When it comes to stunning desert landscapes, southern Utah can’t be beat. Here you can stare up at seemingly impossible archways of stone. Wander between rising pillars of rock. Wade through dizzying slot canyons. And hike atop dramatic cliffs overlooking rivers meandering through otherworldly landscapes. The Mighty 5 in Utah is quite possibly one of the best collections of national parks in the country.
These famous parks include Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. The favorable proximity of these parks gives visitors the opportunity to combine all five into one glorious road trip. The Mighty 5 in Utah!
But which activities is each park known for? Plus, when should you go and in what order? To help you plan your trip to Utah’s national parks, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide to the Mighty 5—and more! Below you’ll find an overview of the Mighty 5, plus links to in-depth articles about each national park and nearby highlights like national monuments, recreation areas, and state parks. Because the more you know when planning your Utah vacation, the more fun you’ll have once you’re there!
When to visit the Utah Mighty 5
The majority of visitors tour around the Mighty 5 during summer vacation. During this peak season, the temperatures are hot, the sun is bright, and the parks can be very crowded. As a result of the intense heat, hikers should limit themselves to shorter hikes during early morning hours when temperatures are lower. Bring lots of sun protection and water. Breaking up this intense heat, summer monsoon season runs from roughly July through mid-September, when sudden and possibly violent afternoon thunderstorms are possible.
Instead of summer, consider visiting the Mighty 5 during the offseason. Spring and fall have milder temperatures and are somewhat less crowded. Plus, the cooler temps mean you can hike much further distances. In recent years, as the parks have grown in popularity, winter has emerged as an alternative season for visiting. While the temps are cold, and snow is possible, the parks have a quieter less crowded feel.
How to tour the Mighty 5
Most people visit the Mighty 5 from southwest to the northeast or vice versa. If you’re coming from the west, or the Las Vegas area, consider going Zion to Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef to Arches and Canyonlands. If you’re coming from the east on I-70, including Colorado, consider reversing the above order. Some road trippers create loops or bigger trips by combining non-Mighty 5 sites near these national parks and in other neighboring states, like Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and more.
Because of the rugged landscape and limited nature of the highways in Utah, there’s no direct route for visiting all five parks. You’ll have to travel around a few geographic obstacles using two-lane state highways. Keep in mind that, along the way, there are other attractions like national monuments, national recreation areas, and state parks worth visiting. While visiting Arches and Canyonlands, consider stopping at other attractions in southeastern Utah. While visiting Zion and Bryce, consider further stops in southwestern Utah. And detouring to northern Utah reveals plenty more excellent destinations.
How much time is needed to visit the Mighty 5?
This really depends on how often you want to hike and have adventures outside of your car. For check-the-box bucket listers speeding from park to park, you could cover the Mighty 5 in one whirlwind week. But most people will go more slowly, making stops other than the Mighty 5 and having hiking, biking, or water adventures along the way. For those taking their time, it’s best to budget two to three weeks. You can easily fill that time with additional stops in northern Utah, southeastern Utah, and southwestern Utah. In fact, with so many awesome destinations in the region, there’s no way you can see it all in one trip.
Where to stay
Most visitors to the Mighty 5 stay in hotels in communities outside the national parks. Two of the parks included here, Zion and Bryce Canyon, have lodges inside the park boundaries. Other visitors choose to camp, but it’s important to note that park campgrounds are typically very popular and often fill up each night during high season. Some accept reservations while others are first come, first served. An increasingly popular alternative is glamping, short for glamour camping, typically in established canvas tents or yurts. For more information on lodging, Utah glamping, and camping, please see the individual posts for each park, below.
Arches National Park
Located near the town of Moab, in southeastern Utah, Arches National Park offers exactly what the name suggests: thousands of stone arches of all shapes and sizes. The highlights include driving the scenic drive, stopping at viewpoints, and hiking shorter trails (1-3 miles) to the park’s famous arches.
Most visitors will find that they can explore this park in a half-day or full-day trip. But the area has plenty more worthy destinations, including nearby Canyonlands National Park, the La Sal Mountains, the Colorado River, and other attractions. Learn more about Arches N.P. here!
Canyonlands National Park
The least-visited national park in Utah is also the biggest and most diverse of the Mighty 5. The park is divided into three districts, with most visitation occurring at Island in the Sky, near Moab. The highlights at this northernmost district includes driving to viewpoints and short hikes to a series of remarkable rock formations. Another highlight is driving the famous White Rim Road, a 100-mile four-wheel-drive loop. With the exception of the White Rim Road, which takes most people several days to traverse, most visitors can see Island in the Sky during a half-day or full-day visit.
The park’s southeastern district, the Needles, is known for longer and more challenging hikes through backcountry rock formations. Visitors typically take a full day or more to explore this district. Learn more about Canyonlands N.P. here!
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef is known for the Water Pocket Fold, a linear geologic feature filled with slot canyons, cliffs, and rock domes. The highlights of this park include driving the scenic drive, hiking short trails, and visiting the Fruita Historic District. Most visitors can see Capitol Reef in a half-day to full-day visit. Learn more about Capitol Reef N.P. here!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Located at a higher elevation than the other Mighty 5 parks, the temperatures at Bryce Canyon are milder during the peak summer season, when lower elevation parks are sweltering. The highlight here is viewing or hiking through the hoodoos in Bryce Amphitheater. The park is filled with a variety of shorter and longer hikes. Most visitors will be satisfied with a full-day visit to the park, but the park and surrounding area could easily fill two days. Learn more about Bryce Canyon N.P. here!
Zion National Park
The most popular of the Mighty 5 national parks, Zion sees about 4.5 million visitors every year. The hub of activity is the amazing Zion Canyon, where visitors will find a series of shorter and longer day hikes. Two of the most famous hikes are the Zion Narrows and Angel’s Landing. Many visitors come to Zion for just a single day, but others stay longer and find that in two full days they come away with a better grasp of the park’s offerings. Learn more about Zion N.P. here!
National Parks Pass
Given that the average entrance fee for the Mighty 5 National Parks is around $30 each, it makes sense to consider getting a National Parks Pass. Officially known by the cumbersome name America the Beautiful-The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Annual Pass, a National Parks Pass costs $80 and allows entry for one private vehicle to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including all NPS units. Basically, if you plan to visit three or more national parks or monuments, the pass pays for itself.
What to see: Landscape, wildlife, and vegetation
One of the biggest attractions at the Mighty 5 national parks is the pristine desert landscape. In addition, the Mighty 5 have some of the most unique geology in the national park system. Each park is known for its own particular geologic formations, discussed in our in-depth blog posts, linked above. In general, the Mighty 5 parks fall within the Colorado Plateau, a geologic region known for high deserts and colorful sedimentary rock layers.
Throughout the Mighty 5, visitors should keep watch for certain desert animals and plants. One favorite animal to spot is the desert bighorn sheep, once endangered but now tentatively recovering. Bighorns, of course, are known for their large round horns and are commonly seen scaling mountains and riverside cliffs. Other common animals include mule deer, desert cottontails, and kangaroo rats.
Vegetation among the Mighty 5 parks is surprisingly diverse. At lower elevations, expect arid grasses and desert shrublands. Also plentiful are cactuses and desert succulents, including prickly pear, claret cup, yucca, and ocotillo. Cottonwoods often dominate river and creek bottoms. As you move to medium elevations, pinyon-juniper forests appear. While at higher elevations, you see aspens and pine forest.
We hope you have found these tips helpful for planning your ultimate national parks vacation to Utah’s Mighty 5! If you’ve already visited some or all of the Mighty 5 national parks, we’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below!
Cover photo: The Monoliths at Arches National Park. NPS/Neal Herbert