I texted my brother a picture of Bryce Canyon National Park in the morning. It is so gorgeous, I had to share it. That evening, I texted him a picture from Capitol Reef National Park. He texted me back and said, “What? You went to two national parks in one day?” I replied, “Technically three. I left from Zion this morning.” I was exploring Utah’s Mighty Five.
Utah is home to five national parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks. And they are all fairly close to one another, which makes road tripping through Utah’s Mighty Five an easy, beautiful, and fun trip.
While visiting Utah last August, I spend most of my time in Zion National Park. But for two days, I drove and explored the other places that makeup Utah’s Might Five.
America the Beautiful Pass for Utah’s Mighty Five
You will want to purchase an America the Beautiful Pass, which is $80 and gets you into any national park without paying an entrance fee. It’s only a few dollars more than paying entrance fees for two national parks, so if you are visiting five it will save you a ton of money.
Like I said before, I began my tour of Utah’s Mighty Five at Zion National Park. There is a pretty easy route for visiting all five national parks if you either leave from Zion or Arches National Parks. Because the majority of my time was spent in Zion and I was heading north to Wyoming when I was finished in Utah, it made sense for me to make the trip from south to north.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park is known for its slot canyons and the towering peaks above the valley of the Virgin River. When you are inside Zion Canyon, Navajo Sandstone cliffs loom over you. The park has a difference in elevation of about 5,000 feet, giving it a diverse experience of flora and fauna.
Zion is Utah’s first national park and celebrated its 100th birthday on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (That was Tuesday if you are reading this blog post when it’s published.)
Highway 9 leaves from the east side of Zion National Park and takes you to Mountain Carmel Junction. From there, you want to go north (or left) on Highway 89 until you get to the intersection with Highway 12.
And I didn’t tell you when you road trip through Utah’s Mighty Five, you get a bonus. Highway 12 is a National Scenic Byway and takes you through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The entire road is 119 miles and connects Bryce Canyon National Park to Capitol Reef National Park. But Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is just as beautiful as any one of Utah’s Mighty Five. I wish I had more time while in Utah because I would have loved to explore and hike more in Grand Staircase. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its brilliant orange hoodoos, which are spire-shaped rock formations that rise out of the desert. At Bryce Canyon, the hoodoos are numerous and thick and extremely unique to that area of Utah.
The entrance to Bryce Canyon is on Highway 63, just past the intersection with Highway 12. After you cross the main entrance to the park, you can drive along the scenic road which sits atop a ridge. The pullouts give you amazing views on your left and right.
The total time between Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park is about 1 1/2 hours, but that doesn’t account for how many times, you will stop and take pictures!
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Scenic Highway 12 takes you from Bryce Canyon to the town of Torrey. In between these two places is one of the most unique and amazing terrains I have ever been through. As I said, I so wish I had had more time to explore. It’s a little hard to explain Grand Staircase-Escalante in words other than using the cliché otherworldly. But honestly, this Arkansas girl who is used to thick forest and tall bushy trees was amazed at the solid white rock ground. To me it made me think of decorative concrete – a perfectly manicured landscape of rock and bushes.
My favorite part was where the river has carved narrow chutes of valleys through the unique terrain. I could see this well when the highway took me high above on a ridge and I looked down at a U-shaped valley full of green cottonwood trees whose tops came to right underneath the canyon rim.
I also loved driving down into the canyons and then on the rims or ridges to look down below. It really is an amazing place.
The driving time in between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks is about 2 1/2 hours, but budget way more time because again you will be stopping a lot to take pictures!
Capitol Reef National Park
Once you get to Torrey and the end of Highway 12, you’ll want to turn east (or right) onto Highway 24, which takes you right into Capitol Reef National Park.
My first impression of Capitol Reef National Park was not that great. I thought, “Eh, it’s a big rock wall.” But, it quickly became my favorite of Utah’s Mighty Five. Capitol Reef is also the least visited of the parks, but it really is a hidden jewel.
What made it my favorite, you ask. It’s just beautiful and awe-inspiring. The historic area of Fruita takes you back to the 1800s and really makes you imagine what life was like living in the west. The greens of the orchard pop against the red rock walls above in this oasis in the desert.
A few scenic drives take you into narrow slot canyons where you can explore the mazes within the park.
From Capitol Reef National Park, you stay on Highway 24 which heads east before turning and going northeast toward I-70. This part of my trip was also so beautiful. It is a barren desert except for the bright green cottonwoods along the river that contrast against the gray soil.
If you have extra time, make a stop by Goblin Valley State Park.
When you get to I-70, head east. I ended my day at the KOA in Green River, Utah on I-70.
Arches National Park
To get to Arches National Park, you continue east on I-70 and exit at Crescent Junction. Taking Highway 191 toward Moab. On your way, you will pass Highway 313, which takes you to Canyonlands National Park, but you can get that on your way back.
The total time between Capitol Reef and Arches is about 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Arches is a smaller park but packed with unique and beautiful scenery. It is also just packed with people. Arches has 2,000 natural stone arches and numerous other pinnacles, fins, and giant balanced rocks. It really is amazing what wind and water can do and how it can shape a terrain.
If you have time, get off the main spot and go for a hike. You’ll see amazing things and lose some of the people.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is only about a 30-minute drive from Arches. From Arches, you’ll head north back toward I-70 and turn west (or left) on Highway 313.
Carved out between the Green River and the Colorado River, Canyonlands offers views as far as the eye can see. The main scenic drive travels across the top of the mesa. This area is known as Islands in the Sky.
Along this drive, you can look over the canyon and valleys of the Green River to the west and the Colorado River to the east. It is really interesting how you can see the multiple layers carved away.
Utah’s Mighty Five
Road tripping through Utah’s Mighty Five is a definite must if you love national parks. I did my trip in two days, which I felt was way too short. I could have spent a week at each park. But is my boss going to give me five weeks off? Probably not.
There is just so much to see. That part of the country is truly unlike anywhere else I have been. Each park was different and unique in its own way as well. I’m already planning my trip back.