5 Expert Tips for Visiting Utah’s 'Mighty Five' National Parks — From the Best Hikes to Ways to Beat the Crowds

A-List travel advisor Mary Cropper points explorers to the best of the southwestern U.S., from lesser-known hikes to favorite viewpoints.

Mountains of Zion National Park

Lauren Breedlove/Travel + Leisure

The wind-carved hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, the rainbow-rock mesas of Capitol Reef, the red-stone curves of Arches, the gorges of Canyonlands, the soaring cliffs of Zion — Utah’s "Mighty Five" national parks spotlight and protect a mind-boggling diversity of ecosystems. But, finding the best way to explore them can be overwhelming for first-time visitors, as I've seen during my years as an A-List travel advisor.

But with a little forethought and planning, a visit to all five parks gives you the best opportunity to explore Utah’s natural playground. Here are a few tips I’ve learned from my own travels to help you make the most of your time. 

Landscape high angle view from Sunset Point Overlook cliff edge at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah with yellow flowers in foreground during day
Springtime in Bryce Canyon National Park, looking out from Sunset Point.

krblokhin/Getty Images

1.   Plan well ahead.

All of the national parks have seen a sharp uptick in visitors over the past few years. To protect the delicate natural landscapes, the park service has started enforcing strict limits on the number of visitors to some areas. You’ll also need to book certain hikes well ahead of time. For example, my favorite hike in Zion, the Subway, is limited to just 80 people a day, a tiny fraction of the 5 million who usually visit each year. 

Additionally, the best hotels fill up quickly. If you have special requests, like adjoining rooms for a family, you’ll need to plan even earlier. 

2.   Guides make a difference.

I always recommend doing at least a couple guided tours. Not only will your guide take care of all the logistics, including permits, they’ll also add depth to your visit. The striations of a canyon wall become much more compelling when someone points to a layer and says, "That was the fallout from the meteor that probably killed the dinosaurs." They can also teach you about the people who inhabited these areas for tens of thousands of years. 

A guided tour can also help you see the highlights of the park, even if you’re not up for a rigorous hike. Drivers are trained to reduce their impact on the parks’ landscapes as they take small groups of people around in 4x4s. If you are interested in some adventure, I would include some rugged outings like canyoneering, horseback rides, kayak tours, canoe trips, and whitewater rafting. Most of these tours are with a handful of other visitors, but if you have a family of four or more, a private guide might make more sense, logistically and financially. 

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, UT.
The Delicate Arch in Utah's Arches National Park.

Mark Brodkin/Getty Images

3.   Travel in the off-season.

It can be tricky to appreciate nature’s majesty when you’re jostling for space among a throng of visitors. Families tend to visit in the summer, for obvious reasons, so you’re automatically going to encounter fewer people if you go when school is in session. 

Spring and fall have other advantages, too: wildflowers or changing foliage decorate the landscapes and wildlife is livelier as it recovers from, or prepares for, the long winter ahead. In fact, October is my favorite time to visit — the rusty red desert landscape contrasts beautifully with the crisp blue skies, and the comfortable temperatures make hiking much more pleasant. 

Green River Overlook in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The Green River overlook in Canyonlands National Park.

Don White/Getty Images

4.   Get up early (and go farther).

Early birds get the best views, and you’ll usually encounter fewer crowds if you can get an early start. For example, Zion’s signature day hike is the Narrows, a strenuous route that takes you along the rocky bed of the Virgin River itself. The views from the bottom of the canyon are entirely worth the effort, but the trail requires some special gear because you’ll be hiking through running water. Most hikers get up early to rent a kit (which typically include poles, water shoes, and Neoprene bibs in colder weather) from outfitters at the park’s gate. However, I suggest you pick up the kit the night before and hit the trail ahead of the packs.

If you’ve got the stamina, go at least four miles before turning back — most of the casual hikers will fall away before that and you’ll find you have the scenery largely to yourself. 

The Castle. Sulphur Creek & Fall Color Trees in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
The Castle summit in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park.

David H. Carriere/Getty Images

5.   Opt for the less-traveled trail.

You can avoid a lot of the crowds simply by going to a different trail. In Zion, instead of the Narrows take the Subway route, for example. Similarly, you can avoid the tough hike and crowds of Angel’s Landing (a knife-edge summit) by taking the gentler Scout Lookout, which gives you the same views without the crowds — or the need for a permit. Popularity is a fickle thing, often based on viral social media posts, and I find that I often enjoy the less-popular routes just as much, or even more. 

You might also consider spending more of your time in the smaller parks. Zion earns its reputation as Utah’s main draw, but the other four are just as lovely. Capitol Reef tends to get overlooked, possibly because it’s so easy to explore in your car, but I think it’s worth spending the night there. Doing this gives you more time to explore the ancient rock art and hike along the wide assortment of trails, which include options for all abilities. In particular, I suggest visiting Waterpocket Fold, a geological wrinkle packed with buttes, bridges, and canyons that rival Zion’s landscapes. Another highlight is the Cassidy Arch hike, which is much less busy than the Mesa Arch hike in Canyonlands, but I think even more impressive. 

Mary Cropper is a member of Travel + Leisure's A-List of travel advisors and creates custom trips across the southwestern U.S. Contact her at 855-435-1621 or mary.cropper@audleytravel.com.

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