You can be an outdoors person pretty much anywhere.

Nope, not there.

What about Utah, though?

Utah has so much state and national parkland that you can find something you absolutely must do pretty much anywhere there.

That’s especially true with the Mighty Five.

What’s the Mighty Five?

In plain language, they’re the five biggest national parks in Utah. What makes them special and different from other national parks is the unique geology of pretty much the entire state.

These five parks offer everything from water trips to hiking, to backpacking, skydiving, flyovers, and more.

canyon somewhere in utah

Source: pexels.com

The Unique Beauty of Utah

Utah is one of the Four Corners states in the desert southwest. Its location along one of the strangest geological phenomena in the U.S. gives it a certain otherworldly beauty that you don't see anywhere else.

Sure, Colorado is pretty, particularly in the Rockies.

Northern Arizona has places like the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, along with most of Monument Valley.

New Mexico has its own beauty in places like Santa Fe.

But Utah is so unique that state and national parks make up the majority of the land.

You’re hard-pressed to find this kind of geologic allure anywhere else.

funfact about monument valley

Great Monument Valley. Image via: wikipedia

A little Utah geology lesson

Exactly how did Utah get this way?

Over the last several hundred million years, Utah has been everything from dry, dusty desert to the floor of inland seas. As seas rise and fall, they deposit layers of minerals.

The seas and river systems deposited thousands of feet of sediment over the millennia, which gives you the stripes you see across the cliffs, hills, and rock formations of Utah.

Because of all of this, you get to look at rock that's hundreds of millions of years old!

grand canyon fun fact

The wonderful Mighty Five. Image via: tourradar

But wait! There’s more.

Utah’s biggest geological feature is known as the Monument Upwarp. It’s a fold in Utah’s land that runs from the junction of the Green and Colorado Rivers in southeastern Utah down into Monument Valley in Arizona.

Starting about 65 million years ago (about the same time the dinosaurs went extinct), Utah began undergoing serious volcanic activity.

Some results of that activity include volcanic rock, like basalt, intruding into the older sandstone and limestone shelves. The softer stone of the mountains eroded away as the volcanoes went extinct, and left columns of basalt in their place.

That's not all:

In addition, the land’s upwarping caused granite to push its way through the softer sandstone and limestone. Eventually, the sandstone shelf collapsed, resulting in the buttes and spires you see in places like Monument Valley.

monument upwarp amazing canyon

The amazing Monument Upwarp. Image via: carleton

How to Get to the Mighty 5 Parks

If you choose to fly, you can fly into Grand Junction, Colorado, which is the closest airport to most of these parks. You can also fly into Salt Lake City or Las Vegas.

Regardless of what airport you fly to, you will need to arrange ground transportation to the parks. The easiest way is to rent a car.

If you choose to drive (and, let’s face it, this might be the easier option depending on how outdoorsy you already are), then finding your way to Interstate 70 is your best bet.

route going to mighty five parks

Helpful map to go to your destination. Image via: onlyinyourstate

Realistically, unless you have a couple of weeks off of work, you probably won't see all of the parks on one trip. Instead, you can spread your visits out over a few vacations.

Personally, I like to spend two to three days exploring National Parks when I visit them. This is especially true when the parks are large like the Mighty Five parks.

Here's why:

When you rush through the parks, you miss out on a lot of great things. These parks are meant to be explored slowly, so that you really appreciate what you are seeing.

So, what exactly do the parks have to offer?

Check it out:

Arches National Park

arches national park

Source: pexels.com


Four miles north of Moab, Utah sits Arches National Park on a salt bed that is roughly 300 million years old. If you are planning a trip, this park should be first on your list.

This beautiful park holds more than 2,000 natural arches within its 76,679 acres.

You read that right.

It has 2,000 natural arches.

That must be why more than 1.5 million people visit it every year!

The land that Arches sits on has been occupied by people for 10,000 years. Fremont people, Ancient Pueblos, European-Americans, ranchers, farmers, Spanish missionaries, andq prospectors have all occupied it at some point.

In 1926, the Park Service requested Arches be designated as a national monument. Unfortunately, President Calvin Coolidge's administration did not support the request.

Obviously, the story doesn't end there:

In 1929, the new president, Herbert Hoover, decided he would preserve the area and signed a presidential proclamation that made it a national monument.

That was still not enough.

When Hoover signed the proclamation, the only areas that could be protected under the Antiquities Act were the arches and other formations.

Luckily, the story doesn't end there.

Here is a timeline of Arches National Park's history:

arhes national park history infographic

History of the best park. Image via: adventuresportsnetwork

Popular formations to see

Check out the following formations while you are there

Delicate Arch

delicate arch during the evening

Source: pexels.com

Double Arch

Double Arch view

Double Arch. Image via: tripadvisor

Balanced Rock

Balanced Rock view

The wonderful Balanced Rock. Image via: wikimedia

Corona and Bowtie Arches

Corona and Bowtie Arches during sunset

The peculia view of Corona and Bowtie Arches. Image via: utah

Fiery Furnace

Fiery Furnace view in a clear sunny day

The magestic view of Fiery Furnace. Image view: ​tripadvisor

Activities for park visitors

If you love hiking, this park is full of adventure.

Not feeling like hiking a long distance? That's fine. You can reach Balanced Rock, Double Arch, Sand Dune Arch and Skyline Arch with three half-mile round trip hikes each.

Pretty cool, right?

If you prefer a long adventure, set out on the Devils Garden Primitive Loop trail.

That trail is the longest in the park, at about seven miles.

For those of you who want something a bit more challenging, you can schedule a tour with a park ranger, from April 15 to September 15, through the Fiery Furnace (you may hike alone with a hiking permit).

Check out the video below of the Fiery Furnace:

Cool plants and animals you may encounter

While you are hiking through Arches National Park, you are going to see an abundance of animals and plants.

Some of the plants you will see may be growing right out of cracks in the rock! These plants may include:


Indian ricegrass

Indian ricegrass

Indian rice grass. Image via: wikipedia

Needle-and-thread grass

close up image of a grassy field

Source: pexels.com

Cheatgrass

Cheatgrass

Cheat grass. Image via: upr

There are many different types of wildflowers in the park. In fact, there are so many, we can't even begin to name them all.

Here's what you need to know:

The flowers you see are going to depend on what month you visit the park.

In January and February, for instance, you may see:

Crescent milkvetch

Crescent milkvetch

Beautiful Crescent milkvetch. Image via: flickr

Storksbill

2 Storksbill flower

The lovely Storksbill. Image via: luontoportti.com

In March and April you will run into:

Skunkbush

Skunkbush with fruits

Skunkbush. Image via: calphotos

Widewing spring-parsley

Widewing spring parsley

Widewing spring-parsley. Image via: fineartamerica

Dwarf mountain-mahogany

Dwarf mountain mahogany

Amazing dwarf mountain-mahogany. Image via: wildflowers

For a full list of the wildflowers in the park, visit the National Park Service index.

In addition to flowers, you will see a lot of animals throughout the park. Some of those animals include:

Black-tailed jackrabbit

Black tailed jackrabbit

Porcupine

Porcupine

Porcupine. Image via: animals

Mule deer

Mule deer

Mule deer spotted. Image via: nps

Coyote

coyote sitting on a snow

Source: pexels.com

Reptiles also call the park their home. You might see the western collared lizard running through the cacti, for example.

Finally:

Birds.

If you are an avid bird watcher, we have exciting news for you: there are over 200 species of birds at Arches National Park. Some of the birds you may be able to check off your list are:

Cooper's hawk

Cooper's hawk standing on a tree branch

Cooper's hawk on a trunk. Image via: allaboutbirds

Cinnamon Teal

2 swimming Cinnamon Teal

Lovely Cinnamon Teal swimming. Image via: birdsna

Killdeer

Killdeer standing on the ground

Killdeer on the ground. Image via: allaboutbirds

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue gray gnatcatcher standing on a branch

Stunning Blue-gray gnatcatcher. Image via: ebird

You can find a full, printable list of birds here.

One thing is for certain:

No matter why you are at Arches National Park, you are sure to have a blast!

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park map

Map of Canyonlands National Park. Image via: wikipedia

Canyonlands National Park is among the “middle of nowhere” parks, particularly if you take a canoe or kayaking trip down the Green River.

If being away from everyone and everything is what you want, then you really ought to check out Canyonlands.

Like Arches National Park, Canyonlands is one of the Mighty Five that is just outside of Moab.

Canyonlands became a national park in 1964 thanks to President Lyndon Johnson. Since then, the park has seen more than 400,000 people visit its 337,598 acres each year.

The park is divided into four districts that are not connected by direct road:

  • Island in the Sky
  • The Maze
  • The Needles
  • Rivers

When I said that it is important to spend a couple of days each at any of the Mighty Five parks, Canyonlands is a good example of why.

It will take two to six hours to travel between the districts. And the reality is, most people do not recommend visiting more than one district per day.

Here's what we know about the districts:

Meander down the rivers

Canyonlands National Park contains the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Inside the park, both rivers are great for guided tours or do-it-yourself adventures in kayaks, canoes, and even rafts.

Green River

green river on a Canyonlands Park map

river map in canyonlands national park. Image via: nps

If you like isolation, then a canoe or kayak trip down the Green River may be what you’re looking for.

Most trips down the Green River are self-guided.

You work with a touring company to take you to your departure point and then pull you out at a designated arrival point (such as the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers).

The best part?

While you’re on the Green, you’re entirely on your own. 

You’re responsible for your food, water, shelter, watercraft, timeline, and everything else.

However, even during the peak season, you may go for days without seeing anyone who isn’t in your party.

That makes a canoe trip down the Green River so freeing.

One of the features of a trip down the Green River is a place about five miles north of the Green/Colorado confluence called Water Canyon.

There’s a great place to camp at the base of the canyon, and hiking all the way to the top and back is a full and difficult day.

However, you get to see everything from fossilized tree trunks to petrified sand dunes.

Check out the video below:

The Water Canyon hike is only a day, however, it’s a very full day. You will want to bring plenty of water, camp food, a small cooking apparatus, walking sticks, and a first aid kit. It’s a beautiful hike, but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Done right, it can be the pinnacle of a canoe trip on the Green River.

dinosaur tracks on a rock

Dinosaur track. Image via: discovermoab

Colorado River

Unlike the Green River, where you can’t take motorboats, the Colorado River lends itself to everything from kayak and canoe trips to trips on jet boats and other motorized watercraft.

The Colorado River is rougher than the Green River, so it’s not a river you want to kayak or raft unless you’re experienced with fast currents, shallow water, and rapids.

In fact, unless you’re licensed, the Forest Service doesn’t allow you to go rafting or kayaking south of the Dollhouse.

The rapids beyond that point can be dangerous for the inexperienced.

The Maze

the maze on a remote district in canyonlands

Maze on the map. Image via: nps

The Maze is the remote district in Canyonlands. It has guided tours of Horseshoe Canyon on almost every weekend during the fall and the spring.

Keep in mind:

There are no potable water sources, food, gas, or any other services in the Maze. That means you need to be prepared to rescue yourself if something happens. Take proper precautions.

In addition:

You will probably spend between a week to three days in this district. You can drive through The Maze, but there are some things you need to know:

  • Do not take a trailer if you can help it, the roads will damage it.
  • Four-wheel-drive, high-clearance, low range vehicles are required for the back roads
  • Motorbikes and bicycles are permitted
  • UTVs, ATVs, and OHVs are PROHIBITED
  • Vehicles and bikes must travel on marked roads
  • Experienced drivers only
  • Pets are PROHIBITED
  • Fires are PROHIBITED
  • Campers must be permitted
  • Campers must bring their own toilet systems

When visiting The Maze you will start at the Hans Flat Ranger Station. The National Park Service recommends you use a map to reach it.

The following chart shows how long you will have to travel to get to each part of The Maze:

travel charts for the maze

Planning your adventure. Image via: nps

Island in the Sky and The Needles

The final two districts are also beautiful places to visit.

Find out more below:


Island in the Sky

So you want an easily accessible place?

If you aren't really down for a crazy adventure, Island in the Sky is the perfect place for you.

The district has amazing views and a scenic drive that is paved. You can, however, spend hours or days hiking in the area.

Some of the attractions include:

grand view point atrractions

Mesa Arch and Grand view point. Image via: tripadvisor, nps

If you want to take a long, challenging bike ride you can head to the 100-mile loop called White Rim Road. Like The Maze, no pets are allowed and your vehicle must be four-wheel drive, high-clearance, and low range.

ATVs, OHVs, and UTVS are not permitted, and neither are fires. 

Overall, Island in the Sky is an awesome place to visit.

What about The Needles?

The Needles

Finally, the last district in Canyonlands is The Needles.

Check it out:

The Needles gets its name from the Cedar Mesa Sandstone that are prevalent in the area. The sandstone looks like needles sticking out of the ground.

Needles

needles.Image via: rainbow

Like the other districts, you can boke, hike, camp, and drive here. The attractions are:

Confluence Overlook

trail Confluence Overlook

Trail Confluence Overlook. Image via: acrossutah

Tower Ruin

historical Tower Ruin

Historicall Tower Ruin. Image via: pinterest

Joint Trail

typical view along joint trail

The typical view along joint trail. Image via: americansouthwest

Elephant Hill

beautiful view of Elephant Hill

Beautiful view of elephant hill. Image via: glengarrywines

Chesler Park

chesler park view

Source: pexels.com

That's not all

The vehicle requirements and prohibited items are the same as the others. National Park Service warns that there is a high risk to your vehicle in this district, though. They also warn that you will pay upwards of $1,000 to have it towed out.

Be careful!

Bryce Canyon National Park

Map of Bryce canyon national park

Map of Bryce canyon national park. Image via: npmaps

In Southwestern Utah lives Bryce Canyon; a spectacular canyon with human-like geologic formations you won’t find anywhere else.

In fact, Bryce Canyon’s rock formations are so unique they’re positively eerie.

If eerily fascinating is your thing, then you should definitely include Bryce Canyon on any visit to Utah.

People have been in the area for more than 10,000 years. These people include the Basketmaker Anasazi, Fremont culture, and Paiute Indians. The area was settled by Mormon pioneers in the late19th century.

President Warren G. Harding designated Bryce Canyon National Monument by presidential proclamation in 1923.

That wasn't the end of it:

In 1928, the president decided to go further and declare the area a national park.

It seems to have been a good idea because more than 2 million people visit the 35,835-acre park every year.

amazing view of Bryce Canyon

The amazing Bryce Canyon. Image via: utah

Bryce Canyon's most popular attraction is not its canyon. Instead, it is the Hoodoos and amphitheaters that draw people to the park.

According to the National Park Service, the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon are the largest concentration on Earth.

That's not even the coolest thing:

The park has three life zones based on elevation. These life zones contain more than 400 native plants and species from the water birch in the lowest zone to the white fir in the forests of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. There are even 1,600-year-old Great Bason bristlecone pine in the park.

Activities at Bryce Canyon

You can do the easy thing and drive through the park's scenic route if you are just on a quick trip.

But if you plan to spend more time, then go for a hike!

The park has eight marked hiking trails that take a few hours each to hike.

Check out the chart below:

 eight marked hiking trails at bryce canyon

Do you want to hike overnight?

Good news!

You can hike overnight in two places: Riggs Spring Loop Trail and Under-the-Rim Trail. You will need a permit to do that though.

The best part of all is:

The night sky.

Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the darkest places on the continent.

Stargazing in the park is spectacular.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park map

Capitol Reef National Park map. Image via: myutahparks

This 241,904-acre park is incredible. So awesome that more than 1 million people visit every year.

The park was first designated a national monument (are you seeing a pattern here?) in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although it was a national monument, though, it was not actually open to the public until 1950.

Crazy, right?

Like Bryce Canyon, this park was home to Native Americans and Mormons. It has been occupied for thousands of years and one of the first tribes to settle was the Fremont Culture in roughly 500 CE.

Mormon pioneers settled the area officially in the 19th century.

Unlike the other parks, this one has something you may not expect:

Fruit orchards.

The Mormons planted fruit orchards, believe it or not.

Checking out the Reef's orchards

The orchards are in what was known as Fruita.

The community was not big. In fact, only about ten families were there at any time and the orchards were essential.

The Mormons planted apricots, pears, apples, cherries, and peaches for cash crops and food.

Visitors who wish to harvest fruit from the trees of the Fruita settlers can do so from March to mid-October for a fee.

Watch the video below for more information:

Other activities at the park

The orchards are not the only thing worth seeing at Capitol Reef.

Visitors can spend hours or days hiking through the massive park.

Here are some other things to do:

  • Hike to Hickman Bridge or Cohab Canyon
  • Bike the trails in the North/Cathedral Valley
  • Stargaze
  • Get a backcountry permit for free and hike overnight

Whatever you choose to do, your family will thoroughly enjoy themselves.

Wildlife and plants

Capitol Reef is home to at least 71 species of mammals, 230 bird species, and 887 plant species.

Some of the animals you might see are:

Ringtails

Ringtails in a cave

Ringtails in a cave. Image via: wikipedia

Gray fox

 fierce gray fox

The fierce gray fox. Image via: wikipedia

Canyon bat

 amazing canyon bat

The amazing canyon bat. Image via: coasttocactus

Yellow-bellied marmots

 lovely Yellow bellied marmots

The lovely Yellow-bellied marmots. ​atlasobscura

While there are nearly 300 plant species in the park, about 40 are rare and endemic and 6 of them are special.

For all the wrong reasons.

Those six are listed as threatened or endangered.

Here are a few of the rare plants:
 

Rabbit Valley gilia

 Rabbit Valley gilia

Source: Wikipedia

Maguire's daisy

Maguire's daisy in a rocky place

Maguire's daisy in a rocky place. Image via: wikipedia

Barneby reed-mustard

Barneby reed mustard

Barneby reed-mustard. Image via: earth

Zion National Park

You're finally visiting the last park on our list of the Mighty Five, but the first national park in Utah.

And guess what?

It's the most popular.

Zion National Park is 146,597 acres big and more than 4.5 million people visit it every year.

The park is located in the junction of the Mojave Desert, Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin.

Like the other parks it has a rich history.

People have been living in the area for more than 8,000 years. The groups include:

  • Basketmaker Anasazi
  • Fremont Culture
  • Mormons
  • Parrusits
  • Virgin Anasazi
  • Southern Paiute people

Recognizing its beauty and rich history, President William Taft proclaimed it the Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909.

In 1919, it became the Zion National Park.

The park is so beautiful and interesting, it has been featured in a number of films including the cult classic "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Which, I have to admit, I have never seen.

Activities at Zion

If you are a hiker, this is a great park for you.

Seriously.

There are six absolutely beautiful hikes that you should hit:
 beautiful hiking activities at zion

hiking. Image via: zionnationalpark, earthtrekkers, citrusmilo 

If you do not want to hike, there's something for you too.

A shuttle bus!

From March through November, you can take a shuttle bus (only) through the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

Although your car is not allowed, you can also ride your bike along the drive.

Check out the video below:

Like some of the other parks, this is not one that you are going to want to just spend one day in. You should plan on five to seven days if you really want to get everything you can out of your trip.

Plants and animals of Zion

One of the coolest things about Zion is its plants and animals.

There are about 291 species of bird, 80 species of mammals, 44 species of reptiles, 8 species of fish, and more than 800 native plant species.

You may see the following animals during your time in the park:

Mountain lion

Mountain lion up the hill

Mountain lion up the hill. Image via: abc7news

Mule deer

Mule deer on the forest

Mule deer on the forest. Image via: nps

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep

Bighorn sheep: Image via: rangerrick

Mojave Desert tortoise

Mojave Desert tortoise

Mojave Desert tortoise crawling. Image via: news

The plants you will encounter may include:

Monkey flowers

Monkey flowers

Amazing monkey flower. Image via: boredpanda

Sand buttercup

buttercup flowers

Astounding buttercup. Image via: bioimages

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush flowers

Indian paintbrush. Image via: nature

Columbine

Columbine flower

Beautiful columbine. Image via: gardenerspath

The animals and plants alone make the trip worthwhile!

Cost of the Mighty Five

Keep in mind that Utah is mostly desert, so it’s hot in the summer.

It’s also crowded in the summer, especially in Moab.

So if that’s when you want to go, check out this calendar to see if there are any events you want to participate in (or avoid entirely).

Here's what you should do:

If you don’t like heat and strong sun, you’ll find that mid-spring and mid-fall are the best times of year to visit Arches. Keep in mind that in these two seasons, the temperature swings between daytime and nighttime can seem extreme.

Also, there is a cost associated with visiting these parks.

Fortunately, the prices at all five are the same*:

  • Private vehicle: $30
  • Motorcycle: $25
  • Pedestrians and bicycles: $15
  • Children under 15: free

*Prices are subject to change

You can get other passes, too, if you really like this park*:

  • Annual pass: $80
  • Annual senior pass (62 and older): $20
  • Military annual pass: Free
  • 4th Grade annual pass: Free
  • Lifetime senior pass (62 and older): $80
  • Lifetime access pass for people with permanent disabilities: Free
  • Southeast Utah Annual Pass (gets you into Arches, Canyonlands, and Natural Bridges National Monument): $50

*Prices are subject to change

Enjoy Yourself at the Mighty Five

The most important thing to remember when you are planning a trip is:

Enjoy yourself.

No matter if you choose one of the Mighty Five or all of them, you will be awed by the beauty of it all. If you are traveling from out of state, it is likely that this will be a once in a lifetime experience.

Make ALL the memories.

Have you been to one of the parks on our list? If so, what was your favorite part about it? Let us know in the comment section below.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This