The perfect time to visit the “Mighty 5”

Utah’s National Parks

Breathtaking, awesome, spectacular, magnificent - all of those superlatives fit, and yet, are not nearly enough to describe the incredible natural beauty found in Utah’s national and state parks, as well as surrounding areas. 

In 2013, Travel Utah named the state’s five beloved national parks (Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion) in the southern part of the state as the “Mighty 5.” All are majestic, iconic and all ideal for a distanced visit in these uncertain times. Autumn and spring are perhaps the perfect and safest seasons to visit the parks, in regards to both weather and crowds. This October and November, head on over to our neighbor - it’s an easy and beautiful drive from Colorado to explore Utah’s incredible beauty! We visited Capitol Reef in late July, during the pandemic, and found it blissfully less crowded than the other parks we had visited in the past. A picturesque just shy of 8 hours(mostly on I-70 and Utah 24)  from Loveland,Colorado, this is a very doable three-day minivacation.

Arches: Arches National Park, northwest of Moab and closest to Colorado, is one of the most visited national parks in America:  a 73,234-acre wonderland of eroded sandstone fins, towers, ribs, gargoyles, hoodoos, balanced rocks, and, of course, fantastic photo-perfect arches formed of rock, indeed, with the largest proliferation of arches in the world. Over 2,000 arches have been cataloged in Arches National Park.

Bryce Canyon: Bryce’s orangey-red pinnacles and bizarre hoodoos, enveloped in the misty clouds from the morning rain; bright green pines glistening with dew in between the towering spires, seem like something out of a fantasy film — shapes so strange, so exotic, so impossible that it is hard to believe they are real. In fact, American Indians believed the hoodoos were formerly people, made into stone by a god punishing them for misdeeds. Famous formations such as Queen Victoria, flanked by Squirrel Playing Piano, don’t require much imagination to see their namesakes. This 35,830 acre wonderland is set in Utah’s lush alpine forests. NOTE: A don’t miss, two-hour or so experience is to take Scenic Route 12 from Bryce to Capitol Reef (or vice versa) - one of the nation’s top ten scenic routes! 

Canyonlands: Imagine endless deep canyons, towering mesas, pinnacles, cliffs, and spires stretching across 527 square miles. Canyonlands National Park was formed by the currents and tributaries of Utah's Green and Colorado rivers. Home to many different types of travel experiences, from sublime solitude in the more remote stretches of the park to moderate hikes through the Needles district to one of the West's most photographed landforms, Mesa Arch.

Capitol Reef:  This was our fifth of the Mighty Five to visit, and we did so in late July, during the pandemic. The early inhabitants called Capitol Reef the “land of the sleeping rainbow” because of its beautiful multicolored layers and stripes of rocks set among endless shades of greenery. 

More recently, many had described Capitol Reef as their favorite, perhaps due to how it encompasses features of all five parks in its environs, as well as its own specialties, including pinnacles,canyons, towering cliffs, slickrock walls reaching infinitely high, mesas, petroglyphs, historic farm structures and even fruit orchards that have existed since early Mormon settler days!

It is difficult to rival Capitol Reef National Park’s sense of expansiveness, of broad, sweeping vistas, of a twisted, tangled, sometimes violent, seemingly endless landscape,  of limitless sky and desert rock.. Established as a national monument in 1937 and made a national park in 1971, Capitol Reef  preserves the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold, a mammoth buckling of the earth’s surface (“waterpocket” refers to the potholes that dot the sandstone and fill with rainwater.) The park’s name combines the popular term for an uplifted landmass, “reef,” with the many enormous white Navajo Sandstone domes to what many felt resembled the U.S. Capitol Building. Perhaps Chimney Rock, however, a 400-foot-tall red sandstone pillar, is the most photographed spot in the park.

This blissfully less crowded park is located in south-central Utah in the heart of red rock country, with so little human activity nearby that stargazing is an exceptional delight here. In fact, Capitol Reef is a Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park. On our two evenings staying at the well-appointed, Western-style Lodge at Red River Ranch, 10 miles from the park in the tiny town of Torrey, we lay on blankets on the grass and marveled at three shooting stars amidst the infinity of others. 

 Torrey, the closest town, only has some 400 residents, yet boasts several good hotels and motels, as well as some surprisingly excellent restaurants. The new “Hunt & Gather” offers such fare as Powell Forest Mushroom Risotto and West Texas Antelope, as well as vegetarian and vegan plates, along with a hefty wine list and craft brews and cocktails. .  

In the historic Fruita area of the park, where Mormon settlers raised crops decades ago, visitors can take in a wide variety of trails, from strenuous to easy strolls. We enjoyed the Capitol Reef Loop, which took about 3 hours with many photo stops, as well as Hickman Bridge, which leads to an amazing natural stone arch “bridge.” Behind the excellent visitor center, it is a fun break to walk through the river bed, wading through the cool waters, to reach a small waterfall and pond - about 45 minutes.

Round trip distances on trails vary in length from less than 0.25 miles to 10 miles (0.8-16 km). All trails are marked with signs at the trailhead and at trail junctions and by cairns (stacks of rocks) along the way. Some trails have self-guiding brochures which are available, for a nominal fee, at the trailhead or at the visitor center. NOTE: There is no fee station for Capitol Reef, one entrance does have an honor system box, but there are no attended entry stations. For fruit picking information, call 435-425-3791. Option 1, then option 5. Fruit harvests vary, and include cherries, apricots, peaches, pears and apples. Fruit eaten with the orchards is free of charge, while fruit taken from them is paid for at self-pay stations. Ladders are provided.

Zion: The enormous red cliffs and monoliths of Zion are more majestic and imposing than those of Bryce’s somewhat delicate formations. The canyon walls are dramatic and the hikes, such as the one to Angel’s Landing, can be quite strenuous, and at times, rather nerve-wracking. Most of the journey is safe but steep, with incredible views increasing with the quick ascent on the narrow switchbacks.

Many stop hiking up at Scout’s Landing (we admit this included us!) — fearing the ascent to Angel’s Landing, which most accomplish with the help of a heavy chain cemented into the ground.

Zion is also famed for the bucket-list Narrows Hike, named one of America’s best adventures by National Geographic.

The Narrows (which we DID accomplish!) involved a full day of walking and wading alongside and in the Virgin River, into the sheer, dark rock walled canyons of the aptly-named “Narrows,” at times in water chest high. We used long poles, neoprene booties and socks, which not only kept our feet warm in the cool water but also ensured our sure footing on the underwater boulders. Our strong advice: do NOT attempt without booties and socks, and preferably, go with an experienced guide. Those precautions will do much to ensure that  this is a thrill, and not a disaster!

If you DO decide to adventure over to Utah, the state tourism board encourages you to look over its new platform called “Forever Mighty,” which provides guidelines on keeping the parks in their natural state as much as possible. “Come as you are, leave it as it is”

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