Family Road Trip SLC to Zion in A Day
If you’re a fan of fascinating desert road trips, you’re in for a treat, as today we will take you through the incredible vistas Salt Lake City to Zion National Park.
What’s so special about this route, you ask? With picturesque landscapes, scenic meadows spread over a large expanse, white and red-toned cliffs, and many beautiful stops on the way, including several national monuments, your road trip from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park is going to be full of fun and adventure.
Zion National Park is undisputedly one of the most beautiful, and most visited national parks in the United States. Salt Lake City (SLC) is one of the closest major international airports so makes the ideal spot to start your Utah national parks road trip.
Whilst much attention goes into visiting “the Mighty 5” there are many more fascinating stops you can make along the way – let’s jump behind the wheel to discover some of the best of Utah, SLC to Zion!
Distance from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park
Zion National Park is 308 miles from Salt Lake City, with most of the drive along Interstate 15 (I-15). It takes several hours to get to Zion National Park, but with so many beautiful sights and attractions on the way, you won’t even realize where the time went!
So, if you’re planning on taking a road trip to Zion National Park from Salt Lake City, we suggest going slow, enjoying the views on the way, and stopping at various spots to make the most out of the trip.
How Long Do I Need to Drive from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park?
As we mentioned earlier, the distance from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park is 308 miles, so you will have to drive for nearly 5 hours without stops taking the most direct route along the I-15.
However, the time can easily be extended, depending on how many stops you take along the way and how long you stay at each stop.
If you leave Salt Lake City early in the morning, you can easily reach Zion National Park by evening, including all the stopovers we mention here. It will be a long driving day, but nonetheless achievable in one day with regular opportunities for everyone to stretch their legs.
If you decide to explore the various stops along the way in more detail, like Cedar City, your road trip can extend from a few hours to a couple of days! It all depends on how you plan your road trip.
Best Time of the Year to Drive from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park
The best time of the year to drive from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park is during late spring and early fall, i.e., from April to May and September through November. During this time, the weather is comfortable, and the free shuttles in Zion National Park are active.
You can also visit between December and February because this time of the year sees less crowds; however, due to the cold season, you might not be able to enjoy all the attractions.
Therefore, if you want to experience everything in full swing but without intense heat and crowds, plan during Spring and Fall. If you want to avoid the crowds, December to February it is!
Best Stops to Make Between Salt Lake City and Zion National Park
The 5-hour drive between Salt Lake City and Zion National Park is anything but boring! You’ll find an array of scenic views ranging from unique rock formations to large expanses of countryside, and not to forget the adventure-filled stopovers.
Therefore, if you want to make every moment of your road trip count, here are the best stops to make between Salt Lake City and Zion National Park:
1. Great Salt Lake
OK, technically, this isn’t directly on the way, you’ll need to loop north a little before commencing your trip, but you can’t visit Salt Lake City and not capture Great Salt Lake!
From Interstate 15, you can take Exit 332 and take the 7-mile drive across the causeway to reach the Antelope Island State Park, the best place to experience the Great Salt Lake close to SLC.
The Great Salt Lake – the largest sale lake in the Western Hemisphere – is 75 miles long and 35 miles wide and 3 times saltier than the ocean! Do you know what this means? This means that the water is super-floaty and allows visitors to enjoy a relaxing float. But that’s not all! You will find 20 miles of hiking and biking trails to explore the area, after which you can lounge on the sandy beach.
2. Timpanogos Cave
Once you leave the Great Salt Lake and get back on Interstate 15, the second stopover on the route from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park is the Timpanogos Cave.
A little less than an hour away and 10 minutes from the Alpine Exit from Interstate 15, you will find the Timpanogos Cave National Monument.
It is a hidden world of beautifully decorated pools, stalagmites, and stalactites tucked away secretly underground. The National Parks Service hosts tours around the cave, where you learn about the ancient history and mystery behind the formation of the Timpanogos Cave.
Pro Tip: We only recommend this for families with older children due (or infants in soft carriers) as there’s a steep 1.5-mile hike needed in and out of the cave. The caves are only accessible on an organized cave tour, limited to 16 people per group. This should be booked in advance.
If you are interested in the great mysteries of the past, we are sure you will have an amazing time visiting the Timpanogos Cave National Monument.
3. Little Sahara National Recreation Reserve
As we said, the route from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park is quite adventurous and full of fun; therefore, it’s no wonder you will find a desert on the way!
Almost 2 hours from Salt Lake City, and a short detour from Interstate 15, you will come across 60,000 acres of sand, with dunes and Juniper-covered hills. This is Little Sahara, a small expanse of desert that offers hiking, camping, and off-highway vehicle rides.
Here, you can rent a dune buggy and cruise around the sand. And, if you’re exhausted after all the adventures, you can stay the night by camping on the various campgrounds available at Little Sahara.
4. Fishlake National Forest
We all love nature, and a fresh burst of greenery is much appreciated when you’re sitting in the car for over an hour. Just a few miles from the Timpanogos Cave, you will find the Fishlake National Forest.
It is a green oasis with lakes perfect for fishing, reservoirs, a vast forest area with beautiful mountain views for camping, and several ATV trails.
So, take a detour to visit Fishlake National Forest and enjoy the beauty of nature while fishing peacefully by the lakeside.
5. Parowan Gap Petroglyphs
Set just a few miles on the Interstate in the Escalante Desert, the Parowan Gap Petroglyphs make a fascinating stop on your way from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park.
One of the most concentrated findings of Petroglyphs in America, this “gallery” of well-preserved rock carvings, is on the National Register of Historic Places, signifying its importance as a cultural treasure. It is believed many of the petroglyphs here were used as lunar and solar calendars by native Indians and have been there for over a thousand years.
Are dinosaur fans in the car? Head a mile east from the Gap (N37° 53′ 49″, W112° 57′ 03″), and you can even spot a small collection of footprints beneath a cliff of conglomerate rock.
6. Cedar City
Almost 251 miles from Salt Lake City, approximately 3.5 hours later, you will arrive at Cedar City. It is a small city with more or less 30,000 residents, most of whom are Southern Utah University students.
So, why should you stop at Cedar City? Because of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, of course! It is one of North America’s oldest, largest, and most famous festivals, where 8 classic Shakespeare plays are performed from June through October. If you’re traveling to Zion National Park from Salt Lake City between June and October, stopping at Cedar City is mandatory!
Plus, the city has some great restaurants with amazing food, including the best Thai and Mexican cuisines. Even if you’re not a Shakespeare fan, you still have to eat, right? Therefore, enjoy mouthwatering food at Cedar City, and stretch your legs a bit before continuing your journey towards Zion National Park.
NB – Cedar City is actually home to one of the closest domestic airports to Zion, however, there’s only one daily regional flight from SLC, and you still need a vehicle transfer for the last hour. We think it’s easier to simply drive from SLC to Zion National Park and enjoy all the interesting highlights along the way!
7. Cedar Breaks National Monument
After Cedar City, you absolutely cannot miss Cedar Breaks National Monument to the east of the city.
The Cedar Breaks National Monument is a 3-mile wide and 2000-feet deep natural amphitheater with some stunning Instagrammable rock formations. It is significantly less crowded than other canyons; therefore, you get a chance to enjoy the beautiful terrain in peace.
Cedar Breaks is 10,000 feet above sea level and makes for one of the best stargazing sites in the US, owing to the pollution-free and dry air.
So, if you’re looking to spend some quiet time, the Cedar Breaks National Monument is a must-visit place on your way to Zion National Park to explore the empty trails and enjoy the summer wildflowers.
Although relatively short, the journey from Cedar Breaks to Zion National Park is known to have several noteworthy stops, including Grafton Town.
Grafton is a ghost town that was a bustling little place back in 1859 but was abandoned in 1944. It gained popularity again in 1969 due to the bicycle scene in the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Since then, most people have taken a detour towards this ghost town to explore abandoned buildings, just for thrills.
So, if you want to take a trip to the past, head over to Rockville, cross the Virgin River bridge, and follow the signs that lead to Grafton. We’re sure you won’t regret checking out abandoned buildings and houses from the 18th century.
The last stop before you reach Zion National Park is the small town of Springdale. It is almost 57 miles, an hour’s drive away from Cedar City.
It is a small place known as the “Gateway to Zion” as it is located next to Zion National Park’s most popular East entrance. It has just a little over 500 residents; however, you will find many hotels, restaurants, and gift shops for the tourists, making it appear quite happening.
As soon as you enter Springdale, you will see the West Temple to your West, the Watchman to the East, the Virgin River flowing across the center of the Zion Canyon, and the famous sandstone cliffs in Zion National Park rising above the town. This setting makes Springdale technically a part of the Zion Canyon.
Once in Springdale, it’s time to rest. Have a coffee, grab a bite, check in to your accommodation and prepare yourself for the amazing experience of exploring Zion National Park up ahead.
Yes, you have finally reached Zion National Park!
Accommodation in Salt Lake City
Before you begin your road trip from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park, we advise getting a good night’s sleep (and even extend your time in Salt Lake City to catch more of the city highlights). Here are a couple of options where you can stay the night:
Home2Suites is a 3-star hotel situated in the Sugar House district of Salt Lake City. It has large rooms, comfortable beds, concierge services, and an indoor swimming pool. We recommend staying at this hotel as it is situated in a prime location, close to restaurants, bars, and shops.
For a budget-friendly option, we would suggest staying at the Metropolitan Inn. It has basic rooms with clean and comfy beds, free Wi-Fi, a TV, and coffee makers. You get complimentary breakfast and free parking as well. The hotel is close to several restaurants, shops, and most importantly, the airport, so getting around won’t be an issue.
Accommodation in Zion National Park
Once you reach Zion National Park, you will need a few days to explore the whole area, so we recommend you stay in either nearby Springdale or check out these accommodation options within the national park:
Zion Lodge is right in the middle of Zion National Park and is open all year round. It has cabins and rooms with double beds, air conditioning, phones, radio alarm clocks, and hairdryers. Some upscale rooms come with a private porch and balcony as well.
If you’re looking for a place close to nature, we suggest camping at Watchman Campground. It is open all year round and is located merely a quarter mile from the South entrance of Zion National Park.
It has 203 sites for camping with fire rings, clean drinking water, and toilets. It is quite a popular camping site; therefore, make a reservation almost 6 months earlier to get a slot.
Further Tips For Visiting Utah & Zion National Park
- Be aware that some of the most popular trails of Zion are only possible to visit with a permit. You must enter the seasonal or daily lottery for Angel’s Landing – do be prepared with an alternative plan for exploring Zion if you’re unsuccessful.
- Zion National Park can also get exceptionally busy; visiting during peak times, do allow extra time for catching the (free) shuttle bus into the park from either Springdale of the Visitor Center. The earlier you set out in the morning, the less possibility of queuing in the heat.
- Entry to Zion National Park is $35 per private vehicle (valid for 7 days), or get yourself an America the Beautiful annual national parks pass to enjoy every national park in the US – including national monuments we mention in this guide – for just $80. (Also check if your family may be eligible for the Free 4th Grader Pass)
- NB entry fee to the national park is separate from the Angel’s Landing permit; both fees must be paid if you are successful in the lottery.
- Extend your journey beyond Zion; next up, you’ll want to check out our guide to Zion to Bryce Canyon, or tackle the whole Mighty 5 Utah National Parks
- Looking for some serious desert magic? Try these epic stops in the southwest incorporating Utah & Arizona on a 9-day road trip, or focus on the interesting stopping points between Zion NP and the Grand Canyon North Rim.
- Heading north instead of south from SLC? You’ll love this epic road trip from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone National Park.
- And if you’re looking to explore Utah beyond the desert highlights, check out these fun places to visit in Utah.
- Setting out in summer or unfamiliar with driving in the heat? Don’t miss our desert driving tips keeping you safe in the harsh conditions of the desert.
- Never forget an important road trip item again! Grab your downloadable family road trip checklist here to help you prepare for your next family adventure.
The route from Salt Lake City to Zion National Park is quite scenic, fun, and adventurous; before simply heading from A to B, (well SLC to ZNP!) make sure you check out some of these incredible and unique roadside stops worthy of a spot on your Utah bucket list!
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