The big five national parks of Utah are on your radar, and nothing is going to stop you from hiking in the dramatic landscapes. There are some smaller national forests and recreation areas in Utah. However, the five parks you will want to visit first are Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Zion. Maybe you want to try to visit them all in one whirlwind trip or you intend to pick them off one satisfying vacation at a time. Either way, the question remains, when is the best time to visit Utah National Parks?
The parks vary, but for the most part, the answer to this question comes down to the season and how you like your park served up? Quiet or busy? Let's get to the bottom of the question.
Each park has its own character, with a different climate and weather patterns. Before we address when to go, let's clarify what each national park has to offer.
Arches National Park is the smallest of the big five, yet within the boundaries, you can find at least 2,000 naturally formed rock arches. As well as the arches, you will see towering rock pillars and gigantic balanced rocks.
If you enjoy hiking in a dramatic landscape, then this park will fulfill all your fantasies. Make sure you only walk on the designated trails, the environment is under-threat and very sensitive. Even your footprints can cause damage to the eco-system.
An isolated park of stunning beauty and diversity, Canyonlands National Park is inspirational. Three rivers wind through the area and create three contrasting areas along their banks. The park is good for hiking quietly and escaping the tourist masses. There are fewer facilities than the other parks. This means you need to plan your trip well, with competence.
If you are not experienced hiking in wilderness areas, start with another park first.
Bryce Canyon was carved by water. The vast area is full of towers, canyons and will cause even the least geography-minded people to get excited by the mention of "water erosion".
Make sure you don't miss the massive Bryce amphitheater, a horseshoe canyon which is six square miles! The park is the spiritual heart of Utah, and the area bears considerable significance to Native Americans. Of course, as America does best, ironically the given name of the park harks back to an early Mormon habitant, rather than bearing a Native American name.
This humungous park is a dream for people who love to wilderness camp and hike. There are some easily accessible areas of the park, but if you really want to enjoy hiking in remote areas, then Capitol Reef national park will make a good choice.
The dramatic landscape emerges from green valleys inhabited most recently by Mormon settlers (you can still pick the fruit from the trees they planted), into a dramatic uplift called "the reef". Sandstone domes, rugged monoliths, and green oases define the area.
The most well-known park, Zion has three different eco-systems within its boundaries. Running through the heart of the national park, you will find the Virgin River with dramatic red sandstone cliffs either side. This is a great place for hiking, and there are a multitude of established trails for people to explore even if you aren't navigation experts.
The weather can vary a lot across Utah and the five national parks. However, if you want to be general about it, then prepare for hot days, cold nights.
Expect extremes in temperature differences. Before you go, check the temperature ranges and conditions at the park you plan to visit. Then, make sure you take the right kit for the trip you are planning.
If you want to avoid the hottest time of year, then opt for spring or autumn visits. However, this does increase the chance of rainfall (July-September) or snow-melt (May), which at Zion, Capitol Reef, and Arches brings a risk of flash flooding. Make sure you check current conditions before you visit, and listen to any warnings put out on the parks official channels.
Winter can bring snow in Zion, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon. This means you are best avoiding the months of December – March (and up to May for Bryce). Unless you are going for the snow! As ever, check for weather warnings before you go.
Summer (July and August) can bring thunderstorms to the parks, particularly at high altitude Bryce Park. Take shelter when you can! Bryce has very variable weather, you need to go prepared. The nights can freeze between October and May!
In the summer, you will find the most extreme temperature highs at Arches, Canyonlands and the slightly cooler but still arid Capitol Reef. Arches and Canyonlands can see highs over 100 F which makes hiking very strenuous in summer. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit the parks with the lowest altitudes.
The busiest tourist seasons at the big five are undoubtedly the spring and autumn. This leaves winter or summer if you want to avoid everyone else completely.
Winter visits are fine, particularly at Arches and Canyonlands. However, you need to go prepared for the cold weather with potential for storms, and snow (yes even at the two lowest parks).
You can enjoy the summer if you like to hike alone, as long as you prepare appropriately. The higher parks are marginally cooler at this time of year: Zion, Bryce, and Capitol Reef. Make sure you take plenty of water and prepare by making sure you know where you can find water should you need to replenish.
If you want to pick fruit at Capitol Reef, go for the fruit season: cherries in June, apples early October… You can find other fruits in-between.
Everyone is different so think about your priorities when choosing the best time to visit Utah National Parks.
Finally, the ultimate best time of the day to visit any of the big five national parks of Utah is for sunrise and sunset. Make sure you don't miss the opportunity to see the landscapes at their best during these special times of the day.
Have you been to any of Utah's National Parks? Which was your favorite? When did you go and would you do the same for your next visit? Let us know in the comments.
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