The Utah 5: one week in Utah’s national parks

Yikes, it has been a brutal winter here in the Northeast. Luckily the temperatures are starting to balance out around normal, the past few weeks have been frigid and kept most of us locked up inside.

In an effort to stave off cabin fever, I thought it would be nice to reflect on warmer times. What better way to do that than to talk about our trip to the deserts of southern Utah?

I constantly think about Utah and how mysterious and magical of a place it is. Chris & I were originally not supposed to go to Utah at all during our trip. After spending a few days hiking 4,000 footers in Colorado, we were supposed to be headed north to the Wind River Range in Wyoming. After a few nights of temps below freezing and reports of increased bear activity in the area, we decided to scrap the idea and head south on a whim. So, with a national park pass in hand and seven days left of vacation time, we decided to visit each of the Utah 5: Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce, Zion, and Capital Reef.

Canyonlands & Arches

It’s easy to group these two parks together because they are essentially located down the street from one another. Each park is easily accessed from the desert town of Moab, UT. It was hot. Oh, so hot. We boiled in our tent every night, which luckily had a small shelter made of wood and a tin roof build by the campground we stayed at. This, I imagine, was to keep out the sun and to make sure we weren’t burned alive or suffocated in our tent. The best part of the campground was the shower; prior to arriving, we hadn’t showered in at least 5 days.

Arches is a relatively small park, and most of the main attractions can be accessed by car and a very short walk. Some of easily visible right from the road. The most popular (and therefore crowded) arches are Landscape Arch, Double Arch, and Delicate Arch. If you’re willing to keep walking down the trails to some of the lesser-known arches, you’re bound to see far less people. That’s just how we like it.

Canyonlands, conversely, was a bit more sparsely laid out and much quieter. Although I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon (yet), I imagine that Canyonlands has a similar effect. The size and scope of the canyons are breathtaking. They were so beautiful, our photos could never do it justice. We also stopped at a place in Canyonlands NP called upheaval dome; geologists are still not entirely sure how the upheaval dome was created, but there are theories that it may have been created as result of a large meteorite that plummeted into Earth. We also hiked to the top of Aztec Butte, where we were rewarded with a great view of the surrounding land, and also got to explore a granary left behind by the Native Americans who lived here hundreds of years ago.

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The view from Aztec Butte
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Canyonlands’ namesake
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Looking down at upheaval dome

BONUS: if you like rock climbing, there are quite a few spots in and around Moab. We checked out Wall Street on our last day in Moab, and got in a pitch or two before the sun got too hot. When you’re in the desert, it’s definitely a wise idea to get your activity in early or late in the day, and leave the middle for relaxing in the shade and snacking on lunch.

Capitol Reef 

Next on our route was Capitol Reef. Unfortunately, our trip to this park was cut short due to an intense storm that swept through the area. Being at the case of a large canyon, we decided to quickly hop in our car and drive to higher ground as there was a high risk of flooding.

Some neat points within Capitol Reef: it was settled by Mormons in the late 1800s, and their orchards and a few buildings are still left today. We also caught a glimpse of some petroglyphs on the side of one of the canyon walls (I made Chris run out in between rumbles of thunder so we could catch a quick look at them). Capitol Reef is also geologically unique from the other parks in Utah because it has a high number of volcanic rock deposits. Yeah, strange! Glaciers left behind large pieces of volcanic rock, which speckle the landscape. We were able to catch a few photos to highlight this unique feature.

Bryce Canyon 

After abandoning our explorations in Capitol Reef, we headed next to Bryce Canyon, where we spent 2 days camping in the park. Apart from its intriguing formation of “hoodoos,” Bryce is also known as one of the best places to stargaze in the United States. So, we made it a point one night to set up a blanket on the edge of the canyon to watch the stars, and another day to explore the hoodoos. We took one of the longer trails in the park called the Fairyland Loop; it’s an 8 mile trail that weaves in and out of the hoodoos.

Bryce Canyon is also home to the Utah Prairie Dog, which is an endangered species. At the visitor’s center, you can ‘adopt’ a prairie dog by making a donation. As a consolation, you receive a certificate, the ability to name a prairie dog in the park, and a stuffed animal of your own to take home. And since you’re asking, yes, I did take part in this activity. Our new prairie dog, Edward, accompanied us on the rest of the road trip, and now keeps me company in my office.

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Zion

Our final stop of this journey was to the famed Zion National Park. Because we only had one day to spend here before beginning our drive back to Massachusetts, we decided to visit the two quintessential stops: Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.

Chris said I may not like the trail to Angel’s Landing; he said I might freak out from the heights. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but once we made it up the initial steep slope and onto the ledges I quickly realized what he was referring to. The trail to Angel’s Landing is incredibly narrow, as in barely wide enough to fit two people at times. There are metal handrails to help you keep your balance, but a few times I found myself having to step away from the rails in order to let someone pass by. This was terrifying for me, as I’m not too keen on heights (I know, weird for a hiker/climber, but it’s true).

If you can stomach the trail, the view is SO. WORTH. IT. The park rangers will tell you that it’s called Angel’s Landing because it was believed that only angels could reach the summit.

After sweating our butts off up at the up, The Narrows were a welcome relief. This trail is quite literally a narrow path in a slot canyon, except it’s filled entirely with water. If you have a pair of Tevas or Chacos, this is the trail to use them on! We unfortunately didn’t have hiking sandals before this trip, so our sandy boots got a good bath on this hike. We also took the opportunity to jump in a small pool in the Narrows to cool off and wash some of the dirt and sweat that had been caking on the past few days.

There is definitely a lot more to explore in Zion, so Chris and I would like to come back some day. Unfortunately, this park is pretty close to Las Vegas, and was definitely the most flooded with people of all the parks we visited over the week.

You might be thinking, well which parks were our favorites?!

It’s cliche to say all of them, but we really loved each park for different reasons. But if I had to choose one place, it would be Canyonlands. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something incredibly magical and mysterious about that place. I can’t wait to get back there and explore some more one day…

 

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