A Customizable One-Week Utah National Parks Road Trip Guide

A Customizable One-Week Utah National Parks Road Trip Guide

From hoodoos and canyons to rivers and valleys, a one-week Utah national parks road trip will blow you away. Here's how to drive it yourself.
Rachel Off Duty: A Woman Poses at Delicate Arch

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Rachel Off Duty: A Utah National Parks Road Trip in 7 Days

This article was supported by Moon Travel Guides. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

I don’t like the term “bucket list,” but if I had to sit down and make one, I can honestly say a Utah national parks road trip has always been top of mind for me. 

In fact, I’ve tried to visit the five national parks in Utah multiple times over the years, and it has never worked out. Utah’s national parks – also known as the Mighty 5 – are insanely popular, and campgrounds and nearby accommodations can book up well in advance. 

But just recently, as I was planning a road trip to Colorado from California, I had the opportunity to drive through Utah on my way there, and as I began hashing out our road trip and all the little details along the way, everything began to fall into place! 

This Utah national parks road trip guide outlines what you need to know in order to visit all five of Utah’s national parks in one week. In all honesty, you might want more time to explore Southern Utah’s red rock landscapes, and many rangers I spoke to recommended a minimum of 10 – 14 days to really take it all in (who can argue? Any trip to Utah is insanely gorgeous and well worth the time). 

But, if you only have one week, an epic Mighty 5 road trip is absolutely doable! 

What is the Mighty 5? 

Rachel Off Duty: A Utah National Parks Road Trip in 7 Days

Utah has five national parks, all located in the southern region of the state. While Utah doesn’t have the most national parks in the USA (California has nine national parks, Alaska has eight), what makes the Mighty 5 so special is that all five national parks are within a 1.5 – 3.5 hour drive of one another, making all five national parks a seamless course for a road trip, no matter which direction you’re driving from. 

And what’s even cooler? Despite their proximity to one another, if you’ve seen one, you most definitely have not seen them all! Each of Utah’s national parks offers a completely unique and different window into Southern Utah’s varied geological landscapes. So if you have the time, I highly recommend renting a car and hitting the road to see them all!

The Mighty 5 National Parks in Utah Are: 

  • Zion National Park
  • Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Capitol Reef National Park
  • Canyonlands National Park
  • Arches National Park

Read on for my one-week Utah national parks road trip guide that’ll take you through all 5 parks, with optional detours and additional recommendations along the way! 

Tips For Road Tripping Through National Parks 

1. Offline Travel Resources

Rachel Off Duty: A Person Holds a Moon Travel Guides Road Trip Guidebook Up to the Sky
Rachel Off Duty: A Birds-Eye View of a Woman Reading a Travel Guidebook

One reason I love national park road trips so much is that visiting truly requires you to unplug and disconnect. With that said, being out of cell service can also be a bit stressful if you get lost or forget where you were planning to go next. 

I’ve recently learned just how helpful guidebooks can be, not only for helping plan your trips, but for keeping you on track once you’re on the road. While there are countless guides around the web you can read (like this one!) to help you aggregate information about your upcoming Utah national parks road trip, guidebooks are designed to not only curate the most popular recommendations for any destination, but also to ensure they’re easily accessible to you whenever you need them.  

I recently started taking longer road trips since I’ve been working remotely, and I just added a copy of Moon Travel Guides’ The Open Road: 50 Best Road Trips in the USA to my collection of handy glove compartment resources. This guidebook is so useful for feeding you relevant recommendations, directions, and travel tips even when you’re offline. 

If you’re planning to drive through the Mighty 5 and considering other USA road trips to take, I highly recommend keeping a copy of The Open Road: 50 Best Road Trips in the USA in your car and letting it inspire you – odds are, you’ll learn something new you had no idea existed!

Rachel Off Duty: Pointing at A Road Trip Route in a Guidebook

I also highly recommend downloading offline maps, and downloading pre-populated Google routes if you’ve created one.

Last but not least, always stop at national park visitors centers for the most up-to-date trail conditions, weather, and park tips.

2. America The Beautiful Pass 

Entrance to each national park in the USA typically costs $25-30 per vehicle (with some exceptions, like the Channel Islands National Park). If you’re visiting Utah’s five national parks, that means you’d quickly rack up $150 in entrance fees alone.  

To avoid that, and to save yourself some cash along the way, make sure you buy an America the Beautiful National Parks Pass beforehand. This annual pass covers admission to all National Park Service parks and landmarks, and costs just $80. 

Even if all you used your pass for was one road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5, that’s already a savings of $70! 

3. Plan Your Trip Ahead of Time

As I mentioned earlier, Utah’s national parks are incredibly popular. Campsites and nearby accommodations fill up quickly, so if you’re thinking of taking a road trip to Utah, try to plan your trip at least 6 – 12 months ahead of time, if you can. 

Use These Resources to Help You Find Accommodation In or Near Utah’s National Parks: 

4. Pack In, Pack Out, and Stay On Marked Trails 

Rachel Off Duty: A Woman in Black Workout Clothes Smiling and Looking Down at the Summit of Angel's Landing

As with any national park trip, it’s important to remember that these protected places are impacted by their popularity, and that it’s our responsibility to help keep them in good shape. Pack out anything you pack in (like trash, leftover food, etc) and wait to dispose of it in a proper trash can. 

Whenever you can, stay on marked trails, and keep a safe distance from wildlife so as not to disturb their natural environment.

5. Support Local Businesses

Rachel Off Duty: The Main Road in Downtown Moab, Utah

Utah’s national parks are surrounded by several small towns that are highly impacted by tourism. A tip I learned recently from Visit Utah’s tourism office is to try and buy local whenever you can. Doing so can boost local supply chains and help promote overall economic activity in the community, as that money is much more likely to recirculate within it. 

So if you’re hungry for a big meal after a long day on the trails, consider a well-loved local diner or a local grocery store, where you’re likely to find something special you would’ve otherwise missed if you visited a chain. 

On the flip side, smaller communities often have less grocery stores in general, so it can be a good idea to road trip with 80% of your grocery needs already purchased from a larger neighboring city that’s likely more well stocked, saving some select things for when you arrive so you can see what locals have to offer. 

6. Respect Native History

Rachel Off Duty: Fremont Culture Petroglyphs in Capitol Reef National Park

A Utah national parks road trip is no doubt famous for its geological diversity and scenery, but that’s not the only thing that makes Southern Utah remarkable. Centuries of Native American stories and history are contained within this region, and you’ll see that in Utah’s petroglyphs, landmark names, cliff dwellings, and signs that inform visitors on the various sights within each national park. 

Pay special attention to the stories and rich ancient native history that resides here. The Fremont, Ute, Navajo, Anasazi, and Paiute are just some of the many native cultural legacies that have come to make Utah so fascinating and significant.

Best Time of Year to Go (And How to Avoid Crowds) 

Rachel Off Duty: Scenic Red Rock Landscapes in Arches National Park

Like many national parks, especially those in the Southwest, there really isn’t a bad time of year to go. All five of Utah’s national parks are open year-round, so it really comes down to your interests and the time of year you’re most easily able to take time off from work

Here’s When to Visit Utah’s National Parks, Based On Each Season: 

  • WINTER: Winter months (Late November – February, roughly) bring some awe-inspiring scenery changes to Utah’s national parks, as snowfall is very common in the region. When it happens, seeing Utah’s red rocks and desert landscapes dotted with fresh snowfall is no doubt breathtaking, but keep in mind that all five parks can reach sub-freezing temperatures. This makes it less than ideal – and sometimes even impossible – to hike or camp. If you plan on staying in a hotel or lodge, and doing more driving than hiking, then a winter trip with less crowds might be perfect for you. 
  • SPRING: As temperatures begin to warm up (between March – May), you’ll begin to experience some of the best weather for visiting Utah’s national parks. Keep in mind that some of Utah’s most popular national park stops, like The Narrows in Zion National Park, might not yet be open for the season. But, spring travel is a great way to beat summer crowds. 
  • SUMMER: When school lets out (between June – September) and all park amenities open for the season, the summer becomes incredibly popular for Utah national park travel. But, it’s also when temperatures are their hottest, commonly exceeding 80 – 90 degrees in the middle of the day. If you plan to visit in the summer, try to wake up and get on the trails early to beat the heat and the crowds. 
  • FALL: The shoulder seasons – spring and fall (between Late September and November) – are great for visiting Utah’s national parks due to their reasonable weather and fewer crowds. Attractions like The Narrows should remain open, at least through the early fall, as well.

I visited Utah’s national parks in early April. During that time, I still found some parks to be pretty chilly both day and night, but it wasn’t unmanageable. In fact, seeing Bryce Canyon still dotted with snow completely added to the whole experience. 

If you do go in the shoulder season, bring lots of layers to add / take off throughout the day!

Where Should You Start and End Your Road Trip?

A Utah national parks road trip can honestly start and end in any direction, which is the beauty of this particular road trip. 

If you’re looking to do a loop road trip, where you start and end in the same city, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Denver are typically some of the easiest origin cities for a Utah national parks road trip. Doing a loop road trip can also be a cheaper option, especially if you need to book a flight or rent a car. 

Moon Travel Guides’ The Open Road guidebook recommends starting in Las Vegas and actually continuing on into Colorado for another national park stop in Mesa Verde National Park. In fact, if you have 13 days to spare, Moon Travel Guides’ 13-day road trip starts and ends in Las Vegas but actually spans five states – Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona! 

I personally started in Los Angeles and drove through Las Vegas to Utah’s national parks. After seeing all five, I continued on to Denver which was my final destination. 

With no definitive start or end point, you can kind of lay out this road trip however makes the most sense for you. Feel free to do my recommended national parks road trip route forwards or backwards! 

If you do need to fly into a neighboring city and rent a car, check out Kayak for car rental deals in your destination. 

How Should You Get Around?

Rachel Off Duty: A Woman Sits on the Back of a Sedan in a National Park Parking Lot

You will definitely need a car to get around on this Utah national parks road trip, as public transportation only really exists in some national parks, and only once you’ve actually arrived. 

Because of that, I recommend bringing your own vehicle, renting one in a nearby city, or considering alternative accommodation like a camper van or RV. 

Use the links below to rent a car, choose a camper van, or explore RV options. 

While a 4×4 could come in handy in some select areas within Southern Utah, you generally do not need one when visiting Utah’s national parks. 

One Week Utah National Parks Itinerary (Plus Driving Times)

My Utah national parks road trip guide details my own personal experience spending one week driving through Southern Utah. Here’s how my one-week road trip breaks down: 

  • Day 1: Drive from Las Vegas to Zion National Park (3 nights) 
  • Day 2: Full day in Zion 
  • Day 3: Drive from Zion National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park (1 night)
  • Day 4: Drive from Bryce Canyon National Park to Capitol Reef National Park (1 night) 
  • Day 5: Drive from Capitol Reef National Park to Arches National Park (1 night) 
  • Day 6: Explore Arches National Park 
  • Day 7: Explore Canyonlands National Park

If you’d like to end up back in Las Vegas within one week, spend one less day in Zion National Park so you can drive back on day 7. Or, add one extra day and drive back on day 8, with an overnight in Canyonlands, a state park, or BLM land in south Utah or northern Arizona. 

If you have more time, I’ve included optional detours below as well as things to do once your Utah national parks road trip is done! 

The Mighty 5 National Parks Self-Drive Map

Zion National Park

Rachel Off Duty: The View From the Top of Angel's Landing in Zion National Park
  • From Las Vegas: 170 miles (3 hours driving) 
  • Recommended Nights: 2 – 3

Zion National Park is one of the most famous and well-visited national parks in the entire country (in fact, in 2020 alone, Zion saw 3.6 million visitors!). Like all popular places, they are popular for a good reason, so exercise patience in case you encounter crowds. 

Zion National Park is essentially a massive canyon (about 2,000 feet deep) that was shaped by the relentless flow of the Virgin River, which still winds through the park today. The canyon has created what many consider a mecca for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts, with intensely rich views from the top of the canyon, and satisfyingly challenging hikes at the very bottom, in the Virgin River itself. 

Rachel Off Duty: A Ground View of Angel's Landing in Zion National Park
Rachel Off Duty: A Woman Sits on the Edge of the Angel's Landing in Zion National Park
Rachel Off Duty: The View From the Top of Angel's Landing in Zion National Park

Things to Do in Zion National Park:

Day One: 
  • Take the scenic drive through the lesser-visited Kolob Canyon for spectacular finger canyon viewing and epic panoramic photography opportunities 
Day Two:
  • Wake up early and hop on the free Zion National Park shuttle by 8 am (Advance reservation usually required. Get more info here, and make reservations here)
  • Go Hiking: 
    • If you’re in search of a fairly challenging, rewarding hike with only one day in Zion, I recommend starting early and choosing between Angel’s Landing, Observation Point, The Narrows, or The Subway Trail. Angel’s Landing is by far the most famous due to its incredibly narrow and steep 1,200-foot drop-offs, and Observation Point is often recommended for those in seek of similar views without the nerve-wracking drop. The Narrows and The Subway Trail both descend into Zion’s finger canyons and require special gear, which can be rented at Zion Outfitters 
    • For a less challenging hike, or if you’re game for another hike during your one day in Zion, visit Canyon Overlook, Emerald Pools, or The Watchman
  • Depending on how much time in the day you’ve got left, consider taking the Zion shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava for the Riverside Walk, which will give you a taste of The Narrows as you walk on a man-made path along the Virgin River.
Day Three:
  • Grab breakfast in Springdale at Cafe Soleil or Deep Creek Coffee Co 
  • Consider a quick 1-mi out-and-back hike up to Zion Canyon Overlook Trail for one more opportunity to take in Zion’s legendary views 

Where to Eat and Drink Near Zion National Park:

Rachel Off Duty: Whiptail Grill in Springale, Utah

Head to Springdale just outside Zion National Park’s entrance for the most food, drink, coffee, and local grocery options easily accessible nearby. I had dinner at Whiptail Grill and enjoyed a massive plate of nachos, a delicious green chile and chicken wet burrito, and a pint of local Utah beer – the perfect sendoff after a full day hiking through Zion National Park! 

Where to Stay Near Zion National Park:

Optional Detour: Coral Pink Sands State Park

Though I didn’t get to stop myself, I’ve heard Coral Pink Sands – with its ever-shifting mountains of red and pink sand formed by eroding Navajo sandstone cliffs – is a worthwhile stop. It’s great for those who love off-roading and ATVing, but it also welcomes hikers looking to enjoy its 10,000+ year-old dunes. 

A quick heads up! State Parks operate separately from the National Park Service, so your America the Beautiful Pass won’t work here. Park entrance is just $8 per vehicle. 

Bryce Canyon National Park 

Rachel Off Duty: The View of the Bryce Canyon National Park Amphitheater
  • From Zion : 170 miles (2 – 3 hours driving) 
  • Recommended Nights: 1

The land of mystical hoodoos (red rock pillars shaped by erosion) and natural amphitheaters, Bryce Canyon National Park is a place that’s almost too fantastical to be real. While I had an idea of what to expect when visiting Zion, it was Bryce that truly caught me by surprise with its panoramic vistas and towering red and orange pillars. 

You’ll want to leave Zion National Park early-ish (after breakfast) to allow yourself a couple hours of daylight for enjoying a short hike before checking into your hotel or setting up camp for the night. 

Rachel Off Duty: Thor's Hammer in Bryce Canyon National Park
Rachel Off Duty: A Girl in a Yellow Jacket Stands Next to Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon
Rachel Off Duty: The Bryce Canyon National Park Ampitheater

Things to Do in Bryce Canyon National Park:

Day Three:
  • Go Hiking: 
  • Take in the View: 
    • At sunset, admire the area you’ve just explored from either Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, or Inspiration Point 
    • Consider strolling along The Rim Trail between Sunrise Point and Inspiration Point (about 1.3 miles) to see Bryce Amphitheater from all angles 
Day Four:
  • See the sunrise from Sunrise Point, and watch as the park comes alive in a watercolor array of soft pink and purple light 
  • Explore the Park on Horseback: 
    • After you’ve checked out of your hotel or packed up your tent, snag one final adventure in Bryce Canyon by taking a one- or two-hour horseback ride through Bryce Canyon. You’ll be able to take in the beautiful scenery while giving your feet a break and letting your guide tell you more about this epic landscape. 
  • Or, Take the Bryce Canyon 18-mile Scenic Drive for one last exploration of the park by car (total time needed: about two to three hours round-trip with stops). You may have to choose between horseback riding or taking the scenic drive, so you can make it to Capitol Reef before dark! 

Where to Stay Near Bryce Canyon National Park:

Where to Eat and Drink Near Bryce Canyon National Park:

Bryce Canyon Pines Restaurant, Valhalla Pizza, and Stone Hearth Grill are some of the closest places to eat within minutes of Bryce Canyon National Park. However, you’ll find more options if you’re staying in the nearby towns of Bryce, Tropic, or Boulder.

If you’re hungry on the way to Capitol Reef National Park, stop at Escalante Outfitters or Sweetwater Kitchen.

Optional Detour: Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Rachel Off Duty: Views of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

If you take the UT-12 to Capitol Reef National Park, you’ll pass through Escalante, a small town surrounded by the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The Staircase is a Utah landmark and the very last part of the contiguous USA to get mapped.

Here, you’ll find hiking, slot canyons, waterfalls, and the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, all well worth exploring if you have the time. Once again, entrance to the state park is a separate fee from your national parks pass. 

Capitol Reef National Park 

Rachel Off Duty: Hickman Bridge in Capitol Reef National Park
  • From Bryce Canyon : 119 – 123 miles (On the UT-63 or UT-12, either route should take no more than 2.5 – 3.5 hours) 
  • Recommended Nights: 1

Next up on your Utah national parks road trip, you’re heading to Capitol Reef! While Bryce Canyon was overwhelm for my eyes (so much beauty!), Capitol Reef has a more subtle allure to it. 

Here, the ancestral Fremont culture and Ancestral Puebloan peoples called the area home for thousands of years, leaving artifacts, pictographs, and petroglyphs behind. Later in history, Mormon settlers began to inhabit the region, weaving an era of farming into the web of Capitol Reef’s long, storied history. 

Today, this park is enjoyed for its sandstone rock formations, publicly viewable petroglyphs, and fruit orchards. It’s also renowned for its location in the Waterpocket Fold, part of the last-mapped regions of the contiguous USA. 

If you time your visit during harvest season (roughly late June through October), you can pick your own fruits!

Rachel Off Duty: Utah National Parks Road Trip
Rachel Off Duty: A Woman in Green and Black Workout Clothes Hiking Under Hickman Bridge
Rachel Off Duty: Cohab Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park

Things to Do in Capitol Reef National Park:

Day Four:
  • Admire Capitol Reef’s Petroglyph Panel, located just off the side of the road and featuring rock drawings dating back to as early as 1300 AD. 
  • Explore the Capitol Reef 7.9-mile Scenic Drive (total time needed: about 1.5 – 3 hours round trip with stops) to take in the park’s unique sandstone rock formations and landmarks 
Day Five:
  •  Visit The Grifford Homestead: 
    • Built in 1908, The Grifford Homestead sits on the Fruita Rural Historic District, which has a long history of being a particularly fertile valley within the Waterpocket Fold. Mormon settlers arrived here at the end of the 19th century, and set up shop in Fruita, planting orchards with everything from apples and peaches to walnuts and almonds. 
    • Today, you can visit the Grifford Homestead between March and October to sample locally baked fruit pies, homemade ice cream, cinnamon rolls, jams, honey, and more. 
    • Our campsite host specifically told us to make Grifford Homestead our very first stop after waking up. According to him, cinnamon rolls from this farm are well worth the trouble, and typically sell out each day by 9 or 10 am! In his words, “there’s frankly no better way to die,” and I gotta say – the cinnamon rolls were a great treat to have after a morning hike! 
  • Go Hiking: 
    • If you’re staying at the Fruita Campground near the Grifford Homestead, the easiest hike with a trailhead located just off the campground is the 3-mile Cohab Canyon Trail. It’s a strenuous initial ascent followed by generally relaxing, incredibly quiet canyon exploration. 
    • From the Cohab Canyon Trail, if you’re looking for more, you can follow signs to the Cassidy Arch or cross the road to hike to Hickman Bridge (both trails can be done with or without Cohab Canyon Trail) 

Where to Stay Near Capitol Reef National Park:

Rachel Off Duty: A Yellow Tent in Fruita Campground, Capitol Reef National Park

Where to Eat and Drink Near Capitol Reef National Park:

The only place I ate non-camping food in Capitol Reef National Park was at the Grifford Homestead (again, shameless plug for the cinnamon rolls!). However, you can also find food options in nearby Torrey, such as the Rim Rock Restaurant and the Capitol Reef Cafe

Optional Detour: Goblin Valley State Park

On your way to Arches National Park, you’ll pass the exit for Goblin Valley State Park. If you didn’t completely satisfy your hoodoo itch (or if you’re already missing Bryce Canyon), definitely plan to spend a half day exploring this state park. 

Entrance to this state park is a separate fee from your national parks pass. 

Arches National Park 

Rachel Off Duty: A Woman Admires the Landscape Arch in Arches National Park
  • From Capitol Reef : 140 – 180 miles (about 2.5 – 4 hours) 
  • Recommended Nights: 1 – 2

Your next stop on this Utah national parks road trip is Arches National Park, and if Zion is Utah’s most visited national park, I’d bet Arches is Utah’s most iconic! Home to at least 2,000 arches, spires, and pinnacles, Arches is a visual feast that will absolutely blow you away. 

Due to its dramatic landscapes, easily explorable geological features, and proximity to the adventure-filled town of Moab, you may notice that Arches is a particularly congested park, especially in the warmer months. Be patient and just remind yourself – there’s a very good reason so many people are here (and it’s that very same allure that brought you here, too!). 

For extra measures, wake up early and hike some of the more famous arches at sunrise to avoid the crowds.

Rachel Off Duty: Looking Through an Arch in Arches National Park
Rachel Off Duty: A Woman in a Yellow Jacket Admires the Double Arch in Arches National Park
Rachel Off Duty: A Woman Looks Up at Balanced Rock in Arches National Park

Things to Do in Arches National Park:

Day Five:
  • Once you arrive in Arches National Park, get acquainted with a drive down Arches’ 36-mile Scenic Drive. Enjoy short detours and short hikes at Park Avenue, Balanced Rock, and Courthouse Towers
  • Go Stargazing: 
    • While all five national parks in Utah have beautifully dark skies, I’d have to think Arches takes the cake as one of the most dramatic parks for stargazing. 
    • You can easily see stars from anywhere in the park on a clear night, but the farther north you drive (away from Moab), the darker the sky will get. The areas near Balanced Rock, Garden of Eden, or The Windows are some easily accessible spots with parking lots to enjoy Utah’s night skies! 
Day Six:
  • Sunrise Hiking: 
    • Delicate Arch is one of the most famous, most recognizable arches in the entire park, understandably (once you see it, you’ll know why). The hike will take about an hour or two to reach the arch itself (3.2 miles roundtrip), and leaving between 4:30 and 5:30 am is recommended if you’re trying to beat the crowds. 
    • Alternatively, Delicate Arch is also incredibly beautiful at sunset, though arguably a bit more crowded. 
  • Other Landmarks to See:
  • Alternative Ways to Explore the Park: 
    • Get a self-guides exploration permit or book a ranger-led tour and visit Fiery Furnace (a more challenging trek with difficult terrain that’s only recommended for experienced hikers unless going with a ranger) 

Where to Stay Near Arches National Park:

For the last two days of my Utah national parks road trip, I based myself at Ken’s Lake Campground in Moab. Moab is an easy home base for exploring Arches and Canyonlands, because the parks are less than an hour from one another. 

However, because of this, Moab can get wildly crowded and hotel prices can soar during peak season. Consider camping in Canyonlands, or basing yourself a bit further from Moab in Monticello, in the warmer months. And no matter what, plan your trip well in advance!   

Where to Eat and Drink Near Arches National Park:

Moab has tons of food and drink options, plus ample grocery stores, for road trippers, adventurers, and campers. For me, nothing hits the spot after a long day of hiking like a burrito or a burger. If you’re the same, check out Moab Brewery for tasty burgers and a pint of one of their popular beers. 

In the morning, head to Moab Garage Co for good coffee and delicious breakfast options, whether you’re in the mood for something healthy or not. 

Optional Detour: Corona Arch

Corona Arch Trail is a well-loved 3-mile out-and-back hike to a spectacular arch. Located an hour outside of Arches National Park, this detour would require its own dedicated half day to properly enjoy. 

Canyonlands National Park 

Rachel Off Duty: Utah National Parks Road Trip
  • From Arches National Park : 28 – 35 miles (about 45 minutes) 
  • Recommended Nights: 0 – 1 (your last two nights can be easily enjoyed in Arches, Canyonlands, Moab, or the surrounding areas)

To my surprise, Canyonlands is cited as Utah’s least-visited national park, which is crazy to me given the park’s vast, uninterrupted scenic vistas. Canyonlands surely makes for a breathtaking, humbling, and all-encompassing way to close out your one-week Utah national parks road trip. 

The park itself is made up of three districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Island in the Sky is the easiest and closest to visit if you’re coming from Arches National Park, and hovers more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscapes (thus giving it its name).  

Rachel Off Duty: A Woman in Red Hiking Clothes Posing with One Knee Bent at Canyonlands National Park
Rachel Off Duty: A Woman in a Khaki Jacket and Red Yoga Pants Admires the View at Canyonlands
Rachel Off Duty: Utah National Parks Road Trip

Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park:

Day Seven:
  • Mesa Arch: 
    • While you may think you’re arched out after a full day and a half exploring Arches National Park, you’ll want to see Mesa Arch. A short 0.5-mi distance from the parking lot, Mesa Arch sits at the cliff’s edge of Island in the Sky mesa, and beautifully frames the surrounding landscape below. 
    • While Mesa Arch is gorgeous any time of day, many recommend trying to get here before sunrise to watch the canyon floor and the arch illuminate with the rising sun. 
  • Go Hiking: 
    • For an easy day (who can blame you – it’s day seven of your road trip!), consider one of Canyonlands’ mesa top trails that allow you to soak up panoramic views of the landscape below. The 2-mi Grand View Point or 1.6-mi Upheaval Dome Overlook are both good options. 
    • If you want a more strenuous hike down the mesa, check out one of the longer trails in this national park, like Syncline Loop.
  • Make Your Way Down the Island in the Sky 12-mi Scenic Drive from the visitors center to Grand View Point for last looks at Monument Basin, the Colorado River, and The Needles region of the park. 

Where to Stay Near Canyonlands National Park:

Where to Eat and Drink Near Canyonlands National Park:

There isn’t really anything to eat in or immediately near Island in the Sky, so your dining options will generally be the same as the day before, in and around Moab. 

Optional Detour: Dead Horse State Park

Rachel Off Duty: The View of Dead Horse State Park
Rachel Off Duty: A Woman in a Black Dress in Dead Horse State Park
Rachel Off Duty: The View of Dead Horse State Park

A visit to Island in the Sky wouldn’t truly be complete without stopping at Dead Horse State Park. With a $20 entrance fee, this is no doubt one of the more expensive state parks in the area, but if you time it right and enter the park about an hour or two before sunset, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the Colorado River winding around water-carved canyons below. 

Sunset light here is particularly romantic, as soft light catches over the water-etched canyon’s textured walls. A commemorative phone snap or Polaroid is a must here to commemorate the unforgettable seven days you’ve just had! 

Extending Your Utah National Parks Road Trip! Where to Go Next:

Rachel Off Duty: The View of Canyonlands National Park

Not quite ready to trade the open road for the office? Well, you’re in luck. There’s so much more to see and do after completing your Utah national parks road trip. 

Here Are a Few Options:

  • Spend a day backpacking through The Needles in Canyonlands National Park 
  • Drive down to Bears Ears National Monument, the first national monument ever established at the request of a coalition of Indigenous tribes. Drive the Valley of the Gods (no 4×4 needed, though I recommend only going on days with good weather), or the Needles Overlook. Go hiking, explore petroglyphs (Newspaper Rock, San Island), or admire preserved ancient structures (River House, Mule Canyon Kiva). 
  • Head south to Monument Valley and embark on the self-drive 17-mi Tribal Park Loop (again, no 4×4 needed but dry, clear weather recommended). Take a Navajo-guided hike to explore the area’s geology and history. 
  • Spend a couple hours admiring Goosenecks State Park – a small, simple state park with truly mind boggling views of the San Juan River and The Goosenecks. 
  • Spend a few days in one of Arizona’s northern national parks – Grand Canyon or Petrified Forest 
  • Drive east until you hit Colorado’s Colorado National Monument, an easy scenic drive (about 2 – 5 hours depending on stops) with a steep climb that quickly has you towering over the landscapes below 
  • Venture southeast until you hit Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado’s southwest corner (take a 1-2 hour detour down to the Four Corners Monument if you’d like to stand in four states at once!). Here, Moon Travel Guides recommends exploring the park’s Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings and petroglyphs. 

There you have it! In just one week, Utah’s national parks will astound, amaze, silence, mystify, and move you, like they did me. It’s something remarkable to be able to explore so many beautifully diverse landscapes in such a short matter of time, and while Utah’s national parks are only a small portion of all that Utah travel has to offer, they have made so many people’s bucket lists as an unforgettable road trip for good reason!  

Are you bursting with excitement over your Utah national parks road trip yet? Tell me more about what you’re most excited to see or do below! 

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Rachel Off Duty: An Unforgettable Utah National Parks Road Trip
Rachel Off Duty: A Utah National Parks Road Trip in 7 Days

Hey there! I’m Rachel, a travel writer and a full-time advertising / marketing expert. In 2019, I traveled more than 25 times while working 9 to 5, and since then I’ve committed myself to living a more adventurous life, even if it means bringing my laptop along for the ride.

Are you hungry to travel more, but overwhelmed with how to juggle work and play? You’ve come to the right place!

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10 Responses

  1. We have been to Arches and Canyonlands. They are both phenomenal and so glad that we were able to visit on a couple of different trips. We really want to go to Bryce and Zion one day. I also love your suggestions of Monument Valley and Goosenecks State Park. Hopefully we can check them out one day. Thanks for the great post. Happy travels.

    1. Goosenecks can be a pretty quick stop, but it is insane and will instantly blow your mind! Well worth the detour!

  2. We haven’t been to any of these yet and I’m so excited to finish out our southwest road trip next year! Bryce Canyon has been on our bucket list for years.

    1. Oh sweet! Bryce Canyon was an unexpected surprise. I think I spent too much time building up excitement for Zion that I wasn’t prepared for what I’d see next. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I hope you get to go next year!

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