Utah is home to five of the country’s 59 national parks: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Zion and Bryce Canyon. While all of the parks showcase Utah’s famous red rocks and offer miles of hiking trails, each one has unique geological features and areas to explore. It is possible to do the full circuit in one trip or you can split them in two: Zion and Bryce (also easy to add on the Grand Canyon as these parks are both in Southern Utah) and Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef. For this trip we chose to do the latter route, round trip from Salt Lake City.
CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
Capitol Reef National Park is located about a 3.5 hours’ drive south from Salt Lake City and is the least visited of all of Utah’s parks. Originally called “Wayne Wonderland” (after its location in Wayne County), the name was changed in 1937 when the area was designated a National Monument. The dome-like rock structures in the park are said to be reminiscent of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., while the park’s key geological feature – the Waterpocket Fold – is evocative of a coral reef, hence the unique name.
Officially established as a National Park in 1971, Capitol Reef encompasses 241,904 acres of canyons, towers, domes, and arches. The Fremont River running through a portion of the park also made the area particularly hospitable for early settlement. Evidence of Native Americans can be seen in the petroglyphs etched into rocks, while early Mormon settlers left behind bountiful fruit orchards that are still in use today.
Where to Stay
Located just one mile from the main park entrance, Capitol Reef Resort offers a variety of lodging options, from traditional rooms and cabins, to converted Conestoga wagons and teepees. We chose to stay in a teepee for the novelty factor and it was definitely a fun, once-in-a-lifetime experience, albeit a bit chilly at night. The teepees offer all of the luxuries of a regular hotel room, with King-sized beds and flat screen TVs, as well as private bathrooms nearby.
They are also centered around a campfire with Adirondack chairs, perfect for watching the sunset or stargazing at night. Further resort amenities include a swimming pool, hot tub, dining room, horseback riding excursions and llama adventures.
Exploring the Park
I always recommend stopping at the Visitor’s Center for additional information prior to starting your day. The rangers can provide hiking suggestions and notify you of any road or trail closures. The Visitor’s Center also typically has small educational exhibits about the key features and historical development of that particular park. For this trip, I also downloaded the REI National Parks Guide App, which was extremely helpful for researching recommended hikes. Here are a few of the highlights from our full day at Capitol Reef:
- Cassidy Arch – Named after Butch Cassidy who was rumored to have hid out in the nearby canyons, the Cassidy Arch trail is a strenuous 3.4 mile out-and-back leading to a spectacular arch. This was the only arch we visited during our trip that you are actually allowed to walk across, and we even saw a group rappelling down through it.
- Hickman Natural Bridge – This 2 mile, moderate out-and-back trail also heads to a natural arch and is very popular.
- Fruita orchards – As mentioned above, the small town of Fruita located near the Visitor’s Center was settled by Mormons in the late 1800’s. The pioneer community planted about two dozen orchards which are still bountiful today. Visitors to the park are welcome to visit any of the orchards and pick fruit (for free to eat in the park or for a small price to take home).
- Petroglyphs – Driving back towards the Visitor’s Center from Hickman Bridge, there is a small boardwalk area where you can view several Native American petroglyphs carved along the Fremont River.
- Gifford Homestead – The Gifford House dates to 1908 and currently operates as a small museum and gift shop. Don’t miss the homemade pies and ice cream – perfect for a mid-afternoon snack after a long day of hiking.
- Scenic Drive – If you’re limited on time or your feet hurt after miles of hiking, the Scenic Drive is an easy way to see much of the park’s impressive geology from the comfort of your car, with scenic viewpoints along the way.
- Goosenecks Overlook – Less than half a mile round-trip, the Goosenecks trail leads to a scenic overlook of Sulphur Creek Canyon.
Where to Eat
The Pioneer Kitchen at Capitol Reef Resort offers affordable comfort food for an easy dinner option. For more of a night out, venture 10 minutes down the road into the nearby “town” of Torrey and grab a table at Cafe Diablo, well known for its exotic meats and Southwestern fusion cuisine.
Moab, Utah is one of the primary adventure centers of the Southwest. A mecca for mountain-bikers and off-roaders alike, the town is also home base for visitors to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. From Capitol Reef, it’s about a 2.5 hour drive to Moab. If you have time along the way, its worth stopping at Goblin Valley State Park, although it was raining the day we made the trip so we skipped this.
Where to Stay
As a huge fan of glamping (glamorous camping), which I feel offers the perfect blend of nature and luxury, I’ve been very anxious to stay at one of the Under Canvas properties that have popped up in the past few years. While the brand now has a portfolio of 6 camps (all located in close proximity to major National Parks), Under Canvas Moab is one of the original sites. The location is ideal – a 5 minute drive to the entrance of Arches and a 30 minute drive to Canyonlands. The property offers several accommodation options, from the most basic “Safari” tent to the “Deluxe” tents or Suites with adjacent tipis (great for families).
The Safari tent is the most affordable option and includes a King-sized bed, a dresser, table and chairs, side tables with solar-powered lanterns, and a wood-burning stove to keep you warm on chilly nights. Those staying in the Safari tents share a “communal bathhouse” – basically a nearby trailer with individual bathroom stalls that include a shower, toilet and sink. While the bathroom is by no means luxurious, it does provide hot showers and flushing toilets. The Deluxe or Suite tents offer en-suite camp-style bathrooms if your prefer a more private option.
The camp offers breakfast and lunch food for purchase that can be ordered in advance. For dinner, there are grills and picnic areas where you can cook on your own or, alternatively, you can drive 10 minutes into Moab and check out the dining options there. Every night the camp staff lights the campfire and sets out chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers so you can enjoy some fire-roasted s’mores before bed.
For a more luxurious option, the nearby Sorrel River Ranch is set in a picturesque clearing along the Colorado River. Guests enjoy studio or suite-style cabins, beautifully-decorated in warm woods and Southwestern textiles. In the morning, you can wake up to the sunrise from your private porch swing, then enjoy a plethora of activities, including a pool, spa, tennis, petting zoo, and lawn games, before relaxing river-side with a glass of wine. We opted for 4 nights of glamping with a splurge at the end at Sorrel River.
Adventures Around Town
Aside from visiting the National Parks, numerous adventure operators, like the Moab Adventure Center, offer a variety of activities and excursions.
- Hot Air Ballooning – Every morning at sunrise, Canyonlands Ballooning soars above the canyons and red rocks of Moab. As the only operator in town, you’ll have the sky to yourself with a bird’s eye view of the area’s unique topography.
- Rafting on the Colorado River – This section of the river is a bit more relaxed than the portion through the Grand Canyon, but the Class 1, 2 and 3 rapids are still a blast and the position on the water offers a unique perspective on the breathtaking scenery.
- Hiking Corona Arch – There are other hiking options around Moab located outside of the national parks and one of the most popular trails is the 3 mile out-and-back to Corona Arch and Bowtie Arch. This is a fun trail with ladders and ropes and the arch at the end is massive and stunning.
- Wine Tasting at Castle Creek Winery – An award-winning winery just minutes from Moab; visit the tasting room for $1 tastings (of up to three wines).
Where to Eat
- Love Muffin Cafe – Open every day from 6:30 am – 1 pm, this is perfect for a quick breakfast before setting off on an adventure. The breakfast sandwiches, burritos and vegan muffins are all to die for.
- Jailhouse Cafe – Another great breakfast spot, the cafe is located in the original town courthouse (hence the name). Try the ginger pancakes with apple butter.
- Moab Brewery – The food is decent but the bigger draw is the microbrews, all of which are made locally and have fun names like Porcupine Pilsner. The Dead Horse Ale is a fan favorite.
- Quesadilla Mobilla – Despite being a food truck, the mobilla has a permanent location in town with tables out front to enjoy your quesadilla (or take it back to camp for a casual dinner).
- Desert Bistro – A more upscale option for dinner, the menu encompasses the adventurous spirit of Moab with a fun approach to traditional items, like “Crab Muffins,” a play on crab cakes.
- The River Grill – Located at the Sorrel River Ranch, the chefs here take a farm-to-table approach, featuring fruits and vegetables from the Ranch gardens.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Canyonlands is a bit unique in that it is split into three separate districts: Island in the Sky, The Maze, and The Needles, and unfortunately, it’s not easy to travel from one section to the next. From Moab, the most accessible is Island in the Sky and thus this is the most visited district. Established as a National Park in 1964, Canyonlands encompasses 337,598 acres.
Exploring Island in the Sky
The longer hikes here were less enticing, so we opted for a bunch of shorter hikes instead. Each one had something unique to offer, whether in trail features or rock formation.
- Upheaval Dome – If you hike to both scenic overlooks, the trail is just under 2 miles roundtrip. The main feature of the trail is an enormous crater with rocks pushed up in the center. This geological anomaly has puzzled scientists and two possible theories of formation are presented.
- Aztec Butte – This was my favorite hike in Canyonlands. At 2 miles round trip, it’s relatively strenuous with some serious rock scrambles. But hikers are rewarded with spectacular views from atop the mesa and close-ups of ancient Native American granaries.
- Whale Rock – A moderate 1-mile roundtrip hike up Whale Rock, which is said to look like a beached whale, but is really a rounded sandstone fin.
- Grand View Point – An easy 2-mile out-and-back trail with stunning panoramic views along the cliff edge.
- Mesa Arch – A must-see for all Canyonlands visitors, this 0.5-mile loop to Mesa Arch is particularly popular at sunrise.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
Arches National Park is definitely the most popular of the three mentioned here and there can be lines to enter the park during peak hours. Established as a National Monument in 1929 and later re-designated a National Park in 1971, the 76,679 acre park is home to over 2,000 natural arches! The geology of the area is a result of layers of sandstone deposited atop an underground salt bed. The variation in the durability of sediment combined with the arid climate has created a rock wonderland where arches, fins, and monoliths abound.
- Delicate Arch – This 3 mile out-and-back is one of the most famous hikes in Arches as it leads to the iconic Delicate Arch, featured on the Utah license plate. The trail passes Wolfe Ranch (an old homestead) and some Native American petroglyphs before climbing to the 60-foot spectacle. Just before reaching the end of the trail, scramble up to Frame Arch for a picture-perfect shot of Delicate Arch.
- Devil’s Garden Full Lollipop – The Devil’s Garden full lollipop heads out to Landscape Arch then loops around with offshoot stops to several other arches, before returning back along the Main Trail (creating a lollipop shape). If you do the full hike with every side-trail, it’s about 8-9 miles and takes you to: Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Wall Arch, Double O Arch, Dark Angel, and Private Arch. This is a moderately strenuous but incredibly fun trail.
- Skyline Arch – A quick 0.4 mile, easy roundtrip hike to Skyline Arch. You can scramble up the rock into the arch for a closer look.
- Sand Dune Arch + Broken Arch Loop – From the parking lot, you take a short detour between fins to a secluded sandy area where you can view Sand Dune Arch. Continuing along the trail, you’ll come to Broken Arch and Tapestry Arch before looping back to the trailhead.
- The Windows – This easy 1 mile roundtrip trail (or slightly longer if you take the “Primitive Trail” on the return) takes you to North Window, South Window and Turret Arch.
- Double Arch – From The Windows parking lot, this 0.5 mile roundtrip trail takes you to a double arch.
- Balanced Rock – A short 0.3 mile roundtrip “trail” gives you an up close view of Balanced Rock.
SALT LAKE CITY
From Moab, it’s about a 4 hour drive back to Salt Lake City for the return flight. Given the distance, we spent one night in Salt Lake City and flew out the next day. While we didn’t have a ton of time in Salt Lake, it’s a nice city and definitely worth exploring. We stayed at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco downtown and spent the afternoon walking around downtown and checking out the impressive Temple Square, home to the Mormon Church.
WHEN TO VISIT
While these National Parks are open year-round, the best times to visit are April – October, with the summer months being the most popular (yet hottest). Late spring and early fall are ideal for cooler temperatures and fewer crowds.
- Buy good hiking shoes – Many of the trails feature scrambles over slick rock. Wearing hiking shoes with a good grip is key.
- Bring lots of water – Most of the time, water is only available at the park entrances. The heat and dry weather, combined with strenuous hiking make it essential to bring adequate amounts of water with you for the day.
- Pack snacks – There are no cafes within the parks either, so be sure to pack fruit, nuts, and bars to snack on between hikes.
- Buy the Annual Park Pass – Available at any Visitor Center, the annual pass costs $80 and allows for unlimited visits to any of the 59 National Parks, plus the other National Monuments and landmarks operated by the Park Service. If you’re visiting a couple of parks on a trip such as this, its well worth it to buy the annual pass.