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10 Days, 5 Natural Wonders

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Exploring Utah’s Grand Circle in less than two weeks

By Kay Kirchner

Photo courtesy of the Utah Office of Tourism.
Photo courtesy of the Utah Office of Tourism.

Sometimes, more is more. When it comes to stunning natural beauty, we’ll take as much as we can, please. Which is why Utah’s Mighty Five is at the top of our list of favorite destinations.

Home to five of the country’s most spectacular national parks — Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands — the region is part of the Colorado Plateau, a 130,000-square-mile area of sculpted rock that crosses Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. The rocky terrain, carved over a billion years of erosion, is characterized by dramatic landscapes of deep canyons, plateaus, mesas — and miles and miles of brilliantly colored rock.

Here’s how to hit them all in 10 days or less — and the must-snap moments to capture while you’re there.

Looking out over Zion. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
Looking out over Zion. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
Start here: Zion National Park

Zion National Park, located in the southwestern corner of Utah, is the most popular of the five —for good reason. It is home to more than 229 square miles of jaw-dropping Navajo sandstone rock formations and miles of hiking trails that can accommodate everyone from small children and grandparents to the most experienced wilderness hikers. Zion’s rugged slot canyons are among the best on Earth and attract rock climbers from around the world.

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Don’t miss the Narrows, a 16-mile hike in the Virgin River surrounded by 2,000-foot canyon walls on either side. Free shuttle buses run inside the park (no cars allowed) every 10 minutes to take you from one trailhead to the next.

Where to stay

There is a multi-use campground and Zion Lodge inside the park. While they are in the heart of all the activities, they book months in advance. Nearby Springdale is home to a variety of lodging options, outfitters, restaurants and shops.

A view of Bryce Canyon after a light snowfall. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
A view of Bryce Canyon after a light snowfall. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
Then head here: Bryce

Bryce Canyon is an hour-and-half north of Zion on Scenic Byway 12. Unlike Zion’s sturdy and majestic rock formations, Bryce is a 6-square-mile bowl or amphitheater of delicate orange limestone spires called hoodoos, arches, knobs and fins carved during millions of years of erosion.

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The Navajo/Queen’s Garden Loop Trail, which descends 500 feet below ground level. It’s relatively easy to hike down, but ascending requires frequent stops to catch your breath, rest your legs and take in the views. For a more relaxing outing, drive the 18-mile main park road that offers 13 scenic overlooks of the park’s most spectacular formations.

Where to stay

Bryce also has a historic lodge and campgrounds nestled in the middle of the park, but they fill well in advance. The Best Western Ruby’s Inn is just minutes from the park’s entrance, and is home to more than 383 hotel rooms, post office, grocery store, laundromat, hair salon, restaurant, pool and gift -shop.

A view from the Rim Overlook. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
A view from the rim, overlooking the orchards of Fruita near Capitol Reef. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
Next up: Capitol Reef

Continuing 116 miles northeast on Scenic Byway 12 from Bryce Canyon, you’ll end up at Capitol Reef, which is known for its Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long crease in the earth made up of a rainbow of colors. There are more than a dozen hiking trails ranging from easy to difficult that are devoid of the crowds you find at Zion and Bryce. At the base of the towering rock formation is the Fruita Historic District, a 19th-century Mormon settlement. Take a break from hiking and fuel up with fresh fruit: Fruita is filled with orchards of pears, apples, apricots and peaches that the Park Service allows you to pick and eat for free during harvest season (June through August).

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The historic (and adorable) Gifford Farmhouse sits among the orchards and sells delicious home-baked pies, jams and preserves made with the fruit harvested from the orchards.

Where to stay

Capitol Reef has a limited number of campsites inside the park among the fruit orchards. The small-but-charming town of Torrey, however, is only 15 minutes away and offers lodging and restaurants.

The infamous Delicate Arch. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
The infamous Delicate Arch. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
Continue on to: Arches

Travel another 150 miles northeast of Capitol Reef to Arches National Park, which is aptly named — with more than 2,500 arches, it is the largest collection of arched rock formations in the world. It is also the Disneyland of the Mighty Five, so expect crowds. There are hikes for all ages; however, some of the more popular hikes like Delicate Arch, Devil’s Garden and Fiery Furnace are not for the faint-hearted.

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Delicate Arch and Devil’s Garden are long treks that sport precipitous drops and steep inclines, but the views are worth it. The guided Fiery Furnace hike books months in advance, so plan accordingly.

Where to stay

Arches National Park has some beautiful campsites inside the park, but again you have to reserve them well in advance. Nearby Moab offers some great Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campsites along the Colorado River on Hwy 128. These campsites cannot be reserved in advance, so it is best to get there before noon on a Friday to secure a spot for the weekend. There are even campgrounds in the town of Moab, however most of them are overcrowded and unsavory.

The Colorado River, about 2,000 below Dead Horse Point. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
The Colorado River, about 2,000 feet below Dead Horse Point. Photo by Kay Kirchner.
Finish up at: Canyonlands

The largest park in Utah, Canyonlands is divided into two distinct areas: The Island in the Sky to the north and Needles to the south. Adventure along the Shafer Trail, an adrenaline-pumping narrow road of switchbacks and hairpin turns, where the views are incredible. Or ride the 112-mile White Rim Road, a popular — and very challenging — destination for bicyclists.

The Needles sits at the bottom of the canyon, giving visitors a unique view up at the rock spires. Dirt roads and strenuous hikes make the Needles the less traveled of the two areas. Set out to explore the Maze, a tedious 41-mile technical drive on a rugged road that takes up to seven hours one way in a four-wheel drive vehicle.

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Island in the Sky offers amazing viewpoints of the canyon gorge below.

Where to stay

Canyonlands has a handful of in-park campsites, but they are rocky and have little shade. Keep the elements in mind if you plan on camping.

Photo by Kay Kirchner.
Photo by Kay Kirchner.
When to go

Spring and fall are the best seasons to visit the Mighty Five — the weather is nice and the crowds are small. Summer draws the biggest crowds and temps can top 100 degrees, making for less than enjoyable hikes. Early August is monsoon season, so be sure to keep an eye on the sky — heavy rain can mean flash floods.

Temperatures can vary greatly from park to park and season to season. In the spring, the highs can range from 55-75 degrees while nights can be in the 20s in the higher altitudes.

What to bring:
  • Quality hiking shoes. No need to drop a gazillion dollars at REI, but be sure you have a supportive show with a sturdy tread for hiking on rocks and rough surfaces. And save your toenails — break the shoes in before heading out on a long hike.
  • Sunscreen and lip balm. Because the quickest way to ruin a good trip is with a sunburn.
  • A day pack and a quart-sized water bottle. Keep water and a hoodie on you at all times. Depending on the season, you may want to throw in a rain jacket as well.
  • A park pass. If you plan on hitting up all five parks, invest in the $80 pass. Visit nps.gov or pick one up at the park.
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