Everything You Need to Know about the Mighty 5

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

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

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

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

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

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

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

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

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

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

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

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

Worth Pondering…

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

—Ansel Adams

The Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon is home to the largest collection of hoodoos on Earth

Like many of America’s national parks, Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park has many cool pockets to explore. Nothing compares, though, to the feeling you get when standing before the hoodoos that make up the Bryce Amphitheater. It’s essentially a gigantic bowl-shaped valley filled with weird, orange rock spires. These hoodoos are formed by wind and the expanding ice that cracks and weathers the entire canyon resulting in this mysterious and distinctive rock formation.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For this article, I want to highlight a few different ideas that will deliver a diverse experience in Bryce—where to drive, hike, stay, and wander—with the caveat that at this one-of-a-kind national park there is nothing more spectacular than the red rock nation that sprawls across Utah’s high desert on the Colorado Plateau. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Drive

Hitting the scenic auto-trails in the national parks is often the best place to gain an understanding of the lay of the land. Many of the park roads were developed and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the early days of the park service in an effort to provide access to the most interesting and marketable features nearby. A scenic tour along the 38-mile (round trip) Bryce Canyon National Park Rim Road provides access to 13 viewpoints that peer over the amphitheaters. It is a perfect first outing to get acquainted with the park.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Hike

Standing inside the amphitheater—even to walk just a short distance into the hoodoos—allows you to become a part of the landscape. The Navajo Loop trail is the park’s most popular hiking trail because of its accessibility and its beauty. Descending first into the Wall Street section, you are thrust upon an iconic scene in the park, a 700-year-old Douglas fir tree that rises in the midst of a slot canyon to search for sunlight in the sky. Traveling farther, you will find a vast network of trails leading into the hoodoos where you can chart your own course. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay

There are three options located inside the park: the North Campground (open year-round), Sunset Campground (high season), and the recently renovated 114-room Bryce Canyon Lodge which was built from local timber and stone in 1924-25. Any non-park related activity—sleeping, eating, shopping, fueling up, or learning about the local history—will almost surely bring you to Ruby’s legendary roadhouse. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lodge was built in 1919 by Reuben C. (Ruby) Syrett who was so spellbound by the scene at Bryce that he decided to start up a “tourist rest” where he and his family could host visitors to the area. As the park became more popular, so did Ruby’s—it is an absolute can’t miss in the area (you couldn’t miss it even if you tried!)

Everything you need to fuel a park adventure is available there. The operation is still family run—by Ruby’s son Carl and two generations that follow him.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Wander

A 1-mile walk between Sunset Point and Sunrise Point offers panoramic views of the amphitheater and is suitable for the entire family. Each overlook is situated at a trailhead where you can descend into the hoodoos if you want to explore deeper.

Before you go, check Bryce Canyon’s official website for park alerts. As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!  

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Did you know?

  • The youngest geologic formations found on the Colorado Plateau dating back just 65 million years are found in Bryce Canyon
  • Hoodoos are jagged pillars of rock that have withstood centuries of erosion caused by water, ice, and gravity
  • Hoodoos can be found on every continent though Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration of them of any place in the world 
Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At a glimpse

Total acres: 35,835

Date established: September 15, 1928 (dedicated a National Monument in 1923)

Main attraction: Largest concentration of hoodoo formations in the world

Designation: International Dark Sky Park

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Elevation: 8,000-9,000 feet

Highest peak: Yovimpa and Rainbow Point at 9,105 feet (at the end of the 18-mile scenic park drive)

Number of maintained hiking trails: 8

Cost: Entry $30 per vehicle

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.

—Ebenezer Bryce, early homesteader at Bryce Canyon

The 5 Best National Park Road Trips

Looking for the perfect getaway? Forget the plane tickets, and pack up the RV! America’s many wonders are just a fun drive away.

Even in the best of times, the allure of national park road trips tantalizes individual wanderers and wide-eyed families alike. But during the pandemic, as we continue to practice social distancing to stay safe and help mitigate the spread of the virus, this type of vacation seems particularly ideal.

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

Right now, most travelers are looking to drive instead of fly as well as avoid throngs of people at crowded tourist attractions. So, pack up the RV, hit the road, and explore one of America’s amazing national parks. First, though, check to ensure your recreation vehicle is road-ready so you don’t run into any maintenance issue along the way.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mother of all national park road trips

To celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, road trip optimizer Randy Olson put together a 14,498-mile journey. During this mammoth two-month adventure, you’ll see each of the 47 national parks (51 in 2020) within the contiguous mainland United States. Driving from Maine to Florida, southern California to northern Montana, and everywhere else in between, this epic trip is the fastest way to get your national park passport full of stamps! If you dare to take on this adventure, consider starting at Great Smoky Mountains in the fall and completing your epic journey in the Southwest as you explore Saguaro, Organ Pipe, and White Sands.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks

In addition to visiting a pair of national parks, driving in this part of America allows you to cruise through Custer State Park—to get joyfully stuck in a bison traffic jam and cruise past four presidents carved into the Black Hills at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In 1883, a young Theodore Roosevelt visited the Dakota Territory for the first time to ‘bag a buffalo’. This was his first visit to this area and “the frontier enchanted him so profoundly that it spurred a lifelong love affair with the region and in him a devout conservation ethic was born”. This ethos would shape the future of America’s conservation efforts and of the national parks that serve as America’s playgrounds.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the Badlands is the real star here and driving along it west to east will place grasslands on your left and the gruff yet almost celestial Badlands on your right. There’s nothing quite like this place in America, and driving through it will become a memory that never fades away.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks

Combining the five famous sights of Southern Utah makes for an epic national park road trip. As National Geographic explains, “this multiday adventure on remote byways is a journey through the slick-rock heart of the American West linking Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ national parks—Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands.”

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you consider the proximity of the parks, the fiery colors, and the limitless potential for stunning photos and stellar day hikes, this might just be the best of the national park road trips. The trailheads lead to some of the most breathtaking vistas in America. And if you can squeeze the time there are two national monuments of almost equal splendor, Natural Bridges and Cedar Breaks. Driving through Utah’s national parks is definitely one of the best road trips in America.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This part of the United States is especially lovely in autumn when the fall foliage delivers a cornucopia of color. The Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg are just around the corner on the western end of Tennessee. Many visitors to this region enjoy touring Cades Cove and the Blue Ridge Parkway—taking their time to explore the rich culture, natural beauty, and fun-filled activities the area offers.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You may be tempted to head to New England in the fall, but this portion of Tennessee and North Carolina should tempt you to visit for an autumnal national park road trip. Looking for something not far away? Check out these other road trips that showcase stunning fall foliage.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree is where the Mojave and the Colorado deserts come together. It’s difficult to measure all of the positives that can come from just one visit to this park. Rock climbers find thousands of climbing routes to venture out on. Photographers visit to capture silhouettes of wonder-shaped trees against the backdrop of the sun, moon, and stars. Equines go there to ride horseback, birders to bird, mountain bikers to ride, nature walkers to walk, campers to camp. The Jumbo Rock campground is a centralized doorway to some of the best features of the park. It’s the “every adventurer” park—a true wilderness playground. And there’s the name sake, Joshua trees. No two trees bare the same exact shape or composition.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

—Jimmy Im

Paradise on the Mountain: Cedar Break National Monument

Like standing on the crest of a breaking wave, Cedar Breaks National Monument rests at the end of the Markagunt Plateau, its amphitheater stretching below with multicolored cliffs, spires, and pinnacles

“The Mighty Five”—Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches—are the five spectacular national parks found in Utah. All are on the Colorado Plateau, a premier location to see, marvel, and enjoy the creations of earth’s geological history.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Park Service oversees a total of 32 parks, national monuments, recreational areas, and historic sites that are located on the Colorado Plateau, many rivaling the geological beauty of Utah’s Mighty Five. Cedar Breaks National Monument is one such geological paradise of the Colorado Plateau and well worth a summertime visit.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks is a 6,155 acre preserve of high desert landscapes. The park ranges in elevation from 10,662 feet in the northern region to 8,100 feet near Ashdown Creek on the western boundary. Cedar Breaks is the crown jewel of the Markagunt Plateau and marks the top of the “Grand Staircase” of the Colorado Plateau.

Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway at Brian Head © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even for this modern world, Cedar Breaks National Monument is located in a remote area. There are no park dining or lodging accommodations. The closest town is Brian Head, best known for its winter ski resorts and cool summer rentals.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to the high elevation, Cedar Breaks National Monuments and the roads that connect it to the outside world are usually closed from mid-November to late May. During the summer months the monument offers a 28-site campground with grills, restrooms, showers, and fresh water. An overnight stay at the monument allows visitors to experience the region’s world famous dark skies. Warm clothing and sunscreen are a must even during the days of summer.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The land encompassing Cedar Breaks was described in 1868 by early Mormon settlers as “a paradise on the mountain”. A colorful palette of weathered pinnacles and cliffs, Cedar Breaks National Monument is home to some of the most dramatic desert erosion features on this planet. The multi-colored geological amphitheater found at Cedar Breaks is 2,500 feet deep and 3 miles wide with the highest point of the amphitheater’s rim standing at 11,000 feet.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Weathering and erosion sculptured the multicolored cliffs, spires, pinnacles, and other unique features at Cedar Breaks. Without such processes, Cedar Breaks would be just another of the many alpine plateaus so common in the American West. The landscape has been under construction for nearly 100 million years and those slow moving forces of nature continue to shape and reshape the landscape today.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Archeologists believe that the Southern Paiute people have lived in the Cedar Breaks region since at least 1100 BC. They called the giant amphitheater “u-map-wich” which when translated to English means “place where the rocks are sliding down.”

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Earliest American settlers called the area “the badlands” or “breaks” in reference to common cliff like edges that they came upon while traveling across the relatively flat plateaus. Utah juniper trees were the common vegetation of the area and early settlers incorrectly called these trees “cedars” thus soon giving rise to the name Cedar Breaks.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An incredible dark sky is one of the attractions for visitors to Cedar Breaks. In January 2018 the monument was designated a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association. Cedar Breaks is the 16th of the 417 National Park Service units to be so designated. In fact, the State of Utah now has seven designated IDA Dark Sky Parks.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildflowers bloom in profusion during the summer months with the national monument holding an annual Cedar Breaks Wildflower Festival each July. Utah juniper, Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, and Limber pine make up a diverse and dense forested region. At the highest of elevations, the ancient Bristlecone pine is found. The oldest Bristlecone pine found in Cedar Breaks is believed to be about 1,700 years old.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first tourists to arrive by car to Cedar Breaks occurred in 1919. Between 1920 and 1923 a rustic road was carved from Zion National Park to Cedar Breaks allowing more tourists to discover the splendid landscape. A late 1930s road advertisement proclaimed that Cedar Breaks National Monument had “countless grotesque and magnificent geological forms, caused by water erosion, anointed with all colors of the rainbow.” That description still stands today.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Near “The Mighty Five” national parks of Utah and just a few hundred miles north of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Cedar Breaks is all too often passed by. But for those wanting to view nature at its finest, geology’s creative beauty, and dark skies seldom seen today, a trip to Cedar Breaks National Monument is certainly a journey worth traveling.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Look! Nature is overflowing with the grandeur of God!

—John Muir

The Aftermath of Mighty Five…and Beyond

When an ad campaign is too successful

As red-rock meccas like Moab, Zion, and Arches become overrun with visitors, I have to wonder if Utah’s celebrated Mighty Five ad campaign worked too well—and who gets to decide when a destination is “at capacity”.

The Mighty Five campaign was a smash. The number of visitors to the five parks jumped 12 percent in 2014, 14 percent in 2015, and 20 percent in 2016, leaping from 6.3 million to over 10 million in just three years.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the Memorial Day weekend of 2015, nearly 3,000 cars descended on Arches National Park for their dose of Wow. All 875 parking places were taken with scores more vehicles scattered in a haphazard unplanned way. The line to the entrance booth spilled back half a mile blocking Highway 191. The state highway patrol took the unprecedented step of closing it effectively shutting down the park. Hundreds of rebuffed visitors drove 30 miles to Canyonlands where they waited an hour in a two-mile line of cars. 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since then, Arches has been swamped often enough to shut its gate at least nine times including the most recent Labor Day weekend. Meanwhile, in Zion, hikers wait 90 minutes to board a shuttle and an additional two to four hours to climb the switchbacks of Angels Landing. There, visitors sometimes find outhouses shuttered with the following sign: “Due to extreme use, these toilets have reached capacity.”

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

When word trickled back in that the ads had worked too well, the Office of Tourism responded. In 2016, it tweaked the campaign, calling it the Road to Mighty and highlighting lesser-known state parks and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The strategy appeared to work. Visits to the Mighty Five flattened growing only 4 percent in 2017 and a little more than 1 percent in 2018 while the state parks saw double-digit jumps. Just as Road to Mighty hit the airwaves in January 2017 Bears Ears National Monument was created. 

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And in 2018, the Office of Tourism massaged the campaign again, calling it Between the Mighty and adding Bears Ears to its destinations. Many questioned if overcrowding could be addressed by sending tourists elsewhere. Comments like “They ruined the parks, and now they want to ruin the places in between” were not uncommon.

By 8:20 a.m. the Delicate Arch parking lot often reached capacity. This mob scene was nothing like the Mighty Five commercials. 

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 4.5 million annual visitors, Zion is by far the most packed of the Utah parks (and was the fourth most visited U.S. national park in 2018). The horror stories about and the crowds are all true. 

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

Twenty years ago, the park made the visionary decision to shut Zion Canyon to cars. Everyone leaves their cars at the visitor center, the campgrounds, or the town of Springdale and takes a shuttle to the trailheads for Angels Landing and the Narrows. So there are no traffic jams, no RVs circling for a space.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Better than any front-country park in the entire nation, Zion has realized Ed Abbey’s dream of carlessness: “You’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk,” he pleaded, “better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus.”

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I don’t want to just be a curmudgeon who mourns the passage of time and fights any change to the way things were. I will never be young again, I get that. But maybe, one way we tap into the eternal is to see how that which is not made by human hand will outlast us all, just as it preceded us. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By doing just about nothing here in the wilderness beyond, the tourism folks appear to have done it right. As I looked around and found no trails, no rangers, nowhere to go other than this dirt lot, I wondered if this “park” might more accurately be called a scenic overlook or a campsite. Do humans need to change this landscape to make it more attractive, more fun?

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With talk of “destination development” and “destination management,” civilization forges ahead, until one day this last remaining strip of wilderness will cease to be sacred—and will become a Brand. 

I hope to God it fails.

Worth Pondering…

From Zion God shines forth, perfect in beauty.

—Psalm 50:2

Utah Wanted All the Tourists. Then It Got Overrun.

As red-rock meccas like Moab, Zion, and Arches become overrun with visitors, I have to wonder if Utah’s celebrated Mighty Five ad campaign worked too well—and who gets to decide when a destination is “at capacity”

Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

Utah had a problem. Shown a photo of Delicate Arch, people guessed it was in Arizona. Asked to describe states in two adjectives, they called Colorado green and mountainous but Utah brown and Mormon. It was 2012. Anyone who had poked around canyon country’s spires and red rocks knew it was the most spectacular place on the continent—maybe the world—so why did other states get the good rep? 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state tourism folks hired an ad firm called Struck. They created a rebrand labeled the Mighty Five, a multimedia campaign to extol the state’s national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. By 2013, a 20-story mash-up of red-rock icons towered as a billboard in Los Angeles. Delicate Arch bopped around London on the sides of taxicabs. The pinnacle was a 30-second commercial that was masterpiece. It was like they took natural features that have been there forever and parks that have been there for decades and putting it together with a new brand.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Mighty Five campaign was a smash. The number of visitors to the five parks jumped 12 percent in 2014, 14 percent in 2015, and 20 percent in 2016, leaping from 6.3 million to over 10 million in just three years. The state coffers filled with sales taxes paid on hotels and rental cars and restaurants. The Struck agency brags that the state got a return on its investment of 338 to 1.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And then, on Memorial Day weekend of 2015, nearly 3,000 cars descended on Arches National Park for their dose of Wow. All 875 parking places were taken with scores more vehicles scattered in a haphazard unplanned way. The line to the entrance booth spilled back half a mile blocking Highway 191. The state highway patrol took the unprecedented step of closing it effectively shutting down the park. Hundreds of rebuffed visitors drove 30 miles to Canyonlands where they waited an hour in a two-mile line of cars. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since then, Arches has been swamped often enough to shut its gate at least nine times including the most recent Labor Day weekend. Meanwhile, in Zion, hikers wait 90 minutes to board a shuttle and an additional two to four hours to climb the switchbacks of Angels Landing. There, visitors sometimes find outhouses shuttered with a sign that reads: “Due to extreme use, these toilets have reached capacity.”

Moab is the gateway to Arches where famous landmarks like Delicate Arch, Fiery Furnace, and the Windows are reached by a single dead-end road. More than any other town, it has borne the brunt of the tourism spike.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the county population has grown in 30 years from roughly 6,500 to 9,500 and where there were a dozen or so small inns there’s been an enormous growth in lodging: there are now 36 hotels and 2,600 rooms, plus 600 overnight rentals, and 1,987 campsites. There’s no way to track how many people occupy each, but on a fully booked holiday that’s at least 15,000 people vastly outnumbering the locals. Traffic jams extend from tip to tail, and the two-mile drag down Main Street is a 30-minute morass. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maybe we can think of the Utah Office of Tourism as Dr. Frankenstein and its Mighty Five campaign as the glorious creature run amok.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course neither the tourism folks nor the Mighty Five campaign can take full credit for these booming figures or for the onslaught of tourists. Other factors helped. In 2016, the Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday launching its own ad campaign; between 2013 and 2016, park visits jumped 21 percent nationwide. The past six years have seen a recovery from the recession, low fuel prices, and a continued reluctance by Americans to travel overseas. And social media creates its own viral marketing.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern Utah is a victim—or beneficiary—of the global phenomenon of overtourism that has wreaked havoc from Phuket to Venice and Machu Picchu. The rise in disposable income, the advent of discount airlines, and innovations like Airbnb and TripAdvisor made travel easier and cheaper.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I don’t want to just be a curmudgeon who mourns the passage of time and fights any change to the way things were. I will never be young again, I get that. But maybe, one way we tap into the eternal is to see how that which is not made by human hand will outlast us all, just as it preceded us. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church—this is Zion.

— Isaac Behunin, 1861