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 almost 30 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.
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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.”
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