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THERE ARE FEW PLACES IN THE WORLD THAT RIVAL UTAH’S NATURAL BEAUTY. Copper-colored sandstone arches, jaw-dropping gorges, and dramatic geological wonders make up a good portion of the lower half of the state. At the moment, I’m visiting my fifth and final park here.
“Wow” is really the best way I can describe these natural wonders. Each vast preserve has its own personality and formations you won’t find anywhere else on the planet. If you’re a go-getter and want to visit them all, you can do it in a week—or eight days if you do also throw in a few highlights (including Arizona and Vegas) and catch a flight home the next day. Here’s how.
Zion National Park
The least expensive way to start off your journey? Fly into Las Vegas and rent a car. Arrive on a weekday and you can always find a great deal on a hotel at a fraction of the weekend rate.
Leave Vegas early and head toward Zion National Park. You’ll want to buy a National Parks one-year pass for $80— it will pay for itself, since entrance fees for all the other parks you’ll be visiting can cost up to $35 per vehicle for a single day. Plus, the pass is good for parks all over the U.S. for an entire year. If you’re over 62, you can get a lifetime pass for the same price; it’s free for active military.
Zion is an extremely popular park because of its great trails, easy accessibility, and diverse formations. The road runs right through the center of the preserve, so you can stop for a hike, or park your car and take a shuttle to the area you want to visit—unless you’re staying in the lodge, you have to park and take the shuttle to the trailheads.
The most popular hike is Angel’s Landing. It’s a dangerous, rugged hike that attracts climbers from all over the world. There are lots of shorter hikes if you’re not looking to be that committed.
If you want to stay in a real town after Zion, Kanab is a great stop with nostalgic motels and restaurants, and it’s only 30 minutes south of the park turnoff. It’s a good choice if you’re planning on including the North Rim of the Grand Canyon or Lake Powell on your itinerary.
The area around Kanab was a popular spot to shoot Western movies a few decades ago, and there’s a set from the original Gunsmoke television show on one of the back roads. The remains are a crumbling mess, so you won’t be able to get past the fence, but you can saunter over to the Little Hollywood Museum for some photos in front of their Western facades. There’s also the nearby Pink Coral Dunes State Park if you’re not too tired from hiking in Zion.
Bryce Canyon is one of the easiest parks to visit and has a sunset and sunrise viewpoint trail. If you’re staying overnight, you can visit both lookouts at opposite times of day. Bryce is like no other place, with giant vermilion sandcastle formations that seem to defy gravity. The park’s amphitheater is the largest grouping of hoodoos in the world, and it’s a good place to take a hike into the valley below. Its otherworldly appearance will make you wonder why you’ve never seen it in a Star Wars movie. You might be able to grab some elk chili at its lodge during cooler times of the year.
Leave Bryce early in the morning to make the 2.5-hour drive to Capitol Reef National Park. CRNP gets less press than Utah’s other parks, but it’s definitely a worthwhile stop. You can take the highway straight through (free), or treat yourself to some spectacular views on its scenic drive. Capitol Reef gets its name from the 100-mile-long wrinkle in the earth’s crust that makes a “reef” with formations that vaguely resemble the top of a capitol building. There’s a nice hike to a natural arch, ancient petroglyphs, and dramatic canyons that must be seen to be believed.
Make a short stop at the historical Gifford House to have some homemade pie, ice cream, or cinnamon rolls. The main road is easy to navigate, but the dirt roads are better reached by four-wheel drive. At the end of the scenic road, turn around and head east 2.5 hours towards Moab.
Moab is located between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and is a literal oasis for travelers. There’s not much between Kanab and Moab, so the assortment of hotels, restaurants, and bars is a welcome sight while you’re dusting off your boots. Hotel prices can be high in Moab, so plan early and consider other options such as Airbnb. You’ll want to spend two nights to allow yourself enough time to visit both parks.
Arches is the closest and easiest of the two reserves. You’ll be instantly impressed by the entrance lookout with its sheer cliffs and colorful formations. The National Park service chose the perfect name for this park: Over 200 arches have been documented within its boundaries. The most famous one is Delicate Arch, which requires a three-hour hike to even get close to. There’s a lookout for us lazier travelers that allows one to see it in the far distance, no hiking required.
Delicate Arch is the poster child for nearly every Utah publication, and you’ve no doubt seen its image countless times. Landscape Arch is also a very popular hike and only involves a 1.6-mile walk. If you’re wrapping up your day in the park, you can catch sunset at the North Window and South Window for spectacular views. A picture of you posing in the center of the giant window might be the best photo you’ll ever take. It is epic. The gnarled trees that dot the area make every view look like an Ansel Adams print.
After an overnight rest in Moab, you’ll be ready for your next adventure. Canyonlands is the most geographically challenging of Utah’s parks. There are two parts to the park (not including the difficult-to-reach “maze”), and both are only accessible by unconnected roads. The easiest drive is 40 minutes from Moab and consists of about 20 miles of roads that provide access to some amazingly dramatic scenery completely unlike the other parks. This section includes an area called Island in the Sky, a flat area with such higher altitude than the valleys below, it almost feels as if you’re floating above it. Mesa Arch might be the coolest arch you’ll ever see. Shafer Canyon Overlook is ridiculously high above the canyon below with insane drop-offs. There are lots of hiking trails, but there are plenty of sights just a few minutes from the road, too.
The lower half of the park is called Needles, and its entrance is about 1.5 hours south of Moab. It’s less visited than the north but is a popular choice if you want to squeeze in one more national park day on your trip. The two halves of the park have completely different topography.
A few hours south of Moab will bring you to Monument Valley on the border of Arizona. Monument has the most recognizable view of any park—you’ve seen it in dozens of Westerns. It was even the setting for the drive-in theater in the film Back to the Future. This park is not part of the NPS but rather the Navajo Nation, and its separate $20 admission fee is not included in your pass. The scenery is beautiful, but you can’t really experience it unless you take a tour from one of the locals into the valley or visit the restaurant/hotel and walk to the observation area. It is magnificent, and you’ll find yourself taking a dozen pictures of the same view. If you can arrange a night at the View Hotel, you can watch the sun go down, enjoy some native Navajo cuisine at the scenic restaurant, and watch some John Wayne movies filmed in the valley on Netflix.
Leave after sunrise and head straight to Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, two hours west. Antelope Canyon is also one of the most photographed canyons in the world. There’s an upper canyon and lower canyon option. This is also tribal land, so you’ll be paying the locals for a ride and guide to the canyon. If you arrive early, you can beat the crowds and get amazing photos of this natural wonder.
After your tour, head to nearby Horseshoe Bend, another landmark you’ve probably seen a hundred times but never knew quite where it was. It’s free to visit and about a 15-minute walk from the parking area. It’s a giant river canyon shaped like, well, a horseshoe. It’s stunning.
From Page, head four hours west back to Vegas to spend your final night at your choice of Vegas hotels. Want to change it up? Stay at a classic casino hotel on Fremont Street. Need some luxury? You can’t do much better than a corner suite at the Aria.