Touring Utah’s Big Five National Parks

Having lived in the western US for most of my life, it’s surprising that I’ve never been to any of Utah’s National Parks. So when my niece and some friends invited us to join them on a 10 day driving tour through Utah, we jumped at the chance.

We decided to go in early November, and I was a bit nervous about visiting at that time of year. As it turned out, we had beautiful weather nearly every day. Sunny, with temps in the upper 50’s to 60’s, it was perfect for hiking. The fact that the parks were less crowded was an added bonus.

Kolob Canyon

We flew into Las Vegas and drove immediately away; we were in search of natural, not artificial, beauty. Since we couldn’t check into our Airbnb until 4pm we decided to make a stop at the Kolob Canyons area of Zion NP. It’s a less visited section right off I15 and made a convenient appetizer to start our grand tour. We made our way up the scenic drive, impressed by the magnificent red rock formations along the way. At the end of the drive we took the short hike to the Kolob Canyons Viewpoint. It was nice to stretch our legs a bit before the long drive to our beautiful Airbnb cabin in Duck Creek Village.

Bryce Canyon

The next day we were up early for our drive to Bryce Canyon. After spending some time at the Visitor’s Center, we decided that the Rim Trail would be the best option. You can join that trail from several spots; the ranger we chatted with suggested that the Sunset Point Overlook would be less crowded. It was a great suggestion. We were able to hike the Rim Trail in one direction to Inspiration Point and back, then after lunch hike the trail in the opposite direction to Sunrise Point and back. The relatively flat trail offers spectacular views all along the way,

We were torn between trying the Queens Garden Trail down into the canyon vs. driving the scenic route to see the rest of the park. Not wanting to push too hard our first day, we opted for the drive. The 18 mile (one-way) route winds through the park to Rainbow Point, with several viewpoints to stop and admire the scenery along the way. My favorite stop was at Natural Bridge, the first of many arches we would see this week.

Bryce Canyon Natural Bridge

Zion

Our original plan was to spend two days at Bryce and two at Zion. Once we saw Zion we threw that plan out the window and spent our remaining three days all at Zion. This was my favorite of the five parks and is one of the Crown Jewels of the National Park system. Because of the crowds, visitors can’t drive the scenic route, having to use the park’s shuttle service instead. I’d read horror stories of people waiting hours to board a shuttle at the Visitor’s Center, but the benefit of visiting during the off season is that we were able to hop right on.

We decided to ride to the end to see the entire scenic drive first. Jumping off at the Temple of Sinawava stop, our first hike was up the Riverside Walk. This trail follows the Virgin river up the canyon and ends where The Narrows begin. It’s paved much of the way and an easy out and back hike. I had another moment of joy at our choice of seasons admiring the fall colors we saw along the walk. We stopped at the point where we would have had to hike in the river, a little jealous of the folks putting on waders to continue up The Narrows. We decided that we’d skip it this time around when we saw hikers coming back down soaked chest high. Maybe we’d come back to try it in summer, but not in November!

We took the shuttle back up canyon to the Zion Lodge stop to hike the Emerald Pools Trails. The lower trail wasn’t bad, but the trail down from the middle pool was steeper than I expected. At the top we were rewarded with a trickle of a waterfall, not the thundering falls depicted in the brochure. At least the excellent views on the way down made the step hike worthwhile!

The next day, two people in our group wanted to tackle Angels Landing. That hike is a strenuous one, gaining over 1000 ft in elevation with the last section along a spine where you pull yourself up with chains. Not for me! We agreed to hike with our friends to the “Walter’s Wiggles” section, where the trail begins the ascent in earnest up many steep switchbacks. Once they disappeared at the top of the Wiggles, we hiked back and then took the very tame 1 mile Grotto Trail back to the Lodge. Once reunited, we congratulated our friends on their bucket list adventure and headed back to our cozy cabin.

After a rough day of hiking for some of our group we spent the following morning relaxing, getting to Zion in the afternoon. We thought it would be nice to see the canyon at sunset so we took two hikes from the Visitor’s Center. The first, the Watchman Trail, is a relatively steep 300+ foot climb that ends with spectacular views of The Watchman and the valley below. After that we were very happy to end with the flat Pa’rus Trail running alongside the river. We turned around at sunset for a great view of The Watchman turning gold (the featured image up top).

Capitol Reef

We checked out of the cabin and started the long drive to our next Airbnb in Moab. Along the way we decided to stop for a couple of hours in Capitol Reef NP. Not having much time we opted for the scenic drive, which ends at Capitol Gorge Road. This 2 mile unpaved road leads to the Capitol Gorge Trail, a relatively easy two mile out and back hike through a dry river bed. The highlights along the way are the petroglyphs and the Pioneer Register, signatures in stone carved by travelers as they made their way west. The oldest I saw were from the mid 1800’s and I marveled that they hadn’t been eroded away in over a century. I was sorry we had to leave so soon, this park really deserves more time than the few hours we had.

Arches

The next stop was Arches NP. Our much younger and more intrepid friends wanted to hike to Delicate Arch our first morning. I’d read that it was a challenging hike, especially for anyone with a fear of heights (that would include me). Dennis and I opted for the much shorter hike to the viewpoint. We continued to explore the park, stopping for more short hikes to see Balanced Rock, the Windows, Turret Arch and Double Arch. This park lives up to its name, with arches in every direction!

Reuniting with out fellow hikers, we made our way up to the Devil’s Garden section of the park. While the trails there are more strenuous, you can hike to several arches before having to seriously climb. We hiked out to the Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, and Landscape Arch, which I think was my favorite. Driving back out of the park we stopped at Skyline Arch. This one was interesting because a rockfall in 1940 doubled the size of the arch opening. You can see before and after photos on the information sign and hike up to see the debris still left from the rockfall.

Canyonlands

The last park we visited, Canyonlands NP, is very large and split into three distinct areas. We were only able to explore one section, Islands in the Sky, taking the scenic drive all the way to the end. There we hiked the 2 mile round trip Grand View Point Trail. It lives up to its name, with spectacular views all along the way. Exhausted from 9 days of non-stop hiking, we only had energy for one more short hike out to Mesa arch.

We flew out of Grand Junction, opting for a short flight on a smaller plane rather than a long drive back to Vegas or SLC. Dennis and I arrived home exhausted. It was a lot to take in all five parks in one trip and was more hiking than we’d done in decades. Overall we enjoyed the trip and loved seeing all of the natural beauty these parks have to offer. I want to end with a big thanks to the Visit Utah website. While all of the NPS websites were helpful, I found the Visit Utah site full of fantastic detail about all of the available hikes in every park. A must visit website if you’re planning your own trip.

4 Comments

  1. Cindy says:

    Your photos continue to amaze me…such beauty.

    Like

    1. Ross says:

      Thank you so much!

      Like

  2. Linda K says:

    Wow such gorgeous photos! Love the landscapes of these parks. Definitely would love to travel through them one day.

    Like

    1. Ross says:

      Thanks! The parks really are amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

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