Planning an Epic Utah National Parks Road Trip

View on West Rim Trail Zion National Park

Utah is one of the most beautiful and unique places we have ever visited.  From hoodoos to desert, slot canyons to mountains, arches to waterfalls, you really can’t go wrong no matter what destination you choose.  One of the best ways to experience a taste of what Utah has to offer is by exploring the state’s national parks.  The “Mighty Five” are some of the most iconic road trip destinations in the world.   Check out this guide to help plan your Utah National Parks road trip (and don’t forget to head off the beaten path along the way!)

Watchman Campground Zion National Park

Watchman Campground, Zion National Park

Zion National Park

There’s a reason  Zion National Park is one of the most popular National Parks in the United States.   Home to stunning scenery and easily accessible from two major airports, Zion has activities for all abilities and two car campgrounds in the main area of the park.  The nearby town of Springdale (just outside the park’s south entrance) offers a variety of shops for food and gear (as well as some gear rentals if needed!)  From February to November the trailhead areas in Zion canyon are accessible only by shuttle;  plan ahead to leave time for shuttle bus lines and rides to the trailheads and sites.

Getting there

  • Just under 3 hours from Las Vegas
  • 4 1/2 hours from Salt Lake City

Entry Fee

  • $30 per car
  • $80 annual National Parks Pass allows entry to all parks for the passholder and accompanying vehicle occupants

Camping

  • Watchman Campground:  Near South Entrance and Shuttle stop.  RV and tent sites;  price $20/night for tent only site, $30 for RV site with electrical hookup.  Water and restrooms available; no showers.  Reservations open 6 months in advance
  • South Campground: Near South entrance and shuttle stop.  Tent and small RV/trailer sites.  Water and restrooms available;  no showers.  Reservations open on 14 day rolling basis
  • Lava Point Campground:  ~1 1/2 hour drive from Zion Park South entrance.  First come, first serve.  Open May-September, weather permitting.  At ~8000 feet elevation, primitive sites with pit toilets, no water.  Vehicles longer than 19 feet not allowed on the road to Lava Point, as it is quite windy and steep in some areas.
  • There are several private campgrounds and BLM land areas surrounding the park available for camping as well – Click here for a list of some of the additional options
Angel's Landing Zion National Park

Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park

Activities

Hiking is the most popular activity in Zion, with good reason.  There is something for all ages and abilities, and beautiful views are everywhere! Canyoneering, rock climbing, bicycling, and stargazing are also popular activities in the park and surrounding area.

Click here for a list of hikes in Zion Canyon, with descriptions and ratings based on ability levels.   Here are a few favorites, including some more “off the beaten path” adventures.

  • Angel’s Landing – thrill seekers will love this notorious hike, which uses a series of chains to assist hikers to a lookout with breathtaking views of the main canyon.  This hike is extremely exposed and steep, so beware and take caution.  It is not suitable for young children or those with a fear of heights, balance issues or vertigo.  The weather can also be very warm so take plenty of water and expect a crowd, particularly on holidays or weekends.
  • The Narrows – a one of a kind hike through the Virgin River into a canyon.  Go as far as you want, as the walls become closer and closer together.
  • The Subway – permits are required for this 9 mile day hike which leads up the left fork of the north creek, ending at a series of pools and the geographical formation known as the Subway.  The route follows the creek and creek bed;  prepare to get wet and have fun.  The trailhead is a ~30 minute drive from the South entrance of Zion
  • West Rim Trail – a point to point trail from Lava Point to Zion canyon.  Arrange for a local shuttle to Lava point and hike “top down” 16 miles back to the canyon (backpacking campsites are also available along the route, permit required), or start in Zion canyon (same trailhead as Angel’s Landing) and hike up as far as you want, enjoy the scenery, then head back down
The Narrows Zion National Park

The Narrows, Zion National Park

Subway Zion National Park

Subway, Zion National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park Hoodoos

Bryce Canyon National Park

Some of the most unique and bizarre geographical formations on earth call Bryce Canyon home.  The main feature of the park is the large bowl-like amphitheater, filled with orange-y red rock spires known as hoodoos.  The park has two campgrounds to set up your home base as you hike among the hoodoos and take in spectacular sunsets and night skies.  Bryce is at the highest elevation of all of the Utah National Parks at around 8,000 feet so keep this in mind when planning – even in warmer months the temperatures will be cooler, especially at night.

Getting there

  • Two hours from Zion National Park
  • Four hours from Salt Lake City

Entry Fee

  • $30 per car
  • $80 annual National Parks Pass allows entry to all parks for the passholder and accompanying vehicle occupants

Camping

  • Sunset Campground:  100 sites, no electrical hookups.  Open April-October, reservations open 6 months in advance.  Near Sunset Point and shuttle stop. Sites are $20-$30
  • North Campground: 99 sites, first come first serve.  One loop is open year-round.  Close to the visitor’s center and Rim trail.   Sites are $20-$30
  • Check out this map for additional camping areas near the park, including some dispersed camping options

Hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park

Activities

Hiking is by far the most popular activity in Bryce Canyon National Park.  There are multiple routes that take you from a bird’s eye view of the amphitheater below, to up close and personal among the hoodoo formations.  In colder months, snowshoe or cross-country ski the trails.  Science and nature lovers, plan your trip around the yearly geology or astronomy festivals!  The night sky in Bryce Canyon is one of the best in the world, so come prepared for a relaxing night of stargazing after exploring the park.

  • Hike the rim trail, a point to point trail along the perimeter of the canyon, connecting all of the scenic overlooks.  Extends from fairyland point to Bryce point, with shuttle available.
  • The Navajo loop, Queen’s Garden loop, and Peekaboo loop are all trails that lead into and through the hoodoos.  Each is a great hike on it’s own, and they can be combined for a longer loop
  • The Fairyland loop is a less-crowded (but somewhat strenuous) 8 mile loop leaving from Fairyland Point in the northern portion of the park
  • The Watchman Zion National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is home to a geographical formation known as the Waterpocket Fold.  This 100 mile long wrinkle in the Earth’s surface has created a landscape of cliffs, arches, natural bridges, and canyons that can all be accessed within the park.   A scenic drive takes you on a vehicle tour through the area with multiple hiking trailheads off of the drive, as well as off Route 24, the main road through the area.  Visit the Fruita historic district to learn about the history of the area.

Getting There

  • 2 1/2 hours from Bryce Canyon National Park
  • 3 1/2 hours from Salt Lake City

Camping

  • Fruita Campground: 71 site campground located along the Fremont River.  No electrical hookups.  Campground is open year round, and sites are $20.  Drinking water and restrooms available, but no showers.

Activities

Hiking, bicycling, canyoneering, and rock climbing are some of the most popular outdoor activities in Capitol Reef.  Whether you are just passing through on your road trip or spending a few days here, there is plenty to keep your adventurers, history buffs, and geologists busy.

  • Drive the scenic drive and take a self-guided tour of the landscape.  There are multiple hiking options off of this 8 mile paved route.  The scenic drive costs $20 to access.
  • Day hike from one of the 15 trails along Route 24 and the scenic drive.  Check out the Hickman Bridge (a large natural arch), or choose trails like the Golden Throne or Chimney Rock for views.
  • Experienced hikers with knowledge of slot canyons (and the safety concerns associated with them, including route finding and flash floods) can explore the three slot canyons in the park.   This is not recommended for novice hikers as they can involve obstacles, tight squeezes through narrow rock, and water crossings.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park

One of the two Utah National Parks in the Moab area, Canyonlands is home to miles of terrain for cycling, hiking, and four-wheel drive exploring (Jeep camper, anyone??).  Oh, and yes… canyons.  The park is large and remote, with multiple districts (Island in the Sky, Needles, The Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon District) separated by rivers.

Getting There

  • 2 1/2 hours from Capitol Reef National Park
  • 4 hours from Salt Lake City

Entry Fee

  • $30 per car
  • $80 annual National Parks Pass allows entry to all parks for the passholder and accompanying vehicle occupants

Camping

  • Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat):  12 first-come, first-serve sites, $15 per night. Vault toilets only, no water available.  Drinking water is available at the Visitor Center Spring – Fall.
  • Needles Campground:  26 sites, some are available for reservations.  Potable water available.
  • There are many other camping areas available throughout the Moab region, including some private, state parks, and BLM campgrounds.
  • Dead Horse Point State Park is a destination in its own rite, and is a great base camp for exploring Canyonlands

Activities

  • Bicycling is a great way to explore the park’s roads.  Permits are required for many of the areas, so be sure to do your research before you head out on two wheels.  Day rides and overnight bikepacking options are available.
  • There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails throughout Canyonlands.  From short walks to scenic overlooks such as Mesa Arch to long strenuous hikes along canyons with steep climbs, there is something to satisfy all types of hikers.
  • Scenic drives:  both paved and off-road options are available for driving tours of the different districts.  Leave plenty of time for hiking and picture-taking at the scenic overlooks!
  • Take a Tour!  Multiple guides are available for river rafting, mountain biking, 4WD off-roading, and more.  Lists of companies authorized to operate in the area can be found here and here.

Delicate arch Arches National Park

Arches National Park

Moab is also home to Arches National Park.  The Utah license plate-famous Delicate Arch resides here, along with over 2,000 other natural stone arches, accessible via hiking trails or scenic overlooks.

Getting there

  • 45 minutes – 1 1/2 hours from Canyonlands, depending on your starting point
  • 3 hrs 45 minutes from Salt Lake City

Camping

  • Devil’s Garden Campground:  The only camping available within the park boundary.  Reservations open 6 months in advance March 1 – October 31 and fill quickly;  first come-first serve for the rest of the year.   Water and restrooms available.
  • Discover Moab has an extensive list of additional campgrounds in the area with varying amenities

Activites

  • The park’s 18 mile scenic drive is a popular way to take in a variety of viewpoints and scenic vistas.  This is also open to bicycling.
  • Hiking is the best way to get views of the famous arches throughout the park.  From short hikes (less than half a mile) to the entire Devil’s Garden Loop at 7 miles, there are numerous options for hikers of all abilities.   Reserve a spot in a ranger-led hike of Fiery Furnace for a guided canyoneering-type experience on challenging, maze-like terrain.
  • For experienced adventurers, canyoneering and rock climbing are also available in some areas of the park, as well as in numerous places throughout Moab.

Sand Dune Arch Arches National Park

So there you have it. I hope this guide helps to get you on the road to Utah’s National Parks!  How will you explore the Mighty Five?  Point to point between cities (Las Vegas to Salt Lake City or Denver come to mind)? A loop with some off-the beaten path local destinations mixed in?  As part of an epic cross-country adventure?  The options are endless, so choose your own adventure and hit the road!

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