Utah’s “Big Five” National Parks

A visit to Utah’s “big five” promises endless beauty and adventure.
Travelers & Photographers: Marny & Tracy

Utah would not have made our list of the most beautiful destinations in the U.S. until we traveled there for the first time this past May. Simply put, Utah rocks!

We visited five National Parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. We were amazed and awed by each one, and we regretted that it took us until our late 50s to get there. Some of the locals told us that more non-Americans visit the parks than Americans. We heard many languages; German, French, Italian, Norwegian, and Dutch to name a view. This gave it an international feel and yet it was as American as it gets.

Zion National Park

At Zion National Park, we felt like we were stepping into an old western movie, fully expected to see the Lone Ranger ride down from the rocky hillsides. The most talked-about hike in Zion is Angels Landing. It was a tough climb. The most difficult part is the last section, which is over chain-imbedded rocks with drop-offs on either side. We were warned by many about the difficulty from that point, so we decided it was not a “good day to die” but still worth the climb to that point, which is called Scout Lookout. The scenery was amazing.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park showcases incredible orange “hoodoos” (tall thin spires of rock coming up out of the base of the canyons). The vistas from the scenic overlooks were unlike anything we’d ever seen. The best way to “do” Bryce is to drive to the end of the scenic drive and then visit all the pull- offs coming back (since they will then be on your right side). On the second day, hike or horseback ride down into the canyons, which gives you a whole different vantage point from which to see and appreciate the hoodoos.

Capitol Reef National Park

Hiking through Capitol Reef National Park, we saw the writings of early pioneers on the walls of the canyon cliffs. We had to keep an eye on the sky as the ranger had warned us of possible storms, which bring the risk of flash floods. That night we stayed at the Torrey Schoolhouse B&B in Torrey, Utah. We highly recommend staying there–great accommodations and breakfast. And if you do, then you must eat dinner at Café Diablo, an outstanding local restaurant.

Canyonlands National Park

At Canyonlands National Park, we hiked along a huge canyon ridge, being careful not to get too close to the fence-less edge or risk tumbling 2,000 feet to the bottom. We timed our hike to conclude where a park ranger was giving a talk. This guy knew his stuff and could answer any question.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park was full of incredible orange rock arches, spires, balanced rocks, and sandstone fins, all formed millions of years ago. There are many arches that you can only see by hiking to them, and they are worth the effort. Our most beautiful hike was on all kinds of sand, gravel, and rocks.

Originally, we thought about making this trip in the late summer/early fall, until we learned the average temperature during that time (beastly hot). So, we changed our plans to early May and it was perfect. The weather was great for hiking; not too hot and not too cold. We love children, but I have to admit that we were glad that they were mostly still in school.

Before choosing to stay in the National Parks’ lodges, you need realize that the accommodations are not going to be fancy or luxurious. There aren’t many food options in the parks, and those that are there will not be cheap. If you’re okay with that, then stay in the park for a fun experience. We planned our trip about seven months ahead and could not get reservations at the lodges in Zion or Bryce, but we found great places to stay right outside the parks.

In most places we stayed two nights with the exception of Moab, which is a great town to visit for a full week. You can access Arches and Canyonlands from Moab, as well as go white water rafting on the Colorado River. Our rafting trip included a delicious lunch at a ranch. Moab is a huge biking town, and there are bike trails for all abilities. Visit the Moab Adventure Center on the main street to get info on all kinds of adventures. The town also has good restaurants and shops.

We highly recommend a B&B in Moab called Sunflower Hill. The staff goes out of their way to make your stay perfect. You can walk into town for dinner, and they have a pool, which is a nice after hiking on warm days.

Mesa Verde National Park

Besides the five parks in Utah, we also visited Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. It was a bit of a drive, but it had been on my bucket list for a long time. Mesa Verde is home to the structures of ancient cliff dwellers, the Ancestral Puebloan people–sometimes called the Anasazi–who lived there between 600 and 1300. Touring these ruins is an incredible experience. We do suggest you stay in the lodge here simply because it’s a long drive into the park from the nearest town.

Our trip was two weeks long, a good length for what we did. Flying in and out of Salt Lake City worked well. We highly recommend a visit to the state of Utah, with a bit of Colorado thrown in. There is no place like it. We guarantee that you will add it to your “most beautiful places in the U.S.” list when you see the awesome Utah rocks.

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