Few destinations offer as much bang for your proverbial buck as Utah. A whopping five national parks, affectionately coined the “Mighty 5 Utah,” are all within easy road-tripping distance in the southern part of the state.
And while national parks are the obvious stars of the show, southern Utah is also home to several spectacular national monuments and state parks.
Dead Horse Point and Goblin Valley State Parks, along with Bear Ears, Dinosaur, Cedar Breaks, and Natural Bridges — one of the best places to stargaze in the world — National Monuments, will all convince you that the line between national and state park is a mighty thin one (see what we did there?).
Ready to tour the Mighty 5 Utah parks? Let’s get into it!
The Mighty 5 Utah Parks
From one of the country’s most visited national parks to one of the least visited, Utah really does have it all.
It’s no wonder that Arches’ iconic Delicate Arch is featured on the Utah license plate — the park has the highest concentration of natural stone arches in the entire world. Needless to say, it’s one of the state’s most popular parks.
Like many of the other Mighty 5 Utah parks, Arches is a mecca for hikers and mountain bikers. However, Arches also has some unique features that make it perfect for every type of traveler and adventure lover.
For starters, the park’s scenic road takes visitors almost directly to some of the most famous arches and other rock formations. You can drive directly to the stunning Windows Section, home to Double Arch, Elephant Butte, and many other formations.
Delicate Arch, of course, is high on everyone’s list, and surprise — you can drive right to one of the best viewing points. If you’d prefer to hike it, it’s just three miles round-trip, but steep going up.
Another unique thing about Arches National Park is that it’s essentially located right in a bustling town. Downtown Moab is a mere few minutes away, with endless options for ATV tours, dining, and shopping.
2. Bryce Canyon
Many people assume that, being in the Southwest, all of the Mighty 5 Utah national parks are desert-like. Bryce Canyon proves that simply isn’t true.
The park is home to countless otherworldly red hoodoos, distinctive rock spires formed by erosion. It also sits at an average elevation of 8,000 to 9,000 feet, with its highest point — Rainbow Point — reaching 9,105.
Bryce’s terrain is vastly different from the smooth, massive rock formations jutting out of the mostly barren desert in Arches and Capitol Reef. Here, you find pine forests, alpine wildlife, and yes, snow.
Even in the dead of winter, though, Bryce Canyon is one of Utah’s most accessible national parks. The smallest of the Mighty 5 Utah parks, an 18-mile scenic drive connects visitors directly to several scenic overlooks.
For those who want to explore by foot, the park’s best hikes are just as accessible, with most starting from either Sunrise Point or Sunset Point. We recommend taking on a couple of shorter ones, including the aptly-named Sunset to Sunrise, Navajo Loop, or Queen’s Garden Trail.
Practically adjacent to Arches but much lesser-known, Canyonlands is an absolutely massive Mighty 5 Utah park. In fact, it’s so large that it’s divided into three individual districts: Island in the Sky, The Maze, and Needles.
Island in the Sky is the most popular part of the park, largely because it’s the closest to Moab. Here, you’ll find several accessible overlooks and ultra-short hiking trails, including the famous Mesa Arch (an absolute must at sunrise!).
If you have a bit more time, explore the other sections of the park. While they’re more remote, crowds are non-existent and, well, let’s just say it’s well worth the effort.
In the Needles, you’ll definitely want to do some hiking to experience this section of the park’s unusual sandstone spires. Try the Slickrock Foot Trail or Chesler Park Loop.
The Maze is also a must-see, but doing so requires some major effort. Only people with plenty of backcountry experience should even attempt visiting.
You’ll need a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle to even get to it. And as the name implies, it’s more like a wilderness area, with barely-marked trails and plenty of dead ends.
4. Capitol Reef
Capitol Reef may be one of the country’s most underrated and least-visited national parks, but don’t let that fool you.
It’s the park’s relative remoteness that keeps more people from visiting, not a lack of things to do and see. And to be fair, Capitol Reef isn’t that remote. It’s only two hours from some of the other Mighty 5 Utah parks, including Bryce Canyon and the two in Moab.
If geology is even remotely your thing, you’ll be in heaven in Capitol Reef. Enormous rock formations, stone arches, and steep canyons all inspire awe. The star of the show, though, is the “Waterpocket Fold,” a 100-mile-long wrinkle in the Earth that soars up to 7,000 feet in some spots.
You’ll want to do some hiking to check out the park’s rock formations up close, and we recommend Cassidy Arch and Hickman Bridge.
Before leaving Capitol Reef, stop by the tiny community of Fruita. Tour the historic one-room school building and pick your own fruit from the orchard trees (bring cash and plastic bags or other containers!).
Each pound of fresh fruit is just $1 and depending on the season, you may leave with apples, peaches, pears, or cherries.
Unquestionably one of the most iconic national parks in the country, Zion is also one of the busiest. Even during the pandemic in 2020, the park received over 3.6 million visitors — the third-highest number in the entire National Park system.
Zion is an absolutely spectacular hikers’ paradise, with some of the most famous hikes in the world, including Angels Landing and The Narrows. Side note: Starting in 2022, permits, issued via a lottery system similar to Half Dome, will be required to hike the infamous “chains section” of Angels Landing.
Not much of a hiker? Don’t worry; Zion has plenty in store for you, too. Unique to this Mighty 5 Utah national park, scenic Utah-9, the Mount Carmel Highway, runs straight through the center of Zion. It goes through the park’s iconic tunnel and follows “S” curves through a stunning canyon.
You can also bike through many sections of Zion, or simply drive to one of the many picnic areas and enjoy the views.
And if you would like to take on a short, easy hike, check out Canyon Overlook Trail. This short and sweet one-mile trail takes visitors to one of the most spectacular views in the park.
Have you visited any of the Mighty 5 Utah national parks, or do you have a trip planned sometime soon? Don’t forget to include a unique souvenir as part of your trip planning!
Utah National Park Tokens from The Wander Club not only help you commemorate your trip, but they’re unique, stylish, and portable. Of course, we also have them for every other U.S. national park, plus many different destinations and landmarks, all with customization options!
Happy shopping, and enjoy your time in Utah!