During a recent trip to southern Utah, I met up with a couple from New Jersey while hiking a slot canyon called Capitol Gorge in Capitol Reef National Park. We stopped to gaze part way up the red-colored walls towering hundreds of feet over our heads, admiring the Pioneer Register that features dozens of names etched into the soft Navajo sandstone by early Mormon settlers.
"All these photos I'm taking, and no one back home will ever be able to comprehend what we're looking at right now," the woman said as the three of us looked skyward in awe.
It's hard not to gush when experiencing southern Utah. The region is stunning -- one jaw-dropping vista after another.
A favorite U.S. destination among international travelers, red-rock country is a well-kept secret for many Americans, unaware that just a couple hours from vacation hot spots Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon lies a fairly remote world of surreal scenery. Unique landscapes and a kaleidoscope of colors define the region, from deep canyons and bizarre rock formations to rushing rivers and waterfalls that belie their desert surroundings.
Southern Utah tourism is centered around its "Big 5" national parks -- Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion -- the highlights of a Grand Circle tour, an itinerary that often also includes Monument Valley, Page, Arizona and the Grand Canyon.
To start at Zion, Las Vegas is the entry point, and it's about a 21/2-hour drive, losing an hour because of the time-zone change. Flying into Salt Lake City is recommended for starting in Moab. It's about a four-hour drive, with no time change. With so much to see over such a large area, you'll want to focus on quality over quantity, choosing two or three parks for a one-week trip and allotting 10-14 days to enjoy all five.
Arches National Park
Moab, Utah, the largest and most amenity-friendly gateway town for the Big 5, serves as the home base for both Arches National Park and Canyonlands.
Located just a couple miles from the north end of town, Arches contains the world's largest concentration of natural sandstone arches -- more than 2,000 of them -- among other uniquely striking rock formations. Many are visible from the beautiful Scenic Drive that winds its way through the park, while some of the iconic ones require a short walk or moderate hike.
The signature hike at Arches National Parks is a 3-mile moderately strenuous one-way walk that leads to a close-up view of the iconic Delicate Arch, the one depicted on the Utah license plate. If you can stand the crowds here, the setting is sublime.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands, about 45 minutes away from Arches National Parks in Utah, is quite different. It is a huge, mostly remote park with sweeping views that seem to go on forever. There is a Scenic Drive here, too, with numerous pullouts and short trails to signature viewpoints. Don't miss nearby Dead Horse Point State Park, which provides memorable views early and late in the day.
If you're visiting Arches National Park or Canyonlands, you can stay at Red Cliffs Lodge, Mile Post 14, Highway 128. The ranch resort on the banks of the Colorado River 14 miles from Moab, with an upscale restaurant and winery on site. Rooms start at $239; 435-259-2002, redcliffslodge.com.
INFO 800-635-6622, discovermoab.com
Zion National Park
In Utah's Bryce Canyon, visitors are at the rim looking down. At Zion, it's the opposite -- and the effect is breathtaking.
Cliffs and domes soar above the canyon floor where cottonwoods lining the Virgin River -- which sculpted the canyon -- create a lush-green contrast to the orange, red, black and white rocks towering above them. The scenery is incredible; diverse wildlife abounds; a cozy, fun town sits right outside the park gates; and Zion boasts an assortment of hikes -- all of which explains the park's 3 million annual visitors, the most among the Big 5.
There are two signature hikes at Zion National Park in Utah, and they couldn't be more different, though they both frequent "World's Best Hikes" lists. Angel's Landing takes adventure-seekers up a narrow spine to an outcropping atop Zion Canyon, with sheer drop-offs on both sides. If you're brave enough to make it to the top, the view is worth it.
The Narrows, meanwhile, is much less intimidating but equally exhilarating. It's a journey in the Virgin River itself, wading through ankle- to waist-deep water within one of the premier slot canyons on earth -- at one point, canyon walls rise hundreds of feet high nearly within arm's length on either side.
Zion National Park's stunning cliffs frame the Desert Pearl Inn, 707 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, located among several shops and restaurants half a mil from the park. Rooms start at $229; 435-772-8888, desertpearl.com.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon in Utah is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary, distinctive sights in North America, if not the world. Technically a series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters and not a canyon, it is nonetheless an otherworldly experience to stand at the rim and look down upon the countless rock spires that fill the "canyon," or hike below the rim to walk among them. The "hoodoos," as they are known, range in size from a few feet tall to heights exceeding a 10-story building.
The park is relatively small compared to the others and can be experienced in one day, but an overnight is essential for the unforgettable sunrise and sunset colors, and world-class starry night skies.
The Queens Garden-Navajo Loop trail in Bryce Canyon National Park, a close-up journey among the hoodoos, has been called the most spectacular 3-mile hike in the world.
If you're heading to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, check out the historic Lodge at Bryce Canyon, Highway 63, Bryce, puts guests within steps of the dramatic main amphitheater. Rooms start at $193; 877-386-4383, brycecanyonforever.com.
Capitol Reef National Park
The hidden gem of Utah's national parks, Capitol Reef is named for the grand white rock formations that resemble the U.S. Capitol building, and for the sheer cliffs that presented a barrier to early travelers.
Stunning Highway 24 runs right through the park, which includes the historic Fruita district, where early Mormon settlers lived and farmed along the Fremont River. The 120-year-old Fruita Schoolhouse, Mormon family cabins and other buildings within the park boundaries serve as reminders of the past, while pick-your-own fruit from descendants of the original orchards give visitors a real taste of what life was like in the area a century ago.
The Cassidy Arch Trail is a signature hike at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. The 3.5-mile round-trip trail climbs 1,000 feet to a jaw-dropping overlook above Cassidy Arch.
If you're heading to Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, check out Austin's Chuckwagon Lodge, 12 W. Main St., Torrey. It's located eight miles from Capitol Reef, with a nationally acclaimed restaurant, Cafe Diablo, just down the road. Rooms start at $61; 435-425-3335, nwsdy.li/chuck.