Ranking Utah’s Mighty 5

Last Updated on: 28th June 2024, 09:45 am

Utah is home to five incredible National Parks that are collectively known as the Mighty 5. But nobody can seem to agree on which is best. After ranking Utah’s Mighty 5 in my head, I was surprised to discover that no other list online seems to place the parks in the same order.

While indeed subjective, a number of key factors were taken into consideration when ranking the parks. An obvious one is the overall beauty of each National Park, not to mention the variety of hiking trails and/or scenic drives they offer.

Another major factor is the overall visiting experience. While unrelated to each park’s natural beauty, things like crowds and park management can have a major impact on one’s overall enjoyment.

For reference, I visited Utah’s Mighty 5 between 2022 and 2023, when crowd numbers were at an all-time high. Even if you’ve visited the same parks just several years prior, you probably had a different experience with things like crowds, parking and permit systems.

Finally, it’s important to state that while Utah’s National Parks are ranked below from ‘worst’ to ‘best,’ they’re all incredible parks that are worth your time and energy. But if you have limited time, the following list may help you decide which ones to focus on.

To learn more about how to go about visiting Utah’s Mighty 5 – not to mention many of the other natural wonders the state has to offer – be sure to check out our recommended itinerary.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

5. Arches National Park

Arches National Park, just outside of Moab, Utah, is home to over 2,000 natural arches. Arches is the second-smallest of Utah’s Mighty 5, but also the second-most crowded. 

As you can guess, things can get rather hectic, and that’s one of the main reasons the park is ranked number five on this list.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Delicate Arch

But first, let’s focus on the positive. The park is home to the iconic Delicate Arch which has come to symbolize Utah as a whole, as it’s the prominent symbol on the state license plate.

Arches National Park is also home to numerous other stunning landmarks, such as Landscape Arch, Double Arch, and many more.

Landscape Arch

The park’s compact size also makes it easy to see the main highlights in a single day, while you can do 100% of the hikes at Arches in just 1.5 days. That’s what I did, and Arches is the only Utah park for which I can say I’ve done almost everything.

Double Arch
Turret Arch

Why, then, is Arches ranked dead last? As mentioned, the crowds are a major factor. In peak season, the park has what could best be described as a theme park-like atmosphere.

Finding a parking spot can be stressful, while most of the trails are crowded and noisy. It can be really difficult to take in the otherworldly scenery at times.

Aside from that, Arches’ hikes can’t quite compete with those elsewhere in Utah. While I enjoyed Devil’s Garden, the park’s most popular hike, it’s not nearly as unique or as memorable as Zion’s Angels Landing or Capitol Reef’s Navajo Knobs, for example.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks

Arches National Park, however, does have one particularly unique (and challenging) hike which is easily one of Utah’s most special: Fiery Furnace. A permit is required, but the hassle is worth it. You can learn all about that hike in our dedicated guide.

Overlooking Fiery Furnace

While, all in all, I wasn’t as impressed with Arches as I was with the others, it’s still an excellent park. And if you’re passing through the Moab area, it would be crazy not to spend at least a day there.

4. Zion National Park

Zion National Park is Utah’s most-visited park and touted by many as the top National Park in Utah. The park, largely situated along the scenic Zion Canyon, is home to two of the country’s most popular hikes.

Few who complete Angels Landing or The Narrows will ever forget them. But perhaps these hikes – and Zion as a whole – have become too popular for their own good.

I was fortunate enough to have visited Zion National Park back in 2007 when it was still relatively obscure. But revisiting in 2023, it still looked like Zion but felt more like Disneyland.

Park management is well aware of Zion’s recent spike in popularity. As a result, everyone doing the Angels Landing hike, which can only be completed by grabbing onto metal chains, now requires an advanced permit.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks

Permits can only be obtained through a lottery system which can be a bit confusing, while many hopeful visitors fail to obtain them. But as long as it ultimately makes for a safer and more peaceful hiking experience, it’s still a good idea, right?

While I did indeed obtain a permit, I was only asked to present it well before the main Angels Landing trail. Once at the chains section, there were no rangers in sight, and I’m certain that other hikers with me lacked permits. It’s only a question of how many.

I don’t blame the hikers themselves – only park management. Making visitors go through a strict lottery system only to barely enforce it is just one example of how poor management diminishes the overall Zion experience.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks

The Narrows, for which the ‘trail’ is the Virgin River itself, is another unforgettable hike. No permit is required for it, so it unsurprisingly  gets incredibly packed. But that’s something I was fully expecting, and I didn’t let it ruin my experience.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
A quieter section of The Narrows

While not related to the hike itself, Zion Outfitters, the main shop that rents out special gear for hiking The Narrows, is inexplicably located just outside official park boundaries. 

Unfortunately, despite knowing the situation, the rangers at the nearby entrance/exit often give people a hard time just for stopping at Zion Outfitters and returning to the main parking lot. No system has been implemented to make the process more efficient, and it just doesn’t make any sense.

There are also other issues we could get into, such as lack of transparency regarding parking, but let’s stop there.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Crowds at the start of The Narrows

While the crowd numbers can’t be helped, Zion would probably rank higher on this list if the park was better managed. 

It’s also important to note that there are still plenty of areas of the park that I have yet to explore. From what I’ve read, it’s not that hard to escape the crowds at Zion by choosing a lesser-known hike.

While I would indeed like to return someday, I have to admit that I was more than happy to leave Zion behind at the end of my recent visit!

3. Bryce Canyon National Park

At around 36,000 acres (72 square km), Bryce Canyon is the smallest of Utah’s Mighty 5 by far, being only a tenth the size of Arches. Nevertheless, millions of visitors each year are drawn to its beautiful orange-colored hoodoos. 

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks

The hoodoos are largely concentrated in an area known as the Amphitheater, and it can be admired from various overlooks. But the Amphitheater is also home to numerous hiking trails that allow one to hike right amongst the formations.

A number of people call Bryce Canyon their favorite Utah park, and it’s easy to see why. I’d even go as far as saying that the Amphitheater is the single most beautiful area within Utah’s Mighty 5.

In addition to seeing it from above, be sure to hike the Peekaboo Loop. Unlike the more popular Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop, Peekaboo allows you to experience the hoodoos away from the crowds. And the views are more impressive overall.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Hiking the Peekaboo Loop

Another positive of Bryce Canyon is its shuttle system. Unlike Zion, the shuttles here are completely optional, but they come in handy if you happen to encounter a full parking lot at a popular overlook or trailhead.

But with all these positives, why is Bryce Canyon National Park only ranked number three?

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Overlooking The Amphitheater

Well, it did almost take the number two spot. But at the end of the day, Bryce Canyon is lacking in one major area: variety. Of course, the lack of variety doesn’t diminish the experience while you’re there considering how beautiful Bryce is.

But when ranking Utah’s Mighty 5, Bryce gets edged out by some larger parks that just have more to offer.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Ponderosa Point

2. Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef is probably Utah’s most underrated park. It’s relatively hard to reach, and at first glance, doesn’t contain a whole lot to set itself apart from the rest of Utah’s Mighty 5.

From what I’ve read, even among those who have visited the park, it’s not always ranked that highly. But I think that’s due to many visitors not fully taking advantage of everything the park has to offer.

The view from the top of Navajo Knobs
Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks

Capitol Reef has a bit of all the things that Utah’s other parks are famous for, such as arches, hoodoos and canyons.

But it’s very much a hiker’s park, and there aren’t that many stunning overlooks you can simply drive to – at least in the main part of the park. 

In regards to central Capitol Reef, the best views are reached via fairly strenuous hikes which is why it might be hard for less active visitors to truly appreciate this park. 

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Cassidy Arch

The top hikes in Capitol Reef are Rim Overlook/Navajo Knobs, Cassidy Arch and the Grand Wash. But there are also plenty of more laidback activities to enjoy, such as experiencing the park’s historic past.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
The Grand Wash

While the historical aspect of the park tends to be a bit overstated in many articles, the various old structures are still worth checking out. In addition to buildings created by early Mormon settlers, you can also find ancient petroglyphs left by the Fremont people.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks

Aside from tackling the main hikes, to truly appreciate Capitol Reef National Park, a visit to Cathedral Valley is a must. 

While still within park boundaries, it looks and feels like a completely different park. And the sheer variety is what makes Capitol Reef such an exciting place to explore.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
The Bentonite Hills

The colorful Bentonite Hills and the sandstone monoliths known as the Temples of the Sun and Moon are the main highlights to check out in Cathedral Valley. But you could easily spend a whole day exploring this district.

Another positive of Capitol Reef is how uncrowded it is compared with the parks mentioned above. And considering how it’s an easy drive from the nearest town (Torrey), Capitol Reef is probably the least stressful of Utah’s Mighty 5.

With that said, the parking lots here are smaller than average, so you’ll still have to wake up early to ensure you get a spot for some of the more popular trailheads.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks

So why didn’t Capitol Reef take the number one spot? While there are no glaring downsides, all in all, I consider the number one park on this list to be even more dynamic and impressive.

The Temple of the Sun and Glass Mountain

1. Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is the largest of Utah’s Mighty 5. Yet despite being situated right by the massively popular Arches, it’s also the least-visited National Park in Utah.

While it’s a shame that so many people are missing out on what I consider to be Utah’s best park, that just leaves more room for the rest of us.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Aztec Butte

Canyonlands National Park is comprised of multiple different districts such as The Needles, the Maze and the Island in the Sky, the latter of which is the most popular by far.

Island in the Sky is a large mesa filled with various overlooks and unique geological formations. It really does feel like being on a floating island.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Mesa Arch

Admittedly, I didn’t have any special expectations before visiting the Island in the Sky, thinking it wouldn’t be much different from other spots in the Southwest.

Yet as I explored the mesa, I was continually blown away by what I was seeing. The area could perhaps best be described as a mix between the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley – plus a few unique surprises thrown in.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks

Just by visiting all of the overlooks and various short hikes across the mesa, you could fill up an entire day. But Island in the Sky is also home to numerous long hikes. 

While I didn’t end up having time to try any, I imagine that this single district alone would take at least several days to fully explore.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
The colorful Upheaval Dome

In addition to hikes, the Island in the Sky district is home to multiple scenic drives, such as White Rim Road. That unpaved loop road takes a few days to complete. And then there are the thrilling switchbacks of the Shafer Trail.

Having a 4×4 (in addition to permits in the case of White Rim Road) is a must. Or, you could just take a tour. See our dedicated guide for more.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Looking down at the Shafer Trail

What really solidified Canyonlands as my top Utah National Park was my visit to The Needles district. It’s a stunningly beautiful area that you can pretty much have all to yourself – even during peak season.

While my visit was somewhat rushed, I did get to do part of the Elephant Hill/Chesler Park Trail which was one of my favorite hiking experiences in Utah.

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks

Solely based on what I’ve seen thus far at the time of writing, Canyonlands National Park deserves the top spot due to its beautiful and varied landscapes and its overall pleasant visiting experience.

But what else does the park have to offer?

Ranking Utah's Mighty Five Best Utah National Parks
The Needles

There’s also the Maze, which is the most remote and hardest-to-reach district at Canyonlands. A 4×4 is required, it lacks amenities, and very few people actually make it out there. But as you might expect, it’s home to numerous hiking trails that you’ll likely have to yourself.

Horseshoe Canyon, meanwhile, is home to the Great Gallery, one of the most significant collections of ancient pictographs in the region. A strenuous seven-mile (11.2 km) roundtrip hike will take you there.

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