The Ultimate Guide to the Mighty 5

The national parks in Utah have long been the perfect playground for RVers. Connecting all five is a rite of passage for many travelers both here and abroad.

When it comes to natural beauty Utah is on the A-list of the most beautiful states in America. With varying landscapes like mountains and deserts, canyons and arches, it is easy to see why.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state of Utah is home to five of the most stunning national parks the US has to offer. Dubbed the “Mighty Five”, these national parks deliver towering canyon walls, out-of-this-world rock formations, and picture-perfect views. 

So what is the Mighty 5? They’re five parks stretching through the desert landscape of southern Utah and are perfect for a road trip. From east to west, the parks are: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the first time I heard about these five parks, I knew I needed to visit them, and I think you’ll want to too. We took a road trip through this area and visited these parks before heading into Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon and Sedona. This is a trip everyone should put on their bucket list. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below I’ve compiled everything you need to know to plan your own Utah Mighty 5 road trip.

Plan your trip: The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

Each of the five Utah national parks has something unique to offer. From sweeping canyons, hoodoos, and natural amphitheaters to rugged orange cliffs that showcase the best of the Wild West. Whether you’re looking to explore them all or just one, my guide will take you through what makes each of Utah’s national parks so spectacular.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Because the Mighty 5 sits in a desert environment, summer months can be sweltering hot and winters snowy and cold. I recommend doing this Utah Mighty 5 road trip in the late spring and early fall months. I’ve personally done this road trip in October and early November and found the weather to be perfectly nice and pleasantly cool.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Arches is classic Utah where jaw-dropping scenery comes standard. But what elevates Arches National Park to one of the best in the United States is its spellbinding collection of natural monuments. No place on earth has as many sandstone arches. In fact, you’ll find over 2,000 if you’re willing to put the steps in.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park’s name gives away the surprise. But to the glee of all travelers, the arches aren’t the only incredible geological wonders here. On the many hikes and along the scenic road, spot enormous boulders balancing on another and admire soaring fins and rock spires that stand like iconic statues and Romanesque churches.

The nature of Arches National Park means there is an abundance of short, family-friendly trails. But those chasing seclusion will be rewarded with a resplendent backcountry. The park also forms a part of the Spanish National Historic Trail.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Hike the 3-mile round trip to Delicate Arch to see this famous beauty.

Plan your trip: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands 

Helpful Tip: Try to avoid the midday sun when hiking in Arches. Even in the cooler months, most hikes here offer zero shade and the sun can be brutal. Always pack a hiking hat when going out to explore.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Arches National Park is just outside of Moab in eastern Utah
  • From Moab: 5 miles
  • From Grand Junction: 109 miles
  • From Salt Lake City: 230 miles
Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $30 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $25
  • Walk/Ride: $15
  • Southeast Utah Parks Pass: $55
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Utah’s largest national park, Canyonlands harbors some of the rawest and most inspiring landscapes in the American West. The park has been carved by the imposing Green River and Colorado River which converge in the heart of Canyonlands.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of all the amazing Utah national parks, this may be the most untouched. It’s a veritable telescope showing travelers the true artistic qualities of Mother Nature. The park is split into several arresting districts such as the Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Needles. But with no connecting scenic roads, you have to leave then re-enter to see them all.

This frustration is always eclipsed by the park’s stunning beauty. The grand expanse has relatively few visitors, so the backcountry is a tranquil yet rugged paradise. On the way, you may discover ruins from ancient Puebloans and long-gone explorers.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Drive the main road in the Island in the Sky district to get to Grand View Point and enjoy the view. A lot of people recommend Mesa Arch as well. It’s popular for sunrise but you’ll be sharing the view with tons of people.

Plan your trip: Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

Helpful Tip: You have to leave the park to drive to each individual district. The Needles is about a two hour drive from the Island in the Sky entrance. The Maze is even more remote and offers only backcountry hiking and recreation. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Canyonlands is 40 minutes from Moab in eastern Utah
  • Moab: 32.5 miles
  • Grand Junction: 124 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 244 miles
Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $30 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $25
  • Walk/Ride: $15
  • Southeast Utah Pass: $55
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

In south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National park exists in the shadows of other renowned Bryce Canyon and Zion. But if we’ve learned anything from the national parks in Utah, is that they’re all impressive in their own ways.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef is in the heart of red rock country, a treasure trove of domes, canyons, and cliffs. It’s a park that gets better the more you explore with a plethora of hiking trails, 4WD trails, scenic roads, and the fascinating Fruita district.

Without the popularity of other Utah national parks, you’ll contend with less traffic on the equally beautiful paths that take you to cathedral monoliths and endless desert views.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Drive the scenic drive past the Fruita district to get pretty views. Back at the visitor center ask the rangers if any of the orchards are open so you can try the fruit. And don’t leave without stopping at the Gifford House to get some of the best pies around.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: If you’re able to snag a campsite at the Fruita campground, do it! The grass is super green and lush. Some of the best views in the park are located off of dirt roads, so bring a high clearance vehicle if you’re able to.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Capitol Reef is just outside of Torrey in Southern Utah
  • Grand Junction: 186 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 218 miles
  • Las Vegas: 327 miles
Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $20 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $15
  • Walk/Ride: $10
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Rising like a church choir out of the red-orange dirt in southwestern Utah, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park have created a natural wonderland.

Plan your trip: Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef: A Great American Road Trip

Delicately shaped by millions of years of wind, rain, and snow, Bryce Canyon is a paradise for hikers and photographers alike. The park has natural bridges and is teeming with rock spires that form spectacular amphitheaters. It’s like the park is an orchestra and we are the lucky audience.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Throughout, you’ll find hiking trails that take you from the lowly Paria Valley to above 9,000 feet in the forests along the Paunsaugunt Plateau. In between are exceptional experiences, epic views, and some of the best rock climbing in the state.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Watch the sunrise and sunset over the hoodoos at sunrise and sunset point, respectively. Hike down into the amphitheater on the Queens and Navajo Loop trails and look out for the hoodoo that looks like Queen Victoria.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Pack a sweater, even if you’re visiting in the summer months. We visited in early November, and the temperatures at night dropped below freezing. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • Bryce Canyon is south of Bryce in Southern Utah
  • Las Vegas: 260 miles
  • Salt Lake City: 268 miles
  • Zion National Park: 72 miles
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $35 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $30
  • Walk/Ride: $20
  • Bryce Canyon Annual Pass: $70
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

As Utah’s oldest national park, Zion has lost none of its grandiosity since its opening in 1919. It’s a place of wonderment, the crown jewel of Utah’s epic national park system. Located in Southern Utah, its esteem has been well earned because of its array of vast and narrow canyons, rainbow rock formations, natural monuments, and stunning vistas.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upon discovery in 1863, Zion was labeled the Promised Land. It still rings true today, a place that promises (and delivers) spectacular hikes, some of the best canyoneering anywhere on earth punctuated by desert waterfalls that add extra life to the colorful but arid landscape.

Don’t pass up on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. In a state made for road trips, the short and sweet journey is the icing on the cake.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Must Do: Plan to spend at least half a day hiking the Narrows. Drive through the tunnel to get a stunning view of the canyon and head over to the Kolob Canyon entrance to enjoy the views without the crowds. The Pa’rus trail is super underrated but will give you beautiful views without much effort! 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Helpful Tip: Try to get on the earliest shuttles to avoid crowds in the most popular hikes. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to get there:

  • The national park is located in Springdale in southern Utah
  • From Las Vegas: 160 miles
  • From Salt Lake City: 308 miles
Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entrance Fee:

  • Private Vehicle: $35 (<15 passengers)
  • Motorcycle: $30
  • Walk/Ride: $20
  • Zion Annual Pass: $70

Worth Pondering…

Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.

—Wendell Berry

If the Outdoors is your Thing, Utah is your Place

Utah features some of the most astonishing landscapes in the world

With soaring sandstone arches, serpentine slot canyons, slickrock domes, and hoodoos of all shapes and sizes, Utah boasts some of the most otherworldly panoramas on planet Earth.

Public lands cover two-thirds of the state offering vast opportunities to hike, bike, raft, ski, climb and camp—or simply gape at epic views. If the outdoors is your thing, Utah is your place. Here are the best places to go for a uniquely Utah experience.

The red rock of Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Base yourself in Moab for outdoor adventures

On the doorstep of two national parks, a national forest with summits over 12,000 feet, and endless acres of slickrock-clad Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, Moab is ground zero for outdoor action in Utah. A variety of restaurants, shops, hotels, and outfitters line the streets downtown.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just to the north, Arches National Park is graced with some of the most spectacular examples of what wind, water, freezing, and thawing can do to rock over time. If there is one must-see destination in Utah, this might be it, though in peak season the crowds can be the stuff of nightmares.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby Canyonlands National Park (Utah’s largest) sees far fewer visitors while offering countless spots to view a Martian-like landscape from the rims or the bottoms of huge canyons or among formations such as The Needles, Chocolate Drops, or Land of Standing Rocks. The Green and the Colorado Rivers meet in the heart of the park.

Related Article: Ultimate Guide to National Park Tripping in Utah: Arches and Canyonlands

Moab also offers easy access to some of the best mountain biking anywhere as well as prime desert rock climbing and river rafting.

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

Canyons of the Escalante is a great hiking region

Prepare to get wet and dirty hiking this sinuous canyon system that’s hewn into a massive field of petrified sand dunes. Spanning some 1,500 square miles including sections of Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Escalante is wild, rugged country. Though you’ll probably end up wading through pools and creeks, struggling among tamarisk groves, and scrambling over rocks, it’s more than worth it.

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

The sublime beauty of the sensuous red- and orange-hued walls streaked with desert varnish inspires a sense of gratitude for life itself. Each side canyon has its own character—some feel private and intimate while others are impressively grand. Aim for highlights such as the Golden Cathedral and Stevens Arch or pick a route where you’re less likely to run into other people. Either way, you’ll be glad to be wherever you are.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument is home to Ancestral Puebloan Sites

Covering 1.36 million acres of land sacred to the region’s Native American tribes, Bears Ears National Monument features some of the most remarkable Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah. Regardless of how much time (and energy) you have, there’s something here for everyone.

Related Article: Photographic Proof That Utah Is Just One Big Epic National Park

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can practically drive right up to the petroglyphs that crowd onto Newspaper Rock. Hiking for a few hours on Cedar Mesa will take you to ruins with names like Moon House and House on Fire—named for the effect of the morning sunlight reflecting on the rocks around the stone structure. And on a multi-day backpacking trip in Grand Gulch, you’ll find cliff dwellings, kivas, and granaries set between burly canyon walls.

Wherever you choose to go, you can’t fail to wonder about the lives of the people who lived on this land some 2000 years ago and what they were expressing through their art.

Highway 12 Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highway 12 is perfect for a scenic drive

In a state with no shortage of scenic roads, this route tops the list. At one end, you’ll drive among the huge, surrealistic domes of Capitol Reef National Park where the rock is every color of the rainbow. Just to the west, Highway 12 then plunges south over a 9,400-foot pass and down into the exquisite geology of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Burr Trail Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some of the most eye-popping views from the road are found between the towns of Boulder and Escalante but there’s plenty to explore along the way, too. Take a quick side trip east of Boulder along the Burr Trail Scenic Byway or get out from behind the wheel and hike around the drip-castle world of Bryce Canyon National Park near the western end of the highway.

Related Article: A Utah Road Trip: Natural Bridges, Moki Dugway, Valley of the Gods & More

Capitol Reef National Reef © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sculpted by water

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Short hikes are necessary to reach some, but most can be seen from the road. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. As is usual in this stark landscape, morning and evening are the best times to take photos. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Rafting down the river © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Juan River is the best spot for rafting trips

Meandering through Utah’s southeastern corner, the San Juan carves a gorgeous route through 300 million years of geologic time. On rafting trips, ranging from two to seven days, you’ll float between sheer canyon walls, past cliffs etched with hundreds of petroglyphs, and through miles of twisting “goosenecks.” At night, you’ll camp on sandy beaches gazing at pristine starry skies. Since most of the rapids rarely rise above class II, this trip is less about white water and more about the scenery and experiencing the rhythm of the river. It’s perfect for families with kids and hardcore outdoor enthusiasts alike. 

Related Article: Here’s the Proof that Utah is the Most Beautiful State

Worth Pondering…

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

Utah’s Mighty 5 Broke Visitation Records in 2021: Is it Time to Try Other Parks?

Utah wanted all the tourists. Then it got them.

If it felt like Utah’s Mighty 5 were more crowded than ever last year, that’s because they were. All-time visitation records were broken at four of Utah’s five national parks in 2021, according to preliminary data made available by the National Park Service.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There were at least 11 million visitors at Utah’s five national parks in 2021—far exceeding the 7.7 million recorded visitors in 2020, a year when visitation plummeted as a result of pandemic-related park closures and travel restrictions.

Related Article: Everything You Need to Know about the Mighty 5

The final 2021 visitation figure has yet to be calculated because Zion National Park has not submitted its December visitation. Even so, visits to Utah’s national parks jumped by at least 43 percent last year and Zion is one of the four parks that broke visitation records in 2021.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion again led all of Utah national parks in visitation last year. The southern Utah nature preserves reported over 4.8 million visitors through November besting its previous record of 4.5 million in 2017. The park is still reviewing its numbers before it submits its final 2021 visitation statistics.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion needs a little over 172,000 to reach 5 million visitors for the year—a rare feat that only three national parks have ever reached. Recent visitor trends suggest that Zion will be close to that number. The park has averaged 162,000 December visitors in the previous five years; however, it also recorded 227,244 people visits in December 2020.

Related Article: Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks & Must-See Hidden Gems

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches (1.8 million), Canyonlands (over 911,000), and Capitol Reef (1.4 million) national parks also broke all-time visitation records in 2021. While Bryce Canyon National Park fell short of its visitation record, more than 2.1 million people visited the park last year—the second-most of the five parks and an increase of nearly 640,000 visitors from 2020.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While 2021 produced an eye-popping leap from 2020 because there were no shutdowns and fewer COVID-19 concerns, 2021 also far exceeded the state’s previous total park record of 10.6 million recorded in 2019.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rise in visitors meant more people were enjoying Utah national parks but it also led to an uptick in resources needed to support the public lands. This has been true since the sudden rise of the parks’ popularity over the past decade—the issue came to a head in 2021 because of the dramatic increase in park visitation from the previous year.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The year ended with Arches National Park implementing a timed entry ticket pilot program and Zion announcing a permit process to hike Angels Landing both set to begin in the spring. Bryce Canyon National Park officials also increased its backcountry permit fees and implemented a partial campground reservation requirement to match the spike in popularity at the park over the past decade.

Related Article: Utah Wanted All the Tourists. Then It Got Overrun.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With more than 2,000 arches, as well as rock fins, pinnacles, and balancing rocks, visiting Arches National Park is like escaping to a wonderland of ancient sandstone. Visitors cherish the soaring red rock features—clad in rock formations of red, orange, brown, and purple hues—set against an often-bright blue sky.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To maximize your enjoyment, consider visiting during off-peak times. The park is most active from March through October and especially around Easter, Memorial Day, and Labor Day. The busiest time of day is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Early morning and late afternoon typically offer fewer crowds, shorter lines, easier parking, cooler temperatures, and golden light for photographers. Winter in Arches National Park also offers stunning scenery during the quiet season.

Related Article: The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s national parks feature some of the most astonishing landscapes in the world. But other lands in Utah promise just as much allure including state parks, national monuments, and national recreation areas. It may be time to try other Utah parks and other natural areas because the state has much more to offer than just the five national parks. Those are all things that the state’s newest campaign, Forever Mighty strives to accomplish.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southeastern Utah is anchored by Arches and Canyonlands national parks and the active tourism basecamps of Moab and Green River. Further south, travelers can explore the vast stretch of land known as Bears Ears country which includes active and ancient Native American communities and historic sites such as Monument Valley and Hovenweep National Monument.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument, located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The majority of visitors to southwestern Utah focus their efforts on the Mighty 5 national parks. And, for good reason, these parks are spectacular. However, seasoned travelers and savvy locals know that fun southern Utah activities, remarkable scenery, and memorable adventures aren’t limited to national park boundaries. In fact, by stepping off the beaten path, many travelers have found their favorite memories were created in these hidden gems, parks that may leave you breathless but are less likely to leave you standing in line.

Related Article: Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains above Cedar City is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding environs are home to cool hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.”

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

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument is phenomenal. Sun-drenched Utah backcountry spreads out well beyond the visible horizon from the road whether you’re traveling along Scenic Byway 12 or on Highway 89. This area boasts a mixture of colorful sandstone cliffs soaring above narrow slot canyons, picturesque washes and seemingly endless Slickrock, prehistoric sites, and abandoned old Western movie sets, among many other treasures

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

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers more than 1.2 million acres of unparalleled opportunities for land- and water-based recreation. Within the recreation area, Lake Powell is the second-largest man-made lake in the U. S. and is widely recognized as one of the premier boating destinations in the world.

Read Next: Photographic Proof That Utah Is Just One Big Epic National Park

As you plan your next road trip through Utah, look for opportunities to visit less-crowded destinations. While the national parks are open, so are many less crowded and equally brilliant nearby destinations. 

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

Awesomeness beyond the Mighty 5 in Southern Utah

Recommendations for extended adventuring around each of southern Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks

Southern Utah has enough panoramic mountain views, striking red-rock formations, and dark-sky zones for a lifetime of adventure. But sometimes it’s better to settle in to explore one place than try to do everything in one trip. In this post, I’ll look at a few favorite spots for going beyond the parks and staying for a week or longer.

Thanks to some highly successful promotion by the Utah Office of Tourism, people across the globe now know that “Mighty 5” refers to national parks in Utah and not a group of superheroes.

Unfortunately, that heightened awareness carries a price. Utah’s five national parks are often so busy that visitors wait hours to enter or are even turned away. If you’ve been stalled in traffic at Zion, Arches, or Bryce Canyon, you understand.

On holidays or other times when you know the parks will be jammed with tourists, a good alternative is to visit one of Utah’s spectacular national monuments or state parks. Many offer breathtaking scenery to rival that of the Mighty 5 but with much smaller crowds.

Red Rock Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond Bryce Canyon and Zion

For a week of exploring around Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, head to St. George, where you can camp within a short drive of hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails. The national parks are stunning but the many state parks in Utah are also not to be missed. One favorite is Snow Canyon; the trails there wind through striking red rock and streams of black lava are frozen in time against the canyon walls. Another one of this corner’s lesser-known gems is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park where you can hike or go four-wheeling among pink dunes formed over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years by eroding Navajo Sandstone cliffs. You’ll also want to visit Red Cliffs BLM Recreation area to hike and marvel at the distinctive landscapes that cover this relatively unknown public area. 

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The reservoir at Quail Creek State Park boasts some of the warmest waters in the state plus a mild winter climate. It is a great place to boat, camp, and fish. Water sports are popular here during the long warm-weather season and boaters and fishermen enjoy the reservoir year-round. Anglers fish for largemouth bass, rainbow trout, crappie, and other species.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Red rock and red sand meet warm, blue water at Sand Hollow which is one of the most popular state parks in Utah. This is a great place to camp, picnic, boat, fish, and ride ATVs. ATV trails run over sand dune access to Sand Mountain in the park and additional trails are located nearby. Sand Hollow Reservoir’s warm water makes it ideal for skiing and other water sports. Anglers fish for bass, bluegill, crappie, and catfish.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hidden within the mountains between Zion and Bryce Canyon is the brilliant geology and vibrant environment of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The geologic amphitheater and surrounding area are home to hiking trails, ancient trees, high elevation camping, and over-the-top views along the “Circle of Painted Cliffs.” Cedar Breaks’ majestic amphitheater is a three-mile-long cirque made up of eroding limestone, shale, and sandstone. The monument sits above 10,000 feet. The Amphitheater is like a naturally formed coliseum that plunges 2,000 feet below amid colorful towers, hoodoos, and canyons. Stunning views are common throughout so keep your camera nearby.

Beyond Capitol Reef

The Capitol Reef Region is a relatively uncrowded landscape with seemingly endless public land to explore. The town of Torrey—an official International Dark Sky Community—is just a 15-minute drive from Capitol Reef National Park and a great base camp for exploration.

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

Snag a campsite in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. There are plenty of options to contemplate in this Martian-like landscape. If you’re just passing through, Goblin Valley State Park famous for wind-shaped rock formations called hoodoos is a popular stop for families.

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is also within easy driving distance of Grand Staircase and offers plenty of opportunities to cool off in Lake Powell with water sports you might not expect to find amid Utah’s high-desert landscapes.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef national parks, Escalante Petrified Forest is among the most underrated, surprising, and all-around best state parks for escaping the crowds. If you want to be away from people, it’s pretty easy to find lots of remote space to camp while still having easy access to the main rock formations. Escalante Petrified Forest is located at Wide Hollow Reservoir, a small reservoir that is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, and water sports. The park includes a developed campground with RV sites. There is also a pleasant picnic area.  On the hill above the campground, you can see large petrified logs. A marked hiking trail leads through the petrified forest. At the Visitor Center, you can view displays of plant and marine fossils, petrified wood, and fossilized dinosaur bones over 100 million years old.

Beyond Arches and Canyonlands

One of my favorite things about southern Utah is the way the landscapes transform from lush riverscape to shaded slot canyons to desert all in a short drive. For a week in the Arches and Canyonlands region start in Green River at the foot of Desolation Canyon Wilderness. Swasey’s Beach has developed camping and a great beach.

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

The scenic overlooks of Dead Horse Point State Park are often compared to views of the Grand Canyon. Just over 30 miles from Moab, it’s a worthy destination when Arches is overly crowded. The park gets its name from a gruesome legend. Around the turn of the century, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From there, head to the lesser-visited west side of Canyonlands National Park for a guided 4×4 tour. Spend ample time in the Bears Ears National Monument area with a scenic drive through Valley of the Gods and visits to Goosenecks State Park and Natural Bridges National Monument—both of which are certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’ while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wild canyons and mountains of southern Utah have been around for over 2.6 billion years. Help to protect them for a few billion more.

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

NPS Birthday Celebration: 10 National Parks without the Crowds

August 25 will be a special day at the more than 400 national park sites spread across the U.S.

The National Park Service (NPS) is celebrating its 105th birthday TOMORROW, August 25, 2021. National parks across the country are hosting in-park programs and virtual experiences. Join the birthday celebration from anywhere in the world. Find virtual ways to stay connected with 423 national parks across the country and park party games that you can do anywhere, anytime. Entrance fees are also waived for everyone to come out to enjoy the national parks!

On this day in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that created the National Park Service. The new bureau was assigned the task of managing the 35 national parks and monuments that had already been established.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many national parks are actually free year-round. Out of the 423 parks only 108 charge entrance fees (except on the six fee-free days), many of which are actual “parks”—including Acadia National Park, Badlands National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Zion National Park.

That said, the remaining 315 national parks (many of which are historic sites, trails, battlefields, and monuments) offer free entrance every day of the year including Great Smoky Mountains National park, Casa Grande National Monument, Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, John Muir National Historic Site, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

While travelers have 63 epic parks to choose from, consider visiting one of these lesser-known and visited national parks. These parks may not have the same star status as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular.

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Home to the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States, South Carolina’s often overlooked Congaree National Park is just a half-hour drive from the state capital of Columbia and features plenty of opportunities for scenic hikes, with August, September, and October providing some of the best conditions to explore trails like the Boardwalk Loop, Oakridge Trail, and the Weston Lake Loop.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

One of the least visited parks in the national park system, Lassen Volcanic National Park preserves the volcanic legacy of Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, and the long-eroded Mount Tehama. Evidence of the burning hot spot below Lassen is abundant with several boiling pools and steam vents to visit. Of its geothermal areas, Bumpass Hell is most impressive with its small teal pond inset between fumaroles, steam vents, and a boiling pool coated in fool’s gold. Devil’s Kitchen is a longer hike at about 4 miles past mud pots, fumaroles, and Hot Springs Creek. Beyond the geothermal activity, Lassen is a beautiful alpine environment with plenty of adventures to offer.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

Remember how fun it was to play in the sand as a kid? It’s still pretty fun, as it turns out. And the sandbox is a lot bigger at White Sands National Park, a system of rare white gypsum sand dunes (largest gypsum dune field in the world) intertwined with raised boardwalk trails and a single loop road. Sunset and sunrise are obviously the golden hours for photographers but any time is a good time for some sand-dune sledding, kite-flying, and back-country camping.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Saguaro National Park, Arizona

You know those comically oversized cacti Wile E. Coyote used to fall into? Those are modeled after the giant Saguaro cactus the most distinct feature is this park straddling the city of Tucson. The park, created to preserve the cacti, boasts some great hikes. Even during warmer weather, a trek into nature here can take you up 5,000 feet of elevation in 15 miles of desert. Driving Saguaro will take you through a Western landscape that’s unmistakably Arizona.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pinnacles National Park, California

One of the country’s youngest national parks, Pinnacles National Park is where travelers can spot North America’s largest flying bird in the California condor (their wingspans approaching 10 feet). This unique habitat came to be approximately 23 million years ago when multiple volcanoes erupted, creating rare talus caves and towering rock spires. Hiking and rock climbing are some of the most popular activities here and visitors won’t want to miss out on the stellar views from the winding High Peaks Loop.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia

The nation’s newest national park came to be as recently as December 2020 as part of a pandemic relief bill, but there’s certainly nothing new about West Virginia’s New River Gorge. After all, the river is believed to be the second-oldest on the planet. The park is popular with whitewater rafters and rock climbers but also offers plenty of hiking trails, scenic waterfalls like the 1,500-foot-wide Sandstone Falls, and plenty of scenic viewpoints. Visitors will also be in awe of the landmark New River Gorge Bridge, the longest single-span steel arch bridge in the United States and the third-highest bridge in the country at nearly 900 feet.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef is home to one of the world’s most unique geological wonders: the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust. Formed millions of years ago when a fault line shifted and exposed thousands of acres of rust-tinted sandstone and slate-gray shale, the resulting rugged cliffs and arch formations are the red rocks Utah is known for. Grab a cinnamon bun or freshly baked mini-pie in the historic village of Fruita located within the park’s borders then stroll through verdant orchards and hunt for petroglyphs near the visitor center. Stay in nearby Torrey for the best BBQ and wild-west themed hotels and RV parks.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is a fitting tribute to the president who helped birth America’s conservation movement: It protects an imposing landscape that is both desolate and teeming with life. Bison roam the grassy plains and elk wander along with juniper-filled draws. Prairie dogs squeak from mounds leading to their underground dens and mule deer bed down on the sides of clay buttes. There are pronghorn antelope and coyotes, wild horses, and bighorn sheep.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

Despite having just one-tenth of the annual visitors to Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns is one of the most engaging national parks in the US—a 73-square-mile network of more than 100 massive caves that seem to go on forever. In the Big Room, stunning stalactites drip from the tall ceiling and thick stalagmite mounds rise from the cave’s floor. It’s certainly worth grabbing a seat at the amphitheater at the mouth of the cave to witness a blur of thousands of bats emerge from the cave for their evening meal at 6 pm—or when they return by 6 am.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Although the words “badlands” and “petrified” evoke harsh landscapes devoid of life, the Petrified Forest National Park is both beautiful and bountiful. Located about 110 miles east of Flagstaff,  the park’s badlands and petrified wood (the world’s largest concentration) are composed of bands of blue, white, and purple which come from quartz and manganese oxides. See fossilized trees and crystalized wood up close on the 0.75-mile Crystal Forest Trail or 3-mile Blue Forest Trail.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other Free Days

Don’t worry if you can’t visit a national park tomorrow—there are more fee-free days this year.

The next fee-free day is National Public Lands Day on Saturday, September 25. The final fee-free day this year is Veterans Day on Thursday, November 11.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

15 Surreal Desert Landscapes that Feel Like a Different Planet

You don’t have to travel to the moon to feel like you’re no longer on Earth

In 2004, Burt Rutan’s privately built SpaceShipOne flew just beyond the edge of space before landing safely back on Earth. That historic feat was enough to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize as well as help convince the public that an era of space tourism was finally within humanity’s grasp. Now, more than 15 years later, aspiring space tourists are on the verge of having their dreams realized.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A year ago this month, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule safely ferried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken back to Earth following a multi-month trip to the International Space Station (ISS). No privately built spacecraft had ever carried humans into orbit before.

It’s finally looking like the exciting era of space tourism is about to erupt. A handful of so-called “new space” companies are now competing to sell space tourists’ trips on private spacecraft. Each one has a slightly different means of reaching space and not all of them will get you all the way into orbit. But as long as you’re rich you should have no problem purchasing your ticket to space.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last week, the space tourism company Space Perspective opened up reservations for a “luxury” six-hour flight to the edge of space on giant balloons the size of a football stadium. The cost per ticket: $125,000. Which begs the question: Would you be willing to pay to travel to space or would you need to get paid to travel to space? 

For those of us who prefer to stay grounded and travel in a recreational vehicle, there are numerous options to explore land formations created by volcanic eruptions or extreme temperatures that have altered the planet in strange ways.

My round-up of 15 of the most surreal landscapes in America showcases locations that have mesmerized travelers, inspired local legends, and even baffled scientists for centuries.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

If you’ve never heard the word “hoodoo,” it’s probably because you’re unfamiliar with the bizarre rock formations at Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos are tall, thin spires of rock that come out of an arid basin or badland. The ones found in Southern Utah’s Bryce Canyon are particularly fascinating and striking due to their size and volume with the natural amphitheaters inside the park. All year-round, the park is known for its surreal Instagram-able sights including when snow falls on the hoodoos. 

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

White Sands National Park, New Mexico

At first glance, the glistening hills of White Sands National Park appear to be mounds of snow—but upon closer examination, the dunes are made of stark-white gypsum sand. It’s a natural wonder that spans 275 square miles making it the largest gypsum dune field in the world. When you’re done staring in awe at the surreal white dunes, you can hike them, camp on them, sunbathe on them, and even slide down them in plastic sleds. Some of the wildlife that lives in the dunes has adapted to its surroundings by taking on a white color (namely the white sands wood rat and the bleached earless lizard). When daylight breaks, the white sand takes on a surreal red-pinkish hue and for a few minutes after sunset, the sand seems to glow.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley, Arizona and Utah

The mesas, thin buttes, and the tall spires rising above the valley, and the contrasting orange sand makes Monument Valley the most surreal landscape in the southwest. Monument Valley boasts crimson mesas, surreal sandstone towers which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet. It is those sights that take your breath away and make you speechless—what the Western writer Zane Grey once described as “a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptured, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

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

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

The name of this stunning state park may seem less appealing but the history behind it is interesting. Back in the days of the old west, cowboys used the area as a place to corral wild mustangs. Trapping the horses at the edge of the cliff, they would round up the desired horses and take them back to be tamed. Usually, the remaining horses were set free. However, legend has it that one time the remaining horses were trapped at the edge of the cliff and died of thirst for an inexplicable reason. Taking a mountain bike to the area is a great way to explore the park and imagine the cowboy way of life at this surreal location. 

Painted Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Painted Desert, Arizona

Who says deserts have to be drab beige? In the Painted Desert of Petrified Forest National Park, the rocky badlands range in color from reds, oranges, and pinks to dark purples and grays. It is the sort of place that truly lives up to its name—making you feel as though you’re looking at a brightly colored painting, not a real place. For the best experience, visit at sunrise or sunset when the sun makes everything pop even more.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is famed for its sheer sandstone cliffs. A rich diversity of wildlife thrives in this biologically rich habitat. Narrow canyons, flowing rivers, ponderosa forests, and waterfalls add to the wonder. Thrill-seekers can test their mental and physical fortitude by attempting to conquer the five-mile-long Angel’s Landing trail. Sharp switchbacks and dizzying drop-offs make it a challenging trek but the stunning views from the summit are well worth it.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park spans 800,000 arid acres and includes two distinct desert ecosystems. Its surreal tableau is punctuated by massive boulders, Dr. Seuss-like yucca palms, and archaeological marvels. Hiking is the primary draw but with 8,000 climbing routes, vertical adventure is a close second. At night, dark skies are sublime for stargazing. You can sleep under the cosmos at the nine on-site campgrounds.

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

Glen Canyon, Arizona and Utah

Sitting on the Utah-Arizona border and encompassing over a million acres, Glen Canyon has a ton of stuff to see and experience. Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and the iconic formations at Rainbow Bridge are all found in Glen Canyon. Petroglyphs and other ancient markings show just how long people have been coming to the area for all kinds of adventures. Modern-day explorers will enjoy bringing their cameras and taking some incredible photos to share on social media. 

Cathedral Rock at Sedona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona, Arizona

Mystical, majestic, and surreal, Sedona casts a spell with its fiery rock formulations, steep canyons, energy vortexes, and pine forests. This hallowed landscape attracts four million people each year—many seeking spiritual transformation. Not surprisingly, it has become a hotbed of New Age healing with many wellness-oriented outposts like crystal shops, aura readers, yoga studios, and holistic spas. In case you are curious, this Sedona road trip is as magical as everyone says it is.

San Rafael Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Rafael River, Utah

To those who think, “Gosh I love the Grand Canyon, I just wish it was smaller,” the San Rafael River is the place for you. Located in Emery County, the San Rafael River Gorge is often called the “Little Grand Canyon.” The canyons’ walls that sit at a nearly 90-degree angle serve as eye-catching views from above and from those floating through the Green River which flows through the gorge on its way to joining the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park near Moab.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods, Utah

The Valley of the Gods lies below the Moki Dugway overlook on US-163 south of Natural Bridges National Monument. You enter another world as you descend from scrub forest to desert. Like a miniature Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley near many of the formations. Days can be spent by anyone with a camera and time. The Valley of the Gods is full of long and mysterious shadows in the evening. The morning sun shines directly on the valley and its towers.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

There are a lot of things going on in Capitol Reef which was named a national monument in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and then a national park in 1971. The Navajo Sandstone cliff features fascinating white dome formations. The area also features amazing ridges, bridges, and monoliths (not the metal ones that have been mysteriously popping up around the state). The petroglyphs in the gorge are also a must-see.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock, Texas

Enchanted Rock, the 425-foot-high dome that is the centerpiece of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, is one of the largest exposed batholiths in the country. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when the molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. The trail begins at the Westside parking area where it descends briefly into an arroyo before ascending quickly.  

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab, Utah

Every adventure needs a base camp. Moab offers access to the mind-blowing red rocks of Arches National Park and gushing waters of the Colorado River plus plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. Uranium may have put this Utah town on the map in the early 1900s but its story began in the Mesozoic Era. Aspiring paleontologists can dig for fossils and follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs at Moab Giants. For the over 21 crowds, there’s a brewery and Spanish Valley Vineyards hosts daily wine tastings.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

California’s paramount landscape of fire and ice, Lassen Volcanic National Park opened for summertime activities last week. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads opened for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with patches of snow. Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that are set amid forests, lakes, and streams.

Worth Pondering…

Life is surreal and beautiful.

—Kenneth Branagh

Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks & Must-See Hidden Gems

Sheer beauty on an awe-inspiring scale and plenty of wide open space to enjoy it: this is what travelers search out in the months to come. And Utah has it.

From A to Z, Utah’s five national parks include some of the best-known favorites in the U.S. There might also be one or two that aren’t on your radar—yet.

Here’s a look at The Mighty 5.

MIGHTY FIVE

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083

Just like its name suggests this stunning national park is famous for its natural sandstone arches—over 2,000 of them. There are photo ops galore as the warm golden hues of the rock formations provide a striking contrast with the endless blue skies. Visitor favorites include Delicate Arch and the Landscape Arch. There’s also Balanced Rock which is exactly what it sounds like and must be seen to be believed. Arches is located just north of Moab near Utah’s eastern border.

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,65

Standing like sentinels and witness to millions of years of the Earth’s existence, the jagged hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are as haunting as they are beautiful. The towering red rocks also provide a playground for the many varieties of wildlife—from Rocky Mountain elk to the Utah prairie dog—that call Bryce Canyon home. At elevations of up to 9,100 feet, this park offers cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter—and hiking and horseback riding in the summer.

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914

Canyonlands features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado and Green rivers. At more than 337,597 acres, this is Utah’s largest national park. It’s also where visitors will find Mesa Arch, the star of so many photographs in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district. Take the road less traveled and visit Canyonlands’ Needle District where you are on the canyon floor looking up at astonishing rock formations.

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ve heard of a wrinkle in time—but how about a wrinkle on the earth? Also known as a geologic monocline, the 100-mile long Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef has cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges. Also of note: the 21-mile Capitol Reef Scenic Drive has vistas galore.

ZION NATIONAL PARK

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254

It was Utah’s first national park, and it’s also one of the top three most-visited national parks in the U.S. Larger-than-life Zion has a lot to live up to and it delivers with soft-hued sandstone cliffs glinting pink, white, and red in the brilliant sunshine. Zion’s other charms include Angels Landing, The Narrows, and the Emerald Pools Trails.

Beyond the Mighty 5, Utah has an additional seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and 46 state parks including gems like Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, San Rafael Swell, and Snow Canyon State Park.

MUST-SEE HIDDEN GEMS

NATURAL BRIDGES NATIONAL MONUMENT

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument located 42 miles west of Blanding or 47 miles north of Mexican Hat. These stunning rock bridges have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means ‘rock mounds’, massive Kachina means ‘dancer’, while Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the state, means ‘place of emergence’. A nine-mile scenic drive has overlooks of the bridges, canyons, and a touch of history with ancient Puebloan ruins. Moderate to difficult trails, some with metal stairs lead down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three bridges.

LITTLE GRAND CANYON

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grand Canyon is a destination on many people’s bucket lists. But did you know Utah has its very own version of the Grand Canyon? Little Grand Canyon is located in the deepest part of the San Rafael River canyon located directly beneath the Wedge Overlook in the San Rafael Swell. The Swell covers a large area and until modern times posed a formidable barrier to east-west travel. Only two roads actually cross it including I-70 (from Salina to Green River) which cuts right through its middle. Several rest stops are provided in scenic areas. You’ll have breathtaking views into Eagle, Devils, Black Dragon, and several other deep, sheer-walled canyons.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Wedge Overlook you can look out over the Little Grand Canyon of the San Rafael. It’s a majestic viewpoint that does indeed resemble the world-famous Colorado River chasm. When you approach the edge—carefully—and peer over the side, the river hundreds of feet below and then gaze out at the distant mesas, you realize there is nothing “little” about this canyon. The big difference between The Wedge and other scenic vistas is the solitude. You will probably be the only one on the rim.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to get to know the Swell on a more personal basis—and still remain in your car—drive the Buckhorn Draw Road, designated as one of Utah’s Scenic Backways. Also, drive the spur down to the Wedge Overlook. These are maintained gravel/dirt roads, washboardy in spots, but nothing which will pull your muffler off. They will guide you through the changing faces of the Swell from dry desert to juniper and pinion trees to streambeds where a trickle of water enables lush vegetation in the canyon bottoms.

This is a hot, dry country and you need to be prepared for emergencies. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Carry water, food, and emergency supplies. If your vehicle breaks down on a backroad it may be days before someone happens along that way.

San Rafael River Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ideal time to hike the Swell is during spring or fall when temperatures are moderate. Morning or evening hikes are enjoyable during the summer. Carry water if you are hiking any distance.

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

Oh No, Mother Nature Played Favorites

Mother Nature played favorites in Utah from the Mighty 5 national parks to national monuments and state parks

Summer is right around the corner that means it’s time to visit Utah’s National Parks

Utah is known for its many national parks, most notably the Mighty Five:

  • Arches National Park
  • Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Canyonlands National Park
  • Capitol Reef National Park 
  • Zion National Park 
Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mother Nature played favorites in Utah from the incredible mountains to the powerful desert red rocks and the Mighty Five are just the beginning. Utah does not lead the nation in most national parks per state. California has nine national parks and Alaska has eight. 

But, Utah’s gems are abundant. Utah is home to the Mighty Five (national parks), 46 state parks, seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, 23 accredited Dark Sky places, and The Greatest Snow on Earth.

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

Follow these tips for safe, responsible national park visits in Utah: 

  • Plan ahead
  • Stay on marked trails
  • Prepare for your trip with adequate water, sun protection, clothing, and gear
  • Arrive at popular recreation sites early in the morning and visit hidden gems as part of your trip
  • Respect the restrictions in national and parks intended for public safety and protection of the environment
Quail Gate State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s National Parks traditionally see a high-volume of visitation between March and September with the summer months being the most trafficked. Choose to visit during early morning hours, late afternoon and early evening, and try to avoid weekends and holidays. 

Utah’s vast, unique landscapes inspire adventure and discovery. Through the pandemic, Utah’s national and state parks, dark sky places, and off-the-beaten path destinations have called travelers from within the state and across the country and to come and explore. Utah’s mighty places allow visitors to have a truly rarified, unique experience.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083

Arches National Park lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655

Bryce Canyon National Park has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914

Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado and Green rivers. Even though the park is considered a desert its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in 24 hours. Take the road less traveled and visit Canyonlands’ Needle District where you are on the canyon floor looking up at astonishing rock formations.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beyond the Mighty Five, Utah has an additional seven national monuments, two national recreation areas, and 46 state parks including gems like Glen Caynon National Recreation Area, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Bears Ears National Monument, Sand Hollow State Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park.

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

21 of the Most Visited National Parks in America

Whether planning to camp under starry skies, take a scenic drive, or chase thrilling outdoor adventures, these parks are sure to please

Approximately 237 million people visited the national parks in 2020, representing a 28 percent year-over-year decrease attributed to the COVID pandemic. To determine the most popular national parks in the United States, I’ve compiled data from the National Park Service on the number of recreational visits each site had in 2020.

President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 signed the act creating the National Park Service to leave natural and historic phenomenons “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Since then, national parks have welcomed visitors to experience some of the best the country has to offer and showcase America’s natural beauty and cultural heritage.

Today, the country’s 63 national parks contain at least 247 species of endangered or threatened plants and animals, more than 75,000 archaeological sites, and 18,000 miles of trails.

Keep reading to discover 21 of the most popular national parks in the United States, in reverse order. And be sure to check with individual parks before you visit to find out about ongoing, pandemic-related safety precautions.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

48. Pinnacles National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 165,740
Percent of total national park visits: .24%

Pinnacles National Park in California was born after several volcanoes erupted forming the unique landscape of the park which is packed with canyons, rock spires, and woodlands. When the park was established in 1908 it was only 2,060 acres but has now grown to 26,000. Because of hot summer temperatures, Pinnacles is most popular in the winter months.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

45. Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 183,835
Percent of total national park visits: .27%

Located in southern New Mexico, Carlsbad Caverns National Park’s 119 caves were born when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone millions of years ago leaving behind a treasure trove of caverns. The Big Room in Carlsbad Cavern is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America and takes an hour and a half to cross, according to the National Park Service. Birders from around the globe flock to Rattlesnake Spring to see some of the 300 documented bird species.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

42. Mesa Verde National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 287,477
Percent of total national park visits: .42%

Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites that have preserved the history of the ancestral Pueblo people. They inhabited the land for almost 700 years building dwellings into the cliffs and establishing communities before moving away. Visitors can see and explore several of the cliff dwellings through tours and hiking trails.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

38. Petrified Forest National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 384,483
Percent of total national park visits: .57%

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona is home to the gorgeous Painted Desert and Crystal Forest where petrified logs shine with quartz crystals. The site in the park known as Newspaper Rock contains more than 650 petroglyphs between 650 and 2,000 years old. The landscape of the park features mesas and buttes created by erosion.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

37. Big Bend National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 393,907
Percent of total national park visits: .58%

Big Bend National Park in Texas offers spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape as well as the Rio Grande. Visitors to the park can even enter Mexico through the park’s Boquillas Crossing Port of Entry. Big Bend has more species of birds, bats, and cacti than any other national park in the United States.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

34. White Sands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 415,383
Percent of total national park visits: .61%

The park is aptly named, featuring wavy white sands over nearly 300 square miles in New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin. This is the world’s largest gypsum dunefield and the park preserves a major part of it. Visits can include the park’s historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Lucero Ranch on the shore of Lake Lucero and the White Sands Missile Range Museum and Trinity Site, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb was tested.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

30. Canyonlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 493,914
Percent of total national park visits: .73%

Utah’s Canyonlands National Park features a unique landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Even though the park is considered a desert, its high elevation gives it a varying climate; temperatures here can fluctuate as much as 50 degrees in a day. This, combined with the low annual rainfall, make the park a perfect home for drought-resistant plants such as cacti, yuccas, and mosses.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

29. Lassen Volcanic National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 542,274
Percent of total national park visits: .80%

Each rock at Lassen Volcanic National Park in California is a result of a volcanic eruption given that the park has been volcanically active for 3 million years. The world’s four volcanic types—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—are all present at the park and located in close proximity to each other. Park visitors can also check out the park’s several fumaroles, mud pots, and boiling pools.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

28. Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 551,303
Percent of total national park visits: .81%

Located in North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s dominating feature is the badlands which are colorful, rolling hills consisting of rock that are millions of years old. Erosion and other natural processes like lightning strikes and prairie fires continue to shape the badlands today. The park is of course named for the U.S. president who first came to the Dakotas in 1883 to hunt bison.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

24. Saguaro National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 762,226
Percent of total national park visits: 1.12%

As its name suggests, Saguaro National Park in Arizona protects giant saguaro cacti, a symbol of the American West. The average lifespan of one of these cacti is 125 years old and it produces sweet fruits. The park is also home to a variety of animals many of which can only be found in the southern part of the state including kangaroo rats, roadrunners, and horned lizards.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

23. Sequoia National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 796,086
Percent of total national park visits: 1.17%

Sequoia National Park is adjacent to Kings Canyon National Park in California and was the first park established to protect a living organism: its native sequoia trees. Since World War II, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been administered jointly. In 2014, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the park for the first time in 100 years as part of a recovery effort for this endangered species.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Badlands National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 916,932
Percent of total national park visits: 1.35%

The striking landscape of Badlands National Park in South Dakota contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds. At one point, it was home to the rhino and saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were formed nearly 70 million years ago by erosion and deposition of sediment when an ancient sea was located where today’s Great Plains are.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

20. Capitol Reef National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 981,038
Percent of total national park visits: 1.44%

Capitol Reef National Park in Utah is famous for the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles and considered a “wrinkle on the earth.” The fold was formed 50 to 70 million years ago as a warp in the Earth’s crust and erosion has exposed the fold at the surface. The park has some of the darkest night skies in the United States, so much so that it has been designated an International Dark Sky Park.

New River Gorge National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

19. New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,054,374
Percent of total national park visits: 1.55%

New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 70,000 acres along the New River, a whitewater river in southern West Virginia that despite its name is one of the oldest on the continent. From the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, the sides of the valley fall almost 900 feet into the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can go whitewater rafting or canoeing, rock climbing, bird watching, camping, hiking, or biking along an old railroad grade.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

17. Arches National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,238,083
Percent of total national park visits: 1.82%

Arches National Park in Utah lives up to its name and has more than 2,000 natural stone arches, the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. These sandstone geological formations are the result of erosion and a thick layer of salt beneath the rock surface. The arches are impermanent, however; the 71-foot Wall Arch collapsed in 2008.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

15. Bryce Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655
Percent of total national park visits: 2.16%

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, pillars of rock left standing after erosion. Bryce Canyon contains a series of natural amphitheaters and bowls, the most famous being Bryce Amphitheater which is full of the park’s iconic hoodoos. The park is one of three national parks to house the Grand Staircase geological formation which is a giant sequence of sedimentary rock layers.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

14. Shenandoah National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,666,265
Percent of total national park visits: 2.45%

Just 75 miles from the nation’s capital, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia showcases the Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to 90 perennial streams, many of which turn into cascading waterfalls. While many native species have been lost over time, today the park has more than 200 bird species, 50 mammal species, and more than 35 fish species. The park is popular with hikers with 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the famed Appalachian Trail.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Joshua Tree National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,399,542
Percent of total national park visits: 3.53%

Joshua Tree National Park in California was named after its picturesque, spiky Joshua trees. Mormon immigrants named the trees after the biblical Joshua after noticing that the limbs looked as if they were outstretched in prayer. Many of the park’s animals including Scott’s orioles, wood rats, and desert night lizards depend on the tree for food and shelter. Keys View in the park offers an incredible view of the Coachella Valley, the San Andreas Fault, and San Jacinto.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Grand Canyon National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 2,897,098
Percent of total national park visits: 4.26%

Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is synonymous with its world-famous canyon that is 18 miles wide and 1 mile deep. The park encompasses more than 1 million acres and consists of raised plateaus and structural basins. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the best examples of arid land erosion in the world. It has a rich and diverse fossil record and the land offers a detailed record of three out of the four geological eras.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Zion National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 3,591,254
Percent of total national park visits: 5.29%

Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park and is famous for its landscape of giant colorful sandstone cliffs. Around 12,000 years ago the first people to visit this land tracked mammoths, giant sloths, and camels until those animals died about 8,000 years ago. Because of the range in elevation in the park, it has more than 1,000 diverse plant species.

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

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Recreational visits in 2020: 12,095,720
Percent of total national park visits: 17.81%

Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee is the most biodiverse park in the National Park system with more than 19,000 documented species. The Smokies are among the oldest mountain ranges in the world. On average, more than 85 inches of rain falls in the park each year fueling 2,100 miles of streams and rivers that flow through the park.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

National Park Trails You’ll Want to Hike This Year

Explore the best trails in some of the world’s most beautiful parks

Each year, the American Hiking Society celebrates National Trails Day on the first Saturday in June. On that day thousands of people across the country head out on their favorite hiking route to enjoy a walk in the woods where they get the chance to reconnect with nature along the way. Others donate their time to help build new trails or provide maintenance on those that already exist.

Hiking the Blue Mesa Trail in Petrified Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is a chance for hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and other outdoor enthusiasts to show their appreciation for the more than 200,000 miles of recreational trails in the U.S. Some of the absolute best hiking trails are found inside America’s national parks many of which are tailor-made for exploring on foot. With so many trails to choose from, it is difficult to pick which ones are the very best. Here are 10 national park trails that belong to your must-hike itinerary.

Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.

Hiking Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Navajo Loop in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park offers some of the most unique landscapes that you’ll find anywhere and one of the best trails to explore that environment on is the 3-mile long Navajo Loop. Starting at Sunset Point and continuing to the main amphitheater this trail takes hikers past some of the more scenic elements in the entire park. Beware of falling rocks though as this trail can be a bit treacherous at times. 

Hiking the Boardwalk Loop in Congaree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Boardwalk Loop in Congaree National Park, South Carolina

This hike, though it’s really more of a walk, features an elevated boardwalk through old-growth swampland. Though the lush, green trees are beautiful in their own right the trail really shines at night (literally!) when thousands of fireflies come out and fill the area. For photographers, the trail is exceptionally beautiful at sunrise when both the boardwalk and bald cypress trees take on golden early-morning hues. Wildlife like deer and wild pigs can also be seen in the area for those willing to sit silently for a few minutes Mosquito repellant is a must, especially in the summer months.

Hiking the Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Mesa Loop in Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

For a trail that’s only one mile total, the Blue Mesa loop in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park is filled with immense and impressive scenery. Home to two of the park’s signature sights, colorful badlands, and gigantic petrified logs, it’s an easy and accessible way to experience the overwhelming beauty of this underrated park. It starts off along a paved trail atop the mesa before zig-zagging down into a canyon of blue- and purple-hued badlands. It loops through a sea of kaleidoscopic petrified wood whose twinkling blues and purples make them look like bejeweled boulders. This trail is also dog-friendly and a safe and fun way to explore with four-legged friends.

Hiking Park Avenue in Arches © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Park Avenue Trail in Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park, in Southeast Utah, is a day-hikers paradise. The park is one of Southern Utah’s most famous hiking destinations with an easily accessible network of trails that often culminate right at the base of an impressive sandstone arch. The Park Avenue Trail is most aptly named for New York City’s famous street. Early travelers noticed a similarity between these sandstone spires and the famous skyscrapers along New York’s Park Avenue and the name stuck. The main difference, of course, is that the “skyscrapers” of Arches National Park were sculpted by nature. Although you can start at either end of this shuttle trail starting at the south end (Park Avenue) results in a totally downhill hike. You’ll really be missing something if you leave Arches without taking this short hike. You can see the Courthouse Towers, Tower of Babel, Three Gossips, the Organ, and other grand “skyscrapers” from the road but if you don’t take this hike you’ll miss the truly stimulating experience of walking among them.

Hiking Badlands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cliff Shelf Nature Trail in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

The Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a short trail over a boardwalk but gives hikers an opportunity to see local wildlife and a great view of the White River Valley and Eagle Butte. Over 50 plant species and 100 bird species have been seen in the area around the trail partially due to the Cliff Shelf’s bowl-like shape-retaining more water. There is occasionally a small pond that attracts wildlife such as bighorn sheep. Keep your binocular handy and get hiking!

Hiking Capitol Reef © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden Throne Trail in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Towering 1,400 feet above the road at the bottom of Capitol Gorge, Golden Throne is an icon of the park and draws many tourists and photographers every year. Toward the east end of Capitol Gorge in Capitol Reef National Park, hikers have the chance to climb up into the higher reaches of the Waterpocket Fold to enjoy the view of Golden Throne from up close. The trailhead to this short but strenuous ascent ascends by way of switchback from the narrow confines of Capitol Gorge. This hike gains close to 800 feet of elevation within its 1.5-mile ascent and then loses the same on the way back down.

Hiking Interdune Boardwalk in White Sands © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Interdune Boardwalk in White Sands National Park, New Mexico

There is no better way to experience the unique landscape of White Sands National Park than by venturing out onto any of the five established trails. Explore the dunes and enjoy the silence and solitude of the dune field with its stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The trails vary in terms of difficulty and scenery. The Interdune Boardwalk is fully accessible for people using wheelchairs and strollers. Take an easy 0.4 mile round trip stroll through the dunes and learn about the science, geology, plants, and animals that make White Sands an unequaled natural wonder. The boardwalk is a great place to take a break under the shade canopy, listen for bird calls, observe lizards, and enjoy wildflowers. The average completion time is 20 minutes.

Hiking New River Gorge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Endless Wall Trail in New River Gorge National Park, West Virginia

The New River Gorge National Park is home to the highly underrated Endless Wall Trail. This moderate 2.4-mile walk begins in the forests of the park before crossing Fern Creek and zig-zagging along a cliff edge overlooking the New River. The trail is dotted with scenic overlooks including the breathtaking overlook at Diamond Point. From there, hikers can retrace their steps or continue to trail’s end and hike for another half mile along a road to the starting point.

Hiking Shenandoah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hawksbill Loop Trail in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

At just 3 miles in length, the Hawksbill Loop Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park may not seem very long but it packs plenty of punch. The route wanders along part of the legendary Appalachian Trail on its way up to the top of Hawksbill—the highest point in the park at just over 4,000 feet. Along the way, hikers can spot wildlife as they work their way up to the summit where they’ll discover a stone platform that offers views of thick forests and rolling hills that stretch to the horizon. 

Hiking the Big Trees Trail in Sequoia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Big Trees Trail in Sequoia National Park, California
Located next to the Giant Forest Museum, the Big Trees Trail is one of the best short and easy hikes you can do in Sequoia. This loop trail takes you completely around the meadow and provides impressive views of numerous massive sequoias as well as the beautiful meadow itself.

From the museum follow a paved path on a ridge above the road. In a few hundred feet, the path will cross the road as you near the meadow. From here the trail does a loop around the meadow which you can start in either direction. The path is paved or in some places a wooden bridge when it gets marshy. Allow 1 hour round trip.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey