Driving The Utah National Parks – 9 Day Road Trip
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).
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
For a Cozy Cabin Experience: Bryce Canyon Cabins
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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. You can also save some money on accommodation by staying a little farther out of the park in La Verkin or Hildale.
The Only Place IN The Park: Zion Lodge (Must reserve WAY in advance)
For The Glampers: Under Canvas at Zion (I’ll be honest this looks kind of awesome)
If You Don’t Need A Roof: Camping Information for Zion
Day 7: The Big Hike
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.