Say “national parks” and most of us conjure up images of snowcapped peaks, tree-lined slopes, wooded trails and wildflower-filled meadows. But in the otherworldly landscape of southern Utah, five national parks put visitors in the center of deserts, canyons, mountains and rivers — a stunning setting that proves Wallace Stegner was right when he called the national parks “the best idea we ever had”.
Utah’s Big 5 — Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks — are easy to explore on your own, no matter your fitness level or outdoor interests, but even easier with a guided vacation.
Trafalgar, a leader in guided vacations, has a quartet of killer tours that touch the Big 5 and include everything you need to get a taste for these national parks and others. On “Best of the Canyonlands”, you’ll hit Arches and Canyonlands; with “The Trailblazer” you’ll visit Bryce and Zion; and on “Canyon Country Showcase”, you’ll get to Arches, Capitol Reef and Bryce. Because the Big 5 sit within easy distance from several other national parks and monuments, you’ll pay a visit to places like the Grand Canyon; Monument Valley; Lake Powell; the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona; Mesa Verde; and the Four Corners. However, Utah is always the showstopper.
What can you expect when you visit the Big 5? Big landscapes for one. Awe inspiring views. Wildlife from some of the best birding in Utah to mountain lions and deer. Hiking, biking and even whitewater rafting. you'll also get an idea of just how diverse and amazing the parks can be.
Sunrise and sunset are spectacular here, but so are backcountry hiking and camping, mountain biking the 100-mile White Rim Road, and even whitewater rafting through Cataract Canyon or flatwater paddling the Green or Colorado rivers.
The largest national park in Utah and biggest of the Big 5, Canyonlands is the kind of place where you want to take your time. Divided into several districts, Island in the Sky is the most accessible and offers striking views of mesas, fins and other geologic features. The seven-day “Best of the Canyonlands” tour begins in Denver, Colorado, and makes its way to Canyonlands and Arches national parks for a day of hiking and self-guided exploration before moving on to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mesa Verde National Park. The trip ends with two days in and around the Grand Canyon and Lake Mead before ending in Las Vegas, quite a contrast to the solitude and nature of the parks.
Wind and water have shaped the stone of Arches National Park into miraculous shapes that beg for exploration and photography. With more than 2,000 natural stone arches — including Landscape Arch, with a 290-foot span, it’s the second largest in the world — and countless towers, fins and balanced rocks, it’s an unforgettable place. Families love the accessible trails and photographers visit for sunrise and sunset when the light is perfect for capturing this landscape in all its majesty.
Fewer people visit Capitol Reef than the other parks in the Big 5, which is unfortunate, but it means those who do visit can experience the wilds and charms of this park more intensely than others. At times Capitol Reef looks like it’s the center of a snow globe, with pillars and spires of rock supporting a broad dome of sky and cloud overhead. Underfoot, the sand, stone, deep canyons, hidden arches, and almost secret places have a feel that you are the only person around. This is the ideal park if you want solitude and adventure, as the off-road tracks and trails will bring you to places where nothing exists except you, the earth and the sky.
Bryce Canyon shows its age in the best way possible. First, the landscape was carved over millennia by water and wind; second, the bristlecone pine trees here are as much as 2,000 years old; and finally, stargazing here allows you to peer into the depths of the past and spot stars billions of years old. It’s a place like no other. On the 18-mile scenic drive that is Highway 63, you’ll get the chance to stop by iconic viewpoints like Sunrise Point and Sunset Point (the best times to visit these, incidentally) and Inspiration Point (which is an understatement). Immerse yourself in the landscape on day hikes or big overnighters. However, whatever you do, take time to sit and be still here, become part of the landscape, and wonder at nature.
However you choose to experience Zion National Park, it won’t be enough and you’ll soon be back for more. Adventure-seekers come for canyoneering (a sport that combines rock climbing, rappelling, swimming and hiking to explore seldom-seen parts of the park), rock climbing, mountain biking and backcountry camping. However, most visitors come to see the landscape, hike a little and take in all they can. Three scenic drives — Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, Zion Park Scenic Byway and Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway — are musts for first-time (or even long-time) visitors.
Trafalgar’s “Trailblazer” is a great way to explore both Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. The eight- day tour begins and ends in Las Vegas, but quickly swaps the glitz and glitter of the city for the serenity of the national parks. Begin with a trip to the Grand Canyon and spend the night in the lodge there. You can also take an early-morning flight over the canyon before making your way through the Kaibab National Forest to the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, where you’ll have time for a jeep tour through red rock country. Head to Lake Powell and Monument Valley where you’ll have time to float down the Colorado River or visit Antelope Canyon. Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks are the next stops, where you can join park rangers on bird watching hikes, guided tours of canyons and waters, or explore on your own.
As with all Trafalgar tours, you can add on new experiences like jetboat rides on the Colorado River and helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon. You’ll also experience some of the best lodging the national parks offer.
For an extensive national parks experience, consider the 12-day “Canyon Country Showcase”. It makes a spectacular loop from Las Vegas to include some of the most stunning scenery of canyon country. Travel along Route 66 to the Grand Canyon where a rim-ride gives countless jaw-dropping views of the canyon. Stop by the Wupatki National Monument, where the 100-room Wupatki Pueblo and other pueblo ruins will amaze you, then relax at Lake Powell for the evening. Explore Monument Valley with a Navajo guide and learn more about the history and legends of this place. At Four Corners you’ll be able to stand in four states simultaneously, then head to Durango, Colorado, for an optional ride on the Narrow Gauge Railway and an exploration of Moab, an awe-inspiring red rock landscape. Visit Arches National Park for a day of exploring on your own before a driving tour of Canyonlands National Park. On day ten, visit Capitol Reef for a taste of this Mars-like park before wrapping up the trip with two days in Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.
Get out and explore America’s “best idea!" Stop by your local AAA office and speak with a AAA Travel Agent or call 800-750-5386 for more information.