One of the best things about a trip to Utah is that you can easily experience all five of the state’s top-visited parks, otherwise known as the Mighty Five. You never have to stray too far off the beaten path to see something otherworldly and awe-inspiring, like the Navajo sandstone cliffs of Zion or the 2,000 natural arches that arc over the desert in Arches. And while clear, sunny skies are great, travelers should not feel limited to fair-weathered travel. If it’s possible, Utah’s national parks are even more beautiful when blanketed in thick, powdery snow.
A journey through Utah’s national parks is simultaneously physical and spiritual. Being there, amongst all that red rock—whether you chose to hike or bike, to take a day trip to the canyons or spend days camping under some of the darkest skies on Earth—may be as close to Mars as we get in this lifetime.
Zion National Park
The hallmark of this blockbuster park in southern Utah is its vast cliffs, made of Navajo sandstone and situated at the edge of the Colorado Plateau. Massive precipices like these can be found in other parks, but none quite as prominent as Zion. For a slightly more remote adventure, try a wilderness hike in Kolob Canyon, one of hundreds of narrow slot canyons spread throughout the park. There’s only one hotel inside the national park—Zion Lodge—and it’s a perfect complement to the surrounding valleys and rock formations, with rustic stone and hickory accents.
About 80 miles from Zion is Bryce Canyon National Park, home to the famous hoodoos. These jagged, whittled rock pillars that shoot straight up and out of the ground were originally created by river sediment. A popular starting point for hikers is Sunset Point, where among the many odd-shaped limestone deposits below, you’ll spot Thor’s Hammer—the most well-known hoodoo of them all.
Arches National Park
For stunning night shots, try driving through Arches after dark. The elongated, weather-hollowed rock shapes (termed “fins” by geologists), look striking against a speckled canopy of stars. At any time of day, however, the best way to enjoy the thousands of rocky arches is by foot or by car. Some of the major sights include Delicate Arch, the Window Arches, and Wolfe Ranch. Fuel up before your trip in the nearby town of Moab, where the eponymous brewery serves beer-battered onion rings with spicy stout mustard.
Capitol Reef National Park
Because Capitol Reef tends to be less crowded than others, you might feel as though you have Waterpocket Fold all to yourself. Richly-colored sedimentary rock is exposed in the park’s famous formation—a 65-million-year-old, S-shape ripple in the earth’s crust—allowing for huge cliffs and jagged skylines, similar to Zion. Capitol Reef is also filled with fruit trees, and visitors are encouraged to help bring in the apple harvest each fall from the historic town of Fruita’s orchards.
Not only is Canyonlands National Park the largest in Utah (a sweeping 337,598 acres), but it also features the best of all the other parks rolled into one: giant mesas, wild rock formations, and thousands of miles of hikeable canyons. Biking is also popular along the desert-like White Rim Road, though visitors should consider the spiritual side of the park, too. From Island in the Sky, you can see up to 100 miles in any direction. Not a bad place to contemplate your next move.