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Red rocks, stone arches, colorful hoodoos, hidden slot canyons, and alpine forests. Utah’s five National Parks, called the Mighty 5, are spread out across the state and feature a mind-blowing range of desert and mountain ecosystems, from the sandstone cliffs and turquoise lagoons of Zion to the pinnacles and mesas of Arches. Although Utah’s big 5 are spread out across hundreds of miles, it’s doable to connect the dots and visit all five on one epic Utah National Park road trip!
In this 10-day Utah Mighty Five road trip itinerary, you’ll canyoneer through slot canyons, ride horses and ATVs, learn about ridiculous pioneer and Mormon history, hike through a river, watch the sunrise over a hoodoo-filled canyon, and catch a sunset through a massive stone arch. You’ll see more stars than you ever knew were possible, sleep in a Conestoga wagon, and eat Navajo Frybread. You’ll visit Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks. And you’ll discover why the Mighty Five are considered some of the best National Parks in the country!
To create the perfect Utah road trip itinerary, we tapped Jenny Willden, who grew up in the suburbs of Salt Lake City and has been exploring Zion National Park and her home state since the age of six. She still recalls riding horses across the Virgin River and sleeping in a cabin right in Zion Canyon—long before overcrowding made these rooms nearly impossible to book. Take it away, Jenny!
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Utah Road Trip FAQ’s
How to get to the start of this Utah National Parks road trip?
Sure, you could fly into Las Vegas, or even book an open-jaw flight, but for this itinerary, it makes the most sense to fly round trip from Salt Lake City. Here’s why:
- Las Vegas is only 2 hours from the start of this road trip (St. George), but it’s 7 hours from the end of the road trip (Moab).
- Salt Lake City is 4 hours from the start of the road trip (St. George) and 3.5 hours from the end of the road trip (Moab).
So there’s less driving in total if you fly out of SLC, and you don’t need to worry about paying a one-way car rental fee, either!
For those of you lucky enough to be within driving distance of Utah, sit back and enjoy your road trip. You’ll want to head towards Las Vegas first, as it’s just 2 hours from the start of our Utah road trip itinerary.
- Travel Tip: Booked your flight and rental car yet? We recommend using Kayak to price-compare deals and dates to save money… so you can spend more on food during your trip (#letsbehonest). If you’re lucky enough to snag a campsite in a few of the parks, consider renting an RV so you can sroad trip and sleep under the stars in style! We recommend using RVShare, which lets you borrow RVs directly from their owners.
What’s the best time of the year to take a Utah National Park road trip?
The best time to visit Utah’s national parks is in the spring (April-June) and fall (September-November), preferably on a weekday. These are the shoulder seasons, and visiting in those months means you’ll avoid the heat of the high season, and the crowds that gather when school’s out for summer.
Summer (June-August) is easily the most popular time to visit Utah national parks, but that doesn’t mean it provides the best experience. It’s too hot for hiking during the day, meaning you’ll want to go early in the morning or in the evening. However, water activities like tubing or hiking in the cold waters of The Narrows in Zion are more pleasant when the summer sun is blazing.
Winter (November-March) is a beautiful, quiet time in Utah’s Big 5, and despite the cooler temperatures and limited services, it’s worth it to have the whole place to yourself. The Kolob side of Zion is closed in winter, and Bryce Canyon National Park can become impassable if snow is in the forecast. Otherwise, you could do the majority of this itinerary in the winter off-season, but count on many restaurants to be closed or operating on limited hours.
- Travel Tip: A winter Utah National Park road trip is the perfect opportunity to rent an RV. You’ll be able to cook your own meals and sleep toasty warm at night, plus it’s much easier to snag a spot at the park’s campsites. Just make sure you rent an all-season RV with four wheel drive! We recommend using RVShare for RV rentals.
What’s the Indigenous history of Utah’s National Parks?
Before native people and pioneers settled in what is now Utah, most of the state was covered by Lake Bonneville, an ancient lake that existed 14,000 years ago. The Great Salt Lake is all that remains of this mighty body of water, but Lake Bonneville’s original shoreline can be seen on many local hiking trails.
Beyond this lake, Native Americans settled in Utah’s wild landscapes, and more than 50 tribal nations called the state home, from Ancestral Puebloans who built cliff dwellings to prehistoric hunter-gatherers that left behind petroglyph rock art. Today, Utah is home to eight federally recognized tribes.
The largest groups of Native people remaining today include the Ute tribe, whose ancestral lands are east of the Great Salt Lake, and the Navajo Nation tribe which maintains a large swath of land adjacent to many Utah National Parks.
You’ll see many Native American landmarks throughout the parks, and some of Utah’s best parks, including Monument Valley in southern Utah, are actually on Navajo land and are owned and run by Navajo Nation. To visit, you’ll need to book a tour with a Navajo guide and your federal park pass won’t cover the entrance fee, since the US federal government and the Navajo Nation government are separate entities. Although it’s not included in this road trip itinerary, it’s well worth a detour if you’ve got some extra time!
Things To Know Before Taking a Utah National Park Road Trip
Utah is a massive state, and covering Utah’s Big 5 in a short amount of time comes with its own challenges. Here are a few of the oddities of Utah, and the best practices for making your road trip a hit.
- Sunrise and sunset are the best times of day!
We’ve included a lot of sunrise and sunset hikes and activities on this itinerary. And while waking up early or hiking in the dark isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s well worth it in Utah. The desert sunrises and sunsets over sweeping canyon views are EPIC, and they’ll be the most memorable parts of your trip!
Plus, hiking at those hours means less hot sun, which means a significantly lower risk of sunburn or heatstroke. Just make sure you pack a headlamp so you can see where you’re going! (And maybe some high-quality instant coffee, too…)
- Driving times on Google Maps are typically accurate.
However, you are going to stop WAY more than you think for views, bathroom breaks, and meals, so you’ll want to add plenty of extra time.
Utah is still the wild west in a lot of ways, and there are long stretches with no gas stations, especially inside the national parks. Top off often to keep your gas tank full.
- Use rest stops when you see them.
Even if you don’t have to go, you might want to as restrooms are rare on rural roads. Bring along hand sanitizer and toilet paper in case the loo is unstocked.
- Utah’s state parks are worth a visit too.
You might breeze right by a hidden gem like Snow Canyon State Park if you focus only on Utah’s national parks. But state parks are typically less crowded, less expensive, and feature much of the same dramatic scenery! We included Snow Canyon in this itinerary, so you’ll actually be visiting 5 National Parks and one awesome State Park.
Thanks to its large Mormon population, Utah has some, er, unique liquor laws. You’ll find wine and hard alcohol only in state-run liquor stores. Cocktails are carefully metered by a clicking device that measures a 1.5-ounce pour, and don’t even think about asking for a double. It’s illegal and can get your bartender in serious trouble with Utah’s alcohol overlords.
There are also some guidelines about what’s allowed to be served on tap, and whether you need to be sitting or standing to drink or order alcohol – and things are constantly changing. But don’t let any of that discourage you: Utah has a fantastic beer scene! We’ve got a guide to the best breweries in Salt Lake City with more details.
This is more than just “don’t litter.” Cryptobiotic soil and other fragile ecosystems are primary features in Utah’s national parks. Watch where you step, pick up your trash, and leave campsites and trails better than you found them.
- Don’t do it for the ‘gram.
A photo isn’t worth your life. Obey closed signs, stay far from cliffs, and don’t engage in risky behavior just to look cool. Consider not tagging precise locations in your photos to prevent extra crowding on already busy trails.
Utah police officers LOVE to ticket speeders—even if you’re only going five over the posted speed limit. Watch your speed and set cruise control to avoid a hefty ticket.
That said, Utah’s speeds are faster than most around the country, ranging from 70-80 miles per hour on freeways. Use caution and watch for wildlife to stay safe as you drive, but also totally crank up your favorite tunes and enjoy yourself!
The average cost of admission to a National Park is $35, which means that the pass will pay for itself during your trip and save you about $100. You’ll be able to continue using your pass for a full year at over 2,000 National Parks, and 10% of the sale proceeds are donated to the National Park Foundation, helping to keep our parks beautiful! Pick up a pass online at REI or in person at any National Park.
The Utah Mighty 5 Road Trip Itinerary
Before we kick off this Utah National Parks road trip, here are a few things to note:
- Arrival: If you’re flying in you’ll be starting and ending your trip in Salt Lake City. But if you’re driving in, you’ll be closer to Las Vegas at the start of the trip, so just skip Day 1 on the itinerary and head over to our Las Vegas guide to figure out how to spend your first day in Sin City.
- Drive time: The total drive time of this itinerary is 16 hours spread out over the course of 10 days. Each day has drive time notes to help you plan.
- Trip length: With a day spent in each destination, you’ll be able to hit the highlights of each National Park, but if you want to stay longer in some parks, you might want to consider extending your trip. If you don’t quite have 10 full days, you can adjust the itinerary by flying into Salt Lake City and heading directly to St. George, instead of spending the night in SLC – effectively skipping Day 1. And if you’re really short on time, you could also cut out Snow Canyon and head straight to Zion National Park, which would take you right up to Day 4 of this itinerary! That means you could complete the road trip in just 6-7 days if you really wanted to – or stretch it to a full 10 and spend more time in another National Park or around Moab.
- Inclusivity: We’ve done our best to make the itinerary flexible and inclusive for varying athletic abilities. Whenever we recommend an intense activity or hike, we’ve also suggested a more approachable alternative.
- Accomodation: We’ve included recommendations for hotels each night of the trip, but if you’re able to snag camping spots (book well in advance) and bring your own camping gear, this itinerary makes for a fantastic camping trip or RV road trip! I recommend renting a fully equipped RV from RVShare so you don’t need to bring as much gear.
And finally, you’ll definitely want to pick up a National Parks Pass before your trip. The average cost of admission to a National Park is $35, which means that the pass will pay for itself during your trip and save you about $100. You’ll be able to continue using your pass for a full year at over 2,000 National Parks, and 10% of the sale proceeds are donated to the National Park Foundation, helping to keep our parks beautiful! You can pick up a pass online at REI or in person at any National Park.
OK, let’s hit the road!
Day 1: Arrival in Salt Lake City
- Today, you’ll arrive in Salt Lake City and spend the day exploring downtown.
- Drive Time: Very little!
Utah’s national parks are a bit remote from an international airport. Fly into Salt Lake City for the easiest access without the mega ticket price of flying into the small St. George airport.
Depending on when your flight arrives, hopefully you’ll have some time to explore. Salt Lake City is a beautiful city ringed with mountains – you’ll literally see mountains no matter where you look! In the summer, those mountains are criss-crossed with hiking trails, and in the winter, they’re a snow sport paradise.
The city has fantastic coffee, food, and beer, and a fascinating history. To dive into that history, head straight to the Pioneer Memorial Museum (admission is free!)
You’ll get to see not only an original copy of the Book of Mormon and the illegally printed money that led to Joseph Smith’s death by angry mob (LDS history is SO INTERESTING) but also an original hand-cart … you know, of HandCart Tragedy fame. Pioneer and LDS history is WILD and we’re so intrigued by it!
Once your mind has been thoroughly blown, walk through Temple Square to see the fruit of the labor of LDS pioneers. They literally arrived in an empty desert and built the entire city – and those stunning temples – from scratch with their bare hands, fueled by the promise that they were in the “land of milk and honey.”
You can also tour the home of their prophet and leader, Brigham Young, called “the Beehive House” (the city has a whole worker bee/honey theme goin’ on). Tours are led by the LDS, which means if you want some non-religious context before your visit (you do), we recommend reading up in advance – the book Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet is excellent pre-trip reading material. But here’s a quick primer: Brigham Young had 55 wives (some very young) and 56 children, colonized much of Utah’s inhabited land often through violence and cruelty, and invented the LDS policy of “blood atonement,” which is essentially justified murder in the name of God. He also oversaw the building of Salt Lake City from an empty desert to a thriving metropolis, governed the Utah Territory (which was more or less a polygamous theocracy), and declared war on the US government.
What did we say? The history is fascinating.
When your mind is good and reeling, head over to Red Iguana for the best Mexican food in Utah (Utah was, after all, once a territory of Mexico). The restaurant was made famous after a feature on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. There might be a line to enter, but trust us – it’s worth it! (If you prefer walking, head to Blue Iguana right from Temple Square. It’s not owned by the same people, but it’s still good.)
After dinner, get a taste of Salt Lake City’s incredible beer scene. Head to Kiitos Brewing, Toasted Barrel, or Proper Brewing for some of the best beer in Salt Lake City. Or hit up one of the city’s many other breweries and brewpubs – we’ve got a whole guide to help you decide!
For your night in Salt Lake City, we recommend the Kimpton Monaco, a quirky boutique hotel with a great restaurant and a daily wine happy hour located right downtown. We also love this cute, budget-friendly apartment a five minutes’ walk from Temple Square, and this beautiful penthouse loft with city and mountain views!
Day 1 Summary
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Day 2: Salt Lake City to St. George
- Today, you’ll be driving from Salt Lake City to the outdoor adventure town of St. George, where you’ll spend the afternoon outdoors!
- Drive Time: 4 hours from Salt Lake City
First things first: when you wake up in Salt Lake City, head straight to the best coffee shop in town, Publik Roasters. Grab an avocado toast or smoked salmon toast for breakfast, and hit the road.
You’ve got four hours of driving ahead of you, so turn on your favorite playlist or podcast. If you’re still reeling from the Pioneer Museum and Temple Square, we highly recommend the 5-part series on Mormonism from Last Podcast on the Left (start with this episode). It’s a little crude at times, but generally well-researched and entertaining.
You’ll be heading straight down I-15. If you’re in no particular hurry, there are a few worthy stops to make. Take a picture of an exact replica of the house from Up, frolic through lavender fields at the beautiful Young Living Lavender Farm (just don’t get swept up and join an MLM!) and soak in Meadow Hot Springs along your drive.
After a few hours, you’ll arrive in St. George on the southern Utah border. St. George is a Mormon-pioneer-founded town that’s blossomed into an outdoor adventure capital in the red rock desert, and the best jumping-off point for your Utah National Park road trip. The 62,000-acre Red Rocks Desert Reserve is the town’s main draw, both for hiking and seeing endangered desert tortoises!
You’ll be hungry after your drive, so drive straight to the art enclave of Kayenta for lunch at Xetava Gardens Cafe. It’s a 20-minute drive from Main Street, but the locally sourced, fresh fare is better than anything you’ll find in town.
After lunch, you can walk around the beautiful and quirky Kayenta Art Village, where you can discover local artist shops, a fine art gallery, an arboretum, and even a labyrinth.
You’ve spent all day in a car, so for the rest of the afternoon, you’ll be outdoors!
- Go hiking in Snow Canyon State Park: This small but mighty park is named for Utah pioneers Lorenzo and Erastus Snow, not for the weather you’ll likely encounter. Snow Canyon’s soaring sandstone cliffs, winding slot canyons, and dark underground lava tubes spread through 7,400-acres and are explorable in a day, but there’s plenty more to explore on future visits. Hike Hidden Pinyon Trail, an easy nature walk that showcases cacti, sagebrush, and rock formations like layered sandstone waves and towers. Opt for the longer loop of the Hidden Pinyon trail to climb atop petrified sand dunes for panoramic park vistas. Jenny’s Canyon Trail is a very short stroll to a red rock slot canyon and a sweeping view of the desert landscapes. And if you’re feeling adventurous, drive up the canyon to s ee ancient lava on the Lava Flow Trail. Bring along a bright headlamp (not a cell phone light) to explore cave-like lava tubes formed after a volcano eruption 27,000 years ago. Be aware: these underground tunnels are pitch black and can be dangerous to enter!
- Take an ATV Tour: Ready to get your adrenaline pumping? Head out into the desert in an ATV! You’ll climb through a box canyon into the sand dunes and take in panoramic lake and mountain views in Sand Hollow State Park. All equipment is provided and no experience is necessary – just, er, hold on tight.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite for dinner hit up George’s Corner Restaurant & Pub in the heart of downtown for a delicious meal. They’ve got the perfect post-hike comfort food fare, like baby back ribs, buttermilk fried chicken, cheeseburgers, and mac n cheese.
Across the street, wrap up your night at Zion Brewery Station II, St. George’s first microbrew. It’s pretty exciting to have a brewery in St. George as this teetotalling town was long dry (thanks to the local Mormon majority). But as out-of-state tourism has increased and the population has diversified, breweries and bars are opening in town.
When you’re ready to retire, hang your hat overnight at The Advenire. Unique boutique rooms and a rooftop pool make it the perfect downtown destination. Or, if you like ar oom with a view, head up the hill from town to Inn on the Cliff. This small hotel includes free breakfast and offers red rock cliff views from every room. Don’t miss the Inn’s incredible outdoor pool which also overlooks the red rocks!
Day 2 Summary
Day 3: Canyoneering & Exploring St. George
- Today, you’ll go canyoneering in a slot canyon and explore the charming desert town of St. George.
- Drive Time: None, all activities local
Hope you got a good night’s sleep: you’ll be up early for a guided, 6 am slot canyon tour with Paragon Adventures! Get a quick caffeine fix at FeelLove Coffee or Perks then head to Paragon Adventures for your early morning adventure.
Canyoning/canyoneering is, essentially, getting yourself down into and then out of a canyon using all kinds of methods: hiking, rappelling, swimming, umping, scrambling, zip-lining – you name it! In this tour, you’ll rappel hundreds of feet down red rock slot canyons, hike through water pools, and scramble over boulders. Your tour guide will provide all the gear and transportation and teach you the art of maneuvering through a canyon safely.
After your 4-5 hour slot canyon adventure, fuel up at Angelica’s Mexican Grill, a local favorite with a fabulous fresh salsa bar and Mexican street food specialties. Utahns love Mexican cuisine, and Angelica’s is the most authentic, popular option in town. We love the Mulitas, a corn quesadilla loaded with beans, rice, and meat.
- Alternate option: If you’d rather sleep in a little later and don’t mind a bit more driving, this canyoneering tour is just outside of Zion National Park, only an hour away. Tours run at 8am and 2pm, so you’ll have some extra time to snooze!
After an adventurous morning you’ll want a more low-key afternoon, so we recommend exploring the town of St. George. Here are a few options:
- Head to Ancestor Square, a charming square filled with historic buildings that now house shops, boutiques, and galleries. Strolling around this area, you’ll see some of St. George’s finest historic homes and buildings, and informative placards point out historic landmarks in town. Continue your LDS education and take a tour of Brigham Young’s winter vacation home, located on one corner of Ancestor Square. The ornate home sits in a neighborhood of well-preserved pioneer homes, of which are open to the public or offer tours. If you like, you can also visit the grounds of the St. George Utah Temple.
- Visit the McQuarrie Memorial Museum, run by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers who also maintain the museum in Salt Lake City. Here you’ll find an amazing collection of pioneer and LDS artifacts, which again, are a lot more exciting when you know some of the absolutely wild history behind them (ahem: go ahead. andorder Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet from your local library.)
- Visit the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site. Here you can see thousands of fossilized dinosaur footprints, dating back 200 million years! There are also five life-sized models of prehistoric animals and a working fossil preparation lab.
Once night falls, enjoy pioneer-inspired American cuisine at Wood Ash Rye. This newer restaurant in The Advenire Hotel dazzles with dishes like homemade biscuits, chimichurri carrots, and housemade pasta.
Due to the prominence of the teetotaling Latter-Day Saints (aka Mormon) faith in St. George, delicious adult beverages are hard to come by. But Wood Ash Rye mixes up the best (only?) craft cocktails in town. Try the W.A.R. Valley Tan if you’re craving smoky whiskey or the Desert Rain for something fresh and fruity.
Day 3 Summary
Day 4: Zion National Park
- Today, you’ll head into Zion National Park to explore its canyon cliffs, spires, slot canyons, and waterfalls!
- Drive Time: 1 hour from St. George to Zion National Park Springdale Visitor’s Center
It’s finally time to head into the mightiest of Utah’s Mighty Five: Zion National Park! It’s a one-hour drive from St. George to Springdale and the entrance of Zion National Park. Get an early start by eating breakfast at your hotel and heading ASAP for the park entrance. You can also grab cold brew coffee and a delicious breakfast just outside the park entrance at Feellove Coffee.
Some things to keep in mind about getting around Zion National Park:
- If you’re visiting Zion between February and November, the only way to get around the park is by using the free shuttle service, which is first-come, first-serve. You’ll need to park your car somewhere in Springdale and then board the shuttle into the park. The National Park Service does this to reduce emissions pollution, traffic, and parking issues, so it’s really a blessing in disguise!
- The first shuttle leaves the Zion Visitor’s Center at 7 am and the last shuttle leaves the Temple of Sinawava at 6:15 pm. Look for a full schedule at one of the park’s shuttle stops when you arrive.
- Since you’ll be traveling on the shuttle’s set schedule, you need to make sure you don’t miss one of the next to last shuttles out of the park. It’s very important that you do not wait for the very last shuttle because there is an almost guaranteed chance that that bad boy is going to be filled to the brim, causing you to be well up sh*t creek without a paddle once you have to walk back to where you’re staying. Totally not ideal, especially when you’ve spent all day walking only to have to walk all the way back to camp or your hotel!
- If you’re visiting Zion in December or January, the only way to get around is by your own car because the shuttles do not run, so parking is a free-for-all. Winter is less busy, but it’s not desolate, so waking up early is highly recommended so you can grab a parking spot!
Once in the park, the best way to see Zions’ dramatic landscapes and towering canyon walls is with your own two feet! Fill up a hydration daypack and hit the trails. We’ve got a full guide to the best hikes in Zion National Park, but here are two solid choices:
- Hike Angel’s Landing: Strong hikers who aren’t afraid of heights will love the 5.4 mile, out-and-back climb up fin-like rock formations and exposed chains to Angels Landing, which is considered to be one of the most dangerous hikes in the United States. What makes this hike so intense? Well, in order to reach the expansive view over Zion Canyon, you must first scale a razor-thin rock ledge with a 1200-foot drop on both sides using only determination, grit, and the aid of some metal chains hammered into sandstone. But if you can stomach it, the view at the top is both shocking and rewarding. To do this hike, get off on the shuttle at The Grotto (Stop 6).
- Hike the Emerald Pools and Upper Pool trails: For less daredevil hikers, stay closer to Earth on the Emerald Pools path. This two-mile hike follows a stream up to waterfalls and the Lower and Middle Pools. Continuing on the steep trail to the Upper Pool is worthwhile if you have the energy.
Alternatively, if you’re not up for a hike today, book a horseback riding tour in Zion Canyon to see the landscapes like early pioneers would have!
Once you’ve finished hiking or horseback riding, return to the visitor’s center for lunch and a brew with a view at Zion Brewery, where you can get something hearty like fish ‘n chips or an elk burger. Its outdoor patio is just outside the park entrance and showcases the towering red rock cliffs that make Zion famous.
Just across from the brewery you’ll find Zion Outfitter, an outdoor shop which rents gear for biking, tubing, and The Narrows. After all that hiking your legs will definitely need a rest, so rent a tube and cool off with a float down the Virgin River (when conditions allow). The soundtrack of your two-hour-long river cruise will be filled with birds singing from the cottonwood trees overhead, water flowing over river rocks, and the roar of mini rapids as you make your way downstream.
- Update: As of summer 2021, there is a toxic Cyanobacteria bloom in the Virgin River and the Streams of Zion National Park, so tubing is not available at this time. Avoid contact with the water, especially submerging your head or drinking it. You can keep an eye on the Cyanobacteria bloom here. Instead, we recommend booking a scenic helicopter tour for the afternoon!
When you return your tube, rent gear for hiking The Narrows tomorrow. This makes it easier to start the day bright and early to hike this bucket list riverwalk. Gear is first-come, first-serve so confirm they’ll save a set for you before tubing. You’ll need to rent proper water hiking shoes, a walking stick, dry pants, and bring your own socks to keep you comfortable in cold river water. (Dry pants are not necessary in the warm summer months.)
- Note: If you think all the hiking from today may wear you out and you’d like to avoid The Narrows tomorrow, you can skip the rental and just plan to visit the ghost town of Grafton instead!
After you’ve loaded your gear in the car and ready to leave for the day, if you weren’t lucky enough to snag a campsite then head for The Dwellings in La Verkin. Each tiny home unit has its own kitchen, fire pit, and a balcony overlooking the canyon and river.
Walk from here to dinner next door at River Rock Roasting Company, easily the best dining option in town. Don’t miss the flavorful Moroccan-style Amerikesh salad and unique Phuket Peanut pizza. Wind down afterward with drinks on your patio overlooking the river.
Day 4 Summary
Day 5: Zion National Park
- Today, you’ll either hike The Narrows, or sightsee and explore a ghost town of Grafton. In the late afternoon you’ll drive through to park to East Zion, the park’s quieter side
- Drive Time: 1 hour 15 minutes from the West to the East side of Zion NP
Start with coffee and fresh pastries next to The Dwellings at River Rock Roasting Company, then hit the road early and take the park shuttle to Temple of Sinawava to start the trail to The Narrows. The shuttle can get extremely crowded so plan to depart early, or expect a long wait, but it’s worth it to see 2,000-foot canyon walls, waterfalls, and turquoise river waters paired with red rock on this world-famous trek.
Hiking the Narrows in the summer can be overwhelming, with intense crowding and selfie-snapping. Winter is a more peaceful time to experience this wonder, but you must be outfitted with winter wear, dry pants, and neoprene socks to avoid hypothermia (and remember the shuttles don’t run in the winter!). You can definitely hike The Narrows in fall as water levels allow, but hiking it in spring is typically a no-go due to snow run-off.
To begin The Narrows, get off on the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop and hike along the Riverside Walk trail until reaching the river entrance. Step into the water, using your rented stick to steady yourself, and hike upriver!
No permit is required for this bottoms-up section, and there’s no particular destination you must reach. Most people try to reach Wall Street, the narrowest part of the canyon that’s two miles from the start (4-miles round trip in total) but you can hike all the way to Big Springs (4.5 miles, or 9 miles round trip) without a permit. This spot features springs and waterfalls and is the mandatory turn-around spot for day hikers. However, going this far makes for a long day as you’re continuously in knee- to waist-deep water!
Once you’ve hiked in and out again on either a 4-mile or 9-mile adventure, take the shuttle back down the canyon to fetch your car from the visitor’s center in Springdale. Refuel with a late lunch at Oscar’s Cafe with bottomless chips and salsa and green chili enchiladas.
If you’re opting out of hiking The Narrows, you’ll be exploring a ghost town and sightseeing across some stunning landscapes in Zion National Park on this tour. Start with brunch at Oscar’s Cafe and then head to meet up with your tour around noon.
Grafton was an abandoned pioneer town was built by Mormon pioneers. But they faced insurmountable odds: floods, disease, and attacks by the local Black Hawk tribes drove them back to the safety of larger settlements. Today the old cemetery – (which, yes, is super haunted), school, and homesteads remain almost unchanged from the 1800s. Oooh, it’s so creepy!!
Whether you hiked The Narrows or went sightseeing and exploring Grafton, it’s time to say goodbye to the West side of the park and Springdale. You’ll be heading through the park – take your time, the scenery is incredible – to the East Side to reach Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, a 4,000-acre property with more onsite amenities than any resort west of the Mississippi River.
The resort has a wide range of accommodations to fit all budgets: you can choose to stay in a glamping tent, a surprisingly roomy Conestoga wagon, cabin, or a whole-a** house. Whichever you choose, you’ll have access to amenities like a resort-style swimming pool, ziplines, and astronomy tours. We stayed in a cabin with a private fire pit!
Keep things easy tonight and enjoy pizza and burgers at the ranch at Ray’s Restaurant. Wrap up the evening with activities on Zion Ponderosa Ranch’s property, like a sunset Jeep tour or an astronomy tour paired with s’mores and hot chocolate.
Day 5 Summary
Day 6: Zion and Bryce National Park
- Today, you’ll depart East Zion for Bryce Canyon, enjoying a scenic drive through charming small towns along U.S. 89 past otherworldly red rock hoodoos and sandstone spires.
- Drive Time: 1.5 hours from Zion Ponderosa Ranch to Bryce Canyon
Start the day with a breakfast buffet and coffee at the ranch from Ray’s Restaurant.
If your legs aren’t beat from hiking The Narrows or Angels Landing, take in Zion Canyon’s best view from Observation Point. There was a trail in the park to this point but since rockfall closed it, the only way to see Observation Point is from a trail at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. So think of this as a resort exclusive. Oooooo!
While the trail is just over three miles each way, it is a mostly flat, rolling path until the very end. Once you reach the edge of the 2,200-foot precipice, you’ll know the miles were worthwhile: Observation Point is the best place to take in the grandeur of Zion’s pink, red, and cream sandstone cliffs from above.
Say your goodbyes to Zion National Park – you’re headed to the next of Utah’s Big Five!
Once your morning adventure is over, it’s time to depart for Bryce Canyon National Park on the U.S. 89.
Stop for lunch at Thunderbird Restaurant: Home of the Ho-made Pies. You’re on an all-American road trip, so get a burger and a slice of ho-made peach or apple pie (the unnecessary hyphen tells you it’s legit).
After lunch, make a quick stop in the tiny town of Orderville for coffee and Utah-sourced rocks at Rock Stop. The rock-shaped building is nearly impossible to miss, and it’s surrounded by gems, stones, and crystals you can purchase as souvenirs. Inside, the owners make European-style cappuccinos to recharge you for the road.
Continue along U.S. 89 north to enter Bryce Canyon from the west on Scenic Byway 12. You’ll pass right through Red Canyon, a stunning red cliff canyon filled with sandstone hoodoos (AKA rock spires), iron-rich pink soil, and evergreen pines.
Most people blaze right on through to Bryce Canyon, but I recommend stopping in Red Canyon to ride bikes or just walk around the red Martian landscape. (You can rent a bike at Bryce Bike Rentals or Ruby’s Inn.) Red Canyon’s paved five-mile bike path winds past sandstone spires and Ponderosa pines and is a favorite stop in the area. A tunnel cut through the red rock is a thrill to photograph and drive through as you continue on to Bryce.
Arrive by sunset to take in the largest concentration of hoodoos in the world from Bryce Canyon’s aptly named Sunset Point. The “golden hour” is the prime time for photographing these formations from atop the scenic plateau overlook.
Sleep just outside the park at Ruby’s Inn, a historic hotel (turned Best Western) with the best access to Bryce Canyon National Park. Dining options aren’t very inventive near this national park, so keep it simple: the hotel has 3 separate dining options onsite. (Don’t worry, tomorrow’s dinner is epic.)
- Note: If you choose to camp instead of staying at a hotel, be aware that temperatures are significantly colder here than Utah’s other national parks due to the high elevation. Snow is infrequent but definitely possible in the winter and spring months.
Day 6 Summary
Day 7: Bryce to Capitol Reef National Park
- Today, you’ll follow Scenic Highway 12 from Bryce to Capitol Reef, pausing for hikes and views in the towns of Escalante or Boulder Mountain.
- Drive Time: 2.5 hours from Bryce to Capitol Reef
Start your morning early with a quick breakfast and coffee at Ruby’s Inn.
If you thought sunset over Bryce Canyon was impressive, you’ve gotta catch the sunrise at Sunrise Point. See its vermillion-colored formations up close by following the 1.8-mile (3.6 mile round trip) Queens Garden Trail from the rim and into Bryce Canyon. It’s the easiest trail into the canyon but still requires a 320-foot uphill hike to complete.
Once the sun is up, head out of town. You’ll be continuing along Utah Route 12 Scenic Byway, rated one of the most beautiful drives in America. It adds 30 minutes to your trip going this way, but the extra time is worthwhile for unreal views – and incredible food!
Nicknamed the “All American Road,” Highway 12 Scenic Byway traverses tiny towns, drives through two arches, winds through pine groves and valleys before twisting and turning up Boulder Mountain.
Now it’s time to drive the steepest, scariest section of State Route 12. Cliffs drop steeply off the sides of the road atop of Boulder Mountain Pass at 9,606 feet, but this dicey drive is worthwhile for the panoramic vistas of the Dixie National Forest’s sandstone cliffs, desert, and pines.
- Note: This road may not be for you if you’re uncomfortable with the exposure or narrow roadways. Unfortunately, this and the 35-mile unpaved Hell’s Backbone Road are the only routes connecting Boulder to Torrey so you may want to skip this section of the trip if you’re not up for the drive.
Once you cross the mountain pass, descend into the town of Boulder and grab a grass-fed burger, fresh trout, or fried green tomatoes at Burr Trail Grill.
After lunch, explore the remnants of a prehistoric Native American village at Anasazi State Park. The area was occupied by Ancestral Puebloan people in roughly 1050-1200 A.D. and was one of the largest communities west of the Colorado River.
From pit houses to cliff dwellings, these people were known for their incredible building techniques, and you can see a six-room replica of an Ancestral Puebloan dwelling at the park. Once you’ve wandered through it, explore the museum and see artifacts excavated from the site.
When the dinner bell rings, hightail it to Hell’s Backbone Grill. This legendary restaurant is a James Beard award winner hidden in a town of under 300 residents. Prices are high, but worth it for the ever-changing seasonal menu of farm-to-table fare. Savor local red trout served with organic vegetables, or fuel up with hearty grass-fed meatloaf paired with lemony mashed potatoes.
Once your belly is full, follow Highway 12 to the golden sandstone and secret slot canyons of Capitol Reef National Park. This quiet red rock wonder is home to the Waterpocket Fold—a wrinkle on the earth that extends 100 miles!
Camping in the park provides the best access to trails, but many rental properties and glamping options are available too. For a rustic and pioneer-esque experience, sleep in a Conestoga wagon at Capitol Reef Resort. I mean, come on, you have to, right??
If you’re itching to stretch your legs, sneak in a sunset walk on the 1.8-mile Hickman Bridge Trail, an easy Capitol Reef trail that leads to an impressively large sandstone arch spanning the red rock canyon and one of the park’s main attractions. Or simply take a sunset drive through the park to admire its stone slots, arches, and towers.
Day 7 Summary
Day 8: Capitol Reef and Arches National Park
- Today, you’ll take a quick tour of Capitol Reef before hitting the road to Moab and Arches National Park.
- Drive Time: 2.5 hours from Capitol Reef to Moab
Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden, underrated gem. It’s rarely busy like Utah’s other national parks, and while you could spend days exploring, it’s easy to hit the highlights in a day.
Start in the heart of Capitol Reef at Fruita Historic District, a place inhabited by the Fremont culture thousands of years ago, and later farmed by Mormon pioneer settlers. Historic orchards are home to cherry, apricot, peach, pear, plum, and almond trees, which you’re allowed to harvest fruit from when in season. Visit the Gifford Homestead to learn about Mormon pioneer families who farmed the lands and planted the orchards and then enjoy a slice of pie made with local fruit.
If you’re up for a short hike, take in overlook views of Fruita on the 1.7-mile Cohab Canyon Trail, which leads up above the farms and into a canyon famous as a hiding place for Mormon polygamist women. Polygamy was officially banned in the late 1800s, but many settlers continued with the practice in remote areas like Capitol Reef. Federal officers were sent to enforce the law, and women fled into the canyon so the husbands could pretend they only had one wife (not unlike the plots of Big Love and Sister Wives). The 500-foot gain is worthwhile to see hoodoos, hidden slot canyons, and side trails before returning the way you came.
If you have time for another hike, head to the Cassidy Arch Trail. This 3.1-mile hike is one of the park’s most spectacular and features uphill sections, switchbacks, and rocky terrain. The payoff is seeing this massive arch named for Wild West outlaw, Butch Cassidy, who used to hide from the law in these canyons. But keep in mind you still have a 2.5 hour drive to get to Moab!
After your hike, follow Highway 24 through the park to see soaring sandstone cliffs and formations at Sunset and Panorama Points. Look for a petroglyph pull-off along the highway where figures drawn by early Native American residents cover several rock panels.
Continue along Highway 24 until you hit the highway and head to Moab. Turn on that podcast again, it’s a 2.5 hour drive – though you’ll probably be stopping to admire the view and take pictures often!
When you arrive, stop for dinner in the hills above Main Street at Sunset Grill, the oldest operating restaurant in Moab. Pair the desert sunset views with plates of pasta topped with housemade marinara sauce, and end your meal with homemade razzleberry pie filled with raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and rhubarb in a double crust.
Get ready to unpack your bags and spend two nights at your last accommodation on your Utah road trip. I stayed at the Hoodoo Moab by Hilton, which features a beautiful pool and is 10 minutes from Arches National Park. If you’re looking for something a bit more budget friendly, we recommend Expedition Lodge, directly on Moab’s walkable Main Street and also 10 minutes from Arches National Park.
Or, if you’re not quite ready to leave the beauty of Utah’s quiet, colorful desert landscape just yet, check-in at Under Canvas Moab for luxurious canvas tent glamping under the stars! You’ll be about 20 minutes from Canyonlands, 10 minutes from Arches, and a 15 minute drive from downtown Moab.
Day 8 Summary
Day 9: Arches & Canyonlands National Parks
- Today, you’ll explore the incredibly scenic Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
- Drive Time: 30 minutes from Moab to Canyonlands, and another 30 minutes from Canyonlands to Arches
While the town of Moab is closer to Arches National Park than Canyonlands, I recommend starting your day in Canyonlands due to morning crowds in Arches. Arches’ park gate is often closed in the morning when too many people enter, but late afternoon and evening is a quiet time to explore this red rock wonderland.
Grab a breakfast sandwich and coffee in town at Moab Garage Co. then hit the road for Canyonlands. Order a lunch sandwich to-go, too.
The deep, dramatic canyons of Canyonlands National Park were formed by the currents of Utah’s Green and Colorado rivers over thousands of years. Its cliffs, pinnacles, and mesas stretch over thousands of acres and three distinct districts, making it hard to see much on a one-day visit – but you’re gonna see everything you can! That said, if you have extra time, Canyonlands is a great place to explore without crowds. But if you only have today, it’s best to make a mad dash back to Moab for an afternoon at Arches.
Once in Canyonlands, head to the iconic Island in the Sky. This mesa sits on sandstone cliffs 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, giving it the impression of being a floating “island.” It’s the easiest area of the park to reach, and every pull-out on its paved scenic drive showcases dramatic desert landscapes.
Next, head to Grand View Point to see red rock mountains, canyons, and basins from 6,080 feet. Enjoy your picnic lunch here amid the sweeping desert panoramas before heading out of the park to Arches National Park, about half an hour away.
Three hundred million years of erosion created Arches National Park’s dramatic arches, precarious rock precipices, and towering sandstone spires. And while you can’t see it all in a day, you can cover a lot of ground. Arrive after two p.m. to avoid parking problems and crowded trails, and stop at the visitor’s center for an orientation before venturing inside.
Since your time is limited, take a driving tour on the Arches Scenic Drive to see thousands of natural rock arches, ranging from a few feet to a 306-foot Landscape Arch.
The Windows Section is a favorite area when you’re short on time thanks to its large concentration of arches like North Window, Turret, and Double that are viewable from the road. But the hike to Utah license plate iconic Delicate Arch is worthwhile if you have the time and energy for the miles.
People of every fitness level attempt the Delicate Arch Trail, but it’s no cakewalk and requires a 480-foot climb up steep, exposed slickrock. This makes sunset an ideal time to hike — for the temperatures and the views! See a pioneer-era cabin and Native American petroglyphs along the way before reaching this 52-foot-tall freestanding natural arch — arguably the most famous in the world. Don’t expect a solo selfie though, as crowds around the arch are always abundant. (And don’t forget your headlamp for the trip back down!)
Head straight from the trail to Moab Brewery for a beer and a plate of Johnny’s IPA Beer Can Chicken. Or opt to ditch your hiking boots once and for all and dress up for fine Southwestern cuisine at Desert Bistro to close out your trip!
Day 9 Summary
Day 10: Moab to Salt Lake City
- Today, you’ll take a quick sunrise hike, and then drive from Moab back to Salt Lake City for your flight home.
- Drive Time: 3.5 hours to Salt Lake City
It’s time to say goodbye to Moab, but before you go, squeeze in one last hike on the Corona Arch Trail. It’s beyond the borders of Arches National Park, but it’s my favorite Moab arch!
With a massive 110-foot opening, sunrise views through the arch are especially striking. Although it’s just three miles roundtrip, ascending requires adventurous climbs up ladders and cables bolted to rocks on this slickrock trail … so make sure you get some coffee first.
Hike under the arch or just appreciate the view of Corona from a distance. Fun fact: A giant rope swing was once rigged off this massive sandstone arch, but the practice is now banned.
When you’ve enjoyed your last desert sunrise, head back into charming Moab for breakfast and (more) coffee at Moab Garage Co. Then, load up your podcasts and hit the road again!
While the drive from Moab to Salt Lake City is only 3.5 hours, you can break it up with a stop in Green River for lunch at Tamarisk. Try to get a table next to the window so you can watch the river, and order the Navajo fry bread and a cinnamon roll – it’s your last lunch here, so you might as well do it big.
And now, sadly, your Utah National Parks road trip has come to an end. It’s time to wave goodbye to the painted desert, red rocks, and otherworldly landscapes of Utah!
- Fly out of Salt Lake City: If you flew, head to Salt Lake City International Airport for your flight home.
- Drive home from Moab: If you live close enough to Utah to drive home, you can end your road trip in Moab and drive back to your home state. You’re not far from the border of Colorado to the east, or if you’ll be heading back west to where you started near Las Vegas, why not make a detour south through Arizona and see the Grand Canyon? You know, casually.
Day 10 Summary
What to Pack for a Utah Road Trip
Here are a few tips to help you pack for your Utah National Park road trip. With varied elevations and climates, a diverse lineup of items is important for keeping you comfortable in changing weather.
- Bathing suit & towel: National parks like Zion have swimming holes and rivers where you can take a plunge to cool off on hot summer days. Pack a swimsuit and swim leggings to be ready for anything. (Psst: we’ve got a whole guide to the best swimsuits for curvy women.) And don’t forget to bring a lightweight, quick-drying travel towel, too!
- Rain Jacket: Rain is rare in the summer, but rain and snow are possible, even in the desert, during the rest of the year. And when it pours in the desert, it can quickly turn into a torrential flood. Bring along a lightweight umbella and a packable rain jacket to ensure you’re prepared for anything. We like this one for men and this for women.
- Warm jacket: Even in the summer, the desert can get very cold at night. Plus, there’s a huge difference in elevation and temperature from Zion National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park. We love packable down jackets because they stow small and take away the chill on cold nights. Here’s the same one for men.
- Hiking clothes: We love these high-tech hiking pants (men’s version). They’re rugged and comfortable, plus cute enough for apres-hiking activities!
- Comfy shoes: We recommend hiking in lightweight trail runners (for women and men) designed to handle the miles and keep your feet cool on hot days. For more details, head over to our posts on the best shoes for men and for women.
- Portable charger: National park road trips mean nonstop GPS mapping and selfie-snapping. Even if you have a wall charger, you’ll want an Otterbox car charger. It charges your phone fast thanks to the USB-C port and car outlet.
- Camera: Sure, modern smartphones take great photos, but if you’re traversing Zion’s Narrows or going on an epic hike, you may want an upgrade. We love GoPro cameras for wide-angle shots, water adventures, and voice-activated selfies.
- Hiking daypack: You could hike with an old-school Jansport backpack, but the miles will be far more comfortable with a Camelback Hydration Pack. It’s designed to sit comfortably on your hips and shoulders, and you’ll have plenty of water so you you can stay hydratd!
- Headlamp: It’s better to be safe than sorry when hiking close to sunset or before sunrise. Stash a headlamp in your hiking bag!
Utah National Parks Road Trip Map
We’ve created a map of this Utah Might 5 road trip! Save it for offline use so you don’t get lost in the desert when your GPS cuts out (likely, tbh). And be sure to bookmark this page to refer back to while you’re planning!
We’ve also created a free, printable version of this itinerary! Plus, we’ll also send you our favorite tips to help you plan your Utah road trip. Just sign up below.
About Our Contributing Writer: Jenny Willden is a Utah native obsessed with exploring the Beehive State’s national parks, mountains, and trails. When she’s not editing Utah’s Outdoor Sports Guide or California’s Sensi magazines, you’ll find her traveling the world in search of tacos to eat and puppies to pet.
Are you ready to hit the road and see Utah’s Mighty Five? Which park are you most excited about visiting? Did we convince you to study up on Mormon history?? Tell us in the comments below!
Psst: Planning more National Park Trips? We have lots of other posts on our favorite US National Parks:
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