The Best Road Trips in America: Utah’s National Parks
Utah is an outdoor adventurer’s dream, with spectacular landscapes comprising towering buttes, snow-capped mountains, winding slot canyons, and lush forests, and mysterious hoodoos.
Road Trip Itinerary: All of Utah's National Parks
The state is home to five national parks, not to mention a number of national forests and national monuments, each offering a range of experiences from easily accessible scenic drives to multi-day hikes through the backcountry. The best part is you can easily see them all in just over a week. We’ve put together a nine-day road trip itinerary that covers highlights in each of the national parks—and much more—though if your schedule allows, we highly recommend spreading this plan out to add even more time in each park.
At a Glance:
Starting Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Ending Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Miles Traveled: 1200
Suggested Duration: 9 nights
States Visited: Arizona, Utah
Stop 1: Salt Lake City to Arches National Park, Utah
Stop Locations: Salt Lake City, UT to Arches National Park, UT
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 45 minutes
Total Miles: 230 miles
Recommended Route: Don’t dally—you’ll want to get to Arches ASAP to maximize your time there. Take I-15 South through the suburbs of Salt Lake City and Provo, veer east on US-6 and I-70, and finally continue on US 191 South.
Along the Way:
Do: The park has hikes for all levels, but some of our favorites include Delicate Arch (the park’s most famous arch), Double Arch (featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and Landscape Arch (one of the longest arches on the planet).
Eat & Drink: There’s no food to be found in the park, so you’ll have to carry in any snacks or meals. If you’re looking for a sit-down dinner, our recommendation is Desert Bistro in Moab, just five miles outside the park, for exquisite fine dining.
Stay: You can either camp in the park itself, or you can stay in a hotel in Moab. If you go the latter route, consider the ultra-luxe resort Sorrel River Ranch ; the boutique Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection by Hilton ; or the B&B Sunflower Hill, a Luxury Inn.
Breakfast: Fuel up for your day with a quintessential diner breakfast at the old-school Moab Diner.
Stop 2: Arches National Park to Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky, Utah
Stop Locations: Arches National Park, UT to Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky, UT
Total Travel Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Total Miles: 32 miles
Recommended Route: If you want to stay in a hotel, you’ll keep Moab as your base tonight, so your route will be round-trip. Campers, however, can just take the one-way journey to Canyonlands. To get to Canyonlands’s Islands in the Sky Visitors Center from Moab you can take UT-313 for a quick highway drive, or you can opt for the slower scenic route, which takes two hours on UT-279 that passes some great photo ops.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: You won’t pass any restaurants between Moab and Canyonlands, so pack your lunch today!
Photo Op: On your way back to Moab, drive past the Potash Evaporation Ponds. They might not sound all too interesting, but they’re an incredible photo op—they have brilliant turquoise waters that pop against the orange-red rocks of the landscape.
Nature: Along the scenic route, you’ll pass the Corona Arch Trail, a three-mile out-and-back hike that passes Bowtie Arch and Corona Arch. You can also tack on a 1.9-mile out-and-back diversion to Pinto Arch, if you’re feeling ambitious.
Do: Canyonlands National Park is split into four sections, of which Islands in the Sky is the closest to Moab and the most popular area overall. A few highlights include hiking Mesa Arch, hiking or simply taking in the vistas of Grand View Point, and the panoramic views from Buck Canyon Overlook.
Eat & Drink: There’s no food in Canyonlands, either, so bring your food with you, otherwise you’ll have to head back to Moab for a meal. For dinner, check out Moab Brewery, one of the most popular spots in town. If beer’s not your thing, don’t worry—they’ve also opened an adjacent distillery.
Stay: Again, if you’re not camping within the national park, you’ll be staying in Moab. Make it easy on yourself and stay put at last night’s accommodation!
Breakfast: Don’t miss the eggs benedict at the breakfast-only Jail House Café, housed in a late 19th-century home that was at one time the county courthouse.
Stop 3: Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky to Canyonlands National Park: The Needles, Utah
Stop Locations: Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky, UT to Canyonlands National Park: The Needles, UT
Total Travel Time: 2 hours
Total Miles: 100 miles
Recommended Route: Today, we’re taking you to the more off-the-beaten-path district of Canyonlands called the Needles. From the Islands in the Sky Visitors Center, head back towards Moab, south on US-191, then west on UT-211 to get to the Needles Visitor Center.
Along the Way:
Town: Moab is the only civilization between these two sections of the park—since you’ve likely been spending your evenings in town, feel free to pass it by and maximize your time in Canyonlands. Outside of Moab, there aren’t any restaurants along the route. Eat a hearty breakfast and pack a to-go lunch!
Roadside Attraction: As its name implies, Hole n’ the Rock is a home carved right into the rock. Former owners Albert and Gladys Christensen began construction in 1940 and moved in in 1952, operating a café and gift shop on site. Today, visitors can pay for a tour, shop for trinkets at the trading post, pick up an ice cream at the general store, or even pet some animals at the petting zoo.
Nature: If you’re stopping for a picnic lunch, do so at Wilson Arch, just a five-minute hike off the highway. You can also see it from the road if you don’t want to keep trucking.
Roadside Attraction: If you’re fascinated by apocalyptic cults, don’t miss the Home of Truth, a ghost town that was once a religious colony founded by Marie Ogden in the 1930s. The ruins are on private property, but you can see them from the road.
Photo Op: See more than 600 petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument, many of which are on a massive 200-foot rock face; yes, it’s almost like it’s a printed newspaper!
Do: The Needles region includes quite a bit of backcountry terrain, meaning you should be an experienced hiker and driver (with a 4×4 vehicle) if you decide to tackle some of the more advanced trails and drives. But there are plenty of options for beginner- and intermediate-level visitors, too. Some of our favorites include the Roadside Ruin loop, which takes you past an 800-year-old structure; the half-mile Cave Spring loop, which includes a stop at a 19th-century cowboy camp; and the much more advanced Elephant Hill, which offers vistas of the park’s famous sandstone needles.
Eat & Drink: As you might have guessed, there are no restaurants in the park. Carry your food in! The closest spot for a dine-in meal is the town of Monticello, we recommend Asian fusion at Ja-RoenThai Sushi.
Stay: If you’re not camping in Canyonlands, book a stay at the quaint Grist Mill Inn, a B&B housed in a former flour mill built in 1933.
Breakfast: The Grist Mill Inn also runs a restaurant, the Granary Bar and Grill, where they serve breakfast to both guests and the public. It’s also the spot to go at night for drinks.
Stop 4: Canyonlands National Park: The Needles to Page, Arizona
Stop Locations: Canyonlands National Park: The Needles, UT to Page, AZ
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 30 minutes
Total Miles: 215 miles
Recommended Route: It’s a bit of a haul between Canyonlands and Zion, the next national park on our itinerary, so we recommend taking some time to explore the terrain: drive south on US-191 and US-163 through iconic Monument Valley, then continue on AZ-98 W to Page, Arizona, where you should spend the night.
Along the Way:
Roadside Attraction: As you approach the village of Mexican Hat, you’ll spot its namesake to the northeast: a sombrero-like rock that towers over the landscape.
Photo Op: You know that scene in Forrest Gump when Forrest stops running? Well, you’ll drive right past it on US-163. Stop at the sign for Forrest Gump Hill around mile 13, and make sure there are no cars coming before you run out into the middle of the road to snap a photo or record a video.
Nature: The big showstopper today is Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, famous for its mitten-shaped buttes. The park is on Navajo land, and if you want to explore beyond the 17-mile Tribal Park Loop, also known as the Valley Drive, you’ll have to secure a permit, hire a guide, or join a tour. The one exception is the self-guided Wildcat Trail, a four-mile loop around the Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte.
Town: About 40 minutes past Monument Valley, across the Arizona border, is the town of Kayenta, where you should pause to learn about the area’s Navajo history and culture at the Navajo Cultural Center of Kayenta. Then head to the local Burger King to see an exhibit about the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, organized by the fast-food joint’s owner, the son of a Navajo Code Talker.
Eat & Drink: If you’re not up to dining at Burger King, Kayenta’s Amigo Cafe serves up Mexican, Navajo, and American cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Do: Page is a basecamp for a number of outdoor activities nearby, the most popular of which is touring Antelope Canyon. You’re required to have a guide, and tours book up months in advance—don’t expect to have the famous slot canyon all to yourself when you visit. Other Page attractions include Horseshoe Bend, Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, and the Navajo Village Heritage Center.
Stay: Most hotels in Page are generic chains, but just outside of town is the renowned luxury resort Amangiri. For something a little more friendly on the wallet, book a stay at Grandview Inn Bed and Breakfast or the Bears Den B&B.
Breakfast: If your accommodation doesn’t serve breakfast in the morning, head to Hot N Sweet Coffee and Donut Shop for a grab-and-go option.
Stop 5: Page to Zion National Park, Utah
Stop Locations: Page, AZ to Zion National Park, UT
Total Travel Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Total Miles: 115 miles
Recommended Route: Simply take US-89 to UT-9, and you’ll be at the gates of Zion in no time.
Along the Way:
Roadside Attraction: You’ll want to hurry to Zion in order to maximize your time there, but take a brief stop at Pahreah and the Old Pariah Townsite. Pahreah is an old ghost town, though all that remains is a graveyard. The Old Pariah Townsite, however, was a filming location food a number of Westerns. While the set no longer exists, the striated landscape is a sight to behold.
Eat & Drink: Pop by the Kanab Creek Bakery for baked goods, soups, and sandwiches—and coffee, of course.
Do: There’s no way you could fit in all the highlights in a single-day visit, but definitely don’t miss the Narrows, the Emerald Pools, and the Canyon Overlook. Remember that the park is one of the most visited in the country, meaning it’s got the crowds—and the lines—to match.
Eat & Drink: Unlike the two other parks you’ve visited on this trip, there actually are food options inside Zion itself. There’s the more upscale Red Rocks Grill Dining Room and the casual (and seasonal) Castle Dome Café, both of which are located at Zion Lodge.
Stay: Stay inside the park if you can—the historic Zion Lodge is the only accommodation within the park itself other than the campgrounds. But if you can’t score a reservation, there are dozens of hotels in the region (and especially in the town of Springdale, right outside the gates to the park). There’s everything from sprawling resorts like Zion Mountain Ranch to cozy, romantic B&Bs like Under the Eaves Inn.
Breakfast: There’s no shortage of breakfast cafés in Springdale, but for the best coffee, go to Deep Creek Coffee Co.
Stop 6: Zion National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Stop Locations: Zion National Park, UT to Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
Total Travel Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Total Miles: 85 miles
Recommended Route: Bryce Canyon is less than two hours away from Zion via an extremely beautiful drive—just head east along UT-9, then north on US-89, and finally east on UT-12, a scenic byway and All-American Road.
Along the Way:
Shops: Take a quick stop in Orderville to visit one of the several rock shops in town: you can buy rocks, jewelry, and refreshments before you hit the road again.
Town: It’s an ever so slight detour from the main route, but the town of Panguitch is a time capsule with a quintessential American main street lined with old buildings and vintage signs.
Do: The easiest way to see some of Bryce Canyon’s highlights is to traverse the 38-mile scenic drive, which stops at 13 viewpoints, including the popular Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce points. If you have time for a hike, try the Navajo Loop Trail, a 1.5-mile loop into a slot canyon called Wall Street. You can also tack on the Queen’s Garden Trail, which is 1.8 miles out and back.
Eat & Drink: There are several in-park restaurants including the dining room at the Lodge at Bryce Canyon and the Valhalla Pizzeria & Coffee Shop, though they’re all seasonal. For year-round dining, head to Idk BBQ in Tropic, just outside the park.
Stay: Pitch a tent at one of the park’s campsites or sleep under a roof at Lodge at Bryce Canyon. All booked up? You can stay in one of the many hotels, B&Bs, or rentals in the villages of Bryce and Tropic: our top pick is Stone Canyon Inn, a collection of guesthouses and bungalows.
Breakfast: Pick up a coffee and a pastry Bryce Canyon Coffee Co. for a to-go breakfast.
Stop 7: Bryce Canyon National Park to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Stop Locations: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT
Total Travel Time: 1 hour
Total Miles: 50 miles
Recommended Route: Continue along Scenic Byway 12 into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: There are no restaurants along your route between Tropic and Escalante, so be sure to pack a lunch today.
Detour: If you have the time, drive south on Kodachrome Road at Cannonville to head to Kodachrome Basin State Park, home to 67 monolithic spires. The park was named after the popular color film by the National Geographic Society during a 1948 survey.
Nature: Just to the northwest of Escalante is Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, where you can hike through the petrified forest and see dinosaur bones and marine fossils.
Do: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument covers more than 1,500 square miles—it’s larger than the five Utah national parks combined—so there’s no way you can see it all in one go. But along this road trip, you can explore a number of slot canyons (Zebra Slot, Peek-a-Boo Slot, and Spooky Slot, to name three), plus hike a number of trails, like Devil’s Garden and Lower Calf Creek Falls.
Breakfast: Kiva Koffeehouse is a must-do when in Escalante—it has the best coffee for miles.
Stop 8: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
Stop Locations: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT to Capitol Reef National Park, UT
Total Travel Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Total Miles: 70 miles
Recommended Route: Capitol Reef is an easy drive straight up Scenic Byway 12.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm has earned a number of James Beard nominations for its farm-to-table cuisine—it’s by far one of the most popular restaurants along Scenic Byway 12.
Detour: One of the most scenic drives off of Scenic Byway 12 is Burr Trail Road, a scenic backway that travels through the picturesque Long Canyon. Note that a portion of the road isn’t paved, so you should only traverse it in dry conditions with a 4×4 vehicle.
Do: Travel along the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive for incredible vistas in practically every direction, then stop in the town of Fruita to pick fruit from orchards planted by pioneers in the 1800s. Along the drive, you might also want to hike the Grand Wash Trail, a 4.5-mile out-and-back journey that passes Cassidy Arch, named for Butch Cassidy, who likely spent time hiding in the area.
Stay: As with the other parks, you can camp in Capitol Reef, or you can stay in a hotel in Torrey. Our pick is Capitol Reef Resort, where accommodations range from standard guest rooms to private cabins to Conestoga wagons.
Breakfast: The family-run Wild Rabbit Cafe is a Torrey staple. While it’s a great spot for breakfast, it also makes packed lunches for you to take into the park.
Stop 9: Capitol Reef National Park to Salt Lake City, Utah
Stop Locations: Capitol Reef National Park, UT to Salt Lake City, UT
Total Travel Time: 4 hours 45 minutes
Total Miles: 235 miles
Recommended Route: It’s a long journey back to Salt Lake City today. Drive west on UT-24, then north on I-15. Once you hit the town of Nephi, we highly recommend getting off the interstate to take the Nebo Loop Scenic Byway through the Uinta National Forest in the Wasatch Mountains. You’ll meet back up with I-15 in Payson, and you can take that the rest of the way to Salt Lake City.
Along the Way:
Detour: If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, take a detour to Goblin Valley State Park, an hour in the opposite direction from Salt Lake City, to see a landscape full of hoodoos that looks like it’s from another planet (iIt explains why the Mars Desert Research Station is located nearby.) The park is a one hour drive east from Capitol Reef.
Eat & Drink: After your detour, backtrack toward Capitol Reef, then stop at the Sunglow Restaurant and Motel in Bicknell, where you can get a slice of its legendary pickle pie, among other unusual flavors like oatmeal and pinto bean.
Town: Stop in the town of Salina for a little break. Grab a bite at the famous Mom’s Café, then stroll through the displays at Miss Mary’s Historical Museum or the Robinson Truck Museum. For a more sobering history lesson, you can visit the CCC & POW Camp, where a U.S. soldier infamously massacred German prisoners of war—the site now houses a museum remembering the event.
Nature: As you make your way along the Nebo Loop Scenic Byway, stop at the Devil’s Kitchen for a quick hike to a scenic overlook.