Home to five national parks, each with their own distinct advantages and disadvantages, it is often a topic of debate which national park is the best in Utah! Frankly, it’s all a matter of personal opinion and you really can’t go wrong with a visit to any of the Utah national parks. But nonetheless, in this article, we’ve ranked our favorite national parks in Utah using a super scientific, objective process…just kidding, this list is entirely subjective. But we hope it gives you a sense of what each park is like, including the things to love and the things to not love about each. Keep on reading to see how we ranked the best national parks in Utah and let us know what we got wrong!
OVERVIEW | BEST NATIONAL PARKS IN UTAH
Oh, Utah…the land of endless desert canyons, mind-boggling rock formations, otherworldly vistas, and a place that has captured our hearts like no other.
Throughout all of our travels, we always find ourselves making our way back to Utah, where the adventures never seem to end and just when we think we’ve seen it all, we learn about some other hike, climb, slot canyon, or remote rock formation tucked away deep in canyon country.
Put simply, there is no place like Utah in the rest of the country, the continent, and maybe even the world. It stands alone as the most beautiful desert and canyon area that we’ve ever seen. If you haven’t been, go. If you have been, go again. You’ll surely find something new to explore.
Most famously, Utah is home to the “Mighty Five” National Parks – Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands, each unique and worth a spot at the top of your travel bucket list.
But with so much to do and see, we know how overwhelming it can be to plan a trip to Utah’s canyon country. That is exactly why we wrote this article about the best national parks in Utah!
OTHER UTAH RESOURCES
This guide to the best national parks in Utah highlights the best and worst of each park. If you’re looking for details on a specific location or itinerary, you may find that one of these resources better suits your needs!
OUR LOVE AFFAIR WITH UTAH
We’ve spent about 4 months living in and around southern Utah, exploring as much as we possibly could. We have visited each of the five national parks in Utah multiple times and written extensively about our favorite things to do in canyon country.
During our travels in Utah, we often debated how we’d rank our favorite national parks, which ends up being really, really difficult because they all have unique highlights and lowlights. But based on extensive research (just kidding, this list is based entirely on our own opinions), we’ve finally put together a ranked list of the best national parks in Utah.
In all seriousness, this list is very, very subjective. It’s like picking your favorite kid. It’s impossible to objectively rank the national parks in Utah and have any sort of universal consensus. The list is based on our experiences and what we value in the places we visit.
All of the national parks in Utah are absolutely worth a visit, so you’ll just need to explore them all and let us know what you think about our list!
A NOTE ABOUT OVERCROWDING
Okay, let’s talk about the elephant in the room – crowds. There is no getting around the fact that the five national parks in Utah have surged in popularity in recent years. While visitation actually decreased early in the pandemic, it has rebounded to historical levels.
And the surge in popularity seen across the Utah national parks has happened rapidly, with little time for the surrounding infrastructure to keep up. In fact, it wasn’t until an aguably-too-successful ad campaign in 2012 that hordes of new travelers started flocking to the area.
Utah is the kind of place where locals still loudly reminisce about the good old days, before the crowds, paved roads, and short-term rentals.
All that being said, the national park service has taken steps to mitigate some of the crowds. There is so much to see and explore that it’s fairly easy to find some peace and solitude in most parks.
And despite the recent surge in popularity, it’s worth remembering that there’s probably nothing we hate more than crowds, and yet Utah is still one of our favorite places anywhere!
Remember to Leave No Trace. Pack out what you pack in, stay on trail, be well-prepared, leave nothing behind, take only photos and memories with you, treat the area with respect and help preserve this beautiful spot for generations to come.
Best National Parks in Utah
Below you’ll find our personal ranking of the best national parks in Utah. In the following sections, we’ll provide an overview of the highlights and lowlights of each park.
- Canyonlands National Park
- Zion National Park
- Bryce National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Arches National Park
How we ranked the best Utah national parks
In the spring of both 2021 and 2022, we lived in the canyon country of southern Utah. In total, we’ve lived in the area for about 5 months, spending the time exploring every park, trail, canyon, nook, and cranny we could find.
This list is based on our own experiences and what we value in a national park. It is entirely subjective but, in general, here are the things that we tend to enjoy the most, just so you can get a peek into how our opinions were formed:
- Natural beauty | Of course, the most important thing when visiting a national park is how awe-inspiring the landscape is. To be clear, all of the national parks in Utah are insanely beautiful but some are more beautiful than others (in our opinion)!
- Hiking opportunities | We love to hike so it’s important that a park have plenty of hiking trails for us to get away from the crowds and find some solitude in the desert.
- Crowds | We know that there are going to be crowds at the national parks in Utah. But some parks are better organized to handle the crowds and some simply have more space to spread out and get away from the other tourists.
- Accessibility | This kind of goes hand in hand with the previous two points, but we typically don’t enjoy parks that are set up to be enjoyed simply by driving up to viewpoints or with short, paved strolls from the car. We love parks that can be more challenging to access and have more remote areas where it takes some work to find the real beauty.
Without further ado, here is our list of the best national parks in Utah!
1. CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
- Location | Spans 330,000 acres near Moab, Utah
- Best hike | Druid Arch in the Needles District
- Best viewpoint | Grand View Point Overlook in Island in the Sky
- Where to stay | Wander Camp Canyonlands
In the land of innumerable canyons, of course Canyonlands is our favorite national park in Utah! An expansive mesa of red rock canyons carved over millennia by the slow and steady forces of the mighty Colorado and Green Rivers, Canyonlands’ landscape is diverse and awe-inspiring.
Spread across four different districts – Island in the Sky, the Maze, the Needles, and the two rivers (Colorado and Green) themselves, there is so much to explore in Canyonlands National Park!
WHAT WE LOVE
We love Canyonlands for a few reasons, but mainly, the diversity of the landscape and opportunity to explore remote areas of the desert in relative solitude.
Our favorite part of the park is the aptly-named Needles District, with its towering spires of red rock, poking out of the desert floor like needles pointing to the sky.
With most people flocking to more popular and more accessible Island in the Sky district, the Needles District is more remote and less crowded, despite being home to some of the most unique rock formations we’ve ever seen.
The Needles District also has some of the best backpacking trails in the area and is where you can find Druid Arch, which is more beautiful and awe-inspiring than any of the natural arches found in Arches National Park.
In our opinion, the 10.4 mile hike to Druid Arch is one of the best hikes in all of southern Utah.
WHAT WE DON’T
While we love Canyonlands specifically because there are areas of the park that are more remote and less crowded, this also means you’ll be driving far distances to see all the park has to offer.
In fact, to drive from Island in the Sky to the entrance to the Needles District, you’ll need to completely backtrack through Moab, taking over 2 hours in the car.
The Maze District is even harder to access. The entrance to the Maze is about 2.5 hours from Moab and then it can take you anywhere from 3 to 6 more hours before you reach the canyons of the Maze.
More so, the roads are unpaved and very rough. You will need a high clearance and 4WD. You’ll also need to be self-sufficient in the event anything goes wrong. Help is not around the corner!
Separately, Mesa Arch in Island in the Sky is the most popular spot in Canyonlands. This iconic arch is known for being a popular sunrise viewpoint, as the warm colors of the sun light up the rock formations and canyon floor in the distance, perfectly framed by the arch.
However…Mesa Arch is one of the most crowded places we’ve ever been in a national park. We showed up super early to watch the sunrise and still had to literally jostle and rub elbows with other people just to squeeze into a tiny sliver of space to get a view.
2. ZION NATIONAL PARK
- Location | Near Springdale, Utah
- Best hike | Scout Lookout/Angel’s Landing
- Best viewpoint | Zion Canyon Overlook
- Where to stay | Flanigan’s Inn
Put simply, you have to see it to believe it! The meandering Virgin River cuts through the heart of Zion Canyon’s towering red rock walls that seem to touch the clouds, making one of the most spectacular desert environments in Utah!
WHAT WE LOVE
If this list were based on natural beauty alone, Zion National Park would likely be at the top of our list of best national parks in Utah. In our opinion, Zion is the single most beautiful national park in Utah and that is saying a lot!
In addition, the two most popular hikes in Zion – Angel’s Landing and the Narrows – are super unique experiences.
The 4.4-mile hike to Angel’s Landing is extremely steep and features a final push along an extremely narrow ridge that is infamous for striking fear and trepidation into the hearts of hikers with even the slightest fear of heights.
Historically, the hike to reach Angel’s Landing has been extremely crowded, but the NPS recently instituted a permit lottery to access the final narrow ridge beyond Scout Lookout. You can read more about the permit system here.
The Narrows is a massive slot canyon, carved over time by the Virgin River flowing through the desert rock. This means that the hike through the Narrows is literally in the river!
This also means that you’ll need to check current water levels and the weather (never hike the Narrows when there is rain in the forecast, as flash floods are a threat). You will want to rent the appropriate gear like neoprene socks and shoes, waders, and a waterproof bag, which are very easy to find in the nearby town of Springdale if the water is high.
And, while Angel’s Landing and the Narrows get most of the attention, our favorite hike in Zion is actually the West Rim Trail, which extends beyond the trail to Angel’s Landing, and features sweeping views of the unique rock formation surrounding Zion Canyon.
If you’re looking for something different in Zion National Park and want to leave the crowds behind, we highly suggest completing the West Rim Trail, which can be combined with Angel’s Landing if you have a permit.
WHAT WE DON’T
in our opinion, there are two major drawbacks to Zion. First, and we know some people will disagree, it drives us crazy that the NPS built a road straight through the heart of Zion Canyon.
We know why they did it – to make the park more accessible to more people. But when you’re standing on a cliff overlooking one of the most magnificent natural wonders in the United States and your view is distracted by a paved road and endless shuttle buses, it loses some appeal.
As a result, it can be hard to feel like you’re ever fully in nature in Zion because the road through the canyon is never too far away.
The second drawback to Zion National Park is the relatively small number of hiking trails. Besides Angel’s Landing and the Narrows, there are just a handful of other hiking trails in Zion, especially with Observation Point being closed indefinitely due to a rockfall in 2019.
3. BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
- Location | South-central Utah near Panguitch and Escalante
- Best hike | The Figure 8 Loop
- Best viewpoint | Sunrise Point and Sunset Point
- Where to stay | Bryce Country Cabins
The land of pink sand and hoodoos, Bryce Canyon is unlike any other place on planet earth. In fact, you’ll likely think you’re on another planet as you wind your way through the rock formations across Bryce Canyon.
WHAT WE LOVE
If there were an award for the most “out-of-this world” national park, Bryce Canyon would easily win. With towering hoodoos of coral-colored rock, like life-sized sand castles formed by the slow hand of water, wind, and time, Bryce Canyon is unlike any other place we’ve ever seen.
It’s a magical wonderland that is more in line with what you’d expect in a Dr. Suess book than southern Utah.
The unique colors of the rock, ranging from shades of deep red to soft tan to warm pink, combined with the distinct rock formations make Bryce Canyon one of our favorite national parks in the US.
Even better, Bryce Canyon sees fewer visitors than other national parks in Utah, mainly because it is a bit farther from the Moab area and is smaller, overall. However, we love the fact that you don’t need any permits, shuttles, or tickets to enjoy the park.
WHAT WE DON’T
Our biggest knock on Bryce Canyon is that it is fairly compact and the smallest national park in Utah. We’ve visited three times and hiked pretty much every trail in Bryce Canyon. Similarly, there is no good backpacking in the national park, which is a big bummer for us.
Bryce Canyon’s smaller size has its pros and cons, however. As noted above, fewer crowds tend to visit because it is on the smaller side and you can see a larger proportion of the park in a shorter amount of time.
On the flip side, some people complain the views can get repetitive (we disagree!), and there just isn’t as much to do in Bryce as the other best national parks in Utah.
4. CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
- Location | South-central Utah near Torrey
- Best hike | Cassidy Arch
- Best viewpoint | Capitol Reef Scenic Drive
- Where to stay | Broken Spurr Inn
Capitol Reef National Park is the often overlooked gem of the Utah National Park system. While visitors flock to Arches, Canyonlands, and Zion, fewer people make the journey out to Capital Reef and we don’t understand why!
Capitol Reef is home to some of the most picturesque desert landscapes in the US, awesome and diverse hiking trails, and plenty of space for backcountry adventure.
WHAT WE LOVE
The hike to Navajo Knobs is a leg-burner, covering 9.1 miles and over 2,000 feet of elevation gain, but features sweeping views of Waterpocket Fold, which runs through the heart of the park. The hike to Cassidy Arch is much easier, clocking in at 3.1 miles and just over 650 feet of elevation gain, and takes you to an epic viewpoint of the massive Cassidy Arch.
In addition, there is plenty of remote desert wilderness along Waterpocket Fold, especially in the southern part of the park. And in the northern part of the park, you can find Cathedral Valley, one of the most iconic desert landscapes anywhere in the world.
WHAT WE DON’T
The natural geography of Capital Reef makes it really challenging to see different parts of the park in a single trip. The park runs north-south along Waterpocket Fold, with very few roads bisecting the desert.
In addition, many of the roads in the more remote sections of the park are not maintained and can be very sketchy to drive on. High-clearance and 4WD is required in these areas.
5. ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
- Location | South-eastern Utah near Moab
- Best hike | Devil’s Garden Loop
- Best viewpoint | Delicate Arch Viewpoint
- Where to stay | Moab Under Canvas
And rounding out our list of the best national parks in Utah is Arches, home to Delicate Arch, a Utah icon and perhaps the most recognizable natural arch in the world.
WHAT WE LOVE
There is no debating that watching the sun rise behind Delicate Arch is a magical experience and it still baffles my mind how such a structure can occur naturally. It is easily one of the most iconic views in America!
With such a diverse assortment of arches in every shape and size, exploring Arches feels somewhat like embarking on a treasure hunt. The Devil’s Garden Loop is the longest hike in the park and offers the chance to see many different arches along the trail.
WHAT WE DON’T
We’ll cut right to the chase – we don’t love Arches. We know it’s super popular and the natural beauty is undeniable but…it also has everything we’ve come to despise in crowded parks.
You’ve probably heard the horror stories about the NPS closing the entrance gates to Arches early in the morning on busy days. Or about the hordes of crowds and cars that have become entirely too pervasive.
Luckily, the NPS has started a new permitted entry system to help manage some of the congestion but the point remains that, in our opinion, Arches is completely overrated compared to almost anywhere else in Utah.
On top of the large crowds, constant traffic, and parking headaches, Arches simply doesn’t feature many great hiking trails. Sure, there are plenty of little pull-offs, where you can saunter down a sandy path for half a mile to see another arch. But you’re going to be accompanied by everyone and their grandma so good luck finding even a second of solitude.
While Delicate Arch is absolutely beautiful and worth a stop on its own, we just don’t think you need to spend more than one day in Arches National Park. There are so many other more remote and authentic desert wilderness experiences right around the corner.
Other Utah Resources
Looking for more inspiration to help you decide which of the best national parks in Utah to prioritize? You may also be interested in the following resources:
- How to Plan an Epic Utah National Parks Road Trip
- 18 Best Hikes in Southern Utah
- How to Spend One Day in Zion National Park: 3 Awesome Ideas
- The Ultimate Arizona to Utah Road Trip
- The Perfect 3-Day Zion and Bryce Canyon Itinerary
- 10 Best Hikes in Bryce Canyon
And with that, we’ve come to the end of our highly-scientific and unarguable list of the best national parks in Utah!
What do you think about our list? Which park do we have ranked too high? Which one is too low? We’d love to know your favorite national park in Utah! Let us know what you think!