As with visiting places like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, going on an Utah National Parks road trip is a total bucket list itinerary! Stopping at all five parks is the trip of a lifetime and you might literally only have one chance to do it—so make it count! Between choosing accommodations and crowd control, to the most underrated hikes and activities, we’ve got you covered with the best tips to make your Utah National Parks road trip a perfect one.
This article was created in partnership with SUNParks. All photos by Tobey Schmidt.
If time is an issue, don’t fret, this trip can be done in five days and five nights, although we highly recommend spending longer savoring these stops. The route can be done in either direction, but we’ve laid it out in the way that we think is best: starting in Zion and ending in Canyonlands.
If you’re flying in, we recommend landing in Las Vegas, renting a car there, and then flying out of Salt Lake City—this will allow you to see all the parks with the least amount of driving.
Time of Year
Although most of Utah looks like a desert, only about 33 percent truly is. Don’t expect warm weather all year round for your Utah National Parks road trip. Many of these parks get cold and snowy in the winter, but luckily the sun is usually still shining and we think it’s a gorgeous time of year to visit and see fewer people. If you’re not much of a cold-weather person, spring and fall are our favorite times to visit. Summer is great weather, but is the most busy time of year in the parks.
Zion National Park — Springdale
Our biggest tip for visiting Zion National Park is to plan ahead in order to avoid the crowds that will accumulate throughout the summer. The town of Springdale is located right at the park entrance, making it the obvious and most convenient choice for a home base—plus you’re practically in the park so the views are insane! All hotels in Springdale are resort-quality, so you really can’t go wrong.
#1: If you’re able, rent an E-bike and take that to your trailhead instead of a shuttle. Why? We’ll tell you:
- You can stop whenever you want in the canyon to take photos of the scenery.
- You don’t have to worry about missing the last shuttle after your hike.
- If you stay in the park after the last shuttle, you can watch the wildlife come out and experience the calmness.
#2: Hike, hike, and more hiking! The best way to experience Zion is by hiking the trails, so do as much as you can. We recommend:
- Pa’rus Trail: This is a 3.5-mile roundtrip paved trail that is handicap accessible and crosses the Virgin River a few times for good photo opportunities.
- Angel’s Landing: A 5.4-mile roundtrip popular, albeit difficult, trail to the top of a rock pinnacle. This trail is steep, and the top includes a narrow ridge to the summit.
- The Narrows: This hike is at the furthest point up the canyon, and hikers are essentially walking up-river as far as they want and then turning around. This trail can get busy and the water can be cold, so make sure you are prepared!
Bryce Canyon National Park — Bryce Canyon City
The drive from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park is a quick two hours that can be done by mid-morning. Along the way, stop at the Red Canyon Visitor Center in Dixie National Forest for a short hike and a sneak peak of the sandstone spires. Continue on to Bryce Canyon City, the quaint town that will host you after a long day in the park.
#1: Be in the park for either sunrise or sunset because there’s no better time for photographs!
#2: Hike to the bottom of Bryce Canyon to get an up-close view of the hoodoos.
- Our favorite hike was the Queen’s/Navajo Combination Loop. If you’re lucky, Wall Street will be open on Navajo and you can make a detour there as well.
Capitol Reef National Park — Torrey
We aren’t sure why, but Capitol Reef National Park is one of the most underrated parks in the country. Just two hours from Bryce, Capitol Reef is filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges—can you imagine how much good hiking there is? The town of Torrey is located 15 minutes from the CRNP Visitor Center and offers lovely lodging such as Broken Spur Inn & Steakhouse or a more secluded Cougar Ridge Lodge.
#1: If you’re into camping, the Fruita Campground is one of the best in Utah.
- The sites are spread amongst historic orchards, making it a desert oasis, especially in the spring.
#2: The drive from Bryce to Capitol Reef is one of the prettiest along your trip, so we suggest stopping in a few places along the way:
- Kiva Koffeehouse shortly after the town of Escalante is a coffee shop in the middle of the desert with stunning cliffside views and delicious pastries. Plus, there’s an awesome hike down by the river just below the shop.
- Upper Calf Creek Falls Hike is a beautiful hike just before the town of Boulder, and is way less busy than Lower Calf Creek Falls, which is also a popular hike.
#3: Our favorite hike in Capitol Reef National Park was Golden Throne.
- This hike has gorgeous light in the afternoon/evening and makes for the best photo ops.
Arches National Park — Moab
You’ve likely seen photos of this park everywhere—one famous arch is even featured on most Utah license plates! Arches National Park is located in the town of Moab, a fun, vibrant desert community that thrives on mountain biking, hiking, river rafting, and respecting wild spaces. Similar to Zion, a visit to Arches requires some forethought as it can also be one of the most busy national parks (tip: it isn’t busy in the winter).
#1: To avoid waiting in line for hours, drive into Arches either first before 8 a.m. or arrive in the afternoon after 3 p.m. for an evening visit.
#2: There are many ways to spend your day if you’re waiting for that beautiful 3 p.m. arrival time:
- Spend some time exploring the town of Moab.
- Rent a bike to ride the Colorado River Ride.
- Head out onto the river via paddle board, kayak, or raft.
Canyonlands National Park — Monticello
Last, but not least, the largest park of them all—Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is split into three districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. The latter is the most remote, and Island in the Sky is the most accessible from Moab, but on this trip we recommend driving down to The Needles, the most hike-able. Just before reaching Monticello, you’ll turn off onto UT 211 towards The Needles, driving through Indian Creek and some of the most beautiful desert views.
#1: Don’t skip The Needles because of the drive from Moab—it’s worth it, drive included!
- Newspaper Rock is right off the side of the road along your drive and one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the country.
#2: Get into the backcountry:
- The Needles has some of the best hiking, so stop at the Visitor Center to speak with a ranger and see which hike is best. We love the Squaw Canyon to Lost Canyon hike.
#3: Don’t just look out and around at the views. Look up:
- Book a stay with Glamping Canyonlands for a luxurious, off-the-grid experience with private decks, fire pits, swings, hammocks, flushing toilets, and showers with hot water!
After reading this, you may feel overwhelmed with all this information, and we want to reassure you that your Southern Utah’s National Parks road trip doesn’t have to be complicated. If you aren’t much of a planner, here are our best tips, if it’s all you take away from this article:
- Stay overnight in each park or neighboring town. It will help you slow down and experience each national park without feeling rushed.
- Park rangers are there to help! Stop into Visitor Center’s and ask questions—they can tell you what you’re looking for.
- Take the path less traveled. Oftentimes the “most popular” trail is not the most scenic or most enjoyable. Find the trail with fewer people and enjoy the quiet nature.