Utah National Parks Travel Guide
Utah is full of incredible sights and beautiful nature. Prior to this trip I had read blogs, watched travel guides, and created a "Utah Checklist" for a dream trip to hit some of the top destinations. When Mike and I had to push our real honeymoon (to Bali!) back a year, we decided that a hiking trip is COVID-friendly and budget sensitive meaning that we could pull off an affordable trip out West. Little did we know that this trip would be one of the best adventures that we've ever been on.
Since I had basically planned how I would conquer this state a few years ago, it came down to finalizing logistics and timing. Our route looked like this:
- Fly into Vegas
- Zion National Park - 3 days
- Capitol Reefs National Park - 2 days
- Arches National Park - 2 days
- Salt Lake City - 1 day
- Fly home from Salt Lake City
This would mean we'd start in Nevada, drive east into Utah and continue east across the entire state before heading to the north to end the trip. Coming from Michigan, we lost 3 hours going to Vegas, but by the time we made it to Zion, we GAINED an hour back. So, our entire trip was 2 hours behind our "home" time. But for planning purposes, you need to take note that you'll lose an hour when driving to the national park. Another note, waking up early is easier when you're use to getting up early in EST time :)
Zion National Park - leg 1/3 (3 days)
I highly recommend making this your first stop out of the mighty 5, if possible. Zion is pure bliss and full of hard hikes. Getting your hiking in early will not only be easier physically, but it also creates excitement for the rest of the week at the other stops! Zion is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. It is the perfect combination of mountains, red rocks, greenery, water, and so much more. The park is kept in top condition and not one ounce of trash in sight. The park is extremely visitor- friendly.
Key notes about Zion Park:
- You must take a shuttle to every trailhead. This is a lot easier than it sounds. Simply park your car at the park and once you're ready, make your way to the back of the park where you buy your park pass and head to the shuttle. Every shuttle makes every stop; you'll see the maps on the shuttle or map guide.
- You can rent equipment at the front of the park at Zion Outfitters. Equipment is only truly needed for the Narrows Hike. I highly recommend getting the entire set: socks, shoes and the stick.
- Use the restroom before getting on the shuttle AND before the hike! Because hikes are long and you'll be drinking water, you don't want to get stuck having to use the restroom so take advantage of every opportunity.
This hike is perfect for a travel day/ introduction to Zion. We hiked Emerald Pools the day we got into Zion. It is shorter and you have the option to control just how far you want to go. There are 3 sections; upper, middle and lower pools. Each section is unique with different watering holes and waterfalls to hike around. We thought this hike was incredibly enjoyable. Although a bit easier than the other hikes, you still must be aware of hiking up hills and rocks as this is your new reality for the next week hiking these National Parks!
Photo taken at Emerald Pools. Long line sports bra from Balance Athletica and shorts from Outdoor Voices. My shoes are old running shoes from Mizuno.
Hiking the Narrows is quite the adventure. On day two, we got started early. I did a very short workout at the hotel and we left by 7 am. It is about an hour drive from where we were staying and once we got into the park, recieved our rented equipment, and hopped on the shuttle... it was about 9 am by the time we got started on the hike. All of these hikes take a lot of time just to get started!
To start, you will hike about 1 mile on a dirt path that is gorgeous. At the end of this path, you'll hit the water. From here, its trudging! You'll be in cold water for a long time- pretty much the entire hike. There are times you'll get to land, but you'll quickly need to hop back in the water. The hardest part about this hike are the rocks IN the water. You will need to find your balance within the running current on rocks that are uneven. The most exhausting part of this hike is the mental concentration of getting through the Narrows.
The Narrows path is about 4.5 miles down in total; but it is a down- and - back trail. Therefore, you're able to turn around whenever you like. I had high expectations that we would do the entire journey but after realizing how challenging it is to hike upstream in water, we decided to do 2.5 miles down. We still got amazing views and laughs to cherish and remember! The hike back (another 2.5 miles) isn't as easy as you'd hope. The current is pulling you the direction you want to go, increasing your chances for falling. So, utilize the walking stick and be careful!
Hiking the Narrows with gear from Zion Outfitters (shoes, socks and hiking stick). My favorite crop top is from Balance Athletica. The shorts are silky and soft with an under lining short from Acta.
Possibly the best hike in Zion and of our trip. I had heard of this hike months before our trip; another goal that I wanted to smash. Angels Landing is a 2.75 mile hike up a cliff (5.4 miles total) with the most challenging obsticles. The first 2 miles are easy in my opinion but many people would disaggree as it is ENTIRELY up a paved cliff of switchbacks. Being cardiovascularly fit, I didn't have a problem with this part but many hikers were hunched over the side, unsure of going further. I can say if you cannot make it up the first two miles, there is absolutely no way you will do the last .75 miles. This isn't to scare you, it's to help motivate you to train and prepare your body for the adventure.
The last .75 miles are spent navigating your way up a cliff holding onto chains. Holding onto these chains is essential for staying on the cliff. If you have poor grip strength or upper body gets fatigued easily... again, i would turn around as this is quite challenging from here. Balance is of the essence because one mis-step is doom. There have been many deaths on this portion of the hike, so understand that this is a tough feat!
Hiking Angel's Landing in our new hiking shoes from Danner boots. I cannot recommend these hiking shoes enough! Perfect traction, water resistant and VERY cushioning. We loved them. My sports bra is from Lululemon and my spandex shorts are from Acta.
Zion is located in a cute town with a decent amount of restrautnts. To be safe, I made reservations for our dinner destinations before our arrival; however we chanced lines and waiting for lunch. Luckily, we didn't have to wait at all! August seems to be the parks 'slow time' as business picks back up in the fall.
The first two mornings, Mike and I ate quick breakfasts to get on the road early. I must preface, that for my body and fitness level, I am very accustomed to working out fasted. So, eating a lighter breakfast was enough fuel to get me through the most challenging hikes. PLEASE assess your energy levels and movement for the day in regards to how you will pre-fuel.
I stuck to eating Thunderbird Energy Bars and a packet of Bowmar Nutrition protein mixed with water. I loved the taste of Thunderbird bars; they're very similar to RX bars with minimal ingrerdients. The sugar content, from dates, gave me ample amount of energy.
The last day in Zion we ate at our resort before hitting the road. Canyon Breeze has a buffet for breakfast that is full of nutritious options; my stable is egg whites, turkey patties, shredded potatoes and fruit.
Our lunch stops were my favorite meals in Zion. After hiking Narrows, we ate at Soleil Cafe which is in walking distance of the park entrence. The whole cafe is extremely healthy with smoothies, salads and wraps. Mike and I ate outside, drank cold brew and ate our salads. Highly recommend the greek salad with chicken! After our Angel's Landing hike, we ended up eating at Zion brewery located just outside the park entrence. Not only was the beer ice cold and much deserved, but the nutritious apple pecan chicken salad was out of this world. I made a few modifications like no cheese and dressing.
Our first night (after our Emerald Pools hike), we ate at Switchback Grill. Although a bit fancier, we felt very comfortable here in the brightly lit room overlooking the beautiful mountains. My salmon was huge! The wine was also good. The second night, we ate at our resort, Canyon Restaurant. They had really fun specials and everything on their menu had a healthy twist on it. I got their special fish of the night, swordfish, over the antioxidant salad. It was SO good. Our last night at Zion, we opted to order sushi takeout close to our resort. We had just had our massages and were in no rush to get dressed up and leave. So, a little picnic under the pink skies was calling our name! The simplicity of this night was so incredible, it was probably my favorite dining memory at Zion.
Photos from top left to right bottom: Salmon from Switchback Grill, hanging out at our resort, swordfish from Canyon breeze, dessert from Canyon Breeze, takeout sushi, and enjoying the sunset at our resort.
While at Zion, we stayed at Red Mountain Resort which was about an hour away from the park. I wanted to stay here because of the wellness focus at the resort. They had extremely healthy options at their restaurant, a spa for massages, and a lovely fitness center. If you are planning to stay at Red Mountain Resort, I highly recomend taking advantage of their activities. They have guided hikes, kayaking, fitness classes, cooking classes, and more. We did not do any of these extra peices because of our schedule; but it was very nice to see offerings like these!
Red Mountain Wellness Resort
The last night at Zion, Mike and I got 90 minute deep tissue massages at Red Mountain Resorts spa, "Sage". After given a tour and changing in the locker room, we went into a room with two beds and two massage therapists and they went to work! My therapist added cupping on per my request. Although the cupping was a nice touch, it personally wasn't as "deep" as I am use to- I probably wouldn't do it again.
Capitol Reef National Park - leg 2/3 (2 days)
Capitol Reefs is such a "Wild West" experience. Located in Torrey Utah, it was about 3 hours from Zion by car. The drive is very rural with no cell service so take necessary precautions and load your maps beforehand!
Key notes about Capitol Reefs:
- There are not a lot of restaurants. Most of the restaurants we had planned to go to were closed on Tuesday and Wednesday; the days we were there. So be flexible and patient if oartyour plans change last minute!
- It is truly very rural compared to Zion. This is the best part about Capitol Reefs.. we loved every second of it.
- You'll notice "layers" in the rocks. Capitol Reefs was once entirely under the Pacific Ocean; so the layers are different sediments formed from the depth of the water. It is truly a sight to see both up close and far.
- If you've never seen wild cows, you're about to! Drive into the forest-region (there is a national forrest about 20 minutes outside of the park) and you'll see 20+ wild cows roaming and grazing. It's quite the sight to see!
Hiking with Llamas
The first day at Capitol Reefs we planned to do a fun/easier hike since it was technically a travel day. We signed up to do a 2 hour hike guiding llamas with Wilderness Ridge Trail Adventures. It was one of the most fun experiences of our trip! A tour guide met us at our resort and gave us the run-down on handling these llamas. He was still going to guide us through the trail but he wanted us to entirely be responsible for our llamas. No, you cannot ride them but they are able to carry your backpack if that's needed. We walked through amazing valleys and mountains with our llamas and they walked at a decent pace. Normally they followed us and we super friendly! Our tour guide was great and personable too. At the end, Mike and I were surprisingly very tired and ready to give our llamas some treats and relax.
Hiking with llamas! My llama's name was Pudge and Mike's was Hennesy. They were adorable and fun! My entire outfit is from Balance Athletica and my shoes are old running shoes from Mizuno.
I had originally planned for Mike and I to do some different hikes this day but we decided upon referrals from others to do Cassidy Arch. I am so happy we did because it was a challenging trail with the most spectacular reward at the end.
Cassidy Arch was named after the wild-west outlaw Butch Cassidy; who would hide out in these parts for months on end from the police. The arch is also one of the only arches you can walk on top of! After a very hard hike uphill (and actually got a bit lost and went way further than we needed to) we sat in silence on Cassidy Arch for quite some time. The beauty, the deafening silence, and the satisfaction of a hard hike was indescribable.
Slide through photos from left to right: Walking on top of Cassidy Arch, picture of Mike and I at the start of the hike (bottom of mountain), and a photo of me mid-way through the hike because I couldn't believe how high we were!! My sports bra is from Acta (extremely comfortable); my spandex from Balance Athletica and my hiking boots from Dinner Boots.
On the same day we hiked Cassidy Arch, we decided to do the 2 mile Hickman Bridge hike. We were absolutely exhausted and by this point we were pushing our luck with this hike. It was mostly uphill and when we arrived at Hickman Bridge, we stopped and chugged water and ate protein bars. We were gassed but if we hadn't done a hard hike before, this one would have been more enjoyable.
The only day we ate breakfast was our hiking day. We ate at our resorts restaurant which was surprisingly very good. The restaurant was called Pioneer Kitchen; it was honestly very old and looked a bit like a diner. The food was magnificent and in good portion sizes. We were very impressed.
Mike and I didn't have lunch the entire time we were here. If we needed a snack, we would break into a protein bar. But I must mention the adorable shop inside Capitol Reef National Park that sold mini homemade pies. Mike had the cherry pie and claimed it was fabulous.
After our llama hike, Mike and I ate at Rim Rock. To be honest, the food was "okay". We ate at the restaurant and I got a very basic salad with salmon and wine. Nothing spectacular. If we could do it over again, we would've gone to Rim Rock's patio where they sold amazing huge pizzas, beer and finger food. We got drinks and dessert there afterwards and saw the array of pizzas come out and greet picnic tables full of families. It looked phenomenal.
After our 2-hike day (day 2), we actually drove about an hour to a restaurant called Hell's Backbone Kitchen. I have a lot of thoughts on this restraunt. First off, the food was outstanding. Everything was grown on their farm and was vegetable forward. The presentation was flawless and the ingredient list in the dishes was extremely impressive. Our waiter was lovely and took any allergy or accommodation seriously. Now, for the vibe of the restaurant.. it was a bit uncomfortable. The owner/ or manager, was approaching tables all around us asking if they were COVID vaccinated and making comments on "how dumb the town was" for majority of its community not being vaccinated. It truly was disappointing in general to hear her talk to strangers like that outside of your vaccination stance or not. In my opinion, if you care that much then put a sign out and require vaccination cards at the front entrance Then you won't have to make people feel awkward/ not welcome if they are not. She did not approach our table with these questions or comments. But it created a tension in the restaurant that was unneeded.
Photos from top left to bottom right: Rim rock trout appetizer, Pioneer Kitchen breakfast, Rim Rock grilled chicken dinner, Hell's Backbone Kitchen beef and vegetable salad, Hell's Backbone Kitchen zucchini fritters, and Hell's Backbone Kitchen lavender gin drink
We stayed at Capitol Reef Resort and absolutely loved it. The resort had a restaurant, pool, fitness center, and multiple accommodation styles. Mike and I stayed in a standard 1 bedroom room that had a back balcony that overlooked the rocks. They had glamping options in Tee-Pees and in wagons, bigger accommodations that resembled "tiny homes" and more. They had excursion options like the llama hiking along with Jeep tours. It truly was perfect and we would stay there again. The view was impeccable. Every room had the same view of red rocks and beautiful skies.
Photos from Capitol Reef Resort
Arches National Park - leg 3/3 (2 days)
Arches is located in Moab Utah, an adorable town with national parks and national forests surrounding it. Arches was a bit hotter and more humid than the rest of the parks on our trip. I am not sure why; I assume because it is the most Eastern national park in Utah.
Key notes about Arches:
- Unlike Torrey Utah, there are tons of restaurants to chose from here! I advise to make reservations at your spots prior to your trip.
-There are a lot of activities to do other than hiking, so do your research before!
- While hiking, this was the first time we felt "surrounded" by people. I am fine with sharing hiking space; but from going on hikes by ourselves to now crowds of people, it took some getting use to.