|The Serpentine Sway: The Colorado River in Utah's Canyonlands National Park (Corbis)|
Think of Utah's national parks and you think red rocks, stone bridges, towering formations, and deep canyons. And that's exactly what most of them offer—in short, a hiker's paradise. But each park has its unique differences and surprises. Families will find many variations on the southwest landscape theme, from cool rivers for wading to acres of fruit trees with luscious fruit free (mostly) for the picking.
Day 1: Moab to Canyonlands National Park (30 Miles)
Moab is the mountain biking Mecca in the United States, with enough slickrock routes to keep you spinning your fat-tired wheels for days on end. But your road trip through Utah's epic national parks will bring you back here at the end (where you should consider extending you vacation for a few days in the saddle). Instead, gear up and head west towards the canyons, sheer mesas, arches, towering rock formations, and the Green and Colorado rivers which define the must-hike Canyonlands National Park (435.719.2313). The rivers divide Canyonlands into four distinct districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves (along with Horseshoe Canyon, a noncontiguous district in the northwester stretch of the park), and with just one day here you'll have to decide which region you'd like to visit. The two kid-friendliest districts, offering short walks, day hikes, and backpacking trails, are Island in the Sky and Needles. At the Island, an aptly-named mesa that towers over 1,000 feet above surrounding terrain, kids can climb the back of the whale at Whale Rock. The Island also has a paved, scenic drive with pullouts, trails, and views, and Willow Flat Campground is open year-round. The Needles district in the southeast corner of the park was named for the multihued spires of sandstone that dominate the landscape. Cave Spring Trail, a relatively short trail, has prehistoric pictographs. The Needles District also has an innovative program: Discovery Packs give kids a backpack filled with items for exploration, including binoculars, a hand lens for searching out bugs and studying plants, naturalist guide, and notebook. Discovery Packs and Junior Ranger materials (a fun, educational program geared to kids, organized by the National Park Service) are available at the Needles Visitor Center. Squaw Flat Campground is a good base in the Needles.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication