Utah has long been known as an outdoor Mecca for adventurers from around the world. With incredible skiing in the north and deep red rock canyons in the south there is something for everyone. One of the most popular backpacking trips is to visit each of the Mighty 5. Utah boasts 5 National Parks within its borders that will take you to breathtaking heights as you ascend 1500 feet from the canyon floor to the top of Angels Landing in Zion National Park, or to heart pounding depths as you walk through red rock hoodoos that look like they are from Mars in Bryce Canyon.
Backpacking Utah’s Mighty 5
When you decide to complete the Mighty 5, start in Zion National Park and end at Canyonlands National Park spending a few days at each park exploring some of the great unique features that each park has to offer.
Just a few hours from Las Vegas, Zion National Park towers high above the desert around it. Formed by red and tan colored Navajo sandstone Zion is the 6th most visited National Park in the United States. There are plenty of hikes from those for beginners to some of the most technical and challenging canyoneering you will ever face. For beginners a trip to Emerald Pools or Weeping Rock provides a glimpse into what Zion National Park truly offers. In fact growing up in Southern Utah hiking those trails provided me a foundation for the type of outdoor activities I enjoy today. As I grew older and gained more experience I began to complete harder hikes like Angels Landing or the West Rim Trail, now I spend most of my time backpacking and canyoneering through some of Zion’s most remote deep slot canyons.
After getting a taste or more of Zion, head out the backside of Zion National Park to Highway 89 towards Bryce Canyon. If you don’t have a car you can usually find a family headed to Bryce who might let you bum a ride.
As you drive towards Bryce you will pass through Red Canyon which provides a sneak peek of what is to come. Deep red hoodoos shoot out of the ground to astonishing heights. Once you reach the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater hike down the Navajo Loop Trail, an easy 1.3 mile trail that wanders through the magical hoodoos. Spend the night star gazing in one of the darkest night skies in the United States. Make sure you have warm clothes in your pack because it gets cold camping here most nights even in the summer.
Next up on the Mighty 5 is Capital Reef National Park which boasts red rocks, high cliffs, and natural bridges. One of the best hikes in Capital Reef is Cohab Canyon which is only 1.75 miles but leads to many other great trails with some beginner slots to play in. Although not as famous for star gazing Capital Reef is a great place to see stars.
A few hours away are your last two National Parks to visit in Utah before you conquer the Mighty 5. Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are less than an hour away from each other but give you a very different and unique experience.
Canyonlands is Utah’s largest National Park and is home to three districts with three different types of landscape. Driving tourists usually spend time near Island in the Sky because of the numerous pullouts which soar high above the desert below allowing stunning views of the Colorado and Green Rivers. My favorite place in Canyonlands is the Maze District. You do need backcountry permits year around but the serenity and isolation gives you an opportunity to become one with your surroundings.
The last stop on Utah’s Mighty 5 is Arches National Park. With more arches, hoodoos and towers than anyone can count Arches National Park is a favorite for locals and tourists alike. Most people start by hiking to Delicate Arch, probably the most famous arch in the world. If you want to try something a bit different try heading to Landscape, Double O Arch, or get permits and hike the Fiery Furnace.
As a backpacker I could easily spend a week in each National Park and feel like I hadn’t even scratched the surface, but if you are short on time you can see or hike the Mighty 5 in a week and get a taste for what Utah has to offer. Trust me you will be back.
Michael Sproul currently lives in Utah. He is an avid traveler and outdoor adventurer. He usually spends the weekends looking for his next great adventure. You can connect with him at thecarefreetraveler.com or connect with him on Twitter.