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How to Plan a Utah National Parks Road Trip | USA

How to Plan a Utah National Parks Road Trip

A Utah National Parks road trip is Americana at its best. Picture yourself driving along desert roads, sometimes for hours on end. Highways snake between burnt red canyons, beside acres of geological anomalies you can’t quite imagine until you’ve seen them for yourself. There are tiny towns with names like “Tropic” and “Beaver” and diners slinging Navajo tacos alongside more classic greasy spoon fare.

Roadside motels promise grand views, but really they’re really just uncomplicated establishments in the middle of nowhere. They’re meant to be slept in but not stayed in. Motels that always seem to cost $79 (and they’ll tell you so on a giant sign outside) and you’ll get shampoo and lotion, but never conditioner. There are truck stops and lonely strip clubs and billboards crowding the otherwise empty horizon. You’ll see tumbleweeds and roads that lead to nowhere and the iconic yellow signs warning of bighorn sheep crossings.

But, of course, the real reason to undertake a road trip through Utah is the national parks. Parcels of land so precious, that they’ve been blocked from developers that have been allowed to build housing complexes and middle-of-nowhere malls throughout the rest of the country. Utah is home to some of the most legendary parks. “The Big Five”. Zion. Bryce. Arches. Capitol Reef. Canyonlands. It’s an essential stop on your US National Parks road trip

Are you looking to plan your own Utah National Parks road trip? I did the damn thing in 2019 and it was epic. Here’s everything you need to know to make it happen including tips on planning your route, getting your car ready, where to go, and suggested itineraries.

Before You Go

Planning Your Route

There are five national parks in Utah (they’re Zion, Bryce, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands, but more on those below!). On top of that, there are tons of national monuments (Bears Ears, Dinosaur, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, Cedar Breaks, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, to name a few) and plenty more state parks and federal lands worth checking out. You may also want to throw in some sights in northern Arizona like the Grand Canyon or Coyote Buttes. It goes without saying that you might not see everything in Utah in one sweep. While fully customizable, I’d recommend at least a two-week itinerary to get the most out of your Utah road trip.

View from above Capitol Reef National Park So, where should we begin? The way I like to plan my route is to read a guidebook cover-to-cover. Lonely Planet makes a  Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks guidebook (from $13.99) that gives good top-level oversight of the parks.  Once you’ve made a long list of everything you’re interested in, start your map in Google My Maps. Drop a pin on all the parks and sites you want to visit to get a general sense of how far apart things are. Take a guess on how many days you want to spend in each park and estimate your drive-time between destinations. 

Where to Go

Here are some of the most memorable Utah national parks, plus a few other places you might want to squeeze into your Utah road trip itinerary.

Zion National Park

Recommended Time: 3 – 6 Days (with Trans-Zion Backpacking)

Zion National Park is the fourth most visited national park in the country. It has one-of-a-kind hikes like the Narrows and Angel’s Landing. The scenic drives are some of the best in the Southwest. The views overlooking Zion Canyon rival those at Yosemite. But is it worth all the hype? The only way to find out is to block out some time for Zion in your trip. Crowds swarm Zion in the summer, but it’s big and really damn beautiful. If you can successfully avoid the crowds, there’s a lot to love! 

Read More: An Outlandish Guide to Zion National Park

View of Zion Canyon from Canyon Overlook

Bryce Canyon National Park

Recommended Time: 2 Days

Bryce Canyon National Park stands out in my mind as one of the most strangely beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Known for its hoodoos and generally bizarre geology, it genuinely looks of another planet. While some people just tack on Bryce as a day trip from Zion, it’s well worth the overnight. The park stays cold well into the summer, so layer up, prepare for the drizzle, and get ready to see something extraordinary.

Read More: An Outlandish Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Hiking in Bryce Canyon: Looking up from the bottom of Queens Garden Trail

Capitol Reef National Park

Recommended Time: 2 Days

Capitol Reef is definitely underrated. It’s massive and best known for the Waterpocket Fold – a section of the Colorado Plateau – that was upended for a stretch of more than 100 miles and is supposedly visible from space. The park is surprisingly quick to explore (you can see a lot in just a couple days) but worth it for the drives alone.

Read More: An Outlandish Guide to Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Arches National Park

Recommended Time: 1 Day

Arches National Park is appropriately named for its 2,000+ arches. Yeah, there are lots of arches to see, but many are accessible on quick-and-easy hikes or scenic drives. Don’t get me wrong – Arches is worth visiting, but I found one day in Arches to be enough. It’s awfully overcrowded, in my opinion. Since it’s just outside of Moab, make it an easy stopover on your way to Canyonlands. 

Arches National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Recommended Time: 3-5 Days (with Backpacking the Needles)

Canyonlands is probably the coolest place on earth if you ask me. It’s made up of 4 districts (Needles, Island in the Sky, Maze, and Rivers), each of which is remarkably distinct and far from the others. Some of the best experiences in Canyonlands are backpacking in the Needles or visiting Island in the Sky. I recommend leaving as much time as you can to explore this park… you won’t be disappointed!

Canyonlands

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Recommended Time: 1-3 Days (with backpacking)

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has an interesting name. It’s part of a staircase of plateaus sloping from Bryce Canyon National Park towards the Grand Canyon. It’s packed with backpacking trails and scenic drives that are as pristine and they come. The park was a massive 7,610 km2in 1996, but made news in 2017 when President Trump cut the protected area nearly in half. Some fear a mining boom, so show your support for the park to help keep it wild.

Grand Staircase Escalante

Photo from BLM.gov

Dead Horse Point State Park

Recommended Time: 1 Day

Dead Horse Point State Park is grimly named for the horses who were once corralled there and left to die. Perhaps a more compelling reason to visit is the tremendous views into the canyon from 600 m above. It’s just as beautiful as the nearby Arches and the Islands in the Sky district of Canyonlands, though slightly less crowded.Dead Horse Point State Park

Goblin Valley State Park

Recommended Time: 1 Day

Goblin Valley is a strange little state park that looks a bit like mars. Valley of Goblins is where you’ll see the mushroom-like pinnacles, or “goblins”, that the park is famous for. There are just a few trails and the park is a detour off of I-70 as drive between Capitol Reef and Canyonlands.

Goblin Valley State Park

“Goblin Valley” by ArtBrom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Grand Canyon National Park (in Arizona)

Recommended Time: 3-6 days (with backpacking)

While the Grand Canyon is definitely not in Utah, the North Rim is just two hours south of Zion.  It’s not the deepest, nor the longest, nor the widest canyon in the world, but damn. That canyon is grand. If you have the time, you should definitely consider adding the Grand Canyon into your Utah national parks road trip itinerary.

Read More: An Outlandish Guide to Grand Canyon National Park

Avoid the Crowds at the Grand Canyon - Looking Out on the South Rim

Paria Canyon/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness (in Arizona)

Recommended Time: 1 day

Paria Canyon/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness hilariously straddles the state line; you’ll drive in and out of Utah more than once on your way to Coyote Buttes. While Coyote Buttes are technically in Arizona, it’s well worth the add. The sandstone lines are extraordinary and there are plenty of other bizarre rock formations to check out.

Read More: The Other Wave: Exploring Coyote Buttes South

Mapping it Out

Once you’ve chosen your national parks and points of interest, start booking your priority campsites and permits. Bookings are somewhat complicated, so be sure to stay organized! Start dropping dates into an Excel sheet or labeling reservations in your inbox. You’ll want to leave plenty of time between destinations so you can set your cruise control and enjoy the ride! 

Depending on how your bookings play out, you might have to make some cuts. You might also get to add in some smaller parks or attractions between stops if you’ve got a particularly long driving day. Scroll to the end of this post for some suggested itineraries!

Please note: There will be long stretches of road where you don’t have service. Be sure to download your maps for offline use or have a paper map in the car in case you need it. 

Dashboard of the car on our Utah National Parks Road Trip

Suggested Itineraries

5-Day Road Trip Itinerary

Hey, you speed demon. Sure you can’t spare a few more days? If you’re really on a tight timeline, plan your trip around parks that are close enough together that you don’t spend your whole trip driving from one place to the next. 

Suggested Route (from Las Vegas): Grand Canyon > Grand Canyon > Zion > Bryce 

One Week Road Trip Itinerary

One week is enough to see some of the highlights of the Utah national parks while also squeezing in a backpacking night or two. I recommend getting the long drive out of the way on your first day and working your way backward!

Suggested Route (from Las Vegas): Bryce > Capitol Reef > Grand Staircase Escalante  > Zion > Zion > Grand Canyon

Two Week Road Trip Itinerary

Two weeks is plenty of time to take things slow. If you want to experience more backcountry or dither, this is the perfect amount of time! Below is a rough suggestion assuming you’ll be doing some backpacking trips. If you’re driving back to Las Vegas at the end, you might want to reconsider the order.

Suggested Route (from Las Vegas): Grand Canyon > Grand Canyon > Zion > Zion > Bryce > Bryce > Grand Staircase Escalante > Capitol Reef > Dead Horse Point > Arches > Canyonlands via Goblin Valley > Canyonlands > Canyonlands

Utah National Parks Roadtrip - Rearview Mirror in Zion

On the Road

Own vs Rental Car

Got your own car? There’s no doubt you’ll be putting a lot of miles on it. Before leaving on your trip, schedule to have it serviced. Get the tires rotated, the oil changed, the fluids topped, the brake pads tested, and everything else you can think of. You’re guaranteed to be in remote areas on parts of your trip, and you’ll want your car to be in the best possible shape to survive it.  Just to be on the safe side, you might want to upgrade your insurance policy, get a AAA membership, and gear up your car with a roof box and emergency supplies.

Gas Stations and Signage on our Utah National Parks Road Trip Be sure to fill up with gas whenever you get a chance.

Renting a car? There are lots of reasons to go with a more-beastly-than-usual rental car for this trip. You’ll do best with a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle since some of the trailheads are off sandy or rocky roads. You’ll also want trunk space if you’re traveling with a lot of gear. It’s wise to expect rain and even snow (as late as May, in Bryce!) so you’ll want tires with extra grip. Here are a couple of rental car or campervan companies I can recommend:

  • Hertz has 27 pickup locations in Utah and their car rentals are competitively priced (starting from about $50 per day including tax). They also have a program for drivers aged 20-25 who are unable to rent a car from other major agencies. Check prices and availability on hertz.com
  • Escape Campervans offer fully equipped campervans which can be a really fun way to travel! While they don’t have 4WD or get as good of gas mileage, you might be able to save by having an indoor spot to sleep on the nights you may have splurged on a hotel. 

Before booking your rental car, be sure to ask about total cost (incl. airport fees, additional drivers, mileage, etc.) and insurance coverage. Give it a scan to check for any existing damages and be sure to return the car with a tank of gas to avoid the surcharge. 

Road Rules

Utahns have a reputation to be some of the worst drivers in the US, though this is based on accident and violation reports, rather than personal experience.

Generally speaking, the law says to stick to the right lane except when passing. Keep an eye on the speed limit and don’t go too far over the limit. But road etiquette? That’s a whole separate issue. If someone is riding your bumper, pull over to let them pass (though a passive-aggressive wave is recommended). Don’t be a looky-loo! Be sure to pull over if you want to look at something, and use your turn signal long before dipping into a pull off. 

Stock up on gas whenever you have the chance and have a supply of water in your car. There will be long stretches of road without much development, so it’s good to be as self-sufficient as possible. 

National Parks Road Trip

Another important note is that you must have a valid driver’s license to drive in the US. This can be a state drivers license, or if you’re a foreign driver, your valid driver’s license and passport are sufficient. You’ll only need an International Drivers Permit (IDP) if you plan to drive for more than 3 months. 

Good to Know

You’ll have to roll with the punches. The freedom of having your own car means you’ll have more flexibility than you’re used to if you’re relying on public transport! But you’ll have more responsibility, too. Here are some good things to know before setting out on your trip.

    • The Utah national parks are hugely popular during the summer months. Expect crowds and limited availability if you’re visiting between June and August. 
    • But according to locals, the best time to visit the Utah national parks are during the shoulder seasons. Spring and fall bring sunny days and moderate temperatures, plus there will be fewer tourists. The drawback is that some roads and trailheads will be closed while water levels are high. And with that in mind…
    • Some roads are closed all winter. Be sure to check road closures on the NPS website before mapping out your itinerary.
    • Stop by the Visitor Center first thing when you arrive. They can tell you about closures, general precautions, and equip you with a detailed park map so you can make the most of your time.
    • Plan your trip early! I typically prefer to fly by the seat of my pants, but the best campsites and backcountry sites book months in advance. 
    • Download maps for offline use as you’ll frequently be without service. 
    • Be sure to travel with a full tank of gas and gallons of water. Consider getting a AAA membership. Have some basic emergency supplies. Some parts of the drive on a Utah National Parks road trip are quite remote. You won’t have service or many passing cars. Be well-prepared!
Zion National Park, Canyonlands National Park, & Arches National Park, oh my! Ready to take on the ultimate road trip through the American Southwest? Here's a guide to planning your Utah national parks road trip + what to see, suggested itineraries whether you have 5 days or two weeks, tips for planning your route, and more!

Got questions about your Utah national parks road trip? Ask me in the comments below! And if you’re traveling in Utah…

2 Comments

  • Reply
    Alex Howell
    September 19, 2019 at 11:54 pm

    It really was a great way to travel these desert lands, I imagine the great experience it was, I hope to live it soon, by the way, I think it’s silly what Trump did to reduce the park.

    • Reply
      Taylor Record
      October 15, 2019 at 11:03 pm

      Hey Alex. Silly is definitely one word for it! Thanks for reading and hope you get the chance to experience it for yourself.

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