The national and state parks of Utah offer some of the most breathtaking land formations in the world as well as epitomizing the spirit of America’s Frontier. The range of wildlife is as vast as the parks themselves, including bison, black bears, elk and mule deer plus eagles, salamanders and antelope squirrels. The land features magnificent mountain ranges, rivers and canyons along with rare rock formations made of siltstone, limestone and mudstone. Thanks to the fact these parks are maintained by state and national authorities, it is easier than you might think to experience the perilous heights that characterize Utah’s landscape. Activities available include marked hiking trails, scenic driving routes, rock climbing and winter sports, plus numerous camping facilities. Whether you are new to Utah’s national parks or have visited before, the below information will help you plan your next trip by detailing the main features of the parks’ landscapes, wildlife, activities and accommodation.
Arches National Park
One of America’s top rated and most visited national parks, Arches stretches across more than 70,000 acres and is the jewel in the crown of Utah’s parks. It features rarely seen rock formations such as sandstone fins, ribs, gargoyles, towers, hoodoos and balanced rocks. As the name suggests, the most famous rock formations are the arches in northwestern Moab. There are 2,000 arches in total in this park, which is the biggest collection on earth. Landscape Arch measures 306 feet and offers particularly spectacular views. Due to the extreme elevation of the rocks, it is difficult for plants and animals to survive. Aside from the rock formations, Arches is also made up of a pygmy forest and the Colorado River. Elephant Butte, the park’s highest point, stands at just over 5,500 feet.
Do not be deterred by the extreme terrain, as there are well-marked trails winding around the 300 foot towers that allow walkers of all ages to access breathtaking views. In fact, Arches is one of the best national parks for families in light of its highly achievable hiking trails. If looking for a more challenging walking experience, there are plenty of backpacking trails available. Camping is also offered at Devils Garden campground.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is an alpine environment where an array of birds and mammals live. The forest features huge hoodoos (red rock pillars) which have formed in the canyons due to the extreme weather conditions endured over thousands of years. There are also natural bridges and narrow fins in a range of colors that are surreal to behold. The bristlecone trees which populate the forest are some of the oldest on the planet.
As with Arches National Park, the best way to take in Bryce Canyon is on foot. There are marked trails ranging from 1 mile to 11 miles long. If hiking is not for you, you can also take in Bryce Canyon by car thanks to the 18 mile long scenic route on Highway 63. At night, the lack of air pollution means it is an outstanding location for star gazing. Additionally, the extreme elevation in the park means that on the peaks you can take part in winter sports like cross country skiing and snowshoeing. There are two campsites in the park, namely North Campground and the Sunset Campground, which are open to visitors between May and September.
Canyonlands National Park
Like Arches, Canyonlands is located near Moab, making them an ideal pairing for any visit. There are four districts that make up the 500 square miles of Canyonlands National Park, and the terrain ranges from cliffs to the Utah Green River, the Colorado River, canyons and pinnacles. Mesa Arch in the Needles District, is among the West of America’s most photographed natural formations. Mule deer roam freely, as do mountain lions and bobcats. Microhabitats in the slick rock brought about by potholes, mean the cliffs are shaded vibrant oranges, reds and pinks.
The Needles District offers some particularly good hiking trails. The Maze and Island in the Sky Districts also have family friendly and mountain biking trails available. Thanks to the rivers that run through the park, you can enjoy excellent white-water rafting, particularly at Cataract Canyon. There are two campsites as well as one at Dead Horse Point State Park which is an easy distance. If you wish to explore Canyonlands by car, you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle to traverse the dirt roads.
Capitol Reef National Park
Although less well visited than some of the other parks, Capitol Reef offers an alternative but equally as impressive experience. The most well-known feature of this park is its 100-mile Waterpocket Fold, but there is also desert rock, deep canyons and hidden arches. There are good quality roads for those who wish to take in the view by car, and a number of hiking trails for all fitness levels. Ripple Rock Nature Center and Gifford Homestead Museum and Store are also based here and house some interesting exhibits. There are three campsites, two of which offer a more basic experience, and one which has more developed facilities, namely the Fruita Campground.
Zion National Park
After Arches, Zion National Park is Utah’s second most visited park and among the top national parks in the country. The cliffs, valleys and canyons make for great climbing, hiking and canyoneering opportunities. In fact, it is a world-famous walking spot, with hikers traveling from all over to take part in hikes that follow the Virgin River.
This is a world class location for rock climbing and canyoneering, where the less experienced can still get involved thanks to the range of rock climbing instructors available nearby. Bird and wildlife watching can also be enjoyed for those who do not like the idea of traversing the rocks. With more than 200 bird species living in Zion National Park, it is an incredible place to set up camp with a pair of binoculars. For those looking for a less strenuous trail there are shorter hikes available, however you should be ready to contend with the crowds in this popular spot. There are three campsites, plus nearby hotels and lodges.