Which Utah National Park is the Best?
Over 237 million people visited America’s National Parks last year. 237 MILLION!!! And of those millions, Utah snatches a big portion of them, with FIVE of the country’s most epic parks, including the third most-popular: Zion National Park. But there’s also Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, & the often-overlooked Capitol Reef National Park. With all these choices, the question is: which Utah National Park is the best for you & your family, or whoever you’re traveling with? I’ll answer that question by illuminating the highlights of each park, showing plenty of photos of each, & also by discussing some of the downfalls of each park.
What’s the Most Popular Utah National Park?
Zion is by far the most popular, with over 4 million visitors per year. The interesting thing: it’s also one of the most compact parks in terms of how long its road is: there’s only 12 miles of highway running through Zion. It lacks the expansive feeling you get from parks like Canyonlands & Capitol Reef, as well as the Arches & Moab area.
- Zion National Park = 4.5 million visitors per year
- Bryce Canyon National Park = 2.6 million
- Arches National Park = 1.5 million
- Capitol Reef National Park = 1.1 million
- Canyonlands National Park = 733,000 visitors per year
Map of Utah National Parks
As you can see from the map below, Utah’s biggest airport, Salt Lake City International (SLC) ~ isn’t really close to any of the state’s “Mighty Five” National Parks! Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport is closer to Zion & Bryce, while Grand Junction’s small airport is closer to the other three. You may still want to fly into Salt Lake if you plan to visit Park City or the great Salt Lake.
Arches National Park
Zion National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Capitol Reef National Park
1) Zion National Park
Best For: Avid Hikers & Families with Older Kids
Zion is the “big name” park in Utah, with good reason: its soaring red rocks, stunning vistas, & epic hikes make it an amazing destination for outdoor lovers. Angel’s Landing, Canyon Overlook Trail, & the water-logged trek through the “Narrows” are ALL classic hikes ~ not just in Utah, but in the United States. Which makes Zion a perfect destination for avid hikers, & families with older children who can handle the at-times scary heights of trails like Angel’s Landing. You can, of course, simply drive through Zion. But at the end of the short, 12-mile highway, you may feel like I did: left wanting more.
Closest Airport to Zion National Park: As mentioned, Salt Lake City (SLC) is NOT the closest airport ~ ironically, Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport is the closest major airport, at 170 miles away. SLC is 311 miles from Zion. And the small town of Cedar City has a regional airport with a few flights per day, which is 60 miles from Zion’s entrance.
Closest City with Good Hotels: Springdale, Utah is located right at the entrance to Zion ~ & the closest hotel to the entrance is the Cable Mountain Lodge. There are plenty of great hotels in Springdale & many cute cafes & restaurants to fill up at post-hiking. For cheaper hotels, try staying in La Verkin, which is about 20 minutes from Zion.
Read More on Zion: Watch this video of some of my favorite scenery in Zion, or read this post to find out where the park’s best sunset spots are…..
Worst Things About Zion: How busy it is, & the fact that the parking lot usually fills up by 8AM ~ leaving pretty much anyone who wants to hike required to use the park’s shuttle service. There are maddeningly few parking spots for such a heavily-trafficked park. If you’re more of an independent traveler who doesn’t like crowds or relying on public transport: this can get annoying.
Most ICONIC Hotel Stay by Zion National Park: Under Canvas at Zion National Park is “glamping” on steroids ~ you’ll feel like Meryl Streep & Robert Redford in “Out of Africa,” lounging in your upscale tent after a hard day of hiking, looking out at the park’s soaring red rocks. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
2) Bryce Canyon National Park
Best For: Winter Travel
Bryce Canyon is the second-most popular National Park in Utah, & I suspect the reason for that is its proximity to Zion. Not that it’s not impressive on its own ~ but Bryce is a little further from the highway than Zion, & there are less stellar lodging options here (which is one of my least favorite things about the park). BUT!! The good news is: there’s a LOT to do at Bryce Canyon National Park. Options include: taking a scenic drive with stops at out-of-this-world view points like Inspiration or Sunrise Points, renting an ATV, backpacking, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, or hiking on trails like the popular Navajo Loop or breathtaking Fairyland Loop.
Where I think Bryce really shines is during winter travel: this other-worldly orange landscape softens & really comes alive in wintertime.
Closest Airport to Bryce Canyon National Park: Salt Lake City (SLC) & McCarran International Airport are almost exactly the same distance from Bryce, at 260 miles. A closer airport is Cedar City Regional Airport, which is 76 miles from Bryce Canyon.
Closest City with Good Hotels: Bryce Canyon City is a tiny little town (of 200 people!) located right next to the Bryce Canyon Entrance ~ & you’ll feel as though you’re stepping back in time with its old-time saloons & small-town feel.
Don’t Miss: Inspiration Point, Bryce Point, & Sunrise Point (all along the Scenic Drive).
Great Alternative to Bryce Canyon (& Closer to Zion): Cedar Breaks National Monument. This little gem of a park looks virtually identical to Bryce (minus the hoodoos) & costs 1/4 the price: read more about it here.
3) Arches National Park
Best For: Families with Small Children, Rock Climbers, Mountain Bikers, & Avid (Night-time) Photographers
Ohhh…..how I love Arches National Park!! Whereas Bryce Canyon can get a little monotonous at times (as so much of the landscape looks orange-ily similar), Arches offers unique vistas at every turn: balancing rocks, towering rocks, massive arches, delicate arches ~ arches of every kind! Another thing to love about Arches is that most of its hiking & walking trails are flat ~ so this is a great option for families with small children. But don’t worry if you’re a fitness buff: the fantastically western-frontier town of Moab is an outdoor lover’s MECCA ~ & offers ALL manner of outdoor adventures….from great trail runs to mountain biking & rock climbing.
The fact that Moab is located directly next to Arches National Park is a HUGE bonus, making it a great option for both people who like to camp ~ AND for people who like a little luxury (as there are plenty of luxury hotel & glamping options here). And because the arches absolutely light up at night, Arches is also a great spot for those looking to practice their night-time photography skills.
Closest Airport to Arches National Park: Grand Junction Regional Airport is technically the closest, at 90 miles away (Arches is close to the Colorado border). But Salt Lake City (SLC) is the closest major airport, at about 225 miles away.
Closest City with Good Hotels: Moab. Aside from Springdale by Zion, this is the biggest town near Utah’s National Parks. You’ve got everything from high-end hotels to glamping to budget motels here, & lots of great food options.
Most ICONIC Hotel Stay by Arches National Park: There’s another incredible glamping opportunity just outside of Arches, at Under Canvas at Moab. Similar to the location by Zion, this is another absolute “WOW” experience.
4) Capitol Reef National Park
Best For: Van-Lifer’s, RV’ers, & Off-the-Beaten Path’ers
Capitol Reef is the one Utah National Park I haven’t been to, & it’s also the most difficult to access: being over 200 miles from the nearest major airport (SLC). It’s off-the-beaten path location makes it a great spot for those really looking to get away from it all ~ & it’s my top choice for people who’ve got their own ride: RV’ers, van-lifer’s, off-roaders, & the like. There are plenty of great campgrounds here, including Fruita, Wonderland RV Park, & Pleasant Creek Campground, & hikers should test out the Hickman Bridge Trail or gorgeous Cassidy Arch (pictured below).
If the crowds of Zion & Bryce just aren’t for you: then Capitol Reef is your spot.
Closest Airport to Capitol Reef National Park: Same as above; Grand Junction Regional Airport is the closest, at 195 miles away, but Salt Lake City (SLC) is the closest major airport, at about 225 miles away.
Closest City with Good Hotels: Torrey, Utah is the closest at about 10 miles away. Similar to Bryce Canyon City, this is a tiny little town of about 300 people! Note: Torrey sits at about 6,800 feet in elevation, so it may not be a great option if you get altitude sickness.
Pro Tip: The best time to visit Capitol Reef National Park is during summer, as the park is prone to flooding throughout the rest of the year. Just bring plenty of water!!
Worst Thing about Capitol Reef National Park: If you’re into luxury, Capitol Reef isn’t really your spot ~ as there aren’t many luxury options here. Hence, why it’s best to come with your own camping gear or recreational vehicle.
5) Canyonlands National Park
Best For: People Who Don’t Like Crowds!
Canyonlands may be the least visited National Park in Utah, but frankly, it’s one of my favorites! Something about it reminds me of the Grand Canyon, with its long, lonnggg views & crazy vista points. Another thing to love: it’s close to both Arches National Park AND Moab. Ironically, the most famous arch is actually at Canyonlands ~ not Arches National Park, & that is the incredibly gorgeous Mesa Arch. The most challenging thing about Canyonlands is the long driving distances involved. The park is split into two sections: Island in the Sky & the Needles area, & the distances between the two can be very long, depending how deep into the park you travel.
Also Note: If you’re visiting the Needles area & really want to explore, you’ll most likely need an off-road vehicle.
Closest Airport to Canyonlands National Park: Grand Junction Regional Airport & Salt Lake City (SLC).
Closest City with Good Hotels: Moab or the charming little town of Monticello, where you’ll find the quirky Grist Mill Inn. The family who runs this place is AMAZING!! They took me & my friend off-roading….just for fun! Rooms are BIG; the hotel is actually an old, Victorian-style house with a lot of history, so if vintage is your thing: this is a great spot to stay!
If You’re Looking for Easy, Family-Friendly Hikes at Canyonlands: Read this article.
Most EPIC Hotel Stays by Canyonlands: Under Canvas Moab ($149+/night) will have you camping in luxury tents under the stars, just outside of Arches National Park. Or if you’re looking for true luxury after hiking all day: try the adorable Sunflower Hill, a Luxury Inn ($200+/night), in Moab.
***For a complete run-down of great hotel stays by both Canyonlands & Arches, read this article.
Which Utah National Park is the Best?
So…what’s the bottom line here?? If you’re looking for solitude: head to Capitol Reef or Canyonlands National Park. If you’re traveling with small children, Arches is my top pick ~ but it’s also my top pick for outdoor fitness buffs, due to its proximity to Moab. Zion gets my vote for sheer “wow” factor & for epic hikes, while Bryce Canyon wins out in the winter travel category.
And for insane glamping opportunities: head to Zion or Moab!!
Read Next: Where to Stay by Bryce Canyon National Park
As a native Utahn, I always get drawn in to these stories. I like your approach and style. BTW, regarding airports closest to Zion, St George is the closest, at 44 miles. Cedar City is 59 miles and has almost no commercial flights.. The St George airport has jet service to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, and Salt Lake City. I live in St George and regularly fly to Chicago for work. It is easy.
Hi Steve! Thank you SO much for your comment & knowledge regarding airports close to Zion; I was actually in St. George last year & can’t believe I forgot to mention their airport! Ha i will make that change, thank you. It’s also good to know that they have so many direct flights to major cities in the West. Thanks for your “Insider’s Knowledge!” ~ Noelle
Hi Noelle, I went to three of the five parks recently. Your article is very well done, very practical too. I want to attach it to what’s up to send to friends. Is it possible for you to put that feature here? Sunanda
Hi Sunanda, thanks for your comment! All you need to do to attach to What’s App is to copy the HTML at the top of the page & paste it into your What’s App conversation ~ I do this all the time in texts, emails, etc. It will work just the same in What’s App. I’m curious ~ of the three parks you visited, which was your favorite? Thx! Noelle