Do you consider Uggs to be hiking boots? Would you rather be in your car than on a trail? Is posting flattering pictures of yourself on vacation really, really important to you? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions then you will be happy road tripping to all of Utah’s national parks in a week. For everyone else, read on.
Technically it is possible to do a road trip to all of Utah’s national parks in a week. However, most of your days will involve at least a few hours of driving, and you’ll only get to spend a day or two in each park. Basically you have enough time to do a hike or two, snap a few pics, and wander through the visitor center. Yes, you can post on your instagram that you visited all five of Utah’s national parks, but that’s like claiming you watched the movie when you feel asleep on the sofa during the first thirty minutes. Additionally, that’s assuming you’re only wanting to visit the “Big 5” which would be a shame because there’s so many other worthwhile spots to explore in Utah.
Being a family that hates spending time in the car and wants to see and do as many things as possible, I decided to focus on exploring Southern Utah. More specifically, the section of Southern Utah that includes: Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, Grand-Staircase National Monument, and Capital Reef National Park. Not to mention some stops at a few state parks. While it was hard not to see Arches or Canyonland, the benefits of having a more leisurely Utah road trip outweighed the downsides of not seeing all the national parks. And saving Arches National Park and Canyonlands for a different trip gives us a very good reason to go back! Stay tuned for “Southern Utah Road Trip Part Two.”
Southern Utah Road Trip
Day 1-3: Zion National Park
Zion National Park is the busiest of Utah’s national parks. If you’re looking to be the only person on the trail, this is not the park for you. However, there’s a reason this park brings in visitors from all over the world, the scenery is spectacular!
Things to do in Zion
Hike Angels Landing. This 5.5 mile hike is a uniquely terrifying experience. The last .3 miles of trail involves scrambling over rock faces and sheer drop-offs. In some sections it’s just your grasp on a chain preventing you from tumbling to your death. This is definitely not for anyone who has any fear of heights. If you want to do the hike and skip the last section, you will still get fantastic views and a good workout, without the final adrenaline rush. Tip for hiking Angels Landing: the trail gets crowded so start early.
Check out the Narrows. Hiking the Narrows is another popular Zion National Park adventure. The first mile or so is on the Riverside Walk which is a mostly paved path that runs parallel to the river. This walkway is surprsingly scenic. Most people are in such a rush to get tromping through the river that they speed through this section of trail without taking in the beauty of the riparian corridor.
After leaving the paved path hikers must enter the river and continue on their trek by walking in the actual river. Even if you don’t want to hike through the water it’s still worth it to do the Riverside Walk and get a glimpse of the Narrows. Tip for hiking the Narrows. In the the colder months it is still possible to hike the Narrows. There are several shops in Springdale that rent dry suits, neoprene socks, and special shoes to keep hikers comfortable when walking in the chilly Virgin River.
Walk up to the Emerald Pools. Going to the Emerald Pools is an easy all ages hike. There are three Emerald Pools and the upper pool has potential for swimming. Kids will be thrilled walking under the falls at the first pool and the views of the valley along the Kayenta trail between the Emerald Pools and the Grotto tram stop and are spectacular. Tip for exploring the Emerald Pools: in the winter months when the mornings are cold, this trail is one of the warmer, sunnier options!
Ride along the Pa’rus trail at sunset. Any desert afficineado will tell you that sunset is one of the best times to be outside. The sun loses some of its intensity and the desert is transformed into a wonderland of red, pink, and gold. The Pa’rus trail is a paved bike-friendly path that goes from the visitor center about 1.7 miles up the valley. Following the Virgin River, this mostly flat paved path is an easy, pleasant ride, especially in the evening. Tip for riding the Pa’rus trail: bring along a jacket . After sunset the ride back can be chilly.
Where to Stay When Visiting Zion National Park
I highly recommend staying in Springdale. You can find cheaper accommodation options in the nearby communities of La Verkin and Hurricane, but the convenience of staying in Springdale is worth the extra money. From almost anywhere you stay in Springdale you can catch the free local shuttle to the park entrance. There isn’t much parking inside the park therefore being able to walk or take the shuttle to the park is the best plan for visiting the park.
You can’t beat the Cliffrose Springdale for walkability on your trip to ZIon National Park. It truly is the perfect spot to stay in Springdale.. From the hotel it’s a quick five minute walk across the pedestrian bridge and into the park. After a day of exploring the park you can cool off in the large swimming pool or soak sore muscles in the hot tub. There’s also the added benefit of being walking distance to a variety of restaurants, making it possible not to need to use your car for the entire duration of your trip to Zion.
If you’re not interested in eating at a variety of restaurants and don’t need a swimming pool, there is a lodge inside of Zion National Park. The rooms aren’t anything spectacular, the main appeal is being in the center of the park. The rooms book up months in advance so you’ll need to plan ahead if you’re hoping to stay at the Zion Lodge.
Day 4 Bryce National Park
Visiting Bryce Canyon National Park
It’s about a two hour drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. This means that if you don’t dawdle eating breakfast you can have plenty of time to spend a day hiking around hoodoos in Bryce. While Byrce Canyon is absolutely spectacular, unless you’re really, really, into hoodoos, you probably only need a day in the park. Many of the trails share the same type of views and features so you don’t need to do multiple hikes to feel like you’ve seen the park.
Hiking the 3 mile Queen’s/Navajo Combination Loop Trail can be done in less than two hours and gives visitors a good sampling of Byrce’s unique desert landscape. This is the hike that was recommended to us by a park ranger, and judging by the number of people on the trail we weren’t the only ones to get this recommendation! Nonetheless, it’s a great hike for first time visitors to Bryce.
If you want to spend a more time in the park the flat Rim Trail is a long one-way trail that offers non-stop panoramic views. Or for those wanting to get away from the crowds, the Fairyland Loop is an 8 mile leg burner.
After you’ve fed your soul with a day wandering around the otherworldly desert beauty of Bryce Canyon, continue on towards Escalante. It’s an easy hour drive from Bryce to Escalante. If you’re looking for a place to eat along the way stop in at LDK BBQ. There’s something that feels so right eating about eating BBQ chicken on a picnic table in a small Southwestern town.
Day 5-7 Grand Staircase National Monument
Unlike compact Zion and Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase National Monument is a vast, sprawling park. Many of the trailheads and attractions are at least a forty-five minutes drive from the town of Escalante, the main hub for people visiting the area. But if you don’t mind driving and have a car that can handle dirt roads, there is plenty of adventure to be had exploring Grand Staircase National Monument.
Things to do in Grand Staircase National Monument
Squeeze through Spooky Canyon. It’s about twenty-five miles of driving down a dirt road to get to this incredible slot canyon hike. There are two parking lots to the trails that lead hikers to the canyon. Most people park in the second parking lot, however it’s possible to get to the canyon via a trail from the first parking lot as well. If you do Spooky Gulch, Peek-a Boo Gulch, and Dry Fork Narrows it’s about a five mile hike. Spooky Canyon and Peek-a-Boo are the most exciting and physically challenging. Wider Dry Fork Narrows is less of a thrill after squeezing through the other two canyons but is a good option for anyone wanting a more mellow hike.
When you get to the slot canyon portion of the hike there isn’t much signage for the actual entrance to Peek-a-Boo Gulch. At first glance, the high ledge up into the canyon looks like it wouldn’t be the route, but it is. Use your muscles and wiggle your way up onto the ledge. From this point on you will be winding your way through a narrow crack in the earth. Kids will love scampering over and under rocks as you navigate your way through the canyon. Anyone with issues with claustrophobia will hate this hike.
Tips for hiking Spooky Canyon:
- Get an early start for fewer crowds.
- Wear sturdy clothing that can handle scrambling over rocks without being damaged.
- Don’t bring a large backpack. Some sections are barely wide enough for an average sized person to squeeze through. Larger individuals or anyone carrying a large backpack will have difficulty getting through the tight spaces.
- Bring lunch. The milage isn’t very long but doing the hike takes longer than you expect. Having a picnic waiting in the car for you when you finish the hike is much better than driving twenty-five miles down a dirt road with an empty belly.
Play in Devil’s Garden. On the way to Spooky Canyon is a little dirt road that takes you to Devil’s Garden. Don’t be surprised if you get out of the car and aren’t impressed. Wander back behind the picnic area and you will discover a natural playground of rock formations begging to be climbed. Tips for Devil’s Garden. The picnic tables at Devil’s Garden are a pretty spot to stop and eat lunch on your way back to Escalante from Spooky Canyon.
Connect with the dinosaurs for an hour. Escalante Petrified Forest State Park has a short one-mile educational loop that passes by segments of petrified trees dating back to the Jurassic Era. The scenery isn’t anything spectacular but being able to touch a log that a dinosaur could have brushed against is a unique experience. Tips for Escalante Petrified Forest: There isn’t much shade on this trail. Do this hike at the end of the day and enjoy the sunset and cooler temps. And don’t remove anything from the trail!
Cool off in a desert oasis. It’s a mostly flat hike along a river to Calf Creek Falls. You start the hike from the Calf Creek Campground. With the trailhead being right off of Scenic Byway 12 it’s a logical stop if you need to stretch your legs en-route to Capital Reef. The fall are spring-fed, ensuring that water is flowing year-round, an unusual treat for a desert waterfall. On a hot day the waterfall has a large sandy pool that’s perfect for taking a dip. Tip for Calf Creek Falls. During Autumn this riparian corridor is a rainbow of colorful fall foliage.
Where to Stay in Escalante.
There are a few places to stay in Escalante but Escalante Yurts is a great option if you’re looking for serenity and starry nights. Located Just a few minutes outside the main town area of Escalante, this bed and breakfast style lodge has a collection of upscale yurts. Better than camping but with the same campy vibe, guests are treated to a warm cozy yurt with comfy beds, their own private bathroom, and a delicious breakfast. When you need to channel your inner camper, use the provided firewood and marshmallow sticks to have a little campfire in one of the fire rings.
Days 8 and 9 Capital Reef National Park.
Not only is the drive between Escalante and Capital Reef reminiscent of something out of an artsy Oscar winning movie, the road leads you to the least crowded of Utah’s National Parks. Many people skip Capital Reef National Park, hence the lack of crowds, but if you love less traveled trails you will find that the understated beauty of Capital Reef is just what you were looking for.
Things to do in Capital Reef National Park
Take an epic hike. If you want a hike that lets you see a little bit of everything, do the appromximetly eight mile hike from the Hickman Bridge parking lot along the Cohab Canyon trail to the Frying Pan Trail to Cassidy Arch, to the Grand Wash Trail. The biggest challenge of this route is that your starting spot is different from your ending spot. We solved this problem by having one person leave a bike at the end spot and bike back to the start spot, get the car, and pick the rest of us up. If you don’t mind a little extra walking you could walk along the road back to your car. However, there isn’t much of a shoulder and this isn’t the most appealing thing to do after a long hike.
Detailed description of “the epic hike”
1)From the Hickman Bridge Parking Lot cross the road and start hiking on the Cohab Canyon Trail
2)After about 1/2 a mile you will reach the Frying Pan Trail. Continue on the Frying Pan Trail for about 3 miles.
3)You’re almost to Cassidy Arch! Take the short trail to Cassidy Arch. Rest and enjoy the view!
4) Now take Cassidy Arch Trail towards Grand Wash Trail. (Slightly less then 2 miles)
5) The Grand Wash Trail is the final leg of the journey. It’s an easy two mile walk through a narrow canyon.
6) You will end up at the main road. You can either walk the 2 1/2 miles back to the Hickman Bridge Parking Lot or use some DIY type of car or bike shuttle system!
Pretend you’re at Arches National Park. Many people head to Arches National Park to snaps pics of rock arches. However, if you don’t have the time to make the drive to Moab, Cassidy Arch and Hickman Bridge in Capital Reef National Park are two photogenic arches that will give you a glimpse of this quintessential Utah geological feature.
Seeing Hickman Bridge is an easy straight-forward two mile roundtrip hike. This is a good option if you need a hike to do with young children or just want to spend a little more time on the trail after completing a longer hike.
Cassidy Arch can be reached a few different ways. You can drive down a dirt road and park in a lot at the base of the Cassidy Arch Trail, which seems to be what most people do. You could also take the Wash Trail to the Cassidy Arch Trail.. Either way it’s a mostly steep uphilll journey to Cassidy Arch. The views along the trail and from the arch are gorgeous, just be careful around Cassidy Arch because there are several areas with sheer, deadly drop-offs.
Get a glimpse of Utah’s history . Check out the historic early Mormon town of Fruta, just a few minutes inside the park boundaries. Pop your head into the old buildings and read about the early settlers who built the town. Afterwards, continue down the road until you see signage for the petroglyphs. Park and follow the boardwalk along the base of the cliff to see the petroglyths on the canyon walls.
Where to Stay in Capital Reef. There are so few travelers that come through this region that many of the hotels and restaurants are closed from late fall through winter. Capital Reef Resort is open year-round and is the closest hotel to the park. The hotel is definitely a little worn around the edges but even an old, dated hot tub is better than no hot tub after a grueling day of hiking. Depending on the season, the hotel also offers horseback riding tours and the chance to stay in a covered wagon.
Planning A Southern Utah Roadtrip
How many days do you need?
Zion National Park: Three full days will allow you to do the Narrows, Angels Landing, and a few of the other shorter hikes in the valley such as Emerald Pools and the Pa’rus trail. If you want to go to Kolab Canyon give yourself four days in Zion. This less visited section of Zion National Park is about an hour drive from Springdale. Likewise, you will want more than three days if you’re interested in mountain biking any of the great trails in the area. Both the JEM trail near Virgin and the Bear Claw Poppy trail near St George are relatively easy mountain biking trails with incredible scenery.
Bryce Canyon National Park: One day gives you a sufficient overview of the park.
Grand Staircase National Monument: Two or Three Days. Grand Staircase National Monument is really spread out so it takes a significant amount of time to see all the attractions. Additionally, if you have time you might want to check out Kodachrome State Park or try a canyoneering tour.
Capital Reef: Two Days. A lot of people will recommend doing Capital Reef in a day but it would be a shame to rush through such a delightfully uncrowded national park. It is possible to see it in a day, however if you love hiking you will be happy having more than a day to wander the park.
In places like Escalante and Capital Reef, you’re very limited on grocery store options. In Springdale a pack of six hotdogs cost us $10. They were delicious but I wasn’t expected to be paying San Francisco prices for food in Utah. Play it safe and stock up on food in one of the bigger cities before embarking on your Southern Utah road trip journey.
Cell service is limited
Coming from California where I can use my phone practically anywhere I was shocked by how many places in Utah had no cell service. It’s really not a biggie, after all part of the appeal of Utah road tripping is disconnecting, but it’s something to keep in mind when planning out your routes and podcasts.
What is the best time of year?
Spring and fall are the best time of year for anyone who prefers not hiking in triple digit temperatures. Spring is very popular which means you’ll be faced with higher prices on accommodation and more busyness in general. However, the upside is that most tour outfitters operate in the spring.
Late fall gets chillier and you might even get a dusting on snow. The upside of late fall is it is less crowded and at lower elevations, such as Zion, there’s a chance of enjoying some fall color before the trees completely lose their leaves. The mornings are crisp but by afternoon it’s usually a comfortable temperature for hiking and you can be outside all day without feeling as sun-baked as you might other times of the year.
Get a National Park Pass
Purchasing an Annual National Park Pass ahead of time can save you some time and money when you’re visiting Utah. A pass costs $80. The entrance fee to the parks vary, typically costing between $20-35. If you plan on visiting three or more parks for the year it’s worth it to purchase an annual pass.
What To Bring on Your Southern Utah Roadtrip
- Mountain Bikes. If it’s not too much effort, bring your bikes. Byrce Canyon and Capital Reef National Park aren’t great for biking but within an hour of Springdale/ Zion there are plenty of trails for all levels of bikers. Or take it easy and simply cruise along the paved trails in Springdale and Zion.
- Good hiking shoes. Scrambling out to Angels Landing you will want shoes with good traction.
- Plenty of Layers. Just because it’s the desert doesn’t mean it’s hot all day. Big temperature functions mean you might start the day in enough jackets to resemble a human snowball and by afternoon be trekking up a trail in a tank top.
- S’more Fixings. I don’t usually consider marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers to be essential vacation items. Ignoring my husbands puzzled expression, I threw some in the car before leaving home. Turns out a lot of hotels in Utah have evening bonfires and the possibility of s’mores at the day powered my kids for miles of hiking.
- A hat with a wide brim, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Take care of your skin and eyes and wear a hat and sunglasses.
The Bottom Line: If you have less than ten days, don’t try to visit all of Utah’s National Parks. Drive less and have more fun with a Southern Utah Road Trip.