The “Mighty 5” in Utah are National Parks that provide such grandeur, stunning landscapes and outdoor adventures that they surely are befitting of the description: Mighty. Starting from the the southwest corner of the state and moving eastward they are : Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches.
It was in just this particular order that we traveled, starting our journey with Zion National Park and making our way eastward. It is amazing that when you view all the parks on a map clustered together in the same general vicinity it would seem easy to visit them all within a short time…not so. Utah is a relatively large state and the vastness of it is complicated by the fact that there are fewer roads to take you from point A to point B. I’m not complaining; it’s wonderful to have the spanning horizons unscathed by roadways. It just takes longer to visit if you want to do justice to all 5 Parks.
Out of the Utah National Parks, Zion is the most visited National Park; in 2019 the Park received 4.5 million visitors. Canyonlands, however is by far the largest Utah park with 337,598 acres. All five Parks have their own distinct geographic features and breathtaking views, but the mountains of Zion and majesty of their height really diminishes the height of a small human being as one stands in awe. Especially for a Mid-westerner like myself, who is not accustomed to being around mountains like this. A couple of times I found myself gazing upward with my mouth agape: “Oh…Wow!”
Although Zion National Park was established in 1919, it has only been in recent years that the popularity of the park has soared. The Parks further north of Zion (the favorites of Yellowstone and Yosemite for example), had become traveler’s favorites. Yet, all the amazing pathways to be explored at Zion have brought many travelers through the gates. There are of course, pros and cons to this expanding appreciation of the Park. It is nice to have people love and appreciate the Park, but sometimes managing crowd control and assuring the preservation of the Park can be a challenge.
When we were there, our country was in the midst of a pandemic. In October of 2020, after months of quarantine, everyone was wanting to get outside and many of the National Park Service sites saw a surge in attendance. Several things were not “normal” and I do give the Parks administration credit for doing their best to assure a safe and healthy environment. One example, was limiting the shuttle buses to 50% capacity so as to improve social distancing. This was a great idea…but did create long lines to get on a shuttle and limited how much you would have time to see in the park. Getting tickets for the shuttle in advance is a whole other story…yikes! They are only $1.00, but you have to have one to get to certain areas of the Park. I know they had to institute a ticketing procedure for “crowd control”…but it was very frustrating. My advice for trips to a popular National Park such as Zion is plan MONTHS ahead of time. I booked our hotels in January for an October trip. Shuttle tickets, campgrounds and other reservations can be found on http://recreation.gov .
Zion National Park is situated on part of the Colorado Plateau and the sandstone cliffs, towering mountains and river valleys provide a stunning remnant of how this part of the continent was formed roughly 250 million years ago. Looking at the vastness of the terrain, it is hard to imagine that this land was once submerged in a shallow sea and this area was considered part of the super-continent of Pangaea. As a hiker kicking up dust and stones along the path, it is compelling to think how this terrain has evolved through both erosion and tectonic shifts. The canyons and sandstone cliffs provide unique and colorful views. Zion National Park helps to preserve the most sacred and impressive canyon country and wilderness ecosystem on our planet.
One sight, and hike, that I did not attempt while at Zion is the infamous Angels Landing which rises 1,500 feet above a sheer wall face above the Virgin River. There are chains bolted into the rock face in part of the walkway to provide “security” on your walk. Just looking at the photos of a chained walkway on the side of a mountain scared me to death. Well, guess what…when we got there the Angels Landing trail was closed because of the pandemic. (whew…wipe brow with relief), Now I don’t have to come up an excuse not to go. Apparently, it was too hard to assure “social distancing”. However, my son and his friends went on another challenging hike that Zion is famous for: The Narrows. It is what the name dictates; where the canyon Narrows and is carved out by the Virgin River. The trail is mostly wading through the cold water anywhere from ankle to waist deep. The entire trail is 16 miles long. Many hikers just go part of the way and turn around; it is a very arduous hike and very tough in water with the uneven terrain of the river rocks. Our group all made it back in one piece. Before you enter the Narrows is a beautiful, easy hike: Riverside Walk that follows the Virgin River. Part of the walk is paved and the rest is a groomed path that is easy to navigate. My husband and I enjoyed our time on that path while waiting for the guys that had ventured into The Narrows.
After departing Zion, and with a sad goodbye to our son and his friends, we started heading east while they headed west back to San Diego.
Our next stop was Bryce Canyon National Park. It is the smallest of the Mighty 5 parks, but has a huge impact visually. Technically it is not a canyon, but rather a series of amphitheaters cutting into the pink/red rocks with spires rising up skyward. The rock spires, called hoodoos, are an intriguing example of how erosion and freeze/thaw cycles have molded the rocks. Another story about the hoodoos is told by the Paiute people in the area. They tell of the Legend People who were animal-like people. They behaved badly and treated Coyote so badly, that he turned them into rock formations. The creatures huddled together and still stand as when they were first turned to stone. The impressive and ever-changing hoodoos and other rock formations seem to be the highlight of the park, but the dense forests and sporadic meadows provide a serene setting.
Since the park’s elevation ranges from 6,000 to 9,000 feet, its usually much cooler here than at the other Utah parks. When we were there, the heavily forested sections in the park made me feel, briefly anyway, I was back in the great north woods of Wisconsin. The terrain of course is very different than the Midwest, each region having their own distinct characteristics and shining attributes.
After leaving Bryce, our next stop was to Torrey, Utah. We stayed at Cowboy Homestead Cabins: cozy, very nice and situated close to the entrance of Capitol Reef National Park. The Park’s namesake comes from the presence of several white rock domes that resemble the U.S. Capitol. Also a huge geologic feature in the park is water trapped in the pockets of rock creating a “Waterpocket Fold” and hence the creation of a “reef”. Early explorers, in the 1870s, found it difficult to navigate and started referring to this unique geologic feature as a “reef”. The Waterpocket Fold extends 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to the north all the way south to Lake Powell.
Prior to the arrival of the Mormon settlers, the Native American Fremont people lived in this area. Several examples of their rock art have been preserved on petroglyphs. The art is an amazing depiction of the hunting and gathering lifestyles of the Fremonts. Capitol Reef was one of the last places in the West to be explored by immigrant settlers. It was not until the late 1870’s when the Mormons began settling into the region. The town of Fruita was established and many of the orchards that were planted and irrigated still exist today. The National Park Service still maintains the orchards and visitors to the park can enjoy many “pick your own ” crops of cherries, peaches, pears and apples. Unfortunately we had just missed the apple picking season when we were there. Yet, in Fruita we made a stop at the little country store (very quaintly fashioned after a 1900 farmhouse) and had hot coffee with one of the biggest and best cinnamon rolls I have ever tasted! The turn of the century barn, blacksmith shop and split rail fencing all around the area, gives one a real feel for life as a southern Utah settler in the early 1900’s.
After Capitol Reef, our journey took us to Moab, Utah. Very interesting place that I found out is a real mecca for dirt bikes,mountain bikes and ATVs. I can’t blame them…all those awesome trails with jumps, racing curves and are naturally groomed by nature. I did not pick Moab because of this however…the town of Moab is centrally located to both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Great location and the town itself has several great restaurants and overnight lodging.
Our journey to Arches was short lived. We made it to the entrance and got the traditional “sign picture”, then I saw several vehicles driving toward the gate, then turning around. Then I saw it: a light-up sign with the message: “Park Full”—“Turn around Ahead”. Needless to say I was disappointed, but not too terribly surprised since we were visiting in the age of a pandemic and the limiting of park visitors. I am sure Arches is a popular park, and they have to assure that it won’t be too crowded…but still, I was very sad at the time. Well, even though we didn’t make it to all of the Mighty 5, three out of 5 ain’t bad and it gives me motivation for a return trip. There are many sights to take in while visiting Utah. So….”Put your traveling Shoes on…” Julie E. Smith