Summer brings hordes of campers to Utah’s national parks and mountain bike lovers to Moab’s slickrock trails. In the winter, Snowbird and Park City are paradise to skiers and snowboarders. However, those in the know head to Utah in the fall, when visitors can avoid the heat and explore the best places to visit with less crowds, to include the state’s “big 5” national parks and noteworthy state parks. You can even enjoy some fall foliage, thanks to the quaking aspens and bigtooth maples. Here are 15 best reasons to visit Utah this fall.
Arches National Park is one of Utah’s most picturesque national parks, famed for its 2,000-plus sandstone arches. Delicate Arch is possibly the park’s top draw, an iconic image that can be found on Utah license plates! Visit Utah in the fall, and you’ll appreciate the almost 50-foot-high arch with a fraction of the summer masses. It’s particularly photogenic at sunset and well worth the 3-mile trek in to see it.
Arches that face the sun, like Turret Arch on the Windows Trail, light up with beautiful color at sunrise. Looking through to the framed desert-scape here, you’ll see the same view that acclaimed environmental writer Edward Abbey did when he spent several seasons here as a park ranger — an experience that inspired his memoir, “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.” Make sure to head into nearby Moab after your trek for some of Utah’s best craft beer and gourmet eats.
Erosion in Bryce Canyon National Park has created a magical wonderland of hoodoos, totem-pole-like spires that come in every possible pigment of magenta, pink, red, and crimson. It’s an outdoor lover’s playground, much like a natural Disneyland. Hiking trails abound here, from trails around the rim of the canyon to others weaving right through the tufa formations. If you come here in late fall, you might be lucky enough to catch the canyon under a dusting of fresh snow, like cake frosting, sitting atop the magical hoodoos.
Utah is blessed with an array of colorful slot canyons, and Buckskin Gulch is one of the deepest and longest ones in the country. You can day hike part of the canyon from Wire Pass Trailhead, go even further on a multi-night backpacking trip, or combine it with a journey through the nearby Paria Canyon, which is also very scenic. As with other Utah canyons, coming in the fall is a safer bet, as summer rains can cause flash floods, not to mention it can be easier to pick up the necessary permits outside peak season.
Green River and The Maze, Canyonlands National Park
Comprised of several different districts, Canyonlands National Park is home to more than 337,000 acres of canyons, mesas, buttes, arches, and spires that will leave you dumbstruck and in awe of their beauty. You can go rafting on the Green River here or take a 4-wheel-drive vehicle through the section known as The Needles. If you are well prepared, rappel into the aptly named The Maze, the park’s least accessible district and a playground for highly experienced adventurers. It’s vast, empty, and home to some of the West’s wildest natural beauty.
One Canyonlands National Park highlight you shouldn’t miss (as you don’t even have to hike to get here) is Mesa Arch. Located in the Islands in the Sky District, Mesa Arch is less than an hour’s drive from Moab. This pothole arch frames much of the national park, with views of the 500-foot-high Washer Woman Arch and La Sal Mountains in the distance. Better yet, if you come here at sunrise, the underside of the arch gets illuminated by the sun, making for some magical photos. After sunrise, you can zip back down to Moab for a stack of pancakes!
Capital Reef is another reason to visit Utah this fall. Although nowhere near as popular as Zion, Arches, or Bryce, it’s still a magical place, full of golden sandstone formations, vermillion cliffs, and natural bridges. The park sits on a 100-mile geologic wrinkle in the earth called Waterpocket Fold. You can see so much natural beauty here without leaving your vehicle, as a road runs through Capital Reef, past many of the national park’s attractions. Autumn is a fantastic time to be here, as the golden yellow leaves of the cottonwood and aspen trees contrast with the surrounding red sandstone cliffs.
Utah’s “big 5” national parks aren’t the only reason to visit Utah in the fall. The state parks are less crowded, cheaper, easier to get into, and often just as scenic. Dead Horse Point State Park is one of the best and has a majestic lookout over the Canyonlands and Colorado River. If you recognize some of the scenery, this is where the iconic final scene of “Thelma & Louise” was filmed, with the two protagonists driving their Thunderbird into the canyon. An added plus for day-trippers who just want to photograph the magical sunsets here: Hip and happening Moab is only 30 miles away.
Zion was Utah’s first national park and attracts around 5 million visitors every year, making it one of the most-visited national parks in the country. All the more reason to visit in the shoulder season of early fall. You’ve got the best of Southwestern colors and landscapes almost all in one place here, with incredible canyon vistas throughout the park. The one-mile Canyon Overlook Trail is the shortest in the park, suitable for families and hikers of all ages.
For those with a head for heights and who are up to the challenge, head for Angels Landing Trail in Zion National Park. This day hike climbs a spine 1,488 feet above the canyon floor, culminating with a chain-aided scramble across a narrow ledge to achieve a dazzling aerial view of the national park. The trail’s steepest ascent goes up 21 switchbacks in the face of the cliff to reach the chains and cables at the finish line of Utah’s natural stairway to heaven. Limited permits are required for this hike. Visiting in the fall will give you far more chance at getting one.
The West and East Mitten Buttes have starred in countless westerns and TV shows. These iconic formations are in Monument Valley, which is part of the Navajo Nation, straddling the Utah-Arizona border. The buttes lie on the Arizona side, but Utah offers epic views.
If you want to get close to the sandstone and desert, you can access them through the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, where a dirt road loops around all the scenic attractions. Summers are roasting hot here, whereas fall visits have comfortable weather and maybe even a dusting of snow if you come toward the end of the season.
Everyone remembers when Forrest Gump stopped running. US Highway 163 offers epic views of Monument Valley, and it’s also how you can access Forrest Gump Point, where you’ll find a plaque commemorating the place Forrest quit running after three years, two months, 14 days, and 16 hours. Quite a few tour buses stop here during the summer, but come fall, you might have this iconic spot — and long stretches of highway — all to yourself.
Lines formed by cross sedimentation on the white Navajo sandstone have led to the name of this iconic Utah natural feature. You’ll find Checkerboard Mesa just through the tunnel on State Route 9 in Zion National Park. Beautiful landscapes like this are what make Utah road trips so special, so start gearing up now for a fall visit to Utah, and make sure you bring plenty of spare camera batteries, as there’s practically a shot around every bend!
The narrowest part of Zion Canyon, The Narrows is another Zion must-see. The Virgin River weaves through this series of slot canyons that go through pristine Southwest canyon country. Summer storms bring flash floods, making The Narrows a dicey proposition at that time of year. However, fall brings more stable weather to the area and usually lower river levels, making the walk far more pleasurable. Make sure to bring shoes that can get wet — and know your limits. You have to come back the way you came, unless you’re equipped for an extended backcountry trek.
Even if you aren’t a hiker, biker, or outdoor adventurer, simply driving through much of Utah will showcase its incredible natural beauty. State Route 9 runs the length of Zion National Park, and in the fall you might have some of the hairpin turns and climbs up through mesas and buttes all to yourself. Passing places like Checkerboard Mesa, State Route 9 is the perfect route to see some of Utah’s most beautiful natural wonders. It’s far from the hustle and bustle of Salt Lake City, or even places like Park City or Moab for that matter. Just make sure to have a full tank of gas when setting out, as pumps can be far and few in-between.