Utah is renowned for its “Big 5” national parks—Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion—and for good reason. It’s difficult to come up with enough superlatives to describe their natural wonders. Each park is unique in its own right and worthy of a visit. Which you choose to visit depends a bit on your interests, but you really should visit them all if you can.
Traveling during the global coronavirus pandemic certainly impacted some of the experiences. All parks were open, but many of their ranger-led programs were canceled or their visitor centers were operating in a limited capacity. For the most part, visitors complied with the social distancing and masking guidelines, but there were a few stubborn exceptions. Being in a wide-open park away from others really minimized the risk.
Utah also has some brilliant state parks that rival the Big 5 and are worthy of a visit. The problem, as with all trips, is that there’s not enough time for all of it, so you’ll have to prioritize your list.
For me, I had been to Zion National Park twice before, with the most recent trip in October 2019, and I had never been to the other four. Seeing them became my priority.
When planning this trip, I did a lot of research on Arches and Canyonlands and based my stay on when the full moon would be rising over some of the rock formations. (Yes, photographers plan trips around the moonrise times.) I did less research on Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon and spent less time in those two parks. In retrospect, I found Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon to be far more to my liking, and regretted not spending more time in each.
One thing is for certain. If you aren’t into wide-open, flat, high desert spaces, geology, soil mineral composition, sedimentary rock formations, erosion, or river-carved canyons, this might not be the trip for you. But then again, it’s exactly because of all of those things that makes Utah’s Big 5 so stunningly beautiful, so go!
Arches National Park
One of the first things that surprised me about Arches National Park was its entrance road. We’ve all seen some of the iconic photos of the arches and rock formations out on pretty wide-open spaces, so I thought you’d just drive in from the main highway, U.S. 191. Wrong.
You immediately start driving up this canyon wall on a two-lane road with multiple switchbacks, allowing you to gain several hundred feet in elevation. One you reach the top, you see the high desert landscape dotted with the massive rock formations that you were expecting.
Many of the popular formations are within a few hundred yards of the parking area, with easy walks to reach places like Park Avenue, Balanced Rock, Double Arch, the Windows, and Turret Arch. The park’s most famous arch, Delicate Arch, is about a mile and a half hike from the parking lot with a 480-foot elevation change.
Arches was the busiest of the parks that I visited, by far. In fact, on the day that I was there, I drove all the way to the end of the main park road at the Devil’s Garden only to find there was no parking available, and a ranger was directing folks to come back later. Sites along the way, like the Fiery Furnace suffered from the same problem.
After being up early to shoot sunrise, I decided not to fight the crowds and headed back to the hotel for a little siesta. On my way out of the park, I noticed the gate was closed for entry because the park was “full.” I could only imagine how upset you might be if you drove all the way out to the park to find it closed. (Can you say, “Clark Griswold and Wally World??”)
The park reopened in the late afternoon and it was great to see the setting sun paint the rock faces a brilliant orange, and later the moon rising above them. Even later in the evening, the full moon illuminated the rock formations in a soft light.
Click on any image to enlarge.
Canyonlands National Park
About an hour west of Moab by car is the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park. It’s aptly named because you’re driving on top of a mesa, looking down into canyons on all sides of you.
The Colorado River to the east and the Green River to the west have carved through the layers of rock over millennia to form the vast, deep canyons we see today. Just south of the Grand View Point Overlook, the two rivers merge into one and continue south to carve out the Grand Canyon.
Interestingly, Canyonlands is the home of the world famous Mesa Arch, and photographers clamor for a prime spot in front of the relatively small arch to capture their own version of the iconic photos. I drove past at an hour before sunrise on my way to the Green River Overlook, and there were easily 40-50 cars parked in the Mesa Arch parking lot. While they were elbowing each other for room, one other photographer and myself were a couple of hundred feet apart at our location.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Along the road to Canyonlands, there’s a side road that will take you to Dead Horse Point State Park. Legend has it that ranchers used the peninsula-shaped mesa to keep their horses there. The legend was a bit more fuzzy about the “dead” in its name.
Along the way to the actual overlook, there were several campgrounds, some including yurts that you could rent.
At the point, there is a commanding view of the Colorado River winding its way south.
Goblin Valley State Park
After four nights in Moab, I headed west toward Bryce Canyon, and I stopped at Goblin Valley State Park along the way. The park is known for its unique rock formations that resemble mushrooms, trolls, or goblins (use your imagination).
It was a great stop for an hour or so, and you can walk among the “goblins,” some just a few feet tall; others easily 10-12 feet tall.
Capitol Reef National Park
Probably like many others, I really had no preconceived notion of what Capitol Reef National Park would be like, and I was more than pleasantly surprised. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to spend more than a few hours there.
As you enter the park, there’s an area called Fruita, where early settlers established orchards that still exist to this day. There’s an old homestead, a blacksmith shop, and a beautiful campground.
In many ways, Capitol Reef reminded me of Zion National Park with the massive colored cliffs and trees that were absent at Arches and Canyonlands. It’s definitely someplace that I would like to explore more extensively.
Scenic Utah Highway 12
While I was at Goblin Valley State Park, I spoke with a young couple about our travel plans, and they gave me the tip to take Utah Highway 12 to Bryce Canyon instead of the route I originally planned. It was a great suggestion.
The road climbed all the way to 9,000 feet in elevation, putting me in a pine and aspen forest that was in full autumn color, which is something that I really needed to see.
The highway also took me into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its multi-colored hoodoos–large rock formations caused by erosion over thousands of years.
I arrived just before sunset and checked into my room at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon before running off to Sunset Point to capture the light on the hoodoos. It was magical.
The next morning, I was the first at Inspiration Point to capture the light of the rising sun on the hoodoos. It was a brisk 38 degrees with a constant 10-15 mph wind at the 8,000 foot elevation.
Traveling during a global pandemic certainly made me a bit more cautious about some of the things that I saw and did. The town of Moab looked like it was an interesting place to explore, with many different shops and restaurants. I avoided it all to maintain my social distancing.
One thing that surprised me was the weather for most of the trip. It was in the upper 80s to mid 90s most days and, for me, that wasn’t conducive to being overly active in the middle of the day in a high desert environment. Lows were in the 30s and 40s, so it was quite chilly getting out for sunrise photos. (A funny side note: I was about halfway to Las Vegas when I realized that I didn’t bring any jacket or coat with me. That required a stop at a store in St. George to buy a new jacket.)
I did a lot of driving to and from photo locations around Moab. In fact, I drove 640 miles over the three and a half days I was there. Many of the locations were 30-40 miles (one way) from my hotel, and I would run out to one for a morning sunrise photo, and then I’d head back to town for a meal and maybe a little siesta after getting up at 4:30 a.m. Later in the afternoon, I’d head back out to catch the light at sunset. Crazy, I know. But better than hanging out in 90-degree midday sun in a high desert environment in a black car or hiking around with no shade. (Yes, I freely admit I’m a heat wimp.)
If I were to plan this trip again, I would definitely consider spending more time in Bryce and Capitol Reef and less time in Arches and Canyonlands. Don’t get me wrong. All were beautiful and appealing in their own ways. It’s just that I found the scenery of Bryce and Capitol Reef more interesting to me.
About the Photos
One final note about the photos. Yes, those really are the colors of the rock formations. This isn’t me going hog wild with the saturation slider in Lightroom. In fact, I toned down the orange saturation in a couple of photos just to make them a little less vibrant.
|Total Driving Time||47 hr 20 min|
|Total Distance Driven||2,347 miles||3.778 km|
|Fuel Consumption||29.2 mpg||8,0 l/100 km|
|Average speed||51.0 mph||82,0 km/h|
|Lowest Temperature||34° F||1° C|
|Highest Temperature||104° F||40° C|
Click on the red camera icons to see my photo from that point.