If you like exploring the great outdoors and photography, you’ll love Utah. Whether you’re visiting in summer, fall, winter, or spring, you’ll be held spellbound by the iconic Mighty Five in Southern Utah.
A road trip through the Mighty Five National Parks (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Zion) will let you capture the beauty of the red rocks, spires, arches, rivers, canyons and opportunities to see wildlife too.
Trippy user Lise, an avid photographer, needed suggestions when she was planning her road trip to Utah with friends. This was her question:
I’m planning a trip with my best friend shortly to Utah, so this would be a girl’s trip. I usually travel out of the country but now want to visit part of the U.S. Have always heard how beautiful Utah was and had heard the 4 corners is a must-see. I would like to know the best places to visit for beauty as I am an avid photographer. I would be renting a car once we flew in. This would be at least a week’s trip, so I want to see as much as possible. Can you visit the Mormon church and hear the choir? What is the best time to visit to avoid crowds and have good weather? Any input would be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance.
These tips and an 11-day itinerary will help you get the most of your road trip through the Mighty Five.
Best time to visit Southern Utah
I’m assuming you’re going during the ideal time, which is late Spring, Summer, or early Fall. Peak season is basically May 1 to September 30. For photography, you want to arrive early or stay late to get the best lighting.
June, July, and August may be too hot, but late April to May and mid-September to the end of October would be ideal if you prefer cooler weather.
Decide how long to stay in each park and where to start
You’ll need at least two days in each park, but if you don’t have much time on your hands, try to allocate according to your interests. Photographers who want to capture the best photos will need to plan sunrise and sunset photography sessions. Those who like hiking, mountain biking, canyoneering, and white water rafting will need to decide which activities are on the top of their list of things to do in Utah.
As for the starting point, we like to start from Salt Lake City, ending the trip in Las Vegas. And Keith, one of Trippy’s users thought so too:
Question by Nick in New Jersey:
I am trying to visit the Utah National Parks in late November of this year. Can you provide any tips regarding the best way to travel through all the big five parks? Which airport is the best to fly into (I’ll be departing from PHL or NYC), and which side of the state you think is best to start from and end in?
Hey Nick, I’d advise you to start in Arches National Park to Canyonlands National Park, then move your way down to Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and then finally Zion National Park.
Highlights of the Mighty Five National Parks
Arches National Park
Located 231 miles southeast of Salt Lake City and just five miles north of Moab, Arches National Park has over 2,000 arches, the largest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. Besides the towering arches, you’ll see the sandstone fins, towers, balanced rocks, gargoyles, ribs, and hoodoos.
Arches is open year-round and here are the highlights of best activities to do there:
- Hiking – Delicate Arch trail is the most famous and easy hike. There are longer hikes like Tower Arch, and the most difficult is Devils Garden Primitive Loop
- Scenic drive – check out the 1.5, 3, and 4.5-hour drives
Read more about Arches National Park at VisitUtah.
Where to stay: Moab is the closest town, and you can find numerous hotels there. Check out Sunflower Hill Inn and Red Cliffs Lodge.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is where Colorado and Green Rivers meet, creating hundreds of deep canyons, cliffs, mesas, and pinnacles. This 340,000-acre park is divided into four districts – The Rivers, The Maze, Island in the Sky, and The Needles. The most iconic landform in Canyonlands is Mesa Arch that perches on a cliff edge, offering views of the canyons and the La Sal Mountains.
Things to do in Canyonlands:
- Sunrise photography, especially at Mesa Arch
- Hiking – there are hundreds of trails, but not to be missed is the hike to Mesa Arch (0.5 miles) in Island in the Sky district. The popular trails are on Island in the Sky and The Needles. Both districts are not inter-connected, and you’ll need around two hours to go from Island in the Sky to The Needles.
Where to stay: Canyonlands is only around a 30-minute drive from Arches. It’s best to stay at the same accommodation in Moab if you’re visiting both national parks. Trippy user Stanley said:
Since you have time, go to the Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. If you can camp overnight, you can get some great shots of the stars at night.
Capitol Reef National Park
Little known Capitol Reef National Park was once a Mormon settlement, and the best way to enjoy the park is to take the 22-mile scenic drive (16 miles on paved and six miles on graded dirt roads). History buffs should check out the Pioneer Register site to see the names of miners and settlers in that region.
Top things to do in Capitol Reef:
- Take the 7.9-mile scenic drive paved road and two dirt roads, Grand Wash and or Capitol Gorge, that will lead you to canyons and trailheads. Hike to see Moenkopi Formation, Waterpocket Fold, Cassidy Arch, and more.
- Visit Pioneer Register and Fruita
- Canyoneering on the Colorado Plateau
Where to stay: Consider staying at one of the hotels in Torrey, a town located eight miles from the entrance of Capitol Reef National Park.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Sitting at 8,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation, Bryce Canyon National Park offers an alpine environment with a series of natural amphitheaters carved into the edge of the canyons. It has the highest number of hoodoos in the world. The views, shapes, and colors of this park are otherworldly and magical, whether you’re there in summer or winter.
Things to do in summer and winter:
- Photography during sunrise and sunset
- Hiking – the easy Rim Trail and backpacking excursion on the Under the Rim Trail.
- Horseback riding
- Cross country skiing in winter
- Snowshoeing in winter
Where to stay: Check out the Lodge at Bryce Canyon. Anne recommended:
Bryce……the national campground closes with the first snow. Be sure and check with them. Ruby’s Inn Best Western Plus is the only game in town. It is reasonable and very acceptable.
Zion National Park
We were in Zion National Park two months ago. Just be aware..so you are not surprised… That after a specific date in May (it may be seriously soon), no private vehicles are allowed past the visitors center. You have to park and ride the national park’s busses. In addition to the national park’s busses you have to park and board to enter the park, there are many tour busses who come fully loaded. And the locals tell us that there is seriously not enough parking at the visitors center and people are parking all over Springdale during the popular months. also…and this was a disappointment to us..as beautiful as the park is, the gorgeous pictures you see are from hikes that are long and strenuous and not accessible for everyone, especially for someone with limited time.
Watch this video put out by NPS with essential tips for visiting Zion:
Things to do in Zion:
- Hiking in Zion requires planning in advance, according to NPS.
- Cycling on Par’us Trail
- Backpacking (you’ll need a backpacking permit)
- Horseback riding
Places to stay: Springdale is the closest town to Zion. Anne recommended:
Zion……be sure and check on the campground availability there also. The town of Springdale has several hotels that stay open most of the year. Be aware that many restaurants, shops, etc., in this area close in October.
Day 1 Arrive in Salt Lake City
Day 2 Head out to Arches National Park, 4 nights stay at Moab
Day 3 Visit Arches National Park
Day 4 Visit Canyonlands National Park
Day 5 Another day at either Arches or Canyonlands
Day 6 Drive to Capitol Reef National Park. Overnight in Torrey
Day 7 Visit Capitol Reef National Park and drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. 2 nights at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon.
Day 8 Visit Bryce Canyon.
Day 9 Drive to Zion National Park. Stay 2 nights in Springdale.
Day 10 Visit Zion National Park
Day 11 Drive to Las Vegas, fly home
You can adjust the itinerary according to the number of days you have. Ideally, it’s best to have at least a 14-day road trip to see more of The Mighty Five.