Seeing Utah's Glorious Fall Color by RV

Five Utah parks, four family members, one RV, and the infinite beauty of autumn.

Autumn color in Zion National Park, image
Autumnal colors in Zion National Park.
Kit Leong / Shutterstock

Already on day one we've seen enough to believe the hype. Fall really is southern Utah's moment of glory. The shimmering yellow cottonwoods in Zion National Park's Watchman Campground add a bright punch to the kaleidoscope of orange, salmon, and brick in the layered rock walls.

We've scaled a steep incline on switchbacks chiseled into the vertical cliff, gripping a chain bolted to the sheer wall for safety. High above the valley floor we scrambled over boulders, gazed at freshwater pools, and ducked into Hidden Canyon, an ancient, echoey ravine.

When hearing my plan to pack my husband and our elementary school–age kids into a recreational vehicle to witness autumn's spectacle in Utah's five national parks, friends had asked me, “Aren't you worried about your kids going stir-crazy in that RV for a week?” But on day two, having driven our hulking craft through the long tunnel cut into the rock that spit us out Zion's eastern side, I can tell it's not going to be a problem. We barely come to a stop before they're out and scampering over the strangely striated pink hillsides. We spend a happy afternoon roaming a dreamy, labyrinthine landscape.

In the days that follow, the kids whittle sticks in the shadows of towering hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, crack the morning ice off pools in the slickrock at Capitol Reef, track the cottontail bunnies that hide in the brush at Arches, test the echo in every canyon they come across with yawps and whistles, and practice their “desert parkour” at Canyonlands.

Needles District in Canyonlands National park at dawn, image

The Needles District in Canyonlands shows how millions of years of erosion can turn rock into art.

Johnny Adolphson / Shutterstock

This leaves my husband and me free to fill our phones to bursting with snapshots of a constantly shape-shifting panorama. You'd sooner imagine these scenes were found on five different planets than in five parks along a 300-mile strip of a single state. Out here, geology is no dusty list of terms to memorize in a classroom.

Later as we drive through scenery that opens up into 360 degrees of sculpted red rock, then tightens into narrow canyons, and then reveals hardscrabble ranching valleys, we begin to get the hang of RV life. We bump our heads on open cabinet doors less often. We finesse the ballet of cooking a meal, changing clothes, and doing homework in close quarters.

With no tent to put up and no suitcases to lug, we can devote more hours to hiking or basking in the sun. We relish cruising right by the gateway scrum of inns and motels. We change plans any time our whims shift. Eventually we gain the confidence to bypass the full-hookup RV parks for the more rustic national park campgrounds, where you can wake up to cliffs glowing orange in the morning sun outside your window.

Which is exactly what I do in Capitol Reef's Fruita Campground. I'm glad for the excuse to get out early to crunch through the fallen leaves, a hot cup of coffee in hand, as the land comes to life. The kids soon tumble out, begging to explore the adjacent orchard hung with apples so ripe it smells like pie. Between the tidy rows of 3,100 fruit and nut trees planted by Mormon pioneers more than a century ago, dozens of deer and turkeys watch us, alert and wary. We circle around to a sunny pasture where two horses, their winter coats already growing in, clop over to say hello. One of them thoroughly slimes our down jackets with an enthusiastic, slobbery whinny.

virgin river flows by sharp cliffs in autumn at the Narrows in Zion National Park, picture

The Narrows is one of the most popular hikes at Zion.

Chris Moore / Tandem Stock

From that point on we give up on cleanliness and adopt a frontiersy air. A couple days later, on the famed Devils Garden Trail in Arches National Park, we blow past the crowds lining up to see the implausibly spindly Landscape Arch and head out on a primitive 7.2-mile loop. The path ventures upward along high, slender fins of rock and leads to arches tucked into caves. At one point it leaves us strategizing how to get around a frigid pool of water bordered on both sides by near-vertical red rock.

We return to our site covered in a layer of fine sand and feeling like heroes. As we swap tales of glory around the campfire, unable to tear ourselves away from a sky thick with stars, we feast on the ultimate reward from our home on wheels—cookies straight from the oven.