Apologies to Canyonlands: a Definitive Ranking of Utah's National Parks

If you're anything like my father, you're looking at your National Parks road trip planning spreadsheet and scratching your head, wondering how you're going to squeeze both Arches and Canyonlands into the amount of time you've allotted yourself for Moab and the surrounding areas.

Pat's Father at Arches 

He's a dangerously efficient traveler. For example, on a childhood trip to Disney, we (a minivan sitting five) stopped twice between Erie, Pennsylvania and Orlando, Florida. When he asked you if you'd gone to the bathroom before we started, it wasn't a power play -- he was expecting you to answer honestly.

Now before I get into this, I want to say that I have nothing overtly against Canyonlands. It's possibly the best spot in the U.S. for those who get their recreational kicks by way of ATV or dirt bike.

If you're planning a trip to the Four Corners region and you're not bringing a motor bike with you, and you're not my dad, and only have time for one park during your swing through Moab, below is a just a personal ranking of my favorite parks in Utah.

 

1) Zion

 

Photo by Utah.com

 

So you've done it. You've called off work, bought the plane ticket, and rented the car. Perhaps you're driving east from Las Vegas or north from Phoenix after seeing the Grand Canyon. You've always heard about Utah's beauty, and you're on your way.

 

Prioritize Zion.

 

Though every National Park has its own personal charms, I'm sure the numbers would show that more people plan vacations around seeing Yellow Stone than Cuyahoga Valley National Park (Sorry, Ohio? I'm writing this from an apartment in Cleveland Heights). Some parks just bring more thunder than others.


If you only see one Utah park in your life, see Zion.


 

2) Bryce Canyon

 

If you see two, zip up to Bryce.

 

I'll slow down and explain myself for a quick second. Some parks can give you different looks at a high level, like Colts-era Peyton Manning, running an offense with no intention of letting a ball touch the ground at any point during the game. Yellowstone has water falls and lakes and wildlife and it's obviously superb. Versatile. Zion has red and orange rocks and splashes in a little water and a little emerald just for fun. More bang for your buck. It's the hotel that serves real eggs and offers free newspapers at the continental breakfast.

 

When I say Bryce is a one trick pony, I mean it in the best way possible. Bryce, like Badlands, or an elderly calligrapher, I suppose, is the best at what it does, and is the best at only that. You want orange? Like the best orange you've ever seen? Brace yourself, because Bryce has you covered. Remember that Instagram post that earned you the most likes you've ever received? It's trash. You're about to shatter your record.

 

It's simply miraculous.

 

Zion has the edge, in my opinion, because it does many things well, but I would have no trouble talking with you at a party about why Bryce is better.


 

3) Arches

 

Photo by nationalpark.org

 

Now, none of these things are easy to get to, but you're cheating yourself out of the experience if you don't find your way to the Colorado River Scenic Byway and stop in Moab. Both Arches and Canyonlands are in striking distance from this location, and there's a sense of calm in the town.

 

If you're working out your spreadsheet and you aren't sure where to spend certain nights, how to allocate the time, Moab is a good town for an overnight (local beer, etc.)

 

Arches trumps Canyonlands. I'll cut right to it.

 

When you've seen Bryce's orange and then Arches shapes you might write to me and say: Pat, you're an idiot. Just because Zion is well-rounded, it's simply not as miraculous as Bryce and Arches are in their respective fields of color and shape.

 

I'll then say I'm glad we're at this party and I'm glad you've seen these things. I'm glad you had enough time to see all of them and not just Zion.

 

Then I might tell you I'm going to the bathroom and just leave without saying anything, an Irish Good Bye, if you will, as I'm known to do.

 

But Arches is tremendous if you can get over the fear of wondering how that rock is balancing like that up there, oh GOD, I'm going to be the one it finally falls on and crushes to death.

 

Miraculous earth.


4) Canyonlands

 

Photo by nationalgeographic.com

 

I JUST WANT TO SAY ONCE AGAIN I HAVE NOTHING AGAINST YOU, CANYONLANDS, BUT IF THE PERSON READING THIS ONLY HAS TIME FOR ONE MOAB DAY TRIP THEY SHOULD PRIORITIZE ARCHES.


Anyhow, I hope this helps. Don't do the Four Corners in one trip. Do southwest Colorado in a different trip. the Black Canyon and Great Sand Dune need to be appreciated separately. Do northern Arizona in a different trip. Heck, do a whole week in Sedona. Go see Antelope Canyon, but don't sell yourself, or Utah, short by squeezing too much in.

 

If Huey was right, and it's hip to be a square, Utah's the correct corner to begin with.