Betsy, Olivia and I spent an adventurous week out West last month visiting Utah and its five national parks, known as The Mighty Five. We lived to write about it.
Thankfully our trip didn’t mimic a Griswold’s family vacation. We had a blast. The only hiccup was an excursion getting canceled last minute (saving us $500). We also had to adapt to our rental car, which was nothing more than a glorified golf cart but managed to get us over the mountains, down dirt roads and through four states.
The Mighty Five include some of the most beautiful and popular national parks in the country, all easily accessible to each other. Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands attract millions of visitors a year from all over the world.
Our flight touched down in Las Vegas before lunch and 20 minutes later we were driving towards Springdale, Utah, home to Zion National Park, arriving in time for an afternoon swim followed by a margarita and nice dinner at Bit & Spur, a local Mexican joint, walking distance from the hotel. The next night we enjoyed pizza at Zion Pizza & Noodle Co.
During the busy months Zion visitors are required to use the free park shuttle service, a private service or bike to travel around the park. The shuttle service can get very busy, so we made reservations in advance with a private service to get us to and from The Narrows, a picturesque “bucket list” hike that takes you wading miles through the Virgin River within a slot canyon; just be sure to bring a hiking stick. I didn’t attempt Zion’s other “bucket list” hike - Angel’s Landing. I could easily blame it on the hours-long wait, but I’ll admit I skipped it for health reasons, as in, I don’t want to fall to my death. Betsy would have done it.
Bryce Canyon was our next destination, located about an hour from Zion. We took full advantage of the half-day we were there, hiking the Navajo Loop Trail and Queens Garden before ascending the steep switchbacks of Wall Street to some of the most spectacular views of the canyon.
The drive across Utah was almost as exciting as the hikes. The three-hour white-knuckle jaunt from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef along Scenic Byway 12 dips and rises between 4,000 and 9,000 feet through the canyons with little room for driver error. It is considered one of the most scenic drives in America and almost worth the trip alone.
We really enjoyed our time at Capitol Reef and our stay at the local Red Sands Hotel in the small town of Torrey (pop. 260). We started our morning with a fresh-baked pie at the Gifford House, located inside the park. We then hiked Capitol Gorge and parts of the Frying Pan Trail, where we saw ancient petroglyphs etched into the canyon walls.
My favorite hike of the trip was probably Cassidy Arch, named after the outlaw Butch Cassidy who used to hide out in the canyon. Olivia did her own hiding out and opted to stay behind and nap in a water pocket eroded into the rock landscape, while Betsy and I continued on. The two-hour hike includes some steep inclines, switchbacks, rocky terrain and takes you close to some nerve-racking edges on a few occasions. The views are breathtaking, especially once you arrive to the arch, which you can walk across if you dare. If you are really brave you can bring some rope and rappel the 1200 feet down, as we watched three ladies do.
It’s not uncommon to see big horn sheep, elk, snakes and even mountain lions while exploring. Friends who just returned from a similar trip encountered all four.
We got a good night’s sleep and the next morning made the couple-hour drive to Moab where we would spend our last three nights. We made a detour on the way to visit Goblin Valley State Park and walked amongst the thousands of unique goblin-like hoodoo structures created by forces of nature.
In Moab our hotel sat alongside the Colorado River and at the foot of Arches National Park. Canyonlands was just a thirty-minute drive down the road; we’d tackle it the next day, but first dinner and a little shopping in town, followed by Olivia humiliating me on the hotel basketball court.
Betsy and I enjoy hiking. I’m also 54 and love air conditioning and a comfortable mattress, so we typically skip the sleeping under the stars routine. The hotel options were plentiful, as are camping and RV sites, just be sure to plan and book far in advance.
At Canyonlands we hiked the hot and not very shady Grand View Point Trail with awesome views below of the Colorado and Green Rivers converging. Later we would visit Dead Horse Point State Park and hike a couple more miles before an Italian dinner in Moab at Antica Forma and taking advantage of the late sunset by the pool.
We made sure to be inside Arches before 7 a.m. the next morning to avoid being turned away, which has become a daily occurrence. I planned our trip to visit the busier parks (Zion and Arches) on weekdays in hopes of avoiding the largest crowds.
Our drive around the park included a quick stop at Delicate Arch, the most famous of the more than 2,000 arch formations in the park. Betsy pulled out the map and decided we would hike Sand Dune and Broken Arch Trail. Like the name implies much of the hike was through desert sand, a few slot canyons and across rock formations to reach several arches. It was really neat to be able to get up close and even climb onto several of the arches.
We took Scenic Byway 128 from Moab to Grand Junction, Colorado to catch our afternoon flight home. The road winds along the Colorado river for almost 50 miles cutting through towering rock formations that hugged the road. It was a gorgeous way to end our trip.
Bring your patience if you plan your trip during the summer months. Parks around the country are seeing record number of visitors and I’m not going to lie, it got really crowded at times. But there are remedies. Get an early start to your day, explore some of the lesser-visited areas and trails and have an alternative plan. We’ll visit again. You can’t do it all in a week and we were careful not to try, it was after all a vacation. We even managed without ever turning on a television.
Hiking essentials include a backpack, water - lots of it, sunglasses, proper shoes, sunscreen, hat, a weather eye - pay attention, it can change quickly, walking stick if you hike the Narrows, life insurance if you hike Angel’s Landing, and a National Park Pass - $80 covers admission for all national parks for a full year. And remember – leave nothing behind.