The United States has 61 protected areas that are considered so significant and valuable that they have been designated as national parks. Travelers headed out west can make a stop in Utah and see five of those parks in one state: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. These parks feature dramatic desert terrain, amazing rock formations, and the stunning mountain scenes that dominate Utah's natural landscape. All five parks are located near each other, making it possible to plan a truly epic road trip and visit all of them in a short period.
To access Arches National Park, you need to get to Moab, Utah. It's just a short trip by air or car from major cities like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Arches National Park is open all year, 24 hours a day. Before starting your day at Arches, check out the visitor center located just inside the park near the main entrance. It is open daily (except Christmas Day) with the following hours:
Arches National Park has many captivating rock formations, the most famous of which is the beautiful sandstone Delicate Arch, featured on Utah license plates. Bring your camera to capture a great shot of the snowy La Sal mountain range in the background. Another featured arch is the 290-foot Landscape Arch, which is easy to get to via a 0.8-mile hike from the Devil's Garden Trailhead. You can also camp, mountain bike, or ride ATVs in Arches National Park. Keep an eye out for dinosaur tracks too.
Canyonlands National Park is also located near Moab, Utah, just a 30-minute drive from Arches National Park. Like Arches, the park is open all year, 24 hours a day. Canyonlands National Park is huge, so it's divided into four regions — (Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze, plus the Green and Colorado Rivers regions. Since it can take hours to traverse one district, most visitors choose to focus on one area at a time. Each area has its own visitor's center, plus another visitor's center at Horseshoe Canyon, so make sure you check the hours before visiting.
Canyonlands National Park is known for its stunning vistas. Travel a mile down a sandstone staircase and take it all in at the Grand View Overlook, which provides awe-inspiring views of Monument Basin. Visitors should also make sure to stop by Mesa Arch, a 50-foot opening atop a towering cliff, which perfectly frames the valley below as well as the La Sal mountains in the distance. Finally, the towering sandstone spires of The Needles District are ideal for western road trip photo ops.
Capitol Reef National Park is located in the middle of Southern Utah near the town of Torrey. Most visitors fly or drive in from Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, or Grand Junction. To fully enjoy their time at Capitol Reef, most visitors will need access to a car. The Fruita section of the park features a scenic drive that is fully paved with lots of hiking opportunities along the way, but travelers who want to tour the Waterpocket Fold in the southern corner of the park would be better off with a vehicle that can handle tougher terrain. Capitol Reef National Park is open all year, 24 hours a day. Stop by the visitors center to pick up maps, books, and other useful information. It's open year round except for major holidays from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., and in the summer it stays open until 6:00 p.m.
When planning your visit to Capitol Reef National Park, make sure not to miss Cathedral Valley, home of amazing geologic structures including The Temples of the Sun, Moon, and Stars. Marvel at the Walls of Jericho and turn an appreciative gaze to Glass Mountain and its sparkling crystal hillside. Visitors should also check out Hickman Bridge, a natural stone bridge that's easy to access via a short hiking trail. Horseback riding and fishing are other popular pastimes at Capitol Reef.
Head to southern Utah to visit Bryce Canyon National Park near the city of Bryce. It's conveniently located near another major attraction, Zion National Park. Ready to take a break from driving? Though cars are permitted, it's fun to enjoy the park's free shuttle service that takes visitors to all the major viewpoints and trails. Bryce Canyon is open 24 hours a day all year long. The visitor center, located just 1.5 miles inside the park, is also open all year except for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, but hours vary by season. If you're interested in staying inside the park, don't miss the rustic lodge from the 1920s in the park's center. It has cabins, suites, and motel rooms as well as a dining room and gift shop.
Bryce Canyon National Park is peppered with popular trails including Navajo Loop, which takes hikers past amazing views at Sunset Point, eerie spires and hoodoos at Silent City, and Wall Street, which is literally a narrow canyon bordered by towering sandstone walls. Don't miss Thor's Hammer, a remote hoodoo that is one of Bryce Canyon's most iconic geologic formations.
Zion National Park, Utah's oldest national park, is located in southern Utah near the city of Springdale. There are many good lodging options in Springdale, or visitors may choose to stay in nearby Mount Carmel, Kanab or St. George. Zion has two visitor centers that are also open throughout the year as well as an informative museum where visitors can get information about how to best enjoy their visit while making the minimum impact on the desert landscape.
Zion National Park is amazing to drive through, but hiking is a great way to fully appreciate its most stunning vistas. Challenge yourself with the Angels Landing trail. Its steep ascent and jaw-dropping views will both get your heart pumping. If you're up for a longer hike, try the eight-mile trail to Observation Point for amazing views of the entire canyon. Finally, don't miss Zion's emerald pools, a literal oasis in the desert featuring interesting plants, waterfalls, and Zion's famous red rocks.
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