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

Make Bryce Canyon National Park Your Next RV Trip

Bryce Canyon is a must-see national park and I’ve highlighted the best viewpoints, hikes, and places to camp

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.

Bryce Canyon is home to the largest collection of hoodoos on Earth. It is not a canyon at all, actually, but a 6-square-mile field of intricately carved statues that were crafted over the course of millions of years by the forces of erosion. Facing east and south, vast mazes of high promontories, deep canyons, jagged spires of balancing rocks, and other mysterious formations are adorned by bold colors of red, coral, pink, and white.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape at Bryce Canyon is totally unique—entirely different than nearby Zion as well as other Utah national parks—partly attributed to its high elevation location ranging from 8,000-9,000 feet. The air is thinner, the environment colder, and the wind much stronger. These elements come together to create an otherworld on the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Stepping onto any lookout you will almost certainly feel as though you are stepping foot onto the edge of another world. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park is a world-famous park with hundreds of sights to see. Hiking trails, swimming holes, hidden caves, rocky crags, and a plethora of natural wonders dot the landscape and invite visitors to explore and discover the natural beauty of Utah. The park encompasses thousands of acres meaning every time you visit there’s a chance to see new things and find new vistas to lay your eyes on.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Tour

Hitting the scenic auto trails in the national parks is often the best place to start 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 features. 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

Hiking Trails

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

Sunset Point is usually the first stop on everyone’s list and is a top spot to capture shots of a golden forest of stone. There is no shortage of onlookers capturing selfies and panoramic shots of the amphitheater but you’ll likely find yourself distracted only by the geologic wonder. This area is called the Claron Formation and is made up of deposits from the Claron lakebed comprised of 50-million-year-old limestone that shows rich and vibrant color created by its iron oxide mineral compounds. Whether you are intrigued by geologic processes or just want to marvel at the area’s undeniable beauty, all visitors stop in their tracks at this famed overlook particularly when the sun falls onto the canyon spires.

The Rim Trail

There are multiple trails to try for your first time visiting this iconic national park with the most well-known and well-traveled being the Rim Trail. The Rim Trail allows visitors to gaze into the park’s natural amphitheater and shouldn’t prove too difficult for the less-exercised members of your hiking party. It’s rated easy and while long, there aren’t too many elevation changes. The most famous piece of imagery in the park, Thor’s Hammer” is viewable in its most iconic state from this trail.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This trail is about 10.7 miles long and features opportunities to view wildlife in its natural state. Utah wildlife you might encounter includes rocky mountain elk, pronghorns, migratory hummingbirds, and even nesting peregrine falcon (the world’s fastest bird).

The Rim Trail is located closest to the Sunset Campground in Bryce Canyon National Park which has hundreds of sites suitable for an RV. The Sunset Campground doesn’t have as many amenities as the North Campground but it is much more conveniently located to all of the most popular hiking trails.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Navajo Loop Trail

Standing inside of the amphitheater 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 amazing 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 arises in the midst of a slot canyon searching for sunlight in the sky (see photo below). Hiking 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

Peekaboo Loop Trail

Despite its child-friendly name, this trail may not be as fun for younger members of your party. With a medium rating, this 5.2-mile trail has elevation changes and rough terrain alike and might not be the best option for a fun family hike. However, that doesn’t mean there still isn’t plenty going for it. Utah’s natural rock formations and wildlife are able to be seen in all their glory easily.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Horseback riding is an option on this trail for party members who might have some experience riding on rocky and uneven terrain. Trotting over the red rock and gravelly paths makes for a unique experience. With a river running aside this trail which can flood in the spring and fall wildlife naturally gathers along this trail and virtually pose for photo ops.

This trail is located close to the Sunset Campground which has multiple campsites which can house RVs. That means the walk from your campsite to the beginning of the trail won’t make you tired before you even start out exploring.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairyland Loop

Fairyland Loop is a trail that sees fewer hikers due to its sheer difficulty. With 8.2 miles of trail running over steep and difficult terrain, the Fairyland Loop is no joke. Be prepared for limestone hoodoos in all their glory as well as nesting falcons and other sites of natural beauty to absorb. This trail is definitely difficult but that means more open air for you. Plus, it is pet-friendly so suit up Fido and bring him along.

The Fairyland Loop connects with other trails in the park meaning you can branch out and explore instead of taking the same route that others have done before at one point or another. The Fairyland leads to a lesser-known overlook of the park’s canyon and “Thor’s Hammer” in all their majestic beauty.

Since the Fairyland Loop is located closer to Sunset campground I recommend camping there if you’re planning on doing the entire Fairyland Loop in one day—it’s a tough trail and you’re going to need all the energy you can muster.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Camp in Your RV

Bryce Canyon has two campgrounds: North Campground and Sunset Campground. Both campgrounds contain hundreds of sites with different amenities and rules and permissions. The fee varies from site to site but typically it doesn’t go higher than $25-$35.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amenities that are included at the campsites include laundry, power hookups, swimming pools, showering facilities, electricity, Wi-Fi, animal care, freshwater, and even food! If you’re looking for a comprehensive hiking experience but still want to get everything you like at a moment’s notice, both campgrounds should do it for you.

While the North Campground is further away from hiking trails, it’s also the campground with more modern amenities. If this is of note to you, then you’ll do well to remember it. The Sunset Campground is more stripped-down but it offers prime access to hiking trails around the park as it’s much closer to trailheads. It’s basically up to you: do you want more amenities or do you prefer to be closer to the trailheads?

Fact Box

Size: 35,835 acres

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

Location: Southwestern Utah

Recreational visits in 2020: 1,464,655

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How the park got its name: The national park was named after Ebenezer Bryce, a Scottish immigrant who homesteaded there in 1874. He was sent by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) who first scouted the area during the 1850s to determine its viability for settlement and development. Ebenezer Bryce considered to be the first true pioneer of the region lived at the foot of a canyon and herded cows; after a herding mishap he once famously declared that the area is “a hell of a place to lose a cow.”

Did you know?

The Bryce Amphitheater is 12 miles long, 3 miles in width, and 800 feet deep.

As always, be safe, have fun, and enjoy!  

Worth Pondering…

It’s a hell of a place to lose a cow.

—Ebenezer Bryce, early homesteader at Bryce Canyon

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

The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park

This 76,000-acre wonderland is less a park and more a sandstone sculpture garden of sunset-hued arches and domes. Here’s how to outsmart the crowds.

Good morning. Your friendly reminder that with the summer solstice arriving tomorrow, this weekend will have the most daylight of any weekend this year (in the Northern Hemisphere). Enjoy it!

Before earning its spot as one of Utah’s five national parks in 1971, this fantastical landscape spent over 40 years as a national monument. It was during this time that esteemed writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey worked at Arches as a seasonal ranger documenting both his love for the area and his disdain for people’s poor treatment of it in the classic Desert Solitaire. Abbey spent only two years at the park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What You Need to Know Before Visiting 

Watch the mercury (and your H20 intake). Heat-related illness is a common affliction for those who fail to respect both the weather and their own bodily needs. Park guidelines suggest consuming a gallon of water per day year-round to stay hydrated during your time at the park and after my hiking experiences in the Southwest desert areas I’d say that advice is pretty spot-on. You’ll find water at the visitor center and at the Devils Garden Campground and trailhead. Since the shade is even harder to come by than water packing a wide-brimmed hat is good advice (I recommend a Tilley).

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy—and respect—the power of wind and water. The park’s incredible formations wouldn’t exist without the power of Mother Nature at her most intense. These same erosive forces continue to shape Arches today. Visitors have been stranded on trails and roads when flash floods overtake low-lying areas. Sandstone fins (narrow walls that remain after surrounding rock has been eroded away) are no place to be near during high winds. Skyline Arch doubled in size after dislodging a hefty boulder in 1940, Landscape Arch gave up some of its innards in 1991, and Wall Arch disintegrated in 2008. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park feels crowded but it actually isn’t. Relatively speaking, Arches is a fairly compact park (at roughly 76,000 acres) with very few named routes. This means that viewpoints and trails (not to mention front-gate traffic) can often feel jammed. You can still beat the crowds, however, by going the extra mile—literally and figuratively. Arrive before dawn. Not only is it absolutely awe-inspiring to watch the sunrise light up the sandstone (along with the La Sal Mountains to the southeast) but you’ll nab some solitude on the park’s most popular trails. You can also branch out on Arches’ network of unpaved roads. Developed areas make up only a tiny portion of the park’s acreage and there’s so much more to see once you leave the pavement behind. 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to Get There

Arches National Park is located off U.S. Route 191, just north of Moab which is centrally situated near Utah’s border with Colorado.

When Is the Best Time of Year to Visit Arches National Park?

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter

Snow isn’t uncommon during the winter months when temperatures hover in the forties during the day and routinely dip below freezing at night. But if you’re prepared with the proper gear, it’s a real treat to see the vivid red-rock landscape all snow capped. This time of year the park experiences its lowest visitation and you’re sure to snag a site at its sole campground.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring

Welcome back, humans! Between the thawed-out trails and crowd-drawing events to Moab, prepare to jostle for space at popular viewpoints and trails. It’s hard to beat Arches this time of year—the mercury begins to rise with daytime highs topping off in the sixties and seventies and tiny wildflowers start to sprout from the desert crust.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer

The best way for most folks to experience Arches in the summertime is from inside an air-conditioned vehicle or toward nightfall when temperatures slide into the sixties. That said, you’ll see just as many people crawling along its trails in July as you will in April—and that is a lot. I can’t say it enough: carry lots of water and drink said water, no matter the kind of activity. And come prepared for the monsoon season which is marked by intense thunderstorms prone to causing flash floods; this season begins in July and can last through September.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall

Sweet relief! Temperatures dip back down to mirror springtime conditions and come November, the hordes begin to do the same. I have toured Arches in November and it’s been an amazing experience due to the pleasant weather and lack of crowds. Darkness arrives more quickly this time of year but that just leaves more time for stargazing.

Devils Garden Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Camp in and near Arches

The only camping option inside the park is the Devils Garden Campground, a slickrock-flanked oasis at the end of the park’s main road. Reservations are available and recommended via Recreation.gov, March through October and are available up to six months in advance; its 51 sites are first come, first served the rest of the year. 

Devils Garden Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you strike out, there are plenty of other options scattered around the greater Moab area including an endless parade of RV parks and resorts stuffed with equally endless amenities. For more rustic surrounds, bunk down at one of 26 different BLM camping areas all of which are first come, first served except for the reservoir-adjacent Ken’s Lake Campground which requires advance reservations from March through mid-November.

What to Do

Along the 18-mile scenic drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sightseeing

Get the lay of the land by driving the park’s 18-mile scenic drive which rolls past a handful of pull-outs and overlooks that showcase the park’s wild landscape. A spur marked by signage for the park’s Windows Section—so named for the portholes that have been gouged from the rock—is not to be missed.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Day Hiking

Yes, it’s worth the hype—you really should see Delicate Arch while you’re at Arches. You don’t have to make the somewhat strenuous three-mile round-trip to do so; instead, bypass the trailhead and drive a little farther down to a pair of viewpoints. The lower one is only 50 yards from the parking lot along an accessible path while the upper one rewards a half-mile climb with a closer look.

Balanced Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another accessible and very worthy stop is the gravity-defying Balanced Rock which can be seen from its parking lot or from a 0.3-mile loop, roughly half of which is paved. Nearby, the Windows Area is a popular stop especially at sunrise when you can scamper around the back side of North Window to look through and spot Turret Arch bathed in reddish glow. The mile-long Park Avenue Trail which connects its namesake overlook with the Courthouse Towers Viewpoint is a quieter option (though just as beautiful) especially at sunrise and sunset. 

Landscape Arch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Deeper into the park the impossibly thin Landscape Arch (1.8 miles round-trip), the longest such span in North America at 306 feet, is a must-see. If you’re feeling adventurous continue past this point to complete a 7.9-mile loop of the Devils Garden area. The route travels across sandstone fins and requires good navigation skills.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving

While you can’t go off-roading (or use off-highway vehicles) anywhere in the park, you can get off the beaten path by driving around its quiet interior via a network of unpaved roads, one of which—Salt Valley Road—is accessible to two-wheel-drive vehicles. This route travels between the Devils Garden area and the park’s northeast boundary; a 2.6-mile round-trip near the latter deposits you at Tower Arch situated in the fantastically lumpy Klondike Bluffs. If you have four-wheel drive visit Herdina Park, an even more remote area home to several arches and zero crowds. Keep an eye on the weather no matter where you drive and stay off backcountry roads right after a rain when they turn into mush. 

Cycling

Moab is arguably one of the best mountain-biking destinations in the U.S. but you can’t get your fix inside the park where it isn’t allowed. That said, you can still cruise along any of its roads. Just know that you’re going to share space with a lot of cars if you stick to pavement; making the steep, narrow, winding climb from or descent to the visitor center not without its risks especially.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyoneering

A journey through the Fiery Furnace, an unmarked sandstone labyrinth that requires quality boots, a good sense of balance, and an even better sense of direction. While it’s possible to purchase a permit for a self-guided trip ($3 to $6 via recreation.gov), it’s better to buy a ticket for a ranger-led tour ($10 to $16) unless you have previous experience navigating the mazelike canyons or are traveling with someone who does. (Note: The Fiery Furnace has been closed throughout the COVID pandemic.) 

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If You Have Time for a Detour

Listen—it’s not if you have time for a detour, it’s that you’d better make time for a detour. Moab is a fantastic base camp for enjoying all the region has to offer. 

The most obvious side trip is one to neighboring Canyonlands National Park about a half-hour southwest from Arches. This section of the park rises like a wedge above the snaking Colorado and Green Rivers whose tight bends carve canyons over 2,000 feet below the overlook. For a more illuminating perspective on the local landscape, set out at dawn for the short hike to cliffside Mesa Arch which glows at sunrise; just know that you won’t be the only person jockeying for the perfect photo.

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

The same road that leads to Canyonlands, State Route 313, will also steer you toward Dead Horse Point State Park whose namesake overlook is worth the price of admission. But you’d be remiss to simply gawk and go; instead, leash up Fido to enjoy the roughly seven miles of trail that trace the rim or pedal the park’s network of beginner-to-intermediate-level mountain-bike trails.

Castle Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although it’s incredible to scope the mighty Colorado River from high above its waters, make time to get down to its level by driving all 44 eye-popping miles of State Route 128 most of which runs directly next to the iconic flow. Dip off the main drag for side trips to ogle—or even climb—the postcard spires of Castle Valley and Fisher Towers; a 4.5-mile trail weaves throughout the latter.

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

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

Spotlight on Utah: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Soaring peaks and deep red canyons around every bend

Every state thinks it’s fun. Every state claims to have “something for everyone.” But not every state has five national parks, 45 state parks, five national historic sites and trails, and a dozen national monuments and recreation areas. There isn’t a single amazing thing about Utah. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

When visiting Utah, definitely take in the Mighty 5. But don’t let the splendor of it all blind you to the other spectacular experiences the state has to offer.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets. Notable landmarks include Landscape Arch, the North and South Windows, Park Avenue, and Balanced Rock.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

In Utah’s southwest corner, the Virgin River carved through 2,000 feet of porous sandstone, forming a canyon so grand it needed a name equally majestic: In Hebrew, “Zion” means “promised land.” The seasons drastically change Zion’s landscape; cottonwood trees glow gold in the fall, the ridges shine with snow in winter, and waterfalls and pools spring to life in summer. There’s no bad time to visit Zion.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, and photographers.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

The past 60 million years have done a number on this section of southern Utah turning it into the world’s largest collection of hoodoos. The park’s 18-mile scenic drive takes you by a series of amphitheaters. But at 12 miles long, three miles wide, and 800 feet deep, Bryce Amphitheater steals the show. You’ll find the best views at the first four overlooks.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands has four separate districts and you can’t access one from another. Island in the Sky is the most popular and accessible. Here, head to Grand View Point for panoramas of the White Rim sandstone cliffs. With one paved road, the Needles district is rugged and difficult to navigate, so its many trails are consistently quiet. The Maze district is harder still to access. The Colorado and Green rivers make up the fourth district; parts of both are calm enough for kayaking.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

Located in southwestern Utah, Scenic Byway 12 is nestled between two national parks—Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. A 121-mile-long All-American  Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway

Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

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

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase-Escalante contains three distinct units, Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyon. The Monument was the last place in the U. S. to be mapped. From its spectacular Grand Staircase of cliffs and terraces, across the rugged Kaiparowits Plateau, to the wonders of the Escalante River Canyons, the Monument is a diverse geologic treasure speckled with monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Monument Valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower to heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Lake State Park

Utah Lake is unique in that it is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the West and yet it lies in an arid area that receives only about 15 inches of rainfall a year. Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, paddleboarding, and fishing. The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and electric hookups.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fish Lake Scenic Byway

Fish Lake Scenic Byway (SR-25) bookends Fishlake National Forest, an often-missed oasis featuring three mountain ranges broken up by desert canyons. Fishlake National Forest is known for its aspen forests, scenic drives, trails, elk hunting, and mackinaw and rainbow trout fishing. Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake lies in a down-faulted valley at an elevation of 8,843 feet. The 5.5-mile-long lake is one of the most popular fishing resorts in the state.

Matheson Wetlands, Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab

This eastern Utah town serves as a gateway to the otherworldly rock formations found in Arches National Park and the numerous canyons and buttes in Canyonlands National Park. One of the top adventure towns in the world, Moab is surrounded by a sea of buckled, twisted and worn sandstone sculpted by millennia of sun, wind, and rain.

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

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway

Cutting through the red rock gorge of the Colorado River, this 44-mile long byway (UT-128) offers a panoramic view of the LaSal Mountains whose snow-capped peaks rise in vivid contrast to the red rock sandstone typical of this canyon country. About four miles from Grandstaff Canyon, the byway passes the Big Bend Campground and picnic area with its white sand beach. The next section of the road closely parallels the Colorado River.

Dixie National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dixie National Forest

This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon but those who linger will be rewarded with amazing sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon) but also explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park

Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures campers, hikers, boaters, and anglers year-round. The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet so it is cold enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks is shaped like a giant coliseum dropping 2,000 feet to its floor. Deep inside the coliseum are stone spires, columns, arches, pinnacles, and intricate canyons in varying shades of red, yellow, and purple. The bristlecone pine, one of the world’s oldest trees, grows in the area.

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

La Sal Mountain Loop Road

A special place full of wonderful sights, smells, and sounds is the La Sal Mountains just east of Moab. The second-highest mountain range in Utah, the La Sals have six peaks that soar over 12,000 feet. One of the best ways to become acquainted with these mountains is to take a road trip along the La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop. The La Sal Mountains occupy a relatively small area running just 15 miles north to south and 6 miles across. They are most easily accessed from the west on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road that begins south of Moab.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument

The twin, towering buttes are so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or in English: Bears Ears. The land includes red rock, juniper forests, a high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat. It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. Located on BLM land, the area is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections. It provides a fun drive through an area that is usually deserted. It is a great place to get away from civilization

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

Dead Horse Point State Park

Dead Horse Point State Park is located at the end of a beautiful mesa where you can look for miles into Canyonlands National Park or 2,000 feet down to the Colorado River. The vista offers outstanding views of the river and surrounding canyon country. There are a few short hikes around the edge of the mesa with stunning views into the deep canyons. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures. The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Hollow State Park

With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, one of Utah’s newer state parks is also one of its most popular. Boat, fish, and dive at Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in a campground on the beach. Boating and fishing on its warm blue waters is the most popular activity in the warmer months but visitors can also go off-roading amidst wild red sandstone dunes in the park’s Sand Mountain area.

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

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park

Camp along the shores of Wide Hollow Reservoir or rent a canoe, kayak, or paddle board. Hike along park nature trails through a petrified forest. Bordering the massive Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel on Scenic Byway 12 allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest.

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway

The Moab area is known for its abundance of Indian rock art. This byway (UT-279) features several petroglyph panels with many individual carvings depicting symbolic animals. Other ancient traces include a roadside display of dinosaur tracks and a number of delicate, naturally formed stone arches. There are also many opportunities for outdoor adventure and extreme sports. Climb Wall Street, a popular stretch of cliffs just after JayCee Campground.

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

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