Driving The Utah National Parks – 9 Day Road Trip

By Annual Adventure Destinations, North America, Utah

Utah National Parks
Zion National Park

The Utah National Parks are some of my favorite places I’ve ever been. The entire state is such a beautiful destination, offering an incredibly diverse mix of scenery as you drive from park to park. I met up with some friends from Phoenix and headed out an an amazing road trip through Southern Utah (with a bonus stop in Page, Arizona).

Utah Road Trip Route
Get ready to cover some ground!

Day 1: Phoenix To Moab Through Monument Valley

I met up with my friends at their home in Phoenix and prepared to depart for our trip. We drove in a convoy of 2 cars, making transporting 6 people and their equipment a breeze. Tire pressures were checked, fuel was topped off, and snacks were carefully packed away for later use.

Seeing The Sights In Monument Valley

Today is a big driving day up to Moab, so we broke it up with a stop through Monument Valley, which is about 5 hours north of Phoenix. Monument Valley is extensively filmed and you may recognize it from everything from John Ford classics like The Searchers to Forest Gump to Transformers: Age of Extinction. I’ll make a full writeup of Monument Valley (and the rest of the Utah National Parks!) soon, but for now, this was just a scenic stop on our way to the main attraction, Moab!

Monument Valley Mittens
The Mittens of Monument Valley.

Late Evening Arrival in Moab

Since we stopped to check out some scenery on the way, we made it into Moab pretty late in the evening. Thankfully, we were in time to catch a beautiful sunset at the Wilson Arch just outside of town. Sitting right off highway 191, the Wilson Arch is a great photo op with an easy climb to the top and a beautiful, well-formed arch setting the tone for the upcoming visit to the first of the Utah National Parks on the itinerary: Arches. After the Wilson Arch we stopped by a local BBQ place where we stuffed ourselves silly with delicious dishes before we left to check ourselves in to the hotel for the night.

Take Great Travel Photos
The Wilson Arch makes a great sunset photo spot!

MORE INFO

Accommodation:  Aarchway Inn, Moab

Cost: $161/night for 3 nights

Additional Notes: Although it’s not right on the main drag in Moab, this is one of the closest hotels to the entrance of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Rooms were comfortable and it was a great base camp.

Lower Budget Alternative: Inca Inn

If You’re Feeling Fancy: Red Cliffs Lodge

Day 2: Arches National Park & Canyonlands Sunset

The Delicate Arch at Arches National Park
The star of Arches National Park – The Delicate Arch.

Be sure to get an early start today to beat the crowds at Arches! Try to get to the visitor center when they first open at 8 or 9 am, depending on the time of the year. If you don’t already have one, it’s best to purchase a National Parks Annual Pass for only $80. It covers everyone in your vehicle (up to 4 adults) and it saves a lot of money compared to what you would pay to enter each individual park. Plus you can use it to visit almost any other park in the USA (not just Utah National Parks!) for the next year!

Once you enter the park, get a map and figure out what plan works best for you. We allotted 2 days for Arches so we had some flexibility in our schedule. For the first day, we headed straight to the Devil’s Garden at the end of the road. This area has some of the toughest parking in all of Arches, so getting here early is a plus.

Arches National Park Landscape Arch
The massively long Landscape Arch.

After hiking to the Landscape Arch, we also stopped by the Skyline Arch, Sand Dune Arch, Broken Arch and Fiery Furnace Viewpoint before heading towards the Delicate Arch area. For the Delicate Arch, you can choose to do the 2-3 hour, 3 mile round trip hike directly to the Delicate Arch from the Wolfe Ranch parking area, or hike 500 feet to the viewpoint from the other parking area.

As much as I lobbied for the full hike, some of my present company was less enthusiastic to do so. Thankfully, if you hike to the upper viewpoint, you can walk straight to the edge of the canyon for some really nice views of the Delicate arch.

The Delicate Arch Upper Viewpoint
The Delicate Arch, as seen from the Upper Viewpoint.

Heading out of the park we paid a quick visit to the Balanced Rock before heading to Canyonlands for sunset. Canyonlands is one of the less popular Utah National Parks, but you would be remiss to skip it. The park itself is enormous and the small preview I got in an evening was certainly enough to whet my appetite for more. Almost every stop offers massive, sprawling views of majestic canyons. Luck was not with us that evening as we had an overcast sunset, but I still thoroughly enjoyed seeing what the park had to offer.

Canyonlands National Park
You can hike right to the end of the platform and let your feet dangle over the edge of the canyon.

Day 3: Arches National Park

Today is a great opportunity to fill out the rest of Arches National Park and see what you didn’t have time for yesterday. With the profoundly dry environment, you’ll have to watch out for too much sun exposure and heat exhaustion with all of that hiking you’ll be doing.

Unless you’re us, that is.

Arches National Park Rainstorm
What a beautiful day for a hike!

Remember that overcast sunset from yesterday? It was the precursor for a huge rainstorm today, but we didn’t let that ruin our fun. We put on our wet weather gear and headed out to the park again! Today we concentrated on the Windows Section of the park.

First stop for us after parking was the Turret Arch, which is a great and scenic spot to climb around. If you’re lucky enough to get rain like we did, be sure to watch out for slippery rocks. From there you can stay on foot and explore the North and South Windows before walking to my favorite, the Double Arch.

The Turret Arch in the Rain
The scenic (and slippery!) Turret Arch.

You first notice it looming in the distance like some gigantic abandoned spacecraft. As you continue down the trail towards it, the sheer presence of the Double Arch becomes apparent with its tall, smooth arches reaching out to swallow you up as you pass under them. It’s a great experience walking underneath the Double Arch and you can get some great shots if you bring your wide-angle lens with you.

The Double Arch at Arches National Park
The massive and imposing Double Arch.

By  now the steady rain became a massive downpour, so our waterlogged group piled in our cars and headed back to the hotel to dry off, marveling at the newly-formed waterfalls that were cascading down every face of the park.

 

Day 4: Moab To Bryce Canyon

Hooray, another driving day is here! Today we head to Bryce Canyon, the second in our series of Utah National Parks. It’s about a 4.5 hour drive from Moab to Cannonville, which is Bryce Canyon’s nearest major town.

Bryce Canyon Sunset Ledge
This viewpoint is very near the Sunset parking lot.

Once you reach your destination, head right into Bryce Canyon and enjoy your afternoon walking along the rim of the amphitheater. If you have time, I recommend parking at Sunrise Point and walking along the rim to Inspiration Point and back, where you’ll get magnificent views of the amphitheater to get you excited for your extended hike tomorrow. If you’re short on time or energy, you can park at Sunset Point to save yourself some time, or even head straight to the Inspiration Point parking lot if you want the abbreviated version.

Bryce Canyon Inspiration Point
The Bryce Canyon Amphitheater, as seen from Inspiration Point.

MORE INFO

Accommodation:  Grand Staircase Inn

Cost: $87.89/night for 2 nights

Additional Notes: Basic hotel about a 20 minute drive from the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park. It has a convenience store and gas station built in, but any restaurants are a bit of a drive.

Closer To The Park: Bryce View Lodge

If You’re Feeling Fancy: Stone Canyon Inn

Day 5: Hiking Among The Hoodoos

I often hear that people recommend spending half a day at Bryce Canyon, and it blows my mind. This was my second favorite of all the Utah National Parks (behind Zion) and unless you dedicate at least one full day to it, you won’t even see the first hint of what this beautiful and unique park has to offer.

Bryce Canyon Queens Garden Trail
Some hiking friends heading down the Queen’s Garden Trail at the start of the Figure 8 Loop.

The Figure 8 Loop is one of the most comprehensive hikes in Bryce Canyon, and while it may be strenuous it is full of spectacular scenery. It runs almost 9 miles and has nearly constant elevation changes, especially once you reach the Peekaboo Loop. You’ll feel like Indiana Jones as you wind your way down twisted paths deep among the hoodoos. Be sure to take the most southern path at the end to go through Wall Street where you’ll be surrounded by steep walls all around you. The Figure 8 Loop starts at Sunrise Point and drops you off at Sunset, so remember that you’ll have a 1/2 mile hike at the end to reach your parking spot.

Bryce Canyon Wall Street
Descending into (or ascending out of) Bryce Canyon’s Wall Street.

At the end of the Figure 8 Loop, be sure to give yourself a pat on the back and reward yourself with a beautiful sunset and a frosty beverage of your choice, you’ve accomplished and seen a lot today!

Day 6: Bryce Canyon To Zion National Park

Get excited, today you’re heading to my absolute favorite of the Utah National Parks (and maybe even of all the US National Parks): Zion. It’s an easy 1.5 hour drive from Cannonville to the East Entrance of Zion. There is no parking available inside the park itself unless you are staying at the Zion Lodge, so enjoy the scenery and look out for Bighorn Sheep as you weave through the park towards the Visitor Center parking area. Depending on where you are staying and how late you arrive, it may be easiest to drop your vehicles and bags at your hotel in Springdale and take the bus to Zion as the Visitor Center parking lot fills up VERY quickly.

Zion Bighorn Sheep
This Bighorn Sheep posed majestically just for me.

Use the rest of your day to hike around the park and get a taste for what it has to offer. One fun activity is heading to the last stop on the bus, the Temple of Sinawava, where you stroll down the Riverside Walk to the beginning of The Narrows. Watch dozens of hikers wade through the river on their way back from a very wet hike. If you want to do the Narrows, like Angel’s Landing, it’s best to start first thing in the morning on a fresh day.

Zion Emerald Pools Waterfall
Cool off in this waterfall along the Emerald Pools trail.

Some other easy first day sights include the Emerald Pools, Court of the Patriarchs, Weeping Rock, The Pa’rus trail and Grotto Trail. Today is for getting your first taste of Zion and letting your first impressions sink in. Enjoy the sights and don’t stay out too late, you’ve got an early start tomorrow!

MORE INFO

Accommodation:  Majestic View Lodge

Cost: $157/night for 2 nights

Additional Notes: It’s a bit out of the main section of Springdale, but is directly across the street from a shuttle stop, making it super convenient. If you want to get in the park before it opens, you’ll still have to drive in to the visitor center, though. The rooms on the east side of the street feel more private with a nice view as well.

The Only Place IN The Park: Zion Lodge (Must reserve WAY in advance)

(Slightly) Lower Budget Alternative: Quality Inn & Suites Montclair

If You Don’t Need A Roof: Camping Information for Zion

Day 7: The Big Hike

Zion Angels Landing Ridge
Your destiny awaits you.

Get up early and drink your coffee, today’s the day you do the big hike of your choice. The two hikes that warrant getting up this early are Angel’s Landing and The Narrows. Angel’s Landing is famous for its steep ridge with 800 foot drops on one side and 1200 foot drops on the other, with only a 2 foot wide ledge to stand on in places. It makes for an incredibly dramatic view and hiking experience. The Narrows is a longer hike through the Virgin River that takes you through dramatic slot canyons and up to waist-deep water at certain points, so come prepared! Between the two, I prefer Angel’s Landing for it’s incredible scenery and adventurous climb, but the choice is yours.

Drive in to the Zion Visitor center half an hour before the first shuttle leaves into the park, which is at 6 or 7 am depending on the time of the year. Snag your spot in line as soon as you get there and patiently wait for the bus to arrive. When the bus pulls in to the stop, hop aboard and head to your hike! For Angel’s Landing, you’ll be getting off at The Grotto, and for The Narrows you’ll be exiting the last stop, Temple of Sinawava.

If you choose to do The Narrows hike, it can be a full day affair depending on how far into the canyons you decide to go. In the case of Angel’s Landing, you’ll only be busy with it for 3-4 hours total so you can enjoy some other hikes the rest of the day. On the day I hiked Angel’s Landing, I elected to spend the rest of the day exploring other trails in the park.

Zion Angels Landing Summit
Your reward at the summit of Angel’s Landing.

One I highly recommend that makes a great follow-up to Angel’s Landing is Hidden Canyon, which also has sections of paths along sheer cliffs to keep the adrenaline surge you had this morning going for the rest of the day! Spend the remainder of your afternoon ticking off the other hikes on your list and enjoy the magnificent scenery of Zion.

Zion Hidden Canyon Hike
The sheer cliffs of Zion’s Hidden Canyon hike.

Day 8: Slot Canyons And A Giant Horseshoe.

Get up bright and early and say your goodbyes to Zion, because you’re heading down to Arizona today. You’re done with the Utah National Parks and are now ready for a small taste of what Arizona has to offer! It’s a fairly easy 2 hour drive from Zion to Page with little traffic. The first thing to do once you arrive in Page is to book your Antelope Canyon Tour.

Lower Antelope Canyon Path
The winding path through Lower Antelope Canyon.

Antelope Canyon is a series of slot canyons famous for the magnificent colors the walls produce. There are two different sections, upper and lower. I HIGHLY recommend the lower canyon, as it only has one way traffic (people go both directions on the upper) and it is less crowded, even though tour groups still book fully throughout the day.

For Lower Antelope Canyon, you’ll need to book through one of two companies, and Ken’s Tours is the only one listed anywhere. It’s best to drive there directly and speak with the person in charge of booking directly to find the best time slot for you. Choose whether you want a Photo Tour (more expensive, longer, and tripod is required) or a regular tour (no tripods allowed, but photography is welcome). I did the regular tour and got great shots, but if you’re looking for the best possible photo ops without needing to bump up your camera’s ISO, then book the photo tour. You can rent a tripod for it if you don’t have one with you.

Lower Antelope Canyon Walls
It’s easy to get incredible shots anywhere in Lower Antelope Canyon.

After your slot canyon tour, make sure you leave time to head to Horseshoe Bend for sunset. It’s just a bit south on Highway 89, and be sure to leave earlier than you think you should. It gets crowded at sunset and the sun disappears pretty quickly.

Horseshoe Bend Crowds
The crowd at Horseshoe Bend at sunset.

Thankfully, the iconic shot you always see of Horseshoe Bend is a very easy shot to get, provided you have a wide enough lens. There is plenty of room for everyone there to find a spot and enjoy the view, and everyone seemed happy to share the space when I was there. It truly is a stunning view to behold and the perfect way to top off your Utah National Parks road trip.

Horseshoe Bend Wide Shot
You’ve all seen the wide shot before, so here’s one with me in it for a change.

MORE INFO

Accommodation:  Comfort Inn & Suites Page (fancy, I know)

Cost: $206(!)/night for 1 night

Additional Notes: What can I say? It’s a Comfort Inn. Centrally located near both Antelope Canyon & Horseshoe Bend, I can’t complain, but I was going with the flow of my group on this one.

Lower Budget Alternative: Rodeway Inn Page (near Lake Powell)

Day 9: Heading Home

That’s it, pack it up, it’s time to head home! If home isn’t too far away, spend the morning on Lake Powell with a boat tour and check out the Glen Canyon Dam. Otherwise, pack up and enjoy your drive home, it was an amazing trip I’m sure you won’t soon forget.
The Ultimate 9 Day Road Trip through Utah's National Parks

Disclosure: Some (not all) of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning I will get a commission if you purchase the products they link to. The accommodations listed are the ones I actually stayed in, and I only suggest other places that I think my readers will find helpful.

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41 comments

  • Great post – Utah is easily one of my favorite US States, and Zion is definitely one of the coolest National Parks we have. I even loved the town of Springdale, which usually the touristy towns outside the parks annoy me, but it’s quaint and the shuttle system is fantastic!

    1. Thanks Leigh! Springdale is great, there’s so much to do there and the shuttle system is awesome! Glad you loved it too!

        1. Hey Gary,

          May should be a great time for the drive! It might be starting to heat up a bit so be sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection on the hikes. If you can, I’d aim for the beginning of May rather than the end to avoid the summer vacation crowds.

  • This is a great post! I just returned from a 10 road-trip and went to Zion, Bryce, Arches and Grand Canyon. Love your post layout and fantastic photos. Curious how you got that first angle of Delicate – were you on the other side? I posted my 10-day itinerary (minus the details of each hike we did, saving that for later) on my blog if you want to compare. I hate to say it, but you missed THE MOST AMAZING drive between Moab and Bryce via Highways 12 and 24. Absolutely stunning. My big regret is not fitting in Antelope and Horseshoe Bend. We will have to go back! Following your blog now 🙂

    1. Thanks and looks like you had a good time too! The first angle of the Delicate Arch was from the lower viewing area – we hiked up towards the Delicate Arch until you reach a deep canyon. It’s a pretty easy hike, certainly easier than the main hike to the arch itself!

      I guess we both have a good reason for going back now, me for the drive along hwy 12 and 24 and you for seeing what Page has to offer! Thanks for the tip!

  • Just got back from a 10-day trip to Utah. We started at Zion, next Monument Valley (with a side trip to Four Corners), Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Bryce. Hwy 12 is well worth it but pretty scary in a snowstorm. By the time we got to Bryce it was blizzard conditions so didn’t get to see everything because they closed the road. Amazing experience seeing it in the snow, however. Have really enjoyed reliving our trip with your blog. Loved it all, especially Bryce. Going back in June to see what we missed.

    1. Thanks so much! It’s a bummer about the closed road but Bryce Canyon must have looked incredible in the snow! It’ll be nice getting to experience both seasons there, June should be great for hiking as long as you’re prepared for the heat.

  • Thank you for this trip report! I’ve been to all those places but Canyonlands, and your photos bring pleasant memories 😀 Which camera./lenses do you use? Your photos are so clear and colorful!! (or may be photo-editing filters?)

    1. Thanks Anastasia! I used a Canon 5d Mark ii along with Canon 24-70 2.8L and 70-200 2.8L IS ii lenses. I do some work in Lightroom, but not too much 🙂 I have to give Utah most of the credit for just looking beautiful in the first place!

  • Enjoyed your trip summary. We are planning our trip in May. Appreciated your advise on time schedule and hotel picks. We have some hiking experience, but a novice. How difficult where your hikes?

    1. Thanks Jennifer! For the hikes, the most difficult ones were the Figure 8 Loop in Bryce Canyon and Angel’s Landing or The Narrows in Zion. However, I’d say fitness level is more important than hiking experience for any of them. With the exception of The Narrows in Zion, every hike has very well defined paths and it would be very difficult to get lost as long as you can endure the elevation changes (and, for those afraid of heights, the nerve-wracking ridges on Angel’s Landing).

      If you feel worried about the exertion, you can substitute the Navajo Loop for the Figure 8 Loop in Bryce. The Navajo Loop is one half of the figure 8 loop. You’ll get to experience Wall Street and hike among the Hoodoos, you just won’t get to go as in depth as with the full Figure 8. In Zion, if you feel you can stomach the heights and the constant elevation gain, I really recommend Angel’s Landing because it’s just so cool. For a milder version of Angel’s Landing, you can try Hidden Canyon, where you’ll get a little bit of the cliffside walks but much less climbing. If you haven’t seen it yet, I also have a Zion specific hiking guide here: http://www.annualadventure.com/zion-national-park-hikes/.

      Feel free to ask any other questions and best of luck with your trip in May!

  • I’m so glad you mentioned Hidden Canyon in Zion. That is honestly my favorite hike in the park. I went in late October, and we went to hike it early in the morning (like 8:30am). Once you get to the “end” of the trail, there’s an option to scramble deep into the canyon. It was fantastic – glowy and ethereal as the morning sun started to hit the walls. There’s also a cool arch in the canyon that’s fun.
    While we were on the shuttle, a woman asked the driver, “If you only had one day in Zion, what hike would you do?” The driver answered, “Hidden Canyon, for sure.” And it’s so true!

    1. Hidden Canyon is awesome, I felt so adventurous walking between the narrow canyon walls. You don’t read about it much but it was probably my favorite hike after Angel’s Landing!

  • I’m thinking of visiting these parks in October. Do you know of anything that we need to be aware of for a late fall trip? I’ve always wanted to visit Utahs parks and it is on the list of locations for our honeymoon.

    1. That’s exactly when I visited! Overall temperatures were good, although Bryce Canyon was a bit chilly sometimes. I didn’t encounter any snow and only a little bit of rain in Arches, so overall I would say that there aren’t any unusual things you’ll need to prepare for as long as you bring plenty of layers and pack some rain gear. Sounds like it would make a great honeymoon, there’s nothing like getting lost in the middle of beautiful scenery together to set a romantic mood 🙂

  • This is a well, thought out, blog for a short visit to the almost Mighty 5 parks in UT. I didn’t see anything for Capital Reef. 🙂 My family and I, (7, 5, 3 y/o children) RV’ed RT, 10 days, from Phoenix starting with the Grand Canyon and ending with Lake Powell early June of 2015. It was A-mazing!! We’ve traveled quite a bit, even outside the US, and that trip has been the most memorable! Reading your blog brought back those memories. We enjoyed it so much, we are going back this Sept to do a repeat and to see some of the things we didn’t have the time to check out. This time though, we will have 6mth old. 8} The only things we didn’t check out from your blog was the Hidden Canyon and Antelope Canyon. Didn’t know about that or maybe we thought it’d be too wild to have our rascals that close to the cliff. Hubby did Angels Landing by himself for that very reason. Whole family did about 2m into the Narrows. It is such a family/kid friendly trip! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks for reading! We didn’t make it through capitol reef on this trip, but there’s always next time! Hidden Canyon isn’t that bad, there’s just one short section with sheer drop-offs but the ledge is a decent size. It’s certainly more tame than Angel’s Landing, but of course not without its own risks. Antelope Canyon is definitely worth a visit, especially if you’re a photographer. It’s impossible to take a bad picture there!

      It sounds like you’ve got a pretty adventurous family, that 6 month old should be hiking the narrows him/herself in no time! 😉

  • Thank You, great post , fantastic shots and priceless information. it is one on my bucket list..
    Well done. 🙂

  • This is a very cool trip and has inspired me to plan a trip like this in the future! Quick question- how long is the drive from Arches to canyonlands as I see you go back and forth between the two? Thanks!

    1. Sorry for the slow reply! They’re extremely nearby one another, probably about a 15 minute drive from one entrance to the other.

      1. No worries! Thanks for the response! I guess my quick initial goodle maps search between the two was wrong when it said 3 hours!

  • I am trying to plan this trip for our 25th anniversary next year. Our anniversary is July 26 but I am sure the heat will be awful that time of year! Would it be better to do it in June?

    1. It looks like temps will be all around 5 degrees cooler on average in June, so that will certainly help, although it will still be hot! I went in October and temperatures were perfect, so I would highly recommend going that time of year, but June would be better than July both for the heat and, most likely, the crowds!

  • We are going in may of 2017, in our 70s and don’t hike, but would like to see all the sites.
    Thinking of flying in to salt lake and renting a car to drive around, how many days do you think it would take, so we could make the plan reservations, thanks

    1. Glad you liked it, Utah’s national parks really are unique. I hope to do a repeat sometime and add Capitol Reef to the experience!

  • Great road trips to Utah. I have been to all of those. I liked the Zion and Bryce Canyon followed by Arches. Walking for the horse shoe bend was tiring as the winds was really bad. Still the place is great. They only thing is Horse Shoe Bend should have Bar so that it’s not scary to take pictures. I was little scared to go to the edge. Lower Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley were great. The Indian People could better to make road at Monument Valley Better. There are also few small places worth mentioning. The Mexican Hat and Goose Neck State Park.

    1. Glad you’ve visited and enjoyed them! I was personally happy for no railings at Horse Shoe Bend, I feel like they would spoil the view!

  • We’ve been to these parks and they are truly awesome. One park that is little known , it seems, is Goblin State Park and worth going to. We visited it on the way from Moab towards Capital Reef. Not an all day visit but just so different that it’s worth seeing. Would probably be great on a full moon night .

    1. That sounds great! I did a quick image search on it and it does look very unique. Depending on the orientation, it might be perfect for some night time milky way shots! Thanks for the tip!

    1. That should be fine, you could even move on to Page and then Monument Valley, making the full loop from there!

      1. You think you can map out the trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix , say about 11 days, thinking of stopping in Sedona to end our trip, thanks, Gary

        1. Hi Gary, that should actually be pretty easy, since it’s exactly what I did (minus the Sedona stop, but Sedona is beautiful). Just add a half day in the first leg to get from Los Angeles to Phoenix, then continue along the same route. It might make sense to swing by Sedona first since’s it’s so close to Phoenix, but if you’re returning to Phoenix from Page anyhow then it won’t make a difference when you go. The extra 2 days you have added are perfect for a night in Sedona and exploring the area.

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