Utah is famous for its gorgeous rock formations, arches, and hoodoos, but its dramatic landscape also includes desert canyons and waterfalls, forested mountains, lakes, and valleys.
Thousands of miles of hiking trails offer a close view of this diverse and rugged environment. While some are only available for the serious backpacker, most are easy enough for day hikes. I picked the following trails for their accessibility as much as their surroundings.
1. Delicate Arch Trail, Arches National Park
Featured on the state’s license plate, Delicate Arch is probably the most famous and most photographed natural site in Utah. Rising from a smooth ledge, and framing its surroundings, the free-standing red rock arch is unique among the others in Arches National Park.
You can reach this natural wonder by hiking only 1.5 miles. The trail starts out wide and flat, but then you’ll start climbing gradually on slick rock. Good, lightweight hiking shoes with grips will make this part of the hike easier and more enjoyable. Just before reaching Delicate Arch, the trail levels out and then narrows and follows a rock ledge before turning a bend, where you’ll have a full view of the arch.
The trail is popular, and it gets crowded. To avoid the worst of it, go midweek and hike in the early morning.
Pro Tip: Parking at the trailhead is limited, so plan to arrive early or late to avoid the worst of the traffic.
For more on Arches, see this piece.
2. Mesa Arch Trail, Canyonlands National Park
An easy and short hike, the Mesa Arch Trail leads to one of the most famous and most photographed sites in Canyonlands National Park. The 0.7-mile loop trail leads out on level ground and descends close to the arch. Mesa Arch stands over Buck Canyon, framing the cliff walls and the surrounding landscape.
The views are most beautiful at sunrise, but since most people know this, it is likely to be crowded at that time. To avoid the crowds, visit the park during the off-season or on a weekday, or skip the sunrise and go later in the day. The afternoon light illuminates the distant landscape, offering a different but still beautiful view.
For more on Canyonlands, see this piece.
3. Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park
A relaxing and scenic trail, the Hickman Bridge Trail offers magnificent views of the landscape of Capitol Reef National Park. Starting along the Fremont River, the 1.8-mile trail heads down into a wash with gorgeous views of Capitol Dome. After passing the junction with the Navajo Knobs Trail, it takes you by tall rock walls and ancient sand dunes, over the small natural Nels Johnson Bridge, and by the remains of an ancient pit house and a granary left behind by the Fremont people. The highlight of the trail is Hickman Bridge, a natural arch standing 125 feet high and 133 feet long.
4. Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park
The Queen’s Garden Trail starts at Sunrise Point and descends into the canyon on long switchbacks among hoodoos of all shapes and sizes, passing under natural bridges and through short tunnels. At the bottom, look for the hoodoo that resembles Queen Victoria -- with a bit of imagination and from the right angle, you’ll see her.
A flat, easy trail through lightly forested and sandy areas leads to the Navajo Loop Trail. Here, you’ll walk through the famous Wall Street, a narrow pass between towering rocks, and then ascend through a forest of hoodoos, with gorgeous views of the unique formations of Thor’s Hammer and the Silent City, among many others.
Watch your step on the Navajo Trail; there are more loose rocks there than on any other trail in the park. Wear hiking shoes with good grips and ankle support. The trail ends at Sunset Point on the rim.
For more on Bryce Canyon, see this page.
5. Emerald Pools Trail, Zion National Park
Accessible from the trailhead across from Zion National Park’s Zion Lodge, the Emerald Pools Trail follows a small stream that forms three gorgeous pools and several waterfalls along the way.
The trail to access all three pools -- Lower, Middle, and Upper -- is a 2.5-mile round trip, but you don’t have to go all the way. You can reach the Lower Emerald Pool on an easy, accessible trail. Its highlights are the waterfalls, which are more spectacular in the spring after the runoffs. The trail remains wide and easy to walk to the Middle Emerald Pool, which sits in an area surrounded by slick rock. Past this pool, the trail gets steep, and uneven sand and rock make it harder to hike, but you can stop often to enjoy the gorgeous views of the canyon. The Upper Emerald Pool sits in a natural amphitheater surrounded by sheer cliffs with waterfalls running off them -- it’s spectacular in the spring.
Pro Tip: Hike this trail in the spring to experience the waterfalls at their best. However, this is also the time when the trail around the waterfalls gets wet and slippery; watch your step and wear waterproof hiking shoes with good traction. Also remember that swimming is not allowed in any of the pools.
For more on Zion, see this page.
6. Wildcat Trail, Monument Valley Tribal Park
Four Corners Area
Monument Valley Tribal Park offers some of the most famous views in the Southwest.
The only trail you can hike without a guide is the Wildcat Trail, which starts at the campground by The View Hotel and showcases some of the most exquisite panoramic views of Monument Valley. After descending into the valley, the 3.5-mile path loops around the left Mitten Butte. Walk it clockwise (go right at the junction), the direction the Navajo take, to keep with the spirit of the place. The trail is flat and easy to navigate, though it crosses a wash a few times, and you’ll find sandy and rocky areas.
About halfway in, you’ll be surrounded by the two Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. Stop here and enjoy the view. Past this area, the trail joins a narrow dirt road for a brief time; don’t miss the left turn when it leaves the road. Continue on the valley floor through desert shrubs, circling the left Mitten Butte before getting back to the start.
Pro Tip: Make sure to stay on the trail. People live in Monument Valley, and the Navajo don’t use fences, so you might end up in someone’s front yard.
7. Dead Horse Point Rim Trail, Dead Horse Point State Park
One of the most scenic trails in Utah, the Dead Horse Rim Trail comprises several trails connecting the overlooks in Dead Horse Point State Park. The total length of the trail system is about 7 miles; it traverses the mesa top and offers gorgeous views of the Colorado River and its canyons.
The most popular and photographed spot is the Dead Horse Point Overlook, a short paved trail from the parking lot. If you park there, you can take the trail in either direction, to the eastern or western side. Though this point is usually crowded, if you take the whole trail, you’ll find spots where you can be alone on it.
The main overlook trails are all paved and accessible, but the full trail has a few steep areas and short sections of slick rock. You can easily drive between viewpoints or walk only parts of the trail system; the views are spectacular, no matter which way you go.
8. Square Tower Loop Trail, Hovenweep National Monument
Showcasing the ruins of structures built between A.D. 500 and 1300, the Square Tower Loop Trail starts at the Canyon Overlook of the Hovenweep National Monument. The overlook is a short walk from the visitor center on a paved path.
From there, the 2-mile dirt trail loops around Little Ruin Canyon. The Square Tower Group inside the canyon, visible from almost every point on the trail, was once home to about 500 people and comprises the largest number of ancestral Puebloan structures in the area. Walking along the rim, about 0.8 miles in, you’ll reach the impressive Hovenweep Castle. Continuing along, the trail circles the canyon, returning on the opposite side. After passing the Twin Towers, you’ll walk into the canyon and cross it below, returning to the starting point at the Canyon Overlook.
The trail is packed dirt and easy to navigate, with only a slight elevation change even when entering and exiting the canyon. However, it passes over slick rock and is rocky in some areas, so make sure to wear good hiking shoes.
9. Stewart Falls Trail, Mount Timpanogos Wilderness
More than 200 feet tall, and falling in two tiers, Stewart Falls is one of the most scenic waterfalls in Northern Utah. It’s located on the east side of Mount Timpanogos. No wonder the trail leading to it is popular!
The wide and well-maintained Stewart Falls Trail descends from the rim to the base of the falls and runs 3.5 miles round trip. Starting at Aspen Grove, along the Alpine Loop Road, the trail follows the ridge above the falls, offering gorgeous views along the way. Once it reaches the falls, the trail gets steep, descending to the base of the falls. In the summer, it is great to stand right under the cold mist from the falls.
The best time to hike this trail is between May and October, and you’ll need to pay a parking fee at Aspen Grove. If you go in October, the fall colors of the surrounding forest will make your trip even more enjoyable.
What To Know Before You Go
Utah has thousands of miles of trails, showcasing some of the country’s most unique environments; this list barely scratches the surface of what is available. Hiking through this landscape is one of the most rewarding experiences.
If it’s your first time hiking in the desert Southwest, you’re in for a treat, but you need to be aware of a few things specific to the area. It is generally dry, so it is extremely important to carry water for all hikes, both in the desert and in the mountains. As a rule of thumb, make sure you bring about a quart for each mile you hike. Most trails have very little or no shade, so wear a wide-brimmed hat and use sunscreen. Always wear good hiking shoes, since even the easiest trails pass through slippery or rocky areas.
The best time to visit Utah is during the shoulder season, when temperatures are mild. As a bonus, it is also the time when you are most likely to encounter fewer crowds. But no matter when you go, have fun and stay safe hiking through this gorgeous landscape.
This article is presented by KEEN Footwear. KEEN’s Terradora II Waterproof Boots are a great choice for hiking in the Southwest. Lightweight and comfortable, they kept my feet cool and offered substantial ankle support that helped on the rocky terrain. Their sole has the perfect grip, handy when hiking on the slick rock found often in the desert Southwest, even when it’s wet or covered by a light layer of sand. Shop KEEN’s Terradoras and other hiking shoes here.