Arches. Bryce. Canyonlands. Capitol Reef. Zion. The mere mention of their names evokes images of Technicolor desertscapes, vermilion cliffs and vivid sunsets. They are Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks.
“Is that an anvil up there?” asked my 11-year-old daughter, as we passed under a particularly tall rock just outside our first park.
No, there wasn’t. Or a piano. Or a road runner with a silly grin. But if you’re looking for a cultural touchstone for these five attractions, try Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, and the dramatic desert backdrops that looked so unreal, they had to be a cartoon.
Only, they aren’t.
My daughter giggled. She’d made her two brothers and me look, taking our eyes off the mesmerizing vistas before us at the gates of Zion National Park. When we read about the Five on Utah’s tourism website, we had to try it. OK, I talked my kids into doing it, but when I showed them the pictures, it was easy.
Our rules were simple. For each park, we’d find the top-rated hike on Alltrails, our favorite hiking app. We’d spend at least one day in each park, more if possible.
Zion National Park: Where angels fear to tread
We accessed all the parks by road, picking up our Hertz rental in Phoenix and then driving up through Las Vegas. Our first stop: Zion National Park, located in the southwest corner of the state, where the number-one trail is the deceptively-named Angels Landing.
This is an absolutely insane hike, and I’m convinced that angels had nothing to do with it. The trail starts as a narrow, steep path and then graduates to a sheer rock face where you cling to a chain in order to scale the mountain. When I saw the last part, which led up to a plateau high in the clouds, I instinctively turned around. But my three kids, who are more adventurous than I am, led the way — and somehow, we made it without tumbling into the abyss. (Note: I would not recommend this path for young children.)
Dodging giant ants in Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon National Park was a 2 ½ hour drive from our Vacasa rental in St. George, through still more canyons, vast and desolate rock walls that stir the imagination. You don’t have to be a science fiction fan to recognize these limestone formations, tall and unearthly. They look like insect hives from the film Starship Troopers. Only, they are real. As we descended into Navajo Loop, the most popular trail, the kids swapped their cartoon fantasies for sci-fi nightmares. This is the legendary forest of stone that almost defies description. Yet no giant ants emerged from the rocks. Instead, we found one stunning picture after another.
A wrinkle in the earth at Capitol Reef
We hit Capitol Reef National Park on our drive from St. George to Moab. It’s at about the halfway point, the perfect place for an afternoon hike to stretch your legs. And this was some stretch. Capitol Reef is home to the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile geologic monocline, also known as a wrinkle in the earth. We decided to explore the Hickman Bridge Trail, which was just starting to cool down on a cloudless November day.
True to its name, Capitol Reef looks as if it was drained of ocean water only recently. You can see rock formations that look reef-like, and layers upon layers of rock. It’s called “capitol” because of the pole domes of Navajo Sandstone that look like capitol building domes. Even though this 1.8-mile trek is classified “moderate,” I found myself huffing and puffing near the top, as we rounded the bend to find the natural archway towering 300 feet above the Fremont River.
Our rental Cadillac came with SiriusXM, where one of our favorite stations is The Joint. I mean, what else would you listen to when you’re driving to Zion, right? But the sounds of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Toots and the Maytals defined this trip, as did the Reggae-inspired names of the parks, like Abacá, Zion, and, of course, Capitol Reefer. Kids these days!
This is what a tour of the Mighty Five should look like, according to Utah’s tourism officials. Looks amazing, doesn’t it?
But this bears almost no resemblance to what actually happened. Missing: “Are we there yet?,” “Daaaad, not another hike!,” and my favorite, “This sucks!” Kids say that even when they’re having the time of their life. It’s just what kids do. And kids, if you’re reading this, trust me, someday you’ll thank me for dragging you out here.
Back to reality …
A grand view at Canyonlands
National park number four: Canyonlands National Park. And inevitably, the return of the Looney Tunes references. To call Canyonlands the Grand Canyon in miniature would be a disservice. This park is different, yet the same. The narrow cracks in the earth are darker and somehow more dramatic than in that other famous canyon. And when we hiked out to Grand View Point Trail, we discovered the other difference. There are no railings to keep kids, dogs and clueless adults from plummeting off the edge of a cliff. My middle son asked if he could Photoshop either an anvil or a grand piano into the pictures. I said, “Just come home alive and you can do anything you want.”
Arches National Park waited for us in Moab like a bookend to an incredible adventure. And it was worth the wait. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Moab Hotel, a property that wakes you up every morning with the smell of coffee and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, and set out to explore our final of the five national parks. There is only one must-see trail in Arches, and that is the Delicate Arch trail, a three-mile there-and-back hike to the arch. And by “the” I mean the one displayed on every Utah license plate.
Even though we were visiting Arches at the low point of the off-season, it seemed as if everyone wanted to be on this trail. (Maybe that advice about traveling in the fall to avoid the crowds doesn’t apply here.) Fortunately, the climb takes you on a wide, flat area where you don’t have to share the trail with the rest of the world. From there, however, it leads to a narrow path that hugs the mountainside, which is said to get crowded in the summer and iced over during winter. And then, the reward: the stone icon, which stands 46 feet high and 32 feet wide, the largest free-standing arch in the park, according to park officials.
Here, all the jokes about roadrunners and Rastafarians dissolved into silence. The children just stared at this monument, created by millennia of geological events, in disbelief. So did I. I’m not sure if the good people of Utah, or anyone else for that matter, truly understand what they have in these national parks. They are breathtakingly beautiful, historically important, and worthy of preservation.