Looking for recommendations for a Utah national parks road trip? I’ve got you covered! This blog post covers the best Utah national parks, including Utah hiking trails and the perfect route when driving through Utah national parks.
I’ve wanted to visit Utah for YEARS. Something that sparked my interest in this state is that the terrain is so different than what I’m used to seeing in Washington. It’s dry, rocky, and the deserts span on seemingly endlessly. We purposely planned this road trip for mid October because the weather there is also very different than what I’m used to. I do not do well in the heat, there is nothing more I hate than hiking in hot weather. I grew up in California, but living in Washington has really changed my temperature tolerance levels. If you’re anything like me and also prefer exploring and hiking in cooler temperatures, I recommend visiting Utah in the fall. The weather was a perfect 70-80 degrees the entire trip.
We opted to road trip and although it was a 16 hour drive to get to our first destination in Utah, I really enjoy the convenience of having our own vehicle. Car camping has been a blast and it’s been a new found love during Covid times. We ended up driving about 3,000 miles so I know this type of travel is not for everyone. If you prefer to fly, I recommend either flying into Las Vegas or Salt Lake City! I originally wanted to see Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks, but I chose to cut out Capital Reef to allow more time to see other places. Though we only did 4/5 parks, I left with no regrets.
Our route was as follows:
Day 1: Seattle–> Boise, ID to car camp (500 miles)
Day 2: Boise, ID–> Dead Horse Point State Park, hotel in Moab (500 miles)
Day 3: Arches National Park–>car camp near Canyonlands (50 miles)
Day 4: Canyonlands National Park–> Drive and stay near Bryce Canyon National Park in an Airbnb (300 Miles)
Day 5: Bryce Canyon National Park–Drive to Zion and car camp (75 miles)
Day 6: Zion National Park–> Stay at East Zion Resort (20 miles)
Day 7: Zion National Park–> Start drive back to Boise (650 miles)
Day 8: Boise, ID–>Seattle (500 miles)
This road trip was STRESSFUL to plan. It’s often hard trying to figure out the best places to see in such a short period of time. Because we only allotted one full day to each park, it was important to see as much as I could in one day. Hopefully if you’re thinking about doing a similar trip, you can be spared some of that effort by following my itinerary and tips! Don’t worry, I gotchu 🙂
Dead Horse State Park
This was a park was highly recommended by many many people! I decided to add this in last minute. This was actually our first stop in Utah, somehow I timed it just right and we arrived right before Sunset, which was my intention all along. I highly recommend checking the park out one night–it’s located in Moab, Utah right next to Arches, so it’s not out of the way. I will say, this park is pricey to enter! It was $20 and we were really only there for an hour. There was not a ton to see. We loved it, but it’s not a huge place to explore so if money is tight, I’d skip this place and focus on the National Parks. We have the America the Beautiful pass to get us into all the National Parks, but since this is a state park, this was not covered by our pass.
This views at this park are INSANE–if you’ve seen Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, it has a similar look to that. There was actually a wedding happening when we came and it looked magical. The way golden hour hits the red rocks is just such a cool thing to experience.
Arches National Park
My biggest recommendation for each park is to START EARLY! Seriously, the earlier the better. We got to each park before the sun came up and we are so glad we did! We skipped the entrance line and it was so much more enjoyable hiking before the heat and crowds started. Hidden secret–I know the $35 entrance fee is what deters a lot of people from visiting National Parks, if you go before sunrise, there is typically no one working the entrances..aka you get in for free. That being said, I fully support purchasing an America the Beautiful pass, it’s $80 USD for the year and it gets you into all the National Parks. These funds help keep the parks maintained and if you’re someone that plans on visiting more than 2 parks in the year, you’ll get your money’s worth with the yearly pass!
Although this park is pretty big, I felt one day was enough to see what we wanted to see. Here are my top picks for one day:
Hike: Delicate Arch, 3 miles
This is the most iconic arch in the park! It’s about a 3 mile roundtrip hike to see the arch, it’s rated moderate on AllTrails, but I’d say it’s more on the easier side of moderate. We did this hike for sunrise and it was one of my favorite things of the trip. Bring a headlamp or flashlight if you plan to hike for sunrise. It’s pretty easy to lose the trail, so make sure you follow the cairns. Luckily even during sunrise this is a fairly trafficked trail. Seeing the colors change the look of the arch was such a cool experience–if you’re able definitely do this for sunrise.
Sand Dune Arch
This is just a short walk from the parking lot and a stop all ages will enjoy. The kids I saw LOVED this place because it was one huge sandbox. I enjoyed how quiet this stop was, but again I think it’s because we arrived around 9 am immediately after hiking delicate arch.
I would 100% skip this stop! I was disappointed because we couldn’t get that close to the arch and I thought there were so many better spots to explore in the park. This was one of the most crowded lots because there are so many hiking trails around this area, but I wouldn’t recommend this stop.
After Delicate arch, this was my next favorite arch. It’s MASSIVE. Make sure you walk under the arch for scale. This was another stop you could enjoy without hiking–it’s a moderately short walk depending where you park.
Garden of Eden
This was a great spot to eat lunch and rest. It was filled with a bunch of rock formations and although there is no set hiking trail, it was a fun place to explore. There’s not a whole lot to explore at this stop, but I enjoyed that it was quiet, it was nice to escape the crowds.
La Sal Mountains Viewpoint
This was one of the cooler viewpoints! The mountains here are neat, but the view I enjoyed was actually to the left when you pull into the parking lot. This park made me feel so small.
Arches National Park Miss List:
There were a couple things we didn’t see that I would recommend you adding
1) Double O Arch
2) Turret Arch
3) Park Avenue Trail
I would have removed landscape arch and replaced with one of the above recs 🙂
Canyonlands National Park
I think I was most unimpressed with this park; however, we stayed within one side of the park due to the limited amount of time we had! I’ve heard quite a few people recommend the Needles District, but we stayed within the Island of the Sky. Although we didn’t see much of this park, I really enjoyed the off-roading we did to enter–this was another highlight of the entire trip.
This road is an 18 mile off-roading trail that takes you through the grounds of Canyonlands. You can either take the road up into Canyonlands via Potash road which drops you right at the Visitor Center OR you can take the Shafer trail from inside Canyonlands back towards Moab. We did the first option, but either option works,
If you research this off-roading trail, most people report it was the scariest drive they’ve ever taken and they would not recommend it. We loved it! I think because we have so much experience driving on sketchy forest roads to hiking trails, we didn’t find this to be all that bad. Yes it’s very bumpy and narrow in spots, and will trigger your fear of heights at times, but the scenery was unreal! If you do take this drive, allow AT LEAST two hours to complete, others report taking 2.5/3 hours.
Shafer Canyon Overlook
This was my favorite overlook we saw! It actually oversees the Shafer road, so it’s fun to get a birds eye view after completing the off-roading trail. It’s located right after the visitor center. Luckily all the overlooks we stopped at within Canyonlands were located within 5-10 minutes of each other. Though convenient, I think that’s why I wasn’t too impressed with the park, I felt we kept seeing the same thing over again. That’s why I recommend leaving Island of the Sky and visiting other parts of the Park.
This and the Shafer Trail is what made visiting Canyonlands worth it! This is a .7 mile round trip walk to see the famous arch. Most people check out this spot at sunrise, but we went around 10:00am and the views were incredible! I appreciated that this arch could be easily reached by all–unlike delicate arch which is a bit harder to get to.
Green River Overlook
After the mesa arch, we made several stops at various overlooks: Green River overlook, Candlestick Tower Overlook, Buck Canyon Overlook, Orange Cliffs Overlook, and Grand View Overlook. I don’t recall either of them to be particularly memorable. I will say that if you’re not a big hiker, this is a great park for you. There’s so much to see just from walking a short distance. A lot of these overlooks had similar views, so I recommend just picking one or two from the list I provided.
I will say, Canyonlands was like nothing I had ever seen before. It’s sooo unique. HOW DID THAT CRATER GET THERE?!
Bryce Canyon National Park
This National Park was magical. I think it’s often overlooked because it’s so small, but this was my favorite of the four. One full day in this park is enough! It’s fairly close to Zion, only a couple hours away so I recommend pairing the two together if you’re able.
This was the one park where I felt like we truly saw everything there was to see! Here’s everything I’d recommend.
Catch Sunrise at Sunset Point:
Because we were only spending one full day in the park, we wanted to start early. I highly recommend catching a sunrise in the park. The way the light hits the hoodoos is an incredible sight. Most people go to sunrise point to catch the sunrise, but research suggested Sunset Point. I went to both points, and didn’t notice a huge difference. I would say Sunset Point had a bigger parking lot and most of the hikes start from that lot, so it made sense for us to start there. If you’re not a big hiker, the walk from Sunset Point to Sunrise Point is a nice leisurely stroll 🙂
Hike: Navajo Loop & Queen’s Garden Trail, 2,9 miles
This hike is the most bang for your buck in Bryce! It quickly gets you down into the Hoodoos and every angle you turned you had a different view. This park was much emptier than the others we went too, so the hike felt relatively peaceful. This is a good hike for the whole family, it’s rated moderate but there was not too much elevation gain. We ended up doing two different hikes, but because of the distance I’d recommend this one because it allows you to see the rest of the park. We had most of this hike to ourselves because we started right after sunrise, another advantage of arriving early.
If you’re able I highly recommend doing this hike, the views were like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Even though there’s good viewpoints throughout the park, there is nothing better than seeing the hoodoo’s up close!
Drive the Scenic Drive
The scenic drive takes you through the end of the park, with several viewpoints along the way. All the viewpoints are a quick walk to see, so you can get through all of them relatively quickly. I recommend starting with: Yovimpa and Rainbow Point, which is at the very end of the park. This allows you to drive back towards the start of the park, stopping at viewpoints on the right. We did the following route: Yovimpa and Rainbow Point–Aqua Canyon–Natural Bride–Paria View–Bryce Point.
Yovimpa and Rainbow Point
After the hike, I will say the views from most of the viewpoints weren’t AS impressive as what you see on the trails; however, I still think it’s worth it to see all of the park, if for no other reason than it’s so easy. From this point you can see the layers or rock referred to as the “Grand Staircase”. The tree covered hills out into the horizon are actually part of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon–cool right?!
This is one of the seven natural arches within Bryce. This is an 85 foot arch and it’s definitely worth the stop. This was one of my favorite stops and one of the more iconic viewpoints in Bryce.
This is another great spot to look at the hoodoos from above. I think it’s ok to skip a few of the stops I’ve listed but I really enjoyed this one. It was so fascinating to see how far the hoodoos expand. So much orange!
Hike: Peekaboo Loop Trail, 5.2 miles
After driving the scenic road, we took a mid day nap and then decided to do another hike. I will say I don’t think doing two hikes is necessary because the first one we did was such a good one, but we had time and I wanted to see every inch of the park. If you don’t want to do the full 5 miles, I recommend following the All Trails app, going the direction they recommend in the loop and stopping before you’re halfway through the loop. We did the opposite direction and I thought a good chunk of the hike was pretty unimpressive. It started strong, then for a good mile or so it was fairly boring, then the views at the end were amazing!!! So follow All Trails and just do a portion of the hike if you’re not wanting to trek another 5 miles.
I’m pretty sure you can horseback ride through this trail because we saw quite a bit of horse poop. I’ve heard the horseback riding is a big hit, so that’s another option if you’re not big on hiking 🙂
Catch Sunset at Sunrise Point
This ended up being about a 11 mile walking day, so it was an exhausting one. We relaxed for sunset at Sunrise Point, then made the hour and a half hour drive to car camp outside Zion National Park!
Zion National Park
This is the park that had the most regulations due to Covid! You had to plan ahead to visit this park because you need a shuttle ticket from Recreation.gov to do nearly anything in Zion. Unlike most National Parks, you’re not able to drive your vehicle throughout the entire park (even during non-covid times). Once you get to the Visitor Center, about 30 minutes into the park entrance, you cannot drive your vehicle any further without riding the park shuttle, unless you are staying at the Lodge.
Typically it is not too difficult to get a shuttle ticket; however, during Covid, getting tickets was difficult because they only released a certain amount. They released tickets a few weeks before we were arriving, and I completely forgot to book them ahead of time. Recreation.gov then released another batch of shuttle tickets every single day for the following day. They sell out INSTANTLY, I’m talking within minutes they’re all taken. Because I was at the parks the day before with no service, I had 3 friends all work on getting shuttle tickets. Luckily this method worked, and we were able to score our preferred shuttle time both days. The tickets are only $1 each, so I didn’t mind having multiple people try for tickets. If you are not successful getting a shuttle ticket, you can rent electric bikes to ride, which honestly looked like a blast and I would recommend. If we go next time, I want to do that. You can also book a private shuttle/van, you just have to fork up more money.
Time in Zion was dedicated to two main things: Angel’s Landing and The Narrows. I feel bad saying this, but I feel like the shuttles prevented me from exploring as much as I wanted. I’m so used to doing things on my own terms, it was different to rely more on a schedule because of the shuttles. I really enjoy the freedom of driving through National Parks and stopping when I want to stop. That being said, the shuttle did make things easy because we never had to rely on parking. That is only because we booked 8 am shuttle tickets and we were at the visitor center by 6:45am both mornings. Kid you not, the visitor center parking lot was full by 8:00 am both days. If you don’t score a spot there, you have to pay to park outside and walk in. So again, arrive early. The shuttle starts at the Visitor Center, so it is most ideal to grab a spot there.
Hike: Angels Landing, 5 miles
Please do your own research on this hike prior to committing. It is rated the most dangerous hike in the world, they’ve had a handful of deaths, so go prepared.
I will say, this hike was AMAZING! It was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. It’s an uphill strenuous climb towards Scouts Landing, which is about 2 miles into the hike. From there, the chains start and it’s a straight uphill climb on a narrow cliff until you reach the top. It honestly felt like the chains were never ending. I’m not scared of heights so the chains section didn’t shake me up too much, but everyone was pretty terrified. It was fun conquering it with a bunch of strangers. Quite a few people started the chain section and then turned around because it was too scary. Regardless if you make it to the top or not, I think the hike is still worth it even if you want to call it good before you get to the chains. There’s still a great view and plenty of space to sit in and take in the view at Scout’s Landing. If you can get yourself to just look ahead and watch your footing while going up the chains, without looking at the dropoffs, I think you can get to the top, regardless of your fear of hikes. This is another hike I recommend doing either first thing in the morning or prior to sunset because it gets SO CROWDED. Going down the chains when hundreds of people are trying to go up makes it a lot scarier.
After completing Angels Landing, we had a beer Zion Brewery which was across a walking bridge at the Visitor Center. The weather was a beautiful 72 degrees and it was the perfect ending to a fun day.
Hike: The Narrows
I highly recommend renting hiking boots, neoprene socks, and a stick to do this hike. The socks and boots kept my feet from going numb, the water is cold year round. You can rent from Zion Guru or Zion Outfitters. I believe it was around $25/$30 for the rentals. You can also rent pants, for quite a bit more money. We rented that as well, but I didn’t end up wanting to wear mine.
The Narrows is one of the famous hikes you see people do at Zion that involves hiking through narrow canyons and water. Hiking early had some disadvantages here. We started at 8 am and it was 50 degrees outside and the water temperature was 43. It was COLD! The crowds were very light though so that was really nice. This hike can stretch up to about 16 miles, but most people do not actually complete the entire thing. It’s about a mile until you even hit the water section of the hike.
Because we were leaving this day, we didn’t end up doing much of the hike. We only did about 2 miles in the water and I wish we would’ve done a few more, because we didn’t even get to the part of where it gets narrow. Even though we didn’t do much, it was still beautiful. This hike is definitely not made for everyone. I have heard you either love it, or it’s not really your thing. I think I would’ve enjoyed it much more if we did it when the sun was shining because it was just too cold to really enjoy. I’ll definitely be trying again when I return.
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That’s a Wrap:
That’s a wrap on our 8 day Utah Road trip! Although we saw so much,
I already can’t wait to go back. There’s sooo much to see and do in Utah. We weren’t able to see the sand dunes, Grand Staircase Escalante Monument, Lake Powel, etc. If you have more time, I recommend expanding the trip to include one of those things. I hope this helps you plan your trip, it really is an amazing place. Happy explorin’,