The entrance to this 73,000-acre park is located just north of the town of Moab. Named for the natural sandstone formations, it contains more than 2,000 arches (the world’s largest concentration of them). Don’t miss Delicate Arch, which you can see from a viewpoint, and Landscape Arch, the largest one in the park.
Technically a plateau, not a canyon, Bryce Canyon is a feast for the senses. The smallest of the five parks, it’s jam-packed with colorful rock formations: the trademark hoodoos that were created by millions of years of water and wind erosion. There are plenty of opportunities for moderate hikes, but if you have time for just one, make it the Navajo Loop Trail at Sunset Point. It starts with an up-close look at the much-photographed Thor’s Hammer and winds down into a canyon that’s surrounded by brilliant amber-colored natural rock walls, old growth Douglas fir trees, and, if you’re lucky, peaceful silence.
Just as its name suggests, this park hosts a wondrous collection of canyons (and plateaus). The formations have been carved by the Colorado and Green rivers, which also provide some of the most challenging white-water rapids in the world. The largest national park in Utah, Canyonlands is also known to outdoor enthusiasts for its miles of bike trails and its hiking opportunities. If you haven’t had your fill of arches yet, take the short hike to famed Mesa Arch, which frames an awe-inspiring view.
This park’s most notable feature is the Waterpocket Fold, a bulge in the earth’s crust (also described as a wrinkle on the earth) that allows for a diverse ecosystem that’s home to more than 300 species of wildlife. You’re not guaranteed an encounter with an animal, but you can see representations of them in Fremont Petroglyphs that are around 1,000 years old, viewable in several places in the park.
Utah’s oldest national park has a significantly different landscape than the other four preserves. The Virgin River runs through Zion, spurring lush greenery and creating dramatic canyons. On the ground, the park is most famous for The Narrows, which is a striking gorge, and the narrowest part of Zion Canyon. If you intend to forge this section of the park, bring or rent waterproof shoes and walking sticks. If there’s a chance of rain, skip the hike (it’s easily flooded) and instead stroll along the paved Riverside Walk, which takes visitors to the entrance of The Narrows. While the park is filled with natural wonders, it also has a manmade attraction: in 1930, workers completed the 1.1-mile Zion–Mount Carmel Tunnel, which connects visitors from Zion to Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon.