The Ultimate Utah National Parks Road Trip
With so many spectacular national parks, a Utah National Parks road trip is the ideal way to experience the state’s most magnificent scenery and outdoor adventures, with countless breathtaking moments along the way.
Utah is home to what some refer to as the “Mighty Five”, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Canyonlands, along with fantastic state parks and legendary places like Monument Valley, one of the most enduring images of the American West, where massive red sandstone monoliths tower hundreds of feet above the desert floor.
This road trip itinerary will bring you to witness all of it and then some. If you have extra time you should also check out these breathtaking places to visit in Utah beyond the National Parks.
The Ultimate Utah National Parks Road Trip
Where to Begin
Kick off your adventure by flying into Salt Lake City International Airport. You might want to hang out in the city for a couple of days to pick up provisions and sample the surprisingly impressive beer scene.
It’s exploded with microbreweries over the past decade, and there’s plenty of delicious food too, including Modern Family actor Ty Burrell’s Beer Bar where you can enjoy a pint with house-made brats and Belgian-style fries.
Arches National Park
When you’re ready to hit the road, set the first destination on your GPS to Arches National Park, 230 miles southeast. While this will be one of the longer days on the highway, the reward is well-worth the drive. If you want to find out about the movies filmed in the area, stop in nearby Moab to visit the Moab Museum of Film and then get out and experience some of the scenes you’ve probably seen on screen. There are actually plenty of things to do in Moab, Utah’s base camp for adventure times. For those of you who have a few extra days I definitely recommend lingering a bit longer here.
The park is famous for its more than 2,000 sandstone arches, towering pinnacles and massive balanced rocks that teeter on pedestals. It looks as if a breath could tip them over. The colors create an even more enchanting landscape with scarlet reds, brilliant oranges, pinks, purples, browns and even the occasional splash of turquoise.
The best way to explore it is to get out on foot, there are plenty of hikes around arches park. Delicate Arch, one of the most iconic in the world, can be seen by hiking the Delicate Arch trail, which is just over three miles round trip. Traveling the 18-mile Arches Scenic Drive, you’ll be able to see many of the park’s highlights, while watching for wildlife like mule deer, bighorn sheep and bald eagles.
Canyonlands National Park
Just 26 miles from Arches, Canyonlands is a favorite among outdoor enthusiasts, with opportunities to hike, mountain bike, kayak and raft. The Island in the Sky section of the park is easily accessible and offers lots of overlooks for capturing photos along with miles and miles of scenic trails.
If you’ve got the time, head to the more remote Horseshoe Canyon area where you can hike a 3.6-mile trail to the “Great Gallery, a rock art panel that’s considered to be one of the most well-preserved collections of Barrier Canyon style rock art, with detailed designs surrounded by animal depictions on the sandstone walls. Just outside the park’s boundary is Dead Horse Point State Park. If you can time your visit to arrive just before dusk, you can watch the sun go down across a panorama of dramatic cliffs.
Heading south and then west toward the Arizona border, a 138-mile drive will bring you to Monument Valley, where time and the elements have caved those awe-inspiring red sandstone monoliths that are dotted across the landscape, many of which rise hundreds of feet into the almost always bright blue skies. You’ll feel like you’re driving through a classic Hollywood western, but the colors are even more vivid.
The only self-guided hike for an up-close view of the monuments is the 4-mile loop Wildcat Trail, which passes the area’s most famous rock buttes, Mitten and Merrick. Half- and full-day Jeep tours led by a Navajo guide provide more of an in-depth look.
From Monument Valley, you can visit one of the most photographed slot canyons on the planet, Antelope Canyon, about a 124-mile drive away in the Navajo Indian Reservation near Page, Arizona. A tour requires a Navajo guide who will share the history and geology of the canyon fiery red sandstone canyon and its flowing rocks.
As you’re so close to the Grand Canyon, with the main entrance 112 miles away, you might want to squeeze in one more national park. The most famous of all of the Utah National parks on this road trip and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the colorful canyon is a mile deep and 277 miles in length with an average width of 10 miles.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Venture north again, a little over 250 miles from the Grand Canyon or 150 miles from Page, to Bryce Canyon, one of the most breathtaking sights in the American southwest.
Beautifully carved arches and towers, along with thousands of hoodoos, which look like trees made of stone, can be seen across the landscape. The most famous can be viewed by heading to Bryce Amphitheater along the park’s main road. It has overlooks at Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Sunset Point and Sunrise Point – any of which are magical at sunrise or sunset.
Zion National Park
Traveling further west for 72 miles, you’ll discover Zion, home to some of the Southwest’s most remarkable vistas and hiking trails.
The diverse landscape includes everything from dramatic cliffs and valleys to deserts, waterfalls and unique rock formations. The Narrows is legendary, a gorge with walls that soar more than a thousand feet high, enclosing a river, that can be up to 30 feet wide soon after the snow melt. You can view it by taking the paved Riverside Walk, an easy one-mile trek that leads from the Temple of Sinawava. For a bigger challenge, continue through the Virgin River, which might involve some wading through the water.
The best way to end your time in Zion is to take scenic Kolob Canyons Road which leads to a viewpoint of the finger canyon. The easy, one-mile roundtrip Timber Creek Overlook Trail here brings a stunning view from the top of the ridgeline and is even more beautiful at sunset. If you want to spend some more time exploring there are plenty of places to stay around Zion.
Capitol Reef National Park
Finally, as you venture back north toward where it all began, a 174-mile drive will bring you to Capitol Reef National Park, the “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow,” as the Navajos call it.
The park’s crown jewel is Waterpocket Fold, the geologic feature that defines it, looking as if it was a coral reef turned inside out. A premier example of the folding and bending of rock layers, its most notable for its many layers of carved, colorful sedimentary rock. You can also see petroglyphs carved into the sandstone formations which depict animals, people and other forms revealing the Fremont culture’s hunter/gatherer existence.
From Capitol Reef, Salt Lake City is 218 miles north, but you might want to make one last stop to explore Timpanogas Cave National Monument with its colorfully decorated caverns in American Fork Canyon. A guided tour, available mid-May through mid-October, will bring you along a steep 1.5-mile trail to the entrance.
Which was your favorite on this Utah National Parks Road Trip? Or have you got another one to add? Let me know in the comments below.
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