Photographic Proof That Utah Is Just One Big Epic National Park

These state parks are national treasures

Perhaps no state is more synonymous with national parks than Utah: Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands. Utah’s world-famous “big five” national parks are some of the most popular in America attracting more than 10 million visitors in 2019. That doesn’t leave a ton of space for social distancing.

Those five national parks managed to bring in more crowds than all of Utah’s 44 state parks combined with many state parks seeing annual visitation roughly equivalent to a busy summer weekend at Zion or Bryce Canyon.

But here’s a little secret: Many of those state parks hold their own against the grandeur of the Big Five, usually with a fraction of fellow humans crowding the trails and vistas. With many national parks currently limiting capacity, now’s the ideal time to point your GPS toward one of Utah’s 5 coolest, and less visited, state parks. 

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

Dead Horse Point State Park

If the mind-blowing landscapes of this Grand Canyon-styled park look familiar, it’s probably because the final scene of Thelma & Louise was filmed here. But you don’t need to launch your car off a cliff to appreciate the views: there are plenty of vista points to gaze upon the color-packed vertical cliffs and rugged canyons rising 2,000 feet above the Colorado River with sweeping views extending into nearby Canyonlands National Park.

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

In addition to mountain biking 17 miles of expert single-track along the Intrepid Trail or peering out over the edge hiking the East Rim and West Rim trails, you can also camp in an RV, tent, or even a yurt. Water is NOT available.

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

Kayenta Campground offers 21 campsites with RV electrical hookups (20/30/50 amp). New in 2018, the Wingate Campground sits atop the mesa with far reaching views to the area’s mountain ranges and deep canyons. This campground contains 31 campsites, 20 of which have electrical hookups that support RV or tent campers. RV sites will accommodate vehicles up to 56 feet.

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.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This popular park about 30 minutes east of St. George is like a “best of” for Utah’s state park system all rolled into one. 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 on its clear waters. Hike along park nature trails through a petrified forest but remember to take only photos.

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

Bordering the massive Delaware-sized Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel on Scenic Byway 12—only 64,000 people visit annually—allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest. Anglers can also test the bluegill and rainbow trout-stocked waters of the laid-back Wide Hollow Reservoir where canoeing and kayaking are also excellent and solitary endeavors.

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.

Utah Lake Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, and paddleboarding. The park offers fishing access for channel catfish, walleye, white bass, black bass, and several species of panfish. The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and electric hookups.

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 boaters and anglers year-round. Camp. Hike. Explore.

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 which is also stocked and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But wait, there’s more!

Other spectacular state parks on our bucket list include Snow Canyon, Kodachrome Basin, Coral Pink Sands, Goblin Valley, and Goosenecks. And I would be remiss not to mention spectacular Natural Bridges National Monument which attracted a mere 88,000 recreational visitors in 2019.

Worth Pondering…

When Robert Frost declared his intention to take the road less traveled in his 1916 poem “The Road Not Taken,” who could have guessed that so many people would take the same trip?

Here’s the Proof that Utah is the Most Beautiful State

Soaring peaks and deep red canyons around every bend

The reappraisal of Utah over the past decade has been astounding. Long mistaken as a bland expanse of wasteland, more and more people are coming to appreciate the state’s charms and otherworldly beauty. And especially now, its combination of mind-blowing— and isolated— natural landscapes make it ripe for exploration in an RV.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the snow-capped mountains of the north to the iconic red-rock desert landscapes of the national park-packed south, Utah’s terrain changes with every bend in the road. Taken alone, each of these 11 places construct a solid argument for Utah’s scenic dominance. Together, they cement Utah as one of America’s most gorgeous destinations.  

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab

Situated near the banks of the Colorado River in southeastern Utah, Moab is the gateway to many of Utah’s grandest locales. Here you’ll find easy access to iconic Arches National Park, the lesser-visited Canyonlands National Park, and diamond-in-the-rough Dead Horse Point State Park all of which combine to make Moab a mind-blowing amalgam of everything that Makes Utah so grand in scope. 

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

But the town in the middle of this vortex is also a thing of beauty. The longtime mountain biker magnet attracts more than its fair share of funky artists, spirit seekers, and people looking to live life to the fullest. In fact, you could easily spend your entire Utah vacation here and still make it one for the books without setting foot in a park.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

Attracting more visitors than Yellowstone and Yosemite, Zion‘s stunning landscape offers a variety of terrain from desert to mountains with many visitors looking to hike Angels Landing and The Narrows. Those looking to take it easy can cruise the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (shuttle service has resumed with advance ticketing) or meander the wide-open Pa’rus Trail along the valley floor.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon, Utah’s second-most popular national park is a short 90-minute drive from Zion making it a heck of a one-two punch of southern Utah wow. Yet the landscape undergoes a complete transformation along the way, serving up some of the most epic canyon vistas on Earth. Marvel at the huge concentration of hoodoos (rock spires) that line the seemingly never-ending canyons as you cruise the 18-mile Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive, stopping off at the park’s 13 scenic viewpoints including Sunset Point and Natural Bridge. Can’t get enough canyons? Check out the nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument for more.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

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.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Utah’s outdoor tour de force continues over at Capitol Reef National Park where a star-studded assortment of cliffs, domes, arches, and canyons do their best to overwhelm the senses of the relatively few visitors who make their way to this park. A bit more off the beaten path with roughly half the visitation as Bryce Canyon and one-quarter of Zion, this fascinating park is something of a cross between those two more famous cousins. In addition to 15 hiking trails and plenty of room for 4WD road touring, visitors can also harvest fruit from the various cherry, apple, and peach orchards in historic Fruita during summer. 

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Situated high atop Cedar Mesa, Natural Bridges National Monument illustrates the power of water in shaping a high desert landscape. A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges. Hiking trails provide closer access to each bridge. An 8.6-mile hiking trail links the three natural bridges, which are located in two adjacent canyons.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley

The debate over the quintessential image of the American West starts and ends in Monument Valley. Straddling the Utah-Arizona border within the huge Navajo Nation near the Four Corners, this stunningly cinematic landscape has served as an acting background for everyone from John Wayne to Forrest Gump—and it’s not hard to see why. Visitors can tour this living artist’s canvas by driving its 17-mile dirt road, posting up for some glorious sunset photography or even spending the night in a traditional native dwelling while learning about Native American culture over campfire stories and Navajo tacos. Unfortunately, all Navajo tribal parks—including Monument Valley—are currently closed until further notice due to the pandemic.

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 similar scenery and is located on BLM land and is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park

Equal parts refreshing and beautiful, clear, green water dominates Quail Creek State Park. Red, white, and orange cliffs surround the shore, and are set against the Pine Valley Mountains as a backdrop. Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures boaters and anglers year-round. Camp. Hike. Explore.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

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. The history and culture of the area blend together, making Scenic Byway 12 a journey like no other.

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 a bevy of national park-worthy sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are its most famous and easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon), but don’t forget to explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area, or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.

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