Mighty Five National Park Itinerary | A Guide to Utah's National Parks
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
Seven day itinerary to explore the the four corner states including the Mighty Five National Parks, Monuments and scenic views in Utah, Colorado, and Arizona.
I was watching TV and a commercial came on beckoning me to visit Utah. The commercial heightened all expectation for what Utah can offer. It took me through a tour of all the national parks on horseback, from behind a mountain bike, hiking up a mountain before sunrise and beneath one of the darkest starlit skies. It was so influencing that I bought two plane tickets right on the spot.
Our itinerary was the following:
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Capitol Reef National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Arches National Park & Downtown Moab
Mesa Verde National Park
Four Corners National Monument
Antelope Canyon & Horseshoe bend
If you are interested in visiting a National Park or plan to do any or all of this trip, I highly, highly recommend purchasing an Annual National Park pass. It is $80 and allows you into all National Parks for an entire year without any additional fees. The majority of Parks charge $25 or $30 per visit. The pass pays for itself very quickly.
1. ZION NATIONAL PARK
Zion is indescribable. The 12-mile scenic winding road up the mountainside reveals breathtaking views. There are many pull-offs areas to get out and enjoy the view or take photos, two tunnels, and some short hikes. A shuttle is required to get to any of the lengthier hikes in the park; notorious hikes like Angels Landing and Observation point. We never took the shuttle as we only had one full day in Zion and chose to complete a hike that was outside of the park; The Subway.
Hiked: The Subway
In order to hike The Subway, you are required to obtain a permit ahead of time. I attempted to purchase a permit online a couple months before our visit but was informed there no lottery applications available until the end of July. Even so, we asked a Ranger in the Visitor Center the first morning of our stay- and were lucky enough to get one! We learned this was very rare from other hikers we met along the way. The Subway is a strenuous 7 mile hike that brings you down a steep canyon side to climb your way over boulders, wade in and out of a creek with water levels at your knees, and up the most beautiful red rock waterfalls until you get to an incomplete, 3-walled “subway”. The subway tunnel is your halfway reward that is filled with natural blue and green pools as well as a waterfall you can walk through to get to a private 5x5 “room”. Then, you turn around and go back the way the came. The majority of the hike is in direct sunlight so the ice cold creek and pools is not only welcome, but needed. The steep climb out of the canyon at the very end is sure to incinerate any leftover energy you may have had. I had never been so happy to see a parking lot in my whole life. The hike was incredibly tough, but incredibly rewarding.
We camped for two nights in Zion at the Hi-Road campground which is at the East entrance of the park.
Fees: Entry into the park. The back country permit to hike The Subway was $15 for the two of us.
Recommendations: Wear waterproof trail shoes and a bathing suit or quick trying clothing if hiking the Subway. For other hikes, make sure to check the NPS website before your visit to see which hikes are open. Trails are often closed due to storms, rockfall, regrowth, etc.
Plan your hikes: https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/hiking-in-zion.htm
2. BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
We rose with the sun on the third day of our trip in order to get an early start driving to Bryce Canyon National Park. I really liked how easy this park was to navigate. There is a shuttle bus that takes you to every stop in the park and everything is easily walkable. The hikes along the shuttle route weren't very strenuous and can definitely be completed all in the same day. Our favorite was the Navajo Loop trail which brings you from the rim down to the floor of the canyon up to some of the well known hoodoos. The terrain of this park is truly one of a kind! Bryce Canyon made a huge impression on us and we were in awe of how the hoodoos were formed. We only spent the afternoon here because we continued on to Capitol Reef NP that night.
Fees: Entry into the park.
Suggestions & Recommendations: Park and take the shuttle.
Plan your hikes: https://www.nps.gov/brca/planyourvisit/day-hikes.htm
3. CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
The drive into the park from the west, along Scenic Byway 12, is a beautiful drive. The twists and turns give you aerial view of the region with rolling hills and canyons fading from green to red. Capitol Reef is the least visited/talked about part in the mighty five groups. While it's canyons aren't as vast as Canyonlands, and it's arches aren't as impressive as Arches, it still has much to offer. We spent time in the Orchard fields and learned about the history of the town, took the scenic drive through the park, and hiked to Hickman Bridge, Grand Wash, and Sunset Point. Make sure to catch a sunset at Sunset Point! It's a super quick hike and worth the view.
We stayed at a hotel in the nearby town of Torrey and had dinner at the Broken Spur Steakhouse which I highly recommend! The food, atmosphere, and service was amazing.
Fees: Entry fee to do the scenic drive in the park
Suggestions & Recommendations: Spend time in the nearby town Torrey.
Plan your hikes: https://www.nps.gov/care/planyourvisit/trailguide.htm
4. CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
There are three parts to Canyonlands: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. We explored Island in the Sky. We hiked to the Mesa Arch and Grand View Point. The Mesa Arch is a really popular photography spot and I had initially set out to get *that photo*, but the crowds limited my ability so we spent most of the time at Grand View Point. It's hard to write the description for the hike because IT IS SO AWESOME. I could have sat at the edge of that canyon and looked at all the different formations in the Earth all week long.
Fees: Entry fee
Suggestions & Recommendations: Make sure to walk the whole perimeter as each is unique and outstanding. Sit down and watch people dare to drive the Shafer Trail.
Plan your hikes: https://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/hiking.htm
5. ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
The Delicate Arch (pictured above) is the quintessential symbol of Utah. It is pretty amazing just how massive it is once you're up close. There are a couple different viewpoints to see it- there are wheelchair accessible trials to view it from a distance and then about a three mile hike to get to the base of the arch. If you're able, I recommend hiking to it since you're probably visiting the park to see it. Make it worth your while. Disclaimer: there is a long line to wait in to get your photo alone under the arch. We also hiked: Skyline Arch, Double Arch, and Balanced Rock. This park was cool but I feel a little jaded as it was definitely the most touristy park. We didn't spend as much time on hikes as we would have because a great deal of our time here was spent waiting in line (both to get into the park and at Delicate Arch). Aside from exploring the park, we spent a lot of time in Moab, UT. We definitely underestimated how cool the town was! In hindsight I would have allotted more time to explore what Moab had to offer.
Fees: Entry fee
Suggestions & Recommendations: Spend time in Moab. Rent a Jeep or 4x4 that is street legal.
Plan your hikes: https://www.nps.gov/arch/planyourvisit/hiking.htm
6. MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
We left Arches and drove to Colorado, pitched a tent, and then woke up SUPER early to get to Mesa Verde in order to fit into our itinerary. The drive into the park takes about an hour- but the scenery is super pretty as you're gaining elevation the whole drive. Since we were there so early, we had the park to ourselves! It was such a welcome change after being inundated with people at Arches. We took the map and did a self-guided tour on the Mesa Top Loop to all the different dwellings. While this park doesn't have epic landscapes and cool hikes, it has a rich history of the Pueblo people which I found incredibly interesting, and humbling. The dwellings range from mud holes in the ground with no real rooms or separations, to cliffside "houses" which were astounding as to how the people could build something so large with minimal tools at such a dangerous location. We didn't plan ahead for any guided tours, but I wish we could have in order to see the cliffside dwellings closer.
Fees: Entry fee. Additional fee if you take a ranger guided tour of the cliff dwellings
Suggestions & Recommendations: Go early. Reserve a ranger guided tour ticket.
Plan your visit: https://www.nps.gov/meve/planyourvisit/things2do.htm
7. FOUR CORNERS MONUMENT
The Four Corners Monument is the point where Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico all meet exactly at 90 degree angles. The "monument" is a plate on the ground with the state names surrounding it. The point of visiting is to be in 4 states at once- take THAT, Mandy Moore! We stood in line for about 15 minutes to spend 10 seconds on the plate. There are pop-up Navajo shops along the perimeter that sell stones, jewelry and dream catchers. Aside from that, there is nothing around for miles.
Fees: Entry is $5 per person
Suggestions & Recommendations: Don't go out of your way to visit.
8. MONUMENT VALLEY
Monument Valley is in the Navajo Nation Reservation. It has become increasingly popular destination thanks to movies like John Ford's classic westerns, Forrest Gump, and Westworld, and National Lampoon's Vacation, to name a few. The Tribal Park Loop (as seen in the photo above) is a self-guided drive to visit some of the more iconic parts of the park like West Mitten Butte and John Wayne's point. We camped at The View Campground (best tent view ever!) and woke up to an amazing sunrise.
If you're into the western movies, you can visit John Wayne's cabin where he stayed while filming as well as Goulding's Lodge. The museums showcase different aspects of life at Monument Valley through photos, artifacts, and movies relating to that era.
The famous long road as seen in Forrest Gump is actually not inside the reservation. It is on US-163 heading towards Mexican Hat. Be courteous to traffic as well as others who waiting for their Forrest Gump recreation photo.
Fees: Carload of 1-4 people is $20
Suggestions & Recommendations: Wake up early to see the sunrise over the valley.
Plan your visit: https://navajonationparks.org/tribal-parks/monument-valley/
9. ANTELOPE CANYON & HORSESHOE BEND
I group these together because they are about 10 minutes away from each other outside the small city of Page, AZ and the majority of people do one after the other. Everywhere we went, if we told people we were going to do an Antelope Canyon tour, the next sentence out of their mouth was, “You should do Horseshoe Bend, too!”.
Lower Antelope Canyon
There is an Upper & a Lower canyon. While the Upper Canyon may very well be the most famous slit canyon in the country, we elected to do a tour of the Lower Canyon as research proved it was less crowded and also longer. I have no way of verifying if either of these are true, but in no way did we have the place to ourselves. A scheduled tour is required in order to enter the canyon since it is on Navajo land. Tours include a guide and 15 people anxious, camera ready tourists prepared to descend into the canyon for one hour. The canyon is 120 feet below the surface at its’ full depth. The narrow passage winds and twists, letting in pockets of sun to reveal an array of orange sand stone sculpted by water and wind. The reflected light is astounding. The guides are extremely knowledgeable about the canyon and will even help you set up your camera settings depending on what time of day it is. It was AWESOME. The formation and patterns in the canyon is inspiring. The guide pointed out a lot of formations they've given names- such as the bear paw in the top left photo above. It's kind of like clouds- everyone can see something different in the walls.
Fees: The tour is $25 and there is an additional $8 Navajo fee per person.
Suggestions & Recommendations: Try not to get trapped in a picture overdose. It is beautiful around every bend, but remember to put the camera down to gaze around with fresh eyes. I found that being in the front of the tour group was best so that you don’t get stuck behind traffic when someone blocks up the whole pathway taking selfies. Also, the Navajo do not follow Daylight Savings Time.
Plan your Visit: https://horseshoebend.com/trip-planning/
This 1.5 round trip hike was short enough to make it a stop without feeling like you took too much time out of your day. Lake Powell curves around the land to make a horseshoe shape. If you’re in the area, I suggest visiting. We didn’t spend much time here other than to snap a quick photo.
Fees: There was no fee when I went but now I believe it is $10 per vehicle.
Suggestions & Recommendations: Bring water. The short hike is deceiving as it is so hot. Rent a boat and paddle around Lake Powell.
Plan your visit: https://horseshoebend.com/trip-planning/
Questions? Contact me!
Tamara Merri Photography