Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary (from a local)
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Utah has 5 national parks, and in this post, I’ll share the ultimate Utah national parks road trip itinerary so you can plan the perfect trip!
Believe it or not, each national park in Utah is different and offers something spectacular.
Zion National Park is by far the most popular and well-known, but there’s also Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Arches National Park. It’s hard to beat the red rock formations and beauty you can find here in Utah.
Let’s plan the Ultimate Utah National Parks Road Trip!
What makes this guide different?
There are a lot of Utah National Park guides out there. Unfortunately, most of them are not written by locals. They’re written by other visitors.
I live in Utah and I’ve traveled to these national parks many times over the years. I want to give you the ultimate guide to planning your own visit.
This is your one-stop trip planning guide from your own local Utah friend.
This Utah National Park Itinerary covers:
- the best time to visit Utah’s national parks
- how to buy a national parks pass
- airport options
- about each park
- where to stay nearby in each park
- best hikes in the park
- things to know before you go
- what to pack
Let’s get started planning your trip!
What is the Best Time to Visit Utah’s National Parks?
You can visit Utah’s national parks year-round, however, there are pros and cons to each season.
Visiting Utah in the Winter: The sandstone is very slippery when wet, icy, or snowy, making the winter a bit more challenging and dangerous for hikes. However, getting to see the snow against the red rock is definitely a beautiful way to see the parks. Visitor Center hours and services will vary during the winter season.
Visiting Utah in the Spring: The Spring is a great time to see the parks when the temperatures are starting to warm up and the crowds haven’t arrived just yet. Also, the cacti are in bloom! Spring is one of my favorite times to explore the desert.
Visiting Utah in the Summer: The Summer months are going to be the hottest and most crowded in the parks.
Visiting Utah in the Fall: Fall is another one my favorite times to visit the national parks. The Summer crowds have left, and the temperature cools down a bit. It’s a beautiful time to be in the desert.
Your National Parks Pass
There is a fee to enter each national park. Since you’ll be visiting all 5 national parks, it makes more financial sense to buy a yearly ‘America the Beautiful’ national parks pass.
The annual national parks pass will get you into all of the national parks in the country for 1 year. It’s a good deal if you plan to visit 3 or more national parks or national monuments in a year.
Annual Pass Price
Annual Pass: $80
Current U.S. Military Annual Pass: Free
Senior Pass: $80 (lifetime); $20 (annual)
Where to buy an annual pass
You can purchase an annual national parks pass at any of the national parks in Utah. If you visit Zion National Park first, you can purchase one there.
For more information on the national park pass, check here.
The next thing we need to sort out is where to start your road trip.
The following are possible starting points for your Utah national parks road trip.
Salt Lake City, Utah: Salt Lake City is an easy airport to fly into. With a start in Salt Lake City, you can almost make a loop to see all the national parks, so it makes the most sense to start and end the road trip here.
Las Vegas, Nevada: Starting in Las Vegas is also an option because it’s close to Zion, but you’ll have a lot of driving at the end to get back to Las Vegas from Moab.
Grand Junction, Colorado: Grand Junction is close to Arches and Canyonlands, but further from Zion and Bryce so you’ll have a long drive to or from Zion.
If possible, I think starting in Salt Lake City makes the most sense for breaking up the drive nicely.
Utah Road Trip Itinerary Park by Park
The map below shows you the recommended route starting in Salt Lake City, Utah. You can expand the map and open it in a new browser to easily zoom in and out as you’re planning your trip!
Zion National Park
Zion National Park is the most popular park in Utah. It’s typically very crowded and due to the geography of the area, parking and roads are very limited. The main part of the park is in a canyon, making it really hard to expand and handle the traffic.
When it comes to visiting Zion, planning ahead and getting an early start is key.
Out of all the visitor’s Zion National Park gets in a year, very few of them visit the Upper West part of the park called Kolob Canyons. You’ll see that I added it as a stop on the map above.
Kolob Canyons has a separate entrance and is about 45 minutes from the main entrance of the park in Springdale, Utah.
If you’re starting this road trip from Salt Lake City, it’s not even much of a detour to check out this area of the park, but so many people drive right by it!
It doesn’t look like much from the road, but once you pass the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center and head up and around a corner, you get an incredible view of red rock canyons.
The first time I went, it really blew me away. Check out my complete Kolob Canyons guide here.
The best way to avoid crowds is to visit Zion National Park in winter. Not only is it mostly empty, but it’s also beautiful and so cool to see snow on the red rock!
Best Hikes in Zion Canyon
Most people come to Zion to hike. Below are some of my favorites:
- Canyon Overlook Trail – 1.0 miles round-trip (moderate)
- Angels Landing – 5.4 miles round-trip (strenuous)
- The Narrows bottom-up – up to 9.4 miles round-trip (Strenuous due to the water. Advanced planned recommended.)
- Lower Emerald Pools Trail – 1.2 miles round-trip (easy)
None of these hikes require a permit.
For other hikes, backpacking trips, and canyoneering options in the park that require permits, check out this blog post on the Important Reservation and Permit Deadlines for Zion National Park Hiking – all in one place!
Overlooks and Points of Interest
- Court of the Patriarchs
- Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (via the shuttle)
Check Before You Go >> For current conditions, COVID updates, and visitors center hours for Zion National Park, check here.
Where to Stay in Zion
Springdale, Utah: Springdale is a small town in Zion Canyon with lodging, restaurants, groceries, shops, and gas. There are also privately-owned campgrounds and RV parks. This is the closest town to the main area of the park.
Zion Lodge: The Zion Lodge is the only lodging actually in the national park. You can find more info and make reservations for the lodge here.
St. George, Utah: St. George is the closest city with plenty of lodging options, however, it’s about 50 minutes to Zion Canyon from St. George. For this road trip itinerary, St. George would be a little out of the way, but it’s an option if you want to extend your trip. There are other state parks and beautiful hikes around St. George to explore.
Kanab, Utah: Kanab is another small town with lodging, gas, and a few restaurants about 1 hour from the main Zion canyon. Again, for this road trip itinerary, Kanab is a little out of the way, but it’s an option if you want to extend your road trip and make some additional stops. There’s a lot to do around Kanab.
Camping: Zion National Park has 3 campgrounds – South Campground, Watchmen Campground, and Lava Point Campground.
- Lava Point Campground is about an hour drive up Kolob Terrace Road from Zion Canyon, and it’s not open year-round. There are no reservations. It is first-come, first-served.
- It’s best to make reservations for Watchmen campground and South campground because they fill up very quickly. For more info about camping reservation deadlines, check this post here.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The next park on our Utah road trip is Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce Canyon is about a 2-hour drive from Zion national park in Springdale, which means you don’t have to spend all day in the car.
One thing to note is that Zion is down in a canyon, while Bryce is higher up. It’s going to be quite a bit colder at Bryce.
Bryce Canyon is known for its hoodoos. Hoodoos are irregular columns of rock that look like a castle you would make on a beach with wet sand as a kid. Bryce Canyon has the largest concentration of hoodoos found anywhere on Earth!
In addition, if you’re planning to camp, get ready to see an incredible starry night sky.
Want to visit in the off-season and see snow on the hoodoos? Check out my complete guide to Bryce Canyon in Winter for all the details!
Best Hikes in Bryce Canyon
- The Rim Trail (not a loop) – 1.0 to 11.0 miles (easy)
- Queens Garden and Navajo Loop Combo – 2.9-mile loop (moderate)
- Fairyland Loop – 8.0 miles (strenuous)
- Peekaboo Loop – 5.5 miles (strenuous)
Overlooks and Points of Interest
- Sunrise Point
- Sunset Point
- Inspiration Point
- Natural Bridge
Check Before You Go >> For current conditions, COVID updates, and visitors center hours for Bryce Canyon National Park, check here.
Where to Stay
The Lodge at Bryce Canyon: This is the only lodge actually in the national park, and it’s just steps away from beautiful views of the Bryce Amphitheater. Check here for more info and reservations.
Camping: There are two campgrounds in the park – North Campground and Sunset Campground. North Campground sites are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Peak season reservations can be made for Sunset Campground here.
There’s also dispersed camping outside of the park in the nearby national forest.
Bryce Canyon City, Utah: Just outside of the park entrance, you’ll find lodging, privately-owned campgrounds, gas, restaurants, and shops.
Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is the least visited national park in Utah, but don’t let that deceive you, it’s worth the stop!
In Capitol Reef, you’ll get to see large white domes of Navajo sandstone, natural arches, canyons, sandstone ‘cathedrals’, and plenty of red rock cliffs.
The fastest route from Bryce to Capitol Reef is north towards Koosharem.
If you want a slightly longer, but way more scenic route, take Highway 12 through Escalante instead. It’s one of the most beautiful drives you can take, with plenty of spectacular views and pull-offs.
Best Hikes in Capitol Reef
- Cassidy Arch Trail – 3.4 miles round trip (strenuous)
- Frying Pan Trail – 5.8 miles round trip (strenuous)
- Capitol Gorge Trail – 2.0 miles round trip (easy)
Overlooks and Points of Interest
- Capitol Gorge Road
- Pioneer Register
- Fremont Petroglyph Panel
- Gifford House
- Explore the fruit orchards
- Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon (It’s difficult to get to this area, but if you don’t mind driving on dirt roads, it’s an awesome area. Check road conditions beforehand at the visitors center.)
Check Before You Go >> For current conditions, COVID updates, and visitors center hours for Capitol Reef National Park, check here.
Where to Stay
There are no lodges or restaurants in the park, however, there is camping.
- Fruita Campground: Campsites are reservable from March 1 – October 31. Reservations can be made here and are accepted 6 months ahead of time. From November 1 – February 28, all campsites are first-come, first-served.
- Primitive Campgrounds: Capitol Reef also has 2 primitive campgrounds – Cathedral Valley Campground and Cedar Mesa Campground. These campgrounds are free. They have a pit toilet and no running water. Check road conditions at the visitor’s center. Depending on the weather, the roads to these campgrounds might not be open. These campgrounds are first-come, first-served. No reservations.
- Torrey, Utah: Torrey, Utah is the closest town to Capitol Reef that has lodging, gas, and food. Torrey is just 11 miles west of the visitors center. It’s important to note that many local businesses are closed during the winter and on Sundays.
>> Further Reading: The Complete Guide to Capitol Reef National Park
Canyonlands National Park
The next stop on the road trip is Canyonlands National Park. Now, Canyonlands is a huge park! It’s broken up into 3 districts – Island in the Sky (most popular), The Needles, and The Maze.
Island in the Sky: The Island in the Sky district is an easily accessible part of the park on your way to Moab, Utah. It offers incredible views of the canyons carved out by the Green and Colorado Rivers. The confluence of the rivers can be seen in this district.
The Needles: To visit The Needles District, you’ll need to drive a little bit out of the way, but it gives you a totally different perspective on the land. While the Island in the Sky District is up on a plateau and gives you a view from above, The Needles district gives you a view from within the red rock towers that look like needles.
The Maze: The Maze is the least accessible district of Canyonlands. It is extremely remote and requires 4 wheel-drive vehicles with high clearance. The roads in The Maze are isolated, extremely rough, and should not be attempted by inexperienced drivers. For this reason, we will not be including this district on the road trip.
Best Day Hikes in Canyonlands National Park
Island in the Sky:
- Mesa Arch – 0.5 miles round-trip (easy)
- Grand Viewpoint Overlook – 2.0 miles (easy)
- Upheaval Dome – 0.8 miles round trip to the first overlook, 1.8 miles round-trip to second overlook (moderate)
- Chesler Park Viewpoint – 6.0 miles round-trip (moderate)
- The Joint Trail – 11.0 miles round-trip (strenuous) This trail is accessed from the Chesler Park Viewpoint trail.
- Druid Arch – 11.0 miles round-trip (strenuous)
There is a large network of intersecting trails in The Needles district of the park. If you have time for a backpacking trip, this is the perfect area. Advance planning is required to secure permits.
Further Reading >> Chesler Park Backpacking Trip Guide
Overlooks and Points of Interest
- Grand Viewpoint Overlook (Island in the Sky)
- Newspaper Rock Petroglyphs (technically not in the park, but you can see these on the road to The Needles visitor center)
Check Before You Go >> For current conditions, COVID updates, and visitors center hours for Canyonlands National Park, check here.
Where to Stay
Moab, Utah: Moab is the closest town with lodging, gas, shops, and restaurants. Moab itself has tons of incredible hikes, climbing, mountain biking, and other outdoor recreation options outside of the nearby national parks. There is a lot to see and do here!
- The Island in the Sky Visitor Center to Moab is about 1 hour.
- The Needles Visitor Center to Moab is about 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Camping: There are also a lot of camping options both in the national park and around the town of Moab.
- Island in the Sky campground is open year-round and is first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground, but no water.
- The Needles Campground is reservable in the spring and fall. Other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. Water is seasonal. You can make reservations here.
- For a listing of public and private campgrounds in the Moab area, visit www.discovermoab.com.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is one of the smaller parks in Utah, but it’s the place to see natural arches! The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to huge sandstone walls, fins, and balancing rocks to marvel at.
Best Hikes in Arches National Park
- Park Avenue Hike – 2 miles round-trip (easy to moderate)
- Delicate Arch (an absolute Utah classic!) – 3 miles round-trip (strenuous)
- The Fiery Furnace (advance permits required) – roughly 2 miles total (moderate)
- Landscape Arch – 1.6 miles round-trip (easy)
More Info >> For a complete list of my favorite hikes in Arches and more information about each of them, check out this guide: 7 Best Hikes in Arches National Park.
Overlooks and Points of Interest
- Balanced Rock
- Double Arch
- Rock Art Panel
Check Before You Go >> For current conditions, COVID updates, and visitors center hours for Arches National Park, check here.
Where to Stay
Moab, Utah: As mentioned above, Moab is going to be the closest town for lodging and amenities. There are cute shops, an old bookstore, and tons of great restaurants and breweries in town to get some food after a long day outdoors.
The Arches National Park Visitors Center to Moab is about 20-30 minutes depending on traffic.
Devils Garden Campground: This is one of my favorite national park campgrounds. The campsites have beautiful views and some of them are really private. You can reserve campsites between March 1 and October 31. Reservations can be made up to 6 months in advance here. Between November and February, campsites are first-come, first-served.
>> Further Reading: The Ultimate Guide to Arches National Park
Things to Know Before You Go
Sun, Heat, and Changing Weather
The temperature at these national parks can get very hot. There is also limited shade. Carry water on all your hikes, even if they’re short.
Southeast Utah is part of the Colorado Plateau. This is a “high desert” area that experiences wide temperature fluctuations. Although it might be very hot during the day, the temperature can drop dramatically in the evening and you might have to layer up.
Monsoon Season and Flash Floods
Monsoon season is in July, August, and September. During this time, powerful thunderstorms can come through and dump several inches of rain in just a few hours.
The rocky landscape doesn’t absorb the water very well. All that water runs off into narrow side canyons forming flash floods.
Flash floods are one of the biggest dangers in the parks.
It’s important that you check the weather and the visitor’s center for flash flood warnings or area closures before your trip!
Limited Cell Service
There’s very limited cell service in most of these parks. Capitol Reef and parts of Canyonlands are the most remote. Make sure you have a way to navigate without cell service, and that any digital maps are downloaded before the trip. In addition, make sure you have a backup method of navigation like a map and compass.
Hiking on Sandstone
Hiking on sandstone can be very slippery, even when dry. That’s why sometimes it’s referred to as slickrock. Be careful as you hike up and over it, and take extra precautions in the winter months when things can be snowy and icy.
There is a lot of wildlife in the desert! Be aware of rattlesnakes, black bears in the Bryce Canyon area, and scorpions to name a few.
What to Pack on Your Utah Road Trip
For the ultimate Utah road trip, you want to make sure you’re prepared with the basic gear, and of course, some tasty snacks!
Basic Utah Road Trip Gear:
Utah Road Atlas – This is great in case you lose service or your phone breaks or gets lost. It’s always a good idea to have a backup method of navigation.
Digital Maps – I always download maps for the area I’m going with the Gaia GPS app. Once downloaded, the maps can be used offline. They even have national parks maps on the app.
Cell Phone Chargers – Make sure you have a way to charge your phone in the car, especially if you’re using it as a GPS. I have this Anker charger. I can also charge my computer with this.
Plenty of Snacks – No road trip is complete without delicious snacks!
Plenty of Water – Hydration is crucial, especially when traveling through the desert heat. I always carry a large water jug in my car to easily refill water bottles on the go. Gas stations and visitor centers also have places to refill water. In addition to a water jug, I also like to carry my Sawyer Squeeze filter. This filter can be used to filter safe drinking water if you get stuck somewhere. It’s cheap and small, so I think it’s a good thing to have on hand.
National Parks Pass – Don’t forget to bring your national parks pass, or plan to purchase one at the first national park you visit.
Hiking Gear and Clothes – If you want to hit the trails, make sure to pack your hiking clothes, your backpack, and all your other hiking gear.
Camera – To capture all of the natural beauty and quality time spent with friends and family.
Sunglasses and Sunscreen – Gotta have that sun protection!
The 10 Essentials – I bring these on every hike. They’re also a good idea to have on road trips!
Further Reading >> 7 Simple Way to Save Money on Road Trips
Your Utah National Park Road Trip
Now it’s time to put everything together. The following itinerary is highly flexible and I encourage you to change it to fit your needs and timeframe.
Start in Salt Lake City, and on the first day, drive down to the main area of Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah. Along the way, take a break from driving and spend an hour or two in the Kolob Canyon section of the park, right off I-15.
It’s a short detour, but the views are incredible as we talked about above. Get to Springdale in the afternoon/evening and settle in.
Spend a day or two exploring Zion National Park and going on some hikes. Of course, this itinerary is flexible depending on how much time you have.
Make the 2-hour drive from Springdale to Bryce Canyon National Park and spend the afternoon hiking and watching the sunset from Sunset Point. You can spend the following day hiking at Bryce, and then stay another night there, or hit the road to Capitol Reef.
Spend the next couple days relaxing at Capitol Reef, going on the scenic drive, checking out some of the hikes, and stopping at the other points of interest listed above.
The last few days of this Utah adventure will be in the Moab area visiting Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Like I mentioned, there’s so much to do in this area inside and outside of the parks. From Moab, make the 3 hour and 45-minute drive back to Salt Lake City.
With 10 days on the road, you can see a lot of the Utah national park highlights and probably head home ready to plan your next visit!
I’ve been living in Utah for over 7 years now, and I still have so many places I want to see and explore. It never gets old. Even the same places in a different season offer so many new things to discover.
I hope you have a wonderful trip, and if you have any questions as you’re planning, feel free to chat with me in the comments below.