Utah National Parks Road Trip

Utah has been on my bucket list for about as long as I have lived in the United States, with Bryce Canyon being my number one spot to visit. It wasn’t until I met my boyfriend that I realized there are more National Parks worth exploring and all completely do-able in five days. Utah is definitely an adventure enthusiast’s paradise. Hiking, climbing, biking, remote epic landscapes and arches and canyons all around with something for everyone. Utah blew my mind! We visited Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park all in one big epic week long road trip. This is the “Mighty Five” National Park Utah Road trip itinerary we used, a complete guide to an epic Utah road trip, including where to stay in Utah, where to eat and what to do in each National Park.


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Start and End Road Trip Spots

If you’re not already in Utah, you’ll want to fly into one of the main starting points, namely Salt Lake City’s airport or Las Vegas’ airport. Depending on your city of origin, flight options, budget, etc., you would have to determine which airport works out best for you. We flew out of Boston, and I had to fly back to Florida, so Salt Lake City ended up working cheaper than Las Vegas. You would have to work out which option is best for yourself, but these road trip details would still work. For Las Vegas, you could just do the itinerary in reverse starting with Zion and ending in Moab and having a long drive back to Vegas or head all the way to Moab first. Alternatively, you could start your trip in Salt Lake and end in Vegas. However, you would incur extra fees on your car rental for different destination points. Salt Lake worked out well for us given our flights and times, and we got to spend an afternoon exploring the city at the end of the trip too. You could also start from Arizona and include Monument Valley and the Wave, but that’s a trip for another time for me! Here is a map of our route:

If you are in the planning stages of your trip, and need ideas on how to get the most out of your trip, what to pack, how to prepare, etc. I also have another post filled with tips and advice for making your road trip in Utah easier and more memorable.

Day One: Salt Lake City to Moab

We flew into Salt Lake City late the night before, arriving at around 10 pm, so we got a hotel for the night in Salt Lake and then began our journey to Moab the following morning. We opted to take the scenic route to Moab from SL with a stop in Helper for lunch. Helper is a small historic town which traces its roots back to a railroad town and then a coal mining town. We ate at Balance Rock Eatery and Pub where their homemade chips are AMAZING! We then continued on our journey to Moab. We used the 128 scenic route, going around the East side of Arches. This allowed us to drive alongside the Colorado River where there are many camping sites, lookouts and beautiful parts of Utah to take in. We finally pulled into Moab where we could rest of the night before exploring Arches the next day.

Where to stay in Moab: Hampton Inn, Moab

Where to eat in Moab:

Day Two: Arches National Park

Arches National Park quickly became one of our favorite national parks, not that I’ve been to as many as my boyfriend, but I can foresee this being a favorite or top five for a long time to come. With a multitude of landforms, some 2,000 natural stone arches, and hundreds of other out of this world geological features, Arches is an incredible place to explore. You genuinely feel that you’re on another planet. The park is a very short drive from Moab and a particularly busy park. I would recommend starting your day early in the morning, to beat the crowds on the trails.

Things to see and do in Arches National Park

Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch is probably the most famous arch in the world, and it is not hard to see why. Spanning 32 feet wide and 46 feet high, Delicate Arch is a complete wonder to behold. Located at the top of an equally stunning lookout, Delicate Arch is what makes Arches National Park famous around the world, and features on the Utah license plate. There are a couple of options to see this arch: two different short lookout points or you can head out on the trail to see it up close and personal, standing underneath the 46 ft high archway. The hike to Delicate Arch is not strenuous, although it is a steady uphill of 480 ft, and is 3 miles round trip. On your way, you can visit the Wolfe Ranch cabin and petroglyphs. This is a very busy trail, so I recommend getting their early to find parking at the trailhead - otherwise, you will have to park further down and add two miles onto your trip.


Landscape Arch

The second arch we visited was Landscape Arch. While not as iconic as Delicate, Landscape Arch spans 306 ft and is only 11 ft thick at the center. The hike is 1.6 miles round trip and very easy - there are no elevations, and the pathway is flat. The trailhead is at Devil’s Garden.

Double Arch

Even though Delicate Arch is genuinely mesmerizing, Double Arch may just have been my favorite. It is a super short hike (0.5 miles roundtrip), and can even be seen from the parking lot. Double Arch is, in fact, two arch spans that are joined together. My boyfriend had a lot of fun climbing up these walls and convinced me to attempt my first little rock climb. I was petrified and shaking, but I did it and got the shot to prove it. This entire trip in some way became about facing some fears and being more adventurous then I would typically be, and trusting my Merrels!

Day Three: Moab to Canyonlands National Park to Torrey

If you think that five national parks in Utah would all be very similar and you’ll totally get bored, you are mistaken. A mere 30-minute drive from Moab is Canyonlands National Park. This beautiful park is made up of four different districts, filled with canyons, buttes, mesas, fins, arches, spires and just beautiful landscapes (my geography teacher’s dream). It looks and feels entirely different from the landscape of Arches. The four districts, however, are not actually linked, and it would take 2 - 6 hours by car to access one from another. Most visitors on a road trip like us visit the Island in the Sky District. It is the most accessible district and is aptly named. You literally feel as if you are on an island in the sky.

What to do in Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky District):

Grand View Point

Our first stop was a walk to Grand View Point. Grandview Point is a 15-minute drive from the visitor center and boasts an incredible view of the Canyonlands area. At 6,080 feet high, you see mountains, canyons, and basins spread out in front of you, along with some chipmunk friends to admire the view. From the parking lot, there is a short walk to the first lookout point, which is paved. You want to continue the hike another mile or so to the end of the cliff to take in more spectacular views. Round trip the trail is 2 miles.

Mesa Arch

Next, we headed to Mesa Arch, an easy 0.5 mile round trip hike. This one is a popular one, primarily because it is beautiful and so easily accessible. The arch is spectacularly placed, almost like a stone arch window where you can see out towards the La Sal Mountains in the distance, and includes views of more canyons and rock spires. It is hugely popular at sunrise, and busy throughout the day.

Shafer Point

This is a lookout point for Shafer Canyon. There is a short trail that you can walk on for other views, but this one is pretty spectacular. The view is of a winding road full of switchbacks. We watched a 4x4 travel down this one - slowly!

After visiting Canyonlands, we drove to Torrey so that we were just outside of Capitol Reef, about a two-hour drive. From Canyonlands to Torrey, you actually drive through the park, so you get a taste for it before settling down for the night. We had a meal in Torrey and then got a good nights sleep, ready for another day of exploring in our third national park.

Where to eat in Torrey:

Day Four: Capitol Reef National Park to Henrieville (via Grand Staircases Escalante)

Capitol Reef National Park feels like a little treasure sandwiched into the land somewhere between Canyonlands and Bryce National Park. While we weren’t so sure that the “Capitol” really reflected the Capitol building in DC, we could certainly see why the added “reef” was included in the name of the park. The geological structures we got to be intimately close with here were truly incredible. We got to walk through canyons and gorges, observe petroglyphs and Pioneer writings, and climb arches and tanks. Capitol Reef really is an overlooked treasure in the Mighty Five.

Things to do in Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Gorge (The Tanks and Pioneer Registration)

Capitol Gorge trail is a 3.2-mile round trip hike and relatively easy. Picture walking through a deep canyon with petroglyphs and pioneer writings on either side. Just being able to walk through a sandy gorge is lovely enough. There is minimal elevation gain unless you want to explore the tanks. The tanks are water pockets carved into rocks. This was one of my favorite parts of Capitol Reef and our entire trip. Even the scenic route to get there is mind-blowing. Some of it is a dirt road, but easily accessible if you don’t have a low suspension car.

Hickman Bridge (see the Capitol Dome)

Hickman Bridge is another archway we visited on our road trip. It is a 1.8-mile round trip (though for me I could have sworn it was longer). It is a bit more difficult than the Capitol Gorge Trail, with an elevation of 400 ft. Hickman Bridge is a 133 ft wide natural arch bridge and offers views of the surrounding landscape and canyon. You can also get a good view of the dome that the park is named after, Capitol Dome. It doesn’t really look the same in my opinion, but you know, that’s its name now. It was quite hot when we did this hike, as it was later in the day and there is very little shade until you reach the bridge itself. There is very little shade in most of the parks, so for a ginger like me, I was straining a little bit.

Petroglyphs

Through Capitol Reef are petroglyphs carved into the canyon and gorge walls by the ancestors of the Hopi Tribe, Pueblo fo Zuni, and Paiute Tribe over 2,000 years ago.

Cassidy Arch

I’m adding a fourth stop here because it was one that we had planned to do but unfortunately got mixed up and then ran out of time. Cassidy Arch is a 3.4 mile trip to a natural arch that you can actually walk across. We were super excited to do this, as none of the arches so far you were allowed to climb, but unfortunately, we mixed it up with Hickman Bridge, and it was too late by the time we realized. I was also nursing a blister and a sore ankle (plus frayed nerves from the boyfriend’s antics of climbing up and over tank archways for the gram).

Insane drive through Grand Staircase Escalante

From Capitol Reef, we continued to Henrieville, just outside of Tropic, for our overnight visit before heading to Bryce Canyon National Park. The drive from Capitol Reef to Henrieville is also two hours but takes you through some of the most incredible landscapes, through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Unbelievable, and terrifying. So if you are afraid of heights, it might be a good time for that road trip nap. This area should become National Park land too, and not slashed up and reduced by the government. Just saying.

Where to stay: Hoodoos Hideaway - Private Guest Room & Breakfast

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I haven’t stayed in many Air BnBs, but Hoodoos Hideaway will forever be one of my favorites. Located in literally the middle of nowhere, Hoodoos Hideaway is the perfect little road trip stop, especially if you are an animal lover and a travel addict like me. Tanya, the host, takes care of a lot of the animals to be found in Henrieville and has several cats of her own. While the cats don’t go in the guest room, little Herby always tries to join you. Tanya and her husband also love to travel, and we loved having conversations with them about traveling the world. They are both really friendly and helpful and I loved our stay. Tanya also provides fresh eggs and coffee (that her husband makes himself!), for breakfast every morning. It is the perfect stop. Unless of course, you are allergic to cats. But even still you should still stop here! I loved it!

Where to eat in Tropic: Pizza Place

Day Five: Henrieville to Bryce Canyon National Park to Springdale (Zion)

Bryce Canyon National Park is like a whole other world. I know I’ve said that about the other parks and the drives in many parts of Utah, but it is genuinely different from any of the other parks you’ve seen before. Bryce has been on my bucket list since I had first heard about it upon moving to the US six years ago. It is famous for its orange colored hoodoos (stone pillars) and is a magnificent site.

Unfortunately, when we visited Bryce, they had just had a lot of snow and bad weather. All the trails were closed except for Mossy Cave and parts of Rim Trail. I had hiking the Najavo Trail, which takes you into the amphitheater, on my bucket list for a very long time, but was unable to do it. I guess that just means we will have to be back. We spent our day in Bryce visiting all the lookout points on the Rim Trail, playing in the snow, and watching prairie dogs in the meadows.

However, this would be my recommended stops for the day, as I had planned:

  • All four lookout points: Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Sunset Point, and Sunrise Point

  • The Queens/Najavo Combination Loop (2.9 miles round trip loop).

From Bryce Canyon National Park we traveled to Springdale, a town just outside of Zion National Park. To do this, we drove on the US-89 S and used the Mt. Carmel Junction. This route also takes you through the park, using the Highway 9. It’s the major road providing access into Zion and passes a few of Zion’s famous landmarks including the Checkerboard Mesa area. A few weeks prior to our trip a rockfall damaged the road and it was closed. Luckily it reopened for our visit, but it closed again for repairs soon after - so check your routes through the Park websites before setting off! While technically we were already in Zion, we didn’t plan to do anything until the following day, mainly the infamous Angels Landing trail.

Day Six: Zion National Park

Zion National Park is one the USA’s most visited parks and is Utah’s first National Park. It has so much to offer, from canyons, cliffs, waterfalls, scenic roots, and ample hiking and rock climbing opportunities. Both ancient native people and pioneers have walked through these canyons, and I wonder what they must have thought of this inspiring place. It is a truly breathtaking park, and has something for everybody.

Things to do in Zion National Park

Zion has so many hikes, trails and things to do. Angels Landing and the Narrows are its most famous trails and rightfully so. We didn’t do the Narrows, nor did we plan to, but it's on the list for next time. Angels landing was our final hike of the trip.

Angels Landing

Angels Landing is labeled as a strenuous day hike by the National Park Service, and I would certainly agree. It is not for the faint of heart or anyone afraid of heights. The first part of the hike is very strenuous, taking you up 21 steep switchbacks to Scout’s Landing. It is at this point you have to decide whether you have enough energy and guts to hike the remainder of the hike to Angels Landing. The dangerous, terrifying part, where seven people have died since 2004, and 1,400 ft above the canyon floor - not to scare you or anything.

Weeping Rock Trail

The boyfriend dragged me to this waterfall after we finally got off Angels Landing. I’m sure under different circumstances, i.e. no blister, no sore legs, and no mentally fried nerves, I would have enjoyed this very short hike (0.4 miles round trip) to the waterfall. I just wanted a good lunch and alcholic beverage at this point! However, it is really pretty and a great quick stop.

Hwy 9 Scenic Route (Zion Mt. Carmel Scenic Hwy)

We explored this part of Zion the day before, and it is well worth it. There are numerous switch back roads winding below giant towering mesas and cliffs, as well as slickrock, waterfalls and two tunnels - one of them being especially long, 1.1 miles exactly. There are tons of pull outs along the scenic route where you can admire the view and even do a short little hike.

Where to stay: Hampton Inn

Where to eat:

I have a feeling you could eat anywhere in Springdale and have a fantastic meal!

Day Seven: time to go home

We spent our last day having a wonderful lunch at Deep Creek Coffee Company before heading back to Salt Lake City. In Salt Lake City we decided to explore the city and have dinner before heading to our midnight flights at the airport. Salt Lake City is the heart of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, or Mormon culture. If you haven’t had much exposure to this religion or way of life, it is a really interesting part of the city to visit. We tried to track down our ancestry in the Genealogical Society of Utah (a branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints), wondering around Temple Square, where the Salt Lake Temple is located. Then it was a quick dinner for us before heading to the airport. We were quite sad to leave Utah and its five national parks.

Utah indeed is an incredible state, filled with the wildest landscapes I’ve ever seen. It’s overwhelming to think of all the geological history that's taken place over thousands of years here. Our road trip in Utah to see the five national parks was one of my favorite trips, and I think if you follow our Utah Road Trip itinerary, it will be one of your favorite trips too! I want to go back! If you got to the end of this guide, and feel like you need more practical advice for your trip to Utah, I have another post filled with tips and advice for your road trip in Utah.

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Have you traveled to Utah? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.