Utah’s five national parks – often referred to as the Mighty 5 or Big 5 – have been gaining in popularity over the last couple of years. Zion National Park in particular has been seeing a record number of visitors each month since September 2020. If you have ever traveled in that area of the Southwest, it is no surprise to you thatthis jewel of nature would attract such crowds. Southern Utah offers scenic views around every corner. From the snowy mountains of Fishlake National Forest to the red sandstone cliffs of Springdale, you will be blown away with otherworldly scenery. The Mighty 5 offer adventures for everyone from retirees, families with small children, or the adventurous at heart with hikes in slot canyons or on the edge of steep cliffs. With so much to see, it may seem difficult to fit it all in just one week. This detailed itinerary aims to help you make the best of your time in the Mighty 5 by compiling the must-see viewpoints and hikes in each park.
- Basic Information
- Zion National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Arches National Park
Where? In Southern Utah between Springdale, UT and Moab, UT (located approximately 350 miles or 5 hours apart)
Cost? The entrance fee for each park ranges from $20-$35 making the purchase of a National Park Pass – also known as America the Beautiful Pass – well worth it. If you plan on visiting 3 or more national parks in the next 12 months, this pass will pay for itself. Annual passes are $80, cover 2 cardholders, and are available at each national park’s fee station. For more information on annual passes and discounted entrance fees, click here.
Weather? The weather in Southern Utah varies tremendously with each season. I know this isn’t a very helpful tip, but make sure to check the weather prior to your visit, especially if you plan your trip during shoulder seasons in spring or fall. The desert can be scorching hot during the day and freezing at night, snow falls are not uncommon in the spring, and summer can bring flash floods. It is quite unpredictable, so be prepared for extreme weather conditions and to reroute your trip if needed.We had originally planned to begin our trip in Zion National Park, but the snow made dirt roads impassable and completely obstructed the canyon views, so we visited Zion last on our way back to Las Vegas.
Best time to visit? The best time to visit Utah’s Mighty 5 is during shoulder season in the spring or fall. Summers can be very hot and crowded, making hiking difficult and your visit unpleasant. Winters on the other hand, are less busy but can see lots of road closures due to snow falls, limiting access to trails and viewpoints. Spring and fall are less busy and offer more enjoyable temperatures. Regardless of when you plan to visit, you will be in awe of the Mighty 5’s beauty.
Landscape? Be prepared to see a large variety of landscapes while visiting the Big 5; no two parks are alike. You will gaze upon all sorts of unique and colorful rock formations, towering red sandstone, hoodoos, canyons, and so much more.
Wildlife? During our visit, we saw lots of deer, but there are also pronghorns, chipmunks, prairie dogs, turkeys, lizards, ravens, jays, and many others. If you are an avid wildlife photographer, I highly encourage you to bring your telephoto lens and a pair of binoculars. You will not be disappointed!
The national parks of Southern Utah are located in extremely remote areas with very little access to services and unreliable cell phone service. You will NOT find public transportation between the parks. The best way to reach the Mighty 5 is by renting a car or driving your own and beginning your road trip in Las Vegas, NV. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is easy to navigate and offers airfares from all major airlines as well as low-cost airlines. The Las Vegas airport also offers car rental services from a variety of providers at the McCarran Car Rental Center. As this destination grows in popularity, I highly recommend getting a reservation for your rental car ahead of time to ensure that you do not get stranded without a vehicle. We arrived on a Monday late in the evening and saw several people being turned away because there were no longer any vehicles available. The Car Rental Center is easily accessible via a free shuttle from the McCarran International Airport. The shuttle pick up location is well indicated with signage all throughout the arrival hall. Even though we had never rented a car before, we found the process to be quick, smooth, and affordable. We opted for a Nissan Rogue for its spacious interior and excellent gas mileage (31 mpg) for a midsize SUV.
If you are traveling west in your own vehicle or in a rented vehicle, you can obviously take this itinerary backwards and begin your road trip in Moab, UT by visiting Arches and Canyonlands National Park. However, if you are renting a vehicle, keep in mind that most rental-car companies charge a one-way fee for dropping off a rental car in a destination other than the one where it was picked up. We saved over $200 by backtracking back to Vegas to drop off our rental car at the McCarran Car Rental Center. This also allows for more flexibility when dealing with inclement weather and potential park/ road closures. If you travel east from Las Vegas, check out my other blog post for a detailed itinerary of the perfect Southwest road trip.
Zion National Park – 1 or 2 days
Bryce Canyon National Park – 1 day
Capitol Reef National Park – 1 day
Canyonlands National Park – 1/2 day
Arches National Park – 1 or 2 day
This itinerary is obviously customizable . You can always take away hikes and add more sightseeing and vice versa. Southern Utah is full of amazing places to explore, so you won’t run out of things to see.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park was the 3rd most visited US national park of 2020 behind The Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone. The park recently instituted a shuttle ticket system, therefore limiting the amount of people who can get up Zion Canyon each day. You need a shuttle ticket in order to visit Zion Canyon as cars are not allowed beyond the visitor center parking lot. In other words, without a shuttle ticket, you will either have to walk to your destination (up to 16 miles round trip) or rent a bike. These shuttle tickets sell out within minutes of being released. I had computer issues, and when I logged on 10 minutes after the window opened, over 1,000 ticket had already been sold for that day alone. I had to move to plan B and thankfully got tickets for a later date. Tickets are released about two weeks in advance: on the 16th and last day of each month at 9am MST. If you miss the first window, more tickets are made available the day before at 5pm MST. Limited tickets are also available for walk ins between 1-3pm on the day of your visit. Keep in mind that walk-in tickets may require you to wait in line for long periods of time before boarding the shuttle. Click here to reserve your shuttle tickets for Zion National Park. If you could not obtain shuttle tickets, don’t panic and read on for trails accessible without shuttle tickets.
Zion National Park is most popular during the summer months, but that is also when it gets the hottest and most crowded. Average temperatures surpass 85 degrees (nearly 30 degrees celsius) from May to September. To avoid the crowds and enjoy more clement weather, I recommend visiting Zion during fall or spring. We visited Zion in late March, and I wish the vegetation in Zion Canyon had been greener and more lush. I would recommend the months of April/ May and September/ October as the most ideal time to visit Zion National Park.
How much time should you spend in Zion? That is really up to you. I would recommend at least one to two days. I am one of those people who doesn’t mind a lot of hiking and sightseeing, but if you are looking to hike one or two moderate trails and enjoy a resting vacation, I recommend dedicating more time to your visit in Zion. Unlike most other national parks, Zion offers very limited views from its scenic route; some hiking is required to reach most viewpoints. To make it easy for you, I compiled a list of the best hikes and viewpoints in Zion National Park.
1. Angel’s Landing
Type: Out and back
Length: 5.4 mi/ 8.7 km
Duration: 4 hours
Elevation Gain: 1500 ft/ 457 m
Difficulty Level: Strenuous
Shuttle Stop #6 The Grotto
This hike is probably one of the most popular hikes in the United States but also one of the most dangerous. The last portion of the trail consists in walking along a narrow footpath with 1,000 ft drop-offs on both sides. With its popularity and limited options in the park due to trail closures, keep in mind that the crowds will thicken as the morning progresses, making walking along the trail even more difficult. We took one of the very first shuttles of the day at 7:15am, and every single passenger (around 30 people) stopped at the Grotto to begin the trail of Angel’s Landing. We were the only ones left to drop off at the Temple of Sinawava for our Narrows hike.
I suffer from a moderate fear of height (aka acrophobia) and though I enjoy challenging myself indoor rock climbing, Angel’s Landing did not seem like a safe place for me to challenge myself. Seventeen people have lost their lives on Angel’s Landing, including a teenage girl. As you will be reminded throughout your visit; your safety is your responsibility. Always avoid hiking alone and let people know where you are headed.
2. Observation Point (via East Mesa Trail)
Type: Out and back
Length: 6.7 mi/ 10.8 km
Duration: 3 hours
Elevation Gain: 695 ft/ 212m
Difficulty Level: Moderate
Though Angel’s Landing offers a unique and thrilling experience with breathtaking views of Zion Canyon, the views at Observation Point are unmatched. From the top of Observation Point, you can see all of Zion Canyon, including the narrow trail at the end of Angel’s Landing, which doesn’t even seem walkable in the distance. I recommend getting to the viewpoint at sunrise or around lunch time to enjoy less shadow on the canyon.
It is important to note that both routes to Observation Point from Zion Canyon are currently closed due to rock fall. The only way to access Observation Point is through the East Mesa Trail near the East Entrance of the park, 45 minutes away from the main entrance. You will have to drive the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway which takes you through a tunnel and up into the heights of Zion National Park. The road to the trail head can get very muddy and requires a vehicle with high clearance and 4-wheel drive on days following precipitations. If you do not have 4-wheel drive, it is recommended that you park your car and walk to the trailhead. If you are unable to access Observation Point or are looking for a shorter hike but still want to enjoy breathtaking views of Zion Canyon, check out Zion Canyon Overlook Trail. It is a moderate out-and-back 1 mi/ 1.6 km trail. Both of these trails do not require shuttle tickets.
3. The Narrows
Type: Out and back
Length: Up to 9.4 miles
Duration: up to 9 hours
Difficulty Level: Strenuous
Shuttle Stop #9 Temple of Sinawava
Cyanobacteria warningfollowing a pet death in july 2020, zion national park has issued a warning for high levels of cyanobacteria in the virgin river.toxins enter the body through the nose, mouth, or open cuts, so do not submerge your head in the water or drink it even if it has been filtered.
The Narrows is another strenuous hike of Zion National Park but oh so worth it.There are two ways to hike the Narrows: bottom up (up to 9 mi/ 14.5km) and top down (17 mi/ 27.3 km). Hiking the Narrows top down requires a permit and is an all-day hike with an option to camp overnight up the canyon. Hiking from the bottom up and back does not require any additional permit, is much shorter, and the path we chose for our hike.
The hike begins at the Temple of Sinawava (Shuttle Stop #9). The first mile (1.6km) of the trail consists of hiking the Riverside Walk. I highly recommend starting this hike as early as possible. We got on the shuttle at 7:15am, and there were swarms of people at the entrance of the canyon(think Florida Beaches on Spring Break kind of crowds) when we finished our hike around 2pm.We hiked 6 hours for a total of 8 miles (13km) in the freezing Virgin River surrounded by sandstone walls a thousand feet (300m) tall.Our original plan was to hike to Big Springs, but as we reached the end of Wall Street (picture below by the fern wall), we were told that waters rose to chest-deep levels and advised to turn around. Considering the strength of the current in waist-deep waters, we did not feel safe swimming against the current in such depths, so we started heading back. Hiking back should be easier than hiking up as you will hiking with the current and no longer against it.
Before heading to the Narrows, make sure you have the appropriate equipment. There are many outfitters in town offering Narrows hiking gear packages for each season. We chose to rentfrom Zion Outfitters because they had the best prices and refund policy.
Winter – If hiking during the winter season, you will need neoprene socks, waterproof shoes, and a dry bib. While the waterproof equipment is meant to keep you dry, you still need to layer up underneath in order to stay warm. A hiking stick is also a must for this hike as water levels vary and rise throughout the hike.
Fall and Spring – During shoulder season, it is recommended to hike the Narrows with neoprene socks, waterproof shoes, a hiking stick, and dry pants or dry bibs depending on the water level and temperature. We opted for a dry bib package because mid-March, the water was still a mere 35 degrees (less than 2 degrees Celsius). I wore my fuzzy pajama pants underneath and a jacket that I could remove periodically. You have the option to add a dry top for an additional $10, but we didn’t feel the need for it. I linked all the equipment we rented above, so you get an idea of what you are getting in each package. We also chose to add a waterproof backpack to protect our camera and keep our snacks dry. The total cost (including taxes) for the dry bib package rental came at about $52 per person, and it was worth every penny! Though the water was never more than waist deep, I fell a couple of times, and my bib and backpack kept me and our stuff dry the whole time.
Summer – Even during the summer, it is recommended you wear close-toed shoes with neoprene socks. Though these may not be necessary, a hiking stick is a must-have to guarantee safe footing on the slippery rocks of the river. Sticks may be available at the entrance of the Canyon during summertime, but I highly recommend bringing your own to make sure you have an aid for your hike.
4. The Watchman
Type: Out and back
Length: 3.4 mi/ 5.5 km
Duration: 1 hour
Elevation Gain: 157 ft/ 48 m
Difficulty Level: Easy
No shuttle ticket is needed to hike the Pa’rus Trail that begins near the Visitor Center and takes you all the way to Canyon Junction Bridge. I highly recommend hiking this trail late evening to watch the sun set on the Watchman from Canyon Junction Bridge and then walk back to the visitor center. Another great perk of the Pa’rus trail? Not only is it free, it is also paved, allowing access to dogs, strollers, and wheelchairs.
With one full day in Zion National Park
Hike down the Narrows to Orderville Canyon early morning OR hike Angel’s Landing
Enjoy lunch at the Zion Lodge or picnic in the park at one of the many designated picnic areas
Hike Observation Point or Canyon Overlook early afternoon for the best lighting on the canyon.
Enjoy dinner in Springdale
Watch the sun set from Canyon Junction Bridge
With 2 or more days in Zion National Park
If the schedule above seems too busy for you – I understand it is A LOT of hiking, consider splitting it in half and doing one half each day. If hiking doesn’t scare you, consider hiking the entirety of the Narrows and adding the Kayenta Trail (2 mi/ 3.2 km) or Watchman Trail (3.3 mi/ 5.3 km) to your list.
Bryce Canyon National Park
It will take you approximately 1.5 to 2 hours (85 mi/ 137 km) to reach Bryce Canyon National Park from Zion National Park. The very last portion of the drive will take you on a scenic route through the red rocks and cedar trees of Dixie National Forest. Bryce Canyon got its name from Ebenezer Bryce, a Scottish immigrant sent to the region for his carpentry skills by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The locals began calling the impressive collection of hoodoos “Bryce’s Canyon,” and the name stuck. Bryce Canyon National Park is the highest of all of Utah’s Mighty 5 with an average elevation of around 8,000ft (2500m), which also makes it the coldest. Be advised that road closures are frequent during the cooler seasons, so make sure to check Bryce Canyon’s website before your visit. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to experience Bryce Canyon in a dreamy blanket of snow as we did.
You may wonder: what are hoodoos? Hoodoos are tall, thin rocks that rise from the bottom of an arid basin. How do they form? A plateau slowly erodes into a wall, which then erodes into a window with a central cavity. As the eroding process goes on, it slowly eats away the bottom of the window, and finally the top of the now bridge-like formation collapses, leaving only the sides and forming individual hoodoos.
We began our day in Bryce by hiking the Queen’s Garden/ Navajo Loop Trail, starting at Sunrise Point as the brochure suggested. We started the hike around 8:15am to avoid the crowds and hiked slowly because the trail was covered in ice and very slippery. Judging by the amount of people we saw as we reached Sunset Point, most hikers chose to hike counterclockwise from Sunset Point to Sunrise Point. I would highly recommend hiking counterclockwise if the weather is warmer to avoid having to climb up the switchbacks. However, with the switchbacks covered in ice as they were, we were more than glad to have made the decision to hike clockwise. I fell 4 times, and all 4 times, I was walking downhill. When hiking on ice, it is much easier and much safer to hike uphill than downhill. Bryce Canyon National Park is covered in frost over 200 days a year. If that is the case during your visit, consider purchasing or renting a pair of traction cleats for snow and ice. They are available at the visitor center during the winter season.
The Queen’s Garden trail begins by taking you down and into the hoodoos. On the way, you will see hoodoos up close, ravines, and even a window that lets you peek into a valley full of hoodoos. Always make sure to stay on the trail to avoid weakening the fragile base of the hoodoos. As you near the junction with Navajo Loop Trail, you will be surrounded by majestic conifers and blankets of moss.
Going up the Navajo Loop Trail, we got to peek at Two Bridges from a distance (Two Bridges and Wall Street are both closed during winter) before climbing the switchbacks. At the top of the switchbacks, you will see Thor’s hammer, one of the most famous hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park. It is located near Sunset Point at the beginning of the Navajo Loop Trail.
After climbing up the switchbacks and taking in the beauty of Thor’s Hammer, you will see Sunset Point before getting on the Rim trail (paved trail) back to Sunrise Point.
I think Sunset Point is my favorite, but the 270o views from Bryce Point are unique and offer the most abundant concentration of hoodoos in Bryce’s Amphitheater.
After enjoying the best of Bryce’s Amphitheater, I strongly suggest you keep driving down the scenic route to check out the rest of the park’s viewpoints. Unfortunately that road was closed when we visited due to recurrent snow drifts.
If you are starved from your visit at Bryce Canyon and wonder where to eat, check out Bryce Canyon Inn and Pizza Place. Their hand-tossed pizzas are made from homemade dough and fresh, high-quality ingredients. You won’t be disappointed!
Needing to rest before heading to your next adventure?We stayed at Red Ledges Inn in Tropic, UT, 10 miles from Bryce Canyon. It was surprisingly cheap, and the rooms were very nice and clean; it was my favorite stay of the whole trip.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is the second-least visited of the Mighty 5. This can be explained by its location, a longer distance (about 2h15 minutes) from the other 2 pairs. The park is still worth the detour, and no entrance fee or permit is required to drive on UT-24, Capitol Reef’s scenic highway. Pictured below are all the sights you shouldn’t miss along the way.
Soon after entering the park, you will notice Chimney Rock on your left, a large rock resembling a single hoodoo. A bit farther on your right will be a turnout for Panorama Point. Continue driving down the dirt road, and you will find Gooseneck Overlook and Sunset Point, a short 0.4 mi/ 0.6 km from the parking lot. Many tafoni (small holes) can be found on the surfaces of rocks near Gooseneck Overlook.
As you keep driving, you will arrive at the Visitor Center where you can get a map or advice from the park rangers, and purchase souvenirs. This is also where you will turn to reach the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive (7.9 mi/ 12.7 km long). This drive does require you to pay the entrance fee ($20) or show your national park pass. Down this road, you will find the Fruita Barn, Gifford Farm, and Cassidy Arch trail. The Gifford Homestead offers delicious pie year round. Consider stopping by the orchard to see the trees in full bloom in the spring or pick your own fruit in the summer. The Cassidy Arch Trail is a moderate 3.1 mile out and back featuring a beautiful imposing arch you can stand on.
Once you turn back onto UT-24 to finish your visit of Capitol Reef, you will come across the Fruita Schoolhouse, a historic structure nestled below the Wingate Sandstone Cliffs. A few hundred yards down the road are the Petroglyph Panels featuring bighorn sheep and other symbols of the Fremont Culture.There are two pairs of pier-mounted binoculars on the observation boardwalk to take a peek at the petroglyphs from a distance.
Your last stop will be one of the most popular hikes in Capitol Reef National Park. Hickman Natural Bridge is a 1.8 mile hike out and back trail that features moderate inclines and begins by longing the Fremont River and ends with breathtaking views of Hickman Natural Bridge.
The drive out of Capitol Reef on UT-24 was one of the most scenic I have ever taken. This drive will take you through the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) past countless layered, multi colored rocks. I suggest doing the 2.5 hour drive to Moab during the day not to miss out on those gorgeous views.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is arguably the most overlooked of Utah’s national parks, but one of its viewpoints attracts a horde of professional photographers daily, all year round. Mesa Arch is undoubtedly the most famous viewpoint of Canyonlands National Park and where we began our visit. We woke up early for sunrise and headed from downtown Moab to the Mesa Arch trailhead (0.5 mi/ 0.8 km) in freezing temperatures. We got to the arch about 25 minutes before sunrise, and it was already full of photographers. Thankfully, Garrett’s height saved the day, and we secured a spot. The professional photographers (some of whom had been present for over 2 hours) defended their shooting space like a mother bear protecting her cubs. It took longer than expected for the sun to inundate the canyon in its orange light, but the wait was worth it. I highly recommend bundling up and getting there early, especially if you are headed to Mesa Arch for sunrise on a weekend.
Perhaps most unexpected of all was the view near Holeman Spring Canyon Overlook. This is one of my favorite pictures we took in Canyonlands National Park. We had just left Mesa Arch and were driving on the road to Upheaval Dome, looking for the Holeman Spring Canyon Overlook as I was determined to stop at every viewpoint in the Island in the Sky district. We couldn’t find it, so we paid extra close attention on our way back and noticed a tiny pull out where I made Garrett stop. There were no signs, but the sunrise’s glow gave the walls of the canyon a dreamy purple hue. If you drive the scenic route in Canyonlands, make sure not to miss this gorgeous view.
Here are some additional viewpoints not to miss in Canyonlands National Park: Grand View Point Overlook, Buck Canyon, Shafer Canyon Overlook, and my favorite Green River Overlook.
Though the park can easily be visited in half a day, I strongly advise against skipping it. In my opinion, the views are well worth the 45 minute drive to Arches National Park.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park features some unique sandstone formations, including Delicate Arch, the most license-plate worthy view in the country.
Arches is one of the most popular national parks in Utah and the Southwest. So much so, that the National Park Service has piloted a timed-entry system. When we visited in March of 2021, we entered the park around 10am, and the line of cars was already quite lengthy. Starting in 2023, the timed entries must be reserved online on recreation.gov and costs $2 per slot. Vehicles can enter the park any time during their 1-hour time slot and remain as long as they wish. No reservation is required for entry before 7am or after 4pm. Click here for more information.
Best things to do:
- Wander around the Windows
- Explore the Fiery Furnace
- Hike to Landscape Arch in Devil’s Garden
- Hike to Delicate Arch for sunset
For a more complete guide, check out my Arches National Park – One Day Itinerary.
If you are looking for a place to eat in Moab, I highly recommend the Spoke on Center for great food, great service, and an eclectic downtown setting. Give the huckleberry ice cream a try for a delicious local specialty.
If you enjoyed this guide on the best of Utah’s Mighty 5, check out our entire road trip itinerary from Las Vegas that took us through 2 more state parks, and countless astonishing sights.
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The Wandering Homemaker says
Thank you! I’m glad you liked it!