Do you own a National Park Service annual pass? It has been a few years since we let ours expire, but living in Utah, the value is easily recouped, so we took the plunge and have our 2016 pass proudly hanging from our rearview window. To take full advantage of the pass and the national parks in and around the state of Utah, we've put together an ambition plan to use it at least 15 times. With 10 National Parks in and around the state of Utah, planning our visits (or your vacation) is full of possibilities...
Utah's Mighty Five
Utah's five national parks are iconic and worth every bit of attention they receive. With notoriety, though, come the crowds. For the best experience, avoid peak travel times (both times of year and times of day). Not only will it do wonders to save your sanity, your stories and photos will be completely different than your ten friends who suffered long lines and short tempers in the heat of a midday July vacation outing. Quick tips to make your bucket list trip enjoyable?
- Travel in Winter or Spring. The contrast of snow on red rock is breathtaking! Wildflowers growing in the desert are short-lived and beautiful.
- Visit early in the morning or late in the day. Most of southern Utah's native animals have adapted to their environment by adjusting their daily routine. They are most active in the cool early hours before the sun rises high in the sky. Late in the day, shadows change the landscape entirely and a clear bright national park night sky full of twinkling stars puts life perspective back in place.
Now, what makes each of these parks spectacular...?
We have repeatedly made the mistake of exploring this park backwards, that is, the way everyone else does it. From front to back. After stopping at the visitor center, take an ambling drive to the far reaches of the park and you'll enjoy some areas completely to yourself. Even better, you won't get to the end of the day and realize you've only made it through the first 1/4 of the park. Admire the most famous arches as you pass by, and have fun exploring further in. Then catch your must-have pictures as you make your way back to the beginning.
Capitol Reef confused me a little bit on our first visit there. The main road through the park is a normal thoroughfare highway in the area so it didn't feel like we ever had that moment of "going into the park." Most of the tourist spots on the map are located on this road, making them easy to find. The visitor center, just off the road is small, however, and the parking lot is tiny. Further off the main road is Capitol Reef's primary physical feature, the Waterpocket Fold, literally a miles long "wrinkle" in the Earth. Unfortunately, I can't say anything about it, as there is an entrance fee to drive the road and the day we were there we came woefully unprepared with spending money.
Local history is prominently featured at Capitol Reef.. Petroglyphs tells about early life in the area. A preserved schoolhouse and farmhouse show what life was like for early pioneers, and an operating fruit grove still provides nutritious treats in a lush canyon that is a surprise in the middle of dry southern Utah. Make sure to take cash and stop for a homemade fresh fruit pie at the museum.
If camping is in your wheelhouse, this is a great park to do it! Bryce Canyon is a good distance from any city or town and so protected from light pollution. The result being some of the most incredible night skies you have ever seen. And, it's a completely different experience to be in the park at dusk or see the tall hoodoos casting shadows in the moonlight. Read about our trip to Cedar Breaks National Monument for a nearby similar sight without the crowds.
Zion National Park, I have to admit this is my least favorite national park in Utah. It doesn't make sense, and I'm sure I'm the only person who has visited there and not liked it. Yet, even the skeptic in me can admit that it is spectacular to stand in the middle of Zions and look up at the sheer rock walls in rich red, brown, and black colors. This is a park that in the busy summer months is only accessible by shuttle bus, so plan ahead for that when you are planning your vacation. In the spring and fall you can drive your car all the way through, including going up the hill and through a 1930's era single lane tunnel.
If you have time, definitely look into doing a backcountry hike in this area and experience walking through The Narrows, with mountain water streams and narrow (hence the name) slot canyons. To avoid the crowds and experience driving your own car through the park, check out Kolob Canyon which is north of the park and only 5 miles off the I-15.
Once you've made it all the way to southern Utah, it is worth your time to see as many amazing sites as possible . In short driving distance from the any of the Mighty Five, five additional parks should be on every list when planning a western vacation. Several of them could be considered "unknown" which will even mean much smaller crowds.
Mesa Verde is the first of two National Parks just over the border into Colorado. The ancient home of pueblo dwelling people, Mesa Verde contains remarkably well-maintained homes carved into the sides of rock cliffs. While the largest of the dwellings is currently closed due to a large rock fall, there are still great views of it, and other life-size relics to explore while you are there. After you finish at the park, be sure to look for more exciting things to do in the Mesa Verde area!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is most likely the one park on this list you've never heard of. We hadn't until we happened to drive by the entrance on our way home from New Mexico a few years ago. It is located near Mesa Verde, making it easy to see both on the same vacation, but offers a nature-centric experience, rather than a history one. The main attraction in this park is, as you would expect from the name, the Black Canyon. Think the Grand Canyon, but more narrow, with darker rocks, more vegetation, and a 2,000,000 year old history to tell. It really is worth seeing, and guaranteed to be less busy than more popular tourist sites in the area.
Great Basin National Park is on Utah's eastern border with Nevada. Honestly, why would you be out there, right? This is a park I haven't been to yet, but definitely have on my bucketlist. Like Bryce Canyon, Great Basin is far removed from population centers and so has some of the blackest night skies in the country. After teaching a class on Utah history, I'm fascinated to go out and learn more about how that area was affected by the giant sea that once covered the region, and to learn about the glaciers that created the landscape there. Even more intriguing, I want to go see Lehman Caves, which my husband vaguely remembers from childhood. It's hard to know how much he ever remembers is true, so we definitely need to head out there and see.
Death Valley is the farthest national park from Utah on this list, but we took a spur-of-the-moment road-trip there recently and I want people to know it's doable and absolutely worth the drive! The drive from St. George lasts a little less than 4 hours, with Las Vegas at exactly halfway. The immensity of Death Valley absolutely boggled my mind as we started mapping out the sites we wanted to see and realizing that some of them were more than 60 miles away one-way. Also, so many of the sites are accessible only by 4-wheel drive vehicle. We have taken our minivan a lot of places it never should have been, but driving 25 miles on a Level B road seemed extreme, even for us. This isn't a park to do in 1-2 days (although we did this time) or without some forethought.
All that being said, do not talk yourself out of driving out to see Death Valley! It is diverse with green alpine mountains, waterfalls, and a volcano on the west and the salty lake bed, mineral colored rocks, sand dunes, and more on the east. Not to mention the famous parts of being way below sea level and so hot in the summer. We visited during the infamous spring bloom and are so glad we did. First because it was beautiful, and second because the temperatures were a perfect mid-80's in the day and low 50's at night. Part of me is intrigued to go in the heat of summer, but only if we can stay at the inn with a swimming pool...
Now, I want to hear from you. How many of these parks have you been to or are making plans to visit? Let me know if you have questions about any of them-I'd love to help! And please share this post if you know anyone thinking about a Utah national parks trip this year!