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Utah is an adventurer’s dream. It’s home to three national parks, eight national monuments, over 40 state parks and recreation areas, and each is packed with hiking trails for all abilities. It’s the kind of place where you can stay for months and never experience all it has to offer. I make a trip to Utah every spring, and each year I leave with a longer list of things I want to do on my next visit.
The Beehive State has so much to offer, that it’s best split in half to do it justice. Southern Utah hikes rival the best hiking trails you’ll find anywhere in the USA (and it’s also a top climbing destination, too!). From slot canyons to mesas, rugged climbs to well-graded switchbacks, and some of the most epic scenery in the entire country, here are my top day hikes in Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks.
1. Fairyland Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park
Pros and cons
At just under 56 square miles, Bryce Canyon is Utah’s smallest national park, but full of some of the best Southern Utah hiking trails. The landscape has an almost alien appearance, with red rock spires erupting from the desert floor, eroded sandstone arches, and dramatic rock formations around every turn.
The best hike in Bryce Canyon is the Fairyland Loop Trail
For adventurers who want to see the best of Bryce Canyon’s dramatic landscape, the Fairyland Loop Trail delivers the goods. It’s a moderately challenging and less-traveled loop that takes hikers through the most incredible scenery the park has to offer. Fairyland Canyon, China Wall, and Tower Bridge are some of the most iconic features in the park, and you can see them all up close and personal on this hike.
How long is Fairyland Loop Trail?
The Fairyland Loop Trail is 8 miles long and takes three to five hours to hike. This particular trail gains and loses over 2,000’ in elevation, but few of the climbs and descents feel steep. Hikers descend through red sandstone towers, then wind along the easy-to-follow, well-signed trail before climbing back onto the ridge and looping back to the trailhead. We hit this loop in the morning before the heat got too brutal, but we were still sweltering on the final climb. I’d recommend taking your time — there are features around every turn on the trail, and we were happy to have time to stop and admire them.
Which way should you hike the Fairyland Loop?
Fairyland can be hiked in either direction: prepare for a shorter (but steeper) climb going clockwise, and a longer, more gradual climb if you choose to hike it counterclockwise. Parking can be a challenge in Bryce Canyon, so be sure to arrive at the trailhead early — this way you’ll be spared the hottest part of the day and you’ll have a spot for your vehicle. You can view a Fairyland Loop Trail map here.
We only had time to do one hike in Bryce, and with the Fairyland Loop Trail, we got to see every feature we wanted.
Fairyland Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park - Good to Know
This trail is an 8-mile loop
Moderate to strenuous
Desert floor, sandstone
This Bryce Canyon hike takes 3 to 5 hours to complete
Spring and fall will provide the best hiking conditions in the park
Take the short spur trail to Tower Bridge…it’s worth it!
The NPS provide Bryce Canyon trail maps, weather conditions and more here
2. Observation Point, Zion National Park
Pros and cons
Utah’s first national park, Zion has become a destination for visitors from around the world. This compact Utah gem welcomed a record 4.5 million visitors in 2018. However, many visitors never leave the canyon floor or the Narrows area, so with a little effort and elevation gain, you can literally get above the crowds and experience the wonder of this majestic canyon landscape.
View Angel’s Landing from above
The Observation Point hike rewards hardy hikers with a cliffside trail and canyon before opening up to postcard panoramas of Zion’s incredible natural features. The high point of this hike sits about 700’ above Angel’s Landing, one of the park’s best vantage points. On this hike, you’ll get a view not just of the park, but also a bird’s-eye-view of the Landing from above.
How long does it take to hike Observation Point in Zion?
The Observation Point hike takes about four to five hours round-trip. To gain access to the trailhead, catch the Zion Shuttle at the visitor’s center and disembark at Weeping Rock, stop #7. The trail to Observation Point is a steady climb, gaining over 2,000’ in the four miles from trailhead to end point. The trail starts climbing immediately, winding up the side of the cliff towards Echo Canyon. It opens up from here, and continues to climb before flattening out for the final stretch to Observation Point. The views get better as you near the top, so don’t worry about stopping for photos around each bend. There is no parking at the trailhead, but the Zion shuttle systems are very frequent and convenient.
Is the Observation Point hike dangerous?
While there are some cliff edges and long drops, the Observation Point hike is far less dangerous than the Angel’s Landing hike (and with arguably better views). Unlike Angel’s Landing, there are no narrow and exposed edges that will have you clinging to the rock wall or using chains for added safety. However, it is longer and more strenuous than the Angel’s landing hike, so be sure to pack lots of water and be prepared for the full-day workout.
Note: As of August, 2019, the Observation Point via East Rim Trail and the Weeping rock trail are closed until further notice due to major rockfall. For more information on current trail conditions in Zion, the National Park service has all the info you need here.
The climb was sustained, but it went by quickly and the view was beyond worth the effort.
Observation Point, Zion National Park - Good to Know
Consistent rock-bed switchbacks
It takes 4 to 5 hours to hike the Observation Point Trail in Zion National Park
You can hike year-round, but spring and fall are ideal hiking conditions in Zion National Park
Take an early shuttle to beat the crowds. You’ll need to purchase tickets in advance, which you can do so from the NPS here
For weather and trail conditions, the National Park Service has that info here
3. Navajo Knobs Trail, Capitol Reef National Park
Pros and cons
Capitol Reef is an expansive 378 square miles, and gets fewer visitors on average than other parks in the region. The park is centered around the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold, a giant “buckle” in the earth’s surface resulting in the otherworldly sandstone formations along the park’s entire length.
For Capitol Reef hikes, you can’t go with Navajo Knobs
The Navajo Knobs trail has epic views start to finish, plus some exposure. The route follows a sandy trail and red rock slabs for a moderate climb to the overlooks above. Overall, you’ll gain just over 1,600’ of elevation during the 4.75 miles (one way), making it a more mellow ascent than some others on this list. The trail is marked with cairns and all intersections are well signed. You’ll want to make sure to carefully follow the cairns so as to not take a wrong turn and head off-trail.
The hike begins at the Hickman Bridge Trail and continues to the Rim Overlook Trail, following the Navajo Knobs Trail to the end point. This is one of the best ways to see the geologic history of the park and marvel at the alien-looking landscapes. Be sure to take plenty of water and bring sun protection. I recommend hiking in the morning — an early start will help you beat the heat, which will only make the hike more pleasant.
We went to Canyonlands on a spur-of-the-moment decision, and it was one of the most incredible stops on our road trip. This hike was a highlight.
Navajo Knobs Trail, Capitol Reef National Park - Good to Know
9.5-mile out-and-back (4.75 miles each way)
This trail is moderately difficult due to the distance and elevation gain
Exposed rock slabs
Allot 4 to 5 hours for this Capitol Reefs hike
Hickman Bridge Trailhead
Spring and fall offer the best Capitol Reef hike conditions
Stop for photos at the Rim Overlook, 2.3 miles from the trailhead
Find out more about hiking the Navajo Knobs Trail in Capitol Reef from Live and Let Hike
4. Chesler Park Loop, Canyonlands National Park
Pros and cons
Canyonlands National Park is divided into four districts: the Needles, Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Canyonland Rivers District. Each section has its own terrain, trails, and awe-inspiring scenery — and it’s all so varied you’ll find it hard to believe you’re in the same national park.
Head to the Needles District for iconic hiking trails
It can be hard to choose one hike, but you can’t go wrong in the Needles District, and the area’s Chesler Park Loop is iconic. The trailhead is over an hour from the closest town, and the area’s namesake features — narrow sandstone pillars — make this a don’t-miss trail. The majority of the trail is mellow, rolling terrain, scattered with some rocky scrambles and a narrow canyon before reaching the iconic spires.
Like all of the parks in southern Utah, be prepared and bring plenty of water, and have a healthy respect for the terrain. While the trails are well maintained and marked, it’s easy to get turned around, and the heat and scarcity of available water are not to be disregarded.
Set aside a full day to do this hike, you don’t want to be rushed.
Chesler Park Loop, Canyonlands National Park - Good to Know
Easy to moderate due to the terrain, but be ready for a full day of hiking
Slickrock and sand trail
Allot 6 to 8 hours for this full-day hike
Elephant Hill Trailhead
Spring and fall
Be prepared for fun rock scrambles
Find the Needles District trail maps including Chesler Park Loop from the NPS here
5. Delicate Arch, Arches National Park
Pros and cons
Arches National Park is one of the most visited national parks in America, with over 2,000 naturally occurring stone arches peppering the desert landscape. Delicate Arch, the park’s most remarkable feature, is one of the most famous natural stone arches in the world. I hiked out here because if you’re in Arches, you kind of have to. With nearly 50’ of vertical, open space and standing over 30’ wide, Delicate Arch is the tallest freestanding arch in the park. There are plenty of hikes and trails that avoid the crowds in Arches, but seeing Delicate Arch for yourself is awe-inspiring, even if you’re surrounded by fellow hikers.
How long does it take to hike to Delicate Arch?
While there are a few viewpoints along the way, reaching the arch is a three-mile round trip with just under 500’ of elevation gain. It’s worth the two to three-hour jaunt to see this incredible feature up close, rather than from the viewpoints farther back.
How difficult is the Delicate Arch Hike?
This hike is short and steady, and the trail is easy to follow, but due to the elevation gain, this trail should be considered moderately difficult. During this three-mile hike, you’ll pass by the Wolfe Ranch cabin as well as a wall of Ute Indian petroglyphs as you make your way to the arch. There’s no drinking water at the trailhead, so be sure to bring water and sun protection if you’re hitting the trail during the hotter parts of the day.
Can you hike Delicate Arch at night?
Hiking in Arches at any time of day is great, but at sunrise and sunset, you’re in for a real treat. If you choose to hike to Delicate Arch at sunset, you’ll be rewarded with incredible evening light illuminating the arch’s yellow and orange colors. Stay a little later, and the stargazing is some of the best you’ll find anywhere. Temperatures are a little cooler so make sure to pack an extra layer or two, and bring the headlamps along; the hike back to the car is straightforward, but made easier with some light to guide the way.
The hike is short and well-marked, meandering through swooping sandstone formations to one of the more iconic symbols of US National Parks.
Delicate Arch, Arches National Park - Good to Know
3.2 miles round-trip
Moderate with around 500 feet of elevation gain
2 to 3 hours including time to view the arch