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Seeing Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ parks by campervan

By Erica Pearson, Star Tribune
Published: June 1, 2024, 5:17am

“Mom! Take my picture!” my daughter called as she led the way up sloping switchbacks to reach yet another lovely vista of Zion National Park’s Watchman peak. Crimson slickrock paintbrush flowers and prickly pear cacti framed the trail.

The views were all the more enjoyable because of what this hike at Zion, the third-most visited national park, didn’t entail. Because we were staying in the nearby campground, we were able to sleep in, stroll over to the trailhead and simply start hiking.

No long wait at the park entrance. No hunt for parking. And no lining up for the shuttle buses that ferry visitors to more popular trailheads.

The Watchman trail hike was just one of many during our epic family campervan vacation — but it remained our 9- and 7-year-old kids’ favorite. In a rented vehicle named “Hulk HoVan,” we visited each of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands — and even stopped at one state park, the otherworldly Goblin Valley. We made good use of our oldest daughter’s “Every Kid Outdoors” pass, which grants a fourth-grader’s whole family free entrance to national parks.

If You Go

Utah’s Mighty 5

More information:visitutah.com; nps.gov

Native Campervans: In Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Denver and Phoenix (nativecampervans.com)

Watchman Campground in Zion; Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef and Ken’s Lake Campground in Moab: Reserve up to six months ahead at recreation.gov.

We flew to Las Vegas and picked up Hulk from Native Campervans before heading off to Zion to start a week on the road that would end in Salt Lake City. An outfitted Ram ProMaster, the van had sleeping spots for four, with one double bed and a pop-up rooftop tent. In the back was a pull-out Yeti cooler, a camping stove with cooking gear and dishes, a five-gallon water container and grocery storage.

One highlight came when we arrived in Zion after the nearly three-hour drive from Vegas. We had booked a late-afternoon excursion with Zion Canyon Horseback Rides. Crossing the Virgin River on our horses, we followed the trail through the stunning Court of the Patriarchs. It was our youngest’s first-ever trail ride, and she beamed the entire time.

Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef

After two nights at Zion, we drove the incredible, twisting Zion-Mount Carmel Highway up to Bryce Canyon National Park, stopping for a family of bighorn sheep in the road and marveling at the views.

We spent a day at Bryce, descending into the gorgeous Bryce Canyon Amphitheater on the Queen’s Garden trail, our boots squishing in the mud. We delighted in the towering red hoodoos (rock spires) around every corner, and passed the one named Queen Victoria. It is supposed to look like a London statue of the monarch.

That night we made a stop in the town of Panguitch for barbecue and drove on to Capitol Reef National Park. A full moon rose above the road as we arrived at Fruita Campground. Capitol Reef — named for both a white Navajo Sandstone dome that looks like the U.S. Capitol and a long ridge that was a “reef-like” barrier for travelers — is home to striking rock formations and heirloom orchards planted by Mormon pioneers.

Less crowded and more low-key than the other Utah parks, Capitol Reef was where the kids ticked off Junior Ranger requirements and attended talks on geology and history. We also fully unplugged — there was no cellular service in the park, where we stayed for two nights.

The apricot orchards near our campsite were just beginning to bloom; when the fruit is ripe, many of Fruita’s 1,900 trees are open for picking. Before hiking the Hickman Bridge trail, we had a pie picnic outside the historic Gifford House, now home to a bake shop and store.

Arches to Canyonlands

After stretching our legs among the hoodoos at Goblin Valley, our next stop was Moab, Utah’s lively gateway to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. (From April to October, Arches requires a timed entry ticket, available to book in advance.)

While we were able to reserve campsites in Zion and Capitol Reef about four months before our trip, spots in the last two parks on our list were already gone. Instead, we parked Hulk at a Bureau of Land Management campground outside of Moab called Ken’s Lake, where we stayed for two nights. It was more bare-bones than our previous spots, but had lovely views of the La Sal Mountains.

We got up early to spend one very full day exploring both parks. The NPS labels it “strenuous,” so we were a little wary before heading out on Arches’ Delicate Arch Trail. Even our 7-year-old didn’t find the climb difficult, though, and the trail was not crowded. Plus, the payoff was breathtaking. Delicate Arch is one of more than 2,000 natural rock arches in the park, but this symbol of Utah rising improbably over the mountains is a singular sight.

We had a picnic at Arches’ Panorama Point before driving the half-hour to Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky area. We only had time for one hike in this vast, 337,598 acre park — the largest of the Mighty 5. A ranger recommended Mesa Arch Trail, especially popular at sunrise when the stunning span glows orange. Even late in the day, its keyhole view was amazing.

Utah’s amazing national parks had more than lived up to their “Mighty” name.

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