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Utah’s Mighty Five: The “Big 5” Amazing National Parks of the State

May 11, 2021 /
Utah Mighty Five

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands: these are Utah‘s five national parks, known for their natural beauty and landscapes that see thousands of visitors each year. They are part of the Grand Circle, the route that includes some of Southwest natural wonders, which is called a circle precisely because it forms an imaginary circle over the territory.

You can visit the Utah Mighty Five by car, hiking or mountain biking. So let’s get to know a little bit more about Utah’s five famous parks (aka “Big 5”).

Utah Mighty Five Map

Bryce Canyon: An Amphitheater Sculpted by Nature

utah mighty five road trip

The tall and jagged rocks (the famous pinnacles called hoodoos) arranged in a way that resembles an amphitheater at the edge of the forest and the numerous tunnels creating actual labyrinths make Bryce Canyon the best-known park in Utah, so much so that it is practically a destination on every road trip of US national parks.

The peculiar rock formations are a result of erosion of atmospheric elements on the Paunsaugunt Plateau, and the typical red-orange color with white hues makes the landscape unique. The forests of firs, pines and junipers are home to various animal species, especially birds and mammals.

To get a general idea of what Bryce has to offer, all you need to do is park your car in one of its overlooks and take the time to admire the beauty that surrounds you. But if you have more time, you can also explore one of the many paths, so you can admire the beautiful hoodoos up close.

Our guide to visit Bryce Canyon

Zion: Among Rock Faces and Green Forests

big 5 utah

At Zion National Park you will find a distinctly different landscape. Here the Virgin River has carved one of the most spectacular canyons in the world, where towering bright red monoliths rise majestically over verdant forests and valleys.

This, more than any other of Utah’s parks, is a paradise for hikers and climbers. Those who intend to drive through Zion will not get as much out of their visit because during the summer the main section of the canyon is not accessible by car (only by shuttle bus), although you can still console yourself (so to speak) with 2 scenic byways:

  • the UT-9 Mount Carmel Highway, a scenic road that snakes through a canyon carved by a tributary of the Virgin River.
  • Kolob Canyons, a separate section of the park that offers a splendid view with minimal effort.

Our Guide to Zion National Park

Arches: Natural Architecture

utah might five itinerary

Arches National Park has the highest concentration of natural arches in the world, a phenomenon that gives the park a unique charm. The spectacular red rock arches are in fact one of the main reasons that draw many visitors to the nearby town of Moab, located in one of the most bountiful natural settings in the United States.

Visiting the park is an experience everyone can enjoy. Hiking enthusiasts can venture out to discover the most remote arches, but even those who only have time for a quick road trip stop will be rewarded by the beautiful views on Arches Scenic Drive, the park’s scenic road.

The most recognizable symbol of the park is the scenic Delicate Arch, which can be reached by hiking of almost 3 miles (roundtrip) but can also be viewed from farther away at overlooks that are easier to get to. The arches are not the only interesting feature of this park. Just think for example of the Courthouse Towers area, where imposing monoliths soar high above the ground, giving the impression of a modern city skyline.

Our guide to Arches National Park

Capitol Reef: Among Historical Villages, Canyons and Orchards

utah mighty five national parks

Capitol Reef National Park is not so commonly visited, but that does not necessarily mean it is any less interesting. It is no coincidence that it is called “one of Utah’s best-kept secrets” and it attracts above all those who avoid large crowds of tourists.

History buffs will find be fascinated by the traces of the Mormon and Indian past that still mark these lands, however, it is the natural beauty that makes this park stand out. In its exceptional landscape you will find the imposing rock faces of the majestic Waterpocket Fold rock face by the vineyards of the historic Mormon settlement of Fruita, creating a truly striking contrast of colors.

Like Arches National Park, you thoroughly enjoy visiting this park wither by taking a drive, thanks to 2 scenic roads (UT-24 and Capitol Reef Scenic Drive), or by walking, thanks to numerous trails that allow you to venture inside narrow canyons (slot canyons), admire natural arches and other unique rock formations.

Our Guide to Capitol Reef National Park

Canyonlands: Endless Labyrinths through the Canyons

utah mighty five

Canyonlands National Park is an extensive area divided into 3 districts: Island in the Sky, Needles and The Maze. The first one is the most famous and also the easiest to visit (it is located just over half an hour away from Moab) and is the ideal choice for those who want to admire the beautiful views of this park without spending energy going on long hikes.

The main road of the park runs along the ridge of the plateau, with many spots where you can stop and take unforgettable pictures. One of these is Mesa Arch, another famous natural arch that, almost like a painting, frames a splendid panorama, where the horizon seems to go on forever.

Hiking enthusiasts have the option to take a trip to the Needles district, known for its unique pinnacle-like rock formations. Meanwhile a hike to the Maze, an area that is still rugged and pristine, will require much more preparation.

Our guide to Canyonlands

A Tour to Visit All 5 Parks

Do you want to pack all five parks into your trip but it seems a bit complicated? Do you want to avoid spending time and energy to create your own itinerary? Don’t worry, there is a nice organized tour that allows you to explore all the parks in Utah in 6 days, with departure and return to Salt Lake City.

Click here for information about the Utah Parks Tour.

What else?

It would be a major mistake to think that the natural beauty of Utah is limited exclusively to the Utah Mighty Five. This incredible state is in fact has several lesser known parks, scenic roads and scenic overlooks. To get an idea of what Utah has to offer, read our page on the state of Utah:

Utah: All the Routes to Explore the State

lorenzo puliti
lorenzo puliti

I am fascinated by the wonders of the world I never tire of going in search of them.

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