28 August 2019 by Patrick Griffin
Simply, Utah has the finest collection of national parks of any state. And, while you might not necessarily know them by name, you’ll know them by sight, from the otherworldly hoodoos of Bryce Canyon to the impossibly verdant valleys of Zion. Together, they form Utah’s “Mighty 5®” national parks. However, there’s also plenty of secret jewels to discover in Utah’s state and tribal parks, including the lunar landscapes of Grand Staircase-Escalante and the brilliant vermillion of Flaming Gorge. Consider the following your guide to both the highlights and off-the-beaten-track treasures.
Utah Natural Wonders Self-drive Itinerary
What’s more, Utah features the highest concentration of “Dark Sky" places in the world. So, you can expect glorious views of the Milky Way in many of the destinations listed in the contents below:
|The Mighty 5®|
Arches National Park (Dark Sky)
Bryce Canyon National Park (Dark Sky)
Canyonlands National Park (Dark Sky)
Capitol Reef National Park (Dark Sky)
Natural Bridges (Dark Sky)
The Mighty 5®
Arches National Park
Arches is dramatic – a 70,000-acre collection of great sandstone towers, gargoyles and, yes, arches. With over 2,000 of these eponyms, it forms the largest concentration of arches the world over, creating a truly alien landscape. Whether hiking or driving, be sure to take in a sunset or sunrise, when the rock turns a spectacular red.
Visit Arches on this self-drive itinerary
North Window, Arches National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Hoodoos. Even the name alone conjures whimsical images. Often beautifully referred to as “fairy chimneys”, these tall, thin spires of rock dominate Bryce Canyon, forming endless fields of red-rock pillars that curve into natural amphitheatres. In between, bristle-growth pine trees and stands of high-mountain desert add extra intrigue to gorgeous hikes. It’s no wonder the park has been termed “one of the planet's most exquisite geological wonders” by Lonely Planet.
Visit Bryce Canyon on this self-drive itinerary
Hoodoos at sunset in Bryce Canyon
Canyonlands National Park
Few names better encapsulate what they describe than Canyonlands. Here, towering mesas, pinnacles and cliffs spill down into great, spire-dotted gorges, carved out over millennia by Utah’s mighty Green and Colorado rivers. Unsurprisingly rafting is a special highlight, while cycling, driving and hiking bring you among the spindling needles and Native American rock art.
Visit Canyonlands on this self-drive itinerary
Canyonlands from Green River Overlook(Credit: Tom Till)
Capitol Reef National Park
Where the likes of Zion and Bryce offer concentrated glimpses of fairy-tale beauty, Capitol Reef offers something altogether more expansive. It’s the chance to step back to prehistory, to a planet where giant skies look down on broad cliffs, deep canyons and sweeping deserts. Throw in the 1,000-year-old petroglyphs and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into another world, especially given as its less visited than its big-name rivals.
Visit Capitol Reef on this self-drive itinerary
Temple of the Moon, Capitol Reef National Park
Zion National Park
While blessed with cragged vermillion cliffs, Zion mixes in a near-impossible level of greenery, with red-and-white rock gazing down on hanging gardens and verdant meadows. Special highlights include the slot-canyon Narrows and Angels Landing – a ridge-top spectacular with daredevil views.
Visit Zion on this self-drive itinerary
Observation Point, Zion National Park
Utah Natural Wonders Escorted Tour
Lesser-visited, equally scenic
A Wild-West icon, you’ll know Monument Valley for its great, flat-topped mesas, punctuating its expansive red desert as giant monoliths. While it’s accessible by scenic drives, you’ll also want to look closer to learn how this majestic landscape was revered long before it started gracing Hollywood’s silver screen. Navajo guides bring its rich tribal history to life.
Visit Monument Valley on this self-drive itinerary
View over Monument Valley
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase’s curious name refers to the 150-mile-long strata that rises from the base of the Grand Canyon up to Bryce Canyon in a series of, well, steps. Exposed, these striped tiers not only make for spectacular, multicoloured scenery, but they chart some 260 million years of geological activity. The result? Grand Staircase is Utah’s most extensive network of slot canyons, while the Escalante Canyons section features everything from oases and active waterfalls to sculpted arches and narrow gorges – a hiker’s dream.
Metate Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante
Glen Canyon and Lake Powell
Although Glen Canyon’s multihued cliffs were formed millennia ago, it was only in the last century that it was flooded, forming great Lake Powell. Today, its winding channels and gorges form a maze of waterways that tribute into a shimmering lake expanse. Together, it’s one of the world’s premier boating and fishing destinations.
Travel to Lake Powell on this escorted tour
Flaming Gorge Recreation Area
Straddling the state line between Utah and Wyoming, Flaming Gorge derives its name from the piercing red of its canyon walls, reflected in a fantastic array of lakes. While the boating is superb and many a fishing record has been set here, be sure to also keep your eyes out for the local wildlife, ranging from black bears and mountain lions to the more common moose, elk and antelope.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Over eons past, the river of White Canyon has carved out a trio of sweeping arches, lending their name to this unique national monument. After taking it all in with scenic drives and camps, be sure to pause at the ancient cliff dwellings, built into the side of the rock by Ancestral Puebloans; the human history here dates back to 500 BC. The stars here are also a prime attraction, with its remote setting ideal for night-time gazing.
Milky Way over Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument
Inspired? Take a look at our Utah itineraries below, or get in contact to start planning your trip: