National Parks of the Interior West: Adventure Awaits in Your Own Backyard

Featuring many of the crown jewels of our National Park System, from Arches to Zion, Yellowstone to Grand Teton, preserved lands in the western U.S. top travelers’ bucket lists the world over. Revealing colossal geological wonders; ancient history evidenced by petroglyphs, ruins and cave paintings; dinosaur remains embedded in rocks; and seemingly impossible preternatural formations that defy gravity and stand as a reminder of the impermanency of nature, national parks of the interior west ground, challenge and amaze you at every turn. 

Think red rock is red rock and it’ll get boring? Rest assured, the variety of landscapes — from one side of the road to the next, around every turn and at different elevations — inspire endless awe. And the parks could not be more different, a fact that boggles the mind. 

Whether you’re a family with tots or an adventure-seeker with rock-climbing skills, there’s something to move you. And if you’re fortunate enough to live in the western U.S.? America’s breathtaking backyards are a hop, skip and a jump from home. 

Considering a move to the interior western United States? Already settled in? The mountains, glacial lakes and red-rock wonders are calling — and so much more. 

Tips for Visiting National Parks 

Whether you prefer a quick weekend jaunt or a full-on vacation, it’s important to get the lay of the land before visiting national parks in the country’s interior west, as these destinations are among the remotest areas on Earth. As such, you’ll lack access to certain necessities; cell service can be spotty; and weather and road conditions can change in the blink of an eye.  

It’s often an hours-long drive through challenging — not to mention exhilarating — driving conditions when traveling from one end of most national parks to the other. Plan your routes and map out everything in advance. It’s also a good idea to purchase hard-copy maps, like National Geographic’s waterproof trail map series. They not only include topography, but also roads and routes not detailed on regular maps — or, frankly, the ones you receive at the gate.  

Then, check the parks’ official website for things like road and trail closures before you go — otherwise you could be met with a closed road, entrance or trail that can derail an otherwise well-planned adventure. This is the wilderness, and you’re at the mercy of mother nature every day.  

Because the parks are so vast, timing is everything. Yellowstone, for example, spans nearly 3,500 square miles. Group viewpoints and hikes by regions within the park; note the distance and time between destinations; and know how to your must-sees in advance. No one wants to end up mid-mountain and crunched for time. Account for the fact that these drives can take longer than expected — mountain, unpaved and meandering roads are that way.  

Consider, too, what time of year is right for your visit. In some parts of the country, the summer heat is oppressive, while winter brings seasonal road closures that render parts of the parks off-limits for months at a time.  By contrast, off-season visits — spring and fall — prove more peaceful and less populated, while providing a beauty of their own. However, there can also be times when certain regions receive the most rain. 

Here are some other important considerations and rules of thumb when planning national park trips: 

  • Get an annual national park pass 
  • Buy a park passport — and stamp it at each visitor’s center 
  • Book early — nearby accommodations fill up well in advance 
  • Bring proper gear — and prepare for weather changes 
  • Dress in layers and bring a daypack 
  • Drink water — and lots of it 
  • Slather on sunscreen, regardless of the weather 
  • Pack a picnic, as dining options are limited-to-non-existent 
  • Stop by the gift shop — they tend to be great 
  • Gas up the night before — hours vary and options are few and far between 
  • Combine camping with a stay in a historic lodge or Airbnb 
  • Befriend park rangers for insider information 
  • Download park, weather and GPS apps in advance 
  • Check the park website for time entry requirements 
  • Leave no trace 

Ready to get started? Let’s explore the national parks of the interior western U.S. and delve into their biggest draws. 

  1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
  2. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve 
  3. Mesa Verde National Park
  4. Rocky Mountain National Park
  5. Grand Teton National Park 
  6. Yellowstone National Park
  7. Glacier National Park
  8. Death Valley National Park
  9. Great Basin National Park
  10. Arches National Park
  11. Bryce Canyon National Park
  12. Canyonlands National Park
  13. Capitol Reef National Park
  14. Zion National Park

National Parks in Colorado

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park 

Set in western Colorado, the history of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park can be traced back some 60 million years to the Gunnison Uplift, when a small area of land uplifted 1.8-billion-year-old metamorphic rock, bringing it to high elevations. Then, about 30 million years ago, large volcanoes erupted on either side, covering the area in volcanic rock. The park that you see today envelops part of a deep, steep-walled gorge that was later carved through Precambrian rock by the Gunnison River. Home to some of the sheerest cliffs, oldest rock and craggiest spires in the country, it’s the work of two million years of weathering. 
The Flora and Fauna 
Uplift, volcanism and the erosive force of water have shaped a geologic story for the ages, creating an environment where species thrive from rim to river. In the pinyon-juniper forests, vibrant collared lizards laze away days on sun-drenched rocks, while cottontail rabbits and mule deer rustle around in the dense berry, oak and sage brush. Meanwhile, big horn sheep navigate steep slopes with ease as peregrine falcons soar overhead; river otters bob along the river; black bears make their way through tall grass; and mountain lions stalk prey beneath impossibly starry skies. 

 The Weather 

Black Canyon of the Gunnison experiences a warm-summer humid continental climate, with average lows dipping to 12°F in January, its coldest, snowiest month, and swinging from an average low of 52°F to an average 82°F high in July, the warmest month.  

Seasonal road closures impact the park’s accessibility during winter months, including at East Portal Road and North Rim Road and its ranger station. South Rim Road beyond the visitor center is typically closed to vehicles during the winter season as well. 

Be sure to plan accordingly and do confirm conditions in advance. 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Among the main attractions of the park is the scenic drive along US Highway 50 and Colorado Highway 92, as well as the south rim. 

Short-and-sweet, 1.5-mile Warner Point Nature Trail is an out-and-back stunner that takes you to Warner Point for sublime views of Black Canyon and distant panoramas of the San Juan Range. 

The moderate, 7-mile, out-and-back North Vista Trail reveals Gunnison River overlooks, exceptional canyon views and the satisfaction of reaching the summit of Green Mountain, starting from the North Rim ranger station. 

Of the backcountry options, the challenging Red Rock Canyon Route affords some of the most spectacular views in the park as you make your way to the inner canyon of the Gunnison River — not to mention some of the area’s best fly fishing. Remember, though, a permit is required. 

For an easy option, the Rim Rock Nature Trail is not to be missed. Beginning at the South Rim Visitor’s Center, the 2-mile, point-to-point hike offers memorable overlooks like Tomichi Point, where you can witness the majesty of the valley walls firsthand.  

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Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve 

The hunting and gathering grounds for several Native American tribes — including the Ute and the Jicarilla Apache — human history at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve can be traced back 11,000-plus years. Having attracted explorers and gold miners, along with ranchers, farmers and homesteaders, it’s a land where sacred spots hold spiritual meaning to this day.  

Located in southern Colorado, it encompasses towering sand dunes — the tallest in North America — offset by the seasonal Medano Creek beach at the base; backcountry canyons, where a primitive road snakes toward the Sangre de Cristo mountains; and trails that traverse forests, grasslands, wetlands and alpine lakes like trout-populated Medano Lake, with its tundra wildlife. It all adds up to a confounding landscape that sparks wonderment. An International Dark Sky Park, Great Sand Dunes is a best kept secret where you can summit a 13,000-foot mountain peak, watch pronghorns graze and plunge into frigid waters in one fell swoop.

The Flora and Fauna 
It feels as though there’s no end to the geological and climatic variation at this unique national park. Among its wildly varying environments you’ll find: 

  • Alpine tundra as high as 13,604 feet 
  • Subalpine forest with crooked trees 
  • Lakes and tarns that provide a habitat for trout and high-altitude amphibians 
  • Subalpine meadows filled with Rocky Mountain species 
  • Montane forests and woodlands swathed in pinyon-juniper and ponderosa pine 
  • A riparian ecosystem intersected by creeks 
  • A vast dune field of shifting sands, surrounded by grasslands and shrublands 
  • Sabka wetlands punctuated by inland salt grass 
  • Wetlands that provide a haven for saltwater shrimp 

From elks to bears, raptors, mountain lions, grouses, turkeys and mule deer, there is wildlife aplenty, just waiting to be observed. 

The Weather 
The National Weather Service identifies three main locations within the park: Visitor Center/Campground/Dunefield at an elevation of 8,200 feet elevation; Medano Pass, at an elevation of 10,000 feet; and Sand Creek Lakes, situated 11,745 feet above sea level. 

Spring can bring high winds, along with highs that may reach into the 60°F range — or only into the 30°F range, though it may feel colder due to windchills. March and April are the snowiest months of the year. When summer arrives, daytime high temperatures average 75°F to 80°F, but sunbaked sand surface temperatures can soar to 150°F. 

Fall is comfortable, with temperatures around 60°F to 70°F. With the risk of snow and icy rain, winters prove quite cold, with average highs in the teens to 30°F range, with lows averaging between -15°F to -5°F. 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Whether you simply sink-hike your way through the dunes or sand sled or sandboard down them (a blast!), trekking the ambiguous, 3-mile, out-and-back trail is fun and forever in flux since wind-blow shapes and shifts the landscape. It’s also deceptively challenging given its all-sand climb. Look for the route to High Dune behind the visitor’s center at the Dune field parking lot, choosing the ridgeline you’d like to follow, based on the steepness you can tolerate. Advanced hikers should combine an ascension to Star Dune, which gains 1,309 feet in elevation as you journey from the base of the dunes to the summit. 

An easy, point-to-point hike, the unofficial Medano Creek Trail is a seasonal one that occurs when the creek bed surges with snowmelt in spring, gradually disappearing in the heat of late summer and early fall. Walk through the park along the creek when you can, appreciating a unique phenomenon — a “surge flow,” which occurs when underwater sand bridges build up and then break every 20 or so minutes, sending a wave down the creek that’s perfect for skimboarding or belly-surfing. 

Climbing 1,463 feet into the mountains, the strenuous, 7-mile, wildlife-populated Mosca Pass Trail intersects gorgeous forests of pinyon, juniper, spruce, aspen and fir before cutting through grasslands as you reach the top of the pass. 

Looking for a hike on solid terrain? The easy, .5-mile Montville Nature Trail is for you. It travels along solid terrain on a forested walk along a creek before passing through a small, old settlement. 

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Mesa Verde National Park

An anthropologist’s haven, Ancestral Pueblo people built thriving communities on the red, windblown mesas and on the cliffs of Mesa Verde National Park for over 700 years. The 600 cliff dwellings that remain are among the best preserved — and most notable — in the North American continent. Atop the mesas, you can see everything from a ceremonial temple to a farming community and several tower sites.  

Offering a remarkable glimpse into the past, the UNESCO World Heritage-designated national park preserves the cultural heritage of 26 tribes, which you can gain further insight into at the park’s Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. 

An International Dark Sky Park, Mesa Verde is home to several species found nowhere else on earth, and over 1,000 species in total.  

The Flora and Fauna 

Situated in the Colorado Plateau Province, the high-elevation park is marked by deep canyons and an arid climate. The resulting plant communities — mixed herb grasslands, pinyon-juniper woodlands and mountain shrubland — contain 640 species of plants that support a wide array of resident and migratory wildlife. The Audubon Society’s Colorado Important Bird Area (IBA) has two Protected Activity Centers and three breeding Core Areas spanning 5,312 acres, dedicated to the threatened Mexican spotted owl. 

Likewise, The Nature Conservancy and The Colorado Natural Heritage Program have classified the entirety of the park within its Network of Conservation Areas (NCA) given the exceptional rare plant and animal species within. Beyond native amphibians and fish, it protects the rare Black Swallowtail butterfly, its larvae feeding on the park’s rare, endemic Mesa Verde wandering aletes. 

The Weather 

Like many parks out west, Mesa Verde experiences varying weather conditions that can quickly change. Although winters tend to be mild, snowstorms have been known to occur as late as May and as early as October. The months of June through September are warm to hot, though evenings turn pleasantly cool. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August, ushering in potentially hazardous lightning.  

Keep on top of road, trail and weather conditions on the national park website. 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Many of the park’s easiest loops pass by the cliff dwellings, which you can explore while observing the ancient art within. 

Get your heart pumping on the Petroglyph Point Trail, which descends 2.6 miles into Mesa Verde’s Spruce and Navajo canyons before rising back up, with scrambles, stunning viewpoints and narrow passages en route. 

Take a ranger-led tour along the Cliff Palace Loop to climb eight-to-10-foot ladders, entering Balcony House and Cliff Palace. The latter is thought to have once contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas, not to mention a population of about 100 residents.  

Short and mostly paved, the .9-mile, self-guided Step House Trail features a 100-foot descent and ascent on a winding path, culminating in an exploration of its namesake dwelling that supported the work of two occupations, basketmaking and masonry. This hike is led by rangers in the winter when other sites are closed.  

For a two-hour, ranger-led tour of Long House, head to Wetherill Mesa in the western portion of the park, reached by a steep, winding, 12-mile road beyond the Far View Lodge near mile marker 15.  

Not to be overlooked is the Far View Sites Complex, a .8-mile stroll, where 50 villages have been identified within a half square mile area. 

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Rocky Mountain National Park

Women played a significant role in shaping Rocky Mountain National Park’s long, fascinating history, among them Margaret Fuller Boos, the park’s first female ranger-naturalist at Rocky Mountain National Park, and Josie Hupp, an Estes Park businesswoman, pioneer and hotel owner.  

Stretching 265,807 acres and set in northern Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park spans the Continental Divide, covering protected forests, white-capped mountains and alpine tundra across a wide range of mountain environments. Whether it’s wildflower-peppered montane meadows, pristine subalpine lakes or the park’s soaring peaks in the alpine zone, an unforgettable adventure — and unforgettable wildlife viewing on over 300 miles of trails— awaits. 

The Flora and Fauna 
Supporting life up to 14,000 feet above sea level, the park’s wet, lush riparian ecosystems in the park’s lower reaches give way to evergreen forests and high mountain lakes and tundra, one of earth’s harshest environments. 

Plant — or ecological — succession leads to changing microorganisms and wildlife in the park. Barren landscapes affixed with mosses, grasses and flowering plants precede the appearance of aspens in sunny, open areas, followed by lodgepole pine trees rise from open, burned areas. Next to replace them are ponderosa pines, Engelmann spruces and— depending on elevation Douglas firs or subalpine firs. This climax vegetation then stands tall until natural disturbances — be it windstorms, avalanches, floods climate change — ignite the succession anew.  

Animal species to watch from include mule deer, elk, black bears and coyotes, not to mention moose, mountain lions and long-eared, short-tailed snowshoe hares. 

The Weather 

Rocky Mountain National Park is known for its extreme, rapidly changing weather conditions, particularly in the highest elevations. Elevations before 9,400 feet often experience moderate temperatures, though higher points — like Longs Peak Bear Lake and Trail Ridge Road — can see snow into July. As is the case with mountain weather, day and nighttime temperatures swing significantly. 

Watch weather and road conditions closely on the park’s website and follow @rockynps on Twitter for current and sudden conditions so plan your wardrobe (and consider layering) carefully. 
The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Among the park’s most glorious highlights, high-alpine Trail Ridge Road winds across the vast tundra to 12,183 feet in elevation, a thrilling drive that journeys upward for a sweep of the Rockies in all directions, breathtaking wildflower displays and the point where evergreen forests ceases and unforgiving tundra begins. Not surprisingly, the route is impassable, and therefore closed, during winter. 

The super-scenic, 3.2-mile Emerald Lake Trail begins at the Bear Lake Trailhead at the end of Bear Lake Road and brings you to its namesake emerald-green alpine lake, past cascading waterfalls and to jagged Hallet Peak. 
A demanding, 9.4-mile, out-and-back trek to Sky Pond via the Glacier Gorge Trail offers a bit of everything — rock scrambles, plummeting waterfalls, awesome mountain views, and river and stream crossings. Then there’s the pièce de résistance: Sky Pond’s clear, blue waters at 10,900 feet. For a more moderate alternative, start from the Glacier Gorge Trail, trekking 5.7-mile The Loch for views of plunging Alberta Falls and vistas of the trail’s eponymous subalpine lake. Perched at 10,190 feet, it’s set within one of the world’s most studied watersheds. 

A beautiful 3.1-mile out-and-back hike, Gem Lake Trail begins at the Lumpy Ridge Trailhead, with views of Estes Park, Longs Peak and the Continental Divide. 

Dream Lake Trail is a 2-mile, out-and-back hike that begins at the parking lot at Glacier Gorge, near Estes Park, affording postcard-worthy views of Hallett Peak reflecting on the glassy waters. 

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National Parks in Idaho

Grand Teton National Park 

The Idaho side of the Tetons — known as “Teton Valley” — is the “quiet side of the Grand Tetons.” It encompasses Victor, Idaho, Driggs, Idaho, and Tetonia, Idaho. Significantly less busy than its Wyoming counterpart, it’s the jumping off point for explorations of the Swan Valley, Mesa Falls, the Teton River and Palisades Lake. 

Consider a scenic drive along the 70-mile Teton Scenic Byway, which runs along the western slopes of the Teton Range. You’ll be rewarded with picturesque vistas, rushing rivers and historical sites.

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Yellowstone National Park 

Primarily located in Wyoming and parts of Montana, 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park extends into parts of Idaho as well.  

Idaho’s nearest Yellowstone entrance — the park’s busiest — brings you to geyser paradise. Plan your itinerary right and you can enjoy lookouts near Canyon Village and Artist Point and pay visits to Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring the same day. Have more time? You’d be wise to stretch your stay to fully bask in the beauty. 

Offering some of the best fishing and wildlife viewing in the state, the Greater Yellowstone Region is home to the gateway of Island Park, Idaho, where forests and rivers sit within the world’s the largest caldera — a nearly 50-mile hollow formed when a supervolcano erupted 2.1 million years ago. 

Looking for a scenic drive? The 64-mile jaunt along Highway 191 spans two states and two mountain passes and skirts Hebgen Lake, Earthquake Lake and Henry’s Lake. 

If seeing a bear tops your bucket list, a drive through Yellowstone Bear World in nearby Rexburg, Idaho, guarantees up-close sightings. The wildlife park is home to grizzly bears, black bears, elks and moose. Plus, it features a petting zoo and amusement rides, too. Cap off the detour with a stop at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a wildlife center and educational facility with resident grizzly bears, gray wolves and river otters. 

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National Parks in Montana  

Glacier National Park 

First inhabited by Native Americans, Glacier National Park was dominated by Blackfeet in the east and the Flathead in the western regions around the time European explorers arrived. 

Featuring over 700 miles of trails that give way to alpine meadows, pristine forests, rugged mountains and crystalline lakes, Glacier National Park is a hiker’s wonderland in northern Montana, near the Canadian border. The result of glacially carved remnants of an ancient thrust fault, its snowcapped pinnacles are punctuated by plunging waterfalls and eye-popping turquoise lakes.  

Majestic and authentically wild, many of its peaks are covered in glaciers year-round. Come spring, wildflowers blanket its meadows and grizzlies emerge from hibernation to wander and hunt in their unspoiled habitat. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Situated at the headwaters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Hudson Bay drainages, Glacier harbors an astounding array of plants and wildlife. Across the border in Canada, both Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes International Peace Park were together designated International Biosphere Reserves and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

The park’s floristic provinces encompass cordilleran, boreal, arctic-alpine and great plains, resulting in moist coniferous forests; a mix of barren or sparsely vegetated rocks, ice and snow; dry coniferous forest; meadows and prairies; deciduous forests peppered with aspens and black cottonwoods; wet meadows, or fens; and lake surface water with thriving aquatic plants in shallower areas. From lush grasses to a dizzying number of fern species, woody shrubs and meadows carpeted with summer wildflowers, interest abounds. 

Not surprisingly, these habitats support impressive wildlife diversity, including majestic elk, tiny pigmy shrews and one of the largest grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states. America’s largest rodent, the beaver, also calls the park home, along with bighorn sheep, a complex mix of fish, amphibians like the Boreal Chorus frog, more than 275 winged wonders and even western painted turtles. 

The Weather 

Spanning the Continental Divide with more than 7,000 feet in variance above sea level, there are many climates and microclimates within Glacier.  

Moist, temperate conditions prevail on the west side of the park, where rainfall averages 23 inches in its dryer northeast and northwest edges and an average 30 inches at West Glacier. Precipitation over 100 inches may fall in isolated spots near the Continental Divide. 

In the Pacific watershed at the western side of the park, expect a milder and wetter climate, given its lower elevation. Winter and spring see the greatest precipitation. Snow can fall any time of the year, including summer, particularly at higher altitudes. Come winter, expect prolonged cold weather, especially on the eastern side of the Continental Divide. Winter snowfalls are significant, with the largest accumulation happening in the west.  

During the tourist season, daytime highs range from 60 °F to 70°F, dropping into the 40°F range at night. However, high-country temperatures are much cooler. The lower western valleys, meanwhile, see summertime highs that hover around 90°F. 

Keep in the loop about weather conditions and road and trail closures on the park’s website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

The best day hikes are found in Many Glacier, West Glacier and Two Medicine, in addition to along Going-to-the-Sun Road. 

Among the park’s most popular hikes is moderately challenging, 5.9-mile out-and-back Avalanche Lake via the Trail of the Cedars near Lake McDonald, Montana — and for good reason since you’re treated to turquoise waters galore. 

The Grinnell Glacier Trail — a challenging, 14.9-mile out-and-back trek — showcases a bevy of glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, forests and wildlife along a highly elevated trail with steep drop-offs. Adding to the thrill, you can stand where the glacier ends and melds into the first lake. Beginning from the north side of Going-to-the-Sun Road at Logan Pass, it’s frequented by bighorn sheep and mountain goats.  

No matter what — and especially if your time is limited — make certain to drive along 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, storied for its dramatic mountain scenery. Its lower portion is open year-round, though the alpine section may not open until sometime in early July, once the gargantuan task of plowing the road is done. 

One of the park’s most spectacular hikes, the 12-mile, out-and-back Cracker Lake Trail starts at Piegan Pass at the south end of the parking lot above the Many Glacier Hotel. Marvel at the Cracker Flats area; pause to appreciate the mountains vistas across the upper reaches of Lake Sherburne; take in the soothing sounds of creeks and waterfalls; witness deep, steep-walled canyons; and keep watch for grizzly bears (bear spray is a must), particularly as you pass through dense vegetation. 

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Yellowstone National Park

Primarily located in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park extends into portions of Montana and Idaho, too. Its north and northwest sections in Montana can be accessed via the park’s north and northeast entrances, the primary gateway being Gardiner, Montana, and West Yellowstone, Montana. The west entrance offers convenient access to Old Faithful; Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is best reached via the north entrance; and the northeast entrance is considered the park’s best for spotting wildlife, as it is closest to Lamar Valley. Dubbed “America’s Serengeti,” it’s renowned for its large concentration of bears, wolves, bison, pronghorn, eagles, ospreys and much more.  

See the park’s full description under the state of Wyoming.

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National Parks in Nevada 

Death Valley National Park  

Featuring the hottest, driest and lowest area on the North American continent, Death Valley National Park is a land of extremes east of the Sierra Nevada, straddling the California–Nevada border in the northern Mojave. Situated below sea level, a series of Native American groups inhabited the area as early as 7000 BC, most recently the Timbisha around 1000 AD. Then, in 1849, a group of European Americans got trapped in the valley while seeking a fateful shortcut to California’s gold fields, giving the valley its name. 

An area shaped by geology; its oldest, extensively metamorphosed rocks are believed to date back at least 1.7 billion years. Home to a maar volcano — Ubehebe Crater — Death Valley also features shifting sand dunes, mysterious-looking salt flats, colorful badlands and snow-covered peaks, the tallest of them Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. The park’s lowest point, Badwater Basin, is 282 feet below sea level. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Despite its drought conditions, the starkly beautiful park harbors 1,000 or more plant species, including ancient bristlecone pines and an array of vibrant spring wildflowers. Standouts include desert marigolds, Eureka Dunes evening primroses, and grape soda lupines, their hue just like their name suggests. Not surprisingly, cacti and succulents are plentiful here as well. Plus, there are a few Joshua trees in the pinyon-juniper woodlands, too. 

Impressively, many wildlife species have adapted to the harsh conditions — you may glimpse desert bighorn sheep, kangaroo rats, desert tortoises, jackrabbits and coyotes. Bats and butterflies inhabit the area as well, along with a variety of migrating and nesting birds.  

The Weather 

A hot desert climate, Death Valley’s temperature was once recorded at 134° F — and that’s the highest ambient air temperature ever clocked on the Earth’s surface. Let’s be real though. Typical summer temperatures aren’t that far off: they frequently top 120 °F, dropping only to the 90s F at night. And rainfall? It averages — wait for it — less than two inches per year. Naturally, higher elevations are cooler than those in the valley — albeit slightly. 

Sunny skies are the norm in Death Valley. However, winter storms and summer monsoons have the potential to usher in clouds and rain. Wind is frequent, particularly in spring, and sudden dust storms can appear when cold fronts approach. November through March are the most pleasant months here, when average highs range from 67° F to 82° F. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

A two-mile hike through the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes is not to be missed — it’s a fascinating counterpoint to Darwin Falls, a lush oasis reached through a dusty canyon. 

The nine-mile Artists Drive journeys through multicolored, eroded hills, which you can stop and soak in from panoramic viewpoints.  

Then there’s the nearly six-mile trek through Golden Canyon and the Gower Gulch Loop via Zabriskie Point. It features some of Death Valley’s most unforgettable scenery — badlands; tall, dry falls; and canyon walls made of red mudstone and colorful mosaic conglomerates. 

For an easier, two-mile, out-and-back hike, the Natural Bridge Canyon Trail is a must. You’ll not only see a natural bridge, but dry falls as well. 

The most ethereal of experiences, though, is a visit to the Badwater Salt Flats in the Badwater Basin. Take the boardwalk to the edge of the salt bed; then, step out onto the hexagon-shaped crystals, taking care to avoid their breakable “borders.” 

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Great Basin National Park 

Set near the Nevada–Utah border, 67 miles east of Ely, less-frequented Great Basin National Park is a land of surprising diversity, where 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak rises from the stark desert; fragile, cool Lehman Caves — a massive marble cavern — houses a staggering number of stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, popcorn, flowstone and more than 300 rare shields; and hikes reveal glacial lakes and ancient, twisty bristlecone pines. 

Home to Native Americans for thousands of years, these days it’s farmers, ranchers, sheepherders and Mormons who call the Great Basin home. Take a step back in time to view rock art and paintings in Upper Pictograph Cave and explore an excavated Fremont village at Baker Archaeological Site (Baker Village), where you can see the remains of a Fremont Indian village, occupied from about 1220 to 1295 CE. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Dry desert valleys meet sky-high mountain ranges, playas, fascinating rock formations, fossils, springs, creeks, caves and a lone glacier in a land populated by the mountain lions, snakes, jackrabbits and Clark’s nutcrackers.  

More than 800 different plant species thrive in the park and South Snake Range, 13 of them considered sensitive species. Specially adapted to the challenging terrain, some — like four-winged saltbush — must contend with, and therefore excrete, high concentrations of salt in soil. Others have developed modified leaves to avoid losing water through evapotranspiration. 

Keep watch for bighorn sheep on talus slopes, at least 10 species of bats, porcupines and yellow-bellied marmots, several of which are designated of special concern. 

The Weather 

A cold, high-elevation desert averaging less than 10 inches of rain each year, most of Great Basin’s precipitation comes from snow. Given there is nearly an 8,000-foot difference in elevation between the valley floor and pinnacle of Wheeler Peak, weather conditions vary. Late spring and summer can bring hot conditions to the valley, while snowmelt remains at higher elevations. Featuring low relative humidity and significant temperature swings from day to night, the park is prone to severe afternoon thunderstorms and snow any time of year at high elevations. 

Visit the park’s website to check weather and road conditions

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Steep and exposed, the 8.2-mile trek along the out-and-back Wheeler Peak Trail via the Stella Lake Trail rewards with incredible mountain views. Start this one early in the day due to the risk of afternoon storms. 

The 4.5-mile, out-and-back Bristlecone Pine and Glacier Trail is not to be missed as it journeys through the park’s ancient conifers amid a boulder-strewn streambed, past steep cliffs, amid wildflowers in open expanses, and to Nevada’s only glacier for a front-and-center view.  

The 3-mile Alpine Lakes Loop, which starts at the end of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive (more on that to follow), brings you to two glassy alpine lakes, Stella and Teresa, with marvelous views of Wheeler Peak. 

The park’s star of the show is lavishly decorated, limestone Lehman Cave, an easy, .4-mile loop. Enter the cave on a ranger-led tour, which you should reserve in advance

A true mountain road, 12-mile Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive weaves through the South Snake Range, ascending 4,000 feet upward or pristine views of the rugged, harsh and hauntingly beautiful Great Basin Desert. En route, appreciate the impressive range of ecosystems, motoring past fragrant sagebrush “oceans,” stands of pinyon pine, rough-looking Curleaf Mountain Mahogany, a collection of conifers and families of aspens, keeping watch for marmots, mule deer, jackrabbits and coyotes. 

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National Parks in Utah 

Arches National Park

A red-rock story 65 million years in the making, ever-changing Arches National Park features more than 2,000 natural stone arches — the largest density of natural sandstone arches in the world — along with hundreds of faraway pinnacles, improbably balanced rocks and sheer rock fins. Perched in the high desert in southeast Utah, with elevations ranging from 4,085 to 5,653 feet above sea level, Arches is the result of millions of years of erosion, deposition and other mind-bending geologic events. 

Water continues to shape the impermanent landscape more than anything else. Rain erodes the rock, rushing sediment down washes and canyons to the Colorado River.  Streaks of orange yellow to black desert varnish appear as water cascades down cliffs. Snowmelt pools in fractures and other cavities, freezing and expanding, and breaking off chunks of sandstone. The small recesses that emerge increase with every storm. Fractured rock layers become fins and fins morph into arches. As the arches continue to widen, they eventually collapse, as evidenced by 2008’s fall of Wall Arch.  

Simply put, it’s a temporary testament to nature’s wonders that you’ll carry with you all life long. 

The Flora and Fauna 

While it seems barren upon first glance, Arches is anything but bland. Birds, lizards and some rodents are among the most spotted wildlife in the park, though coyotes, mule deer and black-tailed jackrabbits emerge at dawn and dusk; snakes slither while eagles soar above midday; and nocturnal species like kangaroo rats, skunks, foxes, mountain lions, bobcats, owls and bats rule the roost beneath pitch-black, starlit skies. 

Animal life is supported by a wide range of desert-adapted plants, including dormant species that appear only when there’s enough available water, along with spiny perennials, yuccas, cacti and mosses that green up as soon as rains offer relief. Meanwhile, shrubs like purple sage and blackbrush can be spotted in shallow, sandy soil and Mormon tea and greasewood thrive in alkaline soil. 

The Weather 

Blazing-hot summers, cold winters and minimal rainfall add up to intense conditions in the park. Part of the Colorado Plateau, the high desert environment experiences wide fluctuations in temperature. It’s most temperate — not to mention busiest — April through May and September through October, when average daytime highs are between 60ºF and 80ºF and dropped to an average 30ºF to 50ºF at night. Winters, while cold, offer a unique perspective and contrasting landscape, with highs averaging 30ºF to 50ºF and lows that can dip to 0ºF. 

Although major snowfalls are rare, small ones can lead to road closures. Check the park’s website for the latest weather, road and trail conditions

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Few come without hiking 3.2 shade-free miles to Delicate Arch, which climbs 480 feet up a steep slickrock slope. The out-and-back trail near Moab is the only way to view the formation up close. Note that the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint — found just down the road — requires nothing more than a short stroll over flat ground to see it from a mile away. Meanwhile, the Upper Viewpoint provides a less obstructed view but does require a half-mile walk with some stairs. 

A ranger-led Fiery Furnace hike is another essential trek, though you can also opt for a self-guided tour by reserving an individual permit in advance. An experience unlike any other in the park, you need to know what you’re getting into since the trail is not well-marked, it features dead ends and it requires navigating complex passages demanding a level of agility. A labyrinth of narrow passages that cut through soaring sandstone walls involve scrambling up boulders, crawling through a small arch and hopping across big cracks in the otherworldly landscape. 

Beginning at the Devils Garden trailhead, the 1.9-mile, out-and-back hike to delicate, slender Landscape Arch is fairly flat, with no significant elevation gain beyond a few moderate hills. The effort rewards you with one of the world’s longest stone spans, stretching 306 feet and just 11 feet at its midpoint. Pieces of Landscape Arch have broken off over the last few hundred years, some the size of a car, offering a reminder of the arch’s ephemerality. 

Short and scenic, 1.2-mile Windows Primitive Loop encircles North and South Window Arches, with easy access to Turret Arch from a short spur. The Windows section of the park is a great way to while away a day, given it contains the park’s highest concentration of arches, along with jaw-dropping features that include Elephant Butte, Garden of Eden and Parade of Elephants. Double Arch — an easy, mostly flat walk — brings you to two massive, joined soaring arches, the tallest and second-longest in the park. 

The 1.9-mile, out-and-back Park Avenue Trail takes you past incredible rock formations, like Queen Nefertiti and Sausage Rock, descending steeply into a canyon to the tall, column-like Courthouse Towers Viewpoint. 

Keep your camera at the ready as you ride along exceptionally picturesque Scenic Arches Drive, a 22-mile road that passes many unforgettable natural features, including the La Sal Mountain Viewpoints, Courthouse Towers Viewpoint, Balanced Rock, the Delicate Arch Viewpoint and the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint. It’s also the gateway to the Windows District and Skyline Arch. 

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Bryce Canyon National Park

A sprawling land of pink cliffs and red-hued hoodoos — tall, spindly, irregular rock spires — Bryce Canyon National Park is a memorable reserve in southwestern Utah, close to Zion National Park. Its claim to fame, Bryce contains the greatest concentration of these sandcastle-like, geological wonders on earth. Punctuated by stands of evergreen forest, the high-altitude park sits at the eastern edge of an 18-mile plateau.  

Beyond the soft sandstone and limestone hoodoos, find jutted fins and massive amphitheaters spiked with the park’s iconic, crimson features. Part of the Grand Staircase — an astounding, colorful sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch 100 miles from the park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon — Bryce is a place of astounding beauty.  

The Flora and Fauna 

Featuring an arid climate, the park boasts three distinct climatic zones: spruce/fir forest, ponderosa pine forest and pinyon/juniper forest that host pronghorn, mountain lions and mule deer, as well as the Utah prairie dog, a documented 175 species of birds and reptiles — like the poisonous Great Basin rattlesnake and side-botched lizard — that are amenable to the harsh conditions.  

Surrounded by desert, it’s a surprisingly verdant locale, where exposed pink cliffs, sprout with wildflowers from “breaks” in the rock. Meadows, seeps and springs further harbor grassy and deciduous plant life, including sagebrush and rabbitbrush. 

The Weather 

Given its high elevation, weather throughout the year can vary considerably. It’s not unusual for snowstorms to hit in. October, though they’re offset by sunny, temperate autumn days. From October through May, expect nighttime temperatures below freezing. The coldest, snowiest months occur December through February, though spring storms in March and April still have the potential to produce heavy snowfall. June through September are pleasant months, with frequent — but short — afternoon downpours during the park’s rainy season (July and August). 

Check the park website for park, road and trail conditions

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

The most popular hike in the park, the 2.9-mile Queen’s Garden Trail and Navajo Loop starts at Sunrise Point, navigating the winding Rim Trail down into the valley floor, through arches carved into rocks, and amid spires. As you meander along, take a quick detour to view Queen’s Garden proper before heading back up at Sunset Point, either via the Wall Street Trail or Two Bridges Trail, both featuring a set of switchbacks that bring you back upward. 

Quick, easy and must-see is the 1.1-mile out-and-back hike from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point. Running along part of the Rim Trail, it encircles the top of the canyon, looking out over the burnt orange, spiky Bryce Canyon Amphitheater. 

A less-busy alternative to Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop, the strenuous, 5.5-mile Peek-a-Boo Trail descends into the canyon’s depths and through Bryce Canyon Amphitheater’s famed hoodoos and does contain a short, 1,500-foot elevation gain. Combined with the Figure 8 Trail, you can enjoy a more complete exploration of the geologic feature.  

Try to make it to Inspiration Point for sunrise when the hoodoos are positioned to catch the morning light. Accessed from the Rim Trail, the hike consists of three levels (lower, middle and upper), which offer varied, incredible perspectives of the main amphitheater.  

See ancient trees as old as 1,800 years on the Bristlecone Pine Trail, an easy, 1-mile loop that intersects a forest of Douglas fir, white fir and blue spruce, with splendid views over the canyon. 

Get a nice lay of the land with a drive on Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive, offering 13 viewpoints with panoramas of many key park features. Running 18 miles along Highway 63 from Highway 12, from the park entrance in the north to the end of the road at Rainbow at Yovimpa Points, it reaches over 9,110 feet. 

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Canyonlands National Park

Located in southeastern Utah just a 30-minute drive from Arches, dramatic Canyonlands National Park — a place of quietude — somehow feels worlds away. A wilderness of canyons and buttes, it has four districts: Island in the Sky, resting on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000-feet above the vast terrain; The Needles, studded with striped, colorful spires; rugged, off-the-beaten-path The Maze; and the combined Green and Colorado Rivers, which carved two large canyons into the Colorado Plateau, each with character of their own. 

Inhabited for over 10,000 years, traditions and ways of life developed and changed as cultures interacted with one other and the land itself. Nomadic hunter-gatherers roamed throughout the region from 8,000 BCE to 500 BCE. Ancestral Puebloans, who farmed and lived in Canyonlands, thrived. The group’s descendants ― modern-day Native American tribes — continue to call the eroded, kaleidoscopic landscape home.  

The Flora and Fauna 

Tucked amid the Colorado Plateau’s high desert in this land of canyons, rock formations and river corridors, desert environs that protect many nocturnal species, like bobcats, mountain lions, skunks, ringtails, foxes, bobcats, small, desert-adapted rodents, bats and owls. Most active at dawn and dusk are coyotes, mule deer, desert cottontails, porcupines and black-tailed jackrabbits, while snakes and lizards sun themselves in the heat of a summer day. 

Joining them are tiny lichens that adhere to the sandstone; cottonwood trees at the canyon bottoms; and plumes of grass that punctuate the park’s open country. Wildflowers bloom in spring, maidenhair ferns spring from shaded alcoves near seeps and cacti appear from bumpy, lumpy biological soil crust. 

The Weather 

Canyonlands has a cold, semi-arid climate that sees, on average, less than 10 inches of rain annually. Summers are hot and mostly dry, while winters prove cold and occasionally wet.  

Big temperature fluctuations are common in the high desert. April through May and mid-September through October are most pleasant, though summer can — and often does — hover above 100ºF and late summer, storm cells can lead to flash floods. Snowfall is typically light, though winters are cold, ranging on average between 30ºF and 50ºF and dropping between 0ºF and 20ºF.  

Be aware of trail and road closures, as well as weather events, by visiting the park’s website prior to arrival. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

Among the most photographed vistas in the park, Mesa Arch — set in the park’s Islands in the Sky section — is reached by a .7-mile stroll. An amazing spot to view a sunrise, the arch rests at the edge of a sheer cliff, providing a natural window into Buck Canyon and the distant La Sal Mountains. 

Also in Islands in the Sky is the 1.8-mile, out-and-back White Rim Overlook Trail at the Gooseberry Trailhead. Head here in the afternoon, when the sun illuminates the canyon, marveling at views of the La Sal Mountains, the Colorado River, Monument Basin, the La Sal Mountains and ultra-scenic White Rim Road. 

Another Islands in the Sky stunner, the 1.8-mile, out-and-back Grand View Point Trail skirts the top of the canyon, for seemingly endless vantage points of it and the rivers that carved it below. 

For a challenging hike, hit the 10-mile Confluence Overlook Trail for an out-and-back adventure. Tracing the northern edge of the geologic fault that shaped The Needles, it brings you to the impressive viewpoint its name implies. 

For great panoramas of The Needles district, the 10.4-mile Chesler Park/Joint Trail journeys through varied, colorful terrain, from ravines to ridges and slickrock. Particularly noteworthy is a 1.5-mile section of the Chesler Park loop, which climbs .6 miles up Chesler Canyon. After crossing a broad wash and cutting through a crop of sandstone knobs, you reach the narrow, slot canyon-esque “joint.” 

Carve out time to drive the length of the awe-inspiring, 34-mile, out-and-back scenic drive through the park. Its overlooks, from 1,000 feet above, showcase the valleys and other districts in the park from above. 

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Capitol Reef National Park

Situated in the red rock country of south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National Park is a less-frequented gem replete with canyons, domes, cliffs and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic “wrinkle” on the earth that spans almost100 miles. 

Archaic hunters-gatherers migrated through the canyons before the Fremont Culture solidified around 500 CE, shifting from food foraging groups to corn, squash and bean farmers, etching petroglyphs and painting pictographs in rock walls.  

By the 1800s, Mormon pioneers, and other explorers settled in what is now the Fruita Rural Historic District, planting and cultivating pear, apple and peach orchards. Today, you can pick the heirloom bounty provided you follow a few simple rules. 

The Flora and Fauna 

A place of wondrous geological formations, unique animals and plants and seriously dark skies (it received International Dark Sky Park designation), Capitol Reef is marked by basalt boulders, fossils and biological soil crusts, a living groundcover of soil lichens, green algae, mosses, bacteria and microfungi.  

Nearly 10,000 feet of sedimentary strata were deposited in the Capitol Reef area, the sequence of layers recording upwards of 200 million years of geologic history. Later, the entire region was vertically uplifted thousands on account of large-scale plate tectonic forces. Meanwhile, the monocline of Waterpocket Fold arose between 50 and 70 million years ago, when the Laramide Orogeny reactivated an ancient, buried fault at which point overlying sedimentary layers were draped above the fault. By contrast, in the Cathedral Valley, erosion shaped free-standing monoliths from soft, red Entrada sandstone. 

Shrubs, cacti and desert succulents are joined by the likes of grasses, Utah junipers, two-need pinyon trees, western bristlecone pines and ponderosa pines, accented by showy, colorful wildflowers in spring and summer. Hosting residents big and small, resident species include gray foxes, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and beavers, plus snakes, lizards, toads, frogs and more than 230 species of birds. 

Keep abreast of park and road conditions on the NPS website. 

The Weather 

An arid environment, the park averages 7.91 inches of precipitation at the visitor’s center, much of it falling during the June through September monsoon season when flash floods are a risk. The long, narrow park sees varied elevations; as a result, there can be a considerable swing in temperatures. Summers are hot, averaging between 87°F and 91°F. The coldest month of the year, December experiences average highs of 40°F, and dips to 21°F. 

Keep up on park and road conditions on the national park website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

The 1.7-mile, out-and-back trail Hickman Bridge Trail is flanked by tall, tan rock walls, ancient sand dunes, junipers and cottonwoods as you head to the natural sandstone arch, which stands 125 feet high and 133 feet long. You can opt to continue hiking another 2.4 miles, gaining 500 feet of elevation to reach Navajo Knobs for 360-degree panoramas of Capitol Reef. 

A 3.1-mile hike along the out-and-back Cassidy Arch Trail is among the park’s most thrilling. Named for bank robber Butch Cassidy, who once hid in these hills, it features a series of switchbacks that climb out of the canyon and into the multihued lands.  

Journey through the narrows on the easy, 4.5-mile, out-and-back Grand Wash Trail, which brims with small caves, honeycombed rock and rocky-sandy terrain along a wash bordered by towering walls. 

The Chimney Rock Loop is a difficult-but-rewarding, 3.3-mile trek highlighting colorful badlands, linear cliffs and the mouth of a narrow canyon, as well as the eroded pillar of Chimney Rock itself. 

Wind your way through the park along the 7.9-mile scenic drive — not a loop — for a chance to witness many of the park’s scenic formations at once, including the historic fruit orchards, Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge. 

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Zion National Park

Recognized for Zion Canyon’s sheer cream, pink and red cliffs and located in southwestern Utah, Zion National Park is the state’s first to receive the designation. Some 12,000 years ago, Zion’s residents tracked mammoths, giant sloths and camels across the region before they died out and Virgin Anasazi — the westernmost Ancestral Puebloan group in the American Southwest — took up farming traditions; and the Paiute fine-tuned their lifestyle to desert living. After the settlement of Mormon pioneers, John Wesley Powell expanded his scientific studies here. 

Protecting some of the most scenic canyon country in the United States, Zion’s 32 square miles (about the area of Manhattan) feature high plateaus; narrow, deep, sandstone canyons; the Virgin River; 2,000-foot Navajo Sandstone cliffs; slopes dotted with pines and junipers; and colorful, verdant hanging gardens fed by springs, seeps and waterfalls. 

The Flora and Fauna 

A place of volcanism; uplifted, tilted and eroded rock layers that form the colorful cliffs of the Grand Staircase; sedimentation; and lithification, which transforms sedimentary deposits into stone, Zion’s elevation ranges from 3,700 to 8,700 feet. This creates an arresting mosaic of habitats: riparian and aquatic; arid grasslands and desert shrubs; pinyon-juniper forests; ponderosa pines; and mixed conifer and aspen forests. 

From the Western rattlesnake to wild turkeys, gray foxes, mountain lions, porcupines and red-spotted toads, anima; diversity abounds. A critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, the park also helped revive populations of peregrine falcons and California condors. 

The Weather 

Prone to wide-ranging weather conditions, including bit temperature swings between day and night, Zion’s weather varies with elevation. Spring arrives in March and April, with temperatures that differ 30°F or more depending on where you are and the time of day, while summers are hot with temperatures the regularly top 100°F. The park is quieter during October and November, when fall colors begin to make an appearance and cooler weather sets in. Meanwhile, the winter months — December, January and February — bring solitude, cold and the potential for snow, falling ice and road closures. 

Follow the weather, trail, wilderness, water and road conditions on the park’s website. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

A permit is required to access the difficult, highly technical 5.4-mile Angel’s Landing Trail, the most spectacular in Zion and one of the most bucket list-worthy in the world. Using a chain railing in most — but not all — of the sheer drop-offs, the hike ascends roughly 1,500 vertical feet along the narrow fin of stone that tops at an elevation of 5,790 feet (about twice the height of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world). Bring nerves of steel and a deep knowledge of rock-climbing safety as you begin at the Grotto Trailhead, .6 miles beyond Zion Lodge on Zion Canyon, following a series of cunning switchbacks — called Walter’s Wiggles — before the vertical push begins. 

The 1.9-mile, out-and-back Zion Narrows Riverwalk is an essential, family-friendly park experience that starts at the Temple of Sinawava — the eighth and last shuttle stop in the park. It follows the Virgin River for discoveries of lush hanging gardens and trees offset by tall weeping walls. Arriving at where more challenging — and famous — The Narrows hike kicks off, you ascend up (and in) the Virgin River with no trail to Big Spring. Should you choose to embark on this strenuous, 10-mile round trip, an all-day adventure, consider doing it in late spring and summer when the water is warmer and the level drops. Note, however, this is also when storms can present flash floods. 

Take the 1-mile out-and-back Zion Canyon Overlook Trail, entering the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel through wondrous slickrock of the park’s Upper East Canyon. Then, take the trailhead to the great viewpoints, which overlooks the main canyon. 

For impressive views over the southern end of Zion National Park, the relatively easy, 3.1-mile, out-and-back Watchman Trail brings you to an outlook over Temples and Towers, lower Zion Canyon, Watchman Peak and Springdale. 

To reach Lower Emerald Pool, two small streams the surrounding waterfalls, which you walk behind, hop on the 1.2-mile Emerald Pool Trail, which hooks up with the Kayenta, Middle and Upper Emerald Pools trails for a longer, moderate hike (2 miles to middle and 3 miles to upper). Soak up vistas of Lady Mountain, the Great White Throne, Red Arch Mountain and cliffs as far as the eye can see. 

To experience the region’s beauty by vehicle, take 54-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, seeing Virgin River and famous park landmarks, including Angel’s Landing, the Court of the Patriarchs and Twin Brothers Mountain. 

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National Parks in Wyoming  

Grand Teton National Park

Richly scenic with exceptional wildlife, untouched lakes, massive mountains and alpine terrain, Grand Teton National Park is nestled into the northwest corner of Wyoming in Teton County, a few miles south of Yellowstone. Its 310,000 acres of wilderness are crossed by about 200 miles of trails. In conjunction with the surrounding national forest, the three protected areas comprise the almost 18-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the planet’s largest intact, mid-latitude, temperate ecosystems. 

The region’s human history is fascinating and rich. Dating back at least 11,000 years, the first hunter-gatherer Paleo-Indians migrated here during warmer months in search of food and supplies. By the time Europeans arrived, tribes — including the Shoshone, Blackfoot, Bannock, Flathead, Blackfoot, Crow, Gros Ventre and Nez Perce — were harvesting bounty from the land. From tales of fur trappers to the stories of homesteaders and ranchers, even its more recent history runs deep. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Rising more than 7,000 feet above the valley of Jackson Hole, the commanding Teton Range defines the skyline. Ascending from the sagebrush-specked valley floor to the 13,770-foot summit, its forests give way to meadows that come alive with wildflowers when weather warms. Crystal-clear alpine lakes — mirroring mountains — fill amphitheater-like glacial cirques; rushing streams plummet down rocky canyons into pristine lakes at the foot of the mountain range; and the Snake River weaves its way through the valley and across the vast landscape. 

Supporting over 1,000 species of vascular plants, Grand Teton is divided into communities of sagebrush flats, like those seen on the valley floor of Jackson Hole; forests in canyons, on mountainsides and along ridges; riparian corridors and wetlands that produce ribbons of green, moisture-loving plants along the Snake River; and alpine areas, matted with specially adapted species, like forget-me-nots. 

These create habitats for the likes of yellow-bellied marmots, mighty grizzly and black bears, moose, wolves and mountain lions, as well as rarely seen wolverines, over 300 species of birds, a host of native fish and salamanders. The park also harbors several species of concern, from the bald eagle to the greater sage grouse and gray wolves. 

The Weather 

Mid-April through June, pleasant days and cool nights alternate with pockets of rain and snow. In fact, trails on the valley are usually covered with the white stuff until late May. The months of July and August are warm, with temps cooling off in the evenings and afternoon thunderstorms a common occurrence. September through November are sunny and cold, offset by rain and occasional snow. Winters are frigid and unforgiving, with snow swathing the mountains and valley and all-winter tires recommended but really a must. Roads may close during blizzards.  

Conditions can change rapidly here. It’s important to monitor the park’s website for current road, trail and weather conditions

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

A remarkable, albeit moderately challenging, 9.1-mile route to the Grand Tetons’ Cathedral Group, the Cascade Canyon Trail requires taking the Jenny Lake shuttle boat across the glacially carved, 423-foot waters to trailhead — that is, if you want to cut off roughly 2.4 miles of walking each way via the alternate Jenny Lake Trail. The trek climbs through pristine conifer forests; crossing Cascade Canyon Creek; passing thundering Hidden Falls; visiting Inspiration Point for a breathtaking perspective of Jenny Lake, Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Mountains; entering boulder fields; tracking. along ponds frequented by harlequin ducks; and to the Forks of Cascade Canyon. 

Hike to beautiful, secluded Delta Lake via the Lupine Meadows Access on a challenging 8.1 mile out-and-back trail that gains 2,300 feet in elevation (about twice the height of the Empire State Building). Located in the southwest corner of the park, it’s an unmaintained trail that’s typically accessible only from June through October due to Jackson’s snowfall. Trek up a series of switchbacks for vistas of Bradley Lake and colorful spring and summer wildflowers. After scrambling through boulder fields for a final 500-foot ascent, you reach the placid, glacial lake. 

A 7.1-mile-long hiking trail that begins at the Jenny Lake campground and encircles its namesake waterway, the Jenny Lake Trail takes you first along the mostly forested east side of the 423-foot, glacially carved lake for views of Teewinot Mountain, Mount Owen, Cascade Canyon, Storm Point, Symmetry Spire, Mount St. John, Rockchuck Peak and Mount Moran. One of the most popular and easiest hikes in the park, the trail provides access to the Cascade Canyon Trail and is overlapped by the Valley Trail along the lake’s west side. 

A moderate 6-mile option, Taggart Lake and the Bradley Lake Loop winds through aspen-covered moraine before opening up to views of the mighty Tetons. 

The easy, 4.8-mile Hidden Falls Trail can be shorted a mile by taking the shuttle boat to the Jenny Lake Loop Trail, culminating in a panorama of the roaring 200-foot waterfall that cascades down rocky ledges at the far end of the lake. It’s an easy junction to Inspiration Point. If you choose, continue across a wood bridge to the north side of Cascade Creek before climbing rugged switchbacks up a granite knoll to 7,200-foot Inspiration Point, where you’ll be rewarded with perspectives that extend over Jenny Lake to the Gros Ventre Mountains and the Gros Ventre Slide, a massive 1925 landslide. Other views include Storm Point and Symmetry Spire to the west and, to the southwest, Teewinot Mountain as it looms over Cascade Canyon. 

The 10.1-mile Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes Trail — which climbs 3,000 feet — takes you to two alpine lakes, a journey through meadows and forests and up a series of switchbacks to views of the surrounding peaks. 

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Yellowstone National Park  

Mostly located in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park spreads into parts of Montana and Idaho as well. The world’s first national park, 2.2 million-acre Yellowstone National Park is a land of geysers and hot springs; mud pots and fumaroles; meadows, dramatic canyons and pine-scented forests. Shaped by a volcano, thermal features, glaciers and earthquakes, it’s a sanctuary for the continent’s largest population of elks and the continent’s oldest, largest herds of wild bison, as well as both grizzly and black bears. In short, it promises a North American safari for the ages.  

Drawing people from all corners of the world to appreciate its unique hydrothermal and geologic features, it contains roughly half the world’s active geysers, as well as one of the planet’s largest, almost-intact temperate zones. 

The Flora and Fauna 

Complex and wondrous, the ecosystems of Yellowstone National Park protect a wide array of terrestrial, aquatic and microbial life, including the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. That includes eight ungulate species — including bighorn sheep and mountain goats — as well as seven large predators, the Canada lynx, mountain lions, coyotes, black bears, grizzly bears, wolves and wolverines.  

From resident and migratory birds to fish like the Yellowstone Cutthroat trout; amphibians, such as chorus frogs; and reptiles that include the prairie rattlesnake and rubber boa, it’s a feast for the eyes — and senses.  

Of course, plant life is no less fascinating here, with vegetation that overlaps species typical of the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains to the east and intermountain region to the west. In addition to three endemic species — Yellowstone sand verbena, Yellowstone sulfur wild buckwheat and Ross’s bentgrass — you’ll find mountain and common juniper, quaking aspen and cottonwood. 

The Weather 

Given most of the park lies at 6,000 feet or higher above sea level, climactic unpredictability can lead to sudden changes in weather, including wild temperature swings and rain or snow any month of the year. Spring and fall see temperatures between 30°F to 60°F during the day, dipping to teens to single digits at night. Come summer, temperatures can reach 80°F at lower elevations, cooling off as mountain regions do at night. With an annual average of 150 inches of snow (though high elevations can see double that), sub-zero temperatures are common in winter. The lowest recorded temperature? A bone-chilling -66°F. 

The Hikes, Drives and Viewpoints 

There’s no way around it — you have to walk the 1.5-mile, out-and-back Grand Prismatic Overlook Trail, which gradually climbs 105 feet from the Fairy Falls Trailhead for a bird’s eye view of Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world. More than 120 feet deep and located in the Midway Geyser Basin, it radiates exceptionally hot water—and a rainbow’s worth of color—from its center. 

Equally must-do is the 4.9-mile Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful Observation Point Loop — it’s the best trail for viewing the park’s hydrothermal features and specifically the most predictable geysers, including Old Faithful, Daisy, Riverside, Castle and Grand. Reached behind the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, be sure to check the geyser times board above the ranger’s desk before heading out. From Observation Point, you’ll glean the Historic Old Faithful District, most of the steamy geyser basin and the star of the show, Old Faithful. 

Mystic Falls, Fairy Creek and Little Firehole Loop total 3.5 miles, revealing 70-foot Mystic Falls, a geothermally heated waterfall; the Biscuit Basin, where boardwalks are flanked by colorful springs; and the Little Firehole River at an elevation of 7,264 feet.  

Easy, flat and meandering, the 4.8-mile Fairy Falls Trail affords views of its spectacular water feature about 2.5 miles in. One of Yellowstone’s tallest, it’s situated in a bear-populated area, so be sure to bring bear spray and engage actively in conversation as you go.  

Take the 6.4-mile hike to Yellowstone Falls, Crystal Falls and Inspiration Point for classic Upper and Lower Yellowstone vantage points, including an aerial view of rugged, deep Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. 

Not to be missed are the Mammoth Hot Springs trails, the feature’s volcanic heat source still somewhat of a mystery. Although the beautiful, colorful terrace steps do not have any high-spouting geysers, the region does contain the world’s greatest collections of hot springs comprised of travertine deposits. These “living sculptures” can be seen by walking a series of boardwalks or — if you’re crunched on time — from your car window on Upper Terrace Drive. 

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Whether you live in the interior west states, are considering a cross-country move to these states or are planning a visit, our blog is filled with ideas to experience the region through a local lens.  

Ready to make a move with United Van Lines? We’re ready when you are! So, let’s talk. 

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