Exploring Utah’s Epic National Parks

The Mighty Five
Exploring Utah’s epic national parks

Story and Photos By Brent Allen

For more than 30 years, my wife, Kelley, and I have traveled the world seeking out the best destinations for culture, wildlife, scenic beauty, and adventure. Our travel mantra is to go places we’ve never been. This year, we keyed our adventures on the U.S. National Parks of the West—fitting timing, with 2016 being the National Park Service’s centennial. Utah has promoted their National Parks as the Mighty Five: Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. With wide-open space and an endless supply of beautiful landscapes, you won’t believe the magic of these places until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. Here’s my advice on how to make that happen.

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Capital Reed National Park


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Cattle Drive on the Burr Trail at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

What to Know: The National Park Service offers annual passes for $80 that are good for a calendar year. Basic gate entry passes cost $30 and up, depending on the vehicle size, so this is a deal. Go to nps.gov to purchase. We have found that flights to Las Vegas and car rental rates in the area are very affordable. Note: Choose a vehicle with some ground clearance. The drive from Vegas to Zion National Park is just under three hours. Just remember you are going from Pacific Standard Time to Mountain Time as you move east. Miss the crowds and go in early March or the end of November. The drive from Zion to Bryce Canyon is only two hours and Bryce to Capitol Reef is only 2.5 hours.

Adventure Tips: To enjoy the mind-blowing beauty of the Southwest desert, one must be prepared for altitude change and desert conditions. Depending on the season and altitude, the temperature can change by 60 degrees in a day. Know your limits and review the weather forecast each day. The No. 1 illness in this region is dehydration.

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What to Pack:
Hydration bladder
Quality hiking boots
Layered outdoor apparel
Basic first-aid kit

Off-the-Beaten Path Adventures: We prefer to avoid the obvious, over-exposed trails and activities that have the vibe of a theme park. That said, there are a few well-known hikes and activities that are just too cool to pass up. The following recommendations include a mix of both the paths less traveled and the well-worn, can’t-miss variety, and span from leisurely to challenging.

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Checkerboard Mesa in Zion National Park

1. Zion National Park:
-Angels Landing: An epic half-day hike with a 1,520-foot elevation gain. Partakers must be fit and unafraid of heights. Start early because the final half-mile can get backed up.
-Drive the Zion Mount Carmel Hwy. Simply pull over in one of parking areas and go explore. Don’t forget your camera.

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Virgin River in Zion Canyon

2. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument:
-Bouldering at Devil’s Garden: It’s like a playground made of stone.
-Spooky Gulch in Slot Canyon: Marvel at the incredible sandstone colors while navigating pathways that can get as narrow as your foot. The closest town is Escalante and the long dirt road to these locations is called Hole in the Rock Road.
-Willis Creek Slot Canyon: A lesser-known adventure. The nearest town is Cannonville.

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Bryce Canyon National Park

3. Bryce Canyon National Park: This place is a 10 on the unbelievable scale. Try the Peekaboo Loop Trail, which starts at Bryce Point (8,240-foot elevation) and heads down into the canyon (7,350 feet) and back.

4. Capitol Reef National Park: Drive the historic Burr Trail, stopping to explore along the way. Watch out for bovines—ranchers still run cattle down this stretch of road.


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