Reader Participation Day: California, or Utah, For A National Park Trek?

Utah, or California, which state beckons you for a national park tour? Top photo of Arches National Park by Kurt Repanshek, bottom photo of Half Dome by QT Luong,, used with permission.

If you had the option of either traveling to Utah for a swing through its national parks, or to California to sample its national parks, which would you choose?

True, California has Yosemite and Sequoia and Lassen Volcanic and Redwood just to name four, and overall more national parks than Utah. But Utah has Arches and Canyonlands and Zion, wonders that frame a red-rock landscape like none other in the world.

To help you decide, here's a breakdown of the national parks (just parks, not seashores, monuments, preserves, etc.) in those states:


Yosemite National Park
Sequoia National Park
Kings Canyon National Park
Death Valley National Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Channel Islands National Park
Joshua Tree National Park


Arches National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Canyonlands National Park
Capitol Reef National Park
Zion National Park


Simple. Last year we traveled Utah. This year we travel California. Can't wait for Yosemite. It's been 37 long years.

Having done both I will have to say: Utah. Shorter distances between all of the parks and you can can add in Monument Valley with just a short detour across the state line. Yosemite and Death Valley were beautiful and extreme but it seemed like every corner you turned in Utah revealed a new wonder.

I live just outside Yosemite, and plan to go there again this week. Sequoia is my favorite, though both redwoods, kings canyon, and lassen are nice. Channel Islands is one I hope to get to soon. That said, I have been to Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion and they are all terrific. I just want to go back and visit them one at a time instead of all within a week. We especially liked Capitol Reef.

Why choose? Visit them all!

For me it's Utah. The state has so much to offer in five national parks that are so close together. You can even add the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to a trip there. They are all amazing!

Of all the many states I've visited and lived in, Utah has far more variety and greater overall scenic wonders than any other.

It's really "Life Elevated" if you can just ignore the insanity of our legislators.

Was just in Utah at Cedar Breaks NM, not on your list of parks of course. Went there to escape the heat. During hot weather there's quite a few parks on both these lists I might try to avoid. Yet it would still be a tough decision between the two states. Guess I'd just go for both.

This is my personal opinion, not that of the Traveler. California is a miniature United States. It's just plain unfair to pit the national parks of a smaller, substantially less diversified state like Utah against California's parks. I absolutely love the Utah parks; in fact, I visited five of them as recently as two months ago. But the list of things that Utah lacks in the way of national park diversity would run right off this page. No national seashore, nothing even remotely approaching an urban park like Golden Gate National Recreation Area, nothing to compare with Channel Islands National Park (my goodness folks, that place is visited by blue whales!),nothing to match the awesomeness of the coastal redwoods and sequoias, not a single marine national historical park, not a single active volcano to match Mt. Lassen, etc., etc. etc., etc. For me it's California, hands down.

I've been to both on many occassions and I keep going back to Utah. The beauty is breath taking and don't forget about Grand Canyon North Rim, Natural Bridges, Zion, Bryce and my personal favorite is Arches which is right across the street from Canyonlands and then you have the salt flats. I have traveled the coast from Washington State to San Diego but that does not compare with the scenery while driving through out the State of Utah.

Why not both?
I'm now heading into week six of a twelve week trek to the Parks of Colorado, Utah, California and Nevada.
I've already spent a few days each at Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon. Next, I'll be heading to Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Lassen Volcanic, Redwoods and Great Basin (there's a stop at the "Burning Man" Festival in there as well).
Camping sites have been available everywhere except Arches...but the BLM has nice "primitive" sites available a mile or two from the Park along the Colorado River. Also, note that Loop B at Bryce Canyon has no restroom facilities (under construction).
So far, one thing that I would note is that Capitol Reef is a very underrated Park...the famous "fold", lots of great canyon hiking...and...the Fruita Campground is one of the most pleasant in the whole Park system.

If forced to choose, I would go Utah. I could go to Utah's parks over and over again without ever being bored.

We have been to both CA and UT parks. It depends on the time of year. Traveling in the fall after the kids are back in school and college has started, I would choose CA. The crowds at Yosemite and other parks in California in the summer really detract from the experience. If you can travel in the fall or winter, there is nothing like Yosemite with little to no other visitors. We went into the park early one winter morning in February before anyone else had tracked over a new snowfall and not another person or vehicle in sight. That is easily one of the most moving experiences I've had. Seeing the ice break off the falls as the sun heated it and not hearing the sound of the ice until seconds later. It was so still and quiet - like the snow was a blanket of insulation from the rest of the world.

If you have a couple of weeks, visit both areas. We took a road trip in May from our home near Kansas City to the west coast. We stopped at parks in several states: Fossil Butte, Golden Spike, Great Basin, Pt. Reyes, Muir Woods, Golden Gate, San Francisco Maritime, Pinnacles, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Death Valley, Lake Mead, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Arches. This was our first visit to California and it was beautiful. We've visited the parks in Utah before and couldn't pass up the chance to stop again.
Southern Utah is a unique area and the drive from Zion to Bryce to Capitol Reef is truly breathtaking.

Uh - Redwood National Park. ;)

I haven't even been to all the national parks in California, although I've been looking for an excuse to make it to Redwood NP.

Seriously though - I'd say Utah. It would only be because I'm so familiar with California, and we're also talking the 3rd largest state in terms of area so the diversity between the coast, the Cascades, the Sierra Nevada, and the Mojave Desert.

The "National Park" units in Utah are generally known for their geology. I've been to four of the five, and the variety of impressive geological formations is astounding. Making it to Delicate Arch was still the highlight of a trip I made a few years back.

If there's one place I would rather go, it would be Yosemite. However - I would think going through Utah would make a better road trip. Just make sure the A/C is working if it's a summer road trip.

For a true road trip, Utah hands down. Sometimes it seems a chore getting around California. With Utah it's like you are driving through a continuous national park on the way to the National Parks. There's no down time! And you have a feeling that you are in a place that is truely unlike anywhere else on Earth.

I agree with Bob. California is it for the diversity. The Utah parks are spectacular, the sandstone formations of Arches are defying gravity like nothing else I've ever seen. The lush green Zion canyon in the desert and mountain surroundings is a miracle. Capitol Reef lets you see the stratification of the rocks that makes all the features of the Colorado Plateau possible. Walking among the hoodoos of Bryce and seeing the colors and how they change with the moving sun is breathtaking as is the sheer vastness of Canyonlands. But in the end it all is the Colorado Plateau, its sandstone and the desert climate.

In California you can have the desert in Yoshua Tree and Death Valley, with spectacular rock formations and even sand dunes. You have the most spectacular mountain landscape of the High Sierra in Yosemite and Kings Canyon. The Sequioas of the National Park with the same name in a gorgeous mountain landscape and the Coast Redwoods in Redwood National Park off the beaten paths. Lassen Volcanic is amazing, an active volcano in the southern Cascades raising over conifer forests with an amazing number of small lakes in between. Never been to the Islands of Channel Island NP, only to the Visitor Center in Ventura. But I would love to snorkeling or even diving and see the kelp forests and their inhabitant.

I've been to almost all of them, and if I had to choose there would be no doubt.

For me, living all of my life on the East coast, it's Utah, hands down. Spent two weeks there last year, can't wait to spend more! The beauty of unspoiled creation is beyond compare...

I have been to Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Santa Monica Mountains NRA, and on the National Forest side of things, Big Sur/Ventana, Muir Woods, San Gabriel, Inyo, and San Jacinto. Over 50 nights in a tent over the past couple of years, I'd say.

In defense of California, it has the most variety of scenery, the best rock quality in its granite (especially in the Sierra!) and some of the most entertaining memories I have ever had. I dont think anyone could ever forget a Joshua Tree sunset, or a nap under a coastal Redwood.

That said, the parks are generally crowded, the bears will rob you blind, and the state is run by a bunch of goons!

I've spent about an equal amount of time in Utah's parks over the past seven years. I've been to Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, and two districts of Canyonlands. Zion is far and away the best one I have experienced. Once you get off the beaten path, that is. Of the rest, I would most like to do the Maze District of Canyonlands. Of what I know, Utah has great deserts, but overall it just cant stand up to what California has. That said, it is much easier for me to relax and enjoy myself in Utah than it is in the hustle of California. So I vote Utah!

I have been to parks in both states and am a California Resident. Both states have fantastic National Parks. My vote is California because Yosemite is my favorite place in the world and I visit it often. But my two favorite hikes are angels landing and the narrows at Zion.

For me, living all of my life on the East coast, it's Utah, hands down. Spent two weeks there last year, can't wait to spend more! The beauty of unspoiled creation is beyond compare...
It's only **relatively** unspoiled with NPS and other protected areas. A trip to the Moab area, and you'll find the remains of mining almost everywhere.

That said, the parks are generally crowded, the bears will rob you blind, and the state is run by a bunch of goons!
I'll stay out of the political discussion here. However - Yosemite is crowded. The bears in Yosemite (and to some extent SEKI) are the most aggressive in North America at obtaining human food. I've been to Bumpass Hell in Lassen, and although it compares favorably to some thermal areas in Yellowstone, the number of people was generally far less.

What is crowded is Zion Canyon in the summertime. My understanding is that traffic was worse than Yosemite Valley before they instituted the mandatory shuttle.

Utah, because there's so much wild land to explore just outside park boundaries. These areas are little known because they're managed by the Bureau of Land Management. At Zion, there's the Canaan Mountain Wilderness near Springdale, which got wilderness status last year. Next door to Canyonlands there are several big proposed BLM wilderness areas. They're part of the panorama you see from Grand View Point. Same for Capitol Reef and Bryce. And there's the whole Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, managed by BLM. An interactive map and photos of these areas appear on the website of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

I have to agree with Bob - the diversity of California is what makes it so attractive (well that and the majestic big trees). Utah is special and magical in it's own way but a girl can only take it so much 'geology'. I must vote for California! Also, these people that chime in with their multi-week travel itineraries should just pipe down - I have to do these trip is week or week and a half blocks and hearing about longer trips just makes me GREEN with envy!

I would say that singularly Yosemite is the most spectacular national park among all within California and Utah. I could spend a week in Yosemite and not get tired of it. However - Utah makes for an excellent road trip where one could tick off a day or two in each park.

Still - try obtaining an alcoholic beverage in Utah. I know it's been relaxed recently, but I got my libations in Arizona before driving in to Utah.

y_p_w, be careful with that. It is actualyl illegal to transfer alcohol into Utah from another state. I really doubt anyone enforces it since all of us here at Capitol Reef do it, but you never know when someone might be having a bad day and will want to cite!

Since I now live in Utah and have easy access to all the parks here, I'd have to go with California since it's a state that I haven't been able to explore. I love Utah (except for those alcohol laws!) and I am always happy to come home, but for a change of scenery I want CA. I also agree that it has much more diversity.

I have a CA trip on my bucket list. I must say I have done several trips to Utah and it does make for a great road trip.At Zion the narrows is a great hike I also would suggest North Rim of the Grand Canyon as a side trip from Zion or Bryce. North rim has less people than the south rim But is closed part of the year so plan ahead. I also Loved Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was an incredible drive from Capital Reef down to Bryce.

Have been to both states. Lassen,Yosemite,Sequoia,Kings Canyon,Red Woods.Also several of the areas in San Francisco.

In Utah it's Bryce,Zion,Canyonlands,Arches,Capital Reef,Cedar Breaks,Natural Bridges. And add Dead Horse Sate Park.

My vote is Utah. I love em all.........

Can't wait to retire to began those monthly trips to HOPEFULLY all of the National Parks.

y_p_w, be careful with that. It is actualyl illegal to transfer alcohol into Utah from another state. I really doubt anyone enforces it since all of us here at Capitol Reef do it, but you never know when someone might be having a bad day and will want to cite!
I wasn't aware of that, and I even checked out the Utah alcohol control website before I went. I just looked around some more, and apparently that is technically the case that bringing in alcohol is usually illegal. There are some exceptions, but they seemed obscure (like inheriting alcoholic beverages from an estate) and which also required a license and/or fee. The other one is bringing in less than 2 liters of liquor if completing an international flight; I think this is the federal duty-free limit which Utah probably doesn't want to mess with.

I'm thinking one of the primary points would be right at Page, Arizona, where they've got a WalMart SuperCenter that has an extensive collection of beer, and I think liquor. I mean - you've got people going boating in Lake Powell, with Page a popular supply point, and then crossing into Utah via roads or waterways. Still - law enforcement at Glen Canyon NRA is NPS, and I don't imagine they're citing people for merely having alcohol without being severely intoxicated and/or controlling a boat when drinking.


The issue with the law is that if you didn't buy it in Utah then you didn't pay UT taxes on it. UT really wants you to pay their state taxes on the alcohol before you cross state lines with it. The rangers here checked into that and no one can tell them how to pay those taxes, so every one pretty much turns a blind eye to it. We all do it when we head into Grand Junction, CO for groceries and bring back wine and other goodies.

Actually, I think if you check laws in most states you'll find it's illegal to import not only liquor but virtually anything else as well. It's probably one of those "just in case" laws used to nail people who transport huge quantities of things to avoid higher taxes in one state. Try buying a car in one state and see if they nail you for taxes at home when you try to get license plates.

A few years ago, if you lived in Utah but worked in Arizona, Arizona required that you have both Utah and Arizona license plates on your car. I hope that has changed, but at the time the Arizona legislature didn't like Utah for some reason. Maybe because they were jealous of Utah's scenery.

I found the exceptions:

2 liters if purchased outside of the US and that has passed through US customs is the first category. Moving to Utah seems to be another, but apparently with state approval and fees. Then there's up to 2 liters of 288 oz of beer if purchased on a military base (who thought that up?).

Apparently the Utah Highway Patrol is sending officers outside the state to look for people with Utah plates and buying beer around major holidays. They do this from unmarked cars with different plates. It doesn't seem like they're targeting out of state drivers though. One piece of advice in their comments section was to not stop at the first place across the border, since that's where these undercover stings are typically set up. One lawyer says this is primarily for revenue purposes as you suggested.

I'm from California, but I keep returning to visit the parks of Utah.

Utah has no beaches? How about Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon NRA. My first visit to Yosemite was this spring and it was incredibly beautiful, but Utah gets my vote.

Anon, I am frankly puzzled as to what you are talking about. Beaches aren't referred to anywhere in the article or in any of the comments that follow it.... except yours.

California has one major factor that detracts from all other attributes, crowds and traffic. It's hard to escape them. Unfortunately, industrial tourism. which is rampant throughout California, has also come to southern Utah, in a big way.

Much of the concerns and warnings voiced by Edward Abbey are as relevant today as they were in 1968 when Desert Solitaire work was first published. The once small towns of St. George, Hurricane, and Moab have grown radically since that time. Fortunately, the private car has been eliminated from the upper reaches of Zion Canyon thanks to the installation of a free shuttle service and collaboration between the NPS and the community of Sprindale, UT. The night sky above the Zion's West Rim Trail is now compromised by the encroachment of the direct glare of city lights on the western horizon.

In contrast to Zion Canyon, the private car is still allowed into Yosemite Valley. However, it's now been 30 years since the NPS 1980 Yosemite General Management Plan called for removal of the private car from the congested Valley. Yet, park concessions and gateway communities have become so dependent on sustained visitation, that it is a near political impossibility for the NPS to effectively entertain visitor use carrying capacities to guard against overcrowding and ecological damage from overuse.

Southern Utah to me, is one gigantic national park. The entire region still contains many hidden surprises of natural and cutural significance, even beyond the borders of those areas considered official units of the National Park System. It contains special smaller parks like Natural Bridges National Monument, which has been judged to have the darkest skies in the entire National Park System.

To fully connect with what the desert SW has to offer, much more time is required than a single two-week vacation will allow. Most non-resident travelers find it necessary to return to southern Utah for multiple visits. A few are so affected by the beauty of the place that they adopt the region as their new location of residence and never return home.

On the other hand, the mild summer temperatures of the High Sierra produces ideal conditions for multiple-day backpacking trips into John Muir's "Range of Light," albeit with permit in hand. These days, I'd recommend avoiding the Half Dome cables, however, at least until some system can be put in place to eliminate crowding and dangerous conditions. For the same reasons, I'd recommend avoiding Angel's Landing in Zion.

Think Redwood, think Lassen Volcanic, think Joshua Tree. None of these California parks are crowded. Yosemite Valley is, of course. But is Toulumne meadows crowded? Wawona? The Hetch Hetchy area? Kings Canyon is not crowded and Sequioa is certainly less flooded than Arches.

On the other hand, the mild summer temperatures of the High Sierra produces ideal conditions for multiple-day backpacking trips into John Muir's "Range of Light," albeit with permit in hand. These days, I'd recommend avoiding the Half Dome cables, however, at least until some system can be put in place to eliminate crowding and dangerous conditions. For the same reasons, I'd recommend avoiding Angel's Landing in Zion.
Uh - there's been a permit system for the Half Dome cables starting this year - enforced only Friday/Saturday/Sunday without a permit system in place Monday-Thursday. It's supposedly 400 permits issued per day for day users. Anyone with a valid backcountry permit can also go up the HD cables. They're stationing personnel during most of the day to check for permits, which I understand are printed tickets that are torn when accepted.

The sense I get is that there will might be more people going up the cables during some non-permit days, although it probably won't be excessively crowded. People who would have normally done it on a whim for a weekend will find an excuse to do it during the week when permits aren't required. I did it on a Thursday (got there at about 10:30 AM from my backcountry campsite) a few years back, and I didn't find it crowded at all.

Utah is next door; California--well, I've been there. There are too many people in California. I'll choose Utah.

I'd have to go with utah! The red rock is so beautiful! California is too crowded, but utah has so much to choose from and it's never crowded.