A&A Visit The Mighty ‘Utah 5’ National Parks
Updated: Jan 13
End of Week #19
Elk Creek Campground, Curecanti Recreational area, near Gunnison CO > 4J+1+1 RV Park, Ouray CO > Ancient Cedars Mesa Verde RV Park, Mancos CO
Miles traveled since last week’s post = 210
Total miles traveled to date = 3387 with trailer
It’s wild to think that a lot of my friends and family members may get some snowfall this week, as we roll things into the second week of October. We are still maintaining highs in the 60s and hope to at least stay at a high of 50 or so before departing from Colorado and heading south to Texas. We are fully accepting that there could be a chance of a white flake or two before leaving Colorado, but I think since we know we will be moving south it makes it all a lot more tolerable 🙂
I really don’t want to leave Colorado though, and fell head over heels in love with a few different mountain towns already – especially Ouray. [I’m already plotting my return and while we were there we spent some time checking out the real estate and land that was available, just to see.] We are taking our time in Colorado right now, currently in the SW corner of the state near the city of Cortez. Soon we will continue to head west and then north before meeting up with more friends near Denver.
I had said at one point that I would only provide RV related updates on Mondays, leaving travel reviews for off days, but I have decided to make the Mighty Utah 5 an exception. With such a dense population of natural wonders, Utah deserved the spotlight this Monday, and I thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing on our time exploring the state last month.
A&A Visit The Mighty ‘Utah 5’ National Parks, 2 State Parks and 2 National Monuments
Utah really had it all, from turquoise blue waters at northern Bear Lake, to the huge cities near Salt Lake, to the desert and red rock cliffs in the south near Zion. We spent about 2 and 1/2 weeks in Utah in September, and it didn’t feel like nearly enough time there. It was enough time for us to conquer the infamous ‘Utah 5’ National Parks, a few added State Parks and National Monuments (in just over a weeks time) and spend some much needed catch up time with friends, but I could have easily spent another several weeks exploring so much more of the desert life.
All of the Utah Parks and Monuments are located on the elevated Colorado Plateau, helping create the phrase “life elevated” throughout the state. With over 60% of Utah being public lands, there is no shortage of areas to explore or places to stay and boondock for that matter. With such a high elevation, a lot of the Parks and Monuments have also been classified as International Dark Sky Parks. (Read more about that here.)
I am still working to put together a travel itinerary to show you how we accomplished all that we did with Utah’s State Parks, National Parks, and National Monuments, and to also include each specific hike and activity we did. But in the meantime here is an overview of what to expect when visiting all of the glory that is the state of Utah and it’s park systems.
While we were in southwest Utah we stayed in East Zion, perfect proximity to a handful of Parks to go to. And while we were in southeast Utah we stayed in Moab, perfectly in between several Parks there.
How do I even begin to describe this place? I’ve been wanting to come here for ages – ever since we went to Sedona a few years ago, and again last year. And ever since I’ve been seeing so many incredible photos of this place on social media! This park even made me question my undying love for Sedona as my top favorite US destination, and I’m still confused on what comes out on top.
Driving in from the East entrance, you make your way through the longest darkest mountain tunnel I’ve ever been in, and then continue down several switchback roads through the largest red rock canyon you can imagine. I honestly teared up about 5 times that first time we drove in, as all of the magic and beauty hit me with a huge wave of emotion. All of the cliffs and canyons here were carved by the Virgin River, wind and rain and you can’t help but feel unworthy to be in a such an otherworldly sacred place. The mountains seem to come out of nowhere, and dramatically shape the landscape of the park. Up until the 20th century Zion was too remote of a destination for any tourism and only through determination did Native Americans, Mormons and artists access the rugged landscape. In fact, a travelling painter was the one to campter the country’s attention when he brought his painting of Zion to the St. Louis World Fair. After that it only took a few years for the President to declare the region a National Monument and then again later a National Park.
Zion is our first experience in going to a National Park and having to first park and then take a shuttle to access the various hiking trails and lookout points. The shuttle is free of charge and they run every several minutes, but it was something to get used to in not being in control of our exploring. The park initiated this system a few years ago to help reduce any damage to the area from tourists, as over the years the amount of tourism here has went from 2 million people a year to over 6 million! (Social media is to blame.)
We spent two very full days in Zion and would have easily spent more if we had more time and if some of the trails I wanted to explore weren’t closed from rock falls! I am proud to say we conquered both the famous Angels Landing hiking trail, AND the Narrows. Each experience took our hiking careers to a new level and were more enjoyable than I can even describe. A bucket list place for sure!
I still sort of regret that I only planned about a half of a day to explore Bryce Canyon, as it ended up surprising me the most with it’s true beauty. Not that I expected anything different, but I didn’t expect that we would be able to hike down into the canyon and experience all it’s glory from anywhere other than above. Bryce Canyon is home to the hoodoos, huge spire rocks jutting out of the ground, dazzling in the sun with their orange and red hues. We were able to do a hike that went right down into the canyon and allowed us to get up close and personal with the hoodoos. The canyon walls, and the hoodoos, were all nestled amongst more tall pine trees, and it was such a magical experience. I was truly in awe our entire hike!
Bryce is another one of Utah’s parks that utilizes the shuttle system, allowing you to park at the entrance and then take a free shuttle around to each lookout spot and hiking trailhead. You could technically drive your car to each lookout point, but the parking lots were so packed full that it would be extremely tough to get a spot. The park itself isn’t super massive but there are plenty of miles of trails to explore. It’s hard to picture that you will be showing up to a huge colorful canyon, as you are first traveling through a deep pine forest before suddenly breaking out of it into a foreign desert alien land. We rode the shuttle through the whole park and stopped at each lookout point!
This is a place I really wish we would have gotten to spend more time exploring, as we only stayed near the area for one night and then drove through part of the park the next day on our way to Moab. This park is named for it’s very unique geological phenomenon, called the Waterpocket Fold. Geologists refer to it as a “wrinkle in the Earth’s crust” and it is also pocketed with water catching basins, as dramatic spines of tilted rock traverse the length of the park from north to south. The “wrinkle” stretches over 100 miles! This geological formation has happened over time, from shifting tectonic plates, water, and erosion that has shaped and created the rolling “waves” of the reef. This process has also created sculpted domes, cliffs, canyons, arches, and monoliths.
We really wanted to reserve a night or two in the famed Fruita Campground in the park, however it was fully booked for the entire month of September! Clearly people knew what they were in doing in reserving this desert oasis FAR ahead of time. Definitely next time!
This park has been on my friends bucket list since her wedding a few years ago, and was scheduled to be our meet up point to explore with our first visitors on this journey. If you are active on Instagram you probably see a lot of epic photos from Arches, especially sunset photos. Arches is more of Utah’s desert country, filled with spires, balanced rocks, stone fins and namesake arches all around. This is the only place in the world with such a massive concentration of stone arches, and there are more than 2,000 throughout the entire park. This is one of the most popular parks we have went to yet, and the only park that we had to wait for a significant amount of time at the entrance just to get in. The line was over a half a mile long!
We spent two full days at Arches National Park, one day doing a backcountry 8 mile hike that was more like straight up off roading and scrambling over smooth mountain cliffs. Then we spent another day stopping at as many of the arch lookout points and doing all of the small hikes to some of the more well known arches.
The best way to describe this place is a mixture of desert and water that merge together to form art on the horizon. Over time roaring rivers have carved out and devoured the landscape here to form canyon walls with many layers. The Colorado River and the Green River collide together in the center of the park and essentially divide the it up into three areas. We only visited the area called the Island In The Sky, as the other areas called the Needles and the Maze District are more so backcountry areas and sometimes require permits to explore. The park can be considered more primitive exploring and can be intimidating to some who come.
Canyonlands is Utah’s largest National Park. located just northeast of Moab, and is also apparently the least visited out Park of them all. It’s super hard to believe that once you admire its beauty (and viewpoint), but I guess there is so much to explore in Utah and it leaves this park more neglected to visitors.
The most photographed thing we saw while at Island in the Sky was the Mesa Arch. We also enjoyed hiking along the rim of the canyon on the Grand View Point Trail.
Bonus National Monuments
We traveled to Cedar Breaks on the afternoon of Friday September 13th, in honor of the Full Moon and in full anticipation of seeing the stars. Just north of Zion, the drive in, through the Dixie National Forest, was absolutely stunning, but the road to get there was filled with more roadkill than I have ever seen in my life. The drive to and from made me quite emotional, to say the least.
On a positive note, Cedar Breaks is a dynamic vista of colorful rock formations, bristlecone pine groves and lush wildflower meadows. From the top, you look down about a half mile onto a 3-mile wide amphitheater that sets the stage and greets you as you approach the area. The limestone here has uplifted over millions of years and has been exposed by erosion that produces the natural features like hoodoos, arches, fins and canyons. This Monument is on the Markagunt Plateau that has been uplifted by an active fault.
Sitting at over 10,000 feet elevation, the temperature dropped quite dramatically as the sun went down, but we stayed as long as we could to admire the sunset over the red and yellow hues of the canyon. We admired the Moon and the night stars and spent several hours just hanging out and basking in all the beauty.
The first thing to note here, is that in 2017 President Trump declared a proclamation that REDUCED the size of this National Monument. Updates on what the specifically entails can be found on the Monuments BLM website here.
This Monument was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped, and spans many acres of public lands, breaking up the Monument into three distinct areas. All the way from its spectacular ‘Grand Staircase’ of cliffs and terraces, to the Kaiparowits Plateau, and to the Escalante River Canyons, this National Monument is a very diverse geologic treasure. The area is speckled with many monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches. The biological resources here also span all the way from low lying desert to coniferous forest.
Grand Staircase is located just west of Zion NP, and is another area that I wish we would have been able to spend more time exploring. I greatly longed to be able to vist what’s known as The Wave, however I quickly learned that you must obtain a permit for that adventure. I also found out that they only allow 20 people a day, and it’s booked out until next spring. Next time!
Bonus State Parks
There are really not any photos to truly show you how coral PINK those sand dunes were. This area, just about 10 miles south of East Zion, and is comprised of a shifting sea of red sand that can move as much as 50 feet per year from all the wind coming off the mountains and hills. The sand here comes from Navajo sandstone dating back to a geologic period called the Middle Jurassic. The coral pink sand is made up of the same iron oxides and minerals that build up red rock country. Essentially the red rock Navajo sandstone cliffs erode over time from wind and rain that cause the sand to be deposited.
I was super happy to discover that we were able to venture out into the sand dunes and walk right on them. The unique thing about this State Park is that it is also a popular destination for ATV riders, who ride right on the dunes, as about 90% of it is accessible to play on!
The name of this park is one filled with a lot of history, but not one that makes me very happy to learn about. Basically cowboys used to chase wild horses onto the Dead Horse Point, as it was surrounded by steep canyon cliffs and gave them nowhere to run away from them to. One time, as the story goes, they captured the horses – took the ones they wanted, and left the rest there on the cliff to die, without any food or water. No one knows why they did this and quite frankly it breaks my heart a little.
Sitting about 2,000 feet above the gooseneck in the Colorado River, a landscape of immense vertical cliffs meets canyon walls, all of it carved by the wind, the rain, and ice, and setting the tone for a beautiful artistic masterpiece. This is a place that is hard to imagine seeing plants and animals surviving, as it is if they are right on the edge of existence in this extreme elevated desert climate.
It is a beautiful drive to the top of the point, just southwest of Canyonlands National Park, and there are a lot of small hiking trails to explore once you get there. Everywhere you go you are offered absolutely spectacular views of the canyon area and it is exceptionally beautiful at sunset!
Utah As A Must See Destination
Whether you have one day to explore Utah, or one month, it’s definitely a state to keep on your list! I never knew there was so much beauty to admire here, until I started researching places to go for our journey, and not once throughout our 2 and a 1/2 weeks did this state disappoint. Stay tuned for more to come with a full itinerary on how we accomplished seeing it all in such a short amount of time.
I am in the process of catching up on all other travel reviews from Utah and from Colorado.
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Next week I will show our travel route this far, and estimated updates to our future travel route plans. I will also talk about what we eat on a daily basis, what a day in our life entails and how we decided where to stay each time we move locations. This post will also briefly mention the process for tearing down, setting up and what it’s like to live life on a budget.
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