Guide to Visiting Utah’s Epic “Mighty Five” National Parks

Utah's Epic Mighty Five National Parks: Arches | Bryce Canyon | Canyonlands | Capitol Reef | Zion

Deep canyons, crimson hued rocks, sheer cliff faces, deserts, mountains, and mesas – you’ll find all of these on an epic road trip through Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks.  We’ve been to each of these parks and created this guide if you want to visit them all in one fell swoop.  

For this trip, start your journey in Las Vegas, if that’s your thing, or simply use it as a jumping off point to visit some of the best national parks the US has to offer.  From Las Vegas, continue northeast to Utah where you’ll first visit Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.  Continuing further east, you’ll then hit Capitol Reef National Park and end in Moab, Utah, where both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are located.  You can then fly out of Salt Lake City, located about 235 miles north of Moab.  

Below is a map of the journey:

Las Vegas, Nevada

Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps!  We are admittedly not big fans of Las Vegas so we just use it as a jumping off point to get to the parks.  If traveling as a family, we recommend staying off the strip.  We have stayed both on and off the strip and much prefer the quiet off the strip.   

Our kids were curious about Las Vegas so we spent one day here.  Below we share a list of family-friendly things to do in Las Vegas.  We did all of these in one day and then were happy to venture off to the parks.

Family-friendly things to do in Las Vegas

  • New York, New York – The New York, New York Hotel has an arcade so it gives the kids a chance to play in Vegas, too!  We did find this to be a little run down and just fine for quick stop.  Also here you’ll find The Big Apple Coaster, a hyper coaster, that any roller coaster fiend will find especially thrilling!
  • The Mob Museum – An interesting look at organized crime in America, located in downtown Las Vegas.
  • Cirque du Soleil show – Our family really enjoyed Mystère, Cirque’s longest running show!
  • Bellagio Fountains – A must see, it’s an impressive water show set to lights and music.
  • Visit hotels/walk the strip – We walked through a few of the hotels, most notably The Venetian, Caesar’s Palace, and Paris Paris.  One can even take a gondola ride at the Venetian.

It’s now time to head off to the true gems – the national parks!

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is the first park you’ll visit on this trip, located approximately 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas.  We recommend stopping at Honey Salt for a delicious brunch in Las Vegas on your way out of town.

With soaring cliffs, rushing rivers, and some of the best trails in any of the parks, Zion is majestic.  It has two very famous trails – Angel’s Landing and The Narrows, which we will get into below.

Soaring cliffs at Zion National Park

Where to Stay

We recommend staying at Cable Mountain Lodge in Springdale when visiting Zion National Park.  It is located right outside of the park so if staying here you don’t need to deal with the traffic getting in and out of the park.  A shuttle brings you further into the park while Watchman Trail is accessed right from your doorstep at Cable Mountain Lodge.  The lodge also has very comfortable accommodations.  We stayed in a one bedroom with a kitchen.  On site are laundry facilities, a swimming pool, brew pub, and gear outfitter.  We loved this place!

The Best of Zion

  • Watchman Trail – Our favorite trail here, it’s often overlooked for the park’s bigger stars.  We loved the magnificent views of Springdale below and especially liked this trail just before sunset.  We caught the sunset at the top and had enough time to get down before dark.
  • Angel’s Landing  – This is one of the world’s most famous hikes due to the steep, narrow hike on a spiny ridge that ends with incredibly majestic views of the park.  It’s a 4.4 mile out-and-back hike with a 1,600 foot elevation gain.  Not for the faint of heart!
  • The Narrows – Aptly named for the most narrow section of Zion Canyon, this 10-mile out-and-back trail can be done as the entire hike or you can simply turn around where desired.  The Narrows is another one of the hikes at Zion on many people’s bucket lists.  It’s unique in that you are essentially wading through water.  You definitely need gear for this hike including waders and trekking poles, which you can rent from gear outfitters in the area. 
  • Canyon Overlook Trail – This is the shortest hike at just one mile, with great views at the end of the canyons below.
  • Weeping Rock Trail – A very easy trail and short at only 0.4 miles, this out-and-back takes you up a few steps to stand under a rock with water dripping, or “weeping”.  You also get great views from this viewpoint. 

Watchman Trail

Bryce Canyon National Park

We did this as a day trip while staying at Cable Mountain Lodge in Springdale and think this worked great.  However, another option is to get up early as you leave Zion and visit Bryce Canyon for a few hours on your way to Capitol Reef National Park.  It all depends on how much time you want to spend there.

We loved how different this park was from Zion, just a short drive away.  This park is also a good one for those with mobility issues as you can get the vast sweeping views by simply looking down into the canyons from the rim.  

Bryce Canyon is known for it’s “hoodoo spires”, deep orange colored pillars of rock, jutting upwards, some as high as 150 feet!  Simply walk the rim to take in the views or go a step further and hit the trail! 

Looking down at the hoodoo spires in Bryce Canyon National Park

The Best of Bryce Canyon 

  • Navajo Loop & Queen’s Garden Trail – This is the most popular hike at Bryce Canyon.  It’s a 2.9 loop trail that will take you among the hoodoos.
  • Sunset Point – Great for views at all times of day, you’ll be able to see the famous Thor’s Hammer.

Do you see the horseback riders in the distance?

Capitol Reef National Park

After spending a few days in Zion and Bryce Canyon, it’s time to head east to Capitol Reef National Park, which is approximately 185 miles away.

Capitol Reef contains a very interesting feature – a wrinkle in the earth’s surface!  Known as the Waterpocket Fold, this feature extends for 100 miles resulting in dramatic formations such as cliffs, arches, and canyons.  This is Utah’s least visited National Park so a break from the crowds is welcomed.

Beautiful Capitol Reef National Park

Where we stayed

We stayed in a 2-bedroom cabin at Capitol Reef Resort, which is the perfect location for a visit to Capitol Reef National Park.  The cabin was well-appointed with plenty of space for the five of us, including two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a deck with a gas grill.

The Best of Capitol Reef

  • Grand Wash Trail – We loved the bright blue skies next to the massive orange rock faces.  This trail is a 4-mile out and back with very little elevation change.
  • Capitol Reef Scenic Drive – A 7.9 mile drive winding through the park, this will allow you to see many of the park’s famous formations.
  • Fruita – This historic Mormon settlement area named for fruit orchards cultivated by pioneers in the 1800s.  Many historic artifacts still remain. 

Braden on the Grand Wash Trail

Arches National Park

Continuing east from Capitol Reef, Arches National Park located in Moab, Utah is about 130 miles away.  Arches is Utah’s most visited park, so expect crowds!  We highly recommend getting into the park early, especially for the hike to Delicate Arch.

At Arches, the desert landscape is home to a multitude of sandstone arches, the most famous being Delicate Arch. 

The incredible Delicate Arch

Where we stayed

We stayed at Moab Under Canvas, which was our lodging for our time visiting both Arches and Canyonlands.  We had a main tent with a very comfortable king bed and extra cot for one child as well as an adjacent teepee with two very comfortable twin beds.  There is no electricity in the tents, however there is a full bathroom with a shower.  We had a small deck with amazing views.  The “glampground” was a lot of fun with live music in the evenings, fire pits, and s’mores. 

The Best of Arches

  • Delicate Arch Trail – Definitely the most popular hike, your reward at the end is worth it – the famous arch that graces Utah’s license plate.  We highly recommend doing this hike early.  We arrived at the park at 6:20 a.m. and were at the trailhead by 6:40.  We missed the crowd arriving for sunrise yet we had lovely morning light gracing our hike.  We felt this was the perfect time!  We had minimal crowds at Delicate Arch and on our way back we passed a lot of people now making their way to the arch.  We cannot stress this enough – get there early!
  • Sand Dune Arch – This was a fun arch to view because the entrance is hidden in between sheer rock faces.  The “trail” is done by walking through sand so it was work getting to the arch!  It is 0.3 miles out and back, so a nice quick, albeit sandy, stop.
  • Balanced Rock – Easy to see from the road while driving, you can stop and walk the 0.3 mile out and back to stand near it.

Sandstone Arch

Canyonlands National Park

While still in Moab, you can visit the other national park here – Canyonlands.  The landscape at Canyonlands is created due to deep carvings by the Colorado River.  Deep gorges, tall mesas, and vast views are what you’ll find at this park.

Canyonlands has four distinct sections:  The Needles, Islands in the Sky, the Maze, and the Rivers.  We only visited the Islands in the Sky District so will focus on that section.  

The deep gorges of Canyonlands

The Best of Canyonlands, Island in the Sky District

  • Grand View Point Trail – This trail is at approximately 6,000 feet elevation.  You’ll see vast views of the canyons formed by the Green and Colorado Rivers as well as distant formations.
  • Shafer Canyon Overlook – Scenic views of the mesas and the distant La Sal Mountains on a 0.3 mile out and back trail
  • Mesa Arch – This 0.7 mile out and back trail leads hikers to the beautiful Mesa Arch.

Ava checking out the view along Grand View Point Trail

These five national parks are some of America’s best, all located in the state of Utah.  With a little fun beforehand in Las Vegas, you can then enjoy being in the great outdoors in the parks before you make your way to Salt Lake City to fly back home.  We hope this guide will be helpful in planning a trip to these southwest gems!

Read More!

If you’d like to read how we visited these parks in two separate trips (and added a few more stops along the way), be sure to check out our post, Southwest Road Trip – Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Parks

If you would like to read about how we visited the rest of the Utah parks as well as our time in Moab and Salt Lake City, read our post, Rounding Out Utah’s Mighty Five – Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks

With a good two weeks, you can visit 3 states and see 6 national parks plus more incredible sites with our The Ultimate Southwest Road Trip guide.

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

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!

In Las Vegas, we found chain restaurants that we knew were safe for our crew to eat at.  On the way out of town, Honey Salt was an incredible farm-to-table meal that had great options for everyone.

In Springdale, at Cable Mountain Lodge, we had a kitchenette so a stop at Whole Foods in Las Vegas before heading out of town provided us with groceries for our time there.  We cooked in the kitchen, packed picnics for hiking, and had breakfast in daily.  The on-site brew pub, Zion Canyon Brew Pub, was also great for accommodating our dietary restrictions.

At our next stop, Capitol Reef Resort, we again had a kitchenette.  We stopped ahead of time to get groceries which I’m so glad we did – stores are very limited in this part of the state.  We had enough stuff to cook dinners and grill and again packed picnic lunches during out hikes.

Once in Moab, we were back in civilization and were frequent visitors to City Market.  They had a great selection of things we could grill at our glampground and some prepackaged foods to take on our hikes. 

While road tripping between places, we would grab food from Subway and Chipotle along the way.

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

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