Best national parks in Utah

Best National Parks In Utah

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Inspiring wanderlust across the globe with its out-of-the-world scenery of flaming reddish-brown rocks, clear blue skies, and endless landscape, the best national parks in Utah entices millions of visitors each year.

The fact that you’re here reading this means that one (or two) of these national parks have caught your attention too! 

In this article, WWB writer, Farihah will tell you what you need to know about the limitless opportunities for outdoor adventure in Utah’s top national parks.

After all, there are just so many of them in Utah besides the Mighty 5 Utah. 

There are state parks, national recreation areas, national monuments and you name it! That choosing which one to visit during the weekend or next holiday may be daunting.

But don’t worry, this article will share comprehensive information about their iconic landmarks, the best season to visit, activities offered, difficulty levels and the list goes on. 

Here’s a summary of the best national parks in Utah:

DISCLOSURE

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What Are The Best National Parks In Utah?

Utah might be known for its Big 5 national parks, but there are 11 other popular and underrated state parks, natural recreation areas, and national monuments, that make this beautiful state the destination for the great outdoors.

Each of them offers various outdoor opportunities for visitors to experience — hiking, mountain biking, canyoneering, camping, culture and historical exploration, and just everything in between! 

Let’s take a look at each one of them.

1. Dead Horse Point State Park

One of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world is in Dead Horse Point State Park

And that can be seen from the Dead Horse Point Lookout, a dramatic 2000-feet below panorama of the Gooseneck Bend flowing through Colorado Rivers, paired with Canyonlands National Park’s sculpted buttes and pinnacles in the background. 

You’ve probably seen this view somewhere on Instagram before! It is famous because it is taken from one of the best national parks in Utah 🙂

Mighty 5 Utah
Photo by Michael Hart on Unsplash

Best for: Iconic vista of Gooseneck Bend

This lookout can be accessed via Dead Horse Rim Loop Trail, which provides stunning loop views of the park’s meander.

  • Difficulty level: 2/5
  • Distance: 5 miles/8km loop trail
  • Duration: 2.5 hours
  • Elevation gain: 908 ft / 276 m
  • Trailhead: 38.515989, -109.74205

Alternatively, the park has eight miles of easy-to-moderate connected hiking trails that lead to different attractions. Most of them accommodate hikers and mountain bikers.

Tips:

  • If you’re a fan of the 1991 road movie “Thelma and Louise”, following the journey of two women on the run, you’d want to check out Thelma and Louise Point. It is the actual place where the car of the film’s heroines dashed off from the cliff in the ending scene.
  • Overnight camping and stargazing are awesome here. The night sky view is incredible and clear.

Fee (valid for 2 consecutive days from the purchase date):

  • $20 per vehicle (up to 8 passengers)
  • $15 for Utah Seniors
  • $10 per motorcycle
  • $4 per person with no car

Payment can be made at the entrance station or visitor center.

Park hours: Open year-round, 6:00am-10:00pm.

Visitor Center hours: Opens daily, 9:00am-5:00pm.

Best time to visit: Spring and Fall.

How to get there: It will be about 45 minutes drive from Moab, where you’ll take US 191 and drive 11 miles up north, then onto Utah 313 on the left, and continue driving towards Dead Horse Point, which will be on the left side.

2. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Did you know that Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is one of the last places to be mapped in the US because of its remote and huge location? 

The 1.9-million-acre monument is so vast that it covers three areas:

  • Grand Staircase, 
  • Kaiparowits Plateau, and 
  • Escalante Canyons. 

The most popular region is Escalante Canyons, due to its easier accessibility compared to the rest. The rest of them are so isolated that explorations are normally done off-trail. 

However, that does not make this unspoiled landscape any less interesting than other Mighty 5 Utah national parks. 

The monument comprises rugged hoodoos, picturesque badlands, extensive slot canyons, prehistoric village sites, and sculpted slick rocks; making it a paradise for explorers, researchers, hikers, off-roaders, and the canyoneers.

Must-visit hiking spots are Devils Garden (easy) and Wahweap Hoodoos (moderate) for peculiar-looking hoodoos. Meanwhile, off-roaders may be interested to hike along the river via Death Hollow (difficult) route or try off-roading with ATVs. 

Guided ATV tours in Grand Staircase National Monument ranges from $75-$400 via Grand Staircase ATV Tours.

Best for: Off-road and off-trail experiences

One of the best national parks in Utah perfect for adventure seekers.

Big 5 national parks
Photo by ducken99 from Pixabay

Tips:

  • A 4WD vehicle equipped with wide, deep-lug tires is most recommended when driving here. The remote area consists of mostly unpaved desert roads with conditions that can change quickly. Carry a shovel, in case your 4WD gets stuck.
  • It can be hard to get cell reception here too unless it is from high ground areas with the sight of Navajo Mountain.
  • There are very few facilities and maintained paths offered here. Only come here if you are a seasoned explorer, or via guided tours.

Difficulty level: 5/5

Fee: FREE

Park hours: Open 24/7, year-round.

Visitor center: The monument has no official entrances. But there is the main visitor center that provides maps of Escalante Canyon and helpful staff members.

The Escalante Interagency Visitor Center hours: 8:00 am – 4:30 pm, 7 days a week mid-March-mid-November. Monday-Friday for the rest of the year.

Best time visit: Spring and Fall (pleasant weather). Flash flood may occur in late summer, so beware.

How to get here: It will be about a 2-hour drive from Kanab, via US 89 up north and then continuing onto UT 12 east until you reach the visitor center.

3. Cedar Breaks National Monument

People come to Cedar Breaks because of one thing: its majestic deep amphitheater that looks like a coliseum surrounded by hoodoos, arches, canyons in shades of brick red, sunset orange, and yellow hues.

Because of its orange hoodoos, some people say Cedar Breaks is similar to Bryce Canyon (minus the crowds). Some say the colors here are even more brilliant than Bryce!

You can follow the Spectra Point and Rampart Overlook Trails where you’ll hike along the rim’s edge which descends at the panorama of the amphitheater.

Big 5 national parks
Photo by Ronald Diel on Unsplash
  • Difficulty level: 3/5
  • Distance: 6km
  • Elevation gain: 255m
  • Trailhead: There’s a Spectra Point Trail sign marking the steps leading up to the official trailhead from the parking lot.

Best for: Unique hoodoo geological formations

Tip: This park is centrally located in between two of the Big 5 national parks Utah Bryce Canyon and Zion, that most people usually include Cedar Breaks in their Zion/Bryce Canyon itinerary.

Fee:

  • $10 per person (16 years and older) via debit/credit only. Pay at the entrance station or visitor center.
  • America The Beautiful pass holders enjoy free entry to the monument
  • $24/night for campsites up to 8 people at Point Supreme Campground. Reserve here.

Park hours: Open year-round, 24-7

Visitor Center hours: 9:00am-6:00pm daily

How to get there: It will be about 45 minutes drive from Cedar City, where you’ll head east towards the north on the I-15 highway for 16 miles, and then turn right onto UT-143 heading south, where you’ll continue for 17.8miles until the park’s entrance. 

Best time to visit here: Any time of the year. Because of its higher altitude than surrounding parks, the weather is normally cool. Snow and hail can even occur in the summer too!

4. Snow Canyon State Park

Snow Canyon is also dubbed as the “little brother” to one of the mighty 5: Zion National Park. Being small in size, and located so close to Zion, Snow Canyon is often overlooked by tourists. 

But it is a favorite amongst the locals. 

Firstly because it is one of the best places to go in southwestern Utah for all sorts of recreational and adventurous activities. Hiking, biking, camping, rock climbing, discovering petroglyphs, wildlife viewing, and photographic excursion—you name it!

Secondly, the park’s beautiful landscape of red-and-cream burnt sandstones, coupled with black lava deposits scattering across the hillsides are wonders on their own.

Best national parks in Utah
Photo by alpinedon from Pixabay

A slot canyon here is easily reachable, within a short easy hike via Pioneer Names trail, which follows through shadowed towering cliffs and moss-covered walls.

  • Difficulty level: 1/5
  • Distance: 0.4 miles / 0.64 km
  • Duration: 20 minutes
  • Trailhead: Pioneer Names Trailhead

Best for: Various recreational adventures and camping

Tip: If you have RV trailers, this is the best place to bring them! There are 35-site for tents and RV (up to 40 feet) available for rent from $35-$150/night at the park’s campground, which comes together with electrical and water hookups. 

Fee:

  • $10 per vehicle of up to 8 people
  • $5 per vehicle with a Utah Senior
  • $5 per group of pedestrians/cyclists (up to 8 people)

Payment can be made at the entrance station.

Park hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

Best time to visit: Spring and Fall. Summer is extremely hot because there’s very little shade.

How to get there: Drive up north for 20 minutes via Bluff Street from St. George. Turn left onto Snow Canyon Parkway intersection, drive about 3.5miles until Snow Canyon Drive on the right. This road will lead you to the south entrance of the park.

5. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park’s icon is its ripples of rusty-coloured sand dune that is projected to be 10,000-15,000 years old. 

Formed by the Venturi Effect, this phenomenon caused the erosion of Navajo sandstone which then created the orange-red (sometimes pink) sand dunes. It is the only major sand dune field on the Colorado Plateau!

The vast expanse of this park makes it a favorite for off-roaders who love to explore using off-highway vehicles like ATVs. About 90% of the 3,730-acre park is open for off-roading activities.

Other common activities include camping, hiking, horseback riding or simply playing in the sand.

This is one of the best national parks in Utah that gives you a lot of variety!

Best national parks in Utah
Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

Best for: ATV rides on vast coral sand dunes

Tip: If you have a knack for wildlife, interesting to note is this park is the only place one may find the Coral Pink tiger beetle. They are commonly found on warm, sunny mornings and late afternoons in early April through mid-June. 

Park Elevation: 6000 ft. Depending on the winds, the sand may shift to 50 ft per year.

Fee:

  • $10 per vehicle
  • $5 for Utah seniors 62 and older

Payment can be made at the entrance station.

  • $25-$175 per night for RV and individual or group campsites (Reserve here)

Park hours: Open all year round, during daylight hours.

Best time to visit: Spring, early summer, and fall, when the weather is pleasant.

How to get there: From Kanab, head north on US Highway 89, turn left onto Hancock Rd, and follow the signs to the State Park.

6. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

The red, rough sandstone towers of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park are one of America’s greatest natural landmarks

The view of 1000-foot elevated buttes across the barren desert is so incredible, making it synonymous to the great American west in motion pictures, even the monument’s beauty has been featured as a setting in several motion pictures. 

Best national parks in Utah
Photo by manniguttenberger from Pixabay

While the park sprawls across both Utah and Arizona, the Utah side encompasses the iconic destination of this park: The Forrest Gump Hill. It is where Forrest Gump ended his cross-country run at the exact location, at the Mitten Buttes.

  • How to get there: From Bluff, drive southwest via US 191 for 5 miles, then continue onto US163 for 28.3 miles. The destination will be on the right
  • Tip: Early morning provides the best photographic opportunities at Forrest Gump Hill, as there’s less traffic.

Other common activities include exploring the Navajo culture, hiking, and camping. If horses, history, and culture interest you, a horseback tour with Navajo guides ($80) into the deeper parts of the park or staying overnight in a traditional Navajo hogan ($160) will be worth it. 

Best for: Classic American west movie views and cultural excursion in the sacred land of Navajo, one of the largest American Indian tribes.

Fee: 

  • $10 per person 
  • $20 per vehicle
  • FREE for Children 9 and under. 

Buy a general admission pass via online or on-site at the visitor center.

Permit is required for backcountry camping and hiking.

Visitor Center hours

Peak season: 6:00am-8:00pm (May through September)

Off season: 8:00am-5:00pm (October through April)

Best time to come here: Spring and Fall (stable weather). Winters are cold and windy (for snow-dusted panoramas)

How to get here: The park’s visitor center is situated on US 163 right at the border of Utah and Arizona. Access the park via a 105 miles drive south from Moab on US 191, then continue 45 miles onto US 163 till the visitor center’s entrance.

This is one of the best national parks in Utah if you want to see where Forrest Gump was filmed!

7. Sand Hollow State Park

One of the most popular spots to hang out nearby St George because of its crown jewel: a warm-temperate blue oasis, surrounded by gorgeous red rock formations and soft sandy beaches. 

Sand Hollow Reservoir is the perfect place to enjoy ample water recreation activities like wakeboarding, jet skis, kayaking, swimming, or fishing.

Besides that, the park features over 15,000 acres of Sand Mountain’s ready-to-ride unspoiled sand dunes for off-road trails that suit all levels of abilities.

The Maze is a must-do trail for the hardcore offroaders that are up to challenges. Sand Hollow Reservoir OHV trail, an out-and-back trail that bypasses steep ascents and descents, with exposure to 1200 foot cliff drop. Not for the faint-hearted!

  • Difficulty level: 5/5
  • Distance: 11.5 miles / 18.5 km
  • Duration: Can last up to one day
  • Elevation gain: 1,453 ft / 443 m
  • Trailhead: Access is via the West Rim trail from the Washington Dam stage. 
Big 5 national parks
Photo by Cédric Frixon on Unsplash

Best for: Water Sports activities at Sand Hollow Reservoir and ATV trails.

Tip: Swimmer’s Itch may be active in the shallow waters of the reservoir during the hot summer months. Check the latest updates here to know the active status of Swimmer’s Itch at Sand Hollow.

Fees

  • $15 per vehicle
  • $10 per seniors 62+
  • $20 per non-Utah residents

Payment can be made at the entrance station.

  • $28-95/night per campground site. With access to fire pits, tables, showers, and restrooms (depending on your campground of choice). Reserve here.

Equipment Rentals: OHV, ATV, kayaks, paddleboard, jet skis rentals are available on-site or online from BASH.

Park opening hours

Open year-round; hours vary by season

April thru September: 6:00 am – 10:00 pm

October thru March: 7:00 am – 9:00 pm

Best time to visit:

  • October-May (off-season) for off-roading or biking. 
  • Winter for skiing at Sand Hollow Reservoir.
  • May through September for normal water sports activities as the reservoir’s water is pleasantly warm.

How to get here: The park is 13 miles east of St George via Washington Dam Road and Southern Parkway.

8. Goosenecks State Park

Offering spectacular views here is the 1000 feet deep entrenched river meander carved naturally by the San Juan River, over 300 million years of geological activity and erosion. 

This park is a must-do additional destination if you are visiting Monument Valley, which one can also see its buttes and spires on the southwest of the Gooseneck’s view. 

No hiking is required to see this viewpoint, as there is a paved pathway towards the cliff’s edge.

Big 5 national parks
Photo by Ken Cheung on Unsplash

Tips: 

  • Be careful of the strong winds when approaching the viewpoint’s edge, as it is unguarded.
  • The open spaces of the park make it a great place for stargazing, sightseeing, and photography.

One can reach the riverbank via Honaker Trail (best from September-May), the very supply route used for gold miners in 1893. The hiking trail starts from the edge’s rim, leading down to the river.

 It is not marked and maintained here.

  • Difficulty level: 4/5
  • Distance: 4 miles out and back
  • Duration: 4-5 hours
  • Elevation gain: 1,643 ft / 501m
  • Trailhead: Honaker Trailhead 

There is no access to the river available at the park.

Best for: Impressive observation overlook and stargazing.

Fees

  • $5 per vehicle up to 8 people
  • $2 per person for bus tour groups

Payment can be made at the entrance station.

  • $10/night per camping site. The park has primitive camping sites with vault toilets. First come, first served only. If no ranger is on duty, pay at fee tube using self serve envelopes.

Park hours

24 hours, year-round

Best time to come here: All year round, and sunrise and sunset times are more enjoyable for sightseeing and photography. The park has no shade so you can expect the park to be scorching hot during the summer months.

How to get here: Take the US 163 route from the west of Bluff town, then turn right onto UT261 and drive for 0.8 miles, turn left onto UT 316 and drive for 3.5 miles until you reach the park.

9. Natural Bridges National Monument

This monument is famed for its three large multi-colored natural bridges

What’s rare about these natural bridges is the fact that they are formed by running water, unlike arches that are sculpted by other forces of erosion. 

Also, the monument features pictographs, prehistoric Anasazi cliff dwellings, and white sandstone canyons.

In comparison to Big 5 Arches National Park which is home to more than 2,000 classified arches, the area of this monument is relatively smaller and remote, making it a less crowded alternative to Arches. 

A beautiful view of all three bridges known as Kachina, Sipapu (second largest natural bridge in the US), and Owachomo can be seen from the one-way 9-miles (14.5km) Bridge View Drive

The drive winds along the park, passing by all the bridges.

Tips:

  • Don’t rush. Take your sweet, sweet time when driving along Bridge View Drive to enjoy the beauty of the monument.
  • Information about the scenic drive’s attractions is available at the visitor’s center, situated on UT 95, before the scenic drive’s junction.

But if you prefer a nearer view of these natural beauties, not to worry!

Hiking trails ranging between 0.5-3 miles of trail length are available. You might also stumble upon the diverse wildlife species like rats, mountain lions, snakes, birds at the bottom of the park!

Big 5 national parks
Photo by rauschenberger from Pixabay

And if you’re serious about astronomy and stargazing, you’ll want to camp here Natural Bridges is the world’s first International Dark Sky Park. So, the sky is among the least polluted in the world!

The park has a 13-site campground that can accommodate up to eight people and two vehicles, with amenities like picnic tables, tent pad, and grill on site. First come, first served basis.

Best for: Scenic drive, wildlife watching, the sighting of natural bridges, and stargazing.

Park hours

24 hours, year-round

Visitor center standard hours: 9 am-5 pm daily except Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Fees (for seven days pass)

  • $20 for one private vehicle (15 pax or less)
  • $10 for one motorcycle and its riders
  • $10 per person with no car, or bicyclists, pedestrians.
  • FREE for Youth 15 and under.

Payment can be made at the entrance station or visitor center.

Best time to come here:

  • Spring and Fall (best weather)
  • The hot summer months can make activities here feel strenuous. Flash floods can occur without warning during the late summer monsoon season.
  • Snowfalls are uncommon during winter, however, ice and snow can block the local trails and roads.

How to get here: Drive about 45 minutes south from Blanding on US 191 to UT 95, continue about 35 miles west to UT 275 until you see the entrance to Natural Bridges, at the end of UT 275.

10. Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area

If fishing or boating is up to your alley, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area situated nearby Manila, northeast of Utah, will be your haven.

The reservoir and Green River that dominates Flaming Gorge grounds are some of the best fishing holes in the world. It is certified as a ‘Blue ribbon fishing’ spot—an identification of high-quality recreational fisheries in the United States.

Anglers can expect to reel several trout species, trophy species, and Kokanee salmon when fishing at Flaming Gorge.

Best national parks in Utah
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

Other popular activities here are kayaking, paddleboarding, rafting, windsurfing, angling, hiking, and water skiing.

Best for: Trophy lake trout fishing and watersports activities

Tip: You cannot miss out on the sunrise/sunset view here. The bluish-green reservoir view set against the red canyon walls is just breathtaking, even photos can’t do justice!

Fee

No entrance fee is needed. 

But Recreation Use Pass and permits from Ashley National Forest are needed in certain areas. Permits can be purchased from parking areas’ kiosks and local vendors.

Park hours

Open 24/7, year-round

Flaming Gorge Dam Visitor Center hours

9 am-5 pm daily (April 15- October 15)

Best time to visit: Summer for watersports and Fall for hiking. Winter for ice-fishing

How to get here: Drive about 34.0 miles down south from Manila on UT 44, then turn left onto US 191 and continue about 6 miles. The visitor center will be on the left side. The drive is about 40 minutes.

11. Rainbow Bridge National Monument

Utah is home to a lot of naturally-sculpted arches and bridges. One of them is Rainbow Bridge, the largest known natural bridge in the world at 290ft/88m tall and 270ft/83m across.

Best national parks in Utah
Photo by Tom Gainor on Unsplash

The bridge is considered sacred to the Navajo culture. It is a Navajo symbol of life in the desert – deities creating rainbows, clouds, and rain.

What makes the journey to the monument special is the journey towards it – a scenic 50 miles boat ride tour ($127/per person) across the gigantic Lake Powell (covers both Utah and Arizona).

Best for: Appreciating magnificent natural formation sacred to Navajo culture and picturesque boating experience.

Tips: 

  • It’s so easy to get dehydrated so bring more water than you’ll need!
  • No services are available at the monument. Only a floating restroom at the dock.

Fees: No fee to enter the monument. However, a $30 entrance fee (for one single, non-commercial vehicle and valid for 7 days) is applicable for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, from which visitors can access the monument by boat.

Opening hours: Open year-round, the monument is closed at sundown.

Best time to visit: Spring and Fall

How to get here: Access the monument via a boat ride across Lake Powell. By boat, you can depart from Wahweap Marina near the Arizona Border. Upon docking, you’ll venture on a relatively easy 1.25 mile (1.8km) hike to the bridge.

What Are The Big 5 National Parks In Utah?

Now that the best state parks, national monuments, and recreational areas are covered, it’s time for the real deal: the cream-of-the-creme of the parks in Utah, or better known as the Mighty 5. 

So, what are the best national parks in Utah ranked?

In all honesty, it’s hard to rank the Mighty five national parks according to order. They each come with their distinct experiences and facilities unparalleled elsewhere.

Let’s get in-depth and examine what do each Big 5 Utah national parks offer:

1. Zion National Park

Out of all the Big five Utah, Zion National Park would top the list. 

Just ask those who have been to Utah which national park to go to for the first time.. Most would answer Zion!

It’s easy to understand why. 

The jaw-dropping scenery of pink, red, and cream mountain panorama against the clear blue sky; the multi-purpose trail options that can accommodate all sorts of hikers, bikers, and canyoneers; and unique wilderness make Zion a must experience for first-timer visitors in Utah.

Big five Utah
Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash

From Angel’s Landing

Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash

Famous spots at Zion National Park

  • Angel’s Landing via West Rim Trail

Difficult / 4 hours / 5.4 miles; 8.7 km roundtrip / 1,488 ft; 453 km

A 1,488-foot tall rock formation that features a dramatic view of Zion Canyon. This is a strenuous trail with steep routes and long drop-offs.

Shuttle stop from: #6 The Grotto

  • Observation Point via East Rim Trail

Difficult / 6 hours / 8 miles; 12.9 km roundtrip / 2,148 ft; 655 m

The Observation Point is a summit that juts out into the canyon’s rim, providing a stunning vista of almost every attraction in Zion. Climbs and long drop-offs.

Shuttle stop from: #7 Weeping Rock

  • Emerald Pools

Easy-moderate / 1 hour / 1.2-3 miles; 1.9-5km roundtrip / 69-200 ft ; 21-61 m

70 feet to lower, 150 feet to middle, 350 feet to upper

Known for its glistening deep green waters, Emerald Pools can be accessed via several hiking trails, ranging from easy (suitable for young children and wheelchair-bounds with added assistance) to moderate lengths. 

Incredible sights of Red Arch Mountain, Great White Throne, and Lady Mountain can be seen along the trails.

Shuttle stops from:

#5 Zion Lodge to Lower & Middle Emerald Pools Trail

#6 The Grotto to Upper Emerald Pool Trail

Underrated spots in Zion National Park

Tips: 

  • Zion is literally the busiest park in Utah, during peak season. To make the most out of your time in Zion, advance and adequate planning are required. 
  • Check the updated trail & river information in the park’s newspaper before you visit Zion for the latest information.

Camping grounds

Book your reservations early if you are planning to camp at Zion, because the campgrounds tend to be full from mid-March until late November.

South campground

  • $20/night for individual sites
  • $50/night for group sites

Watchman Campground

  • $20-30/night for individual sites
  • $50/night for group sites

Fees (valid for 7 days from the purchase date)

  • $35 for private vehicle
  • $30 for motorcycle
  • $20 per individual (with no car)
  • FREE for Youth 15 and under

Payment can be made at the entrance station or visitor center.

Park hours

Open every day of the year

Zion Canyon Visitor Center: 8 am-4 pm (might change depending on seasons)

Pets at Zion National Park

Must be on leash. Allowed on some parts and facilities at Zion.

Getting around Zion National Park

Via shuttle service at $1 per ticket. Shuttle tickets are not sold at the park. Must be purchased online

Learn how the shuttle works in Zion here.

Best time to visit

  • Spring and Fall for comfortable weather.
  • Summer is the peak season. Generally scorching hot and extremely packed with visitors.
  • Winter for solitude and snow. Some trails are closed due to ice falling.

How to get here

From Springdale, drive 1.4 miles northeast via UT-9, then turn right and continue for another 1 mile until the entrance of the visitor center.

2. Arches National Park

If you happen to be around Moab, make your way down to Arches National Park to see a wonderland filled with arches of all shapes and sizes. 

The park has over 2,000 astounding sandstone arches of all shapes and sizes that are expanded, fractured, and carved layer after layer due to natural forces of erosion. Hence, making it the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches,

Arches national park itinerary
Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash

The amazing landscape here offers tons of hiking trails that let you discover the arches up close. Some are family-friendly so it’s a good place to bring your children to explore! 

Arches national park itinerary tips: 

  • Allocate around 1.5-2 days to experience most of the big trails and underrated gems.
  • Sunsets and sunrises view on the horizons of this red-rock park here are just unreal, so make sure to not miss that out!
  • Avoid traffic by entering the park before 8 am or after 3 pm

Famous spots at Arches National Park

  • Delicate Arch

Moderate / 2-3 hours / 3 miles; 4.8 km roundtrip / 480 ft; 146 m

This world-famous monolith is the main reason why people come here. Featured countless times in magazines and license plates, it is not only the icon of the park but Utah itself. The trail is particularly packed during sunrise and sunset.

Trailhead: Google maps

Arches national park itinerary
Photo by Ben Stiefel on Unsplash
  • Landscape Arch

Easy / 50 minutes / 1.9 miles; 3.1km round trip /

The thin and delicate-looking Landscape Arch stretches at 306 feet (93.3 m) is one of the world’s longest arch. The trail is relatively flat and traverses through tall fins.

Trailhead: Devils Garden

Underrated spots in Arches National Park

Camping grounds in Arches National Park

Campsites in the national park give campers quick and near access to all the trails. However, they are usually full during the busy and holiday seasons. Book months ahead in advance.

  • Devils Garden Campground

51 first-come, first-served sites available.

18 miles paved drive from the park entrance.

$25/night for individual sites (max 10 people and 2 vehicles)

$75-250/night for group sites (ranges from 11-55 people)

You can also find campsites outside the park.

Fees

  • $30 for private vehicle
  • $25 for motorcycle
  • $15 per individual (with no car)
  • FREE for Youth 15 and under

Payment can be made via online or on-site at the entrance station or visitor center.

Park hours

Open 24/7 daily, year-round.

Visitor Center hours: 9:00am-4:00pm (closed on December 25)

Pets

Must be on a leash at all times. Allowed on some areas at Arches.

Best time to visit

  • Spring and Fall are the best seasons for comfortable weather.
  • Summer is the peak season. Generally scorching hot and extremely packed with visitors.
  • In winter the park turns into a dreamy, icy wonderland.

How to get here

From Moab, drive 5 miles up north via US 191 until you see Arches National Park Visitor Center on the right side.

3. Canyonlands National Park

If you think Zion is so big, Canyonlands’ bigger! 

Out of the Big five Utah, Canyonlands is the largest one. It is the largest national park by land area in the state. 

This national park located near Moab is so huge, that it is divided into three districts: The Needles, Island in the Sky, and The Maze.

Each region features its own taste of spectacular views and thrilling adventures. 

Island in the Sky is the most popular region due to its easy accessibility, plus grand views of the sculpted canyons, fins, and buttes. Hence, the area is usually crowded.

Needles, on the other hand, is for those seeking a backcountry adventure via 4WD rides to off-the-beaten gems in the park.

The last region, The Maze is a remote area that is less frequented by many.. Except for seasoned explorers who are self-reliant and up for an off-road, overnight experience to the most isolated part of Canyonlands.

Canyonlands National Park Itinerary tip:

The three regions are so far apart, that traveling in between them would take hours. Best to focus on one location per visit.

Arches national park itinerary
Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash

Famous spots in Canyonlands National Park

  • Mesa Arch

Easy / 30 minutes / 0.5 miles; 0.8km round rip / 50 ft elevation gain

A favorite spot for photographers, especially during sunrise when the sun rays illuminate within the arch’s window. This cliff-edge structure overlooks a panoramic view of the valleys, canyons, and the distant La Sal Mountains.

Trailhead: Mesa Arch Trailhead 

  • Grand View point

Easy / 1.5 hours / 2 miles ; 3.2km round trip / 6,080 ft elevation

The Grand View is the answer to why the park is called Canyonlands. The vista captures a scenic surrounding of the park’s prominent features such as distant canyons, mountains, basins, spires, the confluence of Green and Colorado Rivers, and the winding White Rim Road.

Trailhead: Google maps

Underrated spots in Canyonlands National Park

Campgrounds

No showers and waters, only vault toilets.

  • The Needles Campground

$20/night for individual sites

$70-225/night for group sites (up to 50 people). Reserve in advance.

$15/night for individual sites

No group sites. 

First come first served basis. No reservations.

Fees (valid for 7 days)

  • $30 for private vehicle
  • $25 for private motorcycle
  • $15 for individual with no car
  • FREE for Youth 15 and under

Payment can be made via online or on-site at the entrance station or visitor center.

Park hours

Open 24/7, year-round.

Visitor Centers:

  • Island in the Sky Visitor Center: 8 am-5 pm
  • Needles Visitor Center: 8 am-5 pm
  • Hans Flat Ranger Station (The Maze district): 8 am-4:30 pm

Operating hours may vary according to seasons.

Pets

Must be on leash. Allowed only at campgrounds and parking lots. 

Best time to visit

  • Spring (best for rafting) and Fall are the perfect times to visit for the best weather. 
  • Winter can be amazing too, as the white snow transforms this high desert into frosted red, orange statues, offering solitude and unique experiences. 
  • Summer, the temperatures may rise beyond 100F.

How to get here

From Moab, drive 12 miles north on US 191 to UT 313, and then drive 21 miles southwest to Island in the Sky Visitor Center. The visitor center will be on the right. The drive will take about 40 minutes.

4. Bryce Canyon National Park

Did you know that the largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular rock columns) found on earth is found in Bryce Canyon

This big five Utah national park is known for its jaw-dropping plateau of distinct towering red totem pole-shaped rocks carved by wind and water over millions of years. 

In summer, one can go hiking through its interconnected trails of the dark forest and red canyons, camping, or horseback riding. 

During winter, the snow envelopes the park’s orange and yellow hoodoos, including tall and classic bristlecone pine trees, turning it into a magical Winter Wonderland. Perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing activities.

Arches national park itinerary
Photo by Doran Erickson on Unsplash

Tips: 

  • Snow is possible all year round because of the park’s elevation at 8,000 to 9,000 feet. So, it’s good to be prepared and wear layers!
  • Also, the Highway 12 Scenic Byway towards Bryce Canyon is not to be missed. Dubbed as Utah’s All-American Road, this 122.863 miles road features picturesque landscapes you won’t find elsewhere. 

Famous spots at Bryce Canyon National Park 

  • The Rim Trail (Sunrise to Sunset Point)

Easy / 1-7.5 hours / 1.0-11.0 miles; 1.6-17.7km round trip / 1177 ft ; 359m elevation gain

This trail follows the cliff’s edge where you can see the Amphitheater from above. At Sunset point is an enchanting overlook of Bryce Canyon’s Amphitheater. Silent City coral spires and hoodoos rising from the canyon’s floor, and Thor’s hammer on the northern edge.

Trailhead: Google Maps

  • Navajo Loop Trail

Moderate / 1-2 hours / 1.3 miles ; 2.2 km round trip / 550 ft ; 168 m elevation gain

Especially famous in Bryce Canyon because of its route which descends from Sunset Point’s rim, through Silent City, past Wall Street’s narrow slot canyon passages.

Often combined with Queen’s Garden Trail for a longer hike.

Trailhead: Google Maps

Underrated spots at Bryce Canyon National Park

Camping grounds

No water, sewer, or electrical hook-ups.

There are two campgrounds in the park, which both are priced at:

$20/night for tent sites

$30/night for RV sites

*Each site is strictly for 10 people with no more than 6 adults.

  • North Campground

During summer, a dump station is available for a $5 fee use at the campground’s south end. Portable water available too. Book here.

Nearby to Fairyland Loop/Rim Trail, Visitor Center, and General Store.

  • Sunset campground

1.5 miles away from the Visitor Center. Book here.

If you can’t find a campground, check out dispersed (free) camping alternatives here.

Fees (valid for 7 days)

  • $35 per one private vehicle (15 pax or less)
  • $30 per motorcycle
  • $20 per person with no car

Payment can be made via online or on-site at the entrance station or visitor center.

Park hours

Open 24/7, year-round

Bryce Canyon Visitor Center operating hours

Summer: May – September 8:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.

Fall: October 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Winter: November – March 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Spring: April 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Pets

Must be on leash. Allowed in certain areas.

Getting around Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon has a free shuttle service that helps you get around the park’s trails, facilities, and viewpoints.

Best time to visit 

  • Summer (between May through September) is the perfect time to visit. The temperature is comfortable. 
  • Spring and fall have fewer people, and chilly nights.
  • Winter for winter activities. Note that the temperature can drop below zero due to the park’s high elevation. 

How to get here

From Bryce, take UT 63 and drive down south for 2.5 miles (approx 5 minutes) until you reach the park’s visitor center.

5. Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef doesn’t require a lot of exploration time compared to the other mighty 5 Utah. But it is worth traveling to in understanding the amazing geology that defines this park, and that is… 

The Waterpocket Fold. 

A tilted sandstone formed before life happened that defines this park. 

This wrinkle in Earth’s crust juts for almost 100 miles, creating distinct geological layers folded in pink Entrada sandstone, white Navajo sandstone, and red Wingate.

Activities here range from stargazing at the campsite, canyoneering, and hiking. While the sandstone and canyon walls are abundant, some of these rocks are engraved with ancient petroglyphs.

Arches national park itinerary
Photo by Tracy Zhang on Unsplash

Famous spots at Capitol Reef National Park

  • Capitol Reef Scenic Drive

This 7.9milese (12.7 km) paved road with short dirt roads allows you to view the best scenery of Capitol Reef National Park. There are 11 stops altogether, each with its own unique features like textures of rocks, Waterpocket Fold, dark red hills, cliffs covered with shallow holes, vegetation and gravel deposits.

Accessible to vehicles and RVs up to 27 feet in length.

  • Hickman Natural Bridge

Moderate / 1-2 hours / 0.9 mile ;1.4km one-way / 400 ft ; 122 m elevation gain

Most popular hike at Capitol Reef. This bridge arches 300 feet over Highway 24 and Fremont River, yet below the surrounding Waterpocket Fold.

Trailhead: Google Maps

Underrated spots at Capitol Reef National Park

Camping grounds at Capitol Reef National Park

  • Fruita Campground 

This 71-site campground is the only established campground at Capitol Reef. It is surrounded by historic orchards and the nearby Fremont River.

$20/night per site.

NO sewage, electrical hookups, individual water.

First come first served basis. Book in advance.

Fees

  • $20 per private vehicle
  • $15 per motorcycle
  • $10 per individual

Payment can be made on-site at the entrance station or visitor center.

Park hours

24/7, open year-round.

Visitor center hours

Capitol Reef National Park Visitor Center

Standard hours: 8:00am-4:30pm

Seasonal hours may apply. 

Pets 

Allowed on leash on the developed parts of the park 

Best time to visit

  • Spring for off-season exploration.
  • Summer (for hikes) is not harsh compared to other southwestern parks in Utah. The temperature rarely exceeds 100F. 
  • Fall for fruit picking and harvesting.
  • Winter (generally around 10-15F, rarely dips below 0F) for solitude and quiet exploration. 

How to get here

From Torrey, drive 10.7 miles east on UT 24 until you reach the Capitol Reef National Park visitor center, located on the right side.

Is Zion National Park Better Than Bryce Canyon?

A question that is often asked when one visits southern Utah: Is Zion National Park better than Bryce Canyon?

Honestly, it depends on what your preferences are, and what type of experiences you are looking for. While these two best national parks in Utah have similar things to do, they are vastly different, each providing must-visit attractions unique to them. 

Below is a breakdown of both parks’ highlights. 

Nearby Towns And Parks

First of all, there’s the nearest town host which is convenient for access to these national parks.

Zion National Park is located nearby Springdale.

Springdale is a bigger, lively town compared to Bryce Canyon City. The 500-population town encompasses antique shops, cultural restaurants, lodges & hotels, and rock shops!

Bryce Canyon National Park is located nearby Bryce Canyon City.

Bryce Canyon is a small settlement that oozes a little rustic, western-style town with a couple of restaurants, hotels, cabins of a similar vibe.

Activities

Zion: Hiking, canyoneering, mountain climbing, mountain biking, horseback riding, wildlife watching, white water rafting.

Bryce Canyon: Hiking, ice fishing, snowboarding, skiing, ATV, astronomy.

Winter Season

Winter may seem like an intimidating season to visit national parks, even in Utah’s desert landscape. However, the scene of these parks dramatically changes in winter, some say even more beautiful with the icy fallen snow! 

The winter in Zion is relatively mild. 

Because of its low elevation, sometimes the snow doesn’t reach the canyon. But when it does, the snow melts quickly. But because of its mild temperature, some hikes are more enjoyable compared to summer. 

Shuttle services don’t work during winter so you’ll get the opportunity to drive through Zion National Park during the winter offseason.  

The winter season in Bryce Canyon is simply magical because of its location at a high altitude. It is the perfect spot for some winter sports, winter hiking, and winter backpacking activities. 

If you pay attention to the weather forecast and plan properly, you can enjoy the beauty of each park in a more calm, and quiet ambiance in the wintertime. 

Make sure you check the latest update from Zion and Bryce Canyon before you embark on your winter venture!

This is one of the best national parks in Utah perfect for the winter months.

Different Terrain And Scenery

If you want an all-in introduction to the geologic landscape in Utah, varying from rivers to desert and forested mountains, Zion is the place to go. 

If you want to go to a higher region or a place that’s cool throughout the year, then choose Bryce Canyon. It is a mountain desert that is located pretty high at an elevation of 8,000 to 9,000 ft. known for the vast vista of hoodoos as its photo-worthy scenery.

Up To Your Choice

Listed as the ‘10 Best U.S. National Parks’, there is no right vs wrong choice when it comes to these two. 

Each national park has its own strength, and they are just located about 1.5 hours away from each other. Hence, it depends on what you are looking for at the end of the day!

But if you have more than ample time around Utah, why not visit both because they are equally interesting in their own leagues!

Unique Tips You Should Know When Visiting Utah National Parks 

Look Out For Entrance Fee-Free Dates

Some national park sites offer free admission on certain dates. Check out the date list here before you start your best national parks in Utah journey.

America The Beautiful Annual Pass

If you are intending to visit multiple national parks and federal recreation lands in Utah, get your hands on America The Beautiful Annual pass for the best deal. What’s cool about this pass is that it gives US citizens and visitors unlimited annual access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks throughout the United States.

The $80 annual pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees, and day-use fees for one vehicle (the pass owner plus three adults). It is valid for one year from the date of purchase.

Think about it: most of the national park’s entrance fee costs around $30 per vehicle. If you do the math, that’s only 3 national parks’ entrance fees for a year’s worth of access to over 2,000 national parks and federal recreation sites in the whole country—which saves a lot of costs actually!

Purchase your Annual Pass online or from federal recreation areas where passes are issued.

Come Early To Avoid Crowds

Expect any of the Mighty 5 Utah, popular parks and monuments to be filled with crowds during peak seasons and holiday seasons. Come way way early if you happen to visit in those times.

Rentals And Tour

Most of the parks provide rental equipment on the spot. 

You can also rent mountain bikes, ATVs, OHVs, yurt from third-party services, but always remember to choose a trustworthy and reliable operator that is certified with good equipment.

Do your research and check out the reviews of shops and rental providers before deciding to proceed with which operator to choose. 

Take Note Of The Season

Spring and Fall are generally pleasant, with a lot of visitors. Beautiful sceneries of blooming flowers in Spring and colorful fallen foliage in Fall. Peak season is Spring: Apr-May and Early Fall: Late Sept-Oct.

Be prepared to experience hot scorching sun that can reach over 100F degrees in the height of Summer, which is also a busy season despite the heat. Flash floods may occur late summer-monsoon season. Beware. 

Winter is attractive for dramatic snow-peaked scenery. Parks with high elevation may experience temperature dipping below 0. Do check the conditions (weather, road, trail) earlier.

Be Prepared

It’s exciting to be outdoors. Plan your Utah national parks itinerary before you embark on your journey.

Have proper footwear and outerwear, enough water supply, bring your essentials, allow enough time, know your limits, and always have cash at hand in case the cell reception runs out.

You don’t want to venture into a steep trail, an unmarked path, or a remote strenuous backpacking trip if you are a newbie hiker. 

Book Your Campgrounds Way Ahead Of Time

Each park has at least one campground (paid). Most camping sites required a first-come, first-served basis that needs months ahead of reservation.

During peak season, some parks provide vault toilets with portable stations at the camping grounds. Some have no dumping stations. Do your research and make sure you know what facilities are you okay with, and not okay with.

But if you can’t find camping sites in the park, dispersed (free) campgrounds are available too. You can search for them via iOverlander where you can see available campsites and amenities through the map.

Make It A Road Trip

Utah has A LOT to offer that it would be a shame to just visit one if you are in the state for a long time. How about choosing the top 3 that pique your interest the most and turn it into your very own Utah national parks road trip for a memorable experience?

Conclusion

Considering the number of national parks, the vastness of the region, and the diverse environment from sand dunes to the high desert and narrow canyons in Utah, you will definitely be left spoiled for choices! 

Whatever it is you’re looking for—a cultural discovery, a boating experience, or a challenging off-roading activity, the national parks in Utah have it! 

So now that you have the guide to the best national parks in Utah, what’s left is to decide which one will be on your bucket list next, and start preparing for your adventure in the Wild Wild West!

Best National Parks In Utah

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