Southern Utah is so filled with staggering beauty, drama, and power that it seems like a place of myth. Five spectacular national parks and several national monuments are all within a day’s drive of one another. The colorful canyons, arches, and mesas found within this high dry area are surprisingly diverse, and each park has its own characteristic landscape.

Water pools as a thin creek runs through a sandstone canyon.

Spring in Utah. Photo © Paul Levy.

Zion National Park contains stunning contrasts, with towering rock walls deeply incised by steep canyons containing a verdant oasis of cottonwood trees and wildflowers. Bryce National Park is famed for its red and pink hoodoos, delicate fingers of stone rising from a steep mountainside At sunrise the lighting is especially magical, the air crisp, and the trails empty.

A large section of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument preserves the dry washes and slot canyons trenched by the Escalante River and its tributaries. Long-distance hikers descend into the deep, narrow river channels here to experience the near-mystical harmony of flowing water and stone.

The highlight of Capitol Reef National Park is the Waterpocket Fold, an enormous wrinkle of rock rising from the desert. The Fremont River carves a magnificent canyon through the formation, offering a leafy, well-watered sanctuary from the otherwise arid landscapes of southern Utah.

In Canyonlands National Park, the Colorado River carves through deep red sandstone. From the Island in the Sky unit, expansive vistas take in hundreds of miles of canyon country, while rafting the Colorado’s Cataract Canyon is the wet and thrilling climax of many a vacation. The beauty is more serene and mystical at Arches National Park, where delicate rock arches provide vast windows into the solid rock. Short trails draw hikers into an eerily beautiful land of slickrock promontories and stone arches. High-spirited Moab is the recreational mecca of southeastern Utah, known for its mountain biking and comfortable—even sophisticated—dining and lodging.

Southern Utah is more than a showcase of erosion. Its cliffs and canyons have been home to Native Americans for thousands of years, and the haunting beauty of Native American rock art is on display at hundreds of locations.

Although many people first visit as part of a grand tour of the Southwest, they often return to further explore a smaller and distinctive corner of this vast landscape. After a small glimpse of the magnificence and variety, some latch on to one special place and return year after year, growing to know it intimately.

Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Zion & Bryce.