The 12 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks
By Michael Lanza
From natural arches, hoodoos, and hanging gardens to balanced rocks and towering mesas, slot canyons and vast chasms, the desert Southwest holds in its dry, searing, lonely open spaces some of America’s most fascinating and inspiring geology. The writer “Cactus Ed” Abbey no doubt had this region in mind when he said there “are some places so beautiful they can make a grown man break down and weep.” Much of it sits protected within southern Utah’s five national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef.
The good news? Many of the best sights can be reached on dayhikes of anywhere from a couple hours to a full day.
The list below of the best dayhikes in southern Utah’s national parks derives from numerous trips I’ve made to each of these parks over the past 25 years. Use my list as your compass, and I guarantee you will knock off the best hikes in these parks—and you won’t need a quarter-century to do it.
I’d love to read your thoughts about my list—and your suggestions for dayhikes that belong on it. Please share them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. As I continue to explore more trails, I will regularly update this story.
Angels Landing and West Rim Trail, Zion National Park
Angels Landing belongs on any list of the best dayhikes in Utah. The five-mile, 1,500-foot round-trip hike of Angels Landing culminates in one of the airiest and most thrilling half-mile stretches (actually, 0.4 mile) of trail in the entire National Park System. You scale a steep, knife-edge ridge crest of rock, using steps carved out of sandstone and chain handrails in spots. And the 360-degree panorama from the summit takes in all of Zion Canyon.
Two tips: If you can hike a strong pace, start in very early morning or wait until mid-afternoon (when the lower section of trail falls into shade) to avoid the crowds and the heat of midday. And after summiting Angels, continue up the West Rim Trail for another mile or two before turning back—you will ditch the crowds and explore a sublimely beautiful area of giant beehive towers and white walls streaked in red and orange.
Navajo-Queens Garden and Peek-a-Boo Loops, Bryce Canyon National Park
If the view of Bryce’s stone forest of multi-colored hoodoos is breathtaking from roadside overlooks, hiking in their labyrinthine midst is mesmerizing. Combine the popular and short Navajo Loop/Queens Garden Loop—which features one of the park’s best-known formations, Thor’s Hammer—with the Peek-a-Boo Loop, and you will lose the crowds while walking through a maze of multi-colored limestone, sandstone, and mudstone towers.
The hike, mostly on good trails that are easy to follow, weaves among tall hoodoos, passes through doorways cut through walls of rock, and wraps through amphitheaters of wildly colored, slender spires that resemble giant, melting candles. The six-mile loop, with a total elevation gain and loss of about 1,600 feet, begins and ends at Sunset Point.
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Delicate Arch at Sunset, Arches National Park
The trail to what is probably Utah’s most famous natural arch is certainly a well-traveled path. But here’s the smart hiker’s strategy: Do it in the evening, timing your arrival at Delicate for shortly before sunset. The final stretch of the trail traverses the face of a small slickrock cliff before suddenly depositing you on the rim of an amphitheater of solid rock, looking across the broad bowl at Delicate Arch, with the La Sal Mountains, snow-covered in spring, visible through its keyhole. Then hold your jaw in place while watching as the low-angle sunlight seems to electrify the sandstone’s burnt color.
Just three miles round-trip with minimal elevation gain, it’s an easy stroll, even returning by headlamp; and that time of day is far more pleasant than trudging it during the morning or afternoon heat. Tip: Bring a headlamp and jacket and linger for a while after sunset, until most other hikers have departed, and you’ll enjoy a quieter, enchanting walk under a sky riddled with stars.
Hike all of my “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
The Subway, Zion National Park
Zion’s most-famous, technical slot canyon, The Subway (also shown in lead photo at top of story) takes its name from a bend where floodwaters have bored an oval passage that—yes, you guessed it—resembles the most strikingly colorful subway tunnel you will ever see. Requiring a popular permit, the 9.5-mile, top-to-bottom dayhike descends a canyon at times wider than a soccer pitch, with trees growing in the shade of walls hundreds of feet tall, and narrows to a slot barely more than shoulder-width across. You will clamber over giant boulders in a twisting canyon of wildly sculpted, kaleidoscopic walls, wade or swim a few deep, frigid pools (bring a dry suit, which can be rented in Springdale), and make three short rappels.
See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 1: Hiking Zion’s Subway,” for many photos and details on how to get the permit and do this classic hike.
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Devils Garden, Arches National Park
Much of the mass popularity of Arches owes to the ease of viewing many of its signature features on short to very short hikes and roadside walks. That’s exactly why Devils Garden is the best hike in the park (at least among hikes that follow established trails). Besides being really scenic—you can view seven arches, including the park’s largest, 306-foot-long Landscape Arch—it’s much more adventurous.
The hiking is nearly flat and easy up to Landscape Arch; beyond it, though, you’ll discover part of the magic of Devils Garden: immersing yourself in the landscape off the trail. You will scamper up and down steep sandstone fins and out onto exposed overlooks, and you can even scramble up into Partition Arch. Hike to all seven arches in the Devils Garden area, and you’ll cover about eight miles by the time you return to the Devils Garden Trailhead, at the end of the park road through Arches.
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Chesler Park, Canyonlands National Park
Hiking to Chesler Park in the Needles District of Canyonlands has the quality of approaching the Emerald City in the land of Oz. Multi-colored, 300-foot-tall towers of Cedar Mesa sandstone form a castle-like rampart, looming ever larger as you approach Chesler. The trail then leads steeply uphill through a break in the row of pinnacles—the doorway into Chesler Park, a horseshoe of sandstone spires arcing around a patch of desert more than a mile across.
From ledges between the spires of Chesler, you get views of the park’s pinnacles and the sprawling badlands outside its walls, where giant, white-capped mushrooms of stone sprout from the earth, and more red spires rise in the distance. It’s roughly 10 miles out-and-back hike to Chesler without probing into it. But if you have the time and stamina, hike the path almost three miles around the park to the Joint Trail, which passes through a very narrow, sheer-walled slot in solid rock.
Want more? See “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes” and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”
Cohab Canyon and Frying Pan Trail, Capitol Reef National Park
Of southern Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef plays the Cinderella role as the unappreciated beauty—which hikers who love the place consider a fortuitous break. I’ve explored much of this park’s lonely backcountry (check out this trip), and it’s worth all of the time and effort it demands. But to sample Capitol Reef’s Utah-caliber scenery on a relatively easy hike of two to three hours, head up the Cohab Canyon Trail, through a defile of walls sculpted with countless “windows.” From the ledges at Fruita Overlook, you’ll get a view from about 400 feet above the valley of the Fremont River.
Then make a short, out-and-back detour onto the Frying Pan Trail: Within about 20 minutes of leaving Cohab Canyon, you’re on top of the nearly 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold, soaking in a mind-boggling landscape of creamy-white, burgundy, and blazing-orange domes and cliffs. The Cohab Canyon Trail extends just 1.7 miles between UT 24 near the Hickman Bridge Trailhead and the park’s Scenic Road near the historic Fruita community; shuttle vehicles or a bike to hike it end-to-end, or hike out and back from the trailhead near Fruita Campground.
Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips” and my Trips page.
Observation Point, Zion National Park
Angels Landing and The Narrows grab all the headlines, but the eight-mile, round-trip hike to Observation Point is arguably more spectacular and varied than both—and not as busy. The neck-craning views begin minutes after you start hiking from the Weeping Rock Trailhead, and keep getting more and more impressive all the way to Observation Point, where you stand at the brink of cliffs more than 2,000 feet above Zion Canyon.
The three distinct sections of the hike all stand out. The trail first switches up through the cliffs above Weeping Rock, gaining wider views with each bend. The middle section enters the narrows of Echo Canyon, where a stream nurtures greenery and pools reflect the soaring red and white walls; I’ve seen bighorn sheep along this stretch. The upper section of the trail overlooks the multi-colored walls of Echo Canyon, then makes a high, airy traverse above Zion Canyon.
See my story “Insider Tips: The 10 Best Hikes in Zion National Park.”
Big Spring-Squaw Canyons Loop, Canyonlands National Park
While nearby Chesler Park commands the attention of most hikers in the Needles District of Canyonlands, the less-traveled trails into Big Spring and Squaw canyons deliver similarly mind-blowing views of 300-foot-tall candlesticks and cliffs. The 7.5-mile loop from Squaw Flat campground to Big Spring and Squaw canyons follows a circuitous route up steep slickrock over a sandstone pass overlooking miles of redrock towers. You’ll traverse slabs, scramble up the smooth, dry bottom of a narrow water runnel, and pump out calf muscles walking straight up steep ramps.
From the slickrock pass between Big Spring and Squaw canyons, the panorama spans stratified cliffs stretching out in three directions. Stone towers, with bulbous crowns bigger around than the column on which they sit, seem ever at the verge of toppling over.
Taylor Canyon, Zion National Park
Located in northwestern Zion’s Kolob Canyons, far off the beaten paths of Zion Canyon, the five-mile, nearly flat, out-and-back hike up the Taylor Creek Trail follows a vibrant creek through a partly forested canyon with burnt-red walls rising nearly 2,000 feet. You’ll pass two historic settler’s cabins dating back decades. The maintained trail ends at charming Double Arch Alcove, a pair of giant arches in the Navajo sandstone beneath 1,700-foot-tall Tucupit Tower and Paria Tower.
Gear up right for your hikes. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 7 best daypacks.
Horseshoe Canyon, Canyonlands National Park
Seeing the best prehistoric Indian rock art in America requires some potentially adventurous driving on sandy, only occasionally signed back roads, and then an out-and-back hike of almost six miles up a canyon whose remoteness is perhaps best symbolized by something you’ll pass by while first descending into it: fossilized dinosaur tracks.
The vague “trail” up Horseshoe Canyon—of the four districts of Canyonlands, the one probably the fewest people have heard of—follows a shallow stream past sparse stands of cottonwoods and three separate panels of rock art: High Gallery, Horseshoe Gallery, and Alcove Gallery. But the highlight lies nearly three miles up the canyon: The Great Gallery, a pictograph panel of colorful figures spanning some 200 horizontal feet beneath an overhanging canyon wall. Some of the images resemble mummies with heads but no limbs, some are human-like, and others clearly represent bighorn sheep. The largest figures measure over seven feet tall.
See my story “3-Minute Read: The Great Gallery Pictographs of Horseshoe Canyon.”
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Chimney Rock Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park
You may see a few other people on Capitol Reef’s 3.5-mile Chimney Rock Loop, a hiker density that qualifies it as “popular” in this park. That “crush” of hikers notwithstanding, the loop delivers stunning views of the cliffs of the Waterpocket Fold. But even fewer hikers venture farther down Chimney Rock Canyon to see its tall, sheer, red cliffs and truck-size boulders littering the canyon bottom.
Tip: Hike this roughly 6.5-mile route clockwise, going to the bottom of Chimney Rock Canyon first—to its confluence with Spring Canyon (or turn back sooner to shorten the hike)—and time your return to follow the Chimney Rock Loop clockwise as sunset approaches, for the best light. You’ll probably finish before dark (but bring a headlamp, just in case). Start from the Chimney Rock Trailhead, three miles west of the park visitor center on UT 24.
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