A Guide to National Parks in Utah: An Adventure of a Lifetime
With their beautiful red rocks and flowing blue rivers, the national parks in Utah have made names for themselves as some of the most stunning landscapes in the country. Hike, mountain bike, whitewater raft, or simply drive your way through the state’s five beautiful national parks – also known as “Utah’s Mighty Five.”
While “the Mighty Five” are the official national parks with the word “parks” in their title, we’ve also included a few national monuments and national recreation areas for you to take a peek at. These are also managed federally by the National Park Service. Many are quite close to Utah’s national parks, so they can be easy and fantastic additions to your itinerary.
Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks
As the name implies, there are five national parks in the stunning state of Utah. They’re often grouped together under the name of Utah’s “Mighty Five.” Many visitors decide to tackle all of these national parks at once during an epic Utah Mighty Five road trip!
1. Zion National Park
Without a doubt, the most popular national park in Utah is Zion National Park. As a matter of fact, a whopping 4.7 million people visited the park in 2022! (Shoulder season – a.k.a. late spring and early fall – might be calling, if you’re hoping to miss the biggest crowds.)
The park’s eye-catching red rocks and contrasting green plants make it a nature lover’s wonderland of sorts. And while you can explore by car on the scenic Zion Mt. Carmel Highway, the best experience is on foot.
There are quite a few different hikes that are worth your time at Zion National Park. Hike the challenging, yet popular Angels Landing. Tackle the lengthy, river crossing-filled Narrows. Or take it easy on the half-mile Canyon Overlook Trail, which boasts some of the best views in the entire park.
Some hikes in Zion National Park – including Angels Landing and certain parts of the Narrows – need a special permit. Head to the National Park Service website to get all the necessary documents in order.
To really have the best Utah national park experience, be sure to explore the Greater Zion Area as well. While the national park is fantastic, there are some hidden gems in the area around it, like St. George, Hurricane Valley, Monument Valley, and Snow Canyon State Park.
2. Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park welcomes over one million visitors every single year – and for good reason. This lovely park has something for people of all ages to enjoy.
For visitors looking to take things easy, there are loads of epic viewpoints where you can just drive up and take a peek. Inspiration, Sunrise, Sunset, and Bryce viewpoints should all be at the top of your list.
That said, if you’re looking for a more active adventure, Bryce Canyon National Park can deliver on that front as well. Hike along the beloved Rim Trail, make a new equestrian pal on a horseback riding excursion, or go on a night hike through the park’s ranger program.
3. Capitol Reef National Park
With places like Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park is often overlooked in favor of the other national parks in Utah. And that’s a shame, because it’s just as stunning as the other Utah Mighty Five parks!
As with all of the national parks in Utah, hiking is the best thing to do. And the best hikes in Capitol Reef National Park are found in the 100-mile-long canyon-esque area known as the Waterpocket Fold. There, you’ll see colorful layers of soil, a few sprouting plants, and even some hidden fossils!
While there are loads of hikes in and around the Waterpocket Fold, we of course have our own picks for the best of the best. The strenuous 4.6-mile Rim Overlook Trail boasts jaw-dropping views of the fold. The Cathedrals Trail is home to some of the tallest towering red rock structures in the park. And the gravity defying Hickman Bridge Trail draws out-of-state visitors and Utah locals alike.
If you’d like to add a little variation to your Utah Mighty Five itinerary though, Capitol Reef National Park is a great place to do that. Go for a scenic drive on Highway 24, check out the petroglyphs near the Hickman Bridge trailhead, or take in the breathtaking views from Sunset Point (at sunset, of course).
4. Arches National Park
As the name of this Utah national park implies, Arches National Park is known for, well, it’s natural sandstone arches. There are countless arches throughout the park, but a few have made a name for themselves. There’s the popular Delicate Arch, the lengthy Landscape Arch, the pair of Double Arches, and the peephole-like Window Arches, just to start.
And while the arches are one highlight of Arches National Park, it’s not the only one. This Utah national park is also home to an area known as the Fiery Furnace. This maze of red rock spires draws in all of the more extreme adventurers – and those who explore it say that it’s one of the best hiking experiences of their lives!
Since the Fiery Furnace is so confusing, hikers are required to either take a guided hike with a ranger or get a special permit after watching a required orientation video. Be sure to stay safe out there!
5. Canyonlands National Park
But Arches National Park isn’t Moab’s only national park. Just a few miles away lies Canyonlands National Park. While not quite as popular as its next door neighbor, Canyonlands National Park is just as stunning as Arches National Park – and has smaller crowds.
As you might expect, the best way to explore Canyonlands National Park is on a hike. Catch the sunrise from the Mesa Arch Trail, take in the views from the White Rim Overlook Trail, or tackle the lengthy Druid Arch Trail. And if you want to stick around a little longer, you can also spend some time mountain biking, whitewater rafting, stargazing, or camping at this Utah national park.
Other Federal Parks in Utah
While there are technically only five national parks in Utah, there are other national monuments and national recreation areas that are worth your time. While we can’t feature them all, we’ve included a few of our favorites. If you have time, we recommend adding one or two to your Utah itinerary.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
First up, we have Cedar Breaks National Monument, which is only about 45 minutes away from Zion National Park. Depending on the season, you can hike one of the epic trails, take in the fiery fall leaves, or even snowmobile your way around the area.
This special spot is also one of the only Dark Sky parks in the United States, which means it’s ideal for stargazing. If you really want to get into it, you can reserve yourself a campground in the summer, so you can stare at the stars all night long.
Cedar Breaks National Monument is often closed in the winter months, due to unsafe weather conditions.
Dinosaur National Monument
Dinosaur National Monument is fantastic for nature lovers and history buffs alike. As its name implies, this Utah national park is home to remarkably well-preserved dinosaur fossils. You can actually see over 1,500 of them in the Quarry Exhibit Hall.
As if that weren’t enough to convince you to visit, Dinosaur National Monument is also home to ancient Native American petroglyphs, thrilling river rafting expeditions, and scenic trails (our favorites are the easy Fossil Discovery Trail and the popular Harpers Corner Trail).
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area runs across the Utah-Arizona border and is primarily known for two things: Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell.
Technically Horseshoe Bend is located on the Arizona side of the park, but it’s so amazing it deserves a feature in this article. Horseshoe Bend is that picture-perfect, Instagram-famous sandstone peninsula surrounded by a loop of the Colorado River. And it takes just a 0.75-mile hike to get there (1.5 miles round-trip), so it’s easy enough!
Then, there’s Lake Powell. There, you can enjoy all sorts of water sports, including sailing, kayaking, waterskiing, and fishing. And if you venture away from the lake’s most popular spots, you may even find yourself a secluded beach or two.
Rainbow Bridge National Monument
If you want to see some famed sandstone arches without the crowds of Arches National Park, Rainbow Bridge National Monument is undoubtedly the place to go.
The eponymous Rainbow Bridge that the park is named after is actually one of the largest natural bridges in the entire world! To get to it, you can either take a lengthy scenic boat ride (the option we recommend) or a very lengthy hike (we’re talking at least 17.2 miles on the South Trail). Even though the journey is long, it’ll be worth it at the end when you see this 290-foot-tall bridge in person.
Final Thoughts on the Best National Parks in Utah
Each national park requires an entrance fee. If you plan on visiting more than one national park within the next year, you may want to consider purchasing the America the Beautiful Pass Annual National Park Pass. Depending on how many national parks you’re planning to visit, it could save you a good amount of cash.
From golden sunrises to sandstone arches, Utah is home to some breathtaking natural landscapes. You can visit them one at a time or pack them all into an adventure-filled Utah national park road trip. Whatever you choose, it’s sure to be a blast!