The Grand Circle: What It Is; Where It Is; and Why You Should Visit It

The Grand Circle encompasses 10 National Parks that are all near each other and are all vastly beautiful.

The Grand Circle is located in the Four Corners region of the US and covers most of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and a small bit of Nevada. All of this region is gorgeous and worth a visit, but the many National Parks that are in this region are some of the most visited and some of the most photogenic. The National Parks that are in this area are Black Canyon of The Gunnison, Mesa Verde, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, and Great Basin. Each of these National Parks is very unique even though some of them are less than 100 miles apart.

  1. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park - Although it is one of the least visited National Parks in the Grand Circle, it offers some of the best canyon views and the steepest drops in America. The canyon has been almost unexplored for centuries because of its length and depth. Not even the early Ute Indians dared to travel through the canyon. The National Park has one very nice campground on the south rim of the canyon that offers many amenities including RV sites. This park is also one of the best places to see the stars and the Milky Way. The National Park rangers hold many night sky events and can identify many constellations.     
  2. Mesa Verde National Park - This National Park is home to some of the best preserved cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people from more than 1400 years ago. The park offers many guided tours to visit these cliff dwellings as well as other hikes that are not guided. If you do not want to hike, there is also a great scenic drive that takes you through the National Park. Along the scenic drive, there are many pull-offs and small hikes to old native dwellings. The National Park runs one campground with many amenities and one fairly priced lodge as well as a restaurant. This park is also home to many species of large animals such as elk, black bears, mountain lions, and many species of birds. 
  3. The Petrified Forest National Park - Although one of the smallest, this park is also one of the easiest to get to in the Grand Circle. This park is right off of I-40, so it has easy access and makes for a beautiful park to drive through. Like the Black Canyon, the Petrified Forest has an easy scenic drive that takes you through the Painted Desert. There are many pull-offs as well as areas for short or long hikes through what once used to be a large forest and is now reduced to amber-colored fossils of the logs. There are no campgrounds or lodges in this National Park; however, there are a few visitor centers and gift shops as well as a small cafe.                          
  4. The Grand Canyon National Park - This park is one of the most visited in the nation, so it is always crowded and always has lots of traffic. Fortunately, there are many campgrounds, visitor centers, hotels, lodges, and restaurants on the South Rim which is the most visited so the crowds are spread out over a good distance. Throughout the park along the rim, there are many overlooks and small hikes that allow for viewing of the canyon. Every one of the overlooks offers a different view or perspective of the National Park so they are all good to stop at and look around. There is a small scenic drive out of or into the South Rim of the park heading east that leads to a watch tower that goes up over the canyon and offers great panoramic views of the canyon. There are also many opportunities for going down into the canyon. Whether you are going to hike it from rim to rim or take a long backpacking trip through the canyon, it is all beautiful and well worth your time. You can also go rafting down the Colorado River through the canyon. 
  5. Zion National Park - Zion has a very unique topography and can get overcrowded because of the narrow canyon walls. There is very limited driving in the park. Because of the traffic the National Park Service only allows for a trolley to run up the valley beyond the lodge. There are nine total stops along the trolley route. Zion offers many spectacular hikes and views. Some of the most popular hikes are Angel's Landing, The Narrows, and The Subway. In the National Park there is one campground that has several amenities and one small lodge with nice rooms. 
  6. Bryce Canyon National Park - Even though this park is located so close to Zion National Park, its landscape is completely different. Bryce Canyon National Park stands tall with the highest point at 9000 feet. This elevation makes it perfect for hiking year round and is also great for winter photography. There are many reasons to go to Bryce Canyon, but one of the main attractions is rock formations such as the Hoodoos and Arches. There are three campsites in Bryce Canyon with plenty of amenities which make for a perfect place for a long camping trip or RV trip. Also in the park is a lodge and a motel; both are very nice and decently priced. The National Park runs one restaurant inside the park, but there are also many other places to eat within a twenty minute drive from the hotel. Although this park gets 1.5 million visitors a year, it never really feels too crowded because many of the hikes and activities are spread out. To see the canyon if you only have a short bit of time, there is the scenic drive which features many parts of the canyon as it climbs around the rim. 
  7. Capitol Reef National Park - This National Park is one of the most underrated in Utah; however, it is one of my favorites and one of the best in Utah to visit. The park itself is quite large, but the area that most people see is only a small portion of the park. The easiest part of the park to get to is an area known as Fruita, a historic settlement town next to the river. Another main visited area in Capitol Reef is the scenic drive out of Fruita. The road runs parallel to the massive canyon wall making it perfect for photography and hiking. Along the scenic drive are also some of the most popular hikes including Cassidy Arch and the Grand Wash. One area of the park that is not visited much is called the Cathedral Valley. The only way to access Cathedral Valley is with a high clearance four-wheel-drive and can sometimes become impassable in the rain. The National Park runs one campground near Fruita which has minimal RV hookups and no showers. This park is very unique because it acts as a natural oasis. With the river nearby, it is a perfect area for an orchard. In the National Park they grow apricots and some other fruits for your enjoyment. The orchards are open for self-picking. When the fruit is in season, it costs only one dollar per pound, so it is perfect for grabbing a snack. 
  8. Arches National Park - Aptly named, this park is known for some of the best arch formations in the world and also has some of the best stargazing and unique photography opportunities. This park is very closely located to the town of Moab which is a large town and has a lot of places to eat and many hotels as well as places to camp. In the National Park there are hundreds of hiking trails as well as a small scenic drive through the park that takes you near a few of the arches. One of the easiest and most popular hikes is the .2 mile hike to the North Window Arch which is also great for Milky Way photography. The National Park Service runs one small campground that has minimal amenities and no RV hookups. If you are looking for a place to camp or stay in an RV, the nearby KOA in the town of Moab is a great place to stay and has everything you need and more. 
  9. Canyonlands National Park - Canyonlands offers a wide range of things to do and to see. There are many miles of scenic driving; some are paved and some require a  four-wheel-drive. There are also many options for hiking and biking in this park. The hiking trails can be anything from a small overlook to a multi-day backpacking trip. There are two National Park-run campgrounds that are first come, first served and have no hookups or amenities. The closest area for lodging and dining is Moab on the north side and Monticello on the south side. In the park there is also the unique opportunity to go rafting but this is only offered through private companies, not through the National Park. 
  10. Great Basin National Park - The only National Park in Nevada, Great Basin is also one of the least visited in the country. The fact that it is one of the least visited makes it one of my favorite National Parks because you can hike all day and never see a single person. This park is also home the some of the most unique trees and cave creatures in the world. The cave system known as Lehman caves is home to three species that do not exist anywhere else in the world as well as cave formations that are only at the Great Basin National Park. The park is also home to some of the oldest trees in the world, known as Bristlecone pine trees. These trees grow at elevations of 11000 to 12000 feet, so it makes for a nice scenic hike on the way to the trees. One of the other most popular hikes is the Alpine Lake trail which is perfect for a half day hike and takes you by two gorgeous small lakes that are an emerald-blue color through the summer. The National Park runs a few campgrounds with about 100 first come, first served sites, but they mostly never fill up. There is a very small town nearby that has two motels and two restaurants, as well as one gas station. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Jared BeelerExplorer

Avid Hiker and Photographer from East Tennessee. I enjoy hiking and camping in the smoky mountains and blue ridge mountains.