Situated in the U.S. Southwest, the landlocked state of Utah is a place of contrasting beauty and incredible rock formations. There are five Utah national parks that contain some of its most beautiful landscapes.
While Utah has its fair share of cities, they don’t have the seclusion, wide-open spaces, and clear night skies that the national parks have! Plus, building a vacation around national parks is a great way to travel on a budget.
During a trip to Utah, you can easily visit all five national parks or just a few of them, depending on how long you plan to travel around the state. Each one is unique and offers a range of attractions and activities. So, get ready to immerse yourself in the great outdoors and embark on some epic adventures you won’t soon forget!
Below, all five Utah national parks are outlined with information on things to do and the best places to stay in each.
Zion National Park
Known for the 2,000-foot-deep canyon cutting through it, Zion National Park features red sandstone cliffs, buttes, mesas, mountains, and natural arches that make it the most visited of all Utah national parks. Zion’s location at the crossroads of the Mojave Desert, Colorado Plateau, and Great Basin in southern Utah creates a unique ecosystem where a wide variety of wildlife and plant life thrive.
Things to Do in Zion
One of the best ways to see Zion in all its glory is to take a mini road trip on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, where you’ll find numerous viewpoints and places to dip in the Virgin River.
However, to truly experience Zion, you’ll have to do some hiking. There are trails catering to all ages and abilities. Weeping Rock and Riverside Walk are two short kid-friendly options, while Emerald Pools Trail, Kolob Arch Trail, and Angels Landing offer more of a challenge. Angels Landing has been ranked as one of the top 10 most dangerous hikes in the U.S. and now even requires a permit!
Other attractions in the park include Subway Canyon, Checkerboard Mesa, the Narrows, and Observation Point, though the latter is currently closed due to a landslide. If you want to learn more about the history of Zion, the Human History Museum features exhibits highlighting indigenous culture in the region and pioneer settlements.
The best part about enjoying the abundance of scenic drives, hiking trails, and outdoor activities in Zion National Park is that you can explore for a week for $35.00. However, if you plan to explore other Utah national parks during your vacation, consider purchasing an annual America the Beautiful Pass that allows entry to many national parks across the country for $80.00. Another way to save money is to use the free shuttle that stops at various points of interest in the park.
Where to Stay in Zion
There are two main campgrounds near the entrance of Zion National Park. Zion Lodge is the only formal accommodation inside the park boundaries. Zion Canyon Lodge, Red Rock Cottages, and Zion Wildflower are all great options outside the park. This comprehensive Zion Lodging Guide offers even more ideas on where to stay in the area. If glamping is your style, you can also peruse this Zion National Park Glamping round-up.
Bryce Canyon National Park
With its enormous collection of otherworldly hoodoos, rock formations, and canyons, Bryce Canyon National Park contains everything Utah is best known for. A scenic road passes through the park, where you’ll find 13 viewpoints highlighting its stunning landscapes.
Things to Do in Bryce Canyon
Hiking is a popular activity in Bryce Canyon, and there are many easy trails, including Mossy Cave and Waterfall, Bristlecone Loop, and Queens Garden. In addition, Navajo Loop, Tower Bridge, and the Rim Trail are three great moderate hikes.
Sunset Point, Natural Bridge, Fairyland Point, and Agua Canyon are just a few other must-see attractions in the park. But, come nightfall, the adventure doesn’t stop. Bryce Canyon has one of the darkest skies in the country. So, grab a chair or a blanket, cozy up under the stars, and enjoy the show!
It costs $35.00 per vehicle to enter the park, and the pass is suitable for a week. One of the best ways to save money when exploring Utah’s national parks is to camp as much as possible, and there are two campgrounds in Bryce Canyon. Eating at restaurants also gets expensive, so if you’re on a budget, stop at a supermarket and pack a picnic to take on your adventures.
Where to Stay in Bryce Canyon
There’s only one hotel inside the national park, and that’s The Lodge at Bryce Canyon. However, there are many other great places to stay in nearby towns, including Bryce Pioneer Village, Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn, and Stone Canyon Inn.
Arches National Park
Located just north of Moab, Arches National Park is home to over 2,000 sandstone arches and incredible rock formations rising over the picturesque Colorado Plateau.
Things to Do in Arches National Park
Mountain biking, canyoneering, and rock climbing are all fun activities in this park, but hiking is the most popular. Delicate Arch, Park Avenue, Devil’s Garden, and Landscape Arch are easy to moderate hikes highlighting many of the area’s stunning natural landscapes. If you want to hike to Fiery Furnace Overlook, you’ll need to embark on one of the guided walks offered twice daily during peak season or purchase a permit to tackle it on your own.
Some other highlights in Arches National Park include Balanced Rock, Double Arch, Sand Dune Arch, Garden of Eden, and Petrified Dunes Lookout.
Admission is $30.00 for one week. If you’d like to save money by staying in a tent instead of a hotel, Devils Garden Campground is inside the park. In nearby Moab, you can find a variety of budget eateries, including Quesadilla Mobilla and Moab Diner.
Where to Stay in Arches National Park
Lazy Lizard Hostel in Moab is a great place to spend the night if you want to save without staying in a tent. SpringHill Suites by Marriott Moab, Red Cliffs Lodge, Sorrel River Ranch Resort, and Castle Valley Inn are all hotels nearby, or you can check out this Moab Airbnb Guide for the best self-catering options.
Canyonlands National Park
Stunning rock formations and deep canyons running along the Colorado River characterize Canyonlands National Park. It’s the largest of all five Utah national parks (and one of the least visited), so there are plenty of opportunities to get off the beaten path.
Things to Do in Canyonlands
The most iconic attraction in Canyonlands National Park is the famous flat-topped mesa known as Island in the Sky. The Needles district is a close second. In Horseshoe Canyon, you can also see fascinating indigenous rock carvings over 1,500 years old.
Bikers can’t miss cycling the scenic 100-mile White Rim Road. Calm sections of the Green and Colorado Rivers also attract rafters and kayakers. Hikers can challenge themselves with a hike to the top of Whale Rock. Mesa Arch, Grand View Point, Green River Overlook, Aztec Butte, and Murphy Point are more of the top sights to check out in Canyonlands.
Those up for an adventure can take on The Maze, which is the most remote and difficult to access district in the park.
The fee to enter this park for a week is $30.00 per vehicle. If you plan to explore other parks in the area, consider purchasing the Southeast Utah Parks Pass for $55.00, which will give you access to other national parks and sites, including Arches National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and Natural Bridges. If you’re seeking budget accommodation inside the park, camping is available at The Needles Campground and Island in the Sky Campground.
Where to Stay in Canyonlands
There are many great places to stay near the national park, including Sunflower Hill Inn, which is only a 15-minute drive away. Red Moon Lodge, Hoodoo Moab, and the self-catering Moab Springs Lodge are also nearby.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is the least visited of all Utah National Parks. Situated 11 miles from the town of Torrey in the south-central region, Capitol Reef features a striking mesh of sandstone rock formations and canyons set against a vast desert landscape. As you explore, you’ll learn why it’s called red rock country and gazes in awe at the 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold.
Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park
This park has many hiking trails, and Cassidy Arch, Brimhall Natural Bridge, Strike Valley Overlook, Hickman Bridge, and Frying Pan are the most popular. However, if you prefer to explore from the comfort of your vehicle, there are several scenic drives, too, including Notom-Bullfrog and Cathedral Road.
Alternatively, Gifford Homestead is an old farm with a historic farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, and garden. The on-site shop sells local artwork, quilts, delicious homemade ice cream, and pies. Nearby, you’ll find the old Fruita Schoolhouse that dates to the late 1800s. Finally, head to Panorama Point, where visitors can take in sweeping views of the entire national park.
The fee for one vehicle to enter Capitol Reef National Park is $20.00. Depending on when you’ll be visiting, there are free days throughout the year, so be sure to check the NPS website in advance of your visit. Camping is available in the park at Fruita Campground and if you’re looking to enjoy a meal on a budget, try Slackers Burgers in Torrey.
Where to Stay Near Capitol Reef
Capitol Reef Resort is the closest hotel to the national park, but there are many other options in the nearby town of Torrey, including Red Sands Hotel and Broken Spur Inn & Steakhouse. Lodge at Red River Ranch in Teasdale and Sunglow in Bicknell are also great options nearby.
Other Utah Attractions
While Utah National Parks get all the attention, many other great outdoor attractions are worth visiting.
While planning your Utah road trip, consider adding Goblin Valley State Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to your itinerary.
What is the Best Time of Year to Visit the Utah National Parks?
The best time to visit Utah National Parks is from April to May and from September to October. These months offer ideal temperatures for outdoor exploration as well as fewer crowds.
Jenna is co-founder of Up and Away Media, a site aimed at helping others share the world in a way that generates awareness, piques curiosity, expands reach, and cultivates engagement.