Utah’s National Parks: Crown Jewels of the National Park System
There are many reasons why so many national park lovers gush over Utah’s red rock country. The brilliance of the stars in the dark night, the contrast of the dramatic geologic landscape against the bright blue sky, the vibrant ecosystems just begging to be explored – all are features that lure thousands of visitors each year.
And with such irresistible beauty and adventure, inevitably comes the crowds! If you’re looking to visit these crown jewels of the National Park System, consider these tips for seeing special sights and trails that are a bit off-the-beaten path.
Arches National Park
If you are really ambitious and very fit, you can explore the Fiery Furnace on a ranger-led tour at Arches National Park. The Fiery Furnace is a maze of vertical sandstone walls, with narrow passageways, drop-offs, ledges, and scrambles that takes you deep into the rock formations of Arches.
This one is only for the mountain goats!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Hike down the Peekaboo Loop trail from the highest point on the rim of Bryce Canyon National Park at Bryce Point to the town of Tropic. You’ll need two cars to do this one, but it’s worth it since you won’t have to make the long climb back up to the rim!
Canyonlands National Park
Go into the Maze at Canyonlands National Park to see the Great Gallery. Now this is truly off the beaten path, and on many bucket lists! The Great Gallery is a series of sandstone panels on the canyon wall covered with life-size figures painted on the rocks or etched into the rocks by native peoples perhaps 1500 to 4000 years ago.
Access to the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, where the panels are located, is best with 4WD vehicles over 30 miles of rough dirt roads, and then it’s a strenuous seven-mile round-trip hike to the rock art.
Capitol Reef National Park
Drive the Burr Trail through Capitol Reef National Park from the little town of Boulder, Utah down and into the Waterpocket Fold, with views of the Henry Mountains and the nearly impenetrable side canyons of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The upper portion of this road is paved, and the lower portion is generally suitable for passenger cars, except when it has been wet. The entire length is scenic, with possibilities for side hikes all along.
Zion National Park
The Narrows doesn’t really qualify as “off-the-beaten-path” but since most visitors to Zion National Park never get more than a few hundred yards off the roads, this is surely a trek to include!
From the end of the developed area below the Temple of Sinawava at the far end of Zion Canyon this trail follows the Virgin River upstream. In fact, for much of this hike, the river IS the trail! It’s called the Narrows because in some places the river has cut through the soft sandstone and there is no way through other than wading the knee-deep water.
You don’t want to do this trail if there has been significant rainfall, or when the winter snowmelt is coming down the river, but it can be a cool way to beat the summer heat.
Looking for lesser-known treks in other national parks across the country? Be sure to download the National Park Foundation’s free Owner’s Guide, “The Places Nobody Knows.”
Bob Clark has worked as a tour director with the Globus family of brands for many years. He has been showing visitors the wonders of the western United States since 1997. He has had the pleasure of visiting many of America’s national treasures with groups of people, most of whom are seeing these special places for the very first time.