A GUIDE TO THE MIGHTY 5: HOW TO HAVE AN UNBELIEVABLE UTAH NATIONAL PARKS ROAD TRIP

A Utah National Parks road trip is one of the most iconic American trips you can take. Up there with driving Route 66 and Highway 1 is taking the “Mighty 5 Road Trip.”

If you’re curious about how to plan a trip to Utah National Parks or are wondering if this is the right road trip for you, you’ve landed in the right corner of the internet.

We took an extended road trip to Utah to make a national parks trip and were blown away by the landscape of Southern Utah. We knew it would be spectacular, but nothing can prepare you for the otherworldly landscape… Several times we kept asking ourselves…are we on Mars?

But a lush Mars, with greenery and rivers. And trees.

What I’m trying to say is…a Utah National Park road trip needs to be high on your family bucket list! Here’s everything you could ever need to know about planning a Mighty 5 road trip through Utah.

CHECK OUT MORE OF OUR ROAD TRIP CONTENT BELOW:
160 Question For A Long Car Ride
The Best Road Trip Food Snacks To Pack For The Ride
The ESSENTIAL Road Trip Packing List
17 Incredible National Parks In The WEST

*This Utah National Parks Road Trip post may contain affiliate links, which means we might earn a small commission if you purchase from them. This is at no extra cost to you. We only suggest what we think is truly awesome.

ROAD TRIP TO UTAH NATIONAL PARKS

With five National Parks (known as The Mighty 5) to visit and dozens of smaller state parks and national monuments to cover, you might be asking yourself, “How do I plan a trip to all 5 Utah National Parks?” This complete guide will cover everything you need for planning a trip to Utah’s National Parks. It’s a long, thorough post so bookmark it because it’s A LOT of information to take in. You can also use the table of contents above to jump to the sections you need.

This Utah National Park guide will cover:

  • How much time you need
  • Best time to do a Big 5 Utah road trip
  • Tips and resources for a Mighty 5 road trip
  • What to pack for a road trip through Utah
  • Utah National Parks itinerary and best routes
  • A Breakdown of all 5 National Parks and what to do

How Many Days Do You Need For Utah National Parks?

Errr…how many days do you have? Okay, not the answer you’re looking for.

You’ll find dozens of guides online that will offer you a seven-day road trip guide through the parks. Is a Utah National Parks road trip doable in 7 days? Yes. Do we personally suggest it? No.

Simply put, there is so much to do and see in Southern Utah. You could road trip Utah and its abundant parks for a month and still have barely covered the highlights. Personally, we prefer moderate-paced travel with space built into the itinerary to provide the flexibility of lingering if we choose.

That being said, not everyone has the time and privilege to take two weeks to make a Utah road trip. We’ll offer a few different itineraries for you to work with and you can choose based on how you like to travel…warp speed or slow and steady.

If you only have seven days, we suggest doing only a portion of the drive so you can give the parks their due time. If that’s the case for you, read through our descriptions of each National Park to see which parks excite you the most.

As a summary: 7 days is fast-paced but doable, 10 days is the sweet spot, 12 days is perfection.


BEST TIME TO ROAD TRIP UTAH

Red desert landscape with snow
Doing a Utah National Parks tour in winter means having the parks to yourself!

All five parks are open year-round, so in theory, you could visit any time of the year. In general, the best time to road trip Utah National Parks will be the Spring and Fall when the weather isn’t scorching hot.

Winter Road Trip in Utah: Winter offers the most solitude of any time of the year. A winter road trip is ideal for anyone who can’t stand crowds, loves photography (no one in your pictures!), and doesn’t mind the extra effort of hiking in snowy conditions. We traveled to Arches National Park in winter and absolutely loved it. That being said, parts of the parks might be closed due to hazardous conditions, and several trails will be off-limits. Weather will be different for each park due to different elevations, but in general, you can expect light to heavy snow at all of the parks. A winter road trip is best for adventure travelers who aren’t bothered by cold weather.

Spring Road Trip in Utah: Spring is a beautiful time to visit Utah when the weather is temperate, and wildflowers will be in bloom. Temperatures can range from 60-80 degrees. Spring is when visitors will start to flock in, so you will need to prepare yourself for crowds. April is when the crowds really start to ramp up, so if you’re looking to avoid large crowds, you can opt for a mid to late March road trip.

Summer Road trip in Utah: It’s HOT in Utah. Just because it’s hot doesn’t mean the crowds will have thinned out. Basically, it’s hot as all hell and crowded as all hell. You can expect temperatures to hit 100 degrees…daily. If you do decide to road trip Utah in the summer, you’ll need to pack a lot of water and only hike in the early morning and late afternoon. It is doable, though, and you can even try your hand at nighttime hiking!

Fall Road Trip in Utah: A great time to road trip through Southern Utah is in the Fall when temperatures have settled down to a range of 60-80 degrees. Crowds will have mildly thinned out, with the least amount of people being there in November. October is the sweet spot where the weather is still nice, the fall colors are outstanding, and the crowds will have reduced.

ROUTE FOR THE BEST UTAH NATIONAL PARKS ROAD TRIP

This Utah National Parks road trip Map is for a one way route.

Now let’s talk about ideal routes for a mighty 5 road trip. You have two options; you can do the whole thing as a loop or do a one-way drive.

The two most frequented starting points are in Salt Lake City, Utah or Las Vegas, Nevada. These are the two biggest airports in proximity to the National Parks, and they offer the cheapest flights and car rentals.

In my opinion, the ideal starting point is Salt Lake City. Why? If you think of your entire Utah National Park trip as a complete journey with a beginning, middle, and end you’ll want to save the best for last. The best is Zion. Now look, every park is amazing, but Zion is the park that has epic views and bucket list worthy hikes. Is it okay to start at Zion and end with Arches…of course! Either way will be amazing, but if you’re looking to create the ultimate Utah road trip, I would suggest starting at Arches National Park and ending in Zion.

**If you’re going to do a one-way route and plan to rent a car, keep in mind you’ll most likely have to pay a fee for dropping the car off in a different location. I have more info about renting a car below.

OPTION 1: ONE WAY STARTING IN SALT LAKE CITY
Salt Lake City Airport > Arches NP > Canyonlands NP > Capitol Reef NP > Bryce Canyon NP > Zion NP > Las Vegas Airpot

OPTION 2: ONE WAY STARTING IN LAS VEGAS:
Las Vegas Airport > Zion NP > Bryce NP > Capitol Reef NP > Canyonlands NP > Arches NP > Salt Lake City Airport

OPTION 3: LOOP STARTING IN SALT LAKE CITY
Salt Lake City Airport > Arches NP > Canyonlands NP > Capitol Reef NP > Bryce Canyon NP > Zion NP > Salt Lake City Airport

Conversely, for option 3, you could choose to drive from SLC to Zion NP and reverse the route. A good choice if you want the longest part of your drive first rather than last. SLC Airport to Zion National Park is 311 miles away and is a roughly 4. 5-hour long drive.

TIPS AND RESOURCES FOR A MIGHTY 5 ROAD TRIP

an rv on a Utah national parks road trip
We used our vintage camper to road trip Utah, but a 4 wheel drive vehicle is definitely useful in Utah.

There are a few things that you’ll want to have figured out before you head out on your big Southern Utah road trip adventure. A lot of people wonder about the best car to use for a national parks road trip. While having a four-wheel-drive vehicle in Utah is nice and will help if you drive on dirt roads, it’s not necessary. Plenty of people do it in their compact KIA, so don’t sweat it! If you have extra money lying around, go for the four-wheel-drive SUV or truck. If not, a small sedan is fine. You can check for rental prices through RentalCars.Com.

Another option that could save you money on lodging is to rent a campervan or RV. It’s a great option when exploring Utah since there are thousands of campsites as well as free campsites on land run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). You could also camp right in the park, a magical experience that will give you great early access to the park. We made our Utah road trip in our 1979 camper and loved having our food and bed with us at ALL times. You can rent a van, camper, or RV through the peer-to-peer rental service Outdoorsy. It’s like Airbnb for mobile homes!

Some other useful things to know:

  1. Since you’ll be visiting all five parks, you’ll want to purchase an America The Beautiful Pass. Good for one year, the pass gives you entrance to every National Park and more than 2000 federal recreation sites. It’s a no-brainer since you’ll come out ahead rather than pay individually for each park. You can learn more and purchase the tickets here.
  2. Download the National Park Service app for up-to-date info on each park, including maps, tips, trailhead locations, and loads more. It’s a great resource!
  3. If you love keeping mementos, buy a National Park passport and make sure to have it stamped at the visitors center at each park. You can get the one that’s sold at the gift shop (it looks like this), or you can browse through more creative versions here.
  4. Cell service will be spotty and hard to come by in the National Parks AND on the roads. Be sure to download all your maps beforehand, your playlists, your apps, and anything reliant on a signal. While everyone uses GPS off their phones, it’s always a good idea to have a paper map for when you don’t have any service. The Delorme Atlas for Utah is the most comprehensive map you can get.
  5. If you will be camping in a tent or an RV, buy the pro version of the Dyrt to find campsites and BLM land in the area. You can use the free version, but the pro version allows you to use all their features offline—a godsend in Southern Utah where service can be hard to get.
  6. Make your reservations early! Utah is a popular destination, so you’ll want to secure your car rental and your lodging ahead of time. If you can, try to book out six months in advance. You can still get somewhere to stay a month before, but it might not be your first choice, and you’ll definitely pay through the roof.
  7. Crowds can take away from the experience of Utah’s National Parks. If you truly want to get away from crowds, you’ll need to wake up early and get your day started at 7:00 AM. Most people arrive from 9-10 AM.

WHAT TO PACK FOR A UTAH NATIONAL PARK ROAD TRIP

This Mighty 5 road trip packing list is specific to what you need for the national parks and the road trip. Be sure to check out our road trip packing list post for general things you always need for a road trip.

  • COOLER: There will be many times on your Utah parks road trip that you’ll need to pack a lunch. Bring a cooler so you can always have food with you. If you want a small cooler for drinks and snacks, you can opt for an affordable Coleman FlipLid cooler or the soft-bodied Arctic Zone Cooler. If you want enough for a couple of days of lunches and snacks, opt for a bigger cooler like the Igloo Quart MaxCold Cooler. Those are economical choices and fine if you don’t need a cooler long term. If you’re like us and use your cooler a lot, invest in a Yeti Cooler. Are they expensive? Yes. Are they worth it? Also yes.
  • HIGH-QUALITY HIKING SHOES – This is not the time to scrimp on low-quality hiking shoes. You’ll be doing a lot of climbing and scrambling on hiking paths that have loose gravel and slickrock. You’ll need hiking shoes with excellent traction and support. It’s also nice to have waterproof hiking shoes. We use hiking shoes from Forsake and Danner.
  • HIGH-QUALITY WALKING SHOES – If you’ll be doing lighter walking and don’t want a heavy hiking boot, you should also bring some walking shoes that can double as hiking shoes. I am in LOVE with the shoe company Merrell and can vouch for how amazing they are. I’ve had shoes from them that have lasted for 15 years. You can check out their shoes at REI or Merrell.
  • WATER SHOES – You’ll want to protect your feet from the rocky water bottoms with a nice pair of water shoes. We are obsessed with our Jefferson Native Shoes and have been wearing them since 2012. They are most popular as a toddler shoe, but both my husband and I rock them out whenever we are within 10 feet of water. We like their cute designs and that you don’t need to change into a water shoe when you get to the water, since they can pass as an everyday shoe. Click here for the adult Jefferson Natives and here for the Kids’ Jefferson shoe.
  • LAYERS – Even if you visit in summer, you’ll want to bring layers for cool mornings and evenings. A fleece sweater with an insulating base layer should be fine in the late Spring, Summer, and early Fall. You’ll want something you can easily throw in your daypack. Patagonia and North Face are high-quality, reliable brands with great fleece sweaters.
  • DAY PACK– A staple on the trail will be a breathable day pack for your snacks and gear. We use and love the North Face Borealis backpack. You can also browse through other day packs here.
  • HIKING POLES – If you don’t feel steady on your feet or would like the extra support, hiking poles are a great addition to a Utah National Parks packing list.
  • ICE TRACTION – If you’ll be visiting in winter (December – February), many of the trails will get a thin layer of ice, making it slippery and dangerous in areas where there are steep drop-offs. A traction device like Yak-Trax slips onto the outside of your shoes and gives you traction and stability in icy conditions. This is a must-do and worth every penny.
  • WATER BOTTLE/HYDRATION PACK – Having a reusable water bottle is an absolute must. We are die-hard fans of Hydroflask and love that they can keep our drinks ice cold or piping hot for over 12 hours.
  • HEADLAMP – If you plan to do any sunrise or sunset hikes, bring a flashlight or headlamp so you can safely hike. Hiking in Utah isn’t like hiking a trail in a forest. It’s very easy to get lost in a red rock desert landscape. You’ll want to be able to spot the rock cairns to know you’re going the right way. Don’t forget extra batteries! 
  • AAA ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE– Southern Utah is not a place you want to get stuck with no roadside help. I highly suggest you have a roadside assistance plan for any possible car trouble. On our Utah National Parks trip, we broke down (on the highway!) AND got a flat tire (on the highway again!) Luckily we had AAA, so we were able to get help quickly. You can check rates for AAA here.
  • HIKING GUIDE – We highly suggest the book Hiking from Here to WOW if you want a well-written and thorough guide to hiking trails in Southern Utah. Especially if you’re looking to discover hiking trails that aren’t as well known.
  • SUNBLOCK, SUNHAT, SUNGLASSES –  A high SPF sunblock like Blue Lizard is a must when visiting Utah. The high elevation is no joke, and you will burn quicker. In addition, bring sunglasses and a wide brimmed sunhat.
  • CHAPSTICK – The dry, Utah weather will wreak havoc on your lips. Bring your favorite lip moisturizer. I love the Evan Healy lip moisturizer and the Jack Black lip moisturizer when I need SPF.
  • POWER BANK – Lack of a good cell signal and constant photo taking will drain your phone faster than you’re used to. Bring a high-quality power bank or solar power charger so you can have your phone working at all times.
  • CAMERA – There’s something beautiful to photograph around every corner of Southern Utah. We brought our Canon 90D with Canon 10-18mm wide-angle lens, and Canon 18-135mm zoom lens, and our Go Pro Hero 8 Black. Our Canon camera might be overkill for the everyday photographer looking to get some nice shots. If you’re looking for a good starter camera, we suggest looking at the Nikon D3500 DSLR camera.
  • CAMPING CHAIRS – This isn’t absolutely necessary for a Utah Big 5 road trip, but I think it’s a nice addition for the type of traveler who loves to sit out somewhere beautiful and take in the views. It’s also great for sunset or sunrise. If you want small and compact, and easy to carry for a hike, use this ultra-compact folding chair. If you want something more durable go for the Kijaro camping chairs.

UTAH ROAD TRIP ITINERARY

Here are a few suggestions for a Utah Big 5 itinerary. You’ll want to know your driving times which are outlined in the breakdown of each National Park.

7 Day Itinerary, Utah National Parks
Day 1: SLC Airport to Arches NP (depending on arrival time, you can do a hike in Arches that day or choose to gather provisions in Moab)
Day 2: Arches NP
Day 3: Canyonlands National Park + Dead Horse State Park for sunset
Day 4: Capitol Reef NP
Day 5: Bryce Canyon NP
Day 6: Zion NP
Day 7: Zion NP to Vegas or SLC Airport

10 Day Itinerary, Utah National Parks
Day 1: SLC Airport to Arches NP (depending on arrival time, you can do a half-day in Arches)
Day 2: Arches NP
Day 3: Canyonlands NP + Dead Horse State Park for sunset
Day 4: Goblin Valley State Park + Little Wild Horse Canyon
Day 5: Capitol Reef NP
Day 6: Bryce Canyon NP
Day 7: Zion NP
Day 8: Zion NP
Day 9: Zion NP
Day 10: Zion NP to Vegas or SLC Airport

12 Day Itinerary, Utah National Parks
Day 1: SLC Airport to Arches NP (depending on arrival time, you can do a half-day in Arches)
Day 2: Arches NP
Day 3: Explore Moab or More Arches NP
Day 4: Canyonlands NP + Dead Horse State Park for sunset
Day 5: Goblin Valley State Park + Little Wild Horse Canyon
Day 6: Capitol Reef NP
Day 7: Escalante National Monument
Day 8: Bryce Canyon NP
Day 9: Zion NP
Day 10: Zion NP
Day 11: Zion NP
Day 12: Zion NP to Vegas or SLC Airport

*Another alternative to the 12-day itinerary is to cut day 3 and move everything up a day. For your last full day (day 11) wake up late and let yourself RELAX. This is a physically intense trip, so you might want to schedule a day of sitting out by a pool and letting your body rest. Better yet, get a massage in Springdale, Utah!


UTAH NATIONAL PARK ROAD TRIP: THE MIGHTY 5 EXPLAINED

Okay, we’re ready to talk about Utah’s National Parks! For ease, I’ve broken down the parks in the order of the 7-day itinerary starting from Salt Lake City along with lodging recommendations in that order. If you’re going in the opposite direction you’ll have to reverse the lodging recommendations.

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

Long thin arch in Arches National Park

Arches is a STUNNING National Park. We fell in love with this small but mighty park that boasts the highest collection of natural arches anywhere in the world. With over 2000 natural arches, you would think one would get bored of seeing so many arches. You won’t. It’s a red rock paradise that has incredible hiking and sights.

LOCATION:
Moab, Utah

COST:
$30 per vehicle, good for seven days

TIME NEEDED:
1 -2 days

TOP HIGHLIGHTS:
Delicate Arch – Measuring 46 feet high and 32 feet wide, it’s the largest freestanding arch in the park. Viewing the arch requires a moderate 3-mile roundtrip out and back hike. It’s a beautiful hike and very popular at sunset. If you want to avoid crowds, do it at sunrise for a stunning experience you’ll never forget. It’s not ideal for photography, but it’s great for solitude.

Landscape Arch + The Devil Garden’s Trail – This 7.2-mile round trip hike is an extraordinary hike with additional small walks that can be added on to view various arches. The trail can be done in a loop if you choose to do the Primitive Trail or an out-and-back trail to Double O Arch. The hike becomes difficult after viewing Landscape Arch and at times requires using your hands and feet to scramble and climb. With steep drop-offs and narrow ledges, this trail is not recommended for anyone afraid of heights. Many choose to start the trail and head back after viewing Landscape Arch, making the hike 1.6 miles roundtrip. Landscape Arch is the longest Arch in North America. Spanning the length of a football field, this miraculously thin arch is an impressive sight and worth the easy hike to get there.

large natural red arch with lone woman looking and taking a photo
Sand Dune Arch is lovely when you have it all to yourself!

OPTIONAL ADVENTURES:
Park Avenue Trail – A two-mile out-and-back hike that doesn’t highlight a particular arch but walks you through the valley floor, getting you up close to the towering rock walls that line the park. A great change of pace if you’re done looking at Arches!

Sand Dune Arch: This short .3 mile trail is perfect for families or anyone with limited mobility. Sand Dune Arch is tucked away between tall walls giving it a unique cavernous feel.

Fiery Furnace Trail – For rugged adventures, you can try your hand at the Fiery Furnace Trail. You MUST have a permit to do the trail. Click here to learn about reserving a ranger-led guide or getting a permit.

GOOD TO KNOW:
There is no food available in the park, so you’ll need to pack a lunch for the day or pick up food in the gateway town of Moab.

SIDE TRIPS:
Moab, Utah is a hip little town that is worthy of exploring if you want to take a day or two to explore the city. You can go rafting down the Colorado River, drive down Road 128 for a scenic drive, try mountain biking on the famed Slickrock trail, or hiking (yes, there are loads of other hiking trails beyond the National Parks!). Kids and the young at heart will also enjoy Moab Giants, an interactive dinosaur museum.

DAY TOURS:
Backcountry 4X4 1/2 Day Tour
Photography Tour of Arches
Arches National Park Air Tour

WHERE TO STAY
In the park:
There is no lodging in the park. There is one campsite, Devil’s Garden Campground, that can be reserved from March to October, otherwise, it’s first come-first served. It’s a beautiful campsite that books out months in advance.

Moab Lodging:
SpringHill Suites – Big, clean rooms with an amazing outdoor pool area. It’s also the closest hotel to the park. A five-minute drive to Arches!
Desert Oasis VRBO – 3 bedroom upscale home that’s good for a group or family travel. Private hot tub!
Pack Creek Ranch VRBO – Tucked further away, but perfect if you’re looking for a cabin retreat experience.


CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

man walking down rock staircase with three year old boy into Canyonlands National Park

An easy 30-minute drive from Arches National Park is the completely different national park, Canyonlands. As the name suggests, the main event is viewing the spectacular canyons. The park is large, but the area you’ll be visiting is small. While there are hikes, you could also opt to drive the park and do viewpoints only. I suggest doing one or two viewpoints as well as one or two hikes depending on how much time you want to spend there.

Canyonlands National Park has four distinct districts: The Island In the Sky, The Maze, The Needles, and The Rivers. The Island in the Sky is the area that most people explore. It’s the easiest to access and has hiking trails for everyone. This area is also the closest to Arches NP. For this Utah National Park itinerary, we’ll only be covering The Island In the Sky.

The Maze is a remote, backcountry area that is best left to hikers with experience backpacking. As the name suggests, it’s quite easy to get lost out there. You can learn more about The Maze here.

The Needles is made up of clusters of colorful sandstone spires that are incredible to hike around. Because it’s out of the way (75 miles from Moab), most people never make it there. If you have the time, are a fan of hiking, and love the idea of minimal crowds, you can add Needles to your Utah mighty 5 itinerary. You can learn more about The Needles here.

The Rivers District is the area where the Colorado and Green River flows through the canyons. If you love kayaking, white water rafting, or canoeing you might want to explore the Rivers. Because of their inaccessibility, most people only visit through a guided tour. You can learn more about The Rivers here.

LOCATION:
Moab, Utah

COST:
$30 per vehicle, good for seven days

TIME NEEDED:
1/2 Day to 1 Day

TOP HIGHLIGHTS:
Mesa Arch: The most famous landmark in the park, you’ll want to take the short hike (.5 miles) to see this beautiful arch that sits at the precipice of a cliff. A popular thing to do is visit the arch at sunrise to see the sun peeking through the arch. A stunning sight for sure, but be prepared for crowds if you’re visiting in high season.

Grand View Point Overlook and Hike: You can walk out to the overlook to take in sweeping views of Monument Basin. If you also want to get a hike in you can continue on to do the 2 miles out and back Grand View Point Hike. It walks along the canyon and offers additional views.

White Rim Overlook Trail: This 1.8-mile out-and-back hike takes you out to a viewpoint that gives you views of Monument Basin and Buck Canyon. I personally thought it was a better hike than Grand View Point and liked that there were fewer people there. Plus, you get two different views in one hike!

Schafer Canyon Viewpoint: A pretty outlook that gives you views of Schafer Canyon and the winding dirt road (only accessible by 4X4) that leads down into the canyon. You can check it out on your way out of the park.

Green River Overlook: A pretty lookout that shows the Green River carving its way through the basin floor. An easy stop as you drive thorugh the park.

OPTIONAL ADVENTURES:

Syncline Loop: A strenuous 8.5 miles round trip hike that is best suited for experienced hikers. It’s perfect if you’re looking for solitude and a long hike

Gooseberry Hike: This 5.4 miles hike takes you below the rim of the canyon to give you a different view. The trail takes you down 1000 feet so only hike down if you’re willing to hike back up! It’s well worth the work though and nice to get a different perspective on Canyonlands. Great for adventurers!

GOOD TO KNOW:

There are no gas stations once you turn off Highway 191 to head toward Canyonlands. Fill up before you head into the park! Also, there’s no food, so be sure to pack lunch, water, and snacks beforehand.

DAY TOURS:
Colorado River Rafting and 4X4 Tour

gorgeous sunset over a red canyon in Utah
Sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park

SIDE TRIPS:
Dead Horse Point State Park: If you have time, you should definitely make the 20-minute drive from Canyonlands National Park to Dead Horse Point State Park. It’s a small state park that packs a punch. Some might like it more than Canyonlands! The main draw is the stunning view of Canyonlands and the Colorado River. We visited the park and stayed for two nights in one of the amazing campsites. One evening we went to the overlook in time to see the sunset. We didn’t do any of the hikes, but there are several trails in the park.

WHERE TO STAY:
You have a few different options here, you can stay in Moab for one more night and get an early start the next day to drive to your next destination OR you can drive toward Capitol Reef to sleep for the night.

If you aren’t lodging in Moab, you can opt to stay in Torrey, Utah (164 miles away, 2.45-hour drive) or Hanksville, Utah (117 miles, 1.45-hour drive). Torrey, Utah, has more amenities, but Hanksville, Utah, is closer and will cut off driving time. If you just need a place to sleep for a night, I would opt for Hanksville, Utah. From Hanksville, it’s a 30-minute drive to Capitol Reef NP. It’s not a fancy area and lodging is limited, but a good choice for someone who just wants a quick place to sleep for the night.

*If you’ll be doing the side trips recommended in the longer itineraries to Goblin Valley and Little Wild Horse Canyon, it’s better to stay in Green River, Utah (59 miles, 1 hour drive) or Torrey, Utah to shorten your drive time.

Hanksville Lodging:
Whispering Sands Motel – Basic motel with comfortable beds.

Torrey Lodging:
Capitol Reef Resort – A beautiful resort that you might want to stay an extra day at to laze by the pool. The closest hotel to Capitol Reef NP.
VRBO Rental Home – Two Bedroom home perfect for groups or family travel.

Green River Lodging:
River Terrace Inn -A clean, simple hotel with comfortable beds.


CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK

Woman and son underneath gigantic natural rock bridge

Capitol Reef National Park is the underdog of the National Parks. It’s the middle child that everyone keeps forgetting about. The beauty of Capitol Reef being the least visited National Park in Utah means it’s not nearly as crowded as the other parks. Does the fact that it’s not as popular mean it’s not as great? Nope.

Capitol Reef has a little bit of everything – beautiful arches, stunning hikes, hoodoos, and petroglyphs. The one thing that sets it apart from the other parks is its copious fruit orchards. From June to October, over 3,100 fruit trees are ripe and ready to be harvested by YOU. Leftover from early Mormon settlers, the National Park now owns and maintains the trees. Free to eat and pick while you’re in the orchard, it’s one of the most unique (and sweetest) things you do could at a National Park. ⁣

Depending on the time of year, you can pick cherries, apricots, pears, apples, plums, mulberries, almonds, and walnuts. ⁣

If fruit picking isn’t your thing, you can stop by the Gifford Homestead, conveniently located in the Fruita District of the park, to pick up a fresh-baked pie. These pies are so popular that they sell out by late morning. Get there early!

LOCATION:
Torrey

COST:
$20 per vehicle, good for seven days

TIME NEEDED:
1 Day

Grand Wash Trail in Capitol Reef.

TOP HIGHLIGHTS:
Hickman Bridge Trail – A lovely 2 miles out and back trail that starts along the water and takes you to a 133-foot natural bridge. A great hike for families or anyone who doesn’t want an all-day hike.

Cassidy Arch – A fun and adventurous path, this moderate 3.4 miles hike takes you out to Cassidy Arch. Unlike most arches, you can stand on the arch! With beautiful surroundings and great views, this is a fantastic hike.

Grand Wash Trail – This 4.8-mile trail is an easy hike that will lead you into tall narrow canyons. If you don’t have time to do the entire walk, it’s fine to do the first half and turn around.

Pick Fruit + Eat Pie – If you’re there when the fruit trees are ripe, pick some succulent fruit for yourself. In addition or instead, get some ice cream or pie at the Gifford Estate.

Capitol Reef Scenic Drive and Capitol Gorge Road – The scenic drive is 7.9 miles one way and a great option for the hottest parts of the day. Crank up the A.C, turn on some tunes, and take in the views of Capitol Reef. The scenic drive is a paved road that takes you to Capitol Gorge Road. It’s a gravel 2.3 mile road with even more stunning scenery. Continue on to Capitol Gorge road as long as your vehicle is under 27 feet long.

OPTIONAL ADVENTURES:
Navajo Knobs – If a long, physically challenging hike is what you’re after, then you’ll want to do this 9.5-mile hike to get incredible, panoramic views of Capitol Reef.

Sunset Point – A great way to end your day is to see the sunset at Sunset Point. The .08 round trip walk means you can easily carry in some camping chairs and a tasty beverage.

Petroglyphs – Capitol Reef is home to various petroglyph sites, but the easiest one to see is 1.5 miles away from the visitor center. A short walk on a boardwalk takes you to a large petroglyph panel with human-like figures and animals. If you’ve never seen petroglyphs before then definitely take a moment to see the fascinating etchings.

GOOD TO KNOW:
There is no food in the park (except desserts!) so pack a cooler and have a picnic in the Fruita District.

SIDE TRIPS:
Goblin Valley State Park – This amazing state park is a true gem. If you are traveling with kids, I think a visit to Goblin Valley is a must-do. A small state park with bizarre, rock shape formations surrounded by cliffs, this unique park is the place to go for climbing, running, and playing. This unusual park is often compared to Mars and several movies have been filmed in this unique state park.

Little Wild Horse Canyon – Little Wild Horse Canyon is a great introduction to slot canyon hiking. I highly recommend adding Little Wild Horse Canyon, especially if you’ve never done a slot canyon hike. It’s easy, accessible, and largely considered one of the most family-friendly slot canyons in Utah. For those who like a more challenging hike, you can opt for an eight-mile loop that takes you through Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyon. To see video of the slot canyon hike, you can watch our reel on Instagram.

DAY TOURS:
Canyoneering Adventure

WHERE TO STAY:
You can stay in Torrey, Utah for the night or you can drive to your next destination Bryce Canyon (107 miles, 2 hour drive). If you’ll be opting to make the side trip of Escalante National Monument, you’ll stay in the town of Escalante (65 miles, 1.5 hour drive). Please note that if you’re going to stop at Escalante, you’ll take a different driving route than if you were continuing straight to Bryce Canyon NP.

Torrey Lodging
Capitol Reef Resort – A beautiful resort that you might want to stay an extra day at to laze by the pool. The closest hotel to Capitol Reef NP.
VRBO Rental Home – Two Bedroom home perfect for groups or family travel

Bryce Canyon City Lodging

Best Western Plus – Convenient location and comfortable beds make it an easy choice.
Cabin With Porch VRBO – Two bedroom home is perfect for families and anyone who wants to cook their own meals.

Escalante Lodging

Historic Pioneer Cabin VRBO – This 1 bedroom cabin is a beautiful GEM in Escalante. Perfect for solo travel or a couple.
Two Bedroom Tiny House VRBO – This chic tiny home is a great place to unwind after a long day hiking. Plus it has a washer and dryer so you can wash your clothes!
40 Acre Retreat VRBO – If you want a gorgeous retreat to relax in after hiking for days, this spot is the perfect place to lay low for a day or three.


BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Amphitheater At Bryce Canyon National Park In Utah

Bryce Canyon is a small park with an extraordinary display of hoodoos. It’s hoodoo heaven. In fact, it has the highest concentration of hoodoos of anywhere in the world. Getting up close and personal with these fascinating formations is the main draw of Bryce Canyon NP.

The park’s small size means you can cover a lot of the park in a 1/2 day depending on your travel pace. This is a park that consists of lookouts and hikes. If you want to save time, do a few lookouts and a hike or two and you’ll have seen the beauty of Bryce Canyon.

Also, Bryce Canyon has the highest elevation (tops out at 9000 feet) of all the Mighty 5 so you might need to layer up as temperatures could be colder than you expect.

LOCATION:
Bryce Canyon City

COST:
$35 per vehicle, good for seven days

TIME NEEDED:
1/2 Day to 1 Day

TOP HIGHLIGHTS:
Inspiration Point – The best view in the park!

Sunrise Point – Get up early in the morning to see the sun rise over the Bryce amphitheater. Sunrise point is the trailhead for the two hikes below, so after sunrise you can beat the crowds and head out on an early moring hike.

Queens Garden Trail – This 1.8 miles out and back, easy to moderate trail takes you down 320 feet to see some of the park’s most interesting rock formations. The hike immerses you into a magical world of looming hoodoos. We highly recommend adding the Navajo Loop Trail to this hike.

Navajo Loop Trail – this 1.4 mile loop trail takes you down to the floor of Bryce Canyon. It’s from this trail that you’ll see the famous hoodoo formations – Thor’s Hammer, Wall Street, and Twin Bridges.

OPTIONAL ADVENTURES:

Fairyland Loop Trail – This 8-mile strenuous hike is perfect if you want a rigorous day and are looking to get away from crowds.

Peekaboo Loop Trail – This moderate 5-mile trail is another great option if you want a longer hike with fewer people, but aren’t up for the Fairyland Loop Trail.

GOOD TO KNOW:
Hoodoo means “to bewitch,” which is exactly what these interesting rock formations do. While hoodoos can vary in size and shape, they are generally defined as a spire made of rocks and minerals. In different parts ot the world they are also known as fairy chimneys, tent rocks, or earth pyramids.

FUN DAY TOURS:
Horseback Riding Through Red Canyon

SIDE TRIPS:
Escalante National Monument – Escalante is jam-packed with extraordinary adventures and hikes. Because it’s not a National Park, it gets fewer visitors, but some would argue that Escalante is a better overall experience than some of the other parks of the Mighty 5. I’ll let you be the judge of that. If you have time and you love adventure, a day or two in Escalante is a great idea. If you’re just passing through, do the Lower Calf Creek Falls, a 6-mile round trip hike to a stunning waterfall. If you’re staying longer, try out one of the many slot canyons in the park, including Peek A Boo and Spooky Slot Canyon and the Insta famous Zebra Slot Canyon.

Willis Creek Slot Canyon – Located a 45-minute drive from Bryce Canyon, is an easy slot canyon hike that is perfect for anyone traveling with kids. It’s 4.8 miles round trip, but you can shorten the trip by stopping after the narrows, making it a 2.8-mile round trip hike. As with most slot canyon hikes, it’s best to wear waterproof shoes.

WHERE TO STAY:
From Bryce Canyon, you’ll want to make the drive to Springdale, Utah (72 miles 1.5 to 2-hour drive) the gateway town to Zion NP. You’ll want to get an early start to your day at Zion NP.

Springdale Lodging
Zion Lodge– The only lodging available in Zion NP.
SpringHill Suites – A gorgeous hotel that is right next to Zion NP.
Nama-Stay Suites VRBO – A great choice for couples who want a luxurious feel after hiking all day.
3 Bedroom VRBO – A great choice for families looking for an economical choice. Plus it has a hot tub!


ZION NATIONAL PARK

Zion National Park is largely considered the best National Park in Utah.

We’ve come to the final stretch of the Utah Mighty 5 road trip. Zion National Park is the 4th most visited National Park in the country. It’s renowned for its sublime landscape and extraordinary hiking. It is possible to avoid crowds in Zion, but you will have to wake up early to do it. There’s no way around it. Get up early and start your day at 7 AM or be prepared to wait in long lines.

LOCATION:
Springdale

COST:
$35 per vehicle, good for seven days

TIME NEEDED:
2-3 Days

The most famous hike in Zion is the dare devil hike Angels Landing.

TOP HIGHLIGHTS:
Angels Landing – This is one of two bucket list hikes in the park. This is NOT a hike for anyone who has vertigo or is afraid of heights. This strenuous five-mile round trip hike will take you to stunning 360-degree views of the canyon. While the end is glorious, it seems to me this hike is really about the journey it takes to get there. The most thrilling (or terrifying) part of the hike is when you get to a narrow ridge with 1000 foot drop-offs on both sides. Chains have been installed so you can hold on, but still…this hike is for daredevils. If you plan to do this hike, get on the 7 AM shuttle and go there first. I can’t even imagine what it would be like doing the hike midday and having to share that thin slice of mountain top with hordes of people.

The Narrows – The second bucket list hike is wading through The Narrows. I say wading because you will literally be hiking through emerald water while being flanked by stunning canyon walls. It’s an incredible experience that everyone should do when visiting Zion. The entire slot canyon is 12 miles, but most people just hike in and turn around when they want to. The journey can be as long or as short as you want it to be. You will need to be prepared with all the right gear. You can check this site that rents gear for hiking the narrows.

Observation Point: A strenuous 8-mile hike that takes you to the best view you can get of Zion National Park. If Angel’s Landing feels too intimidating, hiking Observation Point is a great alternative. It’s not an adrenaline junkie hike, but the view is stunning and it’s a lot of work to get there.

Emerald Pool Trail: This short trail is a popular one because it’s beautiful and easy! A welcome addition if you’ve already tackled the more challenging hikes above.

Riverside Walk – Perfect for families or anyhow who wants a shorter walk, this 2.2 miles round trip walk is a paved path that takes you to the Virgin River.

Hiking the Narrows is a MUST DO on a Utah National Parks road trip itinerary.

OPTIONAL ADVENTURES:
Hidden Canyon: For another adventurous hike with thrills, you can do this 3 mile round trip hike. Similar to Angel’s Landing, it has chains to assist you in portions of the hike. Not as extreme as Angel’s Landing, but a fun choice for adventurous types.

GOOD TO KNOW:
VERY IMPORTANT! From March to October, Zion has a shuttle system for the most popular part of the park. You can not drive into this section and you have to use the mandatory shuttle. You MUST buy your ticket beforehand. My personal advice is that you secure the 7:00 AM time slot to avoid the crowds. I highly suggest you read through the rules for the Zion Shuttle to make sure you understand how it operates. You can learn more about it here.

FUN DAY TOURS:
East Zion Slot Canyon UTV Tour
East Zion Canyoneer Tour
Alpaca Farm Visit

WHERE TO STAY:
The lodging is the same as mentioned for Bryce Canyon. Here it is again.

Springdale Lodging
Zion Lodge– The only lodging available in the park.
SpringHill Suites – A gorgeous hotel that is right next to Zion NP.
Nama-Stay Suites VRBO – A great choice for couples who want a luxurious feel after hiking all day.
3 Bedroom VRBO – A great choice for families looking for an economical choice. Plus it has a hot tub!


woman looking at camera with a red rock canyon in Utah behind her
Missing my time at the National Parks in Utah.

Phew! If you’ve made it through this entire post then you’re ready for an extraordinary Utah National Parks road trip. After you go, come back here and share stories or tips on your Utah Big 5 road trip.

Happy adventures!

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