Finding Adventure (Without the Crowds) in Utah

Avoid the masses but not the epic adventures at these breathtaking under-the-radar desert landscapes around Moab

From Jurassic-era dunes and prehistoric petroglyphs to amber-tinted cliffs and spires, Moab is an adventure traveler’s dream. Located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, this small city in southeast Utah is one of North America’s greatest outdoor recreation hubs and a gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  

Millions of years of erosion by ancient oceans, freshwater lakes, streams, and windblown dunes shaped this region’s 2,400 square miles of sandstone arches, picturesque mountain peaks, Martian-like rock formations, and colorful mesas and canyons. 

Along the Colorado River near Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain bikers, hikers, campers, climbers, paddlers, and off-road drivers arrive in droves to explore this red rock playground in jaw-dropping numbers—more than 3 million visitors annually.

With increasing use come big problems! Overcrowding and overuse of trails, campgrounds, and recreation facilities led Arches to institute a timed entry reservation system between April and October. Other popular national parks have implemented similar measures encouraging people to come during off-peak times or explore other nearby recreation areas. 

But here’s the good news: The National Park Service (NPS) manages other parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic areas within a day’s drive from Moab including Aztec Ruins National MonumentGlen Canyon National Recreation AreaHovenweep National MonumentMesa Verde National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument. About 94 percent of the land surrounding Moab is public meaning there are also plenty of lesser-visited state parks and federal recreation areas extending into the Greater Moab region to discover. 

For adventurers and nature lovers who want to see more of the great outdoors—and less of each other—here are five tips to beat the crowds and explore the elements in Moab this spring.

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

1. Get crafty about campsites

Many of the private RV parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and state and federally owned campgrounds demand ample planning time. Campgrounds closer to U.S. Route 191 and Utah Routes 128 and 279 along the Colorado River (The Riverway) usually fill up by mid-morning. 

Getting one of the 51 campsites at Devils Garden Campground—the only developed campsite in Arches—can be challenging without some pre-trip planning. During the high season (March 1-October 31), sites are reservable up to six months in advance. But from November 1 to February 28 when temperatures are cooler, the campground is first-come, first-served.

For fewer crowds, venture to Canyon Rims Recreation Area, an hour’s drive south of Moab on Route 191. It has two campgrounds to stage your hiking, biking, and driving adventures—Hatch Point in the north and Windwhistle in the south which rarely fills up and don’t require reservations. Be sure to stop at one of the park’s visitor centers and ranger stations to get the scoop on current park conditions and for other trail and campground suggestions.  

Camping at Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore public lands south of Moab

Parks closer to downtown Moab (just five miles from Arches National Park) are usually slammed with eager outdoor enthusiasts, especially during summer months. While spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October) still have crowds, they are some of the best times to score prime campsites and experience uncrowded trails, climbing routes, and iconic arches around the city.

During the busy seasons, visiting Moab can be kind of overwhelming but the public lands around Moab offer remarkable remote experiences.

With breathtaking views into Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River 2,000 feet below, Dead Horse Point State Park, a 40-minute drive south of Moab is a highlight for hikers and photographers exploring canyon country. The park, named for an era when cowboys corralled wild mustang herds on the high mesa is also a terrific first outing for bikers new to the area. The 16-mile Intrepid Trail System offers a variety of single-track loops and slickrock (Moab’s weathered sandstone) sections that allow all ages and abilities to experience incomparable cliff-top and canyon vistas. 

Drive further south to Canyon Rims, a 100,000-acre BLM-maintained land between Moab and Monticello to peer over one of three spectacular overlooks—Anticline, Minor, and Needles. Each offers unique views of Canyonlands’ Islands in the Sky and Needles Districts and Bears Ears National Monument’s Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin sections. These sites are comparable to those seen from the rim of the Grand Canyon but without the shoulder-to-shoulder visitor experience.   

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike away from the crowds

With its seven new non-motorized trails, updated signage, and fresh markings on existing trails plus stunning views of the Salt Valley and Arches National Park, Klondike Bluffs should be on every biker’s list. Just a 30-minute drive north of Moab, this 58-mile single-track trail on dirt and slickrock includes 26 named paths from beginner to advanced which can be combined into loops of any length. It’s the first trail that visitors pass on the way to Moab from I-70 in the north making it the most accessible for cyclists coming from Denver or Salt Lake City. 

Further into the park is the Dinosaur Stomping Grounds hiking trail which features several dinosaur trackways and individual dinosaur prints. Paleontologists believe Utah was part of an island landmass called Laramidia where a wide range of dinosaur species roamed more than 75 million years ago. 

Indian Creek Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan a desert road trip

Recreation areas south of Moab such as Canyon Rims and Bear Ears National Monument are usually less crowded due to fewer developed trail systems. Take a scenic drive through Utah’s vibrant vermillion canyons, over plateaus of mesas and buttes, and around the region’s open plains of grass and shrubland.

In Canyon Rims, travelers may spot pronghorn antelope near Hatch Point and can cruise to remote overlooks with breathtaking views of Canyonlands and the Colorado River.

Rather than endure the hours-long wait to see Delicate Arch in Arches, drive an hour south of Moab to reach Bear Ears’ Indian Creek Scenic Byway. This 40-mile-long route takes travelers through flat-top buttes and colossal sandstone towers. Along the way, make a pitstop at Newspaper Rock, one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the world.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in solitude

A hike around Moab’s natural spaces reveals deep red canyons, buttes, and pinnacles. Summer brings high temperatures and midday crowds around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. To get around that, experienced adventurers plan their hikes and bike rides in the morning and evening, bringing the best sunlight for photography. To help photographers, the NPS has created a table of the park’s notable landscape features and the best time to photograph them. 

For a quieter trek outside the national parks head three miles from the Hatch Point campground in Canyon Rims to Trough Springs Canyon trail a relatively easy five-mile roundtrip hike. It starts at the top of the plateau and descends 2.5 miles into the canyon where a creek flows year-round. The path continues through the waterway’s riparian zone, riddled with tamarisk, cottonwoods, and willow. Follow the stream into the larger Kane Creek Canyon where a popular but difficult 4×4 off-road trail of the same name invites adventurers to explore. 

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downstream, where Kane Creek approaches the Colorado River, travelers find several ancient rock art sites, including Moonflower Canyon Panel, Elephant Panel, and False Kiva. The drawings resembling bighorn sheep and hunters with spears along with crescent moons, lightning bolts, and snakes tell the story of the nomadic Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi) who briefly farmed and built dwellings and granaries—used to store squash, maize, and beans—around the region.

Even today, potsherds (or pottery fragments) can be found poking out of the sand near surviving granaries but visitors should be careful to leave these artifacts untouched.

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

The Best National Parks to Visit by Season

Best season to visit each national park

When planning a trip to the national parks one of the most important things to consider is the time of year that you are planning your visit. Most national parks have an optimal time to visit based on factors such as weather, crowd levels, and road closures.

In this article, I cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by two lists that illustrate the best months to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit the National Parks by month

Below is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year. Each national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times.

These guides take many factors into consideration: weather, crowd levels, special events, fall colors, the best time to go hiking, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at least one occasion.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best National Parks to visit by month:

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete list of the National Parks

This guide covers the best time to visit each national park based on weather, crowd levels, and my personal experiences in the parks. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month by month. I list each of the national parks we have visited in alphabetical order and indicate the best months to visit each of these parks.

This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels.

There are two different ways to use these tables.

If you have a particular month or season that you are planning your trip, you can look at that column (for example: May) and the parks that are listed for that month make great options for your trip.

If you have a park that you would like to visit (for example, Bryce Canyon National Park), scroll down to Bryce Canyon and the months listed are the best times to visit this park.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best parks to visit by month

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit national parks by month

  • Arches National Park (Utah): January, March, November, December
  • Badlands National Park (South Dakota): April, October
  • Big Bend National Park (Texas): March, April, November
  • Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah): March, April, November
  • Canyonlands National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Capitol Reef National Park (Utah): March, April, November, December
  • Carlsbad Caverns National Park (New Mexico): February, July, August, September
  • Congaree National Park (South Carolina): March, May, November
  • Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona): January, April, June, November, December
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee): May, September, October
  • Joshua Tree National Park (California): January, February, November
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park (California): June, July, August
  • Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado): May, September
  • New River Gorge National Park (West Virginia): June, October
  • Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona): February, April, November
  • Pinnacles National Park (California): March, April, November
  • Saguaro National Park (Arizona): January, February, May
  • Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks (California): June, July, August
  • Shenandoah National Park (Virginia): May, September, October
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota): June, July, September, October
  • White Sands National Park (New Mexico): February, March, November
  • Zion National Park (Utah): January, October, November, December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

Utah’s Most Visited Park in 2023 Wasn’t One of the Mighty 5

Visitation to Utah’s Mighty 5 appears to be stabilizing after a rapid decline in 2020 and an uptick in 2021 tied to the pandemic. But one other park in the state bucked all the trends last year.

A little more than 10.6 million people visited Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion National Parks in 2023 representing an increase of nearly 1 percent from the previous year per recently updated National Park Service (NPS) visitation data. Last year’s total also finished slightly below the 10.7 million visitors recorded in 2019.

Three of the five national parks did experience year-over-year growth though none of the parks broke any visitation records like what happened at four of the five parks in 2021. A record 11.3 million visited the park during a revenge travel surge as pandemic-era restrictions were lifted, a 45 percent increase from figures posted in 2020.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimately, Glen Canyon National Recreational Area located along the Utah-Arizona border led in visitation among all NPS entities in Utah last year bringing in a record 5.2 million visitors. Its visitation surged by a whopping 83 percent over 2022 visitation figures and it bested Zion National Park’s total by close to 600,000 visitors.

Some people say that Lake Powell offers some of the finest water recreation opportunities available. Lake Powell is the second largest man-made lake in the United States and visitors can bring their watercraft or choose to rent houseboats, personal watercraft, powerboats, kayaks, and other water toys.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Behind the 2023 trends

Glen Canyon which includes Lake Powell previously hit a record high of 4.5 million in 2017 but it failed to reach 4 million after 2019 between a mix of the COVID-19 pandemic and Lake Powell’s record-low water levels amid an ongoing drought.

Its popularity surge is likely a byproduct of record snowpack levels that helped the reservoir gain dozens of feet in elevation over the spring and summer last year. Its rise allowed more boat ramps to reopen.

Encompassing over 1.25 million acres, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers unparalleled opportunities for water-based and backcountry recreation. The recreation area stretches for hundreds of miles from Lees Ferry in Arizona to the Orange Cliffs of southern Utah encompassing scenic vistas, geologic wonders, and a vast panorama of human history.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was established on October 27, 1972, to provide opportunities to explore and enjoy Lake Powell and surrounding lands stretching from Northern Arizona through Southern Utah.

Tucked among the red rocks canyon and mesas on the Colorado Plateau, Glen Canyon’s unique desert region is characterized by expansive areas of exposed and uplifted rocks. Their beauty is carved out by the Colorado River, its several tributaries, powerful wind, and time.

The park preserves a record of more than 10,000 years of human presence, adaptation, and exploration—a story that highlights the connections of people with the landscape.

Wahweap RV Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best camping sites at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is an ideal place for camping adventures of all kinds. There are tons of nearby hikes, adventurous activities, and sights to see. You’re sure to find the perfect spot for your RV camping adventure.

Campgrounds Operated by NPS

These campgrounds do not take reservations and do not have phone numbers.

Lees Ferry Campground

Camping fee: $20 per site/per night

Designated sites: 54

Details: No hookups, RV dump station, grills provided, modern bathroom/comfort station, potable water available, launch ramp 2 miles, gas and supply store at Marble Canyon about 5 miles away

Lone Rock Beach Primitive Camping Area

Camping fee: $14 per vehicle/per night

Details: Primitive camping is on a sandy beach or in dunes, no designated campsites, open fires permitted (must be within four foot squared area), 4 micro flush toilets, 6 vault toilets, 1 comfort station/wheelchair accessible, outdoor cold shower, Off Road Vehicle area, dump station, potable water (seasonal), and day use area

Stanton Creek Primitive Camping Area

Details: Designated primitive camping areas that are accessible by vehicle and sometimes by vessel as well, no designated sites, no potable water, when pit toilets are unavailable campers must bring portable toilets for use and proper disposal into the sewer system

Beehives Campground

Camping fee: $14 per night

Designated sites: 6

Location: Across the highway from Wahweap South Entrance

Details: Picnic table at each site, no hookups, no dump station, no restrooms, portable toilets required, no campfires or glass containers, 3 night camping limit

Wahweap RV Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Campgrounds Operated by Park Concessioners

Book your campsite through the consessioner.

Wahweap Campground & RV Park

Location: Wahweap developed area

Operated by: Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas

Camping fee: Fees vary

Designated sites: 112 dry campsites (no hook-ups), 90 full hook-ups, and 6 group camping sites Reservations: Visit www.lakepowell.com or call 800-528-6154.

Details: Facilities include restrooms, laundry, showers, store, phones, dump station, and potable water; amphitheater, picnic area, and swim beach nearby

Bullfrog RV & Campground

Location: Bullfrog developed area

Operated by: Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas

Camping fee: Fees vary

Designated sites: 78

Details: Facitities include restroom, phones, dump station, and potable water station; ½ mile to laundry, store, post office, and launch ramp.

Reservations: No reservations

Note: The concessioner also operates a separate RV park with 24 sites, full hook-ups, restrooms, showers, ½ mile to laundry, store, post office, launch ramp; for reservations visit www.lakepowell.com or call 800-528-6154

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Halls Crossing RV & Campground

Location: Ride the ferry located at Bullfrog Marina and Halls Crossing, stop at the Village Store to check-in – and don’t forget to pick up food and beverages while you are there

Details: With Halls Crossing RV Park & Campground, you’re just steps from food, fun, and the Village Store.

Antelope Point RV Park

Designated sites: 104 full hook-up spaces, 15 pull-through spaces

Note: While the Antelope Point RV Park is not physically within the boundaries of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, it is adjacent to the Antelope Point Marina, restaurant, and gift shop

Details: This site is for RVs only, maximum length is 70 feet, 2 RV dump stations

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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Worth Pondering…

So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decide to call it Glen Canyon.

—John Wesley Powell, 1869 Colorado River Exploration.

The Best National Parks to Visit in March

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in March, this guide’s for you! It will detail eight beautiful National Parks to visit in March, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this month.

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Planning a trip to America’s national parks in March but don’t know which ones to visit? March brings warmer temperatures to most of the US. Travel begins to pick up during this month both because of the warmer weather and because families are hitting the road for spring break. There are many great national parks to visit in March which I cover in this guide plus eight bonus parks and two road trip ideas that links several of these national parks together.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Visiting the National Parks in March

March is a great month to visit the national parks. With the warmer temperatures and the beginning of spring, the list of parks that you can visit without braving freezing temperatures gets larger. The days are getting longer, flowers start to bloom, and in some parts of the US, trees begin to get their first leaves.

Overall, park visitation still remains low for the year but there are a few hotspots that get busier as people visit the national parks for spring break. Even so, crowds are still quieter than the summer which is the busiest time to visit most national parks.

Best National Parks in March

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

This small, easy to visit national park is a joy to explore. It’s also the feature photo for this post.

You can see several arches and unique rock formations without ever stepping out of your car. With just a little bit of walking you can visit many of the top sights in Arches National Park such as the Windows and Double Arch. And for those who like hiking don’t miss the Devils Garden Trail, a thrilling hike where you get to see eight arches and hike on a primitive trail.

Why visit Arches in March: March is a great time to visit Arches National Park because the weather is getting warmer and crowds are still relatively low for the year. In 2022, Arches National Park had 142,000 visitors in March. Peak visitation for that year was in May when 172,000 people visited the park. If you want to visit Arches with even lower crowds plan your visit from December through February but be prepared for freezing temperatures.

Weather: In March, the average high is 62°F and the average low is 37°F. Rainfall is very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is one of my favorite national parks. Why? The landscapes, the hiking trails, and the off the beaten path experiences make this one of the top parks for those who crave adventure.

Journey below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa for an unforgettable experience. Drive the twisting Shafer Canyon switchbacks onto the White Rim and then spend a few days driving through remote landscapes. Called the White Rim Road, this is one of the best experiences in the national park system.

You can also explore The Needles, where zebra-striped rocks form one of the most unique hiking destinations in the US.

Why visit Canyonlands in March: Just like Arches, park visitation remains relatively low and the warmer temperatures make March a better time to visit than the winter months. Canyonlands only gets a fraction of the visitors that flood Arches National Park so this park will feel delightfully empty compared to Arches. March is also a good time to drive the White Rim Road since permits are a little easier to get than late spring through early fall.

Weather: The average high is 54°F and the average low is 35°F. Rainfall is low. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:25 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa, and explore The Maze.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is an underrated gem in the national park system.

This national park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons, historical landmarks, and even delicious pie, this is another one of my favorite national parks.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.

Why visit Capitol Reef in March: Temperatures are finally getting a bit warmer and crowd visitation is relatively low. You could still have some cold mornings but Capitol Reef warms up nicely during the day and the cooler temperatures make this a great time to go hiking.

Weather: In March, the average high is 57°F and the average low is 34°F. Rainfall is low.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry, either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Location: Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park is a fantasyland of hoodoos, bizarre rock formations, and sandstone pillars.

This is an extraordinary place to visit and its unique landscape sets it apart from other national parks. Although Bryce Canyon may not have the same sweeping, expansive vistas as the Grand Canyon, it’s still a breathtaking experience the first time you see this view.

Why visit Bryce Canyon in March: For the chance to see Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow. Temperatures are a bit warmer than January and February but snowfall is a possibility especially at the beginning of the month so you don’t have to brave frigid temps for the chance to see Bryce Canyon covered in snow.

Weather: In March, the average high is 46°F and the average low is 23°F. There is a good chance of snow and on average Bryce Canyon receives about 13 inches of snow in March. Bryce Canyon has the highest elevation of the parks in Utah’s Mighty 5 making this the coolest one to visit (pun intended).

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 7:35 pm.

Top experiences: Some of the best viewpoints are right along the rim which is easily accessible by car or the shuttle (mid-April to mid-September): Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. Hike the Queens Garden and Navajo Loop, a 3-mile hike past some of the best scenery in the park. Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point are also nice viewpoints.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Fairyland Loop Trail, an 8-mile strenuous hike.

How much time do you need? One day is all you need to see the views from the rim and hike one to two short trails in the park. I recommend another day or two for additional time to hike into the canyon. You won’t regret it.

Plan your visit

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Pinnacles National Park

Location: California

Pinnacles National Park preserves and protects the mountains on the eastern end of Salinas Valley. These mountains are the remnants of an extinct volcano. The rocky pinnacles are a popular rock climbing destination and wildflowers in the spring draw the biggest crowds of the year. This park is also one of the few locations where you can spot the California condor in the wild.

This is one of the newest national parks (it became a national park in 2013) and least visited national parks (it was the 15th least visited park in 2022 with 275,023 visitors).

Why visit Pinnacles in March: March through May is the peak blooming season for the flowers in Pinnacles National Park. 

Weather: The average high is 68°F and the average low is 38°F. March is the end of the rainy season getting about 3 inches of rain during this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:12 pm.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: See the wildflowers in the spring, hike the High Peaks Loop, hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, explore the Balconies cave, spot California condors, enjoy the view from Condor Gulch Overlook, and go rock climbing.

How much time do you need? Pinnacles National Park can be visited in one busy day but for the best experience spend two days here which gives you enough time to visit both sections of the park.

Plan your visit

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Big Bend National Park

Location: Texas

Isolated, remote, wild, and rugged…this is Big Bend National Park.

Located in the southwestern corner of Texas within the Chihuahuan Desert is an extraordinary mountain range that is a haven for hikers, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

This is one of the most remote parks in the lower 48 states so crowd levels tend to be low all year. Even when it is at its busiest, Big Bend feels rather quiet.

Why visit Big Bend in March: We visited Big Bend in March and had a great experience. The weather was warm and in early March, crowds are low. The second and third weeks in March get busy because this is when Texans go on spring break. If you can, plan your visit for the first week in March to take advantage of great weather and low crowds.

Weather: The average high is 74°F and the average low is 47°F. Rainfall is very low especially this time of year. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 8 am and sunset is at 8 pm.

Top experiences: Hike the Lost Mine Trail, go star gazing, hike Santa Elena Canyon, go for a drive on Maxwell Scenic Drive, visit Boquillas del Carmen, hike to Balanced Rock, and hike to Emory Peak, the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: For the ultimate adventure in Big Bend go on a half-day to multi-day canoeing trip on the Rio Grande.

How much time do you need? Spend at least three to four days in the park. Because of its large size and remote location, it takes a while to get here and you need a few days to explore it, so four days should work for most people.

Plan your visit

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Congaree National Park

Location: South Carolina

Congaree National Park protects the oldest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States.

This is one of the smallest, least visited national parks in the United States (it was the 12th least visited park in 2022 with 204,522 visitors). A visit here is quick and easy to plan.

Walk the boardwalk trail through the forest, go kayaking or canoeing on Cedar Creek, go birdwatching and fishing, and, if you like, venture farther into the park on a number of other woodland trails.

Why visit Congaree in March: This is a good time to visit Congaree because it’s warm and mosquitoes aren’t too much of an issue (the worst time for mosquitoes is from late spring through summer). March is one of the wetter months to visit Congaree so there is also a good chance that you will see some flooding in the forests which is a very unique sight to see (the peak time for flooding is the winter months).

Weather: In March, the average high is 68°F and the average low is 43°F. Rainfall is above average for the year with park getting about 4 inches of rain this month.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 7:30 pm.

Top experiences: Walk the Boardwalk Loop Trail, go canoeing or kayaking on Cedar Creek, hike the Weston Loop Trail, and hike to the General Greene Tree.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure go on a multi-day canoe trip on the Congaree River.

How much time do you need? One day in Congaree is all you need to see the highlights. Walk the boardwalk trails and go for a canoe trip on Cedar Creek.

Plan your visit

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. White Sands National Park

Location: New Mexico

White Sands is a small, easy, fun park to visit. This national park protects the largest gypsum dunefield in the world. Sledding on the dunes is one of the best things to do here but you can also hike out farther into the dunes on several different hiking trails or take a ranger-guided tour.

Why visit White Sands in March: White Sands is one of the warmer national parks to visit in March and with temperatures in the low 70s the weather is great for hiking and exploring. We visited White Sands in March and had a wonderful experience. It’s cool enough to do a long hike without getting hot and the mild midday temperatures make this a great time to spend all day on the dunes. Just be aware that March is the busiest month to visit the park.

Weather: In March, the average high is 71°F and the average low is 33°F. This is one of the driest months to visit the park.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:15 am and sunset is at 7:15 pm.

Top experiences: Drive Dunes Drive, go sledding in the gypsum dunes, walk the Dune Life Nature Trail, take a ranger-guided hike, and go backcountry tent camping. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Alkali Flat Trail. This trail makes a 4.5-mile loop through the gypsum dunefield. It’s the longest, toughest hike in the park but your treat is stunning views of untouched dunes.

How much time do you need? For the best experience, plan on spending one full day in White Sands National Park. Hike the Alkali Flat Trail first thing in the morning, before the crowds arrive and the temperatures climb. Midday, go sledding on the dunes and have a picnic lunch. You can also do one of the shorter hiking trails. At the end of the day, take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.

Plan your visit

4 more parks to visit in March

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

I would have included Zion as a top pick for March since the weather is gorgeous this time of year, but, and this is a big but, crowd levels skyrocket in March. In 2022, about 170,000 people visited Zion in February. In March, that number grew to 446,000 people. And that wasn’t even the highest month for visitation…June was a busier month with 570,000 visitors! 

The trend for traffic to jump from February to March is not unique to 2022. This has been occurring for the last 20 years.

If you plan to do a Mighty 5 road trip in March (it’s a great one!) you can include Zion, just be prepared for large crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park

In March, temperatures are beginning to warm up and with that the Grand Canyon begins to draw more crowds. Even though visitation picks up in March, it’s still a lot quieter to visit the park now than during the busy summer months.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park

The weather is pretty much perfect in Saguaro in March with daily highs of 75°F and low rainfall. But this is the by far busiest month of the year to visit the park so keep that in mind while planning your visit.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Like Saguaro, March is the busiest month to visit Carlsbad Caverns. But the weather is pleasant and this is a great time for a Texas-New Mexico road trip so if you also have plans to visit Guadalupe Mountains, White Sands, and/or Big Bend, it is worth including Carlsbad Caverns in your travel plans.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in March

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Carved into a cliff 1,500 feet above the ground and featuring more than 20 rooms constructed in multiple stories, it’s a remarkably example of Sinaguan architecture. Today a short trail takes you to a viewing spot below the ruins, and museum exhibits help you imagine what life was like in this unforgiving desert landscape.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Tuzigoot is an ancient village or pueblo built by the Sinagua. The pueblo consisted of 110 rooms including second and third story structures. The first buildings were built around A.D. 1000. The Sinagua were agriculturalists with trade connections that spanned hundreds of miles. The people left the area around 1400.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

You can see many of Canyon de Chelly’s top sights from the rim roads but you’ll get a deeper understanding of its significance on a jeep tour with a Navajo guide. The only self-guided hike, the White House Trail, zigzags 600 feet down (and back up) to the spectacular White House ruins. Don’t miss the staggeringly tall spire known as Spider Rock; it rises 830 feet from the canyon floor.

March road trip ideas

Here are two great road trip ideas for March. The best time for both of these is in early March to avoid spring break traffic. If you are planning your visit for spring break, make your reservations well in advance because this can be a busy time to visit some of these national parks.

Texas & New Mexico

Combine Big Bend, Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and White Sands into one big road trip. Start in Las Cruces, New Mexico or El Paso, Texas and drive this loop.

Utah’s Mighty 5

Visiting all of Utah’s Mighty 5 (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks) is one of America’s best road trips. To do this, you need 10 days or more.

Saguaro

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

National Parks at Their Absolute Best in Winter

All the wonder, none of the crowds

America’s national parks were established as places where we can experience its awesome power, often in isolation. Tell that to the summer crowds clogging the trails of Zion or the campfire troubadours whose open mic-caliber guitar playing echoes off of Joshua Tree’s trippy crags until dawn.

The national parks remain America’s Best Idea and something we all can—and should—enjoy, screaming kids at Old Faithful included. But winter can be the best time to go for those who wish to experience the parks with the same sense of solitude as a pronghorn. The trails are clear of obstacles. Campsites might not require a reservation. And, unlike peak season, you’ll feel like you have everything to yourself. These are the parks that are at their absolute best in the winter.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Spoiler alert: You’re going to see four of Utah’s Mighty Five on this list. And to clarify, I’d include Capitol Reef if I had the space. Even with next-door neighbor Arches showing off Grade A sights when temperatures dip each year, Canyonlands stands out as a banger.

The largest yet least-visited national park in the state, Canyonlands’ snow-dusted spires, arches, mesa tops, and sandstone cliffs are made all the better by the fact that crowds clear out almost completely come winter turning this into a place of spectacular, sweeping solitude. (Just be sure to check for road closures before you head out.)

2. Zion National Park, Utah

In the summertime, Zion is basically Disneyland. It’s crowded. It’s hot. You’re standing in two-hour lines to be able to do the one thing you most want to do that day and they’re often out of turkey legs.

End this madness and go in the wintertime. Just 13 percent of Zion’s visitors, journey to the park between November and March, and a wintertime desert is one of nature’s most glorious settings. Even better, once you’ve had your fill of the park and its legendary trails, you’ll be able to explore all the surrounding (and vastly overlooked) state parks unencumbered.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

When it comes to winter wonderlands few national parks come close to the beauty of Bryce Canyon in the snow. The canyon’s red hoodoos and evergreen trees pop under the smattering of white and the majestic sunrises and sunsets cover the landscapes in ethereal light. For the best views, take the two-mile hike from the visitor center to Bryce Point which ends at the Bryce Amphitheater. This is the most famous overlook in the entire park—the perfect place to snap some photos.

Winter sports enthusiasts should especially plan a trip to Bryce Canyon. The park has many daily activities like ranger-led snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and backpacking. National Park Service (NPS) also offers winter astronomy programs and full moon hikes (weather permitting) letting visitors take in the splendor of the unfiltered night sky.

4. Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Often overlooked and under-visited despite its proximity to bustling Tucson, Saguaro’s expanses of cartoonishly contorted cacti and relatively easy hikes are best explored during the winter. In the off-season, the already thin crowds dissipate and you’re free to cavort with owls and gaze at petroglyphs with little interruption and minus the oppressive heat.

Even better, the campsites—a relatively hot commodity numbering a scant 20—are easier to bag allowing you to spend the night under the stars with only coyotes (and maybe roadrunners, given the landscape) as your company.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Less than 1 million people drop by South Dakota’s most gorgeous landscape annually and come winter the place is virtually deserted (December sees a scant 8,400 people while February tops out at 13,400). What a stunning time to go full Dr. Manhattan and have 244,000 acres of Mars virtually to yourself, give or take a few bison.

Snag a campsite under a blanket of stars if you’re hardy or a cozy cabin (and maybe some donuts and buffalo burgers) in nearby Wall (think, Wall Drug). Then strap on snowshoes or skis and get ready to truly know what it’s like to be tiny and gloriously alone in the wild.

6. Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park is an International Dark Sky Park and winter is arguably the best time to see stars. Clear nights mean great views of celestial phenomena; however, they can also bring freezing temperatures to the desert so don’t let the southwest Texas location fool you into thinking it’s always hot.

Cool days are conducive to ticking off some of the more challenging hikes like the 6.5-mile Mariscal Canyon Rim Trail which can be dangerous to attempt in the warmer months.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring sight on its own. Now imagine seeing the fiery sandstone and surrounding evergreen trees with a layer of fresh snow. The winter scenery at this Natural Wonder of the World is absolutely magical.

Visiting the South Rim in the off-season means popular hikes like the Bright Angel Trail are blissfully quiet and much more comfortable than in the summer, thanks to cool temperatures. Grand Canyon National Park’s free shuttles run fewer routes in the winter but there are still plenty that stop at the different trailheads and Grand Canyon Village viewpoints.

8. Joshua Tree National Park, California

This boulder- and bush-dotted park straddling the Colorado and Mojave deserts is a serene winter escape from bustling Los Angeles (130 miles away) and Las Vegas (217 miles away).

Winter in Joshua Tree National Park is a mecca for rock climbers who take advantage of bouldering while the granite is cool. Keep this in mind when you’re trying to snag one of the first-come, first-served campsites.

If you’re able to spend the night in the park, you’ll get access to some of the best stargazing the West Coast has to offer.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Time slows to a primeval pace in the sequoia groves that make up Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks where arboreal giants have watched the seasons come and go for more than 2,000 years. In the winter, hike along quiet, snowy trails to the General Sherman Tree among the world’s largest living icons at a height of 275 feet.

These parks are also great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. On free, ranger-led snowshoe walks, shoes are even provided. For something less strenuous, try driving through the wintry landscape though be aware that tire chains are often required during this time of year.

10. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

The famous, striking limestone formations at Carlsbad Caverns have often been compared to floating underground jellyfish or alcoves full of goblins and fairies—however you interpret them, they’re otherworldly.

The best part about visiting this New Mexico locale in the winter months (apart from bypassing the crowds) is that the cave stays a balmy 56 degrees Fahrenheit, rain or shine. Ranger-led tours are available year-round or visitors can opt to check out the Natural Entrance and Big Room Trails on their own.

For those looking to check yet another winter-friendly park off their list while in the area, the nearby Guadalupe Mountains feel like an island in the Chihuahuan Desert with vista-rich hiking trails you won’t want to miss.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

11. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Getting out in nature during an East Coast winter doesn’t have to mean shivering in a snowstorm for hours on end. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park roughly half the season’s days boast a high temperature in the 50s—perfect for hiking the park’s more than 800 miles of trails.

Start the day by taking in the views at Newfound Gap, nestled on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina then hike to craggy Alum Cave or explore the old-timey wooden structures at Cades Cove. At night, stargaze by the fire at Cades Cove Campground or retreat to an RV park in nearby Sevierville.

12. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches has some of America’s most breathtaking scenes. In winter, white snow contrasts with the red rocks and blue skies to create some stunning sights. While daytime temperatures can rise above 100 degrees in summer expect freezing temperatures in winter. Even scant snowfall can make trails and roads impassable so be sure to plan if you intend to visit this national park in winter.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Winter stretches itself from October through June at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Clear lakes become icy, volcanoes become topped with heavy snow, and steam vents become especially smoky.

For those seeking fun as well as beauty, winter activities are at their peak here with sledding hills that offer mountain views, snowshoeing for beginners and experts, and backcountry skiing that can’t be beaten.

14. Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Make winter plans to visit a warmer locale in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park where park-goers can see the Painted Desert, drive past Blue Mesa, and see the Crystal Forest up close. I drove through here a few years ago on a whim, and it was one of the most unique National Parks I’ve ever been to.

The weather may be cooler in winter, but snow is rare. But don’t forget those warm layers for when temps drop at night!

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Open year-round to outdoor enthusiasts, White Sands National Park in New Mexico is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter for many reasons. For one, since it’s a less-visited park in general, you’re likely to see very few people and can sled down the dunes all by yourself! 

Plus, as soon as you hike a little ways into the dunes, you’re very unlikely to encounter other hikers. New Mexico does get chilly in winter, but it rarely sees a lot of snow this far south.

By the way, I have a series of posts on exploring national parks in winter:

Worth Pondering…

A national park is not a playground; it’s a sanctuary for nature and for humans who will accept nature on nature’s own terms.

—Michael Frome

A Guide to Utah’s Public Lands

Two-thirds of Utah is public land managed by federal agencies

An abundance of public lands helps make Utah a great place for an RV road trip with plenty of beautiful places to roam free of No Trespassing signs in every corner of the Beehive State.

Federal agencies manage two-thirds of the state for various uses, from wilderness preservation to strip mining to weapons testing. With 42 percent of Utah’s land under its umbrella, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls the lion’s share of public land (22.8 million acres) followed by the U.S. Forest Service (8.15 million acres) and National Park Service (NPS)  with smaller pieces held by the Department of Defense, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Reclamation.

All that public land leaves plenty of things to fight over. Conservative rural leaders want to see these lands moved from federal to state control to make them more available for mining, drilling, and livestock. Others believe more of this land should be managed for recreation and to preserve their natural values.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah is best known for its Mighty 5 national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef all enshrining specific elements of southern Utah’s red rock geological wonders. Other big landscapes enjoying special protection are Bears Ears National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and the San Rafael Swell but southern Utah has several lesser destinations including numerous state parks established on former federal land.

Among the amazing resources embedded in these landscapes both protected and unprotected are vast troves of dinosaur fossils and artifacts that continue to shed light on worlds lost to time. Ancient Native Americans left a rich record of rock art, dwellings, and cultural items in places like Nine Mile Canyon, San Rafael Swell, and Bears Ears.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping and hiking

Rules are tighter for national parks than they are for other pieces of public land. In a place like Arches, for example, hikers are not supposed to veer off-trail, and activities like climbing and canyoneering require permits. The rules are different depending on which national park you’re at so reading over the regulations before going is a good rule of thumb.

Rules on other public lands like those owned by the BLM are not as strict. If you want to spend a night on BLM land, you have options. There are numerous developed campgrounds on Utah’s BLM lands which typically require a fee to maintain those facilities.

However, if you want to rough it a little you can also try dispersed camping away from developed areas—this means camping in places with no services like trash removal, toilets, or running water. Many dispersed camping sites may have a fire ring but others may not be marked at all. Typically these sites are along secondary roads and dispersed campers should camp on bare soil and stay at least 100 feet away from water sources.

Regardless of the type of public land you’re at you should follow some some basic rules. For example, anyone on public land should expect to minimize their impact on the environment like disposing of any waste or trash properly. Another good rule of thumb is don’t approach wildlife. It may make for a cool photo but things like feeding a chipmunk or approaching a bison can either harm the environment or cause harm to yourself depending on the situation.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Mighty 5 national parks

If you do decide to head to one of Utah’s Mighty 5 you’ll have to pay a fee to enter but you have a few options. For a short-term visit, you can buy a standard entrance pass at the gate of any national park in Utah which will change from park to park. If you’re trying to visit busier places like Arches you’ll need to register to get in as part of the timed entry systems.

If you want to make more frequent visits to national parks or national monuments an annual pass is your best option. An annual pass that covers day-use fees for national parks and other public lands is $80 for a year. Veterans and seniors can get free or discounted passes. Passes can be purchased online or at national parks.

There are also dozens of state parks throughout Utah which range from Bear Lake to the north to Sand Hollow to the south. As with national parks, you’ll need to pay for a day-use pass or an annual pass. Passes can be purchased online or in person at state parks.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skiing

Closer to Utah’s population centers are national forests that hum year-round with outdoor recreation. Home to the Cottonwood canyons outside Salt Lake City, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache (UWC) National Forest encompasses five major ski areas and abuts at least four others that operate on private land.

Utah has a total of 15 ski resorts. Beaver Mountain and Cherry Peak are located just outside Logan. The Ogden area has three resorts: Snowbasin, Powder Mountain, and Nordic Valley. Around Park City, a legendary ski destination, the resorts are Deer Valley, Park City Mountain Resort, and Woodward.

Resorts near Salt Lake are found in two areas: Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Big Cottonwood is home to Brighton and Solitude while Little Cottonwood has Snowbird and Alta. The Provo area has Sundance. Southern Utah has the final two resorts: Brian Head and Eagle Point.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Local leaders chafe against federal control

Because public land cannot be taxed, the federal government awards counties millions of dollars every year under the Payment instead of Taxes (PILT) program according to the amount of public land within their borders. Last year, Utah counties received a record $43.5 million in PILT money but state leaders say they are still getting short-changed.

To raise money for public schools, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) oversees 3.4 million acres of state land largely in the form of square-mile sections scattered around a sea of BLM land. Some of this land is the subject of complicated swaps with the federal government to remove SITLA holdings inside protected landscapes such as Bears Ears and the San Rafael Swell in exchange for federal land in less sensitive areas.

In 2012, the Utah Legislature passed a law ordering the federal government to hand 31 million acres of mostly BLM land to the state. A decade later, not much has come of the state’s demands although an economic analysis committed by Utah officials concluded the state would likely spend more administering these lands than it would reap in revenues absent a massive run-up in oil and gas production.

However the controversy persists with numerous lawsuits seeking to advance greater state control over public land within Utah. The most significant is Utah’s effort to invalidate President Joe Biden’s 2021 order restoring the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments which President Donald Trump had reduced by a combined 2 million acres.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Growing interest

Today, visitors are flocking to Utah’s public lands in such great numbers to the point that it is overwhelming the federal agencies. The state’s 13 national park units saw 11 million visitors a year while its 44 state parks also drew nearly 11 million.

But it wasn’t just parks that were popular destinations. Hit particularly hard are the Wasatch Mountains where skiers, mountain bikers, and hikers explore Little and Big Cottonwood, American Fork, Mill Creek, and many other canyons resulting in traffic jams and overcrowding on trails.

Proposed solutions include a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta, tolls on drivers, and recreation fees collected at developed sites.

Quail Gate State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why we LOVE Utah

If you have never been to Utah, make sure and put it on your list of places to visit! We fell in LOVE with Utah for so many reasons. Number one is all of the National Parks in the state like Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. But also so many state parks and the beautiful Scenic Byway 12. The scenery is constantly changing and each place has its unique beauty. From high in the mountains with aspens and cooler temps to down in the canyons or red or white rock faces and warmer temps. Utah is an adventurers’ paradise!

That’s why I wrote these five articles:

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The Best National Parks to Visit in January

If you are seeking the best national parks to visit in January, this guide’s for you! It will detail five beautiful National Parks to visit in January, why you should go to them, and what to expect during this winter month.

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this article.

Planning a trip to the US national parks in January but don’t know which ones to visit? In January, much of the country is cold and covered in snow but there are plenty of parks you can visit to escape the wintry conditions. In this article, I cover the five best national parks to visit in January plus several bonus parks.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This guide is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Roads can close in the national parks at any time so I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in January

Despite cold temperatures and snow along much of the northern half of the United States, January is still a wonderful month to visit the national parks.

January has one of the lowest numbers for park visitation for the entire year. Many people just took time off for the winter holidays so travel is light in January.

On this list, most of these parks are geared towards escaping the cold weather and visiting some warmer, less snow covered destinations in the US.

Best National Parks to visit in January

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Saguaro National Park

Location: Arizona

This national park is named for the Saguaro Cactus which only grows in the Sonoran Desert.

Saguaro National Park is located in southern Arizona. Temperatures in January are relatively warm making this a great time to visit this park.

The national park is divided into two sections. The Tuscon Mountain District which is located to the west of Tucson has the denser population of cacti and it is the more popular area of the park to visit. To the east is the Rincon Mountain District. You won’t see quite as many cacti here but the mountains form a nice backdrop for photography.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Saguaro in January: This is one of the warmest parks to visit in January. And if you are planning a January road trip, a visit here can be combined with the Grand Canyon, another park that makes our best national parks in January list. However, January is one of the busiest months of the year to visit Saguaro National Park so expect some crowds on the hiking trails and scenic drives.

Weather: In January, the average high is 66°F and the average low is 40ºF. Rainfall chances are very low. 

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:20 am and sunset is at 5:40 pm.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top experiences: Drive Bajada Loop Drive and hike the Valley View Overlook Trail and the Desert Discovery Nature Trail, see the Signal Hill Petroglyphs, and drive the Cactus Forest Drive. Just outside of the park (Tuscon Mountain District) is the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum which is worthy of a visit.

How much time do you need? You will need two days to see the highlights of Saguaro National Park; one for each unit. With more time, you can go backpacking or hike the longer, more challenging hiking trails and visit the above mentioned Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum.

Plan your visit

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

In 2022, Zion National Park was the second most visited park in the U.S. with more than 4.6 million visitors. Crowds are huge from early spring through fall so for the best experience I recommend visiting during the off season.

January is the month with the fewest numbers of visitors to Zion. So, if you want to hike the trails with low crowds, January is the best time to go.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in January: To avoid the crowds. This is the quietest month to visit the park in terms of visitation. You can even drive your car on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive since the park shuttle does not operate at this time.

Weather: The average high is 54°F and the average low is 30°F so Zion is chilly in January. There is a small chance of snow…but wouldn’t it be beautiful to see Zion with a light dusting of snow?

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:45 am and sunset is at 5:40 pm which gives you 10 hours of daylight. That’s plenty of time to hike a trail or two. Plus, you can stick around for sunset and then have a nice dinner in Springdale.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In January, you can hike the Zion Narrows from the bottom-up, just be aware that water temperatures are going to be very cold at this time.

How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

Just like Zion, January is the quietest month of the year to visit Arches National Park. This is a good thing because Arches is another extremely popular park to visit in the US with over 1.4 million visitors in 2022.

Arches National Park is a beautiful wonderland of arches, rock formations, and short hiking trails. Not only will you find over 2,000 arches here but you will also see hoodoos, fins of sandstone rocks, massive mesas, and balanced rocks.

You can see the highlights of the park right from your car or by taking short hikes but for those who want to venture deeper into the park there are several very cool hikes to choose from.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Arches in January: To take advantage of lower crowd levels. In January 2022, about 40,000 people visited Arches in January. Two months later, in March, that number rose to 140,000. June saw the most visitors hitting 170,000 people in just that month.
For some people braving chilly temperatures could be worth it to visit the park with just a fraction of the people who visit later in the year.

Weather: The weather is a little bit cooler in Arches than Zion in January. The average high is 42°F and the average low is 22°F. There is a chance a few inches of snow can fall in January.
Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Words and photos cannot accurately describe what it is like to look out across the Grand Canyon for the first time. This is a place that needs to be seen in person to truly appreciate the immense beauty of this place.

Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most visited parks in the US. The Grand Canyon is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In the Grand Canyon, there are several rims to visit. The South Rim with its overlooks and hiking trails is the most popular to visit and the views from here are some of the best. Most visitors spend their time on the South Rim when they visit the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit the Grand Canyon in January: The Grand Canyon is busy all year but January and February are the quietest months to visit this national park (July typically gets the most visitors). January is also the coldest month of the year to visit the Grand Canyon so keep that in mind. Even though it is located in Arizona, the South Rim is at a high elevation and this keeps temperatures lower than places like Saguaro National Park and Phoenix. But if you want to visit the Grand Canyon with low crowds, January is one of the best months to go. 

Weather: The average high is only 44°F and the average low is 20°F. Snow is also a possibility this time of year.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:30 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunrise and/or sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour by airplane or helicopter.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How many days do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Four days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Plan your visit

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Joshua Tree National Park

Location: California

With its desert scenery, hiking trails, rock climbing routes, hidden oases, scenic drives, and trees that look like they have been plucked from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, Joshua Tree National Park is a joy to explore.

Hike the Arch Rock Trail, learn about the plants that thrive in the Mojave Desert on the Cap Rock Nature Trail, see Skull Rock, and go hiking in Hidden Valley. A favorite experience is hiking the Hall of Horrors and searching for the hidden slot canyon.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Joshua Tree National Park in January: This national park is located in southern California so even in January, temperatures are relatively warm. Park visitation tends to be high from November through April but crowds thin out just a little bit in January making this month a great time to visit if you want mild temperatures and slightly lower crowds. You can also combine a visit to Joshua Tree with Palm Springs, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Julian, and/or San Diego (more great spots to visit in the winter).

Weather: The average high is 60°F and the average low is 35°F.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:20 pm.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Top Experiences: Hike the Hall of Horrors, see Skull Rock, explore Hidden Valley, hike to an oasis, hike to Arch Rock and Heart Rock, drive Geology Tour Road, visit the Cholla Cactus Garden, and go stargazing.

How much time do you need? Ideally, you need at least two full days in Joshua Tree National Park. This gives you enough time to visit the highlights, go rock climbing or take a lesson, hike a few trails, and go on the scenic drives.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2 more National Parks to visit in January

Here are two more great national parks to visit in January. Cooler temperatures in these parks kept them off the main list above but they still make excellent wintertime destinations.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is located in Utah not far from Zion and Arches (mentioned above). This park tends to be colder with the average high just getting up to 40°F and the average low at 20°F. Snow is likely this time of year. But if you are planning a Utah’s Mighty 5 road trip, Capitol Reef is worth the visit even in January but bring plenty of warm clothes.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Just like Capitol Reef, Canyonlands National Park was left off of the main list above because it is cold in January. It’s actually a few degrees colder in Canyonlands than Capitol Reef and snowfall is higher (Canyonlands on average receives 6 inches of snow in January). But if you have plans to visit Arches, Canyonlands is just a short drive away and worth it if you have the time.

Bonus! 3 NPS sites to visit in January

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in the park are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

The Hohokam people built these structures when they were near the height of their power some 700 years ago. They created villages that extended from the site of modern-day Phoenix to southern Arizona.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month:

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock

The Best Road Trip from Salt Lake City to Moab

Though Utah may appear arid and sparse, there’s plenty to do in the Beehive State. And if you’re willing to embrace the great outdoors, a winding journey from Salt Lake City to Moab features the best scenery the state has to offer.

Salt Lake City and Moab are about a 4-hour drive apart if you navigate straight through from one to the other. However, you want to stop and explore Utah’s gorgeous scenery. The landscape along the way makes you want to grab your water bottle—a must-have in the hot, desert environment—and hike through the red rock formations.

Two intriguing and different Utah destinations—Moab and Salt Lake City—await you to explore their gifts. From high-energy adventure to world-renowned musical talent, your road trip between the two will be filled with history, exploration, and great food.

You will find exciting adventures, history, refined culture, and amazing cuisine along the way. Plan to enjoy a day or two or more on either end—Salt Lake City and Moab offer their special character and are unique in their offerings. Take a day in between the two and make the drive a quintessential Utah road trip.

Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Salt Lake City

While it may just be the start of the road trip, Salt Lake City is a fascinating metropolis in its own right. Spend the day in the city, sampling food and enjoying local culture before you hit the road. Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and has a history steeped in the Mormon faith. Therefore, there are plenty of interesting religious institutions and monuments to visit. It is also surrounded by a variety of landscapes and terrain that make it a top spot for world-class skiing, hiking, mountain biking and, of course, taking a dip in the Great Salt Lake.

One of the most iconic things to see and do in Salt Lake City is to attend a rehearsal of the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir. With a 360-member volunteer chorus of men and women, their vocals lift the spirits of those attending their rehearsals.

2. Utah Museum of Natural History

Utah is known as a hub of Mormon history but you don’t have to be religious to appreciate its culture. Start your day by checking out the Utah Museum of Natural History. It features 10 revolving exhibits, each delving into the culture, history, and geography of Utah and The Great Salt Lake.

3. Temple Square

Take a stroll around Temple Square. It’s a must-see for the wonderful architecture alone. Located in the center of downtown Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is surrounded by the five-block area of Temple Square. The Square is the hub of worship, history, commemoration, gatherings, and music. Visitors can take a free guided tour to visit the temple, museums, libraries, gardens, monuments, and fountains.

4. Great Salt Lake

You can’t visit Salt Lake City without floating in the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the western hemisphere. It is located within the Salt Lake City State Park, just 16 miles west of Salt Lake City. The salinity of the water, ranging anywhere between 5 to 27 percent salt, makes it very buoyant. Other activities include sailing, kayaking, and hiking. Bring binoculars because there is a plethora of wildlife to view, such as bison, antelope, deer, bobcats, coyotes, elk and birds.

5. Brigham Young University, Provo

Home of Brigham Young University, Provo is a good spot to stop and stretch your legs. Wandering around the campus grounds brings back the halcyon days of college life. Mingling with students on the cusp of exploring their future imparts a sense of youthful exuberance, not to mention a trip down memory lane.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Utah Lake State Park, Provo

Known as Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. Adjacent to Provo, Utah Lake State Park offers fishing access for channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish. Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding.  The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and power hookups.

7. Utah State University Prehistoric Museum, Price

Dinosaur hunters will want to stop at the Utah State University Prehistoric Museum. Wannabe paleontologists, archaeologists, and geologists alike will find displays to captivate their attention. The Aggies are proud of their university and take great care in maintaining the museum for their guests to enjoy.

Throughout the West, you will come upon dinosaur museums in the most unlikely little towns. These ancient beasts left copious footprints and fossil evidence that will amaze you and pique your imagination.

8. Ray’s Tavern, Green River

A little way down the road from Moab is Green River, home to Ray’s Tavern. Time your journey to land here for lunch. The order of the day: burgers and fries. Keep it simple and keep it delicious. This local dive bar has morphed into a must-stop eatery on any road trip between Moab and Salt Lake City.

Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Moab

Moab is an active, popular town (pop. 8,900) in the heart of the beautiful red rock canyon country of southeastern Utah. It plays host to the thousands who visit southeastern Utah to take advantage of the area’s great recreational opportunities. From Moab, one can conveniently hike in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, mountain bike on the famous Moab Slickrock Trail, whitewater raft the Colorado River, tackle the thousands of miles of rugged canyon roads in four-wheel drive vehicles, or horseback ride amidst the alpine beauty of the La Sal Mountains.

You will love the Western vibe in this dusty adventure town.

Downtown Moab is a fun place to shop, eat, and people-watch. A mix of souvenir shops, jewelry stores, and Western outfitters line the downtown area, making it a perfect spot to stretch your legs and absorb the Moab outdoorsy vibe.

10. Moab Food Truck Park

In one corner of downtown Moab is a large food truck park where you can dine on everything from gelato to paninis. There are over nine independently operated food trucks serving a variety of cuisines in a relaxed outdoor setting. It’s family-friendly, pet-friendly, and bicycle-friendly. Around the corner from the park sits a lone, bright yellow truck—Quesadilla Mobilla. Monster quesadillas that will fuel you up with energy for your outdoor exploits are served up at this food truck stop. Grab a picnic table and a fist full of napkins—their ooey-gooey quesadillas are legendary.

11. Hell’s Revenge, Moab

Exploring Hell’s Revenge is at the top of everyone’s list when visiting Moab. The intrepid explorer can pilot their own ATV/UTV up and down the precarious rock formations following in the footsteps of many a skilled driver. For thrill-seekers who are happy to hand over the controls to a professional, there are large all-terrain vehicles where you can buckle in and enjoy the scenic route. With obstacles to attack with names like the Tip-Over Challenge and Rubble Trouble, you know you are in for an exciting ride.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12 Arches National Park

No trip to Moab is complete without visiting Arches National Park. A drive through the park is like visiting the moon or another unearthly planet. Every turn opens up new and unusual gravity-defying red rock formations.

From April 1 to October 31, 2023, visitors are required to have a timed entry ticket to enter the park. Ticketed entry will run from 7 am to 4 pm daily. Those without a ticket may enter the park before 7 am or after 4 pm. The park is open 24/7.

Due to its high elevation (4,085 to 5,653 feet) and intense summer heat even short hikes through the park can be a challenging exertion and sturdy shoes are a necessity. If you don’t have time for a hike, a simple drive-through to enjoy the panoramic vistas is a minimum must-do when visiting the area.

Enthusiastic adventurers will want to make a reservation at Devils Garden Campground to enjoy the immersive national park experience. Try to take a midday nap and rest up for the amazing nighttime starlight dark sky extravaganza.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Dead Horse Point State Park

At the top of Dead Horse Point State Park, there is a large flat area—the point—surrounded by deep, rocky canyons with precipitous drops. The point is accessible by a precariously narrow road—don’t look down. In pioneer days, wranglers would drive wild horses into the flat and barricade the entrance, corralling them on the inescapable point. Legend claims at one time the horses were forgotten high on the point and died—thus the park’s name.

The beauty of the park’s wild landscape viewed from your perch high up on the point is stunning. No matter which direction you turn, the panorama is breathtakingly beautiful, offering views of Canyonlands National Park, the La Sal Mountains, and the Colorado River.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Canyonlands National Park

Avid hikers will love Canyonlands National Park. The park boasts hundreds of miles of hiking trails for all levels. Hiking in Canyonlands National Park requires some pre-planning—water, sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and a trail map are at the top of the list.

The easy-rated White Rim Overlook is just under 2 miles round trip with a rewarding view. Expert hikers can embark on the 10-plus-mile Alcove Spring Trail that brings you to the base of the Moses and Zeus Towers.

La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. La Sal Mountain Loop

The La Sal Mountains form a majestic backdrop to the Moab area. A trip on the La Sal Mountain Loop takes you on a 3-hour scenic, winding drive. From the alpine ridges of the La Sal Mountains to the red rock desert and sandstone pinnacles of Castle Rock, this backroad is an adventure. You will see mesas and buttes used in movies and drive past steep bulging peaks that often serve as the backdrop in photographs of the famed Delicate Arch.

This 60-mile route is paved and starts about 8 miles south of Moab off US-191 and loops through the mountains down to Castle Valley and SR-128 where it follows the Colorado River back to Moab. The narrow winding road while suitable for passenger cars is not suitable for large RVs or trailers. There are no services available along the route so make sure you have all the gas, food, water, and other supplies you may need for at least a few hours.

16. International Dark Sky Experience

Arches National Park is a certified International Dark Sky Park, an award given to parks with exceptional starry night viewing. These parks offer protected areas with public viewing of the night sky, offering an illuminating experience.

As you drive north through the park at night, the sky darkens and the stars twinkle in a glorious light show. Some of the best spots are the Balanced Rock Picnic Area and the Garden of Eden Viewpoint.

Join a Stargazing Event with a National Parks ranger-led program. The rangers rotate tours between Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments for nightly viewings during the summer months. Gazing at the stars without the ambient city lights is a unique and magical experience.

Hiking Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Hiking for Miles

Nature trails, backcountry hikes, and multi-day excursions are high on the list of every Moab outdoor enthusiast. One of the top spots to hike is Arches National Park. Delicate Arch, one of the most visited sites, can be viewed from one of two trails ranging from a 10-minute easy walk to a more heart-pumping 30-minute climb. Another popular hike through the park is to Balanced Rock, a 20-minute, easy loop trail.

For more Utah road trip ideas, explore these articles:

Worth Pondering…

Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally…

—Edward Abbey, once a park ranger at Arches, from his classic novel Desert Solitaire

The Complete Guide to Canyonlands National Park

Hiking, camping, and biking are among the many outdoor activities at Canyonlands National Park

Nowhere are the shape-shifting powers of water, wind, and rock more dramatically on display than in Canyonlands National Park in southeast Utah. This immense expanse of the Colorado Plateau has been etched by the Green and Colorado Rivers into a relief panel of chiseled buttes, twisted rock spires, and deeply incised canyons.

Here, millions of years of geologic upheaval, compression, and erosion have left behind a magical landscape where you can peek into caves; wander between rock formations resembling castles, towers, and fantastical creatures; and slip through canyons narrow enough to touch both sides.

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

Human history also comes alive in Canyonlands National Park with archaeological evidence of human habitation dating back more than 10,000 years. Native tribes, pueblos, and communities are associated with the land in a region that served as hunting grounds for early hunter-gatherers and then home to the Ancestral Puebloan people. This heritage is still apparent in the park with ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs, and trails that have been traveled for centuries.

Canyonlands was established as a national park in 1964. It owes much of its more recent history to the role of mining in this part of the American West.

But uranium, not gold or silver, lured fortune-seekers to this isolated and intimidating region—the chemical element was in high demand during the 1950s and early ’60s.  Ultimately, however, little uranium was mined here although the 1,000 miles of roads funded by the Atomic Energy Commission opened up the inner canyons to exploration and convinced locals that this geological wonderland deserved protection and preservation. 

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

The largest of Utah’s five red rock national parks at 337,598 acres, Canyonlands is essentially three parks in one separated by the Green and Colorado rivers which come together in a confluence near the center of the park.

No roads connect the sections of the park (each has its own entrance) and no bridges span the rivers. 

Depending on your time and how much you want to explore on foot or by driving, you may do as most visitors do and limit your experience to just two sections: Island in the Sky, a high mesa that comprises the park’s northern end and The Needles on the park’s southeast side, named for its impossibly spindly rock spires.

The third area, the rugged and remote labyrinth of canyons on the park’s southwestern side deservedly called The Maze requires four-wheel-drive to go beyond the ranger station and is a favorite among advanced hikers (steep and unmarked trails) and backcountry campers.

Within the park boundaries, the Colorado River shoots through the sheer-sided chasm of Cataract Canyon creating Class V rapids. While Big Drops and Satan’s Gut challenge even the most experienced rafters, quieter stretches provide plenty of fun for families and novice rafters.

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

Plan your trip

Moab is the closest big town to the park. 

Sitting atop a mesa more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding lands, the Island in the Sky district is one of the most popular of Canyonland’s sections. There, a scenic drive zigzags around the rim providing one dramatic canyon view after another. When arriving from Moab in the north many visitors start at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center just inside the park. There you can see fauna, flora, and geology exhibits; watch an introductory video to the park; and check out the schedule of ranger programming.

The Needles, named for its layers of spiky sandstone striped in gold and ocher, has its visitor center inside the entrance to this section about 74 miles southeast of Moab. The Maze, on the park’s western side, is served by the Hans Flat Ranger Station where you’ll find a small selection of books and maps, a vault toilet, and a picnic table. There are no paved roads there although the unpaved path to the station is navigable with two-wheel drive; its other roads require a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle.

As a high-desert region of the Colorado Plateau, Canyonlands National Park experiences extreme climate and weather fluctuations. It’s not uncommon for days to top 100 degrees in summer with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 40s and 50s. Spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) are temperate and pleasant with daytime temperatures ranging from 60 to 80 and nights dipping from the 50s down to the 30s. 

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

In the winter, daytime temperatures average 30 to 50 degrees while temperatures at night average 20 to zero. The region also experiences a monsoon in late summer and early fall with sudden heavy rains and possible flash floods. 

Winter is an overlooked opportunity to visit Canyonlands and not just because you’ll share the landscape with fewer people. Take that beautiful red rock and the gorgeous blue sky, put a dusting of powder white snow on it, and you’ll see it’s even more stunning. The park is an all-season hiking destination since snow accumulation rarely exceeds more than a few inches deep but the park recommends winter hikers use traction devices on their shoes since trails can be slippery.

There is some cellphone coverage along the Island in the Sky scenic drive depending on carrier but cell service is limited to nonexistent in the canyons and on remote trails. There is little to no service in the Needles and almost none in The Maze except at the ranger station. Wi-Fi is available at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

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

Things to do

Take a driving tour

You’ll find the park’s top views strung along Island in the Sky scenic drive which makes a Y shape with access to Whale Rock. Because the shapes and perspectives shift so much as you move around the mesa you won’t want to skip any of the main overlooks which include Green River, Buck Canyon, and Grand View Point.

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

Go hiking

Hundreds of miles of trails varying in length and difficulty thread through Canyonland’s diverse terrain. The most-visited are in Island in the Sky including the Mesa Arch Trail, a 0.6-mile easy hike round trip leading to the park’s iconic photo op as the cliff-side arch frames the canyon below.

Another hike in this section is the moderately challenging, 1.4-mile Aztec Butte Trail which traverses a flat and sandy wash before ascending around 200 feet to reach an Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site.

At Grand View Point, the southernmost end and turnaround point of the Island in the Sky scenic drive, the level and comfortable 1.8-mile Grand View Trail winds along the mesa rim between expanses of slick rock and stands of gnarled and stunted piñon. Thanks to the elevation, this is one of the best views in the park. 

In Needles district, trails spiderweb among the spindly rock towers and gnarled outcrops. When you’re in The Needles, you’re down in the canyon walking among all these otherworldly landforms and sculptural formations instead of looking down on them from the mesa. This also means many of the trails are easier because there’s less elevation change since you don’t have to hike down into the canyon and back up.

A top pick for a shorter hike is the Cave Spring Trail, a 0.6-mile round trip past a natural underground spring with prehistoric rock markings and the remnants of a historic cowboy camp. Other favorites include the Chesler Park Trail, a 5.4-mile loop through knobby sherbet-colored hoodoos, and the 8.6-mile Lost Canyon Trail which loops among eerily twisted formations.

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

Watch sunset or sunrise

The park’s two popular spots for sunrise and sunset viewing are Grand View Point Overlook and White Rim Overlook, the last two stops on the Island in the Sky scenic drive. The Grand View Point Overlook has great views just steps from its parking lot but it’s an easy 1.8-mile hike to White Rim’s overlook where fewer people interrupt the peace of the dusk. 

Go stargazing

Designated an International Dark Sky Park from DarkSky International, formerly the International Dark-Sky Association, in 2015, Canyonlands National Park goes a level beyond with a Gold-Tier designation reserved for the parks with the darkest skies. The park stays open all night so stargazers can see the spectacle with stargazing programs scheduled during summer. Some are listed in the park calendar but it’s best to check at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center for updated activities. 

Visitors are encouraged to take a DIY approach to stargazing. Every night that isn’t cloudy there is a dark-sky show in the park whether there is a ranger there or not. On a moonless night, all you have to do is pull off the road, turn your back to the direction of Moab where there’s a little glow, and you’ll see stars and constellations you’ve never seen before.

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

Go cycling

An ever-expanding network of mountain bike trails has turned the area into a bucket-list destination for riders. You’re surrounded by trails everywhere you look and there is so much to do at every skill level. A favorite ride is the Dead Horse Point Singletrack Loop trail which starts in Dead Horse Point State Park north of Canyonlands and continues into the park winding over terraced buttes that afford dramatic views of the valley spreading below.

Experienced mountain bikers come to the park specifically to ride all or part of Island in the Sky’s White Rim Road which drops into the canyon and traces a 100-mile loop along the mesa, its ragged red cliffs towering above.

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

Go river rafting

Some visitors choose to see Canyonlands National Park and its iconic Cataract Canyon on rafting trips. Accessing Canyonlands by river is a way to get down in the heart of the canyon and see some things in the park that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Wildlife sightings are common with bighorn sheep frequenting the slopes above the river and bald eagles soaring overhead.

Western River Expeditions offers two- and four-day trips to the canyon both traversing the stretch of the Colorado River from Moab. Shorter rafting experiences that explore stretches of the Colorado River outside the park are available from Moab Adventure Center and other Moab-based outfitters such as Mild to Wild Rafting and Adrift Adventures.

Older adults and those who prefer tamer rafting could check out J-Rig trips. The J-Rigs are really big rafts with a lot of different seating flexibility and people can sit 20 feet back in the raft if they want a quieter experience,

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

Camping options

With numerous camping options, an RV trip to Canyonlands is a breeze.

Let’s start with identifying the best time to plan your Canyonlands camping trip.

Winter can be challenging due to low temperatures that could harm an RV’s water system. Additionally, snow and ice can make travel difficult and potentially dangerous.

Summer camping in Canyonlands is a popular choice. However, Utah’s summer heat requires ample water and cooling methods. Note that in-park campgrounds do not offer hookups so if you need to run your RV air conditioner, consider staying outside the park.

I recommend spring and fall for Canyonlands camping. During these seasons, you’ll experience sunny days and cool nights, perfect for dry camping. If possible, plan your visit in April, May, October, or November.

Now that you know the best times for your Canyonlands camping adventure, let’s explore the best places to camp. The area offers a variety of options including in-park campgrounds, boondocking, and full-service RV parks.

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

Here are my top picks:

Island in the Sky Campground

Island in the Sky Campground is a small in-park campground near the visitor center. It offers 12 first-come, first-served campsites at $15 per night. While there are no hookups, you’ll find potable water outside the visitor center and amenities like toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. This is really not a big rig-friendly campground but it is easy to maneuver and there are a couple spots that will accommodate a big rig.

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

The Needles Campground

The Needles Campground, another in-park option, offers 26 individual campsites and three group sites. Reservations are accepted from spring through fall with first-come, first-served availability during the rest of the year. The camping fee is $20 per night and amenities include toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings.

Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites

For free camping on government-owned land just a few minutes outside of Canyonlands National Park, consider Gemini Bridges Road Designated Dispersed Campsites. While amenities are non-existent, the location between two national parks and proximity to Moab makes it a fantastic choice for boondocking.

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

Sun Outdoors Moab Downtown

If you prefer a full-service camping experience, Sun Outdoors Downtown Moab is an excellent choice. Located in the heart of Moab, you can easily access shopping and dining. The campground offers full-hookup sites, a swimming pool, and clean restrooms with showers, ensuring a comfortable stay.

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

Gateway town

Most visitors to Canyonlands National Park base their stay in the lively outdoor adventure hub of Moab, the largest town (population 5,321) near the park. Once a ranching community and later a base of uranium mining, Moab has transformed into a hipster hangout with the arrival of mountain bikers and outdoor adventurers. It now buzzes with lively brewpubs and a constant stream of festivals and events such as the Moab Folk Festival in early November. 

Never gone mountain biking before and want to try it? Rent a bike from one of Moab’s many cycle shops and ask directions to the Courthouse Wash Loop, an easy seven- to 10-mile (depending on preference) circuit around a wide-open bluff northwest of Moab. It’s gentle terrain with a little bit of singletrack, a little bit of slickrock, and a little bit of everything, so you can experience what riding here is all about.

Moab offers a wide range of camping and lodging options as well as an up-and-coming food scene for some creative dining.

Come morning, before heading into the park fuel up on pastries, huevos rancheros, or a sunrise panini at Love Muffin Café. After your exploring, quench your thirst with ales, IPAs, and stouts, and savor flavorful burgers in the capacious dining room at Moab Brewery or line up for crispy fried chicken and waffle fries at Doughbird.

If you’re planning to focus most of your time in the Needles District, the quiet mountain town of Monticello, 49 miles southeast of the Needles Park entrance offers several quality RV parks including Mountain View RV Park and Campground and Devil’s Canyon Campground.

En route

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dead Horse Point State Park

Take a slight detour on the way to Island in the Sky from Moab to Dead Horse Point State Park. The park provides one of the best views in the area from a peninsula like spur that sticks out over a branch of the same Colorado River canyon country as Canyonlands National Park.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Drive the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway

When traveling to Canyonlands from the north replace the more direct U.S. Highway 191 with a tour down State Route 128, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway. The route traverses broad valleys that may look familiar from starring roles in numerous Western films and presents a stunning photo op at a red rock Fisher Towers silhouetted against the La Sal Mountains. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit Arches National Park

Most people traveling to Canyonlands National Park combine their visit with Arches National Park, 26 miles to the northeast. The two parks make a perfect complement, doubling the fantastical appeal of water-carved, wind-burnished, and ice-chiseled rock markings.

Canyonlands National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

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

Fact Box

Location: Southeast Utah

Acreage: 337,598 acres

Highest point: 7,180 feet (above Big Pocket in the Needles District)

Lowest point: 3,900 feet (on the Colorado River)

Main attraction: Stunning canyon views and unusual rock formations

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

When to go: April through early June and late August through Novemer, for more temperate weather

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

The Best National Parks to Visit in December

Wondering where to travel in December? Why not opt for a nature getaway and visit one of America’s National Parks in December!

The national parks are a treasure—beautiful, wild, and full of wonders to see. But there’s more to experience than taking in gorgeous scenery from your vehicle or at lookout points. National parks are natural playgrounds, full of possible adventures.

The most famous offerings of the National Park Service (NPS) are the 63 national parks including ArchesGreat Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon. But there are 424 NPS units across the country that also includes national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, national battlefields, and national memorials. These sites are outside the main focus of this guide.

Which are the best national parks to visit in December? In this guide, I list five beautiful national parks plus six bonus parks and a road trip. Whether you are planning a family getaway during Christmas break or a vacation before the holiday season rolls around, I have lots of great ideas for you.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About this National Park series

This article is part of a series about the best national parks to visit each month. In this series, every national park is listed at least once and many are listed multiple times. It is a series of 12 articles, one for each month of the year.

These articles take into account weather, crowd levels, the best time to go hiking, special events, road closures, and my personal experiences in the parks. Based on these factors, I picked out what I think are the optimal times to visit each park. Since I haven’t been to all of the national parks I include only the parks we have visited on at lease one occasion.

For an overview of the best time to visit each national park, check out my Best National Parks by Season guide. This guide will cover the best time to visit each national park based on these factors. First are the links to my posts about the best parks to visit, month-by-month. This is followed by a list that illustrates the best time to visit each national park based on weather and crowd levels. Please note this overview will be posted following the completion of this 12 month guide in February 2024.

And at the end of this article, I have links to the other guides in my Best National Parks by Month series.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting the National Parks in December

December is a unique month to visit the national parks. The month starts out quiet. Many people are shopping, decorating, and getting ready for the upcoming holidays at the end of the month. This makes early December a very quiet time to visit the national parks.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a very popular time for people to travel and the national parks get a big spike in visitors. It’s one of the biggest travel weeks of the year. It can be considerably more expensive to travel the last week of December than the first week of December and camping reservations are difficult to find.

If you have flexibility for your travel dates it’s best to plan your trip for early December or wait until January.

Another thing to note is that in December, the days are the shortest of the year. In some places you may have less than eight hours of daylight. If you are planning long day trips or long, busy days in the national parks keep in mind that by 4:30 pm it could be getting dark giving you very limited sightseeing time. I provide the sunrise and sunset times for each park, a very important detail to note this time of year.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The information I provide for each national park does not include temporary road closures since these dates are constantly changing. Since roads can close in the national parks at any time, I recommend getting updates on the NPS website while planning your trip. 

Best National Parks in December

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Zion National Park

Location: Utah

If you have been reading these guides, you might notice by now that I recommend Zion primarily for the shoulder-season months (late fall through very early spring). Zion National Park is the third most popular national parks in the US with over 4.6 milluin visitors in 2022 so for the best experience I recommend it for the months when crowds are at their lowest.

In December, the weather is chilly in Zion but there are several advantages to visiting the park at this time.

Early in the month, not only are crowds lower but you can also drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in your own car. For most of the year, private vehicles are not permitted on this road. December, January, and February are the three months that you can drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (with the exception of the period between Christmas and New Year’s).

Since visitation is low, scoring a permit to hike Angels Landing is also easier.

For those of you who want to visit the park when it is the least crowded early to mid-December is a great time as is January.

Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows are two bucket-list worthy hikes that attract thousands of visitors every year. Angels Landing is one of the most popular destinations in Zion. Everyone who hikes Angels Landing requires a permit. You also need a permit to hike the Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava going upstream in the Virgin River. Since high water may prevent travel in the Narrows, check the park’s current conditions before you start your day.

But there are also numerous short, family-friendly hikes to choose from as well as multi-day backpacking adventures and hikes that require canyoneering experience.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Zion in December: To avoid the crowds. Early December is one of the quietest times to visit the park in terms of visitation (but crowds skyrocket between Christmas and New Year’s). You can even drive your car on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive since the park shuttle does not operate at this time (except for the week between Christmas and New Year’s).

Weather: The average high is 53°F and the average low is 30°F so Zion is chilly in December. But during periods of unusually warm weather it can get into the 70s.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:40 am and sunset is at 5:15 pm.

Top experiences: Hike Angels Landing, Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, Riverside Trail, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, and Canyon Overlook. One of the best experiences in the park is hiking the Zion Narrows.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: In December, you can hike the Zion Narrows from the bottom-up, just be aware that water temperatures are going to be very cold at this time.

How much time do you need? If you like to hike, plan to spend at least 3 to 4 days in Zion National Park. You can do three big hikes (one each morning) or use two of the days for a multi-day backpacking adventure. This also gives you time to explore Kolob Canyons at the northern section of the park.

Plan your visit

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Grand Canyon National Park

Location: Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park is wonderful in December. Yes, it is cold. And yes, it can snow but that makes it even more beautiful.

Winter is sometimes called the secret season at the Grand Canyon. It’s the season when the skies are the clearest, the temperatures are the coolest, and the tourist numbers are at the lowest—meaning it’s an excellent time to visit.

The first thing to know about visiting Grand Canyon National Park in winter is that the North Rim is NOT open to vehicles between October and May. But the South Rim (where the majority of people go anyway) is still fully operational.

December is also a great time to go hiking.

The Grand Canyon is a magical place to visit all year long but around the winter holiday season it becomes even more special.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit the Grand Canyon in December: Crowds are low early in the month and then really pick up between Christmas and New Year’s. The Grand Canyon makes a great winter break destination and you can combine it with Las Vegas or destinations in Arizona such as Sedona or Monument Valley.

Weather: The average high is only 43°F and the average low is 18°F. Snow is also a possibility this time of year. If you hike below the rim, the temperature gets considerably warmer the closer you get to the Colorado River.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5:10 pm.

Top experiences: Visit the South Rim viewpoints, watch the sunset, hike below the rim on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail, and take a flightseeing tour.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: In the winter, hike the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails as one big loop. This is a big day hike and only those who are very fit with lots of hiking experience should attempt it.

How much time do you need? I recommend spending three to four days on the South Rim to visit the highlights. Three days gives you enough time to visit the best overlooks on the South Rim, go on a helicopter ride, and spend some time hiking below the rim.

Plan your visit

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Location: Utah

Capitol Reef National Park is full of many wonderful surprises. With an amazing scenic drive, hiking trails that rival those in Zion, rugged, remote areas to explore by 4×4, short, easy slot canyons to hike, and historical landmarks, this is one of my favorite national parks.

Most people drive right through the heart of the park visiting the sights along Highway 24 which are nice. But those who venture farther into the park either on the hiking trails or the backcountry roads are rewarded with incredible views of remote, rugged landscapes.

If you don’t like cold temperatures, you might want to avoid this park (and visit Saguaro instead) but this is a great time to road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5 and have lower crowds.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Capitol Reef in December: Crowds are low since the weather is so cool. Capitol Reef is a great place to add onto a Utah road trip throughout the month of December.

Weather: In December, the average high is 40°F and the average low is 21°F. There is the chance that light snow can fall in December.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Drive the 16-mile round-trip drive along Scenic Drive, drive Capitol Gorge Road, hike to Hickman Bridge, and watch the sunset from Sunset Point, hike to Cassidy Arch, and Loop the Fold.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: For the ultimate adventure, drive the Cathedral Valley Loop. This rugged, remote district of Capitol Reef National Park is one of the best backcountry experiences in the national parks if you like exploring by 4WD.

How much time do you need? Plan to spend three to four days in Capitol Reef. This gives you enough time to explore and hike the trails in the core of the park (along Scenic Drive and Highway 24) and venture into the backcountry either in Cathedral Valley or by looping the fold.

Plan your visit

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Canyonlands National Park

Location: Utah

Canyonlands National Park is made of up several districts. Island in the Sky which is located west of Moab is the most popular district to visit. This is the place to see Mesa Arch, hike to Upheaval Dome, and enjoy the many viewpoints with sweeping views from the top of the Island in the Sky mesa.

The Needles is an awesome place to go hiking. Located farther away from Moab than Island in the Sky, fewer people venture here. But with zebra-striped sandstone spires and a cool slot canyon to explore, this is a unique, less crowded area of the park to visit.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Canyonlands in December: If you have plans to visit Arches National Park (mentioned next), Canyonlands is well worth adding on to your visit. It will be colder here due to its higher elevation but this is a beautiful park to see with a dusting of snow. For warmer temperatures, spend your time at the Needles District, rather than Island in the Sky (it will be about 5 degrees warmer).

Weather: The average high is 37°F and the average low is 23°F at Island in the Sky. Precipitation is low and typically falls as snow. Even though Canyonlands sits next to Arches National Park it is at a higher elevation so the temperatures are a bit lower here.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top Experiences: Visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky, watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch, go hiking in The Needles, drive Shafer Canyon Road, and hike below the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate adventure: Drive or mountain bike the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. It takes 2 to 3 days to do this drive. It can be done in the winter but snow can close Shafer Canyon Road and cold temperatures will make camping uncomfortable for some people.

How much time do you need? You need at least two full days in Canyonlands National Park. Spend one day in Island in the Sky and one day in the Needles. But even more time is better if you want to venture deeper into the park.

Plan your visit

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Arches National Park

Location: Utah

Arches National Park with its iconic arches and unique rock formations is one of the most recognizable parks in the US. Delicate Arch is the number one landmark to see inside of the park but lots of other wonderful adventures.

Drive Scenic Drive for beautiful views of the park, gaze up at Balanced Rock, hike through Park Avenue, and photograph the Windows Arches and Turret Arch.

The best hike in the park is Devils Garden. You can keep the hike short and sweet, turning around at Landscape Arch. But for those who want to venture farther you can see eight arches in just one hike.

November is another fantastic month to visit Arches National Park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why visit Arches in December: For low crowds, at least early in the month. However, I think Arches and Canyonlands makes a great winter break destination since these are fun parks to take the kids. If you have warmer than average days, that’s great, but to see the parks with a little bit of snow is magical especially around the holidays.

Weather: The average high is 42°F and the average low is 24°F. On warmer than average days, the temperature can get into the 60s. There is a chance a few inches of snow can fall in December.

Sunrise & sunset: Sunrise is at 7:30 am and sunset is at 5 pm.

Top experiences: Hike to Delicate Arch, see Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace, visit Double Arch, Turret Arch, and Windows Arch, hike Park Avenue.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ultimate Adventure: Hike the Devils Garden Trail. To reach Landscape Arch, one of the most iconic arches in the park, it is only 1.6 miles round trip. But for the ultimate adventure, continue past Landscape Arch to Double O Arch and Dark Angel and return on the Primitive Trail.

How much time do you need? One day in Arches is all you need to see the highlights but it will be a very busy day. With two to three days, you can visit the park at a more leisurely pace or go off the beaten path.

Plan your visit

Two more parks to visit in December

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Temperatures are mild in Joshua Tree National Park in December with the average high coming in about 58°F. This is a great park to escape the cold, wintry conditions and makes a great add-on to a visit to Las Vegas, Death Valley, Palm Desert, or San Diego.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon did not make my December list since it is so cold this month. In December, the high temperature struggles to get above freezing with the average high in the mid 30s and the average low in the teens. Snowfall is likely.

If you don’t mind the cold weather and like the idea of seeing Bryce Canyon with a dusting of snow, December makes a great time to visit this park. It also completes the road trip to Utah’s Mighty 5 since the other four parks made my December list.

Bonus! 4 NPS sites to visit in December

Tumacácori National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tumacácori National Historic Park

The oldest Jesuit mission in Arizona has been preserved in Tumacácori National Historic Park, a picturesque reminder that Southern Arizona was, at one time, the far northern frontier of New Spain. The San Cayetano del Tumacácori Mission was established in 1691 by Spanish Jesuit priest Eusebio Francisco Kino, 29 miles north of Nogales beside the Santa Cruz River.

Chiricahua National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chiricahua National Monument

The most noticeable natural features in Chirichua National Monument are the rhyolite rock pinnacles for which the monument was created to protect. Rising sometimes hundreds of feet into the air, many of these pinnacles are balancing on a small base, seemingly ready to topple over at any time.

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument contains an imposing four-story building dating from the late Hohokam period probably 14th century and contemporary with other well preserved ruins in Arizona such as the Tonto and Montezuma Castle national monuments. The structure was once part of a collection of settlements scattered along the Gila River and linked by a network of irrigation canals. 

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. The organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

December road trip ideas

The American Southwest

Spend 7 to 10 days road tripping through the American Southwest visiting the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon (if you don’t mind the very cold temperatures here). This road trip also includes Sedona, Monument Valley, and Antelope Canyon. It can be chilly/cold particularly in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon but some places warm up very nicely midday such as Monument Valley.

More Information about the National Parks

Best National Parks to visit by month

January: Best National Parks to Visit in January
February: Best National Parks to Visit in February
March: Best National Parks to Visit in March
April: Best National Parks to Visit in April
May: Best National Parks to Visit in May
June: Best National Parks to Visit in June
July: Best National Parks to Visit in July
August: Best National Parks to Visit in August
September: Best National Parks to Visit in September
October: Best National Parks to Visit in October
November: Best National Parks to Visit in November
December: Best National Parks to Visit in December

Worth Pondering…

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

—John Lubbock