On our PCS from Washington to Arizona we decided to go a different route – through Utah. This gave us the chance to see something new (on our way to WA we drove through California) and also explore some National Parks. Southern Utah is home to 5 National Parks that are dubbed “The Mighty Five.” The Mighty Five are: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. We embarked on this journey and boy was it beautiful.
Our first stop in the parks journey was Moab, Utah. Near Moab are two parks – Arches and Canyonlands. We started in Canyonlands.
Canyonlands National Park is divided into 3 areas – Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. We first went to The Needles on the Southern side of the park. From Moab this is definitely a bit of a drive – make sure to fill up with gas before you leave because the gas just outside the park is pricey. Regardless, I think The Needles is pretty cool, and very different from Island in the Sky. These are the only 2 sections of the park you can drive into; The Maze is backcountry permits only. It looks pretty awesome but it’s really hard to get to. The Needles has views of most of the canyons from afar in the park and is known for its Needle-like formations. We got there pretty late in the day so just did a short flat hike and went to the viewpoints.
We went to Island in the Sky another day. Island in the Sky has sweeping views of the canyons created by two rivers. It is pretty vast but to really see some of the cooler formations requires a longer hike. We did a short one to Upheaval Dome – it is a weird rock formation that was either created by a meteor impact thousands of years ago or salt deposits, they aren’t really sure. It’s a steep but short hike and I wish we had a bit more time to do a longer one in a different area of the park, but it was still interesting. I personally liked Needles more than Island in the Sky, but it was all pretty.
Arches National Park was next on the list. We both loved Arches – it was so beautiful! It is home to over 2,000 stone arches!! There are also a variety of rock formations all across the park. We decided to do a fairly long and difficult hike – Devil’s Garden, which involved scrambling and hiking on exposed rocks, but also a few arches that are otherwise impossible to see. There were moments when the rocks freaked me out a bit but it was an amazing hike. For the other major landmarks in the park we just went to the viewpoints, if I’d had more energy I think I would have liked to do another hike, but we also were short on time.
Next up was Capitol Reef National Park. Named “reef” because of how early settlers and explorers had to navigate the rocks as if a boat near a reef in water, this was a small but interesting park. You drive through the main part of it on US Highway 12. We saw petroglyphs and early settler buildings. The most accessible part of the park is a 10 mile road into the reef. If you can, drive into Grand Wash to see abandoned mines and the original path settlers took to the region.
Then to Bryce Canyon National Park. Hands down we loved Bryce Canyon and thought it was the most beautiful. We chose to do another long and difficult hike here, opting for the Navajo Trail to Peekaboo Loop to Queens Garden. It gave us views from above the canyon and from the canyon floor. We also encountered the horse riders along the way (an option we considered doing but decided against since we got there too late to book and it was a bit expensive). It was a difficult trail but we enjoyed it – definitely worth it. Then we drove along the canyon to the various viewpoints.
Finally to Zion National Park. Zion is a bit different from the other parks in that you must use their shuttle inside the park. There is little to no parking for the hundreds to thousands of cars that come there to visit. I was a bit worried that it would be annoying to wait for the shuttle, but they were very fast and informative. We did two hikes in Zion – the first was to the Upper Emerald Pools. This trail had a lot more people on it then I expected but the pools were pretty and on the way down we used a less-used path for some necessary quiet. Then we walked along the Virgin River to the Narrows. This is a very easy path that is paved and flat (for the most part). It’s also a pretty used path and a lot of people spend time swimming in the river. We also went to the Weeping Wall and checked out their lodge.
Along the way we also stopped at a few state parks, which I’ll share in another post. I will say that we started to get a bit park fatigued by the end and wanted to be done. Part of that was the living out of a suitcase and car for the last few weeks (including our last week in Washington). But the scenery in Utah was breathtaking and so diverse. I was completely blown away that so many different types of rocks, formations, mountains, and landscapes were within hours of each other.
Lodging and food recommendations from our trip
Moab KOA – Good launching off place for Arches and Canyonlands. Some sites are close to the road so some noise is possible.
Pine Shadow Cabins – Close to Capitol Reef. When we booked these we didn’t realize that these were fully furnished with a kitchenette and full bath cabins; we were expecting a sparse cabin. It was a pleasant surprise and we really liked this place.
Cafe Diablo – Hands down the best food we had on our whole trip. This is near Capitol Reef National Park. Great margaritas, awesome menu, great place. The prices reflect the quality of food and great service. Absolutely loved this place.
We did a fair amount of camping on this trip and the other spots were a bit out of the way in nearby state parks or loud since they were near major roads. If you don’t mind a bit of a drive and the national park campsites are full, check out nearby state parks, they have an easy to use reservation system, or take a gamble and try to get a walk-in spot at the park. Bryce and Zion both have fantastic lodges, unfortunately they were all booked when we were there, but they are another good option. We also cooked a lot of our meals and bought sandwiches at local grocery stores for lunch.