Geological Magic in Utah's Mighty Five National Parks

What sets Utah’s national parks apart?

river winds through colorful canyon in Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park.
Peter Kunasz / Shutterstock

Southern Utah’s national parks are admired for their dramatic rock formations, but before you go thinking it’s all more of the same, here’s why you should visit each and every one.

Zion National Park

The Southern Paiutes called this area Mukuntuweap, which translates as "straight canyon," and it's easy to see why. Sandstone cliffs soaked in warm hues rise to dizzying heights, forming slot canyons below. You can take in the honeycombed rockscape on the scenic Angels Landing hike, a 5.4-mile round-trip with steep switchbacks followed by a tightrope walk out a skinny isthmus 1,000 feet above the canyon floor. The strenuous Hidden Canyon trail, 2.4 miles round-trip, is perfect for adventurous and sure-footed hikers who want to experience Zion’s backcountry.

mudstone and limestone spires—aka Hoodoo—at Bryce Canyon, Utah, picture

Hoodoo spires at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB / Shutterstock

Bryce Canyon

Hoodoo is the word of the day here every day. The soaring mudstone and limestone spires come in hues including fiery orange and off-white. You’ll get a deeper appreciation of the hoodoos' scale if you step off the lip at Navajo Trail to wind among them and check out arches and fins that, given a millennium or two, will become hoodoos too.

Needles District rock formations in Canyonlands National Park, picture

Needles District rock formations in Canyonlands National Park.

Anton Foltin / Shutterstock


This landscape shows what the Colorado River can do to a perfectly good plateau over millions of years. The upshot is nothing short of art. Don’t miss the view from above at Island in the Sky mesa or the walls at the Needles, where you'll find Newspaper Rock, its petroglyphs depicting some 2,000 years’ worth of record keeping.

The Temples of the Sun and Moon in Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.
The Temples of the Sun and Moon in Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.
Mike Cavaroc / Tandem Stock

Capitol Reef

Time and erosion—mostly by water—have designed a wonderscape. Among the range of colorful cliffs, the aptly named Egyptian Temple looks as though it was created by some long gone civilization. The easy two mile round-trip Capitol Gorge trail threads a slot canyon where the walls whoosh up just 10 feet apart—a snug passage for the pioneers who scratched their names in the rock as they passed by in wagons.

Arch in Arches National Park.
Southern Utah's Arches National Park.
Kyle Hammons / Tandem Stock

Arches National Park

An 18-mile road winds among pockets of rock wizardry in this sprawling, wide-open tableau. From the sky-high fins at Park Avenue to the peek-through formations at the Windows, these stone marvels defy belief. Yes, you've seen the photos of Delicate Arch (a classic hiking destination), but it's hard to imagine the improbable cliffside perch until you’ve seen it in person.

This article was first published in Fall 2016 and last updated in February 2022.