The Best Day Hikes in Southern Utah’s National Parks

Utah is an adventurer’s dream. It’s home to three national parks, eight national monuments, and over 40 state parks and recreation areas, each packed with trails for all abilities. The Beehive State is the kind of place where you can stay for months and never experience all it has to offer. I make a trip here every spring, and each year I leave with a longer list of things I want to do on my next visit.

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.

Utah

1. Fairyland Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

TOP CHOICE FOR FIT HIKERS
A loop hike means less logistical concerns
See the best features of Bryce Canyon
Even the mellow rim section has incredible views
No water available on the trail
Parking can be limited

At just under 56 square miles, Bryce Canyon is Utah’s smallest national park. 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.

For adventurers who want to see the best of Bryce Canyon’s dramatic landscape, the Fairyland Loop 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.

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.

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.

We only had time to do one hike in Bryce, and with the Fairyland Loop Trail, we got to see every feature we wanted.

by Kala J

Fairyland Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park - Good to Know

Distance:

8 miles

Difficulty:

Moderate to strenuous

Terrain:

Desert floor, sandstone

Time allotment:

3-5 hours

Trailhead:

Fairyland Point

Best time to hike:

Spring, fall

Insider tip:

Take the short spur trail to Tower Bridge…it’s worth it!

More info:

Further hike info here

Utah

2. Observation Point, Zion National Park

TOP CHOICE FOR FIT HIKERS
Avoid the Angel’s Landing crowds
Panoramic views of Zion
Trail keeps things interesting with varied terrain
Consistent climbing
Parts of the hike feel somewhat exposed

As Utah’s first national park, Zion is a popular 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 wonders of this majestic canyon landscape. We only had time for one hike in Zion, and it was an easy choice to avoid the Angel’s Landing crowds and get even higher via Observation Point. After spending time at the quieter Utah parks, the sheer volume of tourists at Zion was a bit jarring. Hiking a quieter trail made all the difference.

Observation Point 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.

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 frequent and convenient.

The climb was sustained, but it went by quickly and the view was beyond worth the effort.

by Maggie S

Observation Point, Zion National Park - Good to Know

Distance:

8 miles

Difficulty:

Strenuous

Terrain:

Consistent rock-bed switchbacks

Time allotment:

4-5 hours

Trailhead:

Weeping Rock

Best time to hike:

Spring, fall

Insider tip:

Take an early shuttle to beat the crowds

More info:

More hike info here

Utah

3. Capitol Reef National Park

PERFECT FOR INTERMEDIATE HIKERS
Less crowded
Moderate terrain
Epic views along entire trail
Highly exposed with no shade
One must carefully follow cairns

Capitol Reef is an expansive 378 square miles, and gets fewer visitors on average than other parks in the region. The park centers around the 100-mile Waterfold Pocket, a giant “buckle” in the earth’s surface resulting in the magnificent sandstone formations along the park’s entire length.

This exposed hike has epic views from start to finish, following a sandy trail and red rock slabs for a moderate climb to the overlooks. You’ll gain just over 1,600’ of elevation during the 4.75 miles (one way), making it a more mellow ascent than some other hikes on this list. The trail is marked with cairns and all intersections are well signed. We couldn’t believe how quiet Capitol Reef was; after the Hickman Bridge feature, we had the rest of the trail pretty much to ourselves. I wasn’t expecting the trail to be so exposed and had to ration water on the way back — so be prepared.

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. It’s best to hike in the morning; an early start will help you beat the heat, making the hike much 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.

by Kala J

Capitol Reef National Park - Good to Know

Distance:

9.5 miles

Difficulty:

Moderate

Terrain:

Exposed rock slabs

Time allotment:

4-5 hours

Trailhead:

Hickman Bridge trailhead

Best time to hike:

Spring, fall

Insider tip:

Stop for photos at the Rim Overlook, 2.3 miles from the trailhead

More info:

Further hike info here

Utah

4. Chesler Park Loop, Canyonlands National Park

FANTASTIC EASY-GOING TRAIL
Loop trail
Epic features and views
Easier terrain than other regional trails
Expect a full day, it’s a long hike
Trailhead is a ways from the nearest town

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.

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.

by Mackenzie M

Chesler Park Loop, Canyonlands National Park - Good to Know

Distance:

11 miles

Difficulty:

Easy to moderate

Terrain:

Slickrock and sand trail

Time allotment:

6-8 hours

Trailhead:

Elephant Hill Trailhead

Best time to hike:

Spring, fall

Insider tip:

Be prepared for fun rock scrambles

More info:

Further hike info here

Utah

5. Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

TOP CHOICE FOR FAMILIES
One of the most iconic features in the country
Relatively short out and back
A must-do in Southern Utah
Very popular
Exposed, no shade

Arches National Park is one of the most famous national parks in America, with over 2,000 naturally occurring stone arches peppering the desert landscape. There are plenty of hikes and trails that avoid the crowds in Arches, but seeing Delicate Arch for yourself is worth it even if you’re surrounded by fellow hikers.

With nearly 50’ of vertical, open space and standing over 30’ wide, Delicate Arch is the tallest freestanding arch in the park. 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.

This hike is short and steady, and the trail is easy to follow. It’s worth the jaunt to see this incredible feature up close,  rather than from the viewpoints farther back. I hiked out here because if you’re in Arches, you kind of have to. Delicate Arch is a remarkable feature and seeing it up close was awe-inspiring, despite the crowds. 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.

The hike is short and well-marked, meandering through swooping sandstone formations to one of the more iconic symbols of US National Parks.

by Hailey H

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park - Good to Know

Distance:

3.2 miles

Difficulty:

Moderate

Terrain:

Exposed slabs

Time allotment:

2 hours

Trailhead:

Wolfe Ranch Parking Lot

Best time to hike:

Spring, fall

Insider tip:

Leave early to avoid the crowds

More info:

More hike info here

About the author

Maggie Slepian

Maggie Slepian

Backpacker, trail runner, climber, and mountain biker

Maggie is an avid outdoor enthusiast based in Bozeman, Montana. When she's not in front of a computer writing and editing, she can be found backpacking, trail running, mountain biking, climbing, shooting archery, or trying to teach her cat how to walk on a leash.

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