Utah was always something of a mystery to me. I had seen photos of Zion and Bryce and knew I wanted to visit these two beautiful National Parks, but wasn’t sure what else the state had in store. So when my brother announced he was getting married at Zion National Park and the family needed to make a trip out there, I decided to fly in a little earlier and make a trip of it. The more I researched, the list of amazing places I wanted to add to my trip grew and my long weekend trip turned into a week, then 10 days then two weeks. What I ultimately discovered in Utah made me fall in love with the state and I can now look back on this as one of the most amazing trips to date. Utah is filled with natural beauty everywhere you look. The state has several “scenic byways” but really, almost every road I drove on was simply breathtaking. Here are a few of the amazing places I discovered on my tour of this magnificent state.
1. Arches National Park
Arches National Park lies north of the fun little town of Moab. Bordered by the Colorado River in the southeast, this National Park contains over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, such as the massive, red-hued Delicate Arch in the east and long, thin Landscape Arch to the north. A few must see stops include Double Arch, the Windows and Balanced Rock. Allow a full day to explore all that the park has to offer. And if you’re a hiker, plan to spend 2-3 days hiking Arches National Park – you will not be disappointed.
2. Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah is known for its dramatic desert landscape carved by the Colorado River. The park is massive and is broken up into 3 main areas by the Colorado River. Island in the Sky is a huge, flat-topped mesa with panoramic overlooks. This area is closest to Moab and the most visited. To get a different and less crowded perspective, visit the Needles area, known for the towering rock pinnacles that give the area its name. The third and final area are the remote canyons of the Maze, which you need a guide and 4-wheel drive vehicle to explore. Starting at Island in the Sky, allow a good half day to explore before making a stop at Dead Horse Point State Park (see below) on your way to the Needles, which is a two hour drive away. After a full day of exploring the expansive canyon views, plan to overnight in the adorable little town of Monticello.
3. Dead Horse Point State Park
Dead Horse Point State Park is a small state park that features a dramatic overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. The park covers 5,362 acres of high desert at an altitude of 5,900 feet. If you are a fan of spectacular views then you definitely need to stop in to Dead Horse State park on your way down to the Needles district. The entire state park can be seen in an hour to two and makes the perfect place for a picnic lunch with a view!
4. Monument Valley
A little out of the way, but definitely worth the trip, Monument Valley, located on the Arizona-Utah border, is best known for the towering sandstone buttes of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Frequently a filming location for Western movies, the park can be accessed by the looping, 17-mile Valley Drive. The famous, steeply sloped Mittens buttes can be viewed from the road or from overlooks like John Ford’s Point. For a real treat, plan to drive down and spend the night at The View hotel, where every room offers perfect views of the iconic Mittens buttes. Photographers can set an early alarm, grab the warm blanket from the bed and camp out on the patio with a hot cup of coffee and watch the vibrant colours dance across the sky. Once sunrise is over, you can jump right back in bed and catch a couple of extra hours of sleep!
5. Goosenecks State Park
On your way out of Monument Valley, Goosenecks State Park is worth a quick visit. Also located near Utah’s southern border, it’s very small park – almost more like a large parking lot – overlooking the San Juan River. The views are very similar to those in Dead Horse Point, except the river flows around several large land formations forming what look like “goosenecks”. It’s quite a sight to see!
6. Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is in Utah’s south-central desert. It surrounds a long wrinkle in the earth known as the Waterpocket Fold, which contains layers of golden sandstone, canyons and striking rock formations. The highlight of the park is the historical town of Fruita. Best known for its stunning orchards, the town has several places you can stop and explore including petroglyphs, an old school-house and the orchards, where you can pick your own fruit when it’s in season. And don’t miss the Gifford home, now turned into a gift shop, where a homemade fruit pie and cup of coffee makes a perfect afternoon snack!
7. Calf Creek Falls
Calf Creek Falls is home to a stunning and unexpected waterfall in the middle of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But you have to be willing to work for it! To get there, you must first conquer a relatively flat, but sandy, 3 mile hike. Just when it seems like you can’t go any further, the sound of gurgling water meets your ears and you are treated to spectacular views of a stunning waterfall seemingly in the middle of nowhere! The hike is unshaded, so wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water. But also bring a jacket because once you get to the falls, it gets very cool. Allow approximately 3-4 hours for this 6 mile roundtrip hike. It’s exhausting, but so worth it!
8. Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is best known for its magnificent crimson-colored hoodoos, which are spire-shaped rock formations. The park’s main road leads you to several stunning overlooks such as the Bryce Amphitheater, Sunrise & Sunset Point, Inspiration Point and Bryce Point. But to really experience this amazing park – and perhaps feel like you have stepped onto another planet – plan to embark on one of the many Bryce Canyon hikes into the hoodoos. Beginners can enjoy sweeping views of the park on the flat, paved Scenic Rim Trail. If you have more time to spare combine two of the park’s most popular trails – The Navajo Loop and the Queens Garden Loop for a unique walk among the hoodoos!
9. Zion National Park
Zion National Park, located in Utah’s southwest corner, is recognizable by its steep red cliffs. The second you drive into this park you know you have entered somewhere special. Take some time to enjoy the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which cuts through its main section, and offers spectacular views of the surrounding scenery. But to really get to know this park you’ll need to get off the main road and take the park’s convenient tram system up to some of the more secluded areas of this national treasure. For a relatively easy hike, try the Emerald Pools hike. If you don’t mind wading through water, the Narrows hike is not to be missed. And if you are a thrill seeker, don’t miss one of the most dangerous hikes in the world – the hike to Angel’s Landing! I could spend an entire week seeing everything this park has to offer, but I’d recommend at least 2 full days to fully enjoy this stunning park!
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