When you picture a vacation to the American Southwest, you likely envision stunning red-rock formations–deep sandstone canyons, rugged mountains, and gorgeous rock landscapes. Utah’s five national parks give the adventurous a chance to scale pinnacles of rock and shoot down raging rapids, but anyone can appreciate the silent, colorful grandeur that’s been created by an array of geologic features. Use a vacation itinerary planner and don’t miss “The Mighty Five.”
Arches National Park
Arches features amazing natural wonders–over 2,000 soaring red rock arches span the park and create its landscape. Many of the most popular arches can be reached on one of several easy hikes. Don’t miss the state’s most photographed site–Delicate Arch, a soaring 20 m (65 ft) arch that’s widely used as a symbol of Utah (the state’s license plate bears its image). A crowd gathers around the base of Delicate Arch to watch the sunset most nights. On the 4.8 km (3 m) hike, you’ll climb nearly 153 m (500 ft), much of it over slick rock with the path marked by cairns (because there’s no dirt trail to follow). Plan your trip and bring a jacket, snacks, a camera, and a flashlight if you wish to catch the red glow of the rocks at twilight.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Famous for its giant natural amphitheaters filled with rows of pink and orange hoodoos–tall, thin towers of rock–the attractions at Bryce Canyon draw many sightseers who never venture beyond the roadside viewpoints (and many more that do!). If you have a little more time and stamina, hike down into the amphitheaters to better appreciate the alien strangeness of these formations. Many have been named to reflect their shapes–the Chessmen and the Poodle, for example–and on a hike you’ll get a close-up view of the infinite variations that erosion has carved into the colorful sandstone. Dark night skies here allow overnight visitors to see particularly clear views of the stars.
Canyonlands National Park
Eroded by the Colorado and Green Rivers, Canyonlands National Park appears to mimic the Grand Canyon in views, but this park is actually divided into four distinct districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers. If you’re like most casual tourists, you’ll visit the Island in the Sky, which is accessible by road and gives expansive views of the rivers’ confluence and the rugged surrounding landscape. Backpackers or those with four-wheel-drive vehicles can penetrate deeper into the park, reaching hidden canyons, pinnacles, and arches that are inaccessible by paved road. Kayakers and rafters visit to navigate the calm waters above the confluence, or to plunge into the rapids below the point where the rivers meet, which can be among the most intense rapids in the United States.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park protects about 121 km (75 mi) of a long, thin upthrust of rock called the Waterpocket Fold. The Capitol Reef itself is a particularly stark and beautiful section of the fold, and it forms the highlight of the park, marked by white sandstone domes reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol Building. Consider adding this park to your itinerary also for its historical sites–hikers can find Native American petroglyphs and the initials of early Mormon pioneers carved into the rocks. You’ll find the remnants of a Mormon village called Fruita preserved within the park, and campers can pitch their tents next to the village’s old orchard. ( Image by Ken Lund )
Zion National Park
A deep valley lined with slot canyons hemmed in by steep sandstone cliffs, Zion Canyon and the resulting Zion National Park give visitors a sampling of the best natural features of the American Southwest. Adventurers add this park to their itinerary as a place to canyoneer through the Zion Narrows, a section of the park where the canyon walls close in on the Virgin River below, creating a deep and treacherous pathway. Day hikers can tackle 454 m (1,488 ft) Angels Landing, a rock formation that soars up from the valley floor. A narrow but well-maintained pathway leads up to the summit of the rock, giving hikers a stunning view of Zion Canyon. Using a Utah holiday planner anyone can appreciate the variety of wildlife in the park.