You’ve waited a long time for this, but it is finally time for you to release your inner dad and do that great ol’ American family road trip your wife has been nagging you about. For far too long you’ve told yourself this will be the year you will buy that American RV and hit the open road – wind streaming through your hair (what little is left) and your kids singing your praises in the back (or zoned out playing on iPads). That is the Griswald family vacation version anyhow. Regardless, the time is now to finally take the plunge. America is known for a great many things – self-sabotage and Big Gulps come to mind – but perhaps what we can be most proud of is our National Parks system. From the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone to Yosemite, America boasts some of the most epic and impressive landscapes on the planet. With 59 National Parks recognized and managed by the National Park Services (not even counting the hundreds of historic sites and monuments it also manages) – there is a lifetime’s worth of Mother Nature in the USA to explore.
However, truth be told, when it comes to National Parks, Utah’s Top National Parks – the Mighty 5 – are at the top of my list.
When people think of Utah they may conjure images of Park City and it’s amazing skiing and Sundance Film Festival, or perhaps they think of it as the land of Mormons and strange alcohol laws, but Utah, is also home to some of the most incredible and varied landscapes in the USA – from snowcapped mountains to arid deserts to fertile valleys. The drastic changes in landscapes is maybe why Utah’s Top National Parks, The Mighty 5 – Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef – in addition to also being home to Monument Valley (where Close Encounters of the Third Kind was filmed) are considered by many to be the best in the country. So it is safe to say, Utah is out of this world when it comes to nature and the perfect place to pack your best trekking poles and take a week or two to explore.
Zion National Park
Perhaps the most famous park on the list – and for good reason – is Zion National Park. It is the most fertile looking of all the parks. Zion has a great mix of mountainous, colorful rock formations mixed with desert and lush vegetation. There are waterfalls and streams that run through it as well as Mount Carmel Highway which weaves its way through the landscape. If there was one park to go to, this would be it. It is only a two and half hour drive from Las Vegas, where many people choose to start their journey to visit Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks.
Entry Fee: The entry is fee is $30 per vehicle. If you are planning on seeing all the parks, you can buy an annual $80 America the Beautiful pass which gets one vehicle (and one other name on the card) into any of America’s National Parks and sites for a year. It is an amazing deal. If you aren’t sure about buying it, you can just buy the single entry (good for a week) and hold on to it. You have a week to decide to use that admission (and any other parks you bought) toward the annual pass.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is near the town of Moab. You can actually fly and start your tour of Utah’s Mighty 5 here, but it is the most expensive option (both the flying in and car rental). Canyonlands is actually Islands in the Sky, Needles and the Maze and is so large it actually has two visitor centers. The best way to see Canyonlands is by car since everything here is so spread out. Canyonlands is most famous for…well you guess it – canyons. The canyons here are impressive and formed out of the Colorado River, the same river that the made the Grand Canyon.
Entry Fee: $25 per vehicle
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is only a 15 minute drive to the nearest airport in the city of Moab. However, I started and ended my trip out of Salt Lake City (Arches is the closest park to here). As the name suggests, Arches is known for its impressive array of natural rock archways. The park has over 2,000 arches in all as well as pinnacles, cliffs and incredible rock formations. The bright red/orange colors make for great photos, especially at sunset.
Entry Fee: $25 per vehicle
Bryce Canyon National Park
Although Bryce Canyon has is also filled with rock formations from sandstone like Zion, its formations are entirely different. The rock formations at Bryce Canyon are made from eroded sandstone forming little towers called Hoodoos – which according the the National Park Service Bryce Canyon has more than anywhere else in the world. There are several viewpoints as well as several different walking trails.
Entry Fee: $30 for one vehicle.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is the least visited of the Mighty 5 in Utah. It is best known for its cliff faces and red rock formations in Waterpocket fold. You can actually see a lot of the main rock formations from the highway.
Entry Fee: $10 per vehicle
Monument Valley & Bridges
Although Monument Valley and Bridges are not part of the Mighty 5 of Utah’s National Parks, I included them as they aren’t much out of the way on a trip in Utah. You may recognize Monument Valley from the film – Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Valley is actually on Native American land, so it makes a cool stop to see another side of America along the way.
As for Natural Bridges, it is a small national park you can do in an hour or two. You can’t walk on any of the bridges for safety reasons but it is impressive to see how long some of the arches are.