Southern Utah has a truly incredible concentration of national and state parks, monuments and forests all within a relatively small area. Mile for mile this area can match any scenic stretch in the country. It's never too soon to start planning an epic road trip, and for this one you can get a lot done in less than a week. The best part is that you won't be spending most of your time on the road because the average drive between each park is less than two hours long. A great time to start your journey would be the spring or autumn because hiking in the hot summers here can be downright deadly. If your only option is summer break with the kiddos, do your best to get on the road by early June.
Each park is very different from the next, and that's why going to all five is the only way to go. This 5-day itinerary is the perfect option for those with limited time, but if your time allows we highly recommend spending more time in each spot!
For anyone flying into the area, one of the best starting points is actually not in Utah but at McCarren International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada. Head north to the adventure filled town of St. George, passing through the scenic Virgin River Gorge. Only two and a half hours on the road and you arrive at the granddaddy of them all, Zion National Park. The first of the Utah national parks, Zion was designated in 1919 and became the 15th park added to the national network. Known for its soaring sandstone walls covered in desert varnish, you have to try out the famous and unforgettable Angels Landing hike. If you have extra time and can pull the permits, check out the hallmark Narrows hike or the one-of-a-kind Lower Subway hike. The Watchmen at the front of the park catches the last rays of daylight as you set up your tent at the South Campground.
By heading east on Highway 9 to the Mount Carmel Junction, then north on U.S. 89, then east on the U.S. 12 to reach the unique and wonderful Bryce Canyon, which is only 90 minutes away from Zion. Made unique by its hoodoos, these sandstone figures were left behind after the softer surrounding rock was washed away. Local legend contends that the hoodoos were once humans that were turned to stone by the trickster god Coyote. Walking through these strange features along the Queen's Garden and the Fairyland Loop is a special experience that you won't find anywhere else. Inspiration Point gives you a stunning view of the famous Bryce Amphitheater. The North Campground is a great place to pitch your tent, and there are some amazing sights on the rim just above the camp.
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What is probably the best part of the drive takes place when you jump back on Highway 12 and head east and then north toward Capitol Reef. Along the way you pass through the sprawling Grand Staircase, pass near the fantasy-like Kodachrome Basin, and drive through the beautiful Dixie National Forest near the town of Boulder. Scenic Highway 12 is one of the prettiest drives in the nation.
Two hours after leaving Bryce Canyon you'll reach Capitol Reef. This park is often overlooked among the five, but it might contain the most diverse array of things to easily see. Not designated until 1971, the park gets the fewest visitors by far, and that is what makes it so great. Petroglyphs, natural bridges and arches, pioneer remnants, scenic drives, soaring river valleys, the Fremont River, and the turtle shelled Navajo Sandstone that make up the Capitol Dome are easily found here. Highlights include the Hickman Bridge, Cassidy Arch, and the Fruita Petroglyphs, which are right near the Fruita Campground, a perfect place to spend the night under the dark sky full of stars.
Heading east on Highway 24 out of Capitol Reef takes you through some seriously desolate and foreboding territory for most of this two-hour drive. Highway 24 turns north and hits the Interstate 70, which you'll take east until you turn south at Highway 191 approaching the incomparable city of Moab, a true nexus for outdoor fun.
Just west of Moab is the mysterious, rugged and downright huge Canyonlands National Park. Divided into three distinct sections, the road from Highway 191 takes you into the Island in the Sky district. Mesa Arch is a hugely popular spot especially at sunrise. The Upheaval Dome Hike shouldn't take long and showcases some amazing geology, and it is not far from the popular and elusive False Kiva Hike. Park your traveling party at the Willow Flat Campground for the night. To access the Needles district you would need to head quite far southeast of Moab to loop back around to the remote district. Most people who visit the park have never been here, nor have they been to the even more remote Maze District to the southwest. Canyonlands is mainly seen from Island in the Sky because it is so vast and meant for backcountry travel; most people only see a small fraction of the park.
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The shortest drive of the trip between parks leads to the crown jewel of Utah. When most people think of the state, the vision of Delicate Arch is probably what comes to mind. Nowhere else on earth has more natural arches than the Moab area, and the entrance to the park sits just on the edge of town. Arches National Park is immediately intriguing from the moment you start up the Wingate Sandstone switchbacks. Many of the most magnificent arches can be driven up to in a car or have just a short hike to reach them. Balance Rock can be seen on your way to the WIndows Section, which has a bunch of unusual features all within a few square miles. Stretch out your legs on the Devils Garden Trail, where you can see multiple unique arches on one hike including the worlds longest free span arch. There is a great campground near this trailhead to spend the final night and soak in the last five days.
Each one of these stops could justify way more than one full day each, and while these five parks are a wonder to behold, there are many more places to see as you drive the roads between them. Northwest of Zion National Park is the northern prefecture of the park known as Kolob Canyon, which is also near Cedar Breaks National Monument, Yant Flat and Kanarra Falls. Checking out some of the jewels of the Grand Staircase on your way from Bryce to Capitol Reef can be another great side trip: Devils Garden and Lower Calf Creek Falls aren't too far off the road. There is also a second prefecture to Canyonlands known as Horseshoe Canyon, which can be seen after Capitol Reef as you head toward Interstate 70. It houses the Grand Gallery, one of the largest ancient rock art sites in the world. Corona Arch is not inside Arches National Park, but this Moab gem is massive and well worth the hike.
If you are starting in Salt Lake City, you can consider doing the opposite route. Start with Arches by taking Highway 6 through Price and end with Zion, so you have a straight shot back to Salt Lake on Interstate 15. This is a good order to do them for people coming from Colorado as well.