The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for the National Parks: Marty Behr.
Marty has spent years exploring America’s national parks, finding the most eye-popping routes, determining the most efficient logistics, testing lodging options all the way from cushy hotels to backcountry base camps, identifying the savviest special-access guides (some PhDs, others former park rangers), and meeting the local characters who bring life to each park and can show you things you’d otherwise never know to look for. He loves to design trips that get people just slightly out of their comfort zone, with activities adjusted to each traveler’s ability level, whether that’s a gentle float or Class IV whitewater, an easy hike or a thrilling mountain-bike adventure. He also specializes in outdoor-focused trips to California, from redwoods to beach to Sierras. Longtime deputy Jessica Matthews takes over when Marty’s away from the office exploring; she’s based in Flagstaff, spends many a weekend hiking and biking Arizona’s best trails, and knows the southwest and northern Rockies regions particularly well. Most of Marty and Jessica’s travelers choose to drive themselves around, detailed itinerary in hand and guides accompanying them when helpful, but for those with far more money than time, they can book chartered planes to whisk groups from park to park. They can even make Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon doable in a single trip.
Things to Do and See
Most overrated place
Delicate Arch at Arches National Park is magnificent, but it’s a three-hour round-trip hike on a crowded trail to get that close-up view you’ve seen in photos, and if you settle for the viewpoint from the road, you’ll probably be disappointed. Arches NP has so many other fantastic rock formations. Take a trail less traveled instead!
Angel’s Landing is the most over-recommended hike in Zion National Park. It’s often way too crowded, and when it is the final half mile is downright dangerous, with people jockeying for the chain “handrail” as they make their way up or down. Instead, try Observation Point. When you get to the top, you’ll be looking down on Angel’s Landing—and the hike along the way is a lot more interesting and varied.
Most underrated place
The drive on Highway 12, between the Utah towns of Tropic and Torrey, that runs alongside the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This is considered one of the most spectacular drives in the world, yet few actually take the time to do it. If you have even a passing interest in geology, you’ll be fascinated by the roadside pullout information displays.
Eighty-five percent of Canyonlands National Park is backcountry; you’ll need a four-wheel drive vehicle (ideally with a driver/guide so that you can soak in the views rather than navigating the many steep switchbacks) to appreciate it. If you’re an experienced outdoor explorer, you can do it on your own by mountain bike or foot.
How to spend a lazy Sunday
Any day can be a “lazy Sunday” in one of the parks: Pick an easy hike and bring a picnic lunch. Walk slower than usual, really taking in the sights, sounds, and smells around you. Focus on the small things that you might otherwise overlook (a tiny flower, a small rock with great markings). And give thanks to the founders of our great national parks system.
Driving the road that serves as the “spine” of Bryce Canyon, with its many scenic vista points and trailheads. Unlike in Zion, where you need to look (and hike) up to really appreciate the landscape, in Bryce you can simply look down onto hundreds of otherworldly hoodoos, walls, and pinnacles. There’s no other place in America where the long-term effects of erosion have created such a spectacular, almost fairy-tale-like setting. It is truly magical.
Where to Stay and What to Eat
Best-value splurge hotel
Book one of the four suites at Cougar Ridge Lodge and you’ll have access to an exhibition kitchen where cooking lessons, wine tastings, and custom wine blending can be arranged; a roomy bar; a game room with a state-of-the-art simulator and a full-length bowling alley; and ATVs, horses, and bikes available for an additional cost (guests at the less expensive casitas that have recently been added to the property can’t use most of these features). The two suites on the north side of the lodge have private hot tubs; the two on the south side have access to a wrap-around deck that leads to a shared hot tub. The lodge is a half-hour drive from the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park, home to amazing rock formations, excellent hiking and road touring, fly fishing, and more.
Restaurant the locals love
Hell’s Backbone Grill is the place to go in Boulder, Utah. A funky little town that oozes charm, it’s more artsy California than quintessential Utah. The folks who run the place are very connected to the land, promoting sustainability and just darn good food, much of it from their own farm; go for the Backbone house salad with smoked trout.
Meal worth the splurge
The Rim Rock Restaurant serves an awesome tenderloin, beside big windows where you can gaze across the vista of Capitol Reef National Park.
Spring and September (post-Labor Day) through October are best: The temperatures are generally moderate and the crowds thin.
The peak summer months can be broiling hot. In mid-winter there can be snow, ice, and limited park services. Many people don’t realize that Utah’s parks are at a high elevation (the rim of Bryce Canyon National Park is 8,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level).
Succumbing to dehydration and altitude sickness because you’ve underestimated the heat in summer. Drink water throughout the day, and seek shade whenever possible.
Ignoring Utah’s two lesser-known parks: Capitol Reef and Canyonlands. Don’t speed through Capitol Reef just to get from Bryce to Moab: Cap Reef is a photographer’s and hiker’s mecca. And don’t assume Canyonlands isn’t worth it if you’ve already seen the Grand Canyon: The vistas at Canyonlands (especially at Island in the Sky) are even more vast.
The “amphitheater” section of Bryce Canyon National Park is spectacular anytime, but for the best photo, go in the early- to mid-morning and head to the aptly named Inspiration Point. Instead of shooting from the designated overlook, veer left and walk along the Rim Trail for a memorable panorama. You can also get great sunset images here.
Anything from the Burr Trail Outpost, an art gallery with a wonderful variety of works by a cadre of surprisingly talented local artists. The owner is very committed to supporting these artists, who create everything from paintings to clothing to knives.
With limited cell-phone coverage in the more remote parts of the state, it’s wise to print your directions and hotel confirmations before your trip.
Don’t depend on plastic: Many of the area’s businesses are seasonal and/or small, family-owned operations, so they are not set up to take credit cards, and ATMs aren’t widely available.
Because cell service is spotty, your phone’s battery will drain faster than normal; bring a car charger—and put your phone on airplane mode when you’re not using it.
Beware of so-called “authentic” Native American handcrafts sold in some stores and trading posts; many are not the genuine article. For really wonderful, high-quality Native American jewelry, rugs, pots, and sculptures, Tribal Arts, just outside Zion National Park, is a must. Stick around the town of Springdale for a meal, if you can: King’s Landing and Nine East offer new alternatives to the existing stand-outs (Bit and Spur, Spotted Dog at Flanigan’s, Oscar’s, and Switchback Grille).
Right inside Capitol Reef National Park, about half a mile past the park office, there are picnic tables with beautiful views next to orchards where you can pick cherries, apricots, peaches, and apples, depending on the season. The trees are older than the park itself (they were grandfathered in upon its creation), and you are free to take as much as you care to eat, or pay for any you want to bring home. There is also a second picnic spot with tables about a quarter-mile past the first one, on the west side of the road next to the Gifford house (where you can also get locally made pies).