Utah National Parks
Head north from the Grand Canyon to explore one of Utah's five national parks - Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion, and Bryce
Directly north of the Grand Canyon, is Utah, home to five national parks. All of Utah’s national parks, including Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands are stunning displays of nature. If time permits, visitors are urged to include at least one of Utah’s national parks on their Grand Canyon vacation travel itinerary.
Zion National Park
Utah’s Zion National Park is 245 miles northwest of Grand Canyon’s South Rim, and well worth a side trip. Zion is Utah’s first national park, and it’s such a beautiful and unique wonder that it’s no wonder that it was. Inside the national park, massive canyon walls reach toward the sky. As visitors drive through Zion National Park, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the size and vertical orientation of the canyon walls that are all around you. It’s easy to feel tiny considering the scale of your surroundings. It’s also easy to be overwhelmed and to become speechless as you take in the various views Zion delivers.
Visitors who are up for some hiking will be even more significantly rewarded. Although some of the most spectacular views can be enjoyed only after a haul up a pretty steep trail, the sights hikers are afforded are overwhelming and unmatched.
For hardy hikers who are in great physical condition, we recommend Angel’s Landing and Observation Point. For visitors looking for simpler trails, Lower Emerald Pools and Hidden Canyon are our favorites.
From April to November, visitors may explore Zion via the free shuttle buses. This is recommended to avoid jammed parking lots, and because you can better enjoy the sights more when someone else is doing the driving.
To get to Zion National Park, from Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim, take Highway 64 for 53 miles to Highway 89. Head north on 89 for 168 miles to through Kanab, UT, then 40 miles to Springdale, UT, the south entrance of Zion National Park.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Famous for its unique geology of red rock spires and horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters, Bryce Canyon National Park offers the visitor a spectacular view from the eastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southern Utah.
Bryce National Park is located 285 miles to the north of Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Bryce Canyon transcends 2,000 feet of elevation, and therefore exists in three distinct climatic zones: spruce/fir forest, Ponderosa Pine forest, and Pinyon Pine/juniper forest.
To maximize your experience at Bryce Canyon National Park, be sure to drive to Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce viewpoints. These are all spectacular overlooks of the park’s natural wonders that are red hoodoos against evergreen forests in the background. Depending on the time of day, and the angle and light of the sun, the hoodoos and mysterious rock formations often take on unusual patterns and shapes, and some think, imaginary faces.
For more inspiration, lace on the hiking boots or other sturdy comfortable shoes and explore a trail. There is something for everyone at Bryce Canyon. Easy, moderate and strenuous hikes await visitors and allow glimpses into a wide range of views, all of them spectacular. Our favorite easy hikes include Bristlecone Loop and Queens Garden. The Rim Trail is another favorite. Hat Shop is our favorite moderate hike. For the more physically fit hikers looking for a more strenuous adventure, we recommend Peek-A-Boo Loop and Fairyland Loop. Both of these are terrific trail runs, too. One of our favorite things to do at Bryce Canyon is embark on a “full moon hike.”
To get to Bryce Canyon National Park, from Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim, take Highway 64 for 53 miles to Highway 89. Head north on 89 for 168 miles to through Kanab, UT, for another 62 miles, before taking a right on Utah Highway 12.
Capitol Reef National Park
We know, Capitol Reef National Park is 435 miles to the northwest of Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Still, it’s worthy of mentioning. A Grand Canyon vacation, provided you have a little extra time, is even more memorable if you can fit in some of Utah’s natural wonders, given they’re in the same Western region of the U. S.
The Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the earth’s crust known as a monocline, extends from nearby Thousand Lakes Mountain to the Colorado River (now Lake Powell). Capitol Reef National Park was established to protect this grand and colorful geologic feature, as well as the unique natural and cultural history found in the area.
One sight to see include the Historic Fruita Schoolhouse dating back to 1900. Embark on a scenic drive that will take you provide a look into, and interpretation for the area’s geology, as well as the rugged western face of Capitol Reef. The tour provides views of cliffs, canyons and domes. The twisting Grand Wash spur road takes visitors into a world dramatically different from the dark red hills along the base of Capitol Reef. These are just a sampling of what the scenic drive delivers.
To get to Capitol Reef National Park, from Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim, follow the above directions provides for driving to Bryce Canyon. Then, from Bryce Canyon National Park, head north on UT 63 for almost 4 miles. Then, continue on UT 22, Forest Service Rd. 154, Posey Lake Road and UT 24 until you arrive at Capitol Reef National Park.
Canyonlands National Park
Utah’s Canyonlands National Park preserves a colorful landscape eroded into numerous canyons, mesas and buttes formed by the Colorado River and its tributaries. The rivers divide the park into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the rivers themselves. While these areas share a primitive desert atmosphere, each retains its own character and offers different opportunities for exploration.
It’s important to note that there are no roads that directly link the various districts. In fact, traveling between them requires two to six hours by car. Most people find it impractical to visit more than one area in a single trip.
Following is a brief overview of our three favorite regions of Canyonlands.
Island of the Sky is the most popular and offers the most wide-ranging of experiences. And, due to its easy access, it’s the best option if your time is limited. There’s something for everyone here, and the scenery is nothing short of outstanding. The Island of the Sky is a mesa that rests on sheer sandstone cliffs that tower more than 1,000 feet above its surroundings. To reach the Island, take US Highway 191 to Utah Highway 313 and then drive southwest 22 miles. Our recommendations are to drive to Grand View Point to see an expansive view of Canyonlands National Park. (Stop at Buck and Shafer Canyon overlooks on the way). There are many short mesa-top nature trails to explore with ease. Our favorites are Whale Rock and Aztec Butte. There are also ranger-led walks and programs at Grand View Point. If you have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, explore White Rim Road as far as Musselman Arch or travel to the Colorado River via Lathrop. Our favorite hikes are Upheaval Dome Overlook, Mesa Arch Loop and Grandview Trail,
The Needles District forms the southeast corner of Canyonlands and was named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area and resemble vertical needles jutting out of the desert landscape. The district’s extensive trail system provides many opportunities for long day hikes and overnight trips. Foot trails and four-wheel-drive roads lead to such features as Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Elephant Hill, the Joint Trail, and Chesler Park. To get to the Needles, which is more remote than Island in the Sky, take US Highway 191 for 40 miles south of Moab or 14 miles north of Monticello, then take Utah Highway 211 roughly 35 miles west. (Highway 211 ends in the Needles, and is the only paved road leading in and out of the district.)
Our favorite short hikes in the Needles are Pothole Point Trail and Cave Spring Trail. Our favorite strenuous hikes include Elephant Canyon and Chesler Park Loop/Joint Trail.
The Maze is the least accessible district of Canyonlands. Due to the district’s remoteness and the difficulty of roads and trails, travel to the Maze requires more time, as well as a greater degree of self-sufficiency. Rarely do visitors spend less than three days in the Maze, and the area can easily absorb a week-long trip.
The Hans Flat Ranger Station is two and one-half hours from Green River, Utah. From I-70, take Utah Highway 24 south for 24 miles. A left hand turn just beyond the turnoff to Goblin Valley State Park will take you along a two-wheel-drive dirt road 46 miles (76 km) southeast to the ranger station.
From the ranger station, the canyons of the Maze are another 3 to 6 hours by high-clearance, 4WD (more if traveling by foot). Another four-wheel-drive road leads into the Maze north from Highway 95 near Hite Marina (driving time is 3+ hours to the park boundary).
Trails in the Maze are primitive and lead into canyons and to various viewpoints. Due to the nature and depth of Maze canyons, access to them is limited. Routes into the canyons are cairned from mesa top to canyon bottom, but routes through washes are often unmarked. Many of the canyons look alike and are difficult to identify without a topographic map. The Maze Overlook Trail and other routes in the district require basic climbing maneuvers in order to negotiate sections of steep slickrock and pour-offs. A 25-foot length of rope is often essential for raising or lowering packs in difficult spots. Many routes may make hikers with a fear of heights uncomfortable.
To get to Canyonlands National Park, from Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim, travel to Moab, UT, which is about 370 miles to the north. From Moab, Canyonland’s most popular area, Island in the Sky, is about 40 minutes west of Moab.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park preserves over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the world-famous Delicate Arch, as well as many other unusual rock formations. In some areas, the forces of nature have exposed millions of years of geologic history. The extraordinary features of the park create a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms and textures that is unlike any other in the world.
Don’t just show up at this popular national park without a timed entry pass if you’re visiting between April and October. Secure your reservation well in advance.
Plan on spending at least a few hours in the park, exploring the scenic drive and several of the viewpoints and short trails. If time permits, longer hikes lead to many spectacular rock formations, including Delicate Arch, and the Devils Garden Campground provides an excellent base camp for multi-day trips.
The hiking and scenery in Arches is incredible. It’s a great park for logging miles with children because the terrain is not too difficult and yet the options are many. Our favorite easy hikes include Double Arch and The Windows. For moderate hikes, try Park Avenue or Delicate Arch.
If you’re passing through and only have a couple of hours, at the very least, travel the Windows Section and see some of the national park’s largest arches. We recommend you add a little time so you can stroll underneath a large arch like North Window or Double Arch.
A great campground inside Arches National Park is Devil’s Garden Campground.
To get to Arches National Park, from Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim, travel to Moab, UT, which is about 370 miles to the north. From Moab, it’s only 5 miles to the north on Highway 191 to get to Arches National Park.