Hiking Utah National Parks is not something that the High School versions of ourselves would be very excited about. Thankfully, we’ve grown a lot since then, both mentally and physically (not so thankfully…). Utah is home to a few absolutely INCREDIBLE experiences that you cannot have anywhere else on planet Earth.
Utah is home to 5 of the MOST BEAUTIFUL National Parks in the entire United States, and Grand Staircase-Escalante (a National Monument, not a National Park) is the cherry on top. This state is an absolute juggernaut when it comes to hoarding incredible sites, sounds, and experiences. Save some for the rest of us please, Utah!
Without further ado, let’s go on a once-in-a-lifetime journey through the Western Wilderness that we call Utah.
Disclaimer: It is most likely easiest to do this journey flying into a major airport nearby, such as Las Vegas. When flying into Las Vegas, this journey will start with Zion and move East. Of course, this same journey could be completed East to West if that works with your schedule and plans.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park, located in Southwest Utah, is stop number one on our journey. Zion is also the longest stop on our journey, because it is without a doubt one of the top hiking destinations not just in the United States, but the entire world.
While trekking up a mountain in 100 degree heat might seem like a recipe for yelling at your significant other for a few hours (not that that happened to us…) this place was UNREAL.
These hikes are no joke, but we promise you, they are worth it! The sights and sounds of Zion National Park are unlike any we’ve ever seen, we guarantee they’ll make your jaw drop.
Any Zion National Park visitor simply MUST do the following 3 hikes. They are each EPIC, uniquely different from each other, and offer stunning views of natural wonder we didn’t know existed.
The most popular and Zion’s most iconic hike. Angel’s Landing is 5 miles round trip up a very narrow path with 1000 foot drop offs on each side of you!
We are not kidding when we say that Angel’s Landing is not for the faint of heart. You don’t need to worry too much, there are ropes and chains to help you out during the tough parts, so you should be able to safely hike to the summit. Still, best to know what you’re getting yourself into!
Once you get there, the views of the canyon from the top are astonishing. When the sun peeks through the clouds it looks like heaven is shining down on this place. They must call it Angel’s Landing for a reason…
Our tip for this hike: bring a small backpack to carry your belongings so your hands are free to use the chains. And of course, like all of these hikes, pack a sandwich and some fruit to munch on at the top before hiking your booty on home!
The Narrows is a wonderful hike, with many places to stop for lunch. The hike will take a full day, so our advice is to pack along a backpack of food and water and have a picnic you’ll never forget. You’ll have a snack surrounded by picturesque cliffs above a rushing river roaring beneath you.
If you’ve never heard of The Narrows hike, let us make something clear: you are going to get wet. Shortly after starting this hike, you will find yourself literally hiking through the Virgin River surrounded by huge cliffs on each side.
You’d be smart to bring shoes that can get wet. We used the below shoes and they worked perfectly! They are ‘amphibian’ shoes, meaning they can be used in water. If you don’t have any, and don’t want to buy some, there are at least 10 places you can rent them near the park entrance.
At times the water can get up to your waist (and higher if you slip!). Add in the fact that early in the morning most of the river is shaded, this hike can start out a little chilly. Bring a sweatshirt to start, but make sure it is light enough that you’ll be able to throw it in your backpack after the picnic, because you won’t need it once the sun hits!
One of the great things about The Narrows is that the trail basically never ends! You can literally hike up the river for as long as you want, up to 5 miles or so. Whether you want to go 1 mile or 4 miles, you’ll have a blast. Just remember, you must come back the way you came!
If The Narrows is peanut butter, then Observation Point is jelly. These two couldn’t be more different, but they are epic when you combine them in a delicious hike-which (ba-dum-tsch!).
Coincidentally, like our hike of The Narrows, we brought a peanut butter and jelly picnic on our Observation Point hike as well. And goodness we needed it!
This hike is long and hard…wink… We are talking 4 miles one way! And what goes up must come down, so this bad boy is an 8 mile trek. Enough with the hard part, with great effort comes great reward, after all.
The view at the top of Observation Point is one of, if not the number 1, best we’ve ever seen. At Observation Point, the entire park spreads before you like a delicious Thanksgiving meal.
Early settlers named the area Zion, a biblical reference highlighting the peaceful nature of the canyon. You’ll stand in awe at how such a beautiful forest grew in the middle of the vast desert expanding around Zion.
Zion National Park is a mountain oasis populated by luscious foliage and numerous animals, and you’ll see it all from Observation Point. You’ll probably spot a few deer and goats, but if you are lucky you might see a Peregrine Falcons (the world’s fastest animal!) and the rare giant, the California Condor! Both have been known to call Zion National Park home.
Plan to get an early start, since the hike to Observation Point can take about 4-6 hours, depending on the number of breaks you take. You’ll be huffing and puffing, so take a lot of breaks and bring TONS of water.
We brought 3 bottles each and that seemed to work fine. It also helped to have some citrus fruits, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and beef jerky packed away to enjoy at the top.
This trail is much less crowded than the others, and you’ll get some awesome views of Angel’s Landing on your way up. Once you reach the summit, the views at the top will take your breath away. Trust us, you won’t want to leave.
More to Know about Zion
Parking is very limited inside the park, but fortunately there are free shuttles from nearby towns, where there is a plethora of parking options. There are two shuttle loops:
- The Zion Canyon Shuttle connects the Zion Canyon Visitor Center to stops at nine different locations within the park
- The Springdale Shuttle has nine stops in the town of Springdale that will take you to the Zion’s pedestrian entrance
Now, you have two options for parking and getting around the park.
- Option one: park your vehicle in Springdale and catch the Springdale Shuttle to the pedestrian entrance, then transfer to the Zion Canyon Shuttle to get to your trailhead.
- Option two: arrive early (before 9am) and you can likely find parking inside the park.
The best parking spot we found was at the information center. We then caught the Zion Canyon Shuttle from there and took it to the Observation Point, Angel’s Landing, or Narrows trail-heads.
We tried both these options and preferred option two over option one for a few different reasons. It saved us loads of time at the beginning and end of our days, and we beat the crowds by getting an early start.
Everything was super easy to figure out with signs all over Zion and Springdale, so you shouldn’t have any trouble figuring out where you need to be! Finally, expect to see some wildlife:
We saw a few separate herds of bison, and more than a few mountain bighorns roaming the park! In addition, you might spot one of the incredible Peregrine Falcons or California Condors we mentioned above, but only if you’re lucky!
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Grand Staircase-Escalante is the only non-National Park on this tour, but for the life of us we can’t figure out why it isn’t a full-blown National Park. For those interested, here is what the National Park Service has to say about the difference between Parks and Monuments:
The national-park and national-monument system differ primarily in the reasons for which they are established. National parks are areas set apart by Congress for the use of the people of the United States generally, because of some outstanding scenic feature or natural phenomena. National monuments, on the other hand, are areas reserved by the National Government because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest. Ordinarily established by presidential proclamation under authority of Congress.
Grand Staircase-Escalante is located only about 30 miles from Zion National Park, so you just have a short car ride here! For that reason, we recommend you stay somewhere between the two. Once your finished exploring Zion, you can spend a few days exploring Grand Staircase-Escalante before packing up camp and moving to the next place.
Hiking in Grand Staircase is primarily known for one unique trait: slot canyons. What is a slot canyon? Well, whoever named the fruit ‘orange’ probably named slot canyons as well. THey are exactly what they sound like!
Slot Canyons are an extremely narrow canyon formed over thousands of years by water flowing through rock. These bad boys are WAY taller than they are wide, so they look like the ‘slot’ you put a coin in! Or the slot above your plumbers jeans, if you get unlucky in your plumber selection…
Zebra Slot Canyon
The best slot canyon in Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the one you should go to if you only have one day, is Zebra Slot Canyon. Why? Lots of reasons!
Zebra Slot Canyon is the most beautiful slot canyon in Grand Staircase. Named for the striped canyon walls, Zebra is drop dead gorgeous. This is probably the top choice of any other blogs you might read about slot canyon hiking, and we fully agree with that placement.
On top of the view, Zebra Canyon, and all of Grand Staircase-Escalante, is dog friendly. I repeat, BRING YOUR PUPPY here! Our pup had a blast exploring the trail, jumping in the creek you pass by on the hike, and running through the canyon walls.
Make sure to bring enough water on this trail, ESPECIALLY if you are hiking in the summer heat. The trail itself is about 6 miles roundtrip and is generally flat, but in the heat it can get challenging! Bring more than enough water for you AND your pup.
Once you get to the slot canyon, spend an hour or so exploring the canyon, squeezing your way through the skinniest parts. At times, the canyon gets to less than 1 foot wide! About 10 inches to be exact.
Most of the slot canyon is wide enough to walk through, but those skinny parts can be a challenge! A few times, we had to take suck our breath in to sneak by!
Peek-a-Boo & Spooky Gulch Slot Canyons
Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch Canyon are the 2nd and 3rd best slot canyons in Grand Staircase. The hike itself is a bit easier, just over 4 miles round-trip, and the 2 canyons you’ll spot along the way are of course stunning.
We recommend tackling these 2 canyons on Day 2 in Grand Staircase. Everything we said about water and dogs on Zebra Canyon applies here as well!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is stop number 3 on our adventure hiking Utah National Parks, and boy oh boy is this a good one!
Bryce Canyon is located about an hour and a half from Grand Staircase-Escalante, right on our path from West to East. This National Park differs from almost all other parks in that you arrive at the TOP of the park! Not at the bottom…
What does this mean for you? Well, a few things! Number 1, it means that you will be treated to SPECTACULAR views right from the get-go! You’ll park your car, walk 200 years, and the entire canyon will spread before you like a rolling red carpet.
Number 2, it means that hiking will be easier on the way to a destination versus the way from a destination. For that reason, we think it is best to start with the Rim Trail!
The Rim Trail goes between Sunset Point and Sunrise Point, all along the rim of Bryce Canyon. Surprisingly, the views from Sunrise Point and Sunset Point are different from each other! Bryce Canyon’s landscape changes very quickly over a short period of time.
Another HUGE benefit of the Rim Trail? You can bring your pups! This portion of the trail is paved, and dotted with picnic areas and benches, so it is a perfect place to bring your dog for a stroll! And is there a more epic place for your dog to have a walk? We submit that there is not!
Another reason to start with the Rim Trail is that it is relatively easy. The trail is a short walk, just over a mile or so, and you’ll be able to get used to the temperature and altitude at Bryce!
Tower Bridge Trail
We STRONGLY recommend hiking the Tower Bridge Trail, if not for the reward at the end of the trail, then for everything you’ll see along the way.
The trail itself is about three and a half miles round-trip, with a descent of about 1000 feet from start to finish. As with all of these hikes, make sure to bring enough water! Unique from any hike we’ve talked about, the hike home is a 1000 foot elevation gain! Make sure you plan ahead and have the energy to hike out!
Along the trail, you’ll get spectacular views of the hoodoos Bryce Canyon National Park is known for!
A hoodoo (also called a tent rock, fairy chimney, or earth pyramid) is a tall, thin spire of rock that protrudes from the bottom of an arid drainage basin or badland
In addition to hoodoos, this trail offers gorgeous views of rock formations you will find nowhere else on earth! And the jewel at the end of the adventure? A land bridge that looks EXACTLY like Tower Bridge in London! Don’t believe me? See for yourself…
See… I wasn’t bluffing! Maybe those Brits had a South Utah hiking experience right before building the Tower Bridge and that’s how they got their inspiration…
The Natural Bridge is probably the most incredible formation in all of Bryce Canyon National Park. What is it? Well it is a GIGANTIC arch over the canyon that resembles a huge natural bridge! Hence the name… Not a ton of creativity when naming the monuments here…
You will have to drive to Natural Bridge, and there is no hiking around and under the arch. Therefore, this would make a perfect beginning or end to a day of hiking in Bryce Canton National Park.
Even better? Have a picnic overlooking this majestic scenery:
Capitol Reef National Park
To be completely honest, we did not know about Capitol Reef National Park until we got to Utah! We are SO glad we finally learned about it, because exploring Capitol Reef was one of our favorite days!
Capitol Reef is located about 2 hours from Bryce Canyon, so we recommend moving your campsite/hotel/etc when you move from Bryce to Capitol Reef. In fact, our next stop, Arches National Park, is about 2 hours past Capitol Reef.
Therefore, one way to go would be to leave Bryce early in the morning, do the following 2 Capitol Reef hikes during the day, and then head on to a campsite/hotel near Arches in the evening!
Okay, enough talk about logistics. Let’s talk about Capitol Reef National Park! This hidden gem (note: it is tough to hide something this enormous and glorious!) is an absolute beauty of a park.
Capitol Reef doesn’t have the awesome power of Zion, or the sexy arches in, well, Arches. But don’t sell it short. The hiking here was incredible, and unique in its own way from all the other national parks in Utah. How? Let us show you…
Cassidy Arch Trail
Cassidy Arch Trail clocks in at just under 3 miles round-trip. A pretty simple hike with an absolutely wonderful gem at the end of it!
The Cassidy Arch is named for…Butch Cassidy! As in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid! If you want to, you can even visit Butch’s childhood home…
Also, as with all of the hikes in South Utah, this bad boy can get HOT! Even though it is only 3 miles, please plan to bring enough water for your journey! The more water, the better. You’ll be thankful you brought it, trust us.
By far the coolest thing about Cassidy Arch, and what sets this apart from other arches in Utah, is that you can walk on top of it! You can’t walk on any arch in Arches, folks…
Walking on the Cassidy Arch is a pretty surreal experience, and is one we will not soon forget. We even had Julie’s Dad, Pete, snap a few pictures of us on the other side, though we look like ants in the picture. That shows just how HUGE this arch really is!
The Chimney Rock Trail is a hike that is very similar to Cassidy Arch in terms of difficulty. So, if Cassidy Arch was a piece of cake, this one will be easy as pie! Again, bring water!
The Chimeny Rock itself is an extremely cool structure, and is located right at the beginning of the trail. If that is all you want to see, then basically no hiking needed!
However, the real treat with Chimney Rock Trail is all the views along the way! Panorama views of white sand beneath you, huge red rock mountains and canyons in the distance under a deep blue sky.
If you followed our recommendation on logistics, and are headed to Arches National Park (or a hotel/campsite in the area) immediately after this hike, then we recommend getting started no later than 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm. That will leave enough time to complete the hike and get on the road to your next adventure!
Arches National Park
If Zion is our favorite National Park in Utah, then Arches is a darn close second. Arches requires AT LEAST a few days to see it right, in fact you could spend a month here and still have things to see.
Let’s start out with location. Arches is located right near the town of Moab, Utah. This is a town that you will at least have to stop in to see. It is a wonderful town full of hiking enthusiasts, coffee lovers, and quite a few van-lifers!
If you are seeking a hotel, we highly recommend finding one in Moab. It can even be the last hotel you book on this journey, since Arches and Canyonlands (our last stop) are both very close to Moab!
Another recommendation: try your best to go to Arches on a weekday. And if you do go on a weekend, PLEASE go early in the morning. We went on a Saturday around noon on our first day here, and had to wait in line at the entrance for about 45 minutes. NOT ideal.
The park gets busy for a reason: it is incredible. Some of the coolest sites we have EVER seen. We learned how the actual arches are formed over HUGE time spans, and seeing the real thing after learning what it took to create them is a BONKERS experience.
Side note: We learned the Arches facts on the free video shown at the Visitor Center. Each and every one of these parks has a similar free video shown at their respective Visitor Centers if you are interested!
Okay, time to get to the actual arches that make Arches National Park so special.
Have you ever seen a Utah license plate? That’s a weird question isn’t it. Well, it has a purpose. If you have ever laid eyes on a Utah license plate, then you my friend have seen Delicate Arch!
Well, you haven’t really seen it, you’ve seen a picture of it. You’ve read the menu, but we recommend eating the meal. GO TO DELICATE ARCH!
Delicate Arch competes with Observation Point in Zion National Park as our favorite single Place in Utah. This arch is beyond impressive. It is an absolute wonder.
The arch itself seems to be balancing so precariously that it may fall at any moment, however thus far it has stood the test of time! However, who knows how long it will last, so you better go see it while you still can!
The hike to Delicate Arch is just under 2 miles each way, and is mostly flat except for one somewhat steep ascent near the halfway point. Our recommendation: do the hike late in the day so you can be near the arch when the sun is setting.
At sunset, the sky changes colors and paints a beautiful masterpiece as the backdrop for your view of Delicate Arch.
Double Arch is located not too far off the highway as you drive through the heart of Arches National Park. These Arches are a pair that look as identical to each other as an arch can look.
The Double Arches are a match made in Arch heaven, and everyone who sees them is the beneficiary of their union. There is really nothing like Double Arch in all of Arches National Park, all of Utah for that matter, well all of the World for that matter!
North & South Windows and Turret Arch Loop
From the same parking lot you can reach Double Arch, you can also reach the North & South Windows and Turret Arch! That makes these 4 arches a bang-bang-bang-bang stop, and a very productive (and visually appealing) afternoon!
The North & South Windows and Turret Arch can all be seen on a relatively short, but beautiful, loop hike. We had a wonderful walk around these stone marvels getting every view that we could as we made our loop.
The Turret Arch is, like all of them, HUGE. The North & South Windows are incredible in that they mirror each other, creating an awesome visual for any fortunate onlookers that is tough to capture by camera.
With all of these Arches, you truly have to see them to believe them. The sheer size of them as they curve above you as tall as a building is awe-inspiring.
We have come to the only item on our list of sights in Arches National Park that is not an arch! Balanced Rock is just what it sounds like: a big ol’ rock that is precariously balanced on the altar beneath it!
Fun Fact: Balanced Rock had a ‘mini-me’, a smaller version of itself standing really close, however that collapsed on itself not too long ago. If and when Balanced Rock collapses, you do NOT want to be near it!
Balanced Rock is an extremely short hike, one that can be done in succession with the previously mentioned arches. It is located just off the main highway through the park, just follow any signs and you can’t miss it! It would be tough to miss something this huge…
Speaking of huge, Landscape Arch is the largest arch in Arches National Park! You could fit an ENTIRE FOOTBALL FIELD beneath this bad boy.
Let’s think about this. Over hundreds of thousands of years, erosion caused a giant fin to form where there was once a solid block of red rock. Then one day, a small window was created in the fin by that same erosion. Over the following centuries, the window widened and widened, until it reached all the way to the earth floor on which the rock was standing. Erosion kept occurring until that fin was now an enormous arch that spread out over 300 feet long! And that whole process left Landscape Arch on display in all its glory for you to see. Wonderful!
However, you better see Landscape Arch while you still can. If Delicate Arch is delicate, then Landscape Arch is a porcelain doll covered in butter.
In fact, a huge chunk of the arch broke off and fell to the ground in 1991! That fall is the reason that we are no longer allowed to walk beneath Landscape Arch… Better see it while you still can!
Black Arch Viewpoint & Double O Arch
Landscape Arch is located just off the Devils Garden Loop Trail. Further down this same trail are the Black Arch Viewpoint and Double O Arch!
This trail is the longest we did in Arches National Park, and the longest we recommend that you do. It was a hot day in the Utah sun, and we needed every sip of water we brought!
Also, we did get a bit lost along the way, however we found our path before too long. Remember to follow any carins (small man-made stone towers) that mark the path!
Double O Arch, in the final picture, was pretty flipping cool! These two arches are stacked on top of each other like an awesome Lego creation made by a child that’s going places in the modern art world.
Mother Nature seems to be the best Lego creator of all, with amazing shapes and structures that even the most clever human beings can’t dream up. Mother Nature, you win again!
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is located SO close to Arches National Park. As we said earlier, you do not want to move your campsite/hotel when moving between these parks. They are basically next-door neighbors.
Being real for a minute, Canyonlands is an awesome name for a National Park. In fact, whoever named all of Utah’s National Parks did an incredible job! Zion? Arches? Canyonlands? I’d want to go to all of them even if I didn’t know what they were!
Canyonlands is, quite literally, a land FULL of canyons. The Grand Canyon is grand alright, but this is a whole other level. There are canyons stacked on canyons stacked on canyons! Rivers running beneath all of them and the whole thing put on display for you to discover.
Grand View Point
Grand View Point was our favorite spot in Canyonlands. It was an easy walk to get to, just a mile or so, and the views along the way were spectacular.
Fair warning: many of the walks in Canyonlands are on the edge of a canyon. We never felt unsafe or anything, but there are cliffs that are not too far away from the trails.
From Grand View Point, you can see as far as those retinas will let you. We are talking MILES AND MILES AND MILES. Vanessa Carlton actually sang her hit song ‘A Thousand Miles’ about the view from this point (this is not true and 100% made up).
Regardless of how many hit songs were written about this place, this is a stop you will not regret making. Heck, if you want to do it right, bring a picnic along and have one of the most spectacular lunches we could ever imagine!
Fun Fact: in the distance from Canyonlands you can see La Sal Mountains. Translated to English: The Salt Mountains. Why were they named this? In the Utah heat, people thought that there was NO way that those mountaintops were covered in snow (update: they are) so they presumed that it was salt!
Upheaval Dome is freaking awesome. This structure was created not exactly by Mother Nature alone. She had help from a meteor. One more time for the people in the back: A METEOR!
A meteor from outer space came hurtling towards the earth, was large enough to survive burning up in our atmosphere, and came crashing down in South Utah. It probably killed anything within 100 miles (sorry for the morbid thought), but it made an absolutely CRAZY view from the top of the crater.
The hike itself up to Upheaval Dome was pretty quick, depending on where you finish. You can hike up to the nearest crest to the parking lot in about 20 minutes, but if you want to get further (and a better view) you can go for up to an hour or so as you walk the crest.
Shafer Trail Viewpoint
Shafer Trail Viewpoint was our final stop in Canyonlands National Park, and therefore our final stop on our tour of Utah’s Unbelievable National Parks (and one National Monument).
We would shed a tear because it is the end of a journey, but we were already crying at how beautiful the view was from Shafer Viewpoint. The canyon spreads before you like a huge red carpet, with La Sal Mountains making the backdrop for this pretty picture.
The viewpoint itself is not difficult to get to, just a short jaunt from the highway, but we HIGHLY recommend you make time for this stop.
We recommend that you spend an hour or so contemplating how incredible your trip across Utah was, thinking of all the incredible sights and experiences you had.
We hope you had a blast learning and being shown Utah’s wonderful National Parks. We know we had the time of our lives exploring them in person, and we know you will to. If there is ANY more information that we can provide about any National Park in Utah (or really anything else) please reach out!
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