We have toured Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Arches National Park, and Canyonlands National parks.
If you’re doing a clockwise circuit of the five parks (Mighty 5), start at Zion, then Bryce, and on to Capitol Reef. From there it’s roughly another 200 miles to Arches and Canyonlands, just 30 miles from one another.
Capitol Reef National Park is a world of spectacular colored cliffs, hidden arches, massive domes, and deep canyons. It’s a place that includes the finest elements of Bryce and Zion canyons in a less crowded park that can offer a more relaxing experience than either of those more-famous Utah attractions.
The park preserves the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold, a mammoth buckling of the earth’s surface (“waterpocket” refers to the potholes that dot the sandstone and fill with rainwater). The park’s name combines the popular term for an uplifted landmass, “reef,” with a visual resemblance of the park’s many white Navajo Sandstone domes to that of the nation’s Capitol Building.
You will find numerous first-rate RV parks in Moab, or camp in Arches or Canyonlands—or in both. Arches offers Devils Garden Campground (which can be booked in advance), and Canyonlands offers Island in the Sky and The Needles campgrounds, both first-come, first-served.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) presents a number of nearby campgrounds. Horsethief Campground, on edge of Canyonlands is almost as handy to Arches National Park and just $8 a night. You’ll be able to enjoy the stunning sunsets over the Green River Canyon.
Moab is a busy town, humming with restaurants, motels, bike shops, and canyon tour-providers.
It’s no surprise that Arches National Park is one of the top national parks in America: it’s a 73,234-acre wonderland of eroded sandstone fins, towers, ribs, gargoyles, hoodoos, balanced rocks, and, of course, arches, northwest of Moab.
The park protects an amazing landscape that includes the largest proliferation of arches in the world. Over 2,000 arches (with an arch considered an opening with one side at least 3 feet wide) have been catalogued in Arches National Park. Landscape Arch, measuring 306 fragile feet, is the second-longest span in the world and it’s a sight you will never forget.
Nearby Canyonlands National Park offers the most impressive canyon vistas.
Until 1869, the huge Green and Colorado River watershed was uncharted on U.S. maps; John Wesley Powell, a geologist and one-armed Civil War major, set off in May 1869 with four boats and nine novice boatsmen to explore the Green and Colorado rivers—to make their fortunes and chart “the great unknown.”
When he reached the rivers’ canyon country in July, Powell noted the party had entered a “strange, weird, grand region” of naked rock, with “cathedral shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance.”
He would finish the harrowing journey three months later with two boats and six men and a tale of exploration that would capture the nation’s imagination.
We visited the northeast “Island in the Sky” section of Canyonlands; overlooks such as Grand View, Buck Canyon, and Green River evoked the spirit of Powell as he contemplated this alien territory 149 years earlier. The blue, red, and pink colors of the vast Green River and Colorado River Canyons that converge here are not soon forgotten.
In nearby Horse Canyon, ancient Puebloan people’s ruins can be toured, with stone homes and food storage built into a ledge far up the canyon wall. Pictographs left by the ancients are also found throughout many of Canyonland’s dry washes.
If your schedule permits, return on a southerly route to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim open May 15-October 15). With only about 10 percent the visitation of the southern rim, it, too, is a spectacular destination.
On the approach, you may see some of the 400 herd of bison that make that part of Arizona home.
Destination is merely a byproduct of the journey.