We’re a generation that’s secured to smartphones and tied to technology like never before. Yes, the internet is an epic playground, but there’s another incredible creation that’s fun to get lost in: nature.
We had a craving to escape the office life and the city lights to see what’s happening out in the landscape. That led us to the state of Utah, as it’s widely known as one of the most beautiful — or, more accurately, bea-Utah-ful — states in the country. Because the state is fully loaded with five incredible national parks — “The Mighty 5,” as they’re known – we set out on a road trip to visit them and reconnect with nature.
Ideally, you’d spend a little bit more time than a week, as the parks are quite vast. Nonetheless, we had a fun week-long road trip, so here’s what to do if you’re covering the parks in seven days (starting in Salt Lake City and ending in St. George).
Park 1: Arches National Park
Mother Nature sure looks good in red.
There’s a reason why Arches is one of the most-visited national parks in America, and it has to do with the incredible red rock formations. The signature arches are the park’s namesake — there are more than 2000 of them — but there are also towers and ribs that form all kinds of cool shapes.
If you only have a short time to drive by, the area of the park called The Windows and Balanced Rock are the places you’ll want to hit. If you have some time to hike, your best bets are to focus on the Delicate Arch Trail, the Windows Loop Trail and Double Arch. Delicate Arch is the most photographed arch in the park and is truly a place of awe.
Pro tip: Pack a lunch and eat by the arch. It’s a great way to savor the view.
Home Base: Sorrel River Ranch
Sorrel River Ranch is situated in about as scenic a setting as you can imagine. Look up — in any direction — and you’re ensconced among the warm red rock mountains of Utah. Look down and the Colorado River streams by.
The ranch is a luxury resort about 30 minutes from Moab. There’s rustic lodging, a lovely spa, and a whole host of activities to keep you busy throughout your stay. That includes everything from morning hikes to afternoon UTV rides and yoga to evening stargazing with an astronomer. You can even go skydiving, land right on the property, and be back in your room within a few minutes.
What’s also to love here is the farm-to-table approach. They care about healthy, organic, and local, which is why they’re investing heavily in their land. They’ve cultivated the land, planting organic produce of all types. The plan is to have enough produce so that the restaurant can source 80 percent of their ingredients right from the property.
Park 2: Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands offers endless areas for exploration. From the Colorado and Green Rivers, to the mesas and the Maze, you could dedicate weeks to the landscape and still not see everything. One way to see it all in a short while is to do it from above. Get another perspective with Redtail Air Adventures as they’ll fly you over the park. You’ll go up in a biplane and get a guided tour from the pilot. The bird’s-eye view is spectacular and allows you to get a taste of Canyonlands in just about an hour.
Park 3: Capitol Reef National Park
Walking through Capitol Reef gives you a feel of what the world was like millions of years ago. Even to this day, many parts of it feel untouched. There’s a lot to do and see, but if you’re up for a short hike, check out Hickman Bridge. You’ll get a feel for the different terrain that Capitol Reef offers, from the cliffs to the Navajo sandstone to the mountaintop vistas.
Home Base: Torrey Schoolhouse B&B
The town of Torrey is a short drive from Capitol Reef and is an ideal home base. It’s a small town with a handful of different dining options and bars.
The Torrey School is a charming spot to stay. While it was originally scheduled for demolition, Ty Markham saved it and renovated it to create lovable lodging. A lot of the character from the schoolhouse was kept to theme the guestrooms and the grand room. You can feel the love that was put into it, including the breakfasts that Ty makes herself.
Health-conscious eaters will appreciate everything from the organic beef sausage to the free-range eggs she collects from her own chickens. You might think a non-GMO breakfast would be hard to find in a small town like Torrey, but Ty’s got you covered.
If you’re looking for a creative menu, Café Diablo offers some unique options in town. There are a lot of fun things to try, so come with one or two people who don’t mind sharing.
The theme feels like a Tex-Mex interweaved with French, American, and Italian. You’ll find enchiladas with a red mole that’s made in-house, quesadillas, amarillo tuna, chipotle-glazed ribs, and Mexican pumpkin ravioli.
Lunch is between $9 and $15 for an entrée, while dinner is in the $22-32 range.
Leaving aside the healthy focus for a minute, make a visit to the SunGlow Café in Bicknell to get a taste of the most unique pies you’ve ever seen. Yes, they have stalwarts like apple and cherry, but what draws the crowds there — including the great Mario Batali, who was there exactly a week before me — are the creative flavors. There’s a Pickle Pie, an Oatmeal Pie, a Buttermilk Pie and a Pinto Bean Pie. Yes, they actually use pickle juice and real pinto beans to make the pies. Sound weird? Be a little adventurous. The Pickle Pie has warm spices and has a pumpkin pie feel to it while the Pinto Bean has more of a caramel flavor.
Bicknell is about a 10-minute drive from Torrey.
Park 4: Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. It has a different tint than the other four national parks in Utah, as you’ll see plenty of red, orange and white. The hoodoos (the pillars of rocks) at Bryce are the signature item, as it’s the largest collection of them anywhere in the world.
For a bird’s-eye view, make your way to Rainbow Point, which is the highest part of the geological masterpiece. The point is at the end of a 30-minute scenic drive and is just over nine-thousand feet in elevation. This type of nature — like the Bryce Amphitheater, the Aquarius Plateau and the White Cliffs — has a tendency to leave viewers in awe.
Home Base: Stone Canyon Inn
Stone Canyon is a great home base for Bryce Canyon. Located in Tropic, Utah, it’s a hop and a skip to the national park. They also have a restaurant on the premises, and it’s one of the best dining options in Tropic.
Stone Canyon Inn is a secluded collection of cabins, cottages and bungalows. There’s great privacy and the options are all spacious, so you’re not going to be cramped up in a tiny room. All of the rooms offer fantastic vistas — especially for those looking to do a little bit of stargazing. Step outside in the dark of night and you’ll clearly see the stars since there’s no light pollution within miles.
Park 5: Zion National Park
Zion National Park is an incredible playground in the outdoors. You could spend your entire week at Zion and still feel like you’ve only seen a tiny corner. There’s great cycling, backpacking, and of course, epic hikes like Angel’s Landing.
Zion is Utah’s first National Park and the most popular. When planning your visit, budget some time for getting into the park (read: lineups), as well as time to reach heart of the park where the parking spots are located (20-30 minutes) and for shuttling to different hike starting points (another 20-30 minutes).
Home Base: Red Mountain Resort
If you’re spending a few days in Zion, there’s a comfortable lodge inside the park that’s ideal to save on traveling time. However, if you’re just swinging through for a day and looking for something a little more upscale, head on down to the Red Mountain Resort in St. George.
Red Mountain is perfect for those living a healthy lifestyle yet looking for upscale accommodations. The dining is very health-conscious and there are plenty of activities to keep you moving. If you’re just looking for a retreat, the luxury resort will help you de-stress at the spa and by the pool. Those looking for activities will have plenty of options to stay occupied, from daily hikes to cycling to various excursions.
The Painted Pony is the top-rated restaurant in St. George according to both TripAdvisor and Yelp, so the people are trying to tell you something. Add my voice to that crowd, as I would say it’s one of the signature restaurants in all of Utah.
There’s a creative menu that’s paired with fresh ingredients and exceptional execution. That’s highlighted in items like the sage-smoked quail, which is kissed with a tamarind glaze, and the parsnip and green pea ravioli, which is made in house. Add in presentations that please the eye and you have a restaurant that’s really worth your while.
Bonus Park: Grand Staircase Escalante
While the Grand Staircase isn’t technically a national park, it’s worth fitting in if time permits. It’s on the route from Capitol Reef to Bryce, so at the very least, you’ll drive through. While it has the largest land area of any of the United States National Monuments, you don’t have to cover it all. There are some perfect one- or two-hour hikes.
Of note, Grand Staircase a hot topic of conversation these days, as some want to bulldoze big parts of it and create jobs for mining. Others hope to preserve the land as it is. Go check out the natural masterpiece before things change.
Utah Canyon Outdoors
If you’re not sure where to go in the Grand Staircase — after all, it is grand to the tune of 1.8 million acres — then lean on the experts at Utah Canyon Outdoors in Escalante. They have guides who can show the best hikes and viewpoints, so that you maximize your time in the cool spots rather than losing time scuffling around.
Home Base: Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch
Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch is a special place to stay in the wilderness. That’s because Brandie Hardman and Ron Johnson have put a lot of love into the property. When they took it over in 2008, the 170-acre area was little more than unkempt nature. They’ve since educated themselves in permaculture, sustainable practices, and the basics of creating a harmony with the land. It’s been transformed in amazing ways, and environmental scientists have flown in from all around the world for studies. Make sure you ask about the beavers, who greatly assisted in the “renovations.”
Now the ranch encompasses a farm with 100 percent organic, non-GMO foods, with sustainable water practices and healthy soil. The accommodations include a cozy lodge, cabins, and glamping options.
Sweetwater Kitchen is the restaurant on the Boulder Mountain premises, and it deserves high praise. For those (like me) who adore gourmet cuisine but are also conscious of where the food comes from (organic, local, non-GMO, etc.) you’ll be on cloud nine. Ninety-five percent of the ingredients are organic — including the meats, which are all organic, pasture-raised, and local.
But if you’re just a traditional foodie, you’ll be more than satisfied, as the menu is executed not only with passion but with expert composition. A few of the highlights include deviled eggs topped with smoked trout, the grass-fed rib-eye and the avocado toast on homemade focaccia for breakfast.
Hell’s Backbone Grill
Hell’s Backbone Grill is another trendy spot that caters quite well to the conscious crowd. It’s an organic, farm-to-table joint that does a really good job with Southwestern flavors. Sometimes you’ll walk blocks and neighborhoods in Manhattan to find two of these types of spots, but the small town of Boulder — with a population of 180 — has two of them. Go figure.
There are some bold flavors in their dishes like the smoked duck quesadilla, the Idaho smoked trout-pecan pate and the house-made pastrami sandwich. You’ll find it tough to make a bad menu decision.