What to know before visiting Utah’s 5 magnificent national parks
Monday, November 18, 2019
Utah has five outstanding national parks. Many people decide to visit all five in an extended Utah visit. Technically, this can be done in a week, but most people schedule two to four weeks to enjoy the parks and the area.
These parks are very popular and are on the bucket list for many people. So, expect crowds. If you go during the summer, expect the largest crowds and very hot temperatures (>100 F is not unusual). That means you need to take it easy and bring plenty of water.
Spring and fall can be better for temperatures and crowds. Some areas may be closed in the winter, but the crowds are much less. These parks are also at high elevations (3,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level). Schedule some time to acclimate before undertaking the more difficult hikes.
Zion National Park
This is the busiest park of the five, but it has also learned how to handle the crowds. It can be best to park in Springdale (extra fee) and take the free town shuttle to the park.
Inside the park is an excellent free shuttle service to all the stops and trails. Stop at the visitor center for current status on trails.
Riverside Walk: This is an easy, 2.2-mile roundtrip paved trail. Step off the trail to walk on sand paths along the river if the continuous line of hikers becomes too much for you.
Angels Landing: This is a difficult and busy but rewarding trail. Besides the steep climb, the narrow path with the use of chains, and having to pass people going the other way, this is a difficult trail if you have problems with heights and/or vertigo. I have heard stories of people breaking down and crying! Decide for yourself.
The Narrows: This is a unique trail where you walk up through a river in a slot canyon. It is often closed during the early spring due to flooding. Most people walk a few miles up and then return, though there are options requiring permits to go the full 16 miles.
This trail is in the water so you need water shoes and a hiking stick (available for rent right outside the park). Be prepared for the water to be waist or even chest level in places.
Lower Emerald Pool and Kayenta Trails: These two trails connect for a total of 3.2 miles. Lower Emerald can be busy, but the falls are interesting. Kayenta tends to be less crowded and has some great views.
Grotto Trail: This is an easy, flat, one-mile trail. While there aren’t the amazing views of other trails, we saw mule deer and turkey along this shaded trail.
Kolob Canyon is a more remote section of the park. There is a scenic drive along with several hiking trails that you can enjoy without the crowds of the main park.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce is the second busiest park and also the smallest. However, the views of the fascinating hoodoos are well-worth spending time here.
The park is starting to learn to handle the crowds. There is a free shuttle that runs from the visitor center to the five major viewpoints around Bryce Amphitheater.
Inspiration Point is the stop that has the best location for pictures. It is difficult to find a parking space here so you may need to take the shuttle.
Sunrise and Sunset Points are just 0.5 miles from each other on a flat paved path and both have stunning views.
Natural Bridge at Bryce Canyon National Park
Take any of the trails. You will see other hikers on Wall Street and Queen’s Garden Trail (the most popular trail loop), but they all seem to disappear once you get below.
Drive to the end of the road at Rainbow Point and then stop at each viewpoint on the way back. Some spots will be busier, but normally you can find a parking space. Natural Bridge was my favorite of these stops.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is well-worth a stop. While it is the second largest of the five, it is also the second least visited. This means more space to enjoy the amazing views and hikes without the crowds.
The Fruita area and the Gifford House are at the heart of the park. There are historical exhibits with a blacksmith shop, schoolhouse, and a petroglyph panel in the area. There is also good eating with free fruit that you can eat right off the tree (a small fee for fruit you take home). Be sure to buy a fruit pie at the Gifford House and enjoy it at the picnic tables nearby.
Hickman Bridge Trail is a 1.8-mile roundtrip to an arch you can walk under. The trail is listed as moderate and includes a great view of the Capitol Dome.
Though easy to drive to the parking lot, Goosenecks Overlook and Sunset Point aren’t very crowded and have stunning views.
Be ready for an interesting drive to get to the easy two-mile roundtrip of the Capitol Gorge Trail. It is 6.7 miles of paved (but not that wide) Scenic Drive then an unpaved 2.4-mile Capitol Gorge Road with canyon walls on both sides.
Enjoy the drive to Capitol Gorge Trail.
The Capitol Gorge Trail takes you past Pioneer Register (which has historic inscriptions in the rock walls), through slot canyons, and to the connecting trail for the Tanks (waterpockets).
Arches National Park
This is a busy park with a limited entrance area. Schedule at least 30 minutes to get through the gate at this park or go early or late in the day.
Large RVs will find it difficult to maneuver some of the roads and to find parking spaces. It is best to park at the visitor center and use your toad to drive in the park. However, the more than 2,000 arches in the park make it worth the hassle.
Delicate Arch is the most popular arch for good reason. The trail is considered moderate-to-difficult. It is a 3-mile roundtrip and a 480-foot climb. It can be windy, has a narrow rock ledge section, and has little shade (so bring water). However, both the general view and the arch are worth the trip. There are also two viewpoints where the arch can be seen without this hike.
Stop at the Windows Section to see the North and South Window along with the Double and Turret Arch. The two trails are only 1.5 miles total and relatively flat.
Hike to Pine Tree Arch and stop to see Tunnel Arch. This is a side trail of the longer Devils Garden Trail. The trail is around a mile and fairly flat making it an easy trail to see both arches.
If you have more time, take the full Devils Garden Loop, which includes the Double O Arch and the Primitive Trail for a total of 7.5 miles. This is considered a difficult trail and includes steep ledges. Take your time and enjoy the 6-8 arches along the trail depending on how many side trails you take.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is the least visited of these national parks. I don’t know why since the views are incredible.
Green River Overlook is an amazing view that is difficult to capture in a photograph. I heard more gasps here when first seeing this view that any other place in Utah. Grand View Point is also a must-see viewpoint.
The short hike to Mesa Arch tends to be very busy, so that makes it difficult to get a good picture (sunrise is considered the best shot). Be sure to look through the arch for a view of the canyon below.
The Upheaval Dome hike to the first overlook is less than a mile but does require some climbing. There is a second overlook further out that is less-traveled. The “dome” is actually a meteor crater and very interesting.
There are other sections of Canyonlands: The Needles, The Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon. Go to the park website for more information on these sections. They are much less crowded. Some roads are for high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicles only.
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