Travel Tips for Utah’s Mighty 5
Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion National Park collectively make up the “Mighty 5” in the southeastern part of Utah. At the end of our trip to Utah’s Mighty 5, the conclusion was unanimous – these five national parks are aptly named. From delicate arches to dramatic canyons to red rocks and sheer cliffs, they are each impressive but remain unique. You could spend months exploring the intricacies of each park, but due to timing restraints we had about a day each in Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, two days in Bryce and a day and half in Zion. Certainly not enough time to do everything we wanted to do, but plenty of time to have a couple of key experiences in each park, and narrow in on what we want to visit next time. If you are planning a trip to the Mighty 5 in the near future, here are some tips for how to get the most of your time in each park.
Arches National Park
If you fly into Salt Lake City and drive south 230 miles you will reach Moab – the largest town in southeastern Utah and the perfect home base for visiting Arches and Canyonlands. (If you fly into Las Vegas, you will want to take the opposite route we did and start in Zion). Arches is named for over 1,500 rock arches which have formed within the park.
In one day: You can see most of Arches in one day. You should start by driving the almost 30 mile scenic drive and stop at as many pullouts as you have time for. Good places to hike include Balanced Rock, the Windows Section (which have a myriad of short hikes), Double Arch and our personal favorite Devil’s Garden. Devil’s Garden is over 7.5 miles and leads you to 7 different arches. It is noted as being one of the most heavily trafficked trails, but we went later in the afternoon and did not find it to be crowded at all. If you don’t have time to hike the Delicate Arch trail at sunset, you can drive a mile past Wolfe Ranch and hike a short, steep 0.5 mile trail to the viewpoint.
In more than 1 day: With an extra day, you should book a ranger-led three hour hike to the Fiery Furnace Trailhead, these hikes need to be booked well in advance; also a sunset hike to Delicate Arch (3 miles and moderately difficult) is often a highlight of a visit to Arches.
Transportation: The entrance to Arches is 5 miles north of Moab; the park does not have a shuttle; driving yourself is the only option in Arches
Where to Stay: Fourteen miles down Rt. 128 in Moab sits Red Cliffs Lodge which houses guests in mini-suits and riverside cabins. The cabins are a great bet because they have separate bedrooms, a large kitchen and living room area and your back porch faces the Colorado River – great spot for morning coffee or evening happy hour! The lodge itself is homey and rustic with sweeping views, an in-house restaurant, the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage in the basement and Castle Creek Winery (Utah’s first winery) on site. It was a great home base for Arches, Canyonlands and our white water rafting trip with Red River Adventures. We thoroughly enjoyed our time here!
Where to Eat: One of our best meals in Utah was at Desert Bistro in Moab (recommended by fellow foodie Julie over at Red Headed Traveler). Housed in a pink stucco building, the dining room is peaceful and the cuisine is sophisticated Southwestern. Other favorites in Moab were Peace Tree in the downtown neighborhood where we went for breakfast and dinner – great mix of salads, sandwiches, wraps and smoothies. Another dinner favorite near our lodge on Rt. 128 was the River Grill at the Sorrel River Ranch – a beautiful property right on the Colorado River serving fresh and innovative pasta, fish and meats and unparalleled view of the Colorado River at sunset. And lastly, to cool off when it is hot, head to Moab Yogurt for self-serve frozen yogurt (a crowd favorite!).
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is another national park which is aptly named – the canyons for which it is named are vast and drop off in sheer cliffs and provide the home for the Colorado and Green rivers to meet.
In one day: There are three land districts of Canyonlands – Island in the Sky, Needles and the Maze. Island in the Sky is the most accessible from Moab and there is no connector between the sections of the park so you need to exit the park to get to the next section. In one day, the Island of the Sky district is best paired with Dead Horse Point State Park. In Island in the Sky, the short hike to Mesa Arch is popular at sunset, but just as pretty midday. The Grand View Point Trail area has a great picnic spot where you can fuel up for your 2 mile roundtrip hike through the canyons for which this great park is named. The rest of the day can be spent in Dead Horse Point State Park which is adjacent to the Island in the Sky district and has stunning views of the Colorado River which wind through the colorful rock formations 2,000 feet below.
In more than 1 day: If you have more than a day head to the Needles district which has 55 miles of backcountry trails and is made for hikers.
Transportation: The entrance to the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands is close to 40 miles from Moab; the park does not have a shuttle; driving yourself is the only option in Canyonlands
Where to Stay: See information above under Arches
Where to Eat: See information above under Arches
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef gets far less attention than the rest of the Utah’s national parks. If it existed in another state, it would be its prized possession, but with some of the most popular parks in the country just 2-3 hours away, it often gets overlooked or skipped by visitors. It is known for its petroglyphs and rock formations which are apparent at every turn.
In one day: You do not need more than a day in Capitol Reef – we only did a half-day and had plenty of time to do the scenic drive, hike Capitol Gorge, pull off at Panorama Point and take in the colorful rock layers. You can drive through part of the park when you are on Highway 24, but to see the real parts of the park you need to enter.
In more than 1 day: You do not need more than a day in Capitol Reef. If you are going to be in the area for more than a day, you should explore the Escalante Region nearby.
Transportation: The entrance to Capitol Reef is less than five miles from Torrey; the park does not have a shuttle; driving yourself is the only option
Where to Stay: We could not have found a more perfect place to stay in Torrey. The Cougar Ridge Lodge is a little oasis set back from the main road in Torrey (get GoogleMap directions beforehand, it can be a little tricky to find). The property sits on over 40 acres and has newly built casitas which we were able to stay in. They are beautifully designed with two bedrooms and a common living area. We loved it so much we cancelled our dinner reservations and got takeout for the back porch so we could enjoy the casita and the property (and make s’mores on the grill!).
Where to Eat: We had a great lunch at Café Diablo, Torrey’s restaurant of note. We made plans to go back for dinner, but then ended up getting it to go and brining it back to the Cougar Ridge Lodge. We all loved our meals – from salads and salmon to pumpkin raviolis and rack of lamb – it was great food with a southwestern twist. On our way out of town we stopped at Castlerock Coffee and Candy, an unassuming place which had phenomenal coffee, muffins and breakfast wraps. We stumbled across it when we stopped for gas and so glad we did!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is one of the most well known of the national parks in the country and along with Zion is the most visited in Utah. Unlike many of the other parks, Bryce Canyon is not properly named. It is not actually a canyon but a series of amphitheaters which glow with yellows, pinks, oranges and reds throughout the day. Erosion causes rock spires to form and fade away each year forming Bryce’s “hoodoos.” Bryce sits at an elevation of 6,6oo to 9,100 feet so it tends to be cooler than Utah’s other national parks.
In one day: Bryce really needs two days, but if you only have one day make sure you do the Navajo Loop / Queen’s Garden Trail. You can start at either Sunrise Point and take Queen’s Garden or start at Sunset Point and take Navajo Loop. As you head down the trail you will meet the other at the bottom and head back up. This was by far the best hike we did in Bryce – the scenery is magnificent as you head down into the orange amphitheater. Once you finish this combination loop, visit Inspiration Point, Natural Bridge or tackle another hike at Tower Bridge.
In more than 1 day: If prepared, the 8 mile challenging Fairyland Loop is a favorite amongst avid hikers. Another option is to drive outside the main entrance of Bryce off Highway 12 to the Mossy Cave Trail – we really enjoyed this hike and the opportunity to see the waterfall running through the orange rocks. Rainbow Point was unfortunately closed when we visited Bryce, but the hikes in this area in the park would be a good option for your second day.
Transportation: Bryce Canyon City sits at the entrance of Bryce Canyon; you can drive through the national park or take the shuttle from Bryce Canyon City if you are staying there
Where to Stay: Bryce Canyon offers lodging in the park. The Bryce Canyon Lodge is rustic, charming and homey and set 50 yards from the rim of the canyon. The lodge is listed on the Register of National Historic Places and is the only place to stay within the park. There are rooms and cabins – we stayed in the Western Cabins which have no TVs or wifi, but the front desk rents board games which does great things to enhance family competitiveness.
Where to Eat: Bryce Canyon Lodge has the best food in the area. The dining room is nice with a wide range of selections – we had great salads and fish specials each night. Valhalla Pizzeria next to the lodge is a good spot for a casual lunch. Salads and pizzas are their specialties. There are also a lot of picnic spots in Bryce. On our way through the Escalante region on the way to Bryce we stopped at Escalante Mercantile and Natural Grocery to pick up freshly made sandwiches, hummus, veggies and fruit and made a picnic at the North Campground.
Zion National Park
Your first impression when you arrive at Zion is its grandeur. The cliffs are staggering and travel up as far as the eye can see. When you arrive at the Zion Lodge they remind you that “zion” means place of peace and refuge. There could not be a more accurate description of this park. There are not enough words to describe the feeling that Zion gives you – it’s a place you need to experience for yourself.
In one day: If you only have one day, you will most likely have to make a decision between two of Zion’s most well known attractions – Angel’s Landing or the Narrows. We chose to do the Emerald Pool Hike, a beautiful hike up to a lower, middle and upper pool and then after a break head out to the Narrows. Named for the narrowest section of Zion Canyon where the walls extend up one thousand feet and the water continues to get narrower and narrower as you progress. We did not have the right shoes and ended up doing part of it barefoot (I do not recommend). We ended up heading back and setting our alarm early the next morning to get our “robot boot” rentals and walking sticks and did a half day in the Narrows, but were bummed that we had to turn around to make our flight. Make sure you leave a whole day for this!
In more than 1 day: If you have more than a day do either Angel’s Landing or the Narrows, whichever you did not do the previous day. You can also head to the Zion Canyon or partake in easier hikes such as Weeping Rock or Pa’rus Trail.
Transportation: Taking the shuttle bus in Zion is mandatory; if you are staying at the lodge in the park, you can drive as far as the lodge, as long as you have your red ticket, but then you will need to park and take the shuttle the rest of the way. The shuttle is very efficient and arrives every few minutes.
Where to Stay: Just like Bryce, Zion has Zion Lodge set amidst the beautiful landscapes. Similar to Bryce there are lodge rooms with porches and western cabins. We opted for the western cabins again and were in awe of the view from our front porch. They are structured similar to Bryce’s and have king or queen bed options and are clean and comfy. These rooms had been renovated recently. They also followed the no TV or wifi rule so the “Sorry” board game marathons continued.
Where to Eat: If you are in the park, Zion Lodge has the Red Rock Grill which is pretty good. We found lunch and dinner to have good options – burgers, good sandwiches, fish dishes and very good desserts. They even let us bring in a bottle of our wine we had bought at the winery in Moab for a $10 corking fee – which was a steal compared to what they were selling the bottle of wine for at the restaurant! The town of Springdale borders the south entrance of Zion and has a great food options. After renting our gear for the Narrows, we hopped into Deep Creek Coffee for some of the best coffee in Utah. They also have a great selection of scones, avocado toasts, bagels and muffins. For lunch, Oscar’s has a fun atmosphere, great Southwestern food and big portions. They even brought out their incredible homemade carrot cake when they heard it was my brother’s birthday. Next time I go to Zion, I will definitely be checking out the town of Springdale more.
Entry Costs: Each park has a daily entrance fee ranging $10 – $30. The National Park did “free fee days” from August 25th – 28th in honor of the 100th anniversary of the national parks. There are also free fee days for “National Park Week” in April, Veterans Day, MLK Day, and National Public Lands Day on September 24th. Members of the military and US citizens with permanent disabilities receive annual passes for free. Senior Citizens can receive lifetime passes for $10. Also in 2016, every fourth grader in the United States got a free national park pass.
When to Visit: Summer months are reported to be congested in the national parks, but we were lucky enough to have relatively few crowds the last week in August. Spring and fall are recommended by the parks as being cooler and less crowded. Some park roads and facilities are closed in the winter so research properly where you want to visit and ensure it will be open.
The Mighty 5 was a bucket list item for me, but it will not be my last trip! There is so much to see and do and I’m eager to return knowing what I know now and travel deeper in the region. For anyone who has ever wanted to see this region – now is the time. Thanks for a great 9 days Utah – until next time!
Have you ever visited Southeastern Utah? Which park is your favorite?