The Mighty Five Utah National Park Vacation

We just got back from the most fabulous trip to Utah (and briefly, Arizona and Nevada) and I am so excited to share all of the wonderful things we did, saw, and experienced over our trip!

Out of the 62 National Parks across the United States, Utah is home to what is known as the “Mighty Five”– Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Zion. Patrick and I love hiking and exploring places outdoors, and a trip to Utah had been on our bucket list for years. It truly felt like the perfect timing for this trip after most of our travel plans were cancelled due to the pandemic this year. And we couldn’t think of anything better than some socially-distanced hiking/time in nature!

And we had such a wonderful time! It was the best reminder of how much beauty there is in our own country when most international borders remain closed. Utah’s landscapes are stunning and the range of National Parks and hiking was unparalleled to anywhere I’ve been before. Enjoy the breakdown of our trip itinerary and all of our recommendations of places to stay, eat, and play!

 

DAY ONE

We took an early flight from Atlanta to Salt Lake City and landed just in time for an early lunch. We picked up Sweet Lake Biscuits and Limeade (highly recommend their mint limeade!) and ate in a local park to enjoy some fresh air. We then took a quick drive around downtown Salt Lake and Temple Square, home of the largest Mormon Temple in the world. Growing up with a few Mormon friends in Northern Virginia (which has a relatively large Mormon community!), it was cool to see this landmark.

After our hour or so in Salt Lake City, we ventured to Big Cottonwood Canyon for a scenic drive right outside the city. This was our first look at the beautiful Utah mountains and we were SO excited. We stopped a few places along the way to take short walks and enjoy the views.

Then we hit the road for the 3.5 hour road trip to Moab, Utah. Moab quickly became my favorite town in all of Utah– Moab is surrounded by two National Parks (Canyonlands and Arches) and is full of great food, eclectic shops, and cool locals who have a deep love for the outdoors. We stayed at the Homewood Suites right in the heart of downtown and had a great experience… the rooms were HUGE and each had their own kitchen, small dining area, and living space.

Our first night in Moab we opted for dinner at the Moab Brewery with my parents who had arrived a few days prior (both my parents AND Patrick’s parents met up with us for portions of this trip and we had a blast with them!)

DAY TWO

For this trip, we tried our best to stay on East Coast time (2 hours ahead) for as long as possible to make it into the parks each day just before the sunrise. This was a great strategy because we were able to beat the crowds (you were potentially waiting hours to enter the park and find parking if you arrived after 8am), it allowed us to take advantage of the cooler weather, AND we were able to see epic sunrises almost every morning.

For our first day in the National Parks, we visited Canyonlands National Park with my parents. Pro tip: If you’re planning on visiting more than 3 National Parks in a year, buy the America the Beautiful National Park Pass which gives you unlimited access to ALL National Parks for 1 year.

We started the day at the Mesa Arch watching the sunrise (this is an easy, under 1 mile round trip hike) and it was totally worth it to see the sun rise over the breathtaking canyon.

Next we headed to the Grand View Point Trail (another easy 2 miles roundtrip) to take in even more canyon views.

Then we finished up the day in Canyonlands with a hike on Aztec Butte– our favorite hike of the day! Aztec Butte is a moderate 2 mile out and back trail that involves rock scrambling to summit the Butte. There were also 2 Puebloan granaries built by Native Americans to store their food. Overall, this was an awesome hike and the views from the top of the butte were epic!

After we hiked the butte, we headed back to Moab to freshen up and my Mom and I did a little shopping in the cute boutiques in town and grabbed a snack at the famous quesadilla truck, Quesadilla Mobilla.

We finished our day with a sunset Jeep Tour with Dan Mick’s Jeep Tours. And our guide was the legend himself, Dan Mick! The tour was thrilling as we drove over cliffs (going vertical at times!), on top of boulders, and we enjoyed the incredibly scenic views of Moab. Dan told us some crazy stories, and he is truly the pioneer of the jeeping community in Utah. About halfway through our tour, Dan got a call that a local had flipped his jeep in one of the most dangerous obstacles on the trail. So we took a little detour to help. Thankfully, everyone was ok and it was an oddly a cool experience to be a part of a rescue. Highly recommend Dan Mick’s Jeep Tours! We ended the day with Zax Pizza for dinner (yum!)

DAY THREE

On Day 3, Patrick and I headed out to explore Arches National Park on our own. We arrived just before sunrise to hike Devil’s Garden, a difficult 8 mile trail system where you see 7 different arches. It was epic! If you plan on attempting this hike, definitely bring LOTS of water (at least 2-3 liters per person) and give yourself 4-5 hours. The primitive trail portion of the hike is more advanced and only recommended for those with proper hiking shoes and not for those with fears of heights.

After Devil’s Garden, we decided to “quickly” hike Delicate Arch. We thought this hike would be easy at only 3 miles, but boy were we wrong. Park rangers recommend you allow 2-3 hours for this hike and there is zero shade as it climbs steep, rocky terrain. We mistakenly did this hike at 2pm (with almost 90 degree temperatures) and to be honest, it was pretty miserable. However, 100% worth it for the incredible views of possibly the most iconic arch in the park!

After more than 8 hours of hiking, we returned to the hotel and freshened up for a fancier dinner at Sunset Grill. The grill sits up on a cliff overlooking the city of Moab and the views (and sunset!) were amazing. The food was good, but you’re definitely paying for the experience.

DAY FOUR

Then it was off to Torrey, Utah to visit Capitol Reef National Park! Capitol Reef is by far the least visited and lesser-known National Park in Utah, but it ended up being one of our favorites! It was beautiful and we hardly saw any people! And the landscape was breathtaking!

We only had a half day in this park, but oh boy did we make the most of it. We started with the Cassidy Arch hike which was a strenuous 3 mile hike with a lot of elevation gain. When we got to the top and saw the magnificent arch, there were actually people rappelling (which was terrifying to watch with the Arch being more than 400 feet tall).

After finishing the Cassidy Arch, we took the scenic drive through the park to the Capitol Arch trailhead which was SUCH a cool drive (took us around 30-45 minutes) but the drive was breathtaking and we stopped a lot along the way to take pictures.

Next, we did the Hickman’s Bridge hike, a much easier 2 mile hike to another arch. Again, we only saw 4 other people on the trail which was such a contrast to the other parks! We also saw some petroglyphs (pictured below). And then we wrapped up our day snuggled up on a rock watching the sunset at Sunset Point.

We stayed the night at the Red Sands Hotel and ate dinner at a classic diner, Slackers. There are not many options in Torrey for dining and hotels but we were very pleased with this hotel and restaurant!

DAY FIVE

The next morning we hit the road to Kanab, Utah, a small town outside of Zion National Park. But before we left Torrey, we grabbed coffee at Dark Sky Coffee— SO good! While at the coffee shop, the owner recommended that instead of going to Kanab via Highway 89, we should take the slightly longer (by only 10 minutes) route on Highway 12. Highway 12 weaves through the mountains, Dixie National Forest, and the Grand Staircase National Monument– SUCH a good call for the beautiful scenery.

When we arrived in Kanab, we met back up with my Dad (my Mom didn’t come this day because she is scared of heights) and saw Patrick’s parents for the first time on the trip for a canyoneering day with Kanab Tour Company. It was SO much fun to rappel and hike through the slot canyons! I would highly recommend this activity to have some of the most beautiful slot canyons completely to yourself and our guides at Kanab Tour Company were so fun and knowledgeable. By the end of the day, we felt like old friends!

After canyoneering we checked into our hotel, the Fairfield Inn and Suites outside of Zion National Park. This hotel is about 10 minutes from the park entrance and was a bit more cost effective than other options. However, there was absolutely zero cell phone service at the hotel (at least for Verizon!). And while most of the parks had no service, the hotels were normally pretty good about having decent cell service. This normally wouldn’t be a huge deal, but Patrick had to drive the 10 minutes to the more populated part of town several times to make work calls which was an inconvenience.

Our first night in the Zion area we grabbed dinner at Stage Coach Grille. The food was good, but the service left something to be desired.

DAY SIX

This was our one and only day in Zion National Park and we opted to do the famous “Narrows” hike. The Narrows is a hike through a canyon with spectacular views but there’s one catch– the entire hike is through ankle to chest deep water. It was October, and the water was 61 degrees, so we rented special boots, dry pants, and walking sticks. (You can rent gear through Zion Outfitters right outside the park– the gear is CRUCIAL for being able to complete this hike safely). The Narrows is one of those hikes that can be as long as you’d like it to be since it’s just an out and back trail. Most people opt to do a few miles of it and turn back when the water gets thigh deep, but we were determined to do the entire thing (12 miles in total).

The nice part about us doing the entire trail is that about 3.5-4 miles in, most of the crowds thinned out and we had the place to ourself which was SO nice. Although the Narrows was an absolutely spectacular hike (especially when we lost the crowds), we were a little bummed with how crowded Zion was overall. With the pandemic and international travel being restricted, one of the rangers told us that they’re experiencing 5-10x the visitors right now which meant it felt VERY crowded. After hiking 12 miles and being absolutely exhausted, we waited well over an hour to catch a shuttle back to the parking lot which was definitely a little frustrating.

Note: Due to the nature of the hike, I sadly did not bring my professional camera this day. I was too scared it would get submerged in water! So below are some iPhone shots.

After our hike, we met both sets of our parents for dinner at Bit and Spur for some delicious tacos and margaritas!

Also a shoutout to Cafe Solei where we ate every breakfast and lunch during our time in Zion!

DAY SEVEN

We went back to Kanab for another adventure with Kanab Tour Company! This time, we went ATVing, sand boarding, and hiked peek-a-boo slot canyon! This was SUCH a fun day that we shared with both sets of our parents and again, I highly recommend any of the day trips with Kanab Tour Company– they’re awesome! (Again, no fancy camera on this day, but here are some iPhone pics!)

After our adventure (and a quick bite at Houston’s in downtown Kanab– yum!) we drove to Lake Powell (on the border of Arizona and Utah… literally! Our phones kept switching time zones depending on which part of the resort we were in!). Both of our parents joined us in Lake Powell because we were all there to cheer on Patrick as he ran his 3rd half marathon! We also met up with two of Patrick’s college buddies, Ben and Ty, as well as my best friend from high school and her boyfriend, Leanne and Nick. They traveled from Illinois, Florida, and New York, respectively. We checked into the Lake Powell Resort and our group of 10 got a little rowdy at the pool bar that night, but it was so fun to be be surrounded by our parents AND our 4 dear friends. Although a bit pricey for the accommodations offered, we LOVED the Lake Powell Resort. It is the only hotel right on the water with scenic views all around! We also loved the pool restaurant and bar (Driftwood Lounge) and we befriended the bartender over our 3 nights there (shoutout to Sean!).

DAY EIGHT

Race day!! We woke up well before sunrise to drive Patrick and Ty (our two runners!) to the race start line. Then, a few of us tracked Patrick and Ty all over Page, Arizona to cheer them on along the race course. It was so fun and a great way to see the town!

Our entire group met up at the finish line to see them cross at mile 13.1! We were SO proud of them especially given how difficult the course was– 2+ miles in deep sand, fully on trails, and 600+ feet of elevation. They killed it!

We spent the rest of the day by the pool and relaxing before catching the sunset at Horseshoe Bend and grabbing BBQ for dinner at Big John’s Texas BBQ.

DAY NINE

While our time hiking through the parks was go-go-go, I finally felt like in Lake Powell we were able to relax a bit. And we had such a fun day renting a boat to explore the lake! Now with it being October, we were worried it may be a bit chilly for boating, but we were blessed with the most gorgeous 84-degree day!

We rented a 12-seater pontoon boat from the Lake Powell Resort, and hit the water with my parents, and our 4 friends. After boating around the lake and taking in the breathtaking views, we decided to go to Antelope Canyon. Now Antelope Canyon is normally accessed by land, and is a VERY popular tourist destination. However, due to COVID-19, the canyon was closed via road but there is a way to access it by the lake. We were so happy that we were able to see this spectacular canyon with far fewer tourists than normal.

We spent the rest of the day swimming, cliff jumping, and taking in the views while enjoying some drinks. Seriously, if you go to Lake Powell I HIGHLY recommend renting a boat to get the full lake experience. Although a boaters license is not required, both Patrick, myself and my parents are all certified boat captains and we found it very helpful to have boating experience.

DAY TEN

Then it was time to visit the fifth and final Utah National Park– Bryce Canyon! We convinced our friends Ben and Ty to come with us for this one, and we set off for the 2 hour drive from Lake Powell to Bryce. We checked into the Best Western Plus and then hit the trails!

Patrick and Ty were still pretty sore from the half marathon, so we opted for the the 3 mile Queens Garden to Navajo Loop hike– the most popular trail in the park and for a good reason! It was BEAUTIFUL. Seriously, Bryce Canyon is like nothing we had ever seen before and we were awestruck the entire time. The trail was busy, but never felt overly crowded like in Zion. The latter half of the day we drove the scenic highway around the park stopping at overlooks along the way and just spending quality time with our friends.

And it was Ty’s birthday! So we celebrated (with our parents who were also in Bryce!) at the SUPER delicious Stone Hearth Grille. It was our one fancy meal of the trip and I was in heaven with their locally sourced beef, and wonderful wine selection. You need reservations if you want to eat here!

DAY ELEVEN

On our final day, we woke up for one last sunrise. We headed to Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon and watched as the sun rose over the hoodoos. It. was. breathtaking. However, it was VERY cold. 28 degrees at sunrise and it got up to 87 by the end of the day, so the key to this day was dressing in alllll the layers.

After sunrise, we hit the road for our 4 hour drive to VEGAS! Although we didn’t spend much time in Vegas before catching our flights home, we did make sure to grab In-N-Out and drive up the Vegas Strip. Then we headed to the airport, boarded our flights, and flew home to Atlanta.

I hope you enjoyed this trip recap! Feel free to leave me any questions! Overall, highly, highly recommend a trip to Utah. Such a freakin’ beautiful state!! Until next time!

xoxo,

Marybeth

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marybeth marlow  photography

ATLANTA BASED DESTINATION WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHER