Few states have more National Parks than Utah. Actually, only two beat Utah and I tell you about those in a few minutes. Utah’s National Parks referred to as the Mighty 5 are stunning. Exploring Utah’s National Parks is a must-do adventure. If you are like us, to get the most out of our travel adventures, we prefer to do privates tours. In Utah, there is no better way to see the amazing National Parks than with Utah Luxury Tours.
Utah Luxury Tours create a one-of-a-kind private tour of the national parks for you, your family, or your friends. Their professional guides will use their vast knowledge of the Utah national parks, including the geology, history, and trails to provide you with the experience you want. Keith and I call ourselves life-long students. We love to learn, and that is what we did on our Utah Luxury Tour.
Remember that each tour is customized to your wants, so no two are the same. A tour of Utah’s national parks is great for photographers, those wanting to learn about native culture and those interested in the history behind how the land of Utah formed. Our tour guide, Matt, was fantastic. He was extremely passionate, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic. You feel just how much love he has for this area. Plus your guide does all the driving, what could be better? Matt made our trip everything we hoped it would be and more!
So What are the Mighty Five?
When it comes to national parks, the United States has many iconic parks. When someone says national parks, you might think of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Biscayne National Park. The National Parks Service recognizes some of America’s most epic, unspoiled areas that illustrate the natural or cultural themes of our Nation’s heritage.
In Utah, the Mighty 5 National Parks are Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks. Now that we have visited all five Keith and I understand the name.
If you are planning a trip to the American Southwest, you do not want to miss Utah. With five Utah national parks, you can take your pick of parks or see them all.
Our Tour Begins
We began our tour in Salt Lake City. Matt picked us up from our hotel. We made a quick stop at a small local coffee shop that Matt recommended, to get a couple of coffees for the road, and then we began our drive to our first destination, Zion National Park.
Exploring the Mysteries of Parowan Gap
Along the way, we stopped at Parowan Gap. The Parowan gap was once a stream that disappeared and became a waterless wind gap. Wind and rain have shaped the gap into the pass visible today.
Our Utah Luxury Tour stopped at the gap to see petroglyphs. Several centuries ago, Native Americans traveling through the area stopped and etched designs onto the almost flay faces of large boulders found on the east side of the gap. So, many of the boulders have these chiseled figures or petroglyphs.
These petroglyphs are thought to be the work of several different native groups created over a long period. The petroglyphs are extremely important to the local Native Americans. These Native Americans consider the petroglyphs as the cultural history of their ancestor’s life.
Zion National Park
The first Utah national park we visited was Zion National Park. As we drove to the park, we learned that Zion was the first Utah national park. We also learned that humans live in what is now the national park beginning about 8000 years ago. Mormons settled in this area in the early 1860s.
Rugged gorges with vertical sandstone walls up to 2,000 feet high, waterfalls, hanging gardens and slot canyons combine to produce the awe-inspiring Zion National Park.
Zion allows you to drive your own vehicle through the park. But, the prettiest road, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private cars from early April through late October – the nonsnow months. Not to worry though, the park also has a propane-powered shuttle fleet of busses and two electric trams. We loved the tram, and we realize that using the busses and trams are protecting the beautiful natural environment of Zion.
The main feature of Zion is the 229-square-mile wide and up to 2,640 ft deep, reddish and tan-colored sandstone Zion Canyon. Zion Canyon, carved by the North Fork of the Virgin River, which we will talk more about in a moment, is continually eroding and carving the canyon walls.
The highest point in the park is Horse Ranch Mountain at 8,726 feet. As I said, the Virgin River flows through Zion Canyon. The river has one of the steepest stream gradients in North America, ranging from 50 to 80 feet per mile.
Zion National Park Riverwalk
While in Zion we hiked a portion of The Narrows. A hike that requires you to wade through the Virgin River. The Narrows is the narrowest segment of Zion Canyon in Zion National Park.
Hiking in the river is a bit strenuous. The water can be hard to see through, and the bottom of the river covered with rocks some the size of bowling balls making it difficult to maneuver. Because of the difficulty of hiking The Narrows, Utah Luxury Tours rented proper river hiking footwear, neoprene socks, and trekking poles for Keith and me to use.
We began our day early arriving at the shuttle station at 7 am. Because it was early September the crowds were gone and we easily boarded the first shuttle. Our guide Matt, Keith, and I took the free Zion National Park shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava. It was about a 40-minute shuttle ride. From there, took a short one-mile, flat hike along the Zion National Park Riverwalk to the start of The Narrows.
We wore our own shoes to this point because although the rental shoes are great for navigating the rocks, Matt said our legs and feet would hurt after walking the mile on the flat surface to the Virgen River.
As we entered the river for the start of the hike, the canyon is still quite wide and the river fairly shallow. Matt made sure we were both comfortable before we ventured on.
An Exhilarating Hike up The Narrows
After about twenty minutes of concentrating on not falling in the river, I was photographing and videoing; I barely noticed the cold water. I have never liked using hiking or trekking poles when hiking on land, but the poles were invaluable in the river.
As we ventured upstream, we crossed at a diagonal from one side to the other, always trying to stay in as shallow of water as possible. Sometimes that was along the river’s edge. And as we advanced upstream, the sides of the canyon closed in.
Before we began our hike, I was worried about the cold water. We were hiking in early September, in warm, dry weather but the river is shaded by the canyon walls, so you do not feel the warmth of the sun so much. Plus, hiking is done largely in the river as much of the river runs canyon wall to canyon wall. In many places we were waist-deep water and like I said we were there at a drier time.
Our First River Hike
The Narrows was our first river hike. The views along the way are breathtaking. The scenery was dramatic and awe-inspiring. We even saw Mystery Falls, a small waterfall sliding down the rock face. Does the hike sound amazing? Well, it was!
The Narrows is one of the leading hikes in the park. Hiking The Narrows is arguably the classic Zion experience.
We hiked back the same way we came. As I said, in the beginning, we did a portion of the complete hike. As we left the river, we took off our hiking shoes and dried our feet; Matt brought mico fiber towels for us to dry our feet before putting our shoes back on. They do not call the company, Utah Luxury Tours for nothing. They think of everything!
Next Hike to the Lower Emerald Pool
The hike to the Lower Emerald Pool is easy. The Lower Trail tracks the canyon bottom to Lower Emerald Pool, located at the base of a cliff. Two small streams spread across the cliff face and ooze into the pools. The trail continues behind the falling water.
Unfortunately, just a couple of weeks before we arrived in Zion, huge rocks fell, in two separate instances, and closed off access to the Middle and the Upper Emerald Pools.
We enjoyed the hike amid the definitive towering rock formations of Zion but also surrounded by native plants. The pools themselves were pretty and tranquil with their falling water and hanging botanicals.
Where We Stayed to Visit Zion
To easily visit Zion while staying in nice accommodation, we stayed at Cliffrose. In the morning, from the Cliffrose hotel, we were able to simply walk into Zion National Park.
At the Cliffrose, it was evident that nature is very important. We saw many deer on the ground, often eating the landscape. The manager says they try to plant flowers and plants that the deer do not like, but he says the deer here seems to adapt to eating whatever they plant. He also said that they don’t want to deer to leave, so they constantly have to keep replanting.
The Cliffrose believes that the gardens are the core of their offering, providing a sanctuary not just lodging.
When we travel, we love adventure and exploring emerging destinations or unique cultures, but we also like creature comforts. We love boutique hotels that provide comfortable sitting for at least two, nice linens and of course, good WiFi. The Cliffrose met all of these requirements plus we had a terrace with garden and river views.
Also, the Cliffrose has dining, a bar, and while they have free coffee, they can also make you an espresso.
Where to Dine
For our first night in Zion, we ate at the Spotted Dog Cafe. The Spotted Dog restaurant was a recommendation made by Utah Luxury Tours. The Spotted Dog is a casual American Bistro with a cozy art-filled dining room. Outside they have a European-style sidewalk café. We dined in the dining room, enjoying great conversation and some amazing wine. The dishes are handcrafted using fresh local produce, hormone-free meats, and sustainably harvested fish.
Keith had a fresh chicken gorgonzola salad, and I had a delicious Vegetarian Forage. This scrumptious dinner paired with a glass of wine made for an excellent dinner.
On our second night staying near Zion, we ate at the King’s Landing Bistro. We dined outside and enjoyed an Instagramable view. The dining room and patio both look out at the red rock cliffs of Zion National Park.
The King’s Landing Bistro touts a seasonal menu. While I eat a whole food plant-based diet, I occasionally eat fish. I decided on the salmon and garlic mash potatoes. I made the right choice as the salmon with no skin was perfectly cooked and paired perfectly with a bite of the very garlicky mashed potatoes. Keith enjoyed a tomato and red pepper with basil soup.
Quick Stop to See Red Canyon
Red Canyon located on the way to Bryce Canyon National Park is part of the Dixie Land National Forest. In the canyon, there are spectacular red sandstone spires and formations. In my opinion, with its brilliant red soil contrasted with the green Ponderosa pines and the red rocks, it’s simply breathtaking.
Many people stop to photograph the brilliantly reddish-orange hoodoos rising from a green sea of pines on state Route 12 as they make their way to Bryce.
From Zion, we drove on to Bryce Canyon National Park. In Bryce Canyon, we learned that Hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) exist on every continent. But Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration found anywhere on Earth!
Bryce Canyon is not a single canyon, but a series of natural amphitheaters, carved into the edge of a high plateau. The most famous of these is the Bryce Amphitheater filled with those hoodoos I just mentioned.
So, how are those Hoodoos formed? It begins with rainwater seeping into cracks in the rock. The water freezes during Bryce’s cold nights then expands and busts the rock. The deep, narrow walls called “fins” result from rain and snowmelt running down the slopes from Bryce’s rim. Ultimately the fins form holes called windows, and as the windows grow larger they breakdown and create the strange hoodoos that you see today.
While there are things to do for adventure travelers, we took a simpler approach to the canyon’s wonders and drove the breathtaking scenic drive throughout the canyon’s formations. We stopped at the viewpoints of the amphitheaters to take photos.
Bryce Canyon is a stark contrast to Zion. Bryce’s unique landscape makes it wildly beautiful. To us, all of the sandstone pillars locked as though they were a military formation of people. Matt, our guide explained that the reddish hues in the canyon are due to the oxidization of iron.
See Capitol Reef
Located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, Capitol Reef National Park is filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges. It is known as a geologic monocline or a wrinkle on the earth that extends for almost 100 miles.
One of the best things about Capitol Reef is that you can see quite a lot of it from your car. The highway actually runs through the center of the park. So you can see some of the most dramatic spots in Capitol Reef right from your vehicle as you drive this scenic highway.
Do Some Off-Roading in Moab
After we saw Capitol Reef, we were on to Moab. Moab is a city in eastern Utah. It’s the entryway to the massive red rock formations that make Arches National Park.
But, there are lots of things to do in Moab before you visit Arches. On our first night, we decided to forgo dinner so that we could take a sunset hummer adventure with High Point Hummer and ATV Tours. The sunset Hummer Adventure is another one of those you don’t want to miss escapades.
We boarded a hummer and drove through town to a point where our guide could take us off-roading in the Salt Flats and up the mountains. Our hummer guide Kendell, a retired gentleman and I’m sure the coolest grandpa around, was excellent.
There were times we were climbing gigantic boulders with only three wheels making contact. So our ride was thrilling, to say the least. Kendall was very knowledgeable about the area. We had amazing photo opportunities, and we got to watch the sunset over Moab.
Rafting the Colorado River
The next day we did another cool thing in Moab. We took a half-day rafting trip down the Colorado River. You can spend a fun-filled half-day rafting trip down the Colorado River. The raft trip covers about seven river miles with fantastic scenery, great swimming, a knowledgable guide who also rows, and a few moderate rapids.
We put our raft in the river upstream of Moab. This portion of the Colorado River runs through a deep red rock canyon passing desert towers and varnished mesas. There is very little shade along the river.
Depending on the time of the year, the rapids may be up to a Class III. They are fun, a bit splashy, but nothing scary. Our guide told us that May or June brings higher water flows with the snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, and things get a bit more stimulating.
The day we made this trip it was very hot. In the summer months, you can get out of the raft and swim in the river to cool off. Keith loved floating down the river alongside the raft. Halfway through our ride, our guide found some shade on the river bank, so we pulled the raft onshore. He had a cooler filled with lunches.
Where we Stayed in Moab
In Moab, we stayed at the Gonzo Inn. It is a boutique condo-hotel that is excellently located in Moab, making it easy to get to tours and places to eat. The hotel has a free breakfast and a swimming pool. Our one-bedroom suite was large with a sitting area, table, and chairs, refrigerator, and microwave with views of the red rock cliffs.
Where to Dine in Moab
The first night in Moab, we skipped dinner to be able to make the hummer ride, but the second night we ate at the La Sal House restaurant. La Sal was a nice casual restaurant that served delicious wagyu beef burgers and wonderful appetizers. I enjoyed an arugula peach salad.
Spend the Day at Arches National Park
Our last Utah national park was Arches National Park. Arches National park is just a short distance north of Moab. When we visited Zion, I thought it was beautiful, and nothing else on the trip would compare, but I was wrong. Arches National Park is just as gorgeous.
As the name suggests, it is the arches that make Arches special. There are over 2000 natural sandstone arches in the park. But there are also other geological formations like one called Balanced Rock. It towers above the desert scene in the middle of the park. The Balanced Rock formation is 128 feet tall, with a rock balanced 55 feet above on the base.
Arches National Park is a great place for photography since the skies are usually very blue and the formations are very red. There are not just contrasting colors, but also landforms and textures, unlike any other in the world.
The Famous Double Arch
One place in the park that you will not want to miss is Double Arch. Reaching Double Arch is an easy, relatively flat hike to two massive, soaring arches linked at one end. Double Arch is the highest and second-longest arch in the park. If hiking is not your thing, you can see the arch from the parking.
In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you saw Double Arch. At the beginning of the movie, a boy scout troop arrives at these arches on horseback and then finds a tunnel in one corner where the Cross of Cortez leads Indy on his initial adventure. Spoiler alert, there is no tunnel.
Another fascinating part of the park is the windows section. Windows are arches that create a circular opening that resembles a window. You need to keep an eye out for the windows as they are everywhere.
Things to Know
The road that travels through Arches National park is called Arches scenic Drive and is 19 miles long. Without stopping, it takes roughly half an hour to make the drive. If you never leave your car, you will still have amazing views of the park.
You should know that it is illegal to climb on Balanced Rock or any arch that is over three feet in length. Also, cell service will be sketchy at best. We had no service except at the visitor center.
Don’t Miss the Opportunity to See Dinosaur Tracks
So our tour with Utah Luxury Tours began in Salt Lake City, and that is where we will end. But their tours can begin almost anywhere and even end in a totally different location.
On our way back to Salt Lake City, we stopped at the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite. At the Mill Canyon site, they have found more than 200 fossilized individual tracks. This site is one of the largest and diverse tracksites in North America.
There is a ¼ mile-long interpretive trail. Without the interpretation, I am not sure we would have known what we were seeing.
So, if you are like us, you are wondering how did these tracks get left behind? The answer is algae. The dinosaurs walked on a mat of algae that formed in a shallow lake. The tracks were left after the water receded but before the mat dried up. The mat became buried with sand and mud. The buried mat solidify and became limestone. All of this preserved the once alive mat of algae with the many tracks of dinosaurs.
Utah’s National Parks
Remember, in the beginning; I said that there are only two states with more national parks than Utah. Well, those states are California and Alaska. Utah’s National Parks are definitely worth visiting.
To see these national parks we drove through hundreds of awe-inspiring miles in the Utah deserts. One thing that stands out is how blue the skies are in Utah. Also, the geological formations in Utah are so unique that many look like they must be humanmade. But, nature is more artistic, then humans could ever be.
There are many ways to see Utah. But we found doing it with a private guide that knows the area and the history is the way to go. We are lifelong learners and love gaining knowledge of our travels. Traveling with Utah Luxury Tours is a way to achieve a memorable vacation.
The 5 National Parks are Utah’s Mighty Five are Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, and Zion National Park.
There are over 2000 arches in Arches National Park.
See where we went to Montana after our Utah trip.