Epic Utah trip: 5 National Parks in 4 days

We just spent Easter weekend hiking the 5 Utah National Parks in 4 days.  

This trip happened because Andy said, "I have a three day weekend!  Let's go somewhere!"  I said, "I read this blog that said you could do all the National Parks in Utah in a weekend!"  And so we were off.

We were out of Dallas on the first flight to Las Vegas on Good Friday morning and we arrived back in Dallas on the last flight Monday night.  (We added Monday to the weekend because Easter Monday should be a thing in America.  Until it is, we'll just make it so.) 

In between those two flights, we drove the scenic route all the way across southern Utah and back again, about 900 miles round-trip.  

Pretty sure those words--"the scenic route"--were invented for Routes 12 and 24 in Utah.

We managed to put our tennis shoes on about 20 miles of trail in Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks.  

While we were walking this weekend, Andy and I were recalling some of the great places we've been able to hike in the past: the rainforests of Papua New Guinea and Kauai; the olive groves and rocky coves of Cinque Terre in Italy; the mountains around Banff and Jasper and Vancouver in Canada.  These hikes in Utah were right up there with the best walks we've ever taken, anywhere.

So, if you, like me, are a freak for natural beauty but have to ration your vacation days like a boss, here's how we hit the highlights of all the awesomeness of southern Utah and still made it back in time for work on Tuesday morning.

Our plan was to pick one good hike at each park, and then drive the rest of the park while stopping at overlooks and getting in any other short hikes that looked interesting.

Zion National Park

We arrived at Zion just after noon on Good Friday.  It was, unbeknownst to us, the end of Spring Break week in Utah.  This meant that Zion was EXTREMELY CROWDED.  We had to park in the town of Springdale and stand in lines like we were waiting for a roller coaster to get aboard the shuttle up into the park.

But it was worth the wait.

The famous hike at Zion is Angel's Landing, but we knew we didn't have time for a 5 miler with an elevation gain of 1,488 feet that's supposed to take 4-5 hours.  

Instead, on the opposite side of the canyon from Angel's Landing, we hiked Hidden Canyon, 3.2 miles with a gain of 1,128 feet.  We still got to climb along the side of the cliff, hanging onto chains, but it only took us an hour and a half.  

At the top, we scrambled up to where we had this overlook all to ourselves.

Then we had time to catch the shuttle up to see the rest of the canyon, and back down to stroll Lower and Middle Emerald Pools, where the trail takes you behind the waterfall.

Having seen the canyon, we thought we had seen the park.  We shuttled back to our car to drive on to our AirBnB for the night.

And then there was The Drive: the big rocks, the tunnels, the wildflowers, even a herd of buffalo...

The next morning we headed out before the sun was up, driving along the Sevier River valley.  We'd climbed into some elevation during the drive up from Zion, and it was 25 degrees with patches of snow still on the ground and a serious windchill.  

This was definitely the day for the fleece-lined tights I'd packed after reading that there could be big temperature differences between the parks. However, I'd been so hot at Zion the day before that the fleecies were still in my suitcase and I spent most of the day shivering in capris instead.  I was grateful for the packable down jacket I'd added to my suitcase at the last minute. Gloves and a beanie would have been welcome, as well.  Here's my little memory device for next time around:  Bryce Ice Baby.

Bryce Canyon National Park

In contrast to Zion, Bryce was nearly deserted when we arrived at 7:30 Saturday morning, and it never crowded out like Zion, even though it was a free admission day and a weekend.

This meant that we hiked among the hoodoos from Sunrise Point to Queen's Garden and Navajo Loop, to Sunset Point and along the Rim Trail almost in silence.  It was heavenly.  

2.7 miles, this hike took us 2 hours because we took so many pictures along the way.  I've heard this trail called the best 3-mile hike in the world.  The photos almost do it justice.

As we drove the rest of the park all the way out to Bryce Point, stopping at view points along the way, First Aid Kit's Hard Believer offered us these lyrics:

"It's one life, and it's this life, and it's beautiful."

Indeed.

We loved Bryca Canyon so much that we thought about ditching the rest of the trip and staying right in this spot forever.

But we'd challenged ourselves to do all 5 parks, so we forced ourselves onward, via Scenic Route 12, which turned out to be a national treasure all of its own.  Crazy beautiful, all 111 miles of it.  This is where I just started dash-camming it.  

Capitol Reef National Park

We rolled into Capitol Reef about 4:00 Saturday afternoon.  This is a pretty small park, mostly a historic site where there are petroglyphs along the cliff walls, and restored pioneer cabins.

We drove out to the end of the road and hiked a ways through Capitol Gorge.  Up on the canyon wall, pioneers had carved their names as a register of their passing.  Slogging through deep red sand gave me a solid appreciation for the toughness of anyone who traveled this way before God blessed us all with 4 wheel drive vehicles.

That night, we backtracked west about 15 miles for our Air BnB.  Andy couldn't remember why he'd decided to backtrack, until we started driving early Sunday morning, and we realized there's 136 miles of amazing scenery, but not much else, between Capitol Reef and Moab, where our final two parks are located.

Arches National Park

When we arrived at Arches, we drove all the way out to the end of the road and hiked the Devil's Garden Trail out to Dark Angel.  There's very little shade on this trail, and I wouldn't want to do it in the summer.  For us, though, it was 6 miles in perfect spring weather.

With lots of rock scrambling, arch exploring, and lunch along the way, it took us almost 4 hours.

The first part of the trail is wide and paved, all the way up to Landscape Arch.

After Landscape, there's a rock scramble that winnows the crowd, then two more arches: Partition and Navajo.  At Partition, you can climb out through the arch and sit on the edge, overlooking this spectacular view.

After Partition and Navajo Arches, there's a bridge section of trail. challenging for those afraid of heights, fun for those invigorated by heights.  

The payoff on this trail is two more arches, a gorgeous overlook, and finally the monolitic Dark Angel, where we found ourselves completely alone for our lunch break.  

I think if I were visiting Arches in the summer, I would curtail the Devil's Garden hike and spend more time on the shorter hikes that would be less taxing in the full sun.  If you're visiting with kids, the area around Windows and Double Arch are fantastic: very close to the road and lots of rock scrambling and exploring available.

Delicate Arch is probably the most famous arch in Utah.  We opted to check it out from the viewpoint below the arch, rather than taking the 3-mile hike in for a closeup photo, because we knew we still had one more park to go before we slept.

Canyonlands National Park

The expansive views of Canyonlands (Island in the Sky district), it turned out, were the perfect fond farewell to our speed-tour of parks.  

Our final hike: 2 miles out along the canyon rim to Grand View Overlook.

We drove out of Canyonlands at dusk and found our way back to Green River and a motel bed.  Monday, we drove all the way across Utah, knicked the corner of Arizona, and arrived back in Las Vegas for our flight home, tired, full of gratitude for the endless beauty of the earth, and already thinking about "next time."

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