The Mighty Five.
It sounds like the name of a John Wayne western, but the term often refers to Utah’s five magnificent national parks. Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks stretch from west to east across southern Utah’s high desert. Each park boasts unique and jaw-dropping geological features and captivating landscapes. From towering rock walls, natural arches, and distinct stone pillars — all decorated in otherworldly colors from earthy reds to shining pinks to deep purples — these parks have inspired countless geologists and artists.
Tourists from across the globe descend upon Utah’s parks, many only spending a day or two. However, these natural wonders are worthy of longer visits to further explore, experience, and enjoy these special places. Regardless of how long your trip is, however, the park service offers numerous educational programs to do just that. These programs provide visitors with in-depth knowledge and a broader context of aspects of each park, from wildlife to geological makeup to human history. Best of all, they’re free.
Here’s a look at some of the best.
1. Ride With A Ranger In Zion
Zion National Park draws the most visitors to Utah’s parks. When you’re standing in the middle of the park’s eponymous canyon, fixated on the sheer sandstone walls towering 2,000 feet above you seemingly painted in shades of dusty brown, rusty red, and smokey white, it’s easy to understand why.
If these canyon walls could talk, they would spin wonderful tales of the region’s past, but another option is to sign up for the popular Ride with A Ranger Program (typically runs late spring through early fall). On this two-hour tour, you’ll take a bus into Zion Canyon with a park ranger providing detailed stories and fun facts about the park’s many wonders.
Each tour covers a particular subject. For instance, you may learn about the humans who have passed through this region over the millennia. According to park service historians, evidence of human activity in Zion dates back to 6,000 BCE. Ancestral Puebloans later developed societies in the region, cultivating both squash and corn — no small feat in this desert climate. By the time Mormon settlers arrived in the mid-1800s, southern Paiute Indians had called the canyon home for more than 700 years.
Pro Tip: Check in at the visitor center for updated information on this program. Also, sign up early as the tour fills up fast.
2. Geology At Sunset Point
The scenic drive through Bryce Canyon National Park entices visitors with its bountiful overlooks, but perhaps none as sweeping or breathtaking as Sunset Point. From here, the park’s mesmerizing geologic features, hoodoos, fins, and rock walls stretch out for miles. In the sunlight, they glow like embers of a fire. As enchanting as the view is, it’s hard not to wonder how this strange, magical scene came to be.
Fortunately, the park holds daily Geologic Talks from the overlook where tourists learn about the park’s fascinating history. Park staff explain that oxidized iron deposits laid down tens of millions of years ago lend Bryce’s sandstone features their glorious red and pink hues. Speaking of those features, the hoodoos, those stone pillars the park is known for, are formed as a result of water seeping into the sandstone walls. Due to Bryce’s higher elevation, it experiences wide temperature swings. When the water freezes, it expands causing the sandstone to fracture. As this process repeats itself over millennia, you get one of the most memorable landscapes on earth.
3. Why Capitol Reef Is Worth The Visit
It’s hard to imagine, given how desiccated Capitol Reef National Park’s rocky, dusty landscape appears today, but 280 million years ago, the park was underwater. Indeed, the region has undergone many transformations over the eons, from a beach-like environment to a swampy rainforest. This geologic backstory and much more are covered in the daily Geology Talk, which serves as an excellent introduction to a park visit.
Capitol Reef is the least-visited of Utah’s national parks, but, in fairness, the competition is stiff. Those that do visit are rewarded for their effort. As explained during the talk, the park owes its name to white dome-shaped rock formations that early pioneers thought resembled the Capitol Dome in Washington, D.C. The park is also part of a 100-mile-long ridgeline that proved a significant impediment to travelers in the 1800s. So, the area was dubbed a “reef” for being an obstacle to land travel in the way that coral reefs are to ships. Today it is a destination, not an obstacle.
4. Caves And Cowboys At Canyonlands
Of Utah’s “Mighty Five,” Canyonlands National Park reigns as the mightiest — in terms of acreage, anyway. Canyonlands is the state’s largest and most remote national park. Divided up into four districts, most tourists visit the park’s northern district, Island in the Sky. Perched on a plateau, this region boasts viewpoints where you can gaze into the endless canyons.
The less-visited Needles District has its own set of attractions — and ranger programs — including the Cave Spring Guided Walk. On this ranger-led hike, participants gain a deeper understanding of the area, particularly human history. As its name suggests, the Cave Spring Trail sports both a reliable water source — rare in these parts — and a natural shelter from those scorching midday rays.
Along the trail, hikers find the remnants of a cowboy camp dating back to the late 1890s. Indeed, ranchers used camps like this into the 1970s. The ranger guide will point out evidence of human activity in this area that is far, far older though. Near the small spring that has been a lifeline for centuries, pictographs decorate the rock walls, made by distant ancestors of today’s Native Americans.
5. Windows And Mazes At Arches
Just 5 miles outside Moab, Utah, sits the entrance to Arches National Park. Home to the largest concentration of natural arches in the world, the park also houses other geological formations, like balanced rocks and petrified dunes. But, nothing beats standing beneath the park’s namesake geological features.
From spring to fall, rangers lead guided walks through the Windows section of the park. This section of the park is popular because several awe-inspiring formations are situated near each other. The one-mile loop trail passes the North and South Windows as well as Turret Arch. Rangers go into detail about the geological history of the area, uncovering the mystery of how these rock formations came to be and how the power of erosion continues to shape the landscape.
More adventurous and experienced hikers will want to sign up for the guided Fiery Furnace Hikes (there is a charge for these). Rangers lead visitors through the maze that is the Fiery Furnace area of the park. This hike is more challenging, so do your research before committing to it.
6. The Stars Come Out At Night
When the sun goes down on the Mighty Five, the southwest landscape may disappear, but a whole new spectacle unfolds. The night sky sparkles as far as the eye can see, an increasingly rare phenomenon in the developed world. Utah’s national parks are all designated International Dark Sky Parks and Sanctuaries — perfect destinations for the budding astronomer. All five parks offer astronomy or night sky programs at varying times throughout the year. Check each park’s website or visitor center for an updated schedule.
Pro Tip: If you’re visiting in the summer but plan to participate in an astronomical ranger program, don’t forget to pack some warmer clothes. Utah’s canyons can get chilly in the evenings.
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