By the time late March rolls around, most of us are ready to move away from winter activities and get back outside as the weather warms. But as we all know, the Inland Northwest can be a real mixed bag of weather in the spring, and you will likely still have a lot of mud to contend with.
One possible remedy to this situation is a Spring Break road trip to Southern Utah’s National Parks. Sometimes called the “Mighty 5” or the “Big 5,” they include Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. You might think all desert parks would look the same, but you’d be mistaken—each has a very unique geology and attractions and stands on it own as a wonderful destination.
Better yet, spring temperatures will be more moderate and the crowds will be much smaller than in the summer. Come April 1, don’t you think hiking on a dry trail in 71-degree weather will feel pretty good? If you want to investigate further, here is an overview of some options for each park.
Arches National Park
Located just outside the city limits of Moab, Utah, this park has a number of good trails of varying levels of challenge. My favorite is the Devil’s Garden in the northern end of the park, which takes you past a wide array of the arches for which this park is named. The iconic Delicate Arch is located in the eastern part of the park, and the best views can only be earned by hiking 3 miles round-trip.
Canyonlands National Park
This park is just a short drive from Moab and Arches National Park. It can be tricky to plan for because the mighty Colorado and Green Rivers—the watercourses that carved these amazing canyon formations—divide it into three districts. The Island in the Sky district is closest to Moab and offers numerous day hikes and some longer options if that’s what you are looking for. There are shorter hikes to various overlooks like Upheaval Dome, Grand View, and Mesa Arch, but if you want a little more distance, a number of trails descend the west side of the rim down to the Green River. For the hardier travelers, the Needles and Maze districts offer some true solitude in some of the roughest and most remote territory to be found; however, make sure you bring plenty of water into this foreboding country.
This park is named for a long geologic formation resembling an underwater reef. It is a bit less frequented—especially in the southern portion (accessed from the Nottam-Bullfrog Road) where the adventurous will find Headquarters Canyon and several other slot canyons. If you stay closer to the central part of the park, day hiking options abound and provide a lot of great sights. My favorite is Cohab Canyon, with Hickman Arch and Grand Wash as close seconds. If you are looking for overnight backpacking options, you might be better served visiting the other parks.
A surprising fact about Bryce Canyon is that it is actually quite high in elevation, in the range of 8-9,000 feet. Come April, you may still have some snow lingering at these elevations, but that will make for more spectacular photographs as the white contrasts with the vivid oranges, reds, and yellows of the hoodoo formations. Day hikes abound in this park for all ability levels, and you must try the Queen’s Garden to Navajo Loop trail combination that takes you right through the heart of the hoodoo formations. Longer hikes and backpacking options are available by hiking north-south under the rim of the mesa. The colorful hoodoo formations in this park contrast the pine forests and provide one of the must stunning visual displays you will ever see.
Zion offers many excellent opportunities for day hikes with breathtaking views. It also boasts a premier canyoneering experience on a trail called “The Narrows” where you are essentially hiking up a shallow canyon stream for miles and miles. The vast majority of the hikes start along the main road that goes along the Virgin River corridor. The Parks Service requires you to use their shuttle system to access this area during busy times. While originally skeptical, I came to appreciate this arrangement because they do a fine job, and you never have to wait too long. Check out Emerald Pools, Hidden Canyon, and Angel’s Landing—if you aren’t afraid of heights! There are also fun areas to explore off the East Entrance road if you don’t mind going off trail a bit.
Tips for Planning Your Next Utah Hiking Trip
- Be sure to check out each park’s website and click on “Plan Your Visit.”
- Water can be scarce in all of these parks, so bring hydration packs or water bottles for the trail.
- The showers might not be turned on at some campgrounds this early— bring wipes, sponge bathe, or find a hotel.
- The town of Moab hosts a 4×4 Easter Jeep Safari from 3/24-4/1. The 4x4s won’t be in the parks, but they’ll be out and about on the abundant BLM land. // (Harley McAllister)
Harley McAllister is a Spokane area author who writes guidebooks for family vacations to the National Parks. He last wrote about cherishing public lands in the August issue of Out There.
Feature photo: The Vast reaches of Canyonlands. // Harley McAllister