Few states are as blessed as Utah in terms of National Parks. Only two states have more parks than Utah and both of those are at least twice the size of Utah. Utah’s National Parks are referred to as the Mighty Five. All of the Mighty 5 feature monumental rock formations from Canyons to Arches to Hoodoos, Utah’s rock have it all. Check out how to make the most of your one-week road trip thru the Utah National Parks.
When is the best time to visit the Utah National Parks?
The best time to visit is April and May or September and October. The weather is milder during the months. The temperature varies by the park but on average the April highs ranges from 60˚F’s to mid-70˚F’s and May is in the 70˚F’s. September is high 70˚F’s to low 80˚F’s. October is mid 70˚F’s to the 60˚F’s. The days will be warm with a chance of afternoon rains. Then nights can see temperatures drop to mid-30˚F’s. With proper preparation, one can hike all day.
The summer season is from June to August. This can see average highs in the 90˚F with temperatures regularly above 100˚F. During these months, the park is very busy and most hiking must be done in the morning or late afternoon.
Getting to and around the 5 National Parks in Utah
If you live in one of the states surrounding Utah, it is possible to drive to the state. Otherwise, the best option is to fly. For this road trip, you have four options.
The first is to fly into Salt Lake City, UT. Salt Lake City is 4 hours from Moab, Utah and 4.5 hours from Zion National Park. This creates a round trip for the rental car. The major airport is served by most major airlines.
The second option is to fly into Las Vegas, NV. It is 2 hours from Zion National Park.
The second option is to fly into Salt Lake City, Utah and head towards Moab and end your trip in Las Vegas, Nevada. This does create a one-way rental on the car. Make sure your rental agency allows for this.
The third option is to start in Las Vegas and end in Salt Lake and run this trip in reverse. I would start with Zion with this option.
Honestly, I would price out all four options and see which one is cheapest. Factor in flight cost, rental car cost, and the one-way fee, if applicable.
Planning a vacation in Utah’s National Parks
Honestly, you could easily spend 5 or more days in a single Utah national parks. All five are diverse and unique from each other. Picking the best national park in Utah is an impossible task. The real deciding factors come down to what you want to see.
If you haven’t had a chance to visit all five national parks before, then this is Utah road trip itinerary for you. This trip hits the highlight of each park.
Utah Park Map
A Week long Road Trip thru Utah’s Mighty Five
This is a 7-day road trip with a travel day on each end. The road trip takes you on a Utah National Park Tour. This outline is set-up for a round trip that begins and ends in Salt Lake City but can easily be modified to start in Las Vegas.
Day 1 – Travel Day
Fly into Salt Lake City, Utah. When you land you have a choice of driving to 4 hours to Moab or 5.5 hours to Canyonlands National Park Needles District. If you have some extra time to explore Salt Lake City.
Where to stay
If you are planning on staying in a hotel get a hotel in Moab and plan for 4 nights there.
Moab has the second best hostel near a national park (Everglades has the best hostel but Moab is a close second). The Lazy Lizard Hostel is a fun little hostel with a great vibe. Book it here. Otherwise, Moab offers a range of hotels for every price range. Check them out.
If you are planning on camping, head down the Canyonlands Needles District. Squaw Flat Campground offers in park camping and the sites can be reserved. Just outside of the park is BLM dispersal camping and a small campground at Hamburger rock.
Day 2 – Canyonlands – Needles District
If staying in Moab, make the 1.5-hour drive down to Canyonlands Needles District. If arriving before sunrise or camping nearby, hike the short Pothole Point Trail. This 0.6-mile loop allows for excellence views of the Needles. After sunrise, fill your water bottles at the campground or visitor center and drive down the gravel road to the Elephant Hill Trailhead.
Next head over to Elephant Hill Trailhead. Hike the 6 mile Chesler Park Viewpoint trail. This trail is 5.4 miles long with 526ft of elevation gain. It takes between 3-4 hours to hike. The trail starts by crossing some slickrock then across a red canyon than a very steep climb to the overlook. If you are really ambitious you can add an extra 4.6 miles and do the full Chesler Park loop and hike thru the narrow fractures known as the Joint.
Once you are done with Chesler Park, head over to the Visitor Center for some water and air conditioning. Check out the exhibits while you cool off.
When you are ready to head over to Cave Spring Trail and hike out to the prehistoric pictographs and a historic cowboy camp. The trail is 0.6 miles and has two ladders to climb on the trail.
After a full day of hiking, as you leave the hike to check out Roadside Ruin which is an ancient granary. Be sure to check the sunrise times before you go head to bed.
Where to camp
Head back up to Moab. There are several camping options. I would recommend camping at either the Willow Flat Campground in Canyonlands Island of the Sky District or Kayenta Campground in Dead Horse State Park.
If both of those are full, there are several BLM campground in the area around Moab. If camping at the BLM, plan on two nights there.
Day 3 – Canyonlands and Arches
Get to Mesa Arch about 20-30 minutes before the sunrises. The short trail to Mesa Arch is only 0.5 miles. The cliffside Mesa Arch is one of the best sunrise spots in the national park system.
After sunrise head over start driving towards the Grand View Point and White Rim Overlook. Stop and enjoy the many overlooks and the views of from the island and the Green and Colorado River.
Hike out the Grand View Point Rail to get an even better view of the Green River. The trail is an easy walk along the canyon edge. The trail is 2.0 miles round trip.
Keep driving to the Green River Overlook and check out the view. Head towards Upheaval Dome. Upheaval Dome is a unique geological feature. The Dome is a 1,000-foot deep crater that is 3 miles wide. Scientists are not sure what created this dome. It could be the pressure of other geological layers forces a layer of sand upward or a meteorite could have hit the area and this is what remains. Geologists are still trying to figure out. The Dome can be seen by hiking the Upheaval Dome trail. The trail has two overlooks. The first overlook is 0.4 miles and the second overlook is 0.9 miles from the overlook. The trail provides some great views of the dome, but the trail has a few steep sections and should take about 1.5 hours to hike.
Start working your way out of the park and head towards Arches National Park. Take a detour to Dead Horse Point State Park and check out the Dead Horse Point Overlook.
Depending on the line, entering Arches might take an hour or so. Once in the park head towards the Delicate Arch trailhead. Pack dinner, enough water, and two FLASHLIGHTS in a bag and make the 1.5-mile hike up to Delicate Arch. As the trail ascends, it moves on to Slickrock. Follow the rock cairns as you hike out. At the end of the trail, you are greeted with an excellent view of Delicate Arch and a great place to watch the sunset. Claim your spot and enjoy the view.
Where to camp
If you are planning ahead and managed to get a campsite at Devils Garden Campground in Arches National Park. If you can’t get the campground head back to the BLM campgrounds.
Day 4 – Arches
Hopefully, you managed to reserve an early morning ranger-led hike into the Fiery Furnace. This is a special hike into narrow sandstone canyons, fins, and natural arches. The trail is marked but unless you have been into the Furnace before don’t go alone. The hike is about 2.5 miles and will take a couple of hours.
After the Furnace hike, take a break and walk out to Sand Dune Arch. The trail is a short 0.3 miles into a small canyon and incredible arch.
Next head out to Devils Garden Trailhead. If you are after a challenge plan on hiking out to Double O Arch. Double O Arch is a steep hike up think Delicate Arch but more difficult. The trail is 4.5 miles round trip. The trail will pass Tunnel, Pine Tree, Landscape, Partition, and Navajo Arch. The first 1.6 miles is an easy hike until you see Landscape Arch.
The next couple of hikes are the short hikes out to Double Arch, the Windows, and Balanced Rock. These trails will take max of an hour and a half.
When you are ready to leave Arches start heading towards Capitol Reef National Park. The drive will take just over 2 hours.
Where to stay
There are a couple of hotel options near Capitol Reef National Park. They are located in the town of Torrey. The other option is to camp at the Fruita Campground. in the park.
Day 5 – Capital Reef
Start your morning off with a 1.8-mile hike to Hickman Bridge. The Hickman Bridge Arch spans 133 feet and the hike has about 400 ft of elevation gain. The trail provides epic views of Utah’s least known national park.
After your hike, head over to the historical town of Fruita in the park. Fruita is the home of fruit trees. There are cherry, walnut, almond, pear, plum, mulberry, apricot, apple and peaches in the area. If the fruit is in season, you are welcome to pick fruit and pay by the pound. Pick as much fruit as you can eat in the next couple of day.
Now it is time for pie. The Gifford Farm offers locally made fruit pies with vanilla ice cream. At the farm you can learn about the Western writer Wallace Stegner and Mormon life in the 1900s.
End the day visiting the stops of the Scenic Drive and the 11 stops showcasing the geological history of the area.
The drive to Bryce Canyon National Park will take about two hours.
Where to stay
There are a couple of hotels outside of the park entrance. These hotels can be found here. As well there is the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge in the park.
There are two campgrounds in Bryce Canyon National Park. The first is Sunset Campground and North Campground.
No matter where you stay plan on two nights here.
Day 6 – Bryce
If you would like to watch the sunrise over the Bryce Amphitheater, get there at least an hour before sunrise to claim your spot. All of the overlooks can get really crowded during sunrise. My favorite spot to watch the sunrise is Sunset Point, but any of the points along the Amphitheater make for an amazing sunrise.
Assuming you watched the sunrise at Sunset Point, start the Figure 8 trial. This 6.4-mile trail combines 3 different loop trails. The trail will take about 4-5 hours to complete and the hike is strenuous. At least 4-5 liters of water is needed for this hike. The Figure 8 combines the Navajo Loop, the Peek-a-Boop Loop, and the Queens Garden.
From Sunset Point head down the Navajo Loop passed Thor’s Hammer. Alas, I have yet to see Chris Hemsworth in the area. Let me know if you see him hanging around. The trail is 0.6 miles to connect with the Peek-a-Boo trail.
The Peek-a-Boo Loop is best hiked clockwise and is a shared horse bath. The trail passes the Wall of Windows and the Cathedral.
After 3 miles, Peek-a-Boo connects back with the Queen’s Garden Trail. The trail will take you thru several rock arches and past the Queen Victoria rock.
Head back up the rim of Bryce Canyon and follow the easy Rim trail back to Sunset Point.
From Sunset Point, keep heading into the canyon. There are 10 pull-outs that provide excellent views of the canyon. When you get to Rainbow Point, hike the short 1-mile Bristlecone Loop. This flat loop is a tour thru the sub-alpine fir forests.
Hiking all these trails will allow you to complete the “I Hiked the Hoodoos” Challenge. You need to collect 3 of the benchmarks along the trial. You can either take a rubbing of the marks or selfies with the marks. Go to the visitor center to get your reward.
Day 7 – Bryce and Zion
Have another early morning and watch the sunrise over the Bryce Amphitheater from another viewpoint. After the sunrise head, toward Zion National Park. The drive will take 1.5 hours to each the parks Eastern Entrance. Just before you get to the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel is the Canyon Overlook Trail.
The short trail will take about an hour to hike and provides great views East Temple region of the canyon.
Head thru the engineering marvel that is the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel. Enjoy this 1.1-mile long tunnel built in 1927.
Head to the visitor center and park in the parking lot and catch the Zion Canyon Shuttle. The Shuttle provides a brief tour of the park. Take the shuttle to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava. Head into the Narrows. It is a 1.1 mile Riverside walk into the canyon when the Narrows starts. The Narrows is a 16 mile section of canyon that the Virgin River runs thru. From the walk, you can enter the river. Take a hour or two to hike up the river into the Narrows. This hike is slippery and the water depth can range from ankle height to chest deep. Be aware of the weather, the canyon is known to get flash floods.
After you hike in the river, dry off and catch the bus back to stop 7 Weeping Rock. Hike 0.4 miles up to see the weeping rock.
The last hike of the day is the Emerald Pools Trails. Take the bus to stop 5 Zion Lodge. Head across the street to the Emerald Pools. The hike consists of two parts. The first is the 0.6-mile hike to the lower pool. This is an easy hike with a few steep drop-offs. The second part of the hike is 0.5 moderate hike to the Upper Emerald Pool.
Day 8 – Zion
The shuttle bus starts running at either 6:00 am or 7:00 am. Check the time. Be sure to catch the FIRST shuttle into the canyon. Get off at stop 6 The Grotto. The Grotto is the trailhead for the famed Angels Landing TrailAngels Landing Trail. This 5.4-mile trail is a 1500 foot climb to the spot where Angels landed. This trail is not for the faint of heart and isn’t kid-friendly. Please do not hike this trail with kids under 12 years old.
The first 2 miles of Angels is a steady climb up a long section of switchbacks to a Scout Lookout. The view from Scout is just a small taste of the view from the Landing. The last half mile of hiking is scary. It is probably the scariest section of hiking trail in the United States. There is an almost 1,000-foot drop on either side of a narrow trail. There are chains to help with this hike but it is narrow and one needs sure footing to hike this trail.
Once you get to the landing, enjoy the view. Try to be heading down by 10:00 am. Most hikers start up at about 8:30 or so and then the landing gets busy and that very narrow trail gets even more hazards with two-way traffic.
After the hike catch, the bus back to the Zion Canyon Lodge and have an ice cream (and lunch) and relax for a bit.
Head down to the Zion Human History Museum to explore the history of Zion and the human who have made the area home.
If you are done hiking for the day, ride the bus and get off at each stop and just enjoy the views. If you still want to hike, there are several small trails such a the Archeology Trail or the Grotto to explore.
When you finally admit it is time to leave Zion, make the 5-hour drive back to Salt Lake City.
Day 9 – Travel Day
Enjoy Salt Lake City until it is time for your flight home.
What are you most looking forward to on your Utah National Parks Road Trip? Any other recommendations for the Utah National Parks Itinerary?