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Utah’s Desert Delights

Key Things to Know About the Beehive State’s Most Amazing Natural Features

As I walk deeper into the canyon, I almost need to strain my neck to see the tops of the sheer rock walls that extend straight up into the sky. I can’t stare for too long, because the trail is following a calf-deep river of frigid water, and, if I lose my footing, I’ll probably sink down to my waist. The surrounding sandstone, smoothed and scalloped by eons of erosion, glows in shades of deep ember red in the late afternoon sun. As I gaze at naturally formed caves that have grown out of cracks and seeps in the cliff face, I can’t decide if the setting bears a closer resemblance to a post-apocalyptic movie set or the surface of another planet. In reality, my wife and I are hiking the world-famous Zion Narrows, one of the quintessential hikes in Zion National Park. Amazing as it seems, otherworldly encounters such as this are daily events on our road trip to southern Utah’s national and state parks. Here are some key tips for getting up close and personal with the region’s hit parade of scenic, natural wonders.

Zion National Park

It’s no exaggeration to say that Zion is one of the premier hiking destinations in the country, if not the entire world, thanks to its soaring canyons, desert grottos and lush river valleys, which meander beneath towering red cliffs. Several short to medium-length trails, including many that are paved, allow hikers of all abilities to experience the park’s awe-inspiring sights, and the sky is literally the limit for those seeking adventurous exploration.

On the 4.5-mile (round-trip) trail up to Angel’s Landing (top), for example, guide chains help you secure yourself on the hike along a vertigo-inducing ridgeline. At one point, the trail is a narrow neck of rock with sheer drops on both sides. The joy is in the journey, but the final reward, after a knife-edge approach to Angel’s Landing, is a splendid, 360-degree view of the park’s most famous landmarks, including the Temple of Sinawava and the Court of the Patriarchs.

Though it’s not for everyone, the challenging Zion Narrows is a classic hike, when the water is low enough, but be forewarned, the route follows slippery boulders in cold river water. Even if you only travel the first hundred yards of the 16-mile (one-way) journey, hiking in the Virgin River in a tight canyon only 20 feet across in some places is breathtaking.

Hiking sticks and river shoes, which can be rented in Springdale, just outside the park, are strongly recommended. Those seeking to hike deeper into the canyon can overnight in one of 12 rustic camping areas (permits must be acquired in advance).

For those with technical rope skills, the trail to the Subway (6.5 miles, RT) offers a little bit of path and a lot of scramble. The rewards for scurrying around boulders and over terraced waterfalls are swim breaks in freshwater pools teeming with trout and frogs. The trail is so much fun that you almost forget your destination, which resembles a subway tube, is a circular hole carved out of rock by North Creek. The route requires canyoneering skills, rappelling and short leaps into pools of chilly water. Permits can be obtained up to 3 months in advance through an online lottery. The park also offers a last-minute drawing within a week in advance. On rare occasions, permits are available for walk-ups at Zion’s backcountry office.

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Bryce Canyon National Park

Big national parks can sometimes feel overwhelming, but there’s something almost quaint about Bryce, home to the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, tall, skinny rock formations formed by relentless freezes and thaws. The park’s naturally formed amphitheaters can be seen from the rim overlooks, and many trails allow you to hike among the hoodoos. One of the best is a loop from Sunrise Point, which begins with a walk along the rim to Sunset Point. From there, it’s a steep descent into the aptly named Wall Street on the moderate Navajo Trail. The latter connects to the easy Queen’s Garden Trail, whose features include tight turns among spires and tunnels, and a view of a hoodoo that some say resembles England’s late Queen Victoria. The loop only takes a few hours, but it offers a full sensory experience through an area where it’s impossible to take a bad photo.

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Kodachrome Basin State Park

About 26 miles southeast of Bryce Canyon Visitors Center, Kodachrome Basin State Park offers a quiet little campground dotted by unusual sedimentary pipes that sprout out of the desert. The formations are so colorful, the National Geographic Society named the park after Kodak’s vibrant film.

After rainfalls, a meandering creek forms on one end of the campground. At the other, a half-mile nature walk is perfect for spotting nocturnal creatures such as bats, scorpions and black-tailed jackrabbits at dusk. On moonless nights, the Milky Way is so bright it looks like a toddler scribed the sky with a piece of chalk. During full moons, the monolithic spires glow like sentinels guarding camp.

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Capitol Reef National Park

If the surface of the Earth were skin, Capitol Reef National Park would be a wrinkle—one that stretches 70 miles and rises 5,000 feet, thanks to the remarkable canyons and natural formations caused by millions of years of erosion after the land pushed upward. A number of trails off the park’s scenic drive provide access to these features. The 1-mile (each way) Gorge Trail, for example, leads to the Tanks, divots in rocks that trap rainwater, attracting thirsty animals. The trail follows an old wagon road where 19th-century settlers carved their names and the dates of their journeys on the walls, a feature now known as the Pioneer Register.

In Fruita (above), a one-time community established along the Fremont River, the public is welcome to pick organic heirloom fruit (from June to October), including cherries, peaches and apples, in still-surviving orchards, now managed by the Park Service. From a rustic barn to the one-room schoolhouse, the remains of the settlement ooze old-time Americana, complete with fresh fruit pies and sticky buns made from pioneer recipes available for purchase at the Gifford house.

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Canyonlands National Park

With miles of winding canyon, sheer cliffs and feeder canyons, it’s easy to mistake Canyonlands for the Grand Canyon, though Canyonlands is less crowded and easier to wrap your head around than its doppelganger. Perhaps the best view is from nearby Dead Horse Point State Park, the setting for the dramatic final scene in Thelma and Louise. A narrow neck of land seems to float 2,000 feet above a gooseneck bend in the Colorado River, and it’s a great place for a picnic, a panoramic sunset view or a stroll on the walking paths that hug the cliff.

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Thanks to its hotels, motels, campgrounds, shops, restaurants and other amenities, Moab is a popular staging area for those heading into Arches National Park (about 5 miles north of town) and Canyonlands (about 30 miles west). It is also a recreational hub in its own right, best known for its world-class mountain bike conditions, which include several easy options for novice riders, as well as more thrilling terrain for experienced riders. Several adventure outfitters are available to show you around, with the offerings also including skydiving, whitewater rafting, zip lines, canyoneering, 4X4 adventures, horseback rides, dirt bike trails and scenic flights.

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Arches National Park

Dozens of mammoth sandstone arches spanning impossibly long distances attract the masses to Arches National Park, but if you’re “allergic” to crowds, there’s another way to enjoy the park’s charms: Go after dark.

The gates never close, and driving through Arches by moonlight is as otherworldly an experience as you can have, with balancing rocks, glowing fins and other ethereal formations taking on surreal qualities. The desert seems to glow, and you may not even need to use your flashlight on the trails. Rangers recommend familiarizing yourself with the hikes during the day, first. After dark, you might even have the world-famous formations, such as Double Arch (above), all to yourself.

–Written by Jeff Layton, updated in September 2022.

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