Utah’s national and state parks make the 45th state a world-class destination for nature lovers.
Following time in Arizona this spring, my wife, Grace, and I joined a small group on a five-day tour that included the “Utah Mighty 5” national parks along with two equally stunning state parks.
We benefited from clear, mild weather (except for a brief snow squall at 8,000-feet in Bryce Canyon) and the expertise of two guides from family-owned adventure company MountainBased.
The natural wonders and incredible beauty of southern Utah can’t be fully described in words or photos.
But here is an overview of the parks we visited:
Dead Horse Point State ParkOur short visit to Dead Horse Point State Park, 32 miles from Moab, in southeastern Utah, gave us an introduction to the spectacles that awaited us. We stopped at an overlook thought to be one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world. The dramatic view of the Colorado River as it winds through the canyon below includes sculpted mesas and buttes.
According to legend, the park was once used as a corral for wild mustangs in the 19th century. Cowboys rounded up the horses and herded them to a narrow point. They then chose the horses they wanted; some horses died of thirst and/or exposure.
The park, which appeared in the final scene in the 1991 film “Thelma & Louise,” only receives 10 inches of precipitation a year. The plants and wildlife have adapted to live in the desert environment.
Dead Horse State Park’s 8-mile hiking trail that overlooks some of the most scenic views of both the east and west rims.
Canyonlands National ParkAt 527 square miles, Canyonlands is Utah’s largest national park. It is visible from Dead Horse State Park, 21 miles away. After a hike, we had a picnic lunch overlooking the Island in the Sky, the 6,000-foot high flat-topped mesa. Also visible from the same site were the 11,500-foot Henry Mountains in the west and the 12,700-foot La Sal Mountains to the east.
The Needles is another highlight of Canyonlands. It was named for the colorful spires of sandstone that dominate the area. Canyonlands is famous for its rough jeep trails that challenge almost any off-road enthusiast.
There is no lodging within Canyonlands National Park, but first-come-first-served camping sites are available. Our first two nights we stayed at Red Cliffs Lodge near Moab, with mountain views and a dining room that overlooks the red rocks and Colorado River. The lodge offers a swimming pool and hot tub, horseback riding, tennis and whitewater rafting excursions, a museum with Western film memorabilia, and an on-site winery.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park has more than 2,000 stone arches, but the most famous is Delicate Arch, one of the world’s most recognized geological features.
The arch, which features an opening 46 feet high and 32 feet wide, is the largest free-standing arch in the park. The three-mile round-trip hike to the arch, with 480 feet of elevation, is moderately challenging, but well worth the venture. There is a dramatic stretch at the end where you find yourself carefully leaning away from the cliff’s edge. (The National Park Service describes this hike as difficult, which it could be on a rainy day or in sweltering heat.)
I was the only one in our group of six that descended to the opening of the arch for a better look — not a feat for the faint of heart. A young California couple just ahead of me posed for pictures and the young man knelt down on one knee and surprised his girlfriend with a proposal and engagement ring. She was astonished. The onlookers all applauded. I asked the gent if she accepted the proposal. With a broad smile he loudly exclaimed, “YES!”
There are two other viewing options of Delicate Arch — The Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint down the road, with a look at the arch from a mile away and the Upper Viewpoint, with an extra half-mile walk.
Goblins Valley State ParkOne of the most unusual adventures we had on the trip was a stopover at Goblins Valley State Park, featuring thousands of hoodoos (pinnacles of weathered rock). The locals call them goblins. Many are mushroom-shaped, several feet tall.
The park is at the edge of the immense San Rafael Desert, 12 miles from the village of Hanksville, Utah.
Our guides, Justin and Eric, encouraged us to wonder the park alone while they prepared a picnic lunch. For more than an hour, we wandered around hoodoos of all shapes and sizes. For most of the hike we never saw anyone else.
We could see why Goblin Valley was featured in the comedy movie “Galaxy Quest,” (1999, starring Tim Allen), with the park viewed as an alien planet.
Capitol Reef National ParkEleven miles from the town of Torrey, Utah, Capitol Reef National Park was established in 1971. The park is 60 miles long and just six miles wide.
It was named for the white Navajo Sandstone cliffs with dome formations that resemble the capitol buildings in Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City.
Our hike in Capitol Reef was the Fremont River Trail that started behind the historic Gifford House, built by residents of the area. The trail runs beside the Fremont River, named for western explorer John C. Fremont. The trail became steep, until it eventually came to the valley overlook, giving us an amazing panorama. Gusts of wind made it tough to keep our footing.
Bryce Canyon National ParkWhile it’s difficult to rate one Utah national park experience over others, Bryce Canyon certainly was a highlight. Its colorful spire-shaped rock formations offer fantastic views.
The Bryce Canyon area was settled in the 1850s by Mormon pioneers. It was named after Ebenezer Bryce, who homesteaded in the area in 1874. It became a national park in 1928.
The elevation of Bryce Canyon reaches 9,100 feet and when we started our walk, a snow squall began. It became slippery and we had to shorten the hike. But before heading back, at the main overlook, the sun suddenly shone brightly and illuminated Thor’s Hammer below. This massive stone spire, 150 feet tall, is an iconic site. It was a jaw-dropping moment. Surrounding Thor’s Hammer is a collection of other giant natural amphitheaters, making this a must-see stopover any season of the year.
Zion National ParkUtah’s oldest national park, Zion, established in 1919, has diverse geology that includes canyons, buttes, mesas, mountains, natural arches and rivers.
The scenic drive to Zion Canyon led us to a highlight — the Riverside Walk, also called the Gateway to The Narrows. The path was particularly picturesque because we arrived just before the sun rose over the surrounding mountains. Hanging gardens along the sloped walls, were fed by two trickling waterfalls. The end of the hike was the entrance to The Narrows.
To hike The Narrows, considered one of the world’s top 10 treks, requires wading in the ice-cold Virgin River for several miles. We never considered that challenge. But it was fun to stand at the entrance of The Narrows to watch others begin their adventure through the river.