Now’s the time to make plans to visit these stunning natural areas. Writer, Elizabeth R. Rose, takes us on a beautiful journey through Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks.
You can hike down into the stunning hoodoo formations of Bryce Canyon National Park. Photo by Elizabeth Rose.
The Utah Mighty 5 National Parks
Utah is proud of their national parks. In fact, they have named them the Mighty 5®. In Utah, the federal government owns 63 percent of the land base. Only Nevada has a higher percentage of federal ownership. And, the beauty of the National Parks and National Forests lands has resulted in ever-increasing tourism to the area.
So I decided I had to go experience the Mighty 5 this past April before the crowds descended on the better-known parks. I joined an early spring Southwest Adventure Tours Mighty 5 six-day tour. On our guided van trip out of Salt Lake City we explored five breathtaking national parks: Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion.
These national parks provide the visitor with stunning landscapes because of their geology. They are part of the Colorado Plateau, an open landscape where you can see the layers of rock deposited over time. The lifting up of these layers by continental-scale tectonic forces and the erosion of the layers on the earth’s surface has created the fascinating formations, cliffs and canyons.
Canyonlands National Park
After a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, and lunch in Moab, we arrived at the stunning Islands in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is divided into four sections. The Islands in the Sky section of Canyonlands is situated on a huge mesa resting on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain.
Every overlook offers a different perspective on Canyonlands’ spectacular landscape. The day we were there, the overlook just across from the Visitors Center provided an expansive view that rivaled that of the Grand Canyon.
Later, we hiked a short trail to view Mesa Arch, a weathered sandstone arch with a window on the canyon and mountain vista we had been enjoying.
Canyonlands offers trails for off road vehicles, short and long hikes, mountain biking and camping.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park, just outside Moab, is known for the 2,000+ arches found within its borders. Some have described this park as fantasy-like or otherworldly. With a variety of geological features including fault lines, petrified sand dunes, arches, bridges, balanced rocks, even driving through the park, viewpoint to viewpoint, provides the visitor with excitement at every turn. We took an early hike to Delicate Arch before the crowds arrived. We also explored the old Wolfe homestead and petroglyphs at the trailhead.
In addition to touring famous formations like the Windows Section, Balanced Rock, Courthouse Wash, and other areas on the front south side of the park, we took a breath-taking one mile hike through a canyon named Park Avenue. The canyon, with sheer cliffs on both sides, gave the same feeling as you would have walking down New York City’s Park Avenue with tall buildings on both sides of the street. But our feet were on weathered rocks, dotted with wildflowers.
The area, which had once been under water, had visible ripples worn into the stone. It was a beautiful hike with a view of the massive “three gossips” formation as we emerged from the canyon.
At the end of the day, we returned to Moab, Utah, for another night and a visit to our now favorite Mexican restaurant, Fiesta Mexicana.
Capitol Reef National Park
In the morning we followed the Colorado River and stopped to view petroglyphs high on a canyon wall. We traveled to Capitol Reef National Park stopping at the fascinating Goblin Valley State Park with fanciful sandstone formations.
Capitol Reef National Park is not visited as often as the other Utah parks but is equally interesting. The park is filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, bridges, petrified wood, geodes, and fruit orchards middle of what they call the Waterfold Pocket, a 100 mile geologic fold slowly being exposed by erosion. Capitol Reef is named for the shape of some of the white sandstone formations that look like capitol domes. And, the area, now desert, once was an underwater reef.
We learned about the rich cultural history that goes along with the geological formations in the area. A highlight was having fruit pie made from the fruit in the orchards planted by early settlers who irrigated the land.
At Capitol Reef our group separated and part of the group took the Cohab Trail, following a high ridgeline, and others hiked an easy trail to view the Hickman Bridge arch. The weather was warmer and we benefitted from the cooling Fremont River flowing through the canyon.
We spent the night at Capitol Reef Resort in Torrey, Utah and enjoyed the balconies overlooking the mesa, especially at dawn.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its red rock and the odd-shaped pillars known as Hoodoos. Hoodoos are found throughout the world, but these are colored in ways unlike any other area on earth.
Spanning over 2000 feet in elevation, Bryce Canyon has three distinct climate zones within its borders. As we enjoyed photographing the hoodoos, we noticed a dark storm in the distance and then it started to snow.
We were able to get to the key areas in the park before checking in to our hotel, the Best Western Plus Canyon Hotel outside the park gate. As the spring snow fell, we went back into the park to have dinner at the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge. The food was excellent and we enjoyed the history, the blazing fire in the stone fireplace and the drive back to the hotel through the new fallen snow.
Zion National Park
The next day we drove to Zion National Park with a stop at a marvelous German bakery in Orderville, site of an early social experiment by the Mormon settlers in communal living. Although the settlers moved on to different ways of life, Forscher Bakery was thriving and well worth a visit.
We arrived at Zion National Park via the east entrance with a brief stop at the Checkerboard Mesa formation.
After traversing through the historic 1.1 mile long tunnel and down into the canyon, with picture windows carved out of the rocky walls, we entered the main canyon. Zion was amazingly beautiful with massive cliffs and, due to recent rain, mist hanging in the folds of the rocks.
We checked in to the beautiful La Quinta Inn in the art-filled community of Springdale and enjoyed lunch at the Zion Canyon Brew Pub right at the entrance to the park.
After lunch, it was off for hiking and sightseeing. The park has a shuttle system that takes you to trailheads and key points of interest. It links to the free shuttle in Springdale, so our group split up according to interests knowing it was easy to get back to the hotel. I decided on a flat amble on the Pa’rus Trail following the Virgin River. I craned my neck to enjoy the cliffs shrouded in mist and noticed the bright spring green cottonwoods on the banks of the river. Although Zion was a busy with visitors, I was alone with this beauty during much of my walk.
That evening we enjoyed dinner at the western-themed Wildcat Willies. The next morning was our last opportunity to enjoy Utah’s Mighty 5. Some went hiking and some shopped the galleries of Springdale. I spent some time at the Zion Visitors Center picking up a souvenir magnet and gifts for family. I also found a rock shop and brought home a local Utah geode to add to my rock and mineral collection.
As we drove back to Salt Lake City that afternoon we had yet another glimpse of the canyons of Zion National Park at Kolob Canyons. The Mighty 5® national parks tour had been an experience of a lifetime, a true bucket list trip.
About Southwest Adventure Tours
Southwest Adventure Tours is a Utah based business providing individuals and groups with scenic, photography, and adventure tours throughout the Southwestern US. Their specialty is that they focus on small group experiences… usually between 14 and 25 passengers. They offer a wide range of multi day tours and day tours from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and other local areas adjacent to the National Parks.
Our group numbered six and we enjoyed the comfort of a new Mercedes touring van with driver/guide. Our guide took care of all the details and made sure that everyone, no matter what their physical ability, had an enjoyable adventure along the way.
If You Go:
Each national park has its own website with maps, hiking information, weather alerts and operating hours. It is well worth researching your tour and visiting these websites.