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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
Popular formations to see
Check out the following formations while you are there
Corona and Bowtie Arches
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:
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:
In March and April you will run into:
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:
Reptiles also call the park their home. You might see the western collared lizard running through the cacti, for example.
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:
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 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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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:
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:
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?
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.
Like the other districts, you can boke, hike, camp, and drive here. The attractions are:
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.
Bryce Canyon National Park
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.
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:
Do you want to hike overnight?
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
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.
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
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.
There are six absolutely beautiful hikes that you should hit:
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:
Mojave Desert tortoise
The plants you will encounter may include:
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*:
*Prices are subject to change
You can get other passes, too, if you really like this park*:
*Prices are subject to change
Enjoy Yourself at the Mighty Five
The most important thing to remember when you are planning a trip is:
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.