The Mighty 5 national parks in Utah draw several million visitors from around the world each year to marvel at surreal scenery and experience amazing outdoor activities. A trip to The Mighty 5 means watching the sunrise over the towering depths of Canyonlands National Park, then watching the sunset through an impossibly delicate rock bow in Arches National Park. It means standing nose-to-nose with ancient petroglyphs in Capitol Reef National Park, then lying on your back as a beautiful meteor shower streaks across the Milky Way. It means gazing down at coral-hued rock hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park, then gazing upward at the steep walls of slot canyon trails in Zion National Park.
I feel fortunate to have been able to visit all of the Mighty 5 this year. We have been hiking, biking, picnicking, walking, exploring, stargazing and generally just marveling at how much natural beauty there is in the state of Utah. This past spring we visited Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef National Parks and planned our fall migration south to take in the other two of the Mighty Five.
Our week in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks were a bit of a whirl wind. Thanks to our unplanned stay in Twin Falls Idaho we broke our own rule about spending at least one week exploring each park. Our stay in Moab was just over a week long but was really the perfect place to base ourself to see both parks. On this trip we mainly hiked and did scenic drives so the bikes never made it off the back of the coach. Oh, well, next time!
Arches was captivating and yes, there were so many arches. Most hikes and viewpoints in the park are centered around seeing these huge natural rock formations. Located just 5 miles north of Moab is Arches National Park, which contains the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches. Although over 2,000 arches are located within the park’s 76,518 acres, the park also contains an astounding variety of other geological formations. Colossal sandstone fins, massive balanced rocks, soaring pinnacles and spires dwarf visitors as they explore the park’s viewpoints and hiking trails. A newly paved scenic drive takes visitors to many of the major viewpoints within the park. As hikers, we had a variety of trails to choose from. Some are short twenty minute walks leading right up to many of the largest arches and others are half or full day adventures.
When we have a week or more to spend exploring, we generally don’t spend time inside the parks on the weekends when it is busier. Those are great days for scenic drives such as the one we did on Byway 128. Late October was the perfect time to visit as the day time temps are near perfect for hiking and both parks felt empty. Don’t get me wrong, there were always people at the viewpoints and easy trail heads but when we got off the beaten path, we often had the trail to ourselves.
Our first hike in Arches was Devils Garden Trail Loop, which is the longest of the maintained trails in the park and leads to eight awe-inspiring arches. We hiked over 7 miles, traversed narrow ledges with rocky surfaces and did plenty of scrambling on slickrock but lucky for us it was very dry so none of the surfaces were slippery.
One of my favorite hikes, Tower Arch was even more off the beaten path and begins at the end of the four-wheel-drive road at the west side of the park. This unpaved road washes out quickly in rainstorms but again we had perfect conditions to get into the backcountry. While it was only 3.5 miles, the trail climbs a steep rock wall, then cuts across a valley and then meanders through sandstone fins and sand dunes. We literally didn’t see anyone for most of the hike and had a quiet picnic lunch under the arch with our friends Tom and Laurie.
We decided to do some real off roading after leaving Tower Arches and were hoping to get to Anniversary Arch. The Trails Off Road website describes the technical rating as easy. Here is their Jeep trail description:
“Dirt road. Rutted, washes, or gulches. Water crossings up to 6″ depth. Passable mud. Grades up to 10 degrees. Small rocks or holes. 4WD recommended but 2WD possible under good conditions and with adequate ground clearance and skill. No width problems for any normal vehicle”,
Park Avenue was another fun, short, 2 mile in and out hike. The trail descends steeply into a spectacular canyon and continues down the wash to the Courthouse Towers. There is a beautiful natural amphitheater there when I could image a concert being held. Unfortunately, the sun was all wrong for a picture so you will have to just explore it yourselves!
Our day at Canyonlands National Park was spent mainly driving through the park and doing short hikes at the viewpoints. Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah, and its diversity staggers the imagination. The park is divided into four districts, each having distinct geographic differences. The easiest way to see the park is to visit the Island in the Sky district which is only 32 miles from Moab.
The Island in the Sky district sits atop a massive 1500 foot mesa, quite literally creating a visual Island in the Sky. Twenty miles of paved roads lead to many of the most spectacular views in Canyon Country. From these lofty viewpoints visitors can often see over 100 miles in any given direction and take in panoramic views that encompass thousands of square miles of canyon country.
Our first short 2 mile hike was to Upheaval Dome lookout where you have a great view into the crater. Upheaval Dome is an impact structure so you are seeing the deeply eroded bottom-most remnants of an impact crater. The crater is clearly visible on the surface as bright brown and black concentric rings. Approximately 3 miles in diameter, the crater is known to be less than 170 million years old. YAY, I am just a youngster in comparison to this crater.
Grand View Point and the 2 mile round trip trail along the rims edge was my favorite hike of the day. We sat right on the rim and ogled the panoramic vistas. I could have dangled my legs right over the rims edge but that was too much for this slightly height challenged gal.
There are plenty of great picnic sites within the park and again, it was a relatively quiet day in the park so we feasted on the views and our lunch in solitude.
Our week in Moab went way to quickly and soon it was time to hit the road for Santa Fe NM where we will meet up with fellow full time RV friends. Knowing we have only barely scratched the surface of things to explore in the area, I think that Moab will remain on our list of places to visit again.
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