Zion National Park

Need a Break from Civilization? Head for These Utah Destinations

Five exceptional national parks in the southern part of the state offer memorable and varied encounters with nature.

Enter Utah’s Zion National Park just after daybreak and you’ll likely see the sun turn the rockface gold as it inches above the horizon. Massive cliff walls tower above the roadway as it folds back on itself, climbing the mountainside.

There are many ways to explore Zion and Utah's other national parks—Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. You can hike, canoe, kayak, bike, camp, or drive the well-maintained roads that lead to many of the parks' glorious red rock canyons, soaring cliffs, and rushing rivers. Here’s a look at some highlights of these destinations, which Native Americans inhabited as much as 10,000 years ago and Mormons settled in the 1800s.


Zion, in southwestern Utah near the town of Springdale, features reddish and tan-colored sandstone that has been eroded by the North Fork of the Virgin River. Hiking below the steep red cliffs surrounding Zion Canyon is awe-inspiring. There are also slot canyons and several waterfalls to discover.

The park—which fills 229 square miles and features a 15-mile-long, half-mile-deep canyon—consists of two parts: Zion proper and Kolob Canyon. The only connection between the two parts is the Narrows, a long trail leading to the canyon's most distinct characteristic, the impressive freestanding Kolob Arch. 

The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, which opened in 1930, enables access between Springdale and the park's east side. The most notable feature of the highway is its 1.1-mile tunnel, which incorporates six large windows cut through the massive sandstone cliff. The National Park Service offers free shuttle buses to reduce traffic and parking problems. Certain areas are closed to personal vehicles when the shuttles are running.  


Bryce Canyon

After stopping at the Zion Visitor's Center—part museum, part gift shop—head back along Zion-Mount Carmel Highway to Bryce Canyon National Park, an hour and a half away. The park’s namesake, Ebenezer Bryce, arrived here in 1874 and Congress designated the area as a national park in 1928. 

Though Zion and Bryce are relatively close, their landscapes differ dramatically. At every turn, you’ll witness new vistas at Bryce. Red, orange, and white hoodoos tower up to 200 feet into the blue summer sky along the cliff's edge. This park offers the most significant concentration of hoodoos in the world. It also provides stunning sunrise and sunset views, and its dark skies are perfect for stargazing. 

Bryce Canyon isn’t actually a single canyon but a series of natural amphitheaters: Bryce Amphitheater, Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Sunset Point, and Sunrise Point. These destinations are also the entryways to some of the park's most popular trails. Between April and October, a shuttle service operates in the area to reduce congestion. An 18-mile road winds through the park from the only entrance in the north. It passes the plateau rim to its highest elevations of more than 9,000 feet. 

Mainly due to its relatively remote location, the nearly 36,000-acre park attracted just 2.1 million visitors last year compared with Zion National Park at five million and Grand Canyon National Park at 4.5 million. 

Like other national parks, Zion offers several ranger programs, including a daily geology talk, rim walks, an evening program, an astronomy program, and full-moon hikes. Horseback riding is another way to experience Bryce Canyon during summer. 

Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef

Driving through Capitol Reef, you’ll be amazed at how the scenery varies. The park, which had 1.2 million visitors in 2019, encloses a 100-mile-long ridge of rock thrust up from the earth millions of years ago. "Reef" describes the barrier created by the rock and "capitol" refers to several dome-like rock formations that resemble the U.S. Capitol building.

Congress established Capitol Reef in 1971, making it Utah’s youngest national park, but there’s nothing young about the area, where you’ll see petroglyphs etched in rock walls and painted pictographs. 

Everything in the park revolves around a literal wrinkle on the earth that consists of layered sandstone, canyons, and rock formations extending almost 100 miles. The desert landscape—which fills nearly a quarter of a million acres—surrounds you as you drive through the canyons with red-, white-, and tan-streaked rocks on both sides of the road. You’ll see white sandstone domes, towering monoliths, and otherworldly pillars and arches. The only highway is Utah Route 24 but you can also explore the park’s southern regions on long, rough, unpaved roads that go deep into the backcountry. 

Capitol Reef Scenic Drive is a spur off the highway, starting at the visitor center. Stop at the center to learn more about the park and its human history, diverse plant and animal life, and the geology of the Waterpocket Fold. 

Canyon Lands

Canyonlands and Arches

Moab in eastern Utah is a gateway to the red rock wonders of the state—Arches and Canyonlands national parks. In addition to the parks, Moab is home to numerous petroglyphs and dinosaur tracks.

The city, surrounded by stunning rock landscapes, offers a variety of accommodations, restaurants, microbreweries, galleries, and gift shops. It is the perfect place to stay when exploring the two nearby national parks.

Two significant rivers are responsible for carving the Canyonlands region: Colorado and Green. The two rivers merge within the park at a place known as the Confluence. 

The desert landscape of Canyonlands offers towering rock pinnacles that look like prehistoric skyscrapers as well as remote canyons and Native American rock paintings. The Colorado River provides whitewater rapids for rafters and kayakers.

Initially consisting of about 258,000 acres, the Canyonlands National Park was expanded to its present size of nearly 338,000 acres in 1971. Only about 735,000 people visited Canyonlands in 2019, making it the least visited national park in the state. So, you can see the beauty without the crowds. 

Arches National Park, on the other hand, is so popular during spring, summer, and fall that you must have a timed-entry ticket to enter. It is famous for its more than 2,000 reddish-orange sandstone arches. But you'll find other geological wonders, including Balanced Rock, which towers over the desert landscape. 

Bright canary-yellow, white, orange, and blue flowers grow in the red dirt along hiking trails. Narrow passageways open up into breathtakingly beautiful vistas. 

There are more than 73,000 acres of eroded sandstone fins, towers, ribs, gargoyles, and hoodoos. Well-maintained highways offer pull-off areas for photographing the scenery and lead to trailheads for those who crave an even closer look.

Utah's national parks are a wonderland destination for anyone seeking the peace that natural beauty offers. In the 1987 novel Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner wrote, "We simply need that wild country available to us...For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope." You’ll find that reassurance in Utah’s national parks.



Zion National Park Lodge (B+) offers beautiful historic cabins and hotel rooms...The Lodge at Bryce Canyon (A) consists of a lodge, two motels, and rustic cabins...Capitol Reef Resort (A) in Torrey offers accommodations ranging from two-queen-bed guest rooms to two-bedroom cabins and teepee glamping...Radcliffe Moab (A) is the latest addition to Moab's accommodation lineup and is known for accommodating outdoor enthusiasts. 


Kings Landing Bistro (A), in Springdale near Zion, features vegetarian and vegan dishes, seafood, and meat...Rustler's Restaurant (B+), in Tropic near Bryce Canyon, offers excellent food and service in a laid-back atmosphere...Capitol Burger (A), in Torrey, near Capitol Reef, serves American fast food...Il Posto Rosso (A), in Moab, features Mediterranean-inspired dishes...Desert Bistro (A), also in Moab, offers upscale gourmet cuisine with a Southwestern flair. 



The area features four distinct seasons with summer highs in the 90s and winter lows in the 20s.


Depending on the park and time of year, activities include ranger talks, shuttle service, hiking, rafting, kayaking, boating, horseback riding, and helicopter tours.

Getting There:

The closest airport to Zion National Park is the St. George Regional Airport in St. George, Utah. Bryce Canyon Airport, operated by Garfield County, features a 7,400-foot-long, 75-foot wide runway. This airport is also the closest to Capitol Reef National Park at 122 miles. Canyonlands Field Airport in Moab serves Canyonlands and Arches national parks.

What to Know Before You Go:

Arrive at parks early in the day and have passes or tickets ready to show. Be sure to pack comfortable shoes. Even if you are touring by car, you will often follow trails for better photographic angles.

Editor’s Note: The author received complimentary accommodations at Radcliffe Moab but paid all other expenses for her trip to Utah.