The Most Incredible National Parks Road Trip in America
Breathtaking hikes, expansive landscapes of red-rock formations, and unbeatable adventures in the desert are just a few of the aspects that make a road trip through Utah the insanely magical experience that it is.
If you’re currently in the planning stages of your road trip to Utah, chances are one of the things you’re most excited to do is to visit all its national parks. Luckily, they’re not too spread apart, so you can easily see them all in a short amount of time!
Starting in Salt Lake City and ending in the alluring Needles district in Canyonlands National Park, this southern Utah road trip itinerary will have you checking out some of the biggest highlights Utah has to offer in terms of nature and grandiose scenery, all in just a week!
Utah Mighty Five Road Trip Map & Itinerary
Day 1: Drive to Zion National Park
- Driving Distance: 308 miles
From Salt Lake City, start making your way to Zion National Park, the first stop on your Utah Mighty Five road trip.
Zion offers tons of contrasts in scenery, which ranges from white and red-toned cliffs, peculiar-looking rock formations, hanging gardens, and verdant meadows.
Aside from its beautiful landscape, Zion also boasts Native American history that dates back to the prehistoric era. To understand the land, you’ll be walking a little better; the first thing you need to do is check out the Zion Human History Museum, where you’ll get to learn all about the Pauite people who once inhabited the area.
If you arrived early enough, you may also have a bit of time to spare to hike a few of the short trails of Zion.
A few recommended ones include Canyon Overlook Trail, Riverside Walk, The Emerald Pool Trail, and the Watchman Trail.
Where Should I Stay visiting Zion National Park?
Staying inside the park, then Zion National Park Lodge is your best option. Nearby, Springdale hotels and motels make for an affordable option, or for a luxury experience try glamping at Zion Wildflower!
Day 2: Zion National Park
- Driving Distance: 75 miles
Day two will be all about going on in and braving the world-famous Angel’s Landing trail. This is a pretty challenging hike that can take around four hours to complete and will have you see some of the best landscapes the park has to offer. At the end of the hike, you’ll be standing a whopping 1500 feet above the canyon!
As a note, take into account that Angel’s Landing is pretty strenuous and not recommended if you have a fear of heights (or itersome little legs!). Moreover, you’ll also need to secure a permit to hike the trail in advance.
If Angel’s Landing doesn’t sound right for you, there are plenty of other amazing hikes in Zion you can do instead, or opt to take a scenic drive around the park. You can easily fill two days at Zion even without the more strenuous hikes.
Do be aware a shuttle bus is required throughout most of the year to get you from the Zion National Park visitor center and into the depths of the park. If you’re not early risers, do expect queues by mid morning.
After hiking and exploring, hop back in your car to drive to Bryce Canyon National Park, your next stop in your Utah Mighty 5 road trip itinerary!
Where Should I Stay Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park?
Campers will find two established campgrounds within Bryce Canyon National Park, or Bryce Canyon Lodge is the only other accommodation inside the park. Nearby the town of Bryce Canyon is not far from the park’s entrance, try Best Western PLUS Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel.
Day 3: Bryce Canyon
- Start and end your day in Bryce Canyon
Home to the largest collection of hoodoos in the world, Bryce Canyon’s unique landscape is guaranteed to please even the fuzziest of travelers.
The ultimate way to see as much of Bryce Canyon on foot is by hiking the Queen’s Garden to Navajo Loop trail. Throughout the hike, you’ll be weaving your way through limestone walls, hiking through tunnels, and even crossing a pine forest before getting to the main viewpoint in the park, which offers 360-degree views of the largest amphitheater of hoodoos!
After hiking, you can check out the rest of the park by driving over Highway 12, a road that provides access to some of the best lookout points of Bryce Canyon.
When sunset arrives, put your hiking shoes back on and make your way to Sunset Point, a splendid place to watch the sun go down over glowing red rock hoodoos!
Bryce Canyon sits at a higher elevation than the other Utah National Parks so gets much colder in winter! Gorgeous for those snow fall photos but be prepared with lots of layers.
Stay: As per night 3, stay in the park or nearby at Bryce Canyon
Alternatively, if you wont an early start on Day 4, you can stay overnight close to Capitol Reef, try the Capitol Reef Resort in the nearby town of Torrey, or Cathedral Valley Inn, Caineville with basic accommodation. Campers, you can try pre-booking Fruita Campground inside Capitol Reef National Park.
Day 4: Capitol Reef
- Driving Distance: 114 miles + 137 miles to Moab
Today, you’ll start the day by driving two hours to Capitol Reef National Park, the most underrated park on the itinerary.
Even though it’s not as popular as the other “Mighty 5”, Capitol Reef offers landscapes like no other. You’ll find three distinct areas to explore: the Waterpocket Fold, the historic Fruita district, and Cathedral Valley.
The park is located on the Waterpocket Fold, a gigantic “wrinkle” on the earth’s surface that created a landscape as dramatic as it can get. Here, you’ll be gawking the entire time as you pass views of enormous cliffs, rugged canyons, natural bridges, and so much more.
Grab a quick lunch and hike to Hickman Bridge, a pretty short trail that will get you to see some of the most iconic views in the park.
Next, grab your car keys and drive the 8-mile scenic road to get access to some of the best viewpoints in the park (this is the only part of the park you’ll be charged an entry fee). Even though the drive is pretty short, there’s a ton to see on the way, so plan at least a few hours to complete the drive without rushing your way through.
After completing the park’s main scenic drive, you can continue toward Highway 24. This road will take you to a petroglyph panel created by the indigenous people who lived in the park’s area thousands of years ago.
After admiring the panels, continue the adventure by driving to Moab, the gateway to Arches and Canyonlands national parks!
If you want less time in Moab for hiking, you can extend your trip between Capitol Reef and Moab with a stop in the fascinating and surreal Goblin Valley State Park.
Where Should I Stay Visiting Moab?
We’ll be pulling up here for the next few nights as we complete the second half of this incredible road trip. Basing yourself in Moab, you are about 10-15 minutes from Arches National Park and 40 minutes from Canyonlands – Island in the Sky Visitor Center.
A few options to try in Moab to suite different budgets:
Day 5: Arches National Park
- Driving Distance: 10 miles
Arches National Park is exactly what it sounds like: A sea of natural arches (it has over 2000 of them!).
Despite the huge amount of arches and rock formations, it’s home to, Arches national park is actually pretty small, which means you can easily see the highlights in just a day.
Very Important Note: From April 2022 the park will be trialing a new timed entry system to cope with crowds. It will be ESSENTIAL from April to October to pre-book your entry to Arches National Park.
To start the adventure, rise early and drive to Arches from Moab to hike to Delicate Arch. This is one of Utah’s most emblematic landmarks (so much it’s actually depicted on its license place), and sunrises here are an absolute treat, especially when the sun’s rays pass right through the arch.
Next, drive down the Arches Scenic Ride, which will have you making several stops at some of the best viewpoints in the park to get a pretty good introduction to the landscapes it offers.
After driving, you can choose from a few of the many short hiking trails on offer. We recommend starting out with the Landscape Arch hike. It takes just under an hour and will get you to see the longest natural arch in the country! Other note-worthy hikes to consider are The Windows, Double Arch, Sand Dune Arch, and Skyline Arch.
Where Should I Stay Visiting Arches National Park?
Note that, because there is no lodging at Arches, you will need to drive back to Moab or camp at the Devils Garden Campground (you need to make advanced reservations).
Moab is located just 15 minutes away from Arches, so you’ll have plenty of options if you don’t manage to snag a spot at the campsite, or why not try this glamping experience?
Day 6: Canyonlands National Park
- Driving Distance: 32 miles to the entrance + 34 mile scenic drive
While Arches National Park is all about arches and rocks, Canyonlands is a bit different as it homes expansive canyons, enormous rock formations, and spires.
Canyonlands National Park is absolutely huge (over 330,000 acres!) and seeing everything in just a day is impossible.
To make things less overwhelming, day six of your Mighty Five road trip will be all about settling into the park by exploring Island in the Sky, the most popular district in the park where the most iconic highlights are found.
NB to put the size of Canyonlands in perspective, it’s about a 2 hour drive between Island in the Sky and The Needles. The Maze is even more remote again, and only accessible by 4WD. Whilst the best hikes for families are in Island of the Sky, you will want a full final day to tackle the Needles as well, we wouldn’t attempt both in one day.
Start the day by hiking the Mesa Arch Trail for sunrise (yes, you’ll need to start hiking in the dark!). Once you get there, though, the views are absolutely worth the early wake-up call.
After hiking, you can drive the 16-mile scenic drive up to Upheaval Dome. From there, start driving back slowly and make stops at the many viewpoints scattered all over, where you’ll be able to see some of the most beautiful views of Island in the Sky.
After completing the drive, you can choose from the many hiking trails on offer. The hikes at Island in the Sky are pretty short and not very strenuous, so you’ll have enough time to tackle plenty of them.
A few must-do hikes which most families should be capable of completing include the White Rim Overlook Trail (0.9 miles), Murphy Point (3.6 miles), and Aztec Butte (1.6 miles).
Where Should I Stay Visiting Canyonlands National Park?
Same as night 4 in Moab, or if your looking for a change, why not try this glamping experience?
Day 7: Canyonlands National Park
We can’t think of a better way to finish a road trip through Utah than exploring the Needles District in Canyonlands.
Even though Island in the Sky is simply fantastic, the Needles offers a much more rugged landscape, quieter trails, and hikes that are considered a bit more challenging. This day is really for your more experienced hikers!
As you make your way to The Needles, make sure you make a quick stop at Newspaper Rock, where you’ll be able to see prehistoric petroglyphs. It’s right outside the park.
From here on, get prepared to do a ton of hiking as we’ll go all in by hiking the Druid Arch to Chesler Loop Trail. While not extremely challenging, this hike is 11.2 miles long, so you’ll need to plan all day for it.
Throughout the hike, you’ll get the chance to see two of the best landmarks in The Needles District. Druid Arch is a beautiful arch with two narrow openings that offer amazing views of the entire area around it.
Chesler Park, on the other hand, is an open area that features a large collection of sandstone spires that look as though they’re piercing the sky!
Day 7 Alternatives + Additions!
If your not huge hikers – or with extra time – a Day 7 alternative close to Moab is Dead Horse Point State Park.
Some of the most simply breathtaking viewpoints in Utah – in fact, in the country! – can be found here. Watch the Colorado River snaking its way through the vast red canyons from the Dead Horse Point Overlook.
If little legs can muster some more enthusiasm, there are several more hikes within the park, though even just a walk to the viewing point for sunset would be the most spectacular way to end your Utah Mighty 5 road trip.
Although the Mighty 5 in Utah have undoubtedly earned their reputation, don’t dismiss the Utah state parks too. Often less crowded but just as awe-inspiringly beautiful. A state parks passes are $10-$20 valid for 2 days or annual passes $100.
Variations to our Utah Mighty 5 One Week Road Trip Itinerary
As you can see Day 7 here is quite strenuos, we would not recommend this for families with young children and inexperienced hikers.
As an alternate with younger children, we suggest you take a little longer on your way from Salt Lake City to Zion as there are plenty of incredible national monuments and state parks that can be added to the Mighty 5.
We would suggest instead:
|Mighty 5 Itinerary (Salt Lake City to Canyonlands)||Overnight Stay|
|Day 1 – Salt Lake City to Zion NP||Springdale|
|Day 2 – Zion NP||Springdale|
|Day 3 – Zion NP to Bryce Canyon NP||Bryce Canyon|
|Day 4 – Bryce Canyon NP||Bryce Canyon|
|Day 5 – Capitol Reef & Goblin Valley State Park||Moab|
|Day 6 – Arches NP||Moab|
|Day 7 – Canyonlands NP & Dead Horse Point State Park||Moab|
Alternatively if you’re heading onward to Arizona, skip the second day in Canyonlands and keep driving onwards to Monument Valley for some serious desert magic!
A Longer South West National Parks Road Trip
Another alternative itinerary, particularly if your plan is to continue onward to Arizona and Nevada, is to tackle all of the above in reverse. We would start the Mighty 5 driving from Salt lake City to Moab, then finish the Utah portion of your journey in Zion. Try this version instead:
|Mighty 5 Itinerary (Salt Lake City to Las Vegas||Overnight Stay|
|Day 1 – Salt Lake City to Arches NP||Moab|
|Day 2 – Arches NP||Moab|
|Day 3 – Canyonlands NP||Moab|
|Day 4 – Moab – Capitol Reef NP – Bryce Canyon||Bryce Canyon|
|Day 5 – Bryce Canyon NP||Bryce Canyon|
|Day 6 – Bryce Canyon to Zion NP||Springdale|
|Day 7 – Zion NP||Springdale|
|Day 8 & Beyond – Grand Canyon to Las Vegas|
Best Time For A Utah Mighty 5 Road Trip
Utah’s desert environment means the summer’s can be sweltering hot, whilst the winters can be cold – even attracting snow! Whilst this can be a photographers dream, for most the peaks of summer and winter aren’t ideal.
Despite the often oppressive heat, summer remains the busiest time for visitors; do expect queues, crowds, full parking lots and sky-high accommodation costs.
However, Spring and fall bring ample opportunities to go and explore – we love early May. The closer to summer you get, you’ll need to think carefully about the amount of hiking you can do.
October is a real sweet spot for mild weather and low crowds, with the added element of fall colors.
For the most part though, the Mighty 5 in Utah can be visited year-round with some planning.
Mighty 5 in Utah National Parks Cost
Aside from fuel and accommodation for your national parks road trip in Utah, you need to factor in national park fees.
|Zion National Park||$35 per car, valid for 7 days (shuttle is free)|
|Bryce Canyon National Park||$35 per car, valid for 7 days|
|Capitol Reef National Park||$20 per car (for the Scenic Drive only)|
|Arches National Park||$30 per car, valid for 7 days (+$2 reservation fee in summer)|
|Canyonlands National Park||$30 per car, valid for 7 days|
You will find it’s very much worth investing in getting your family an America the Beautiful annual pass, which will cover you not just for the Mighty 5 but entrance fees at national forests, wildlife refuges, and more, valid for 12 months.
If you are just visiting Moab – Arches & Canyonlands, a Southeast Utah Parks Annual Pass is $55.
Check if your family may be eligible for the 4th Grader Pass – Every Kid Outdoors pass, there’s no better time to explore the natural beauty of the country.
And don’t forget peak season reservations for Arches National Park! Bookings open 3 months in advance. Like many of the country’s most popular national parks, its likely these summer reservation systems are here to stay.
More Tips for Road Tripping in Utah & The Southwest
- If you want more desert action in the Southwest, then why not extend your trip further into Arizona, or mountain lovers keep heading east for the magic of Colorado and some seriously scenic mountains.
- You can find our suggested itinerary for combining the best of Utah’s National Parks with Grand Canyon National Park over here.
- Utah observes Mountain Daylight Time (MDT) – daylight savings – from roughly mid-March to Mid-November.
- Summers in the desert can be brutally hot. Always set out with plenty of water and observe our desert driving tips.
- Wifi and internet connectively beyond the small towns is scare in Utah! Make sure you download any maps you want in advance for offline use or consider paper maps as a back up.
- Pack yourselves plenty of snacks! You’ll find road side stops along the way but once you’re in the national parks, beyond visitor centres you won’t find much in the way of food.
- Never forget a road trip essential again with our downloadable family road trip checklist.
We hope this simple Utah Mighty Five itinerary helped you plot the perfect road trip through the Beehive State. Prepare to do a lot in just a week, all while knowing your efforts will be well worth your while, as this is easily one of the most beautiful routes in the entire world.
© Family Road Trip