Utah's Mighty 5- The Geo Prespective

Posted by Jessica Scanlan on

If you've been in my LinkedIn connections for a while, you probably know that I LOVE educational road trips! It's even better when geology and mining combine with amazing scenery and great friends.

My friend and I try to take a trip together every year, and with the Coronavirus we decided to take a bit different of an approach this year. We decided to meet in the middle and explore one of the most epic road trips of the USA- the Utah Mighty 5. If you haven't heard of it, the Utah Mighty 5 is the route that links all of Utah's national parks. Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks are all included in one epic road trip! The parks CAN be done in 5 days (or even less), but I would recommend 7-10 days to really get to explore the parks and the areas surrounding them.

This blog post is intended to be used as almost a "Geologic Guide" to visiting these national parks! It's separated into different sections, and each section will have park information, geologic background, as well as recommended things to do. I'll also have some tips and tricks for you at the end of the article, as well as some other cool places to check out! As usual- you can find my whole Road Trip guide on my Road Trippers profile!

All information in this post is from different sources, I'll link them at the bottom for you to check out!

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Zion NP is in the top 5 most visited national parks of the United States, welcoming around 4.5 million visitors per year! It is easy to see why so many people travel to see this stunning canyon. Towering red cliffs overlook the twisting Virgin River and green trees, excellent hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities, and a stunning scenic drive really make this national park a place suited for every type of adventure!


The majority of the canyons, cliffs, and towers of Zion were sculpted by the Virgin River in mostly Jurassic age strata- Navajo Sandstone, Kayenta Formation, and Moenave Formation. The canyon floors are mostly made up of the Triassic Chinle Formation and Moenkopi Formation. These sedimentary rocks tell a 270 million year old story of an ancient desert landscape where mud, silt, and wind-blown sand accumulated in large quantities. In fact, Zion has some of the finest "fossilized" wind-deposited sand dunes in the world!

The Navajo Sandstone is the main rock layer. It was deposited in an ancient sandy desert, much like the Sahara Desert. This deposits maximum thickness is about 2200 ft (671 m)! During deposition, this area was covered by large dunes that were most likely as high as 150 ft or more! Quartz sand grains moved up the dune until they reached the crest, then would fall down the steep other side of the dune and create crossbedding. From the crossbedding, you can even figure out which direction the winds were blowing during the time of the time of the dinosaurs, which is super cool!

The Navajo might be the thickest layer in the park, but the Kayenta Formation plays a huge roll in the width of Zion Canyon. At the end of the park road at river level, a recent rockslide of Navajo Sandstone occurred where the Kayenta undermined it. Just past this, the Kayenta is no longer on the surface and the river is just eroding the Navajo. This creates a much thinner canyon, known as the "Narrows" hike. The Narrows is both an adventure and a geology lesson. At its tightest point, the canyon is only 16 ft wide and 1000 ft deep. If you want to get really up close and personal with the Navajo Sandstone, that is one way to do it!

One of the amazing things about Zion is all of the colors. Greens, pinks, reds, and whites all swirl together to make up this beautiful area. We have geology to thank for that too! The Navajo Sandstone has a small amount of iron-bearing minerals in its grains. This turns the rock a reddish color. However, the upper part of the Navajo is white. This is probably caused by acidic groundwater seeping through the rock, which "bleached" the rock by dissolving the iron. The pink colored rock could represent the transition zone beneath the groundwater zone and the bottom zone. There is also areas with black streaks, called "Desert Varnish", which result from precipitation of iron and manganese as groundwater and rain evaporate from the rock face.

What geologic features should you look for in Zion NP? You can't miss the amazing colors, but be sure to try and distinguish the different formations in the canyon walls. Get up close and personal with the rock by hiking and check out the preserved crossbedding of ancient sand dunes. Get your compass out and see if you can figure out what way the wind was blowing! Find the different "weeping" rocks, and get up high in the canyon to spot ancient land slides and rock falls!

Park Information and Recommendations

Zion is most well known for two of its very famous hikes- The Narrows and Angels Landing. Unfortunately both were closed when we visited due to the Coronavirus and algae blooms. Luckily for all visitors- Zion is not lacking in amazing hikes! The popular Emerald Pools hike is great for all levels of hikers, and Weeping Rock is not something to miss out on! The shuttle bus system to explore Zion Canyon is really well run, you can get your tickets at Recreation.Gov. The Zion-Mount Caramel Highway is a beautiful drive- I recommend driving it to the back of it and turning around so you get the spectacular views in both directions. Stay in Springdale for a super fun vibe as well as close proximity to the park! Entrance fee is $35 per vehicle (free wit annual pass- see tips and tricks section).

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon NP was easily, hands down my favorite park to visit. I had briefly stopped at an overlook during the spring last year on my Mining Roadtrip Part 1, but was trying to get home quickly. I wish I had taken more time to explore! Bryce Canyon surprisingly only welcomes around 2.6 million visitors per year. It is an amazing maze of hoodoos, amphitheaters, canyons, and rock formations. Take time to "Hike the Hoodoos" and earn a special prize from the park rangers!


First things first- Bryce is not really a "canyon" at all, but a series of large amphitheaters cut into the Pink Cliffs. The rock exposed is Jurassic to Neogene, and the hoodoos are formed from the Claron Formation (more about that in a sec!).

Bryce was formed in a similar sandy desert to Zion, and the Navajo Sandstone is under the rocks seen in the park. As time passed, the sea level began to rise, creating the Western Cretaceous Interior Seaway. BCNP was situated along the margins of this seaway and recorded the climatic and tectonic changes in its rock record. The Dakota Formation was deposited in nearshore environments, then as the sea level rose to its maximum depth the Tropic Shale was deposited. This preserved many marine fossils, such as burrows from ants, wasps, and crayfish. With continued sea fluctuations and the final withdrawal, the Straight Cliffs, Wahweap, and Kaiparowits formations were deposited. Much later, the Claron Formation was deposited. The lower part of the Claron (the Pink Member) represents deposits occurring on a broad plain including stream channel sandstones, siltstones, and pebble conglomerates. The upper part (White Member) was deposited in broad lakes. Bed-by-bed rock variations helped to create the famous hoodoos.

Speaking of hoodoos, what are they? A hoodoo is basically a giant rock column, it almost reminds me of a stalagmite! They're unique and rare, and formed by many complicated geologic processes. First, plate tectonic forces induces stresses on the rock strata. These events include the late stages of the Laramide Orogeny, the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, and present-day Basin and Range extension. These stresses produced fracture systems, the two main ones intersect to create a cross-hatched pattern of weakened rock. Then, as the Claron was exposed, physical and chemical weathering processes disaggregate the rock along the fracture sets. Freeze-thaw cycles play a big roll in forming the hoodoos. As the weathering processes continue, deep "slot" canyons and rock walls are produced. As fractures through the rock erode, forming columns and pinnacles. The many rock layers erode differently, creating curved recesses and bulging knobs. Many times you can see fun shapes created in the hoodoos, such as Queen Victoria on the Queens Trail hike! All the processes to form the hoodoos had to happen or else there would be no hoodoos, and this mace BCNP very unique and rare.

Bryce Canyon is a stunning view of pinks, oranges, and whites. These colors mostly come from the oxidation state and amount of iron in the rocks. Iron-bearing minerals and rock fragments that were deposited in oxygen-rich nearshore environments were oxidized into their ferric state, giving rocks their orange color. Sediment deposited in oxygen-poor environments retains its ferrous state and displays green, gray, or black colors (like the Tropic Shale).

You don't have to look hard for amazing geology in Bryce Canyon, any of the viewpoints will do! Get up close to some hoodoos, and see why they call it "Inspiration Point"! Identify the different joints that create the hoodoos and see the lines of the geologic layers.

Park Information and Recommendations

Bryce Canyon is not lacking in hiking opportunities! It has easy quick hikes and long strenuous hikes, so it's kind of like a "pick your own adventure" kind of park! Wake up early and watch the sun say good morning at Sunrise Point. From there, I highly recommend taking the Queens Garden trail to Navajo Loop. Most people start at Navajo Loop but the park ranger we talked to recommended going UP Navajo Loop because its just a "final pulmonary push" and the scenery is worth it. As much as I complained about walking up those crazy switchbacks, I do have to agree it was amazing! You'll quickly understand Ebenezer Bryce's description of the park as being "... a hell of a place to lose a cow." You definitely want to take the scenic drive also, probably after your hike so you can rest for a bit. Eat a picnic lunch at Rainbow Point, check out the hoodoos at Inspiration Point, and get back in time to get a good seat at Sunset Point to watch the sun go to bed! Be sure to pack a small jacket or sweatshirt, Bryce Canyon is known for it's summer monsoon rains! Entrance fee is $35 per vehicle (free with annual pass).

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef doesn't get as much attention as the other parks on the Big 5 circuit, and it's often skipped over if people don't have time for all 5 parks. However, it still receives about 1.3 million visitors each year, and is honestly a geology lovers playground! The "Waterpocket Fold" extends 100 miles, and is home to some spectacular geology and scenery. Not only is the geology stunning, you'll also see remnants of human history in the petroglyphs of the prehistoric Fremont people, a town built by Mormon pioneers, and several small uranium mines. Be sure to visit Fruita early to get a slice of pie or some bread!


The main purpose of the national park was to preserve the landscape surrounding the Waterpocket Fold. The Waterpocket Fold is a 90-mile monoclinal flexure of the Earth's crust. Colorful sedimentary rocks ranging from the Permian Period to the Cretaceous Period make up the beautiful scenery of this area.

A monocline is a fold in the Earth's crust, where one flank of the fold is steeply inclined and the other is nearly flat. The Waterpocket Fold began forming between 70 and 50 million years ago, in response to North America's westward movement over the Pacific Ocean Plate. Tectonic stresses resulted in faulting and folding of the area, and Precambrian rocks were shoved upward approximately 7000 ft. This caused the overlying layers to passively drape irregularly over the area.

So what's the big deal with the Waterpocket Fold? When sandstones are exposed for long periods of time, rainwater dissolves the cement between sand grains. This process proceeds more rapidly where cement rims are composed of calcium carbonate. Where dissolution occurs, the sand grains are loosened and blown away by the wind. Rainwater becomes concentrated in depressions, creating waterpockets. These water pockets are created differently than tanks and potholes, making them unique. In this hot, barren desert, these water pockets are often the only source of water between storms.

There is a ton of cool geology to see in Capitol Reef. Right next to the visitor center is the stunning "Castle", that is worth taking a long look at! The scenic drive runs along the rim of the dipping strata making for stunning views. And make sure to keep an eye out for some of the famous waterpockets!

Park Information and Recommendations

Start your day off by checking out the visitor center, then make your way down to Fruita. If the store is open you'll want to be there first thing in the day to snag yourself a slice of pie or some fresh bread. Spend some time walking around and visiting the orchards, maybe you can even pick yourself up some fruit for a snack. After that sneak in a small hike, or take a walk on the Grand Wash Trail. Take some time on the parks scenic drives, if you have a 4WD or maybe a high clearance vehicle you'll have some more opportunities to explore here. Catch the sunset at Sunset Point and drive Notom-Bullfrog Road. I didn't get a chance to do that drive, but I do believe the park has a Geologic Driving Tour brochure of the area! Entrance fee is $30 per car (free with annual pass).

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park was another one of my favorite parks, and it is also the least visited park that we went to! Canyonlands sees less than 1 million visitors per year, but is well worth your time! This is another park that having 4WD or a higher clearance vehicle would be a good idea. A lot of this park remains a primitive back country park, with great hiking and fun 4WD exploring. This is also a "Dark Sky" park, meaning that the fun doesn't end in the day! At night the sky will light up and you'll see stars and the milky way like you have never seen before!


The centerpiece of this park is the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. This creates three different regions of the park, and the erosion from these rivers is what gives Canyonlands it's stunning views. It took somewhere between 2 and 6 million years for the rivers to cut the canyons here. The Island in the Sky district is the most visited part of this park and is home to many cool geological features, such as the Upheaval Dome.

Canyonlands showcases many sedimentary strata that are starting to become familiar from running through these parks! We see a bit of the Navajo Sandstone, down through the Kayenta and Windgate formations, then even further down to the Permian age Cedar Mesa Sandstone. These depositions tell the story of oceans, streams and deserts that once covered the area. Deposition effectively ended about 80 million years ago, and the buried sediments turned into rock. Tectonic forces then initiated uplift of the Colorado Plateau, and the rivers responded by eroding deep canyons.

The Upheaval Dome is a unique feature that is worth a visit for the Geology enthusiast! It is a 1.6 mile-wide circular depression. This can be viewed from several hikes, and is worth the effort to check it out. Layers of rocks in the core of the dome push the overlying formations to dip away steeply from the core, and this creates a large bullseye pattern. The origin of the dome is controversial, one idea is that it is a salt dome. If so, the tilted strata resulted from upward flow of a diapir. Another idea is that the Dome is a meteorite crater. Although no pieces of the meteorite have been found, geologists have found strained annealed quartz in the crater. Meteorites strike the Earth at speeds of 6 to 12 miles per second. They often shatter and vaporize. The energy they release pushes the ground outward into a crater, then after the instant of impact the Earth rebounds. Rock that was blasted outward slides back into the crater and leaving a ring shaped valley. Go take a look at it and decide for yourself what theory you believe!

There is plenty of geology to check out in each section of the park, from hiking the mazes and Upheaval Dome to rafting the rivers and viewing the layer cake in the cliffs!

Park Information and Recommendations

If you're up early, the quick hike up to Mesa Arch for sunrise is worth the effort! But the arch is an easy walk and great view no matter what time of day. The Island in the Sky visitor center is worth a stop, and right across from the visitor center is an amazing overlook of an 800ft deep natural amphitheater. Take a quick drive to Grand View Point, and take in a snack or a picnic! If you have 4WD, make sure to have some fun and cruise Shafer Canyon and the White Rim road! Last but not least, as a geology enthusiast make sure you take the time to hike Aztec Butte or Whale Rock Trail for views of the Upheaval Dome.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is one of the most popular parks in Utah, and sees about 1.7 million visitors per year. It's easy to see why it's so popular, especially since the intricate Delicate Arch is featured on the Utah license plate. This area contains the highest concentration of natural arches in the country, along with other unique features such as "fins" and balancing rocks!


Four Jurassic formations are responsible for most of the parks scenery. These are: the familiar Navajo Sandstone, Dewey Bridge Member of the Carmel Formation, the Slick Rock Member of the Entrada Sandstone, and the Moab Member of the Curtis Formation. From the visitor center to the Windows, the main road runs along the top of the Navajo Sandstone near its contact with the Dewey Bridge Member. Most of the main park attractions have been carved from the strata of the San Rafael Group. The Dewey Bridge Member form the base of most pinnacles, towers, and walls. In the Devils Garden, arches developed on horizontal seams within the massive Slick Rock Member. The light colored beds of he Moab Member form the top of the upper span of Delicate Arch.

The parks arches began in the Paradox Basin. The basin filled with seawater, and became almost landlocked about 40 times due to sea level fluctuations. When the basin was restricted, evaporation made its water so saturated with minerals that salt, potash, and gypsum precipitated onto the basins floor. The rock composed of these minerals are called evaporite. Salt can flow very slowly, and is less dense than overlaying rocks so it pushes upward to less confining pressure. This created a series of anticlines formed in beds overlaying the salt. Tectonic compression made these anticlines narrower and taller. As salt in the center of anticlines dissolved, it flowed to the center of the anticlines. The flanks gradually lost its support, and some of it caved in, forming the jointed rock fins prominent in the park. Arches are amazing features, and they form in a unique way. When horizontal bedding planes in rock fins are attacked by weathering and erosion, they start to form the arches. One of the most readily exploited planes of weakness is the contact between the Dewey Bridge and Slick Rock members. Slightly acidic groundwater percolates along this plane dissolving calcite cement and releasing the sand and silt grains. Over time, the fin is breached and a small opening is created. Gravity induced fractures develop in the unsupported sandstone above the breach, allowing blocks to fall and increase the size of the opening. This continues to grow and become its characteristic shape.

Arches NP is the perfect place for the geology enthusiast to run and play! Gaze in wonder at the spectacular arches, find your balance by the Balanced Rock, and be sure to check out the very cool "petrified sand dunes".

Park Information and Recommendations

You can't visit Arches NP without seeing the Delicate Arch! It is the most popular hike in the park, and parking spaces are limited so if you can get there early it's worth it! If the hike is "closed" like it was for us, you can always continue down the road a little ways to the two viewpoints. Bring some binoculars or a camera with a long lens, as it's a bit further than it looks! Take a scenic drive to the Windows section, which holds four arches with easy hikes to get up close and personal with them. If you have time, hike into the Devils Garden! This area contains more arches than any other section of the park, and is worth planning your time around.

Utah Places

Other Cool Places to Check out

There are a ton of cool places to check out in the area of the parks, I'm just going to list a few here! I didn't get a chance to check them all out, but if you want to spend more time exploring the area tag me so I can see them! The ones we visited are in bold, so you can know they have a stamp of approval from me!

  • Bingham Canyon Mine visitor center (closed in 2020 for Covid)
  • Bonneville Salt Flats
  • Kanarraville Slot Canyon (permit required)
  • Gunlock State Park
  • Snow Canyon State Park
  • Grafton Ghost Town
  • Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
  • Peek-a-Boo Slot Canyon
  • Little Hollywood Movie Set Museum
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante
  • The Wave (permit required)
  • Zebra Slot Canyon (be sure to do your research, we were surprised!)
  • Monument Valley
  • Natural Bridges National Monument
  • Dead Horse State Park
  • Goblin Valley State Park
  • Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry
  • Diamond Fork Hot Spring (closed in 2020 for Covid)
  • Timpanogos Cave National Monument
  • Looking Glass Rock
  • Gemini Bridges Area
  • Moab Giants

Tips & Tricks

Here is a list of some tips and tricks that I learned along the way!

  • Buy the "America the Beautiful" parks pass! It's $80 for a whole year, and you'll earn your money worth by visiting just 2 of the parks on this list
  • You can fly into Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, depending on what activities you are wanting to do
  • I recommend spending at least 7 days visiting the parks and surrounding areas, of course you can add more or take away some depending on your plans
  • These parks are pretty popular, so if you are wanting to stay in the park be sure to book campsites and lodges well in advance
  • Stay at the places closest to the park you are planning on visiting the NEXT day. I know after a long day of hiking and exploring you don't want to get in the car and drive a few hours, but it is worth it to be able to get into the parks first thing in the morning
  • Try to get into the parks before 10 am. Many times the heat comes on quickly during the day and can make hiking difficult and tiring
  • September- early November are the best times to visit these parks. The weather is cooler for hiking, snow usually hasn't come yet, there is a few less visitors, and many of the park facilities are still open

Sources & Recommended Reading

Most of the geology details listed here came from Geology Unfolded and Roadside Geology of Utah! Check out these books and other books I recommend:

  • Geology Unfolded - Morris, Ritter, Laycock
  • Roadside Geology of Utah - Williams, L. Chronic, H. Chronic
  • USA National Parks Guide - Moon
  • Geology of National Parks - Harris, Tuttle

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