Utah is home to five spectacular national parks that offer visitors to the southern part of the state impressive views of red sandstone cliffs, arches that are perfectly placed for catching a sunset, glimpses into the past through ancient petroglyphs, and more adventure than one could ever imagine.
Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches national parks are known by locals as the Mighty Five. While they can be explored in one epic road trip, we highly recommend spending more than a week breezing through the area to truly get to know these parks. Before we give you ideas on where to go and what to see, here's a bit of information on the formation of the impressive landscapes that capture our hearts and camera lenses.
Ancient sand beds and shallow oceans from the Jurassic and Triassic periods solidified into orderly sedimentary layers in vast expanses across the southwest. These layers have each eroded at varying rates as they were pushed slowly upward by volcanic forces deep beneath the Earth's crust, creating what is today known as the Grand Staircase. The landscape of mesas, arches, plateaus, and deep canyons range in age from billions to just a few hundred years old.
By the Early Jurassic period, roughly 200 million years ago, the land had transformed dramatically, and the entire Colorado Plateau had become one of the largest deserts in the history of the planet. Massive dunes reached up to 3,000 feet high, constantly shifting and reforming with wind and time. Lithification from the weight of successive layers and the presence of minerals like calcium carbonate and silica froze these dunes and created the Navajo sandstone formation that is so prevalent throughout the parks. This is why the lines of sedimentary layers in Zion’s Navajo sandstone aren’t flat or level; instead, they tend to reflect the windward and leeward angles of a dune.
During a period of massive uplift the former seabed rose to the high plateau we know today. This uplift created ideal conditions for rivers, creeks, and even additional inland seas to consistently and forcefully erode of the soft Navajo sandstone into magnificent canyons and gorges.
Utah's Mighty Five each claim their own step on the Grand Staircase, starting with Moab's Arches National Park where more than 2,000 sandstone arches tower overhead, and continuing down to Zion, Utah's most-visited national park.
Below we've highlighted a few adventures in each park we feel exemplify the beauty and history of the area. If you're looking for more specifics, take a look at our 7-Day Itinerary for Zion and Bryce Canyon and 7-Day Itinerary for Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. Or put them together for a two-week road trip. Honestly, one week isn't enough to fully immerse yourself in this incredible part of the country.
Arches is a 73,234-acre garden of eroded sandstone fins, towers, ribs, gargoyles, hoodoos, balanced rocks, and arches. There are over 2,000 arches cataloged in the park. This includes the 306-foot Landscape Arch, which is the second largest span in the world.
Canyonlands is 527 square miles of deep canyons, towering mesas, cliffs, spires, pinnacles, and home to one of the West's most photographed landforms, Mesa Arch. You'll also find some fascinating archeological sites within the park boundaries.
Capitol Reef is Utah's least-visited national park, but it remains equally impressive. It is rich with amazing views, great hikes and one of our favorite campgrounds in the area.
Bryce is best known for its endless fields of red rock hoodoos formed by to wind and water over millions of years of freeze and thaw cycles. There are a number of overlooks that will not disappoint.
With over 3.5 million visitors each year, Zion is Utah's most visited national park and the seventh most visited in the nation. Most visitors stick to Zion Canyon, but the Kolb Canyons, Kolb Terrace, and Hurricane Mesa also offer unforgettable scenery with slightly lighter crowds.