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The Ultimate Utah National Parks Road Trip

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Utah is home to some of the most spectacular scenery in the American West, with five incredible national parks and numerous state parks that showcase the state's rich diversity of landscapes. From the soaring red rocks of Zion to the hoodoo stone formations of Bryce Canyon, Utah offers one breathtaking sight after another.

In this post, I'll outline an epic road trip itinerary that takes you through all five Utah national parks: the Mighty Five – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. I've also included three equally stunning state parks along the way.

This route incorporates the magnificent Highway 12 scenic drive and can be done as a loop trip, starting and ending near Zion National Park. You can hit all the highlights with careful planning in 7-10 days.

Beyond the national parks, this route incorporates the amazing Highway 12 Scenic Byway across the Utahn desert. It also takes you to three nearby state parks, each with its unique scenery and story.

The state parks are suggested detours. If you're short on time, you can skip them, but I highly recommend visiting them if you can.

I've visited these parks, some more than once. This route is based on my planning and our actual experiences. This was the itinerary of our first visit to Utah, except we started in Moab and moved on to Arizona from there. Highway 12 was our route, skipping that section of the i-70.

Utah was awesome. We were struck with a sense of awe at the area's beauty.

We had not considered ourselves fans of desert scenery. We're happy to give us forests, green pastures, and waterfalls. Utah had some of those features (surprise!), but the dry landscape was just as amazing.

If you've never been to these parks, I envy you. You're in for a lifetime experience like no other.

Where does this route start and end?

As you can see, this can be an "almost loop" route if you want to start and end at the exact location. This is how I arranged the locations. The logical points at this beginning would be Springdale or Moab.

Realistically, for most people, the beginning would be in Las Vegas, where you have a large international airport and convenient car rental options. Drive for under three hours, and you'll be in Springdale, ready to start your road trip at Zion National Park.

You could make this a one-directional road trip to Moab, where you'll return your vehicle and fly back home. If you choose to do that, make sure to visit Kolob Canyon before you head out east.

If you want to return to Vegas, it would make sense to take the i-70 back and then get on the i-15 back to Sin City. In that case, Kolob Canyon makes for a great last taste of the parks before your return.

How long does it take?

I would suggest a minimum of one week for this road trip. It would allow you to spend a day in each national park, plus a couple of days for the state parks, Highway 12, and the drive back to Vegas.

However, ten days would be much better if you enjoy hiking and can afford to. It would allow you to spend more than a full day in the bigger parks and allow for a more relaxed road trip.

What's more, if you can add a few more days in the region, by all means, include the Grand Canyon National Park and Page, AZ, to see Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell.

What's the best time of year to make this road trip?

That's actually tricky because this road trip involves varying altitudes in some pretty challenging terrain. When we made it in one year in October, we had to drive Highway 12 in the snow. It was beautiful, but also a "white knuckles" driving experience.

At the same time, this being the desert, summertime is when some of these parks can be scorching hot during the day.

So, spring or early fall might be your best option. But if you can't visit during those seasons, summer works too. Just be prepared to limit hiking to the cooler hours of the day.

And if you're very adventurous - and have the right gear - by all means, Utah's winter wonderland is well worth exploring! Some of these parks are featured here: 15 Breathtaking Winterland National Parks in the West for a Magical Snowy Adventure

Finally, here's the itinerary

Again, you could start this loop at the other end - in Moab - or do this as part of a longer road trip, beginning in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, or Colorado. The following suggested stops will take you through the very best Southern Utah has to offer -

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is renowned for its steep red cliffs and canyon trails. Key highlights include The Narrows, a hike through a gorge with walls a thousand feet tall, and Angel's Landing, which offers panoramic views from its peak.

Zion national park

To navigate the park, visitors use a shuttle system. It can get very busy, so plan on arriving early to avoid crowds and secure a spot on the shuttle.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon National Park is famous for its hoodoos and spire-shaped rock formations caused by frost weathering and stream erosion.

The park offers a range of viewpoints and trails, such as the Rim Trail, and is higher in elevation than Zion, which can lead to cooler temperatures. It's a place that's more about walking the rim or descending among the hoodoos, so prepare for variable weather and bring layers.

Read more: Zion or Bryce? Comparing Utah’s Famous National Parks

Kodachrome Basin State Park

This park is named for its multicolored rock formations and sand pipes, which are chimney-like columns that rise from the desert floor. It's less crowded than the national parks and offers trails for all skill levels, including campgrounds and picnic areas.

Kodachrome Basin State Park

Kodachrome Basic is an optional detour. If you don't have time and want to focus solely on the national parks, you will continue from Bryce NP towards Capitol Reef.

Utah's Highway 12 & Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument,

Utah's Highway 12 is a scenic byway that runs through some of the country's most rugged and diverse landscapes.

This beautiful road connects Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. It goes through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, offering views of vast canyons, high plateaus, and the unique rock formations of Escalante.

Highway 12

To see the Escalante area in all its glory, you would need to off-road and hike. Most people drive through on Highway 12. Trust me, it's exceedingly beautiful and well worth it even like that.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park features the Waterpocket Fold, a unique geological monocline that extends almost 100 miles.

Capitol Reef National Park

The park has orchards where visitors can pick fresh fruit, historic sites like the Fruita Schoolhouse, and trails that lead to arches, canyons and overlooks.

Most people visit Zion and Bryce on the western end of Utah or Arches and Canyonlands on the easter. Few make it to Capitol Reef, making this a fantastic yet hidden gem of the state.

Goblin Valley State Park

Goblin Valley State Park is famous for its thousands of hoodoos and mushroom-shaped rock pinnacles, referred to as "goblins." The park has a very otherworldly landscape, with opportunities for hiking and exploring the geologic wonders.

Goblin Valley State Park

It's a fantastic stop on this itinerary. We visited when the kids were younger, and they loved it!

Dead Horse Point State Park

Dead Horse Point State Park offers a breathtaking vista of the Colorado River, winding through a landscape of deep canyons. The viewpoint stands 2,000 feet above the river bend and provides a perfect spot for photography, especially during sunrise or sunset.

Dead Horse Point State Park

When you read Dead Horse Point, you are almost in Canyonlands National Park. It's a great tiny detour to take as part of your visit to the Moab parks, even if you don't go through the entire road trip.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is divided into four districts by the Green and Colorado Rivers. With a landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes by the rivers, visitors can explore the Island in the Sky district for easily accessible expansive views or the Needles district for backcountry hikes.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is a bucket list national park that's easy to access from Moab. Give yourself at least one full day to explore this park.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is home to over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, including the world-famous Delicate Arch. The park's terrain varies from massive fins and pinnacles to large balanced rocks, all easily accessible via a loop road and short hikes.

arches national park

Arches is yet another jewel in Utah's parks. This is a must-do item that you could easily incorporate into a Colorado road trip (along with the other Moab parks mentioned above).

Kolob Canyons Visitor Center

The Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park is known for its crimson canyons and soaring peaks. A five-mile scenic drive takes you to viewpoints and trailheads, such as the Taylor Creek Trail and the Kolob Arch, one of the world's largest freestanding arches.

Kolob Canyons

This park is last on our list because it would work well into a loop route, starting and ending in Las Vegas. You would enter the Kolob Canyons area from the i-15, which you will join on your way back from Moab on the i-70.

If you're planning a smaller route, taking in just Zion and Bryce without venturing further east, then include Kolob Canyons as part of that tour. It's well worth it!

The road is calling!

I hope this itinerary gives you a great starting point for planning your Utah road trip adventure.

Whether you opt for the entire loop or a more targeted visit focusing only on Zion and Bryce, you won't regret immersing yourself in the magnificent beauty of Utah's national and state parks. Just allow enough time to take in everything these parks offer correctly.

I'd love to hear from you! Have you journeyed through the area? What were your favorite places? Anything I need to add here?

Let me know if you have any other questions as you start mapping your journey in the spectacular American Southwest!

 
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29 Comments

  1. Is it possible to do this trip in 4 days seeing arches/bryce and Zion with a drive on Route 12.. I know it’s way to ambitious but I wont’ be coming this again in my lifetime.

    • Yes, you can, just be aware that you’ll only have time for a short hike in each park, at most. I’d cram Zion and Bryce in day 1, driving and Capitol Reef in day 2 (waking up in Moab if possible), arches day 3, canyon lands and driving back day 4, with a quick detour to the overlook in Kolob on the way down I-15. (Well worth the 30-40 minutes up a back.) This schedule would mean minimal time in each park, but at least you could say you’ve seen them all!

    • A couple years back my husband and I took our three grown daughters out of Las Vegas in rented RV up through a similar look to see the big National parks. It was a great trip. It seems the cost of the RV is similar to the hotels but it was a great way to travel together through this area. We rented from Travel America (near Vegas) but there are other websites like rvshare where you can get better deals. The RV, along with the incredible views made an experience we will all never forget.

    • This route is very misleading. It should provide the actual roads. I looked at a map and this would be impossible to find this route. It should be more detailed

      • Hi Rob,
        The map is intended for general viewing. To give people an idea on where the places are located. It is in fact based on roads, though. We used Google Maps to create it, so these are real roads, but you’re seeing a picture of the map and thus you probably aren’t seeing the level of detail that you would need to drive it. We’re working on generating a more detailed PDF with details for a Utah road trip where people can see an accurate detailed version (including stops) and also have links to Google maps for detailed versions of segments of the route that they can actually use to navigate. It’s a lot of work to create that and so it would be a paid option. Meanwhile, you can just use Google Maps or any other navigation tool to find the route.

  2. We are hoping to go out west this year possibly in September. Would love to get a printed itinerary and also suggestions on where to stay. Is staying in the parks an option?

  3. I plan to visit that area May1-10 landing in Salt Lake City and seeing the 5 parks. Any idea how weather conditions iwill be during that time?

  4. This is perfect timing for our trip out West in May, planning on visiting all those parks you mentioned. We’re deciding whether to drive from Chicago, or just fly into Las Vegas, which seems slightly less expensive. I’m happy to hear about your experiences on Rt.12 — haha , that road is not for me! Anyway, looking forward to a printable version of your trip. Thanks for all the info!

  5. I flew into Vegas and went to Snow Canyon State Park and then I went to Zion and then drove through the tunnel and stayed in Hatch and then went to Bryce and then took Route 12 and turned around and went back to Hatch to stay again . I almost made it all the way to the end of Route 12. I have to say I am not afraid of heights, but I was really nervous driving up towards the tunnel in Zion and then really nervous driving by myself on route 12. It looked amazing but I didn’t dare look as I was driving. I can’t imagine driving it in snow!! Then I went back to St. George and back to Snow Canyon State Park, and then on my way to the airport I went to Valley of Fire. I want to go back and go see the rest of the Mighty Five! Utah was breathtaking❤️

  6. My wife and I went out west in July, 2023. We are from Indiana and love it out west. We drove the entire way visiting a number of the parks you mentioned & including the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore & Yellowstone. We did take Hwy 12 from Bryce canyon. That was white knuckles driving in July! It might have been the scariest road I’ve ever driven. I can’t imagine driving that road in the snow! Would love to go back and spend more time in Yellowstone and Utah. At 70, not sure I want to drive Hwy 12 again though. LOL

    • Hi Mel,
      Not only did I drive that in the snow, it was also my first time ever driving in snow lol. Who would have thought it would snow in early October? Not me! Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Hi Marlene,
      Springdale and Kanab are where people typically stay when visiting Zion and Bryce. Hurricane, Utah, is another option (more affordable). Moab, in Utah, is the best location for visiting Arches and Canyonlands.

  7. Hello I found your article to be very interesting but wanted to know about hotels and where you stayed throughout your road trip? Thank you.

    • Hi Rema,

      Lots of options in Springdale and Moab, in Utah. You can use the search box on this page, enter your dates and preferred locations and see what’s available (along with scoring and reviews).

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