Travel Musings,  Utah

Highlights of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks


Spread across the southern half of Utah, sit 5 incredible National Parks. They are beautiful, they are popular, and they have been named Utah’s Mighty 5. Southern Utah is a geologic wonderland and these 5 Parks show off Utah at its very best. On the popular AllTrails.com hiking site, all 5 are ranked in the Top 20 – with three in the Top 5. And four of them were among the Top 20 most-visited National Parks in 2020.

I had a chance to visit every one of Utah’s Mighty 5 (several for the first time) during the pandemic, when local road trips were the safest form of travel. Here’s a quick overview, along with some tips for visiting, and some of my favorite highlights from Utah’s Mighty 5.

Trip map courtesy of Wanderlog, a vacation planner on iOS and Android

Utah’s Mighty 5 – A Quick Overview

Zion National Park

The most popular of Utah’s Mighty 5 and rated #1 in the US by AllTrails.com, Zion is known for its majestic sandstone peaks, scenic drives, and famous hikes including The Narrows and Angels Landing.  It’s also the most crowded of the 5, and the Park’s most popular sites are only accessible by public shuttle for most the year.  It was the 3rd most visited National Park in the US during 2020 with 3.6 million visitors

Court of the Patriarchs in Zion National Park - one of Utahs Mighty 5
Zion’s Court of the Patriarchs
The Great White Throne in Zion National Park
The Great White Throne

Bryce Canyon National Park

Utah’s second most visited National Park, Bryce Canyon features spectacular sandstone hoodoos carved along the side of a high plateau.  I consider the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater to be Utah’s most spectacular site, and the hikes down through and around the Amphitheater rim are amazing.  (AllTrails #4 and 15th most visited)

The Bryce Amphitheater in Bryce Canyon National Park - one of Utahs Mighty 5
A view of Bryce Amphitheater from Inspiration Point
Close up of a Bryce Canyon hoodoo
A Hoodoo in the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef, located centrally between the 5 Parks, features Utah’s Waterpocket Fold. This long stretch of the earth’s surface wrinkled up when certain tectonic plates collided millions of year ago. One side raised higher than the other.  Over time water eroded the earth’s surface revealing and reshaping the Wrinkle. The Park is named for the large white sandstone domes along the Waterpocket Fold that resemble the dome of the U.S. Capitol Building.  (AllTrails #20 and 20th most visited)

The Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park - one of Utahs Mighty 5
A great view out along the WaterPocket Fold
The Capitol Dome in Capitol Reef National Park
The Capitol Dome

Arches National Park

Located near Moab Utah, Arches National Park is famous for……Arches.  The Park features nearly 2000 sandstone arches (the densest collection in the world), including the world’s longest freestanding natural arch – Landscape Arch. The park also features lots of other unique sandstone formations, too. (AllTrails #5 and 17th most visited)

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park - one of Utahs Mighty 5
Delicate Arch
Double Arch in Arches National Park
Double Arch

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is also located in the Moab area.  Its entrance is just 30 minutes away from Arches.  Canyonlands is the largest of the 5 Parks and has 3 different sections.  The most frequently-visited of these, the Island in the Sky, sits on top a high plateau and offers stunning views out across deep canyons carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers located 2000 feet below.  (AllTrails #17 and 30th most visited)

One of the view from the Island of the Sky area of Canyonlands National Park - one of Utahs Mighty 5
A view from the Island of the Sky in Canyonlands National park

Road Tripping the Mighty 5

Since I live in Utah, it was more convenient with my schedule to take separate trips to each of these Parks over long weekends.  They are all located within a 4.5 hour drive from my home in Salt Lake City.  But many Utah visitors will combine 2 or 3, or even all 5 Parks, during same road trip. They are spread across the southern part of the State and driving to each Park sequentially is not difficult. Plus the route will take you through Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument and past Goblin Valley, Kodachrome Basin, and Dead Horse Point State Parks. 

Zion to Bryce – The drive from Zion’s South entrance at Springdale Utah, through Zion’s lower canyon, and then north to Bryce Canyon is 85 miles and takes approximately 2 hours.

Bryce to Capitol Reef – The drive from Bryce Canyon to Torrey Utah on the western edge of Capitol Reef is 112 miles and takes approximately 2.5 hours. This beautiful drive cuts through Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument and across Boulder Mountain.  It is one of the most scenic stretches of road in Utah.

Capitol Reef to Moab –  The drive from Torrey eastward to Moab is 156 miles and takes approximately 2.5 hours.

A view with Capitol Reef's Waterpocket Fold from Boulder Mountain
The view out across Capitol Reef’s Waterpocket Fold while driving across Boulder Mountain

How Long in Each Park

While you can get a taste of each Park in a day, visitors could easily spend several days exploring each and still not see everything they have to offer.

We spent 1.5 days in Zion, 2 days in Bryce, 3 days in Capitol Reef, 1 day in Arches, and an afternoon in Canyonlands. 

Chasing 70s

Since I made separate trips to these Parks, I timed my visits to correspond with great weather.  I basically chased midday temps in the 70s.  This is my ideal outdoor temperature.  All of these Parks are located at different elevations and experience 70 degree weather at different times of the year.  We visited Bryce in June, Capitol Reef in September, Arches and Canyonlands in October, and Zion in March.  Sure, mornings were cold. But afternoons were never too hot. And it’s easy to take off that morning sweatshirt.  

Hiking the Cassidy Arch Trail in Capitol Reef- one of Utahs Mighty 5 National Parks
A moderately steep hike – like the Cassiday Arch Trail in Capitol Reef – will always be more bearable in cooler weather

Highlights of Utah’s Mighty 5

There is an astounding number of things to see in these 5 National parks. But, here are my own personal favorites:

Best Site – Bryce Amphitheater

My first time visiting Bryce Canyon in 2020… And as a Utahn, I’ve seen many pictures of the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater over the years. But nothing quite prepares you for the grandeur of seeing it for the first time in person. It’s simply…Spectacular!

Bryce Canyon Amphitheater - my favorite site in Utahs Mighty 5 National Parks

Best Hike – Queens/Navajo Loop

While visiting these parks, we hiked 17 different trails.  All of them were great.  But my favorite was the Queens/Navajo Loop hike in Bryce Canyon.  It starts at one of the Amphitheater’s great viewpoints – Sunset Point, and then descends down and through the dense hoodoo forest below.  Otherworldly and amazing!

Hiking down through Bryce Canyon's hoodoos on the Queens/Navajo Loop hike

Best Arch – Delicate Arch

You can actually see sandstone arches in all 5 Parks – not only Arches NP. But the best Arch of all is Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.  This certainly is Utah’s most famous site – it’s on my license plate, various state marketing logos, postage stamps, and has even been printed on the home court floor of the Utah Jazz.  And with good reason – it’s breathtaking. Taking the 3-mile round trip hike to see Delicate Arch is a must when visiting Arches. 

Close up of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park

Best Off-Road Adventure – Cathedral Valley Loop

Most of these Parks feature backcountry opportunities down dusty rough roads.  Canyonland’s White Rim Road is probably the most famous. While visiting Capitol Reef, we rented a 4×4 and drove the Cathedral Valley Loop Road.  This daylong activity took us through Capitol Reef’s most remote area where we forded a river, explored colorful hills made of bentonite clay, marveled at vast unspoiled vistas, and drove through a valley of giant free-standing sandstone pinnacles. 

Sandstone pinnacles in Capitol Reef's Cathedral Valley

Best Scenic Drive – Kolob Terrace

All the Parks have one or more designated scenic drives, but my favorite was the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park.  Kolob Terrace is the least-visited section of the Zion National Park with most visitors focusing on the main South Canyon.  But, based simply based on the number of times that I uttered Wow when driving it, this roadway offered my favorite scenery.  

Scenery while driving through the Kolob Terrace section of Zion National Park

Best Lodging – Sevier Valley River Ranch

I will always try to find a great vacation rental when I travel, and many options surround these 5 Parks. In fact, Orderville Utah, situated between Bryce and Zion, was recently named one of AirBNBs top 10 searched locations this year. My favorite has been the Sevier Valley River Ranch in Hatch Utah – about 30 minutes from the entrance to Bryce Canyon. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we have already reserved the entire 6-unit facility for a family reunion this summer.

Entrance to the Sevier Valley River Ranch in Hatch Utah

Best Food – Capitol Reef Eateries

I consider eating great food one of the joys of traveling. And there is good food to be found in the small towns surrounding Utah’s Mighty 5. But, I had consistently great food at all the various eateries we found in the towns near Capitol Reef – Torrey, Boulder, and Bicknell. These include the Best Burger I have ever eaten (Capitol Burger) and one of Utah’s most awarded restaurants (Hells Backbone Grill & Farm).

Capitol Burger food truck parked in Torrey Utah just outside of Capitol Reef National park

So, Which Park is The Mightiest?

I’m sure 5 different Mighty 5 visitors will give you 5 different opinions, but for me it’s….. Capitol Reef. Capitol Reef National Park offers a variety of features seen across all the Utah Parks. Hikes to arches, hikes through narrow sandstone canyons, stunning overlooks, scenic drives, and amazing geology. But it offers all of this without the crowds of the other Parks. I didn’t ever have to wait in a line of cars to get through the gates, I didn’t have to worry about shuttles, I could always find a parking place, and the trails weren’t packed with people. And we visited in early September – still a popular time. Plus…the food. Really, I’m telling you…don’t miss Capitol Burger!

Read More About Utah’s Mighty 5

If you would like to read about each Park in more detail, then check out my dedicated blog posts on each:

Zion National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Arches National Park

Canyonlands National Park

20 Comments

  • Lannie

    Wow. Capitol reef as the mightiest??? One of the two (canyonlands is the other) I haven’t been to. Your Utah posts are fantastic and definitely a guide for future travels!

  • Stefan (Berkeley Square Barbarian)

    Having read a few of your other recent posts, I was already familiar with some of the information about the parks, but this is a great, easy-to-read, concise, fun summary. Interesting to hear how high you rank Bryce Canyon Amphitheater. I would not have expected the temperatures to vary so greatly between the national parks, but makes sense with different altitudes etc. Capitol Reef I think I first heard of here on your blog. I can see the attraction with diversity of geography, absence of crowds, and with those capitol burgers.

    • thethoroughtripper

      Thanks Stefan! In the summer, they would all be hot!! So it was nice that we could plan our visits according to the weather

  • Jen Nilsson

    So much beauty! Honestly, I think when you can find a parking place and skip shuttles…it’s ideal. I support your winner. Thanks for this. Definitely will use on my return road trip through Utah.

  • Jane

    I love Utah and you have captured its beauty and majesty here. So many of my favourite places! I see you hired a 4×4 to tour Cathedral Valley? We did this too on a motorbike! Fabulous. This was my favourite part of Capitol Reef. We did another off roader too: Shafer Road from near Arches over to Canyonlands. That was hairy! Great fun though. I agree completely about the best hike too. Bryce is breathtaking. I absolutely cannot wait to visit Utah again after reading this.

  • Smalltownplussize Tom

    I believe we share some common viewpoints about traveling. Capital Reef would be our first choice too since less crowds make a visit more relaxing. We have only been to Arches but talk all the time about seeing more of Utah’s national and state parks. If it wasn’t for this year’s mass of travelers we would have gone. Instead, we’re in the Colorado mountains driving the old stage coach and train roads to the tops.

    • thethoroughtripper

      The hassles of fighting crowds sure does detract for the experience. I’m all about avoiding them when I can. Surprised to hear you’ve only been to Arches. Hope you get a chance sometime to come over and see the rest!

  • Scott

    The Utah parks were so amazing! Our favorite was Zion. You can’t beat the hiking in Zion! Our least favorite was Canyonlands but it was also beautiful!

    • thethoroughtripper

      All 5 are great, yet each is so different. We spent the least amount of time in Canyonlands. I would like to get back to the Needles district some time so that I can fully evaluate it.

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