Utah’s National Parks feature some of the most amazing and surreal landscapes in the United States. A road-trip to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands is high up on many RVers bucket lists. The opportunity to stand high on towering cliffs, hike deep into canyons, see ancient petroglyphs, and stand beneath magnificent rock formations lures people from all over the world to Utah’s “Mighty Five.” We got a chance to visit all five national parks in Utah this past May. Here, I will share my personal experience and tips for a great trip.
Zion National Park
Plan to spend at least two days here.
If you come from the west, Zion will be your first stop. There are several RV parks on the west side of the park and a few on the east side too. There are also three campgrounds inside the park. We choose to stay on the east side of the park in Mt. Carmel Junction at East Zion Riverside RV Park because of its central location to both Zion and Bryce Canyon and its cheap rate.
I highly suggest taking a route around the park instead of driving through it in your RV. There is a long tunnel with height restrictions that requires one-way traffic control service, which comes with a fee of $15 and only operates during park hours. Not to mention the roads and windy and a bit terrifying! We definitely learned this lesson the hard way!
Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is the main road to get to most of the trails, is closed to private vehicles for most of the year. During the busy season, free buses run from early morning to late evening, as often as every seven minutes. Check Zion’s website for information on the bus system.
Angel’s Landing is no doubt one of the most popular trails in Zion. It is strenuous and steep, but if you can make it 2.5 miles up 21 switch-backs and narrow paths with sheer drops and chain handhnews, you can stand on what seems to be the top of the world! Tackle this trail early in the morning rather than mid-afternoon to avoid the crowds and the heat.
Don’t worry if Angel’s Landing isn’t quite your speed. Zion has so many beautiful hikes and there is something for everyone. Canyon Overlook Trail is the only trail on the east side of park and is a must-do, in my opinion! It’s only one mile out and back, with the most specular view at the end! You may even get lucky and see some Big Horn Sheep scaling the rocks on that side of the park. There is so much to see and do in Zion that you’ll probably want to spend at least two days exploring, if not more!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Plan on one day for this park.
It’s an easy and scenic hour drive from Mt. Carmel Junction. You’ll drive though Dixie National Forest and Red Canyon. There are two campgrounds in the park and several RV parks just outside of it. You’ll be surprised how much cooler it is than Zion because of the elevation. As you descend into the canyon, it will get warmer again. Be sure to dress in layers.
There is a bus system as Bryce Canyon just like there is at Zion. Although cars are not restricted, the bus makes getting around easier. We had a fun bus driver who made jokes and pointed out interesting facts along the route.
Sunset Point is a good place to get your first view into the canyon full of odd-shaped pillars of orange rock called hoodoos. You may have seen photos of Bryce Canyon, like the one above. However, photos of this place really do not do it justice. It must be experienced with your own two eyes!
You can head down into the canyon at Sunset Point by taking the Navajo Loop Trail. Along the way, you’ll see Thor’s Hammer. This is one of probably hundreds of balanced rocks you can find throughout Bryce Canyon National Park. As you hike down into the canyon, you can’t help but notice the stunning contrast between the orange rocks and the blue sky. When you get to the bottom, you can choose to continue right on the Navajo Loop Trail (if it is open, parts of it are closed seasonally) or you can go left on to the Queens Garden trail and spend some more time in the canyon before making the climb up and out.
After you take the bus around the main area of the park known as the Bryce Amphitheater, you can hop back in your vehicle and drive the 18-mile road all the way to Rainbow Point. There are several viewpoints to stop at along the road, each offering gorgeous views of the canyon below. For us, one day at Bryce Canyon National Park was enough to get a good feel for the park.
Capitol Reef National Park
Plan to spend at least one whole day here.
Capitol Reef National Park is about a 2 hour and 15 minute drive from Bryce Canyon and probably the most overlooked of the Utah Might Five. It is also in one of the most beautiful areas on Utah, in my option. I always pictured Utah to be dry and brown, but the area around Capital Reef is can we quite lush. I was also blown away by how many different colors were in the rocks there.
We stayed at Sand Creek RV Park in Torrey, UT which is a small town with the basic amenities just outside the national park. There are a few other RV parks in town, as well as a campground in the park. There are also some popular boondocking (dry camping) spots just outside the park’s entrance.
Stop in the Visitor Center in the Fruita Historic District to get hiking recommendations from the rangers and spend a little time in that area. The orchards have apple, peach, cherry pear, plum, and apricot trees. You can pick and eat the fruit free of charge while in the orchards. The Fruita District also includes an new schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and the Gifford House store and museum as well as a horse pasture. We were kicking ourselves for not taking home some baked goods from the Gifford House!
The other thing that Capitol Reef National Park is known for besides the orchards are the Native American petroglyphs. There are some that are easily accessible not far from the Visitor Center. You can also take Scenic Drive Road to Capitol Gorge Trail. The drive is — you guessed it — scenic and you can see petroglyphs as well as several hundred historic pioneer signatures in the rocks along the one-mile trail.
You can probably get a good idea of what Capitol Reef National Park is all about in a day, but do yourself a favor and don’t cut this one short. Because it is a lesser known national park, it is less crowded and a genuinely relaxing place to spend time. There are some great easy to moderate hikes, like Hickman Bridge where you get to see a 133-foot natural arch as well as canyon views. We hiked this trail on a Friday evening in May and only saw one other person on the trail!
Arches National Park
Plan to spend at least a day exploring this park.
The drive from Torrey to Moab, UT is a little over two and half hours. The best part of the drive is at the very beginning when you take highway 24 right through Capitol Reef. Arches National Park has one campground that you can reserve a spot at between March 1 and October 31. The rest of the year, all sites are first-come, first served. However, there are many other RV parks in and around Moab. There are also a lot of BLM lands in the area, if you are comfortable dry camping.
Arches is a great family park where you can walk to many of the main features. The Windows Section of the park includes sites such as Balanced Rock, Double Arch, and North and South Windows, which are all easy to see and get to without much effort. However, the trade-off is that this area will be a lot more crowded.
Delicate Arch is probably the most well-known feature in the park. It’s even on the Utah license plate. There are two viewpoints to see it, one is handicap accessible. You can also hike the Delicate Arch Trail, which will take you right up to it for that super fun photo op that everyone wants. It’s 3-mile round trip and many people underestimate its difficulty. Be sure to bring extra water, especially if it’s hot out. Go earlier morning or in the evening and don’t expect to have the place to yourself.
The Devils Garden Section of the park was closed due to road construction when we visited, but everything should be opened back up Dec. 1, 2017. I don’t have any personal experience with that area but according to Utah.com, “Devils Garden is a hiking loop can be customized for distance and difficulty. If you complete the entire loop (7.8 miles), you’ll see 7 natural arches.”
We spent only one day in Arches National Park. This was enough time to see a lot of the Window Section and hike to Delicate Arch. We might have liked to come back and hiked in Devils Garden if it had been open.
Canyonlands National Park
Plan to spend two days to see both the Island in the Sky and the Needles district.
Last, but not least, of the “Might Five” is Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is split into three parts — Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze — which are separated by the Colorado and Green Rivers. It’s about a 35-40 minute drive from Moab to Island in the Sky, which is the only section we were able to explore.
The Island in the Sky is known for its spectacular viewpoints. Grand View Point and Buck Canyon Overlook both offer dramatic panoramic views of the canyons below. Whale Rock is a fun hike that starts out flat and then becomes a bit of a scramble up the slickrock on to the top of a rounded butte that resembles the profile of a whale. I found the top of “the whale” to be a great spot to relax and get a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area.
Aztec Butte is another fun hike to check out in the Island in the Sky district. It’s a 1.8-mile round trip hike that crosses grasslands and climbs a steep slope to a dome-shaped butte rising above the mesa. The most interesting part of the trail is easy to miss. It’s a spur trail that takes you to Puebloan granaries, which early inhabitants used for storage.
One day was all we had to visit Canyonlands National Park. This is enough time to see the Islands in the Sky District. However, the Needle District is known for long day hikes and overnight trips. It would have been nice to spend a couple more days there was well.
There are many ways to experience Utah’s “Might Five” depending on what direction you will be coming from, what time of year, and how long you will be able to spend in the area. I suggest at least a week be able to explore a little bit at all five national parks. Time spent in a national park is never wasted time, so the longer you can spend, the better! Utah’s tourism website, visitutah.com also has great suggested itineraries for varying trip lengths.
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