Southern Utah’s national parks feature inconceivable landscapes that seem like one ginormous playground, with wild rock formations to clamber upon, canyons to squeeze into, creeks to splash in and a variable level of adventure that can be easily tailored to every family's needs.
Best Regions for Kids
Particularly good for families, with free shuttle buses, great ranger programs, river access and all levels of hikes and adrenaline-piqued activities.
Moab is awash in things to do: mountain biking, lazy river floats, white-water rafting and guided rock climbing. Arches is fabulous for families while Canyonlands appeals to adventure-loving teens.
Kids will love finding resemblances in the hoodoos; a free park shuttle makes navigation hassle-free. There are also astronomy programs, guided full-moon hikes and horseback rides.
- Grand Staircase–Escalante
Rugged Escalante is best for teens with outdoors experience, though adventurous youngsters will also enjoy squeezing through slots.
- Capitol Reef
Earn a junior geologist badge at the Ripple Rock Nature Center, then visit pick-your-own-fruit orchards.
- Public Lands
Beyond the national parks there's a huge array of adventures to be had on Utah's public lands, national forests and state parks. Generally, you will need fit kids with a strong sense of adventure in the more remote backcountry.
Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks for Kids
The desert can be a magical experience, though expect it to be relatively physical and hands-on. Make sure to budget for some special activities – canyoneering, horseback riding, rafting and the like – in order to break up the time spent driving, posing for family photos at scenic viewpoints and (not again!) hiking.
Parents will often find themselves trying to balance risk and reward: how much room should you be giving your children to climb around and explore this amazing place, and when should you be stepping in to ensure their safety? Planning a ranger-led walk or a guided activity early on in your trip can be a good opportunity for kids to learn responsible behavior from a local expert, rather than the in-one-ear-out-the-other warnings of Mom or Dad.
- Angels Landing, Zion The iconic hike will probably take the kids all day, but the views from the top are worth it.
- Navajo Loop–Queen’s Garden Combination Trail, Bryce Canyon Bryce's most traveled trail has tunnels through rock walls and plenty of named formations to explore.
- Delicate Arch, Arches OK, it's just breathtaking, and kids will love playing on the sandstone lunar landscape.
- Rafting Great throughout the state. For an easy family-friendly paddle, try the Sevier River.
- Mountain Biking Moab has plenty of trails that are easy enough for the whole family. Stick to trails rated as green.
- Canyoneering Whether you are doing a slightly technical slot or just visiting one of Zion's heavily trafficked canyons, kids just love the adventure.
Note that the minimum age for kids is usually seven or 10 years old. Trips range from one hour to full-day treks.
- Canyon Trail Rides, Zion Ride on the Sand Bench Trail along the Virgin River.
- Canyon Trail Rides, Bryce Canyon Short trips to the canyon floor or a half-day ride through dramatic hoodoos.
- Red Canyon Trail Rides, Bryce Canyon Ride on private and public lands outside Bryce, including Red Canyon.
- Scenic Rim Trail Rides, Red Canyon Head out to Thunder Mountain and other locations.
- Hell's Backbone Ranch & Trails, Boulder Perfect for starring in your own Western.
- Hondoo Rivers & Trails, Torrey Long-running guide service offering Capitol Reef–area rides.
- Red Cliffs Lodge, Moab Gorgeous scenery north of Moab in Castle Valley.
In the desert, kids will love cooling off and splashing around in the many rivers and reservoirs around Southern Utah. Never enter a creek or river if there is a chance of a flash flood. Storms can be miles away and completely out of sight; check the day's forecast and remain vigilant.
- Zion Wade in the Virgin River, hike part of the Narrows or float downstream on a tube when water levels are high enough.Great even for young swimmers, but bring a PFD (personal flotation device).
- Moab Canoe or raft down the Colorado or Green Rivers outside of town. Guides run both flatwater and white-water trips. Flatwater trips are good for all ages; white water is better for stronger swimmers.
- Capitol Reef Both Pleasant Creek and Sulphur Creek offer delightful spots for wading. Great for any age.
- Escalante Petrified Forest State Park Has a small reservoir for swimming; located off Hwy 12.
- Lake Powell Explore this massive reservoir by houseboat, kayak or canoe. Kids will love exploring lost canyons, wakeboarding and sliding down the slide of the houseboat.
- Little Hollywood Land, Kanab Western movie sets, costume shop and mock gunfights.
- Children's Museum, St George Fun, hands-on museum; best for ages two to 10.
- Dinosaur Discovery Site, St George Huge collection of fossilized tracks.
- Petroglyphs Native American sites abound in southern Utah, though locations are not always advertised – ask at park visitor centers for more information.
- Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab Animal lovers will adore this rescue center, one of the largest in the country: take a tour, spend the night or volunteer.
- Bryce Wildlife Adventure Displays dioramas of over 800 animals from around the world and live fallow deer, as well as Indian artifacts and butterfly and giant-bug exhibits.
Cycling & Mountain Biking
You can rent bikes and car racks in several park gateway towns.
- Zion Canyon Scenic Drive A fun bike ride in reverse; whenever you get tired, just hop on the park shuttle (maximum two bicycles per bus).
- Pa’rus Trail, Zion This is one of the few park trails open to bikes.
- Bryce Canyon A paved recreational cycling path running from the middle of Bryce to Red Canyon.
- Capitol Reef Head along the scenic drive for cool river views.
- Bar-M Loop, Arches If the older kids are itching to go off-road, try out this mountain-biking trail outside Moab.
- Snow Canyon State Park, St George You can bike down the main road or take a gravel 'mountain bike' trail through the desert.
- Zion Easy destinations include the hanging gardens of Emerald Pools and Riverside Walk. More challenging walks include plunging into the river on the Narrows, exploring Hidden Canyon and the famously exposed climb up to Angels Landing.
- Snow Canyon State Park Explore the desert landscape, with petrified sand dunes, real sand dunes and ancient lava tubes to climb down into.
- Bryce Canyon Descend into the canyon on Queen's Garden trail, enjoy cool Mossy Cave or give a 1600-year-old tree a hug on the Bristlecone Loop.
- Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument Better suited to older kids; hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls or try squeezing into the slot canyons on Willis Creek.
- Capitol Reef Spot petroglyphs along Capitol Gorge and pass giant domes and a towering arch at Hickman Bridge.
- Arches Most of the classic hikes here are family friendly, including Landscape Arch, Delicate Arch and Sand Dune & Broken Arches.
- Canyonlands Pass an abandoned cowboy camp at Cave Spring or watch for passing condors at Grand View Point.
- Goblin Valley State Park Melted rock formations turn into goblins before your eyes.
- Traveling with children, especially during summer in southern Utah, means taking it easy. The hot sun, dry climate and occasionally high altitude can quickly turn into sunburn, dehydration and fatigue.
- Break up long car journeys with frequent stops; be realistic and try not to jam too much activity into the day.
- Remember that the best times for outdoor activities in summer are early in the morning or late afternoon.
- Keep in mind that most of southern Utah’s park gateway towns do not have large supermarkets or chain stores. Plan ahead and stock up on supplies for babies and toddlers at the start of your trip in urban areas like St George, Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.
- For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
Hotels and motels typically offer rooms with two beds, which are ideal for families. Some have cribs and rollaway beds, sometimes for a minimal fee (usually portable cribs that may not work for all children). Ask about suites, adjoining rooms and appliances such as microwaves and refrigerators. Some hotels offer 'kids stay free' deals for children up to 12, and sometimes up to 18. Many B&Bs do not allow children, so ask before booking.
If it's late and you just need to crash, you should be able to find a national chain without a problem. Motel 6 and Super 8 are the least expensive, while Hilton is at the high end of the scale.
No trip to Utah's national parks would be complete without at least one night in a tent – most kids love it. Make sure you look for a campground that has designated fire rings so that you can have the obligatory campfire and trip-highlight s'mores. Seasonal fire restrictions in the West are very serious and not all campgrounds allow fires, so do some research ahead of time. If you do plan on camping, do note that you won't be alone. Campsites are much harder to find than hotel rooms, particularly in national parks. Reserve ahead of time to avoid spending hours fruitlessly searching for an open site. Most parks have at least one first-come, first-served campground, if you can marshal the troops to hit the road early enough, show up around 8am, wait for somebody to leave and cross your fingers you get there first. If you don't mind primitive sites, ask rangers about free dispersed camping on nearby BLM (Bureau of Land Management, i.e. public) land.
Games & Activities for the Car
- 52 Fun Things to Do in a Car by Lynn Gordon – a deck of cards, each with a different game or activity
- Best Travel Activity Book Ever – coloring and pencil games book, published by Rand McNally
- Kids’ Road Atlas – educational fun for older kids, also from Rand McNally
- Kids Travel: A Backseat Survival Kit – spiral-bound all-in-one activity guide, from the Klutz editors
- Mad Libs – classic fill-in-the-blank word game, now available as an iPhone app
- Regal Travel Auto Bingo Game Card – old-fashioned sliding-window bingo cards, just like when you were a kid
- TravelMates: Fun Games Kids Can Play in the Car or on the Go – No Materials Needed by Story Evans and Lise O’Haire – out of print, but worth tracking down, especially if you’ve got more than one child
Fun Stuff for Families
Online, check out the ‘For Kids’ section of each national park’s website. Southern Utah’s best outdoor opportunities range from hikes for the little ‘uns to canyoneering challenges for teens.
Many ranger-led programs and activities are appropriate for all ages and don’t usually require reservations. Otherwise, book well in advance for backcountry hiking and camping permits, guided activities and tours (especially canyoneering classes and river-rafting trips), as well as educational field trips and volunteer opportunities offered by the parks’ nonprofit natural history associations.
A final word of advice: try not to squeeze too much in. Endless hours in the car rushing from overlook to overlook, sight to sight, can result in grumpy, tired kids and frustrated parents. After a while, canyon views start to look alike, and the trip can become a blur. Stop often and stay flexible.
Indoor Family Fun
Let’s face it: sometimes summer in southern Utah is just too darn hot. But you don’t have to stay inside your hotel room just to keep cool. It’s the perfect excuse to try some of those indoor activities and attractions you otherwise might have missed.
Inside the parks, the Zion Nature Center and Capitol Reef’s Ripple Rock Nature Center offer great indoor activities for kids during summer, including special ranger-led programs. Or hide out for a while in the Zion Lodge or the Bryce Canyon Lodge, which have cozy common areas where kids can curl up with a good book or the whole family can play cards or board games. Zion’s Human History Museum has indoor exhibits and shows a short, family-friendly park orientation movie, as do most other national park visitor centers.
You’ll find much more to do on rainy days in gateway towns outside the parks. In St George, the Dinosaur Discovery Site is a cool place for kids to see real fossils, including dinosaur tracks. So is the Bryce Wildlife Adventure, with its stuffed wildlife dioramas. Moqui Cave near Kanab and Hole ‘n the Rock outside Moab are both shameless tourist traps, but fun nonetheless (not to mention cooler inside). You’ll find movie theaters in St George, Moab, Springdale, Kanab and the tiny town of Bicknell, northwest of Capitol Reef.
Junior Ranger Programs & Nature Centers
All of southern Utah’s national parks offer junior ranger programs (www.nps.gov/learn), which focus on do-it-yourself activity books that kids can complete to get a special certificate and the all-important junior ranger badge. Of course, there’s no age limit, and even adults can learn something and have fun doing the activities with their kids. For younger children, easier activity sheets may be available.
Most parks have free ranger-led educational activities and short walks during the peak season. Zion, for example, features such talks as Amazing Animals, Wild Waters, Eco Explorers, Gigantic Geology and even Music Makers. Evening family programs, scheduled after dinner, are usually a hit.
Also look for nature centers. In summer, Zion offers a drop-off junior ranger program at the Zion Nature Center, where children join instructor-led activities, hikes and games. Capitol Reef has its own Ripple Rock Nature Center, which hosts ranger-led programs for kids; borrow a free activity backpack for families here or at the park’s main visitor center. Canyonlands also lets families borrow activity-based ‘Explorer Packs.’
Winter Sports for Families
In winter, Bryce Canyon is a magical place for families to go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, with more trails nearby in Red Canyon; rental equipment is available from Ruby’s Inn. The La Sal Mountains outside Moab are also popular for snow sports. The only downhill (alpine) skiing in southern Utah is at Brian Head, a family-friendly resort offering equipment rentals, lessons and a snow-tubing park.