ground grill but no individual water, sewage, or electrical hookups. There is an RV dump and potable water fill station near the entrance to Loops A and B. Restrooms feature running water and flush toilets but no showers. The park has a 100 percent reservation system from March 1-October 31.

>> Read my full travel guide to Capitol Reef National Park here.

Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park 

Five distinct districts comprise Canyonlands, each offering something different. Island in the Sky is a land of long views—don’t miss Shafer Trail Viewpoint or Mesa Arch.

Only about 20 miles south of Island in the Sky as the crow flies (but a solid two-hour drive away), the Needles District offers great hiking including an action-packed jaunt on Cave Spring Trail featuring a replica of an 1880s-era cowboy camp and mushroom-like rock formations.

Needles District, Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go to the Maze to get lost; Chocolate Drops and Land of Standing Rocks are a couple of worthy destinations in this backcountry district. Head to the non-contiguous Horseshoe Canyon unit to see incredible petroglyphs including floating holy ghosts.

Visit the River District at the bottom of the canyons carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers for a rafting adventure. For most of the park’s district, the best place to stay is Moab which offers easy access to Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the park’s rivers. 

Canyonlands maintains two campgrounds. Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat) has 12 sites, first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. There is no water at the campground. The campground is open year-round. The Needles Campground has 26 individual sites. You can reserve some individual sites from spring through fall. At other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground.

>> Read my full travel guide to Canyonlands National Park here.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park 

Star of Ed Abbey’s iconic Desert Solitaire, Arches has come a long way since 1968 and these days it’s so action-packed, that the park service is piloting a timed-entry system requiring reservations from April to October 2023. But there are ways around a Disneyland experience. Be an early bird or a night owl—come before sunrise or stay beyond sunset and you’ll be amply rewarded with quieter trails and golden light that makes the arches glow.

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nearest accommodations of Moab are close enough to the park entrance to make this doable. If you’d rather not rise early, book a guided tour with a ranger to see the permit-only Fiery Furnace area or secure a campsite at Devils Garden up to six months in advance. From the campground, you can hike to an underdog of an arch: the lesser-known, stunning Broken Arch. 

Devils Garden Campground is the only campground at Arches National Park. You can reserve campsites for nights between March 1 and October 31. Between November and February, campsites are first-come, first-served.

>> Read my full travel guide to Arches National Park here.

Worth Pondering…

Landscape is what becomes us. If we see our natural heritage only as a quarry of building block instead of the bedrock of our integrity, we will indeed find ourselves not only homeless but rootless by the impoverishment of our own imagination. At a time when we hardly know what we can count on in a country of shifting values and priorities, Canyonlands is our bedrock, a geologic truth that we all share, the eyes of the future are looking back at us, praying that we may see beyond our own time.

—Terry Tempest Williams