Arches, Canyonlands

& Capitol Reef

Three National Parks in Utah


Arches National Park - Our trip began with a flight into Salt Lake City.  We stayed there for a few days to visit relatives and then rented a car and headed down south about three hours to a great little town called Moab – the gateway to Arches and Canyonlands.  Moab is a granola-type town with a funky vibe.  Loaded with earthy people, bike shops, fossil displays and adventure outfitters - this place is swarming with activity.  We chose one of the hotels along the Colorado River outside of town and spent the rest of the day exploring and relaxing at the Sorrel Resort.  


Geared up and ready for a big adventure
Geared up and ready for a big adventure

The next morning we met up with a mountain biking outfitter for a 10-mile beginner loop along the outskirts of Arches National Park.  The tour guides were enthusiastic and worked hard to make sure everyone had an enjoyable experience.  This was considered a “beginner” route, but it was much harder than we expected.  After a few spills, some scary steep ravines, very windy conditions and utter exhaustion, I’m glad to report that we all survived. 


We celebrated with lunch and some amazing baked goods at Sweet Cravings Bakery & Bistro  With our tanks filled to the brim, we drove back over to Arches National Park for some site-seeing on our own.  I always recommend stopping at the Visitor’s Center when you first arrive at a National Park.  There you can pick up a park map, talk to a ranger about what to see, view a short film and visit museum-like exhibits.  I usually say to the ranger, “We have X amount of time, what do you suggest we do?”  With that, we got back into the car and visited a number of spots for the next 3 hours or so.  Our favorites were Balanced Rock, The Windows Section and the hike to Delicate Arch (we opted for the shorter one since it was nearing sundown).  Our day ended with a drive back to our hotel, hot showers and pajama time. 


Windows Section of Arches National Park
Windows Section of Arches National Park

Other Moab stops worth mentioning:

Peach Tree Juice Café – great healthy and tasty smoothies.  Next-door  is Arches Trading Post – a perfect spot for souvenirs.

For budget and convenience, I would recommend lodging at the Gonzo Inn right in Moab. They have great reviews on tripadvisor and I noticed their location was right in the middle of of town.

Canyonlands National Park – The next day we woke up to VERY windy conditions.  And as a result, our ziplining tour was cancelled.  In hind-sight, this ended up helping our itinerary immensely.  Looking back on this day, we would not have been able to do all that we did and still arrive by sundown at our next destination (Capitol Reef National Park).  We checked out of the Sorrel Resort and headed for Canyonlands National Park.  This is a HUGE park – let me repeat that... HUGE!  It is divided into several different sections.  The closest and most visited from the Moab area is called “Island in the Sky” and the visitor’s center was about 45 minutes away.



Canyonlands is completely different than Arches.  Not only is Arches a fairly small National Park, you are looking UP at everything.  The amazing sites are mostly arches (go figure) and interesting towers and unusual geological figures.  In Canyonlands you are high (elevation ranging from 4,000-7,000 feet) and looking down into breath-taking canyons. There are NO services anywhere near this area, so it’s highly recommended that you fill your car with gas and bring along a picnic, snacks, and water. 


Again we arrived at the Visitor’s Center and made a bee-line for the ranger, asking what we should do with 3 hours.  He suggested a route that was a perfect combination of short hikes and various look-out spots.  Like mentioned before, this was a VERY windy day with scattered rain.  The short hikes worked out well since we didn’t want to be too far from the car in case it really poured.  The stand-outs were Upheaval Dome, Green River Lookout and Grand View Point Overlook.  


A rainbow over Buck Canyon!
A rainbow over Buck Canyon!
But the really spectacular site was a rainbow that we were able to witness over Buck Canyon.  It was one of those wonderful “at-the-right-place-at-the-right-time” kind of things.  All of the sudden, there it was!  We quickly pulled over (along with a long string of cars).  We all had the same thought, "Let's get that shot!"  It was truly amazing.  A special end to our visit to Canyonlands.


Once we had had our fill of Canyonlands, we began the 3 hour drive to the Capitol Reef area.  There really isn’t much between these two spots.  We took the two-lane highway route along UT-24 where we only saw another car once every 30 miles or so.  We drove through Capitol Reef and then on to the Torrey area and checked in to the Red River Ranch  This is a nice lodge with 15 rooms on 2000 acres.  The red bluffs and a small river area provide a nice backdrop to this log cabin home.

We then drove back into town for dinner.  We opted for the Broken Spur Steakhouse and we were glad we did.  In a town of not-much-to-choose-from, who knew I’d be dining on pistachio crusted salmon with a lime dressing drizzle and a glass of wine (hard to come by in the state of Utah).  My husband enjoyed a delicious steak and the kids were pleased with the “kids’ menu” options as well.  The Broken Spur has a sister restaurant down the hill that serves fresh baked goods and homemade ice cream.  For budget accommodations, I would recommend also staying at the Broken Spur.

Capitol Reef National Park - The next morning we enjoyed a delicious country breakfast at the Red River Ranch, then packed up, checked out and headed over to Capitol Reef National Park, a short 15 minute drive away.

The Ranger at the Visitor’s Center pointed out a few things to see and we were on our way.  This park is very different from the other two we visited on this trip.  It is steeped in history with ancient petroglyphs and Mormon history.   Learning about the history of the people who were in these parts thousands (ancient people) and hundreds (Mormons) of years ago, mixed in with the beautiful land formations makes for a very interesting visit.  The highlight for us was the “Scenic Drive” as listed on the map.  We came to the end of a paved road and wouldn’t have known to continue on the dirt road if the Ranger hadn’t suggested it.  We continued on and found ourselves traveling in a beautiful canyon with steep red walls on either side of us.  It felt like we just kept going and going and we wondered if we had perhaps misunderstood the directions until we came to a small parking lot with other cars, trail markers and a bathroom.  


Spotting ancient petrogylphs on the canyon wall
Spotting ancient petrogylphs on the canyon wall
We set out on a one-mile hike that continued down this narrow canyon.  It occurred to me this would be the last place you’d want to be during a flash flood.  Along the way we got to view ancient petroglyphs on the canyon walls.  In addition, we read a number of “Mormon registries” where early Utah settlers (those arriving by covered wagon) had scratched their names and the dates into the canyon walls. 


About 1 mile from the parking lot, there is a steep hike up a rocky area were you can view ancient water cisterns (natural holes in the rocks where water would fill and early settlers could use for drinking water).  The Fruita Historic District was also very interesting, although we were too late in the season to enjoy picking any fruit.  If we had more time or energy, or if the weather had been better (the rain drizzle had turned to snow), we might have opted for the Hickman Bridge Hike.

From there, we gassed up and began making our way back to Salt Lake City (3 hour drive) to return our rental car and fly home.



Best Time to Visit:  We did our trip in early November.  On the positive side, there were no crowds anywhere.  We were always able to find a parking space at the trail heads and a room reservation.  But we found businesses had closed for the season (especially the area outside of Capitol Reef) and the weather was a little too chilly at times.  I would avoid summer, too hot and too crowded.  Perhaps May or September would be the ideal time to visit this area.



Journal Suggestion:

-Take along a blank sketch book (something with nice sturdy pages from an art store), a good set of colored pencils, and double-sided tape.


- Cut up your park brochure and tape as a collage into the journal.  Include other memorabilia such as postcards and stamps.


- Draw your own map of the park and the route your family took.


- Sit down and draw something beautiful that stands out to you.  This could be something big like Buck Canyon or little like a desert flower.


- Record interesting things you learn about the history of the park, how the geological features were formed or the plants and animals that make their home there.


-Don't forget to also record funny things that happened, things that surprised you, things that didn't go as planned, etc.  These are always fun details that help you relive your trip after it's long over.


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