As this post is published, it’s National Park Week, a time to celebrate the spectacular places around the U.S. that belong to all of us. Over the last 10 years, our family has taken several road trips to visit many national parks, including iconic parks like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But one of my favorite road trips was the one we took to the Four Corners region of the Southwest. We spent 13 days exploring, making a loop from Albuquerque, New Mexico, through Colorado, Utah and Arizona and back to New Mexico. The national parks we visited on that trip had some of the most unusual landscapes in the U.S., particularly the Utah parks Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion. Here are some things to know and tips to help you plan a visit to see these unique parks Utah.
Getting There. There are plenty of ways to structure a visit to the national parks of Utah. You can easily explore the 5 big Utah parks: Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef in one trip using Salt Lake City or Las Vegas as a starting point. Since we were not staying in Utah for our entire trip, we narrowed down our park list to Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion for our already action packed vacation. Looking back, I regret not adding a stop at Canyonlands National Park, after realizing its close proximity to Arches and hearing a fellow traveler tell us he thought it was more scenic than the Grand Canyon. I have learned a great deal about road trip planning since we took that first trip, and will definitely be returning to Utah for more exploration.
Arches National Park. The first park we visited in Utah was Arches, which we easily accessed from nearby Moab. We stayed in cabins at the Archview RV Resort and Campground, just a short drive to the entrance to Arches, which made it easy to get an early start on a hot summer day. I always suggest stopping at the Visitor Center on your way in for helpful information, and my husband loves to chat with the rangers to get the lay of the land.
When we first entered Arches, it was like we had crashed landed on Mars (especially the first photo below). With over 2,000 natural arches, you’ll have plenty of opportunities for up close viewing of these amazing sandstone formations. You can easily drive through the park in a day, and have plenty of time to see many of the more popular formations. We stopped often, taking short hikes for up close views of spots like Balanced Rock, The Windows, and Double Arch. Hiking, auto touring and ranger-led programs are all popular options for families. During the summer months, head out early in the morning to beat the crowds and the heat. I’ll definitely be back to catch one of the spectacular Arches sunsets!
Bryce Canyon. It took us about 4 hours to drive from Arches to the Bryce Canyon area. Even though it was August, know that the weather can change quickly, as we found out when we encountered a major hail storm as we drove along Interstate 70. We spent the night at Ruby’s Inn, as close as you can get to Bryce Canyon without staying in the park. The next morning, we entered the park on a gorgeous August day, and to this day I can still remember the vivid blue sky taking my breath away. Surrounded by colorful, odd-shaped rocks called hoodoos, it’s a surreal experience as you survey the area from the overlooks at the Bryce Amphitheater. The rim is somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 feet, and when we were there during the summer the temperatures were very comfortable. I loved that there were several options for trails, and would highly recommend the popular Queens Garden Trail which begins at Sunrise Point and is one of the easiest ways to enter the canyon. We combined that with the popular Navajo Trail, which took us into the main amphitheater of the canyon and through Wall Street, the only slot canyon at Bryce. The whole trail combination was less than 3 miles long. Even with younger kids, I felt that you could really explore the park and take some cool hikes. When the sun goes down, be sure to step out and experience the amazing night sky. The park offers many night-time programs, including Astronomy Programs, a Rim Walk and Full Moon Hikes. The night sky is one of the best, with the park website boasting that on a moonless night you can see 7500 stars! A winter ranger-led snowshoe hike is definitely on my bucket list! No matter what time of year you visit, there is always something to do. Be sure to bring plenty of water, especially during the summer months.
Zion National Park. From Bryce Canyon, it took less than 2 hours to travel to Zion. Upon arrival, we headed to Driftwood Lodge, just two miles from the Zion entrance. It was one of our favorite family-friendly hotel experiences on that trip, with huge rooms, tons of open space and spectacular views of the park from the patio. Since we visited, I understand the lodge has undergone many renovations. and they even offer a number of pet friendly rooms . Plus you can take a shuttle to the park entrance, which is helpful as parking is limited within the park and often fills up by the late morning.
Our day began early, with a Ranger-led “Morning Meander” along the Virgin River. It was a 90 minute stroll, perfect for younger kids, and a good way to see Zion in the early morning light. Next up were the Lower & Upper Emerald Pool trails, with beautiful water views. By this point, the day was starting to get hot, so after lunch we decided to saddle up and take a horseback ride. My youngest was 7 at the time, and we still laugh over memories of her horse stopping to eat at every bush along the way. The one hour ride took us along the river to the Court of the Patriarchs. It was a good way to beat some of the heat and still be in the midst of this stunning national park. I felt like many of the hikes in Zion were a bit more challenging for us (particularly The Narrows) given the age of my youngest at the time, but that is definitely on my bucket list for a return trip in the future.
Tips for Visiting the Parks:
Remember, our National Parks are treasures to be enjoyed by all. So get out there and find your closest park. And don't forget to take advantage of fee-free days and the Every Kid in a Park pass.