Best National Parks in Utah

The state of Utah, at the heart of the American Southwest, is home to a remarkable collection of national parks. In total, the state boasts nineteen different National Park Service sites. Sites are split between five national parks, eight national monuments, four national historic trails, one national recreation area, and one national historic park. Amongst this array of parks are some of the most geologically diverse and impressive national parks in the U.S.

Throughout this guide, we’ll look at the best national parks to visit in Utah. This includes an in-depth look at the five major national parks to see what each offers. We’ll also highlight the eight national monument sites, which often get overlooked in favor of their more illustrious peers. While these national monument sights are smaller, they’re also considerably quieter and usually no less spectacular. So, read on to learn everything you need to know about Utah’s best national parks. 

Where are the Best National Parks in Utah?

There are 5 national parks within the boundaries of the state of Utah:

  1. Arches National Park
  2. Bryce Canyon National Park
  3. Canyonland National Park
  4. Capitol Reef National Park
  5. Zion National Park


All 5 of Utah’s national parks are located in the state’s southern half. Arches National Park is the most northern and easterly of the parks, located relatively close to the state border with Colorado. Zion National Park is the most southern and westerly park, situated close to the state border with Arizona.

Best National Parks in Utah

Utah’s spectacular national parks showcase some of Earth’s most diverse and amazing landscapes, ranging from the red rock canyons of Zion to the otherworldly hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. There are also the mesmerizing arches at Arches National Park and the rugged expanses of Canyonlands National Park. These national parks are a testament to the area’s incredible geology.

Each of Utah’s national parks boasts a unique character, with a collection of iconic landmarks, hidden treasures, and vibrant ecosystems. So let’s take a look at each of these different national parks below. 

1. Zion National Park

Spanning over 230 square miles, Zion National Park claims to be Utah’s best national park. It’s a park renowned for its dramatic red rock formations, stunning canyons, and diverse ecosystems. The park’s centerpiece is the towering Zion Canyon, sculpted by the Virgin River over millions of years. The towering sandstone cliffs created by the river draw hikers, climbers, and nature enthusiasts from across the US.

Hiking is the principal activity within the park, and there are countless trails to explore. Amongst the most popular is the trail to Angel’s Landing. It challenges visitors with its ascent to a narrow sandstone spine that rewards you with sweeping vistas of the surrounding areas.

Within the park are trails that cater to every level of hiker. These trails showcase different aspects of the park, such as the luminous Emerald Pools, the ethereal Weeping Rock, and the lofty Observation Point.

Beyond the geology and hiking, Zion National Park is also a haven of biodiversity. The park nurtures a wide range of flora and fauna within its diverse ecosystems. You’ll see desert bighorn sheep and grazing mule deer throughout the park.

Zion’s other unique characteristic is its hidden oases, birthed from natural springs. These oases provide a stark contrast to the surrounding arid expanse.

Zion canyon in Zion National Park
The dramatic red cliffs of the Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.

Best Things to see and do in Zion National Park

With hiking the main activity in Zion National Park, it’s no surprise that the various hiking trails rank highly among the best things to see and do in the park. 

Angel’s Landing: One of the most famous hikes in the park, Angel’s Landing offers an adventurous route with spectacular views. The hike involves a steep ascent to a narrow sandstone ridge that rewards hikers with panoramic vistas of Zion Canyon. It’s not for the faint of heart, as the final stretch involves holding onto chains affixed to the rock.

The Narrows: This iconic hike takes you through the Virgin River within a narrow, towering slot canyon. Wading and sometimes even swimming through the river, surrounded by towering walls, provides an unforgettable experience. 

Emerald Pools: Accessible to a wide range of hikers, the Emerald Pools trail leads to a series of lush alcoves and waterfalls. The Lower, Middle, and Upper Emerald Pools offer varying degrees of challenge and reward, allowing you to choose the level of exploration that suits your ability.

Canyon Overlook Trail: Located at the park’s east entrance, this short trail provides a big payoff. At the trail’s end, you’ll be treated to spectacular views of Zion Canyon and the famous Checkerboard Mesa.

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive: If you’re not into hiking, the Zion Canyon scenic drive provides a great alternative option. The road offers a convenient way to see some of the park’s most stunning viewpoints and formations. Stops along the way include the Weeping Rock, the Court of the Patriarchs, and the Temple of Sinawava. 

When to Visit Zion National Park

The best time to visit Zion National Park is spring (April to May) and fall (September to October). These seasons offer a combination of pleasant weather, vibrant foliage, and ideal conditions for hiking and exploring. Where possible, it’s best to avoid the hotter summer months when temperatures can be extreme, and the crowds can impact your enjoyment of the park.

2. Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is a sprawling expanse of untamed wilderness in south-eastern Utah. Shaped by the mighty Colorado River, the area has a rugged beauty. A labyrinth of deep canyons, towering mesas, and meandering rivers characterize the park.

Canyonlands is divided into four distinct districts, each with its unique character. The Island in the Sky district boasts expansive views from its towering mesa with panoramic views of the surrounding canyons and the convergence of the rivers. Meanwhile, the Needles district is renowned for its soaring sandstone spires and intricate rock formations, which beckon hikers to explore their labyrinthine paths.

The Maze district, somewhat aptly named, is the most remote and rugged. Its remote nature requires careful planning for those who wish to venture into its depths, but it rewards you with unparalleled solitude and a raw, unfiltered wilderness experience. The final district is the Rivers, which provide a unique perspective of the canyons. Walking alongside or riding down the rivers allows you to witness the shaping forces of nature from the very channels that carved the landscape.

As Utah’s most remote national park, Canyonlands is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Popular activities in the park include hiking, mountain biking, and water sports along the rivers and tributaries. The park’s dark skies also offer excellent stargazing opportunities at night. 

Aerial view canyons and the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is a vast desert landscape carved by the Colorado River.

Best Things to see in Canyonlands National Park

Amazing geology, solitude, and adventure are the order of the day in Canyonlands National Park. There’s a good range of activities and sites to explore, but be sure to come prepared as the park is larger and more remote than others in the region.

Island in the Sky: One of the park’s most accessible and popular districts. The Island in the Sky mesa provides stunning panoramic views of the surrounding canyons carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. 

The Needles: Known for its towering sandstone spires and unique rock formations, The Needles district offers a range of hiking trails that lead you through a maze of colorful canyons and intriguing geological features. The Chesler Park Loop and Druid Arch are notable highlights.

Mesa Arch: While also in the Island in the Sky district, Mesa Arch deserves a special mention. This natural arch frames a spectacular sunrise backdrop, creating a stunning photographic opportunity.

Cruise the Colorado River: Consider taking a guided boat tour on the Colorado River to experience the beauty of the canyons from a unique perspective. The peaceful trip through calm waters offers a serene and memorable way to witness the park’s grandeur.

Shafer Trail Road: For those seeking a more adventurous experience, the Shafer Trail Road offers a thrilling drive along a narrow switchback road. The views along the way are spectacular and an excellent way to immerse yourself in the park’s rugged terrain.

When to Visit Canyonlands National Park

The best time to visit Canyonlands National Park is spring (April to May) and fall (September to October). These seasons provide comfortable temperatures for exploring the park’s diverse districts and iconic landscapes. While crowds in the summer are less of an issue in Canyonland than in other national parks, the heat of summer makes it a very uncomfortable season to visit.

3. Arches National Park

The third national park in Utah is Arches National Park. It’s home to a mesmerizing landscape characterized by a vast array of natural sandstone arches, striking rock formations, and a fascinating desert environment.

The park’s iconic feature is, of course, its more than 2,000 natural stone arches. Each arch is a masterpiece of erosion and natural sculpting. These arches come in various shapes and sizes, from delicate and slender spans to massive formations like the famous Delicate Arch. These arches result from millions of years of wind, water, and ice erosion that have sculpted the Entrada and Navajo sandstone layers into intricate, gravity-defying shapes.

In addition to the arches, the park showcases an assortment of other geological wonders, including balanced rocks, fins, spires, and giant stone monoliths.

Hiking is undoubtedly the best way to see the park, admire the geological wonders, and immerse yourself in the desert surrounding. The various trails within the park allow you to tailor your hike to suit your experience and appetite for adventure. 

Although Arches National Park is considered a stark desert environment, it sustains a surprising variety of plant and animal life. The flora and fauna have uniquely adapted to the harsh conditions. Juniper trees, piñon pines, and desert flora add splashes of green to an otherwise rust-coloured landscape. Wildlife, including desert bighorn sheep, coyotes, and various bird species, can also be spotted throughout the park.

Lastly but by no means least, Arches National Park boasts some of the darkest skies in the United States. This makes it an ideal location for stargazing. The absence of any light pollution allows you to marvel at the glittering Milky Way in the skies above.

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah
The exquisite Delicate Arch is just one of 2000 different arches in the park.

Best Things to see in Arches National Park

Arches National Park’s challenging landscape necessitates a degree of hiking to be able to see the best attractions within the park. The good news is that many of the most spectacular arches can be reached via relatively short hikes.

Delicate Arch: Perhaps the park’s most iconic feature, Delicate Arch, is a must-see. The hike to the arch is challenging, but it offers a rewarding view of this majestic, freestanding arch against the backdrop of the stunning desert landscape.

The Windows Section: This park area features several impressive arches, including the North Window, South Window, and Turret Arch. The Windows trail is a relatively easy hike, providing close-up views of these magnificent formations.

Landscape Arch: A relatively short hike takes you to Landscape Arch, one of the longest natural stone arches in the world. This delicate arch spans across a vast expanse.

Balanced Rock: This iconic formation features a massive rock balanced atop a slender pedestal. The short, easy hike to Balanced Rock provides a chance to marvel at the forces of erosion that have shaped this unique sight.

Fiery Furnace: The unique and challenging Fiery Furnace is a good attraction for those with an adventurous spirit. A visit to the area requires a permit or a guided tour due to the challenging and intricate maze of narrow canyons and fins. 

When to Visit Arches National Park

The best time to visit Arches National Park is again during the spring (March to May) and fall (September to October). The weather is mild during these seasons, and the park’s unique rock formations are showcased in comfortable temperatures. It’s best to avoid the hot summer months when temperatures and crowds are both at their peak.

4. Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is the least well-known of Utah’s national parks. However, it is a geological treasure trove just waiting to be discovered. The park’s unique charm lies in its striking geological formations, deep canyons, colorful cliffs, and a rich history spanning ancient Native American cultures to early European settlers.

The park’s signature feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a nearly 100-mile-long warp in the Earth’s crust that has resulted in a remarkable array of geological wonders. This fold has created a diverse landscape of dramatic cliffs, domes, bridges, canyons, and towering monoliths. The contrasting colors and textures of the exposed rock layers paint a vivid story of the Earth’s geological history.

Another of Capitol Reef’s standout attractions is the fertile oasis known as the Fruita Historic District. This haven in the desert adds a touch of green to the otherwise arid surroundings. Fruit trees planted by Mormon pioneers still thrive here, providing a connection to the area’s agricultural history. You can pick fruit during the designated seasons and explore the preserved historic structures, which give you an insight into the lives of the early settlers.

The park is accessible both on foot and by road. There are various scenic drives and hiking trails throughout the park. One of the best is the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. It winds through the Waterpocket Fold and offers spectacular views of towering cliffs and panoramic vistas. If you prefer to explore on foot, some of the best routes are the Hickman Bridge and Cassidy Arch trails.

View of a canyon in Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is home to a wealth of different geological features.

Best Things to see in Capitol Reef National Park

There’s plenty of diverse geology to see throughout Capitol Reef National Park. Whether hiking or driving, there are many opportunities to see the park’s highlights. 

Waterpocket Fold: This geological feature is the defining characteristic of Capitol Reef. A long, wrinkle-like fold in the Earth’s crust creates a stunning array of canyons, domes, and cliffs. The scenic drive along Highway 24 showcases various viewpoints of this impressive formation.

Hickman Bridge: A relatively easy hike leads to the Hickman Natural Bridge, a massive stone arch spanning a gorge. This trail offers a glimpse into the park’s unique geology and rewards hikers with breathtaking views.

Cathedral Valley: A remote area accessible only by high-clearance vehicles, Cathedral Valley features huge monoliths like the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon. The isolated and rugged landscape offers a real sense of solitude and grandeur.

Fruita Historic District: This oasis in the desert is a preserved section of the historic Fruita settlement. Orchards with fruit trees, historic buildings, and a glimpse into early pioneer life make this area a fascinating blend of history and nature.

Scenic Byway 12: While not within the park boundaries, the nearby Scenic Byway 12 is a remarkable drive that leads through stunning landscapes, from the red rock canyons of Capitol Reef to the alpine splendor of Boulder Mountain and beyond.

When to Visit Capitol Reef National Park

The best time to visit Capitol Reef National Park is spring (April to June) and fall (September to October). These seasons offer pleasant weather and fewer crowds, making it the ideal conditions to explore the park’s diverse landscapes. Avoid the hot summer months and be prepared for variable weather conditions if you visit during the winter.

5. Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is the fifth and final of Utah’s national parks. This unique park is renowned for its extraordinary collection of otherworldly rock formations known as hoodoos, sculpted by the forces of erosion over millions of years.

The park’s most distinguishing feature is the Bryce Amphitheater, a natural arena that houses a labyrinth of hoodoos in varying sizes and shapes. These spire-like structures, created through the erosion of the Claron Formation’s sedimentary rock, display a rich array of colors, from rich reds to vibrant oranges and delicate pinks. The result is a surreal landscape that defies convention. 

The park boasts an extensive trail network that takes you deep into the heart of the hoodoo wonderland. The Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop Trail are two of the best leading hikers through towering rock formations. The challenging Fairyland Loop is also popular, and it rewards you with lesser-known vistas and an escape from the crowds.

There’s also a plethora of viewpoints across Bryce Canyon National Park that provide sweeping vistas of the amphitheater. Sunset Point and Sunrise Point, aptly named, offer particularly stunning opportunities to witness the interplay of light and shadow across the hoodoos.

Bryce Canyon’s elevation gives it a more diverse and colorful landscape than elsewhere in Utah. It has a distinct ecosystem that changes as you descend into the park’s depths. This ecosystem ranges from the high-altitude forests of ponderosa pines to the lower, arid shrublands. Each of these zones supports its unique flora and fauna. You can expect to see mule deer, golden-mantled ground squirrels, and a variety of bird species as you explore the park and the rock formations.

Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre
Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre is home to the largest collection of Hoodoos in the world.

Best Things to see in Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is notably smaller than Utah’s other national parks. However, what the park lacks in size it certainly makes up for in wow factor. Most of the attractions and highlights are centered around the Bryce Amphitheatre, although there’s more to the park than just the hoodoos.

Bryce Amphitheatre: This is the park’s heart and home to the mesmerizing hoodoos—tall, thin rock spires of various colors. The viewpoints along the rim, such as Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, and Inspiration Point, provide stunning vistas of this unique landscape.

Navajo Loop Trail: This popular trail takes you into the amphitheater among the hoodoos. The switchbacks of Wall Street and the iconic Queen’s Garden are highlights along the way.

Fairyland Loop Trail: A longer hike that offers a quieter and less crowded experience than the main amphitheater trails. It takes you through an enchanting landscape of hoodoos, towering walls, and expansive vistas.

Bryce Point: This viewpoint offers a panoramic view of the entire amphitheater and is especially beautiful during sunrise or sunset when the warm hues of the hoodoos are illuminated.

Natural Bridge: Not to be confused with a true natural bridge, this formation is still a remarkable sight. The short trail to Natural Bridge offers an up-close look at this massive arch-like feature.

When to Visit Bryce Canyon National Park

The best time to visit Bryce Canyon National Park is during the shoulder seasons of spring (April to June) and fall (September to October). During these months, the weather is pleasant, the crowds are smaller, and the vibrant colors of the hoodoos are accentuated.

Because of its smaller size, Bryce Canyon National Park can get very busy throughout the year, so try to arrive as early as possible in the morning to avoid crowds and queues to get into the park.

Best National Monuments in Utah

Utah’s national monuments are a captivating and diverse mix of landscapes that encapsulate the state’s rich natural and cultural heritage. They range from ancient rock art to stunning geological formations to vast quarries of dinosaur bones. Each of these monuments presents unique attractions and plenty of reasons to visit.

Given Utah’s wealth of national parks, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that visitors from out of state often overlook these attractions. However, we assure you that you won’t regret visiting any of Utah’s eight different national monument sites. Not only are they cheaper and less crowded, but they’re also home to attractions just as compelling as those in the national parks.

Location of National Monuments in Utah

There are national monuments throughout Utah, although most are grouped together in the south of the state. These southern national monuments are in close proximity to the famous 5 national parks of Utah. Dinosaur National Monument and Timpanogos National Monument are the two exceptions, as they are located in the northern part of the state. 

Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument protects a culturally and archaeologically significant landscape. It encompasses thousands of archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings, rock art, and ceremonial sites. The monument is of great importance to Native American tribes in the region.

Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep preserves ancestral Puebloan ruins, including unique stone towers, dwellings, and kivas. These archaeological sites provide an insight into the lives of the people who lived there centuries ago. The monument is also known for its remote and rugged landscapes.

Natural Bridges National Monument

This site features three natural bridges — Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu- formed by water erosion over thousands of years. Viewing these impressive stone bridges from various overlooks is possible, or you can hike down to their bases for a closer look.

Dinosaur National Monument:

While part of this monument extends into Colorado, the Utah side is notable for its fossil-rich quarry containing hundreds of dinosaur bones. The highlight is a wall of embedded fossils in the Quarry Exhibit Hall. The monument also features scenic canyons along the Green and Yampa Rivers.

Timpanogos Cave National Monument

This national monument features a network of limestone caves with impressive formations and underground features. Guided tours allow you to explore the cave system and learn more about the geology of the area.

Rainbow Bridge National Monument

Accessible only by boat or by a long hike, Rainbow Bridge is one of the world’s largest natural bridges. It’s considered sacred by Native American tribes and is a significant geological and cultural feature.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

This vast monument encompasses diverse ecosystems and unique geological formations. It’s divided into three regions: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits Plateau, and Escalante Canyons. The monument offers plenty of opportunities for hiking, camping, and exploring the rugged terrain.

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Known for its colorful rock formations, Cedar Breaks resembles a smaller version of Bryce Canyon. The monument features a natural amphitheater filled with eroded spires, hoodoos, and cliffs. It’s located at a high elevation, which provides cooler temperatures during the hot summer months.

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