Adventure

In Utah You Can Visit 5 National Parks In Less Than A Week

It would take months – maybe even years – to explore all 58 national parks in the United States. If you don’t have that kind of time but still want a taste of what the country’s national parks have to offer, then Utah’s the place to go.

Home to five national parks – the so-called Mighty 5 – Utah is the place for a whirlwind tour of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. Here’s how to hit the highway and explore.

#vanlife 

 

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The best way to do this trip is to hire a campervan and spend the week roughing it in the national parks. Campsites are from US$20 to $30 (AU$28 to $42) per night. If you’re on a budget, you can check out Free Campsites for no-frills campgrounds, usually without running water or bathroom facilities.

If you prefer to sleep in a nice, comfy bed, rent a car instead. There are plenty of hotels near each park. Warning: if you’re travelling in spring, summer or autumn, book your hotels and campsites as soon as possible because they can sell out up to six months in advance.

Top tip: Get yourself an America the Beautiful Pass to save money on national park entry fees. It’s valid for a year and allows entry into every national park in the United States.

Hit the road

 

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From Los Angeles or San Francisco, you can fly to Salt Lake City, Utah’s capital, to begin your journey. Or, if you’re up for a little more fun, fly into Las Vegas and rent a van there. It’s only about three and a half hours to Zion National Park from the City of Lights.

Days one and two: Zion National Park

 

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Utah’s first-ever national park, Zion is also one of the busiest, with more than 4.5 million visitors each year. But don’t let that deter you.

Brave the hike up Angel’s Landing, a 1500-foot rock formation. The last section of the trail is a narrow spine barely wide enough for two people to pass each other. If you make it to the top, the views are dizzyingly spectacular.

If you’d rather stay at ground level, tackle the no-less-challenging Narrows hike. On this trail you’re walking in the canyon, sloshing through icy water that’s knee high at times. Come prepared with shoes with a good grip and a stick to keep your balance.

Day three: Bryce Canyon National Park

 

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The drive from Zion to Bryce Canyon is only an hour and a half, but you’ll be amazed at how quickly the landscape changes. The red rocks of Zion give way to the soaring orange and gold-hued hoodoos for which Bryce Canyon is famed. These spires are the result of hundreds of years of erosion.

Weave your way through thousands of hoodoos and into the park’s natural amphitheatre on the 4.6-kilometre Navajo Loop / Queen’s Garden trail. You’ll even pass Thor’s Hammer, an eroded rock that resembles Chris Hemsworth’s weapon of choice, perched precariously on a hoodoo.

It’s easy to get lost here – lost in the beauty of the park and lost geographically as well. It’s no surprise the 19th Century pioneer for whom Bryce Canyon is named described it as “a hell of a place to lose a cow”.

Day four: Monument Valley

 

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After all that hiking in Utah, take a detour into Arizona to snap some pics that will up your Insta game dramatically. Head to the town of Page to perch on the edge of Horseshoe Bend, where the waters of the Colorado River snake around a tight curve 300 metres below.

A few hours away is Monument Valley, familiar if you’ve watched any Western movie ever. A sunset drive through the valley, which is located on Navajo tribal land, is the perfect time to snap some photos of the massive hills with flat tops that are shaped like mittens and elephants.

This part of the country also has long, straight stretches of road – perfect for a classic road jumping photo or two. At mile marker 13 on Highway 163 is the spot where Forrest Gump stopped his long run and decided he was turning around to go home. But keep an eye out: it’s not clearly marked and pretty easy to miss.

Day five: Arches National Park

 

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Back in Utah, base yourself for two nights in Moab, a small town of 5,000 conveniently located close to the next two national parks on the journey, Arches and Canyonlands. It’s a hub for adventure, featuring mountain biking, rafting and kayaking.

Start at Arches National Park, 300 million years in the making, and explore more than 2,000 beautiful sandstone arches that dot the park.

Delicate Arch is the ideal trail to tackle. A slow but steady slog up exposed rock rewards you with the park’s most picturesque scene, an 18-metre arch that is featured on the Utah license plate.

Day six: Canyonlands National Park

 

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Remember that image of the sun rising through a sandstone arch on your Windows 7 desktop? You can see it in person at Canyonlands.

Most people arrive here in the wee hours of the morning to catch the sunrise at Mesa Arch. But if you prefer to sleep in, you’ll probably have the arch to yourself later in the day, just as the sun is starting to sink into the horizon.

Day seven: Capitol Reef National Park and onward

 

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The most overlooked national park in Utah, Capitol Reef is also the smallest of the state’s Mighty 5. There are some good hikes here that wind through the hills that Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch once used as a hideout.

And the best part is you can end your hike with a homemade peach pie at the historic Gifford homestead, built in the early 1900s by Mormon settlers.

And that’s how you can see five US national parks in a week. From here, head back to Salt Lake City to drop off your vehicle and fly out to your next destination – or keep the van and continue the road trip.

(Lead image: Lauren Pandolfi / Unsplash)