Rounding out Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks: Arches, Canyonlands, & Capitol Reef

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Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks

We were so excited to get away for spring break in 2021!  As our spring break in 2020 was cancelled, (as nearly everything was in 2020 due to the pandemic) we were very grateful to be able to travel.  This year, we opted to head back out west to finishing visiting the rest of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks we had yet to visit.

A few years back, we ventured out west to visit Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Parks.  We loved these parks so much that we wanted to do something similar this year while checking off a few more new-to-us national parks.  We were also looking for the type of trip in the current 2021 climate where it would be mainly outdoors, easy to distance, yet new territory for our family.  So visiting Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks in Utah fit that bill.

We had an early morning flight on the first day of spring break, leaving at 7:00 a.m.  We were in Salt Lake City by 12:30, collected our luggage, and picked up our rental vehicle.  We were ready for lunch and had the perfect lunch place picked out – In N Out Burger!  Whenever we are out west this is a must do.  It was every bit as delicious as we remembered!

We were soon on our way to Moab, Utah where we would begin our national park trek. 

Below is a map of our driving itinerary

Arches National Park 

Where we stayed

Moab Under Canvas | 3 nights | Moab, Utah

Glamping was a fun and unique experience for our family.  It is a good bridge between camping and a hotel stay.  We had our own tent with a king sized bed plus a full bathroom including a hot shower.  We also had an adjoining teepee style tent with two twin beds.  A cot was also placed in our larger tent for our third child.

We loved this experience!  The glampground, as it’s called, has a large main tent with free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, as well as some good quality food items available for purchase.  A large wooden deck features nightly live music with adirondack chairs scattered about with their own individual fire pits that were lit nightly.  Also in the glampground are multiple grills, which we used a few times to cook lunch and/or dinner.

One downfall to staying here was a major windstorm during our last night.  We were kept up almost all night long as 30-40 mph winds were whipping the canvas tent walls and roof.  I looked up and was sure that wood support beam that ran the length of the tent was going to end up in the bed!  The next morning when Mike was getting coffee from the main tent, the chatter was all about the crazy winds.  We were not the only ones up!  We heard high winds are common in the desert in the spring.

When we went

Early April, 2021 (Spring Break).  The weather was perfect for early morning or evening hikes.  It got into the mid 80s in the middle of the day. 

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK FACTS

The park’s star, Delicate Arch, graces Utah license plates

  • LOCATION:  Utah
  • CLOSEST MAJOR CITIES:  Moab, Utah (located here) | Salt Lake City, Utah (230 miles away) 
  • ANNUAL VISITORS:  1.8 million (2022)
  • 20th most visited US National Park out of 63
  • BECAME A NATIONAL PARK:  1971
  • TOP THINGS TO DO:  View Delicate Arch

Our Experience

We woke up early on our first morning, which was the best day to do so due to coming from EST.  Moab is in MST, which is two hours earlier.  I set my alarm for 5:00 a.m. and gradually we all got up and got ready.  Mike filled our Camelback water bags and I packed up easy breakfast and snacks in everyone’s backpacks.  We left our glampground around 6:00 a.m. and arrived at Arches National Park about 20 minutes later.  We saw a few other cars while entering the park but virtually no traffic as we drove all the way to the Delicate Arch Trailhead.

We arrived at the Delicate Arch Trailhead, located at the Wolfe Ranch parking lot, around 6:40 a.m.  The sunrise and morning light were beautiful!  It was chilly during the early morning hours so layering up kept us comfortable.  

The beginning of the trail is easy, flat, and wide.

The beginning of Delicate Arch Trail | Arches National Park

After about a half mile of easy, graded trail, you come to slick rock that results in about 400 ft elevation gain.  We, as well as others, stopped along the way to rest as needed.  After we had completed the climb, the trail continued to meander up and around rocks and over sand.  Soon we were on a ledge with a drop off to one side.  We felt completely safe, but we were careful and stayed close to the rock ledge side when possible. 

Soon, we came across what is known as “Twisted Donut”, a sort of window in the rock at which you can look through to get your first view of Delicate Arch.  To get up to the window you do have to climb up a small section of slick rock which is steeper than it looks in the photo, however it is very doable.  I even climbed it with my heavy backpack and a camera!  Coming down was a bit trickier, so we sort of slid while using our feet for gripping.  It was definitely worth it to get the sneak peek!

Getting our first view of Delicate Arch | Arches National Park

Once down from Twisted Donut, we rounded the corner and there was Delicate Arch in all it’s sunrise glory.  It sits at the top of a bowl.  Again, we felt very comfortable here as the angle of the bowl makes it easy to sit and even walk along, but it’s always best to be careful, keep your head and eyes up, and hold little one’s hands.  People were taking pictures under the Arch, and we did as well.  We waited just a few minutes for our turn.  It was fun to hear all the happy chatter of not only completing this difficult hike but to view this incredible creation!

We made it! | Arches National Park

After we spent some time checking out Delicate Arch from various angles and getting our photos, we began our descent.  Going down was much easier, however the slick rock at the very end (or, at the very beginning of the trail), can be tough on the knees.  Once down, we took the short loop to view the petroglyphs.  These petroglyphs were created by the Ute American Indians between the 1600s-1800s. 

Petroglyphs | Arches National Park

We completed this short loop and headed back to our vehicle.  At this point, it was mid-morning and there were a lot of cars trying to snag a parking spot.  I found getting here early was definitely worth it, not only to get a parking spot and avoid major crowds but to get to see the Delicate Arch bathed in beautiful morning light!

We continued driving the park loop and stopped at Sand Dune Arch.  It was a very short 0.3 mi out-and-back trail, however it is completely in sand, so not doable with those with limited mobility.  The trail leads you in between sheer rocks, which is such an intriguing way to view an arch! 

Where is the entrance?!  It’s somewhere within these rocks | Arches National Park

Sand Dune Arch sits within these rock faces, which made it feel like we were really exploring a hidden area.

Sand Dune Arch | Arches National Park

After this, we drove on out of Arches National Park and we noticed a tremendous line of vehicles at the entrance.  We cannot stress this enough:  Get here early!  Not only are the crowds lower, but plenty of parking was available, and the morning light was just gorgeous.  I am so glad we got up early and did this!

Canyonlands National Park

 

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK FACTS

Canyonlands has been home to people for over 10,000 years

  • LOCATION:  Utah
  • CLOSEST MAJOR CITIES:  Moab, Utah (located here) | Salt Lake City, Utah (about 250 miles)
  • ANNUAL VISITORS:  900,000 (2021)
  • 29th most visited US National Park out of 63
  • BECAME A NATIONAL PARK:  1964
  • TOP THINGS TO SEE:  Grand View Point and Mesa Arch

Our Experience

The next day we drove about 30 minutes from our glampground to the entrance of Canyonlands National Park.  We arrived shortly after 9:00 a.m. and only had a couple of cars in front of us.  We headed straight to Grand View Point, which was about a 30 minute drive from the entrance.  We easily found parking and headed out to the view point.  You are at over 6000 ft in elevation so the vast panoramic views are incredible.  We opted to continue on the trail, which was marked by rock cairns along the way.  The sheer cliffs and deep canyons that the Colorado River carved way down below had us stopping periodically to take in the views.  In fact, the carving was so deep, we could not see the river from high up above. 

Taking in the vast views | Canyonlands National Park

At the end of the trail, we stopped to enjoy a snack break while taking in vast views of the canyons.  Here we were greeted by a few little chipmunks eager to get in on our snacks.  We were careful to not leave any crumbs nor feed them!

We continued the trail back and just could not get enough of the views.  Mike and Braden proclaimed Canyonlands was their favorite, over Arches! 

We found Canyonlands to be quite a gem, completely different from Arches National Park, just a short drive away.  This park had a lot less visitors so we never had an issue with parking nor did it feel crowded.   Canyonlands definitely warrants a visit if you are in the area.

Overall Impressions of Moab

We enjoyed our time in Moab, a red rock adventureland!  Both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks were incredible in their own ways and both absolutely deserve a visit!

We shopped several times at Village Market and we highly recommend it – they had an excellent selection of produce, prepared foods (great for backpacking or picnicking), and a good array of organic options.  We got items for lunch and dinners that we grilled back at our glampground.  After hiking Canyonlands, we got take-out Thai for lunch at Thai Bella and it was delicious!  We also had a lovely dinner at Josie Wyatt Grille on the patio during our last night in Moab – it was a very welcomed meal after grilling and eating out of a cooler at our glampground.  We hit up a couple of souvenir shops on the main drag and as we drove out of town the next morning, we grabbed some delicious iced coffee from Moab Coffee Roasters.  Moab was a great first stop on our Utah National Park trek!

PRO TIP:  If you plan to do this same trip, I highly recommend getting your groceries before you leave Moab for the amount of time you’ll be staying near Capitol Reef.  There were no grocery stores near Capitol Reef, just a couple of convenience stores, and restaurants were very limited.  

 

Capitol Reef National Park

Our next stop to round out the last of the Utah National Parks was near Capitol Reef National Park in Torrey, Utah.  Here we planned to stay at a cabin, visit Capitol Reef, and have some adventure!

Where we stayed

Capitol Reef Resort | 2 nights| Torrey, Utah

Our cabin had two bedrooms, a pull out sofa, 1.5 bathrooms, and a kitchenette.  It felt very luxurious after our time glamping.  The cabin had a large deck with a grill, table and seating for 6, and additional adirondack chairs.  The view out the front of the cabin was incredible – Capitol Reef National Park with vibrantly colored striated canyons and rocks.

We had a little bit of trouble at check in because the resort was short staffed in housekeeping so we waited a few hours to get into our cabin.  I took the opportunity to do some laundry, but each wash and dry cycle was $3 each!  Mike went to a nearby store, The Chuckwagon, as directed by the resort staff, to get quarters so I could do laundry.  When he came back I informed him the price of $3 per wash cycle and $3 per dry as he had only brought me $5 in quarters – that would not work with the multiple loads I was facing!  I at least was able to get the laundry going and sorted the rest as he and the kids headed back to Chuckwagon to get more quarters.  This is the not-so-fun-part of traveling!

Finally, our room was ready and we got settled in.  It felt good to have a solid roof over our heads after our windy tent adventure the night before!  And of course, freshly washed clothes!

When we went  

Early April, 2021 (Spring Break).  The weather here in Torrey was pleasant.  The skies were an amazing shade of blue and the temps were 50s-60s during the day, which is great for hiking.

CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK FACTS

Created by a “Waterpocket Fold”, a wrinkle in the Earth’s Crust

  • LOCATION:  Utah
  • CLOSEST CITY:  Salt Lake City, Utah (about 218 miles)
  • ANNUAL VISITORS:  1.2 million (2021)
  • 22nd most visited US National Park out of 63
  • BECAME A NATIONAL PARK:  1971
  • TOP THINGS TO DO:  Hiking the Grand Wash Trail and driving The Scenic Drive

Our Experience

On our first day here we headed into Capitol Reef National Park and hiked the Grand Wash Trail.  If you are familiar with the Narrows in Zion National Park this is similar, although there is no water to wade through as there once was, hence the name Grand Wash Trail.

We arrived mid-morning and easily found a spot in the pull-out at the Grand Wash Trailhead.  I absolutely loved this trail!  First, it was relatively level with no elevation gain, one hikes over gravel and climbs over some rocks, so it was one of the easier hikes of this trip.  Second, hiking under sheer rock faces is incredibly humbling.  It reinforced how tiny we humans are among the grandiose rock faces.  While hiking, we stopped for some rock climbing (kids!) and cave exploring (kids!) and snacks (all!).  This hike was about 4.4 mi and would be the last of the trip – a great end!

The Grand Wash Trail | Capitol Reef National Park

Once back, the kids caught up on school, Mike had some work to do, and I started prepping dinner of grilling brats, cooking rice, and tossing a salad.  I completely forgot to cook the rice via the high altitude directions. I’m used to ignoring the high-altitude directions while cooking at our home near sea level so didn’t even think to cook accordingly.  Lets just say the rice had a bite!  We ate dinner on our deck, although a little windy, everything tastes better outdoors and we sure loved our view!

We headed back to the park in the early evening and took in the views from Panorama Point as well as drove some of the scenic drive.

View from Panorama Point

We spent the rest of the evening organizing our gear and packing up as were were checking out the next morning.  We did, however, have one more adventure for all of us on our last day down in red rock country.

The guys had been very keen on fly fishing so they booked a half day trip with a guide.  Us girls had always wanted to go horseback riding and now was the time!  

As for our horseback riding adventure, we booked with Wilderness Ridge Adventures.  They were located right at our resort so it was just a short walk to get to the stable.  

Horseback riding in Capitol Reef National Park

The horseback riding was two hours long and we enjoyed the time with another family of three and our great guide, Brett.  We got up close to the beautiful park and were also amazed at how nimble our horses were!  We climbed up slopes and down, over a river, across rocks.  It was a fun way to end our time in southern Utah.

The guys fly fishing adventure was high up in a mountain river and they enjoyed catching a lot of fish and learning a lot as well.  They enjoyed their time with their guide, Mike, from The Quiet Fly Fisher.

Braden with his catch!

After days of adventuring, hiking, fishing, and horseback riding, we were ready for a little luxury.  It’s all about balance!  As we came out of the area, back on the highway, we grabbed lunch at the first place we saw – Subway.  With full bellies, we were ready to drive the 3+ hours back to Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City, Utah

We had two days and two nights back in Salt Lake City before we flew back home.  

Where we stayed

The Grand America | 2 nights | Salt Lake City, Utah

Our room had two beds, a large living area with a pull-out sofa, and a full kitchen along with washer and dryer.  The hotel was gorgeous and we we enjoyed this bit of luxury at the end of the trip!

We enjoyed using some of the hotels amenities such as the gym, pool, and hot tub.  One night, Mike and I enjoyed some adult time down at the lobby bar with dinner, cocktails, and live music while the kids were content with Door Dash and in-room movies.

We also visited City Creek Center, which is a lovely outdoor shopping mall with something for everyone.  We grabbed lunch from the excellent food court and ate outdoors.

We also checked out Temple Square and saw the gorgeous Salt Lake Temple that is currently being renovated.

Overall Thoughts

Rounding out Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks was a great goal to have accomplished this year.  After all, like many Americans, visiting National Parks is our kind of travel right now.  Each park was so vastly different from the last, each with fun hikes, each with incredible views.  

We had fun “sleeping under the stars” while glamping- a bucket list item for our family, fly fishing at a mountain top (the guys) and horseback riding through a National Park (the girls).  We balanced it with some luxury while back in the city.

Overall, it was a fun trip with lots of different things to see and do all while enjoying the great outdoors!

Read More!

Prior to this trip, we visited our first of the southwest national parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon as well as the great town of Page, ArizonaRead about that trip here, Southwest Road Trip, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Parks.  We also created a guide for visiting all five of the national parks in Utah on one trip, Guide to Visiting Utah’s Mighty Five.  If you have a good two weeks to explore the southwest, you’ll go through 3 states and see 6 national parks with our guide, The Ultimate Southwest Road Trip.

We also have an article on Why Canyonlands Should Be Your Next National Park as well as The Best Time to Visit Delicate Arch.  

Dietary Notes

As always, everyone’s needs are different.  At press time my husband is grain-free and two of our kids are allergic to nuts and eggs.  Although we seem to encompass a large amount of dietary restrictions, we can only offer advice as to what pertains to our own family, as that is where our expertise lies!

During our time in Moab at our glampground, we were able to get provisions from the local grocery store to have picnic lunches, snacks on hand, and grill out dinner.  We also ate at Josie Wyatt Grille for dinner one night and they said they did not have peanuts on the premises (yay!) and everyone found food that was safe for them.

At the Capitol Reef Resort, we had a cabin with both a kitchenette and an outdoor grill.  I had read ahead that it’s best to get groceries before heading here as this area is limited with stores.  This is true!  We did all of our shopping being leaving Moab and am so glad we did.  We ended up grilling dinner both nights and had stuff on hand for the rest of our meals.

In Salt Lake City, we once again had a kitchen in our hotel room at the Grand America.  We stopped at an organic grocery store to get some breakfast and snack items for our short stay here.  We also ate at Chipotle, Subway, Jimmy Johns, and Noodles along the road.  

For more on traveling with dietary restrictions, be sure to check out our guide:  On the Go with Allergies.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Sara

    Amazing! Only thing is, you forgot to pack us in your suitcase 😉

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