Despite their proximity, visiting all of Utah’s national parks is a bit complicated because of the rugged terrain. You must plan on a lot of driving. So get in a road-trip frame of mind, cue up some good music, and head out. The following itinerary only scratches the surface of what there is to see, but after this sampler, you’ll know where to focus your next Utah adventure.
If you fly into Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, you’ll probably get to Zion National Park sometime in the afternoon. Settle into your motel in Springville and head into the park to check out the visitors center and take a ride up Zion Canyon on the park shuttle bus. Hop off for views of the Court of the Patriarchs and to take an easy hike up the Riverside Walk. Start the next day with a hike up the West Rim Trail to Angels Landing or, if you want something a bit easier going, hike the Emerald Pools trails. Spend the afternoon visiting Springville’s galleries, and if your legs are up for it, go for an early evening hike up the Watchman Trail.
Head east out of the park via the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway (Hwy. 9); turn north onto U.S. 89 and east onto Highway 12 to reach Bryce Canyon National Park (84 miles from Zion). Park the car and spend the day riding the park shuttle to vista points and exploring hoodoos from trailheads along the road. Camp in the park, or stay at the historic park lodge or one of the motels just outside the park entrance.
Get up in time to see the rising sun light up the hoodoos, then drive 42 miles east on Highway 12 through the town of Escalante to the dramatic Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail. Cool your toes in the pool under the falls, then continue east to Boulder, where you’ll spend the night at the Boulder Mountain Lodge (be sure to make reservations for dinner at Hells Backbone Grill when you book your hotel room).
Explore more of the Escalante River canyons. Drive 12.5 miles south from Highway 12 and turn onto Hole-in-the-Rock Road to traipse around Devils Garden. You can also visit the canyons of Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, 26 miles south of Highway 12. Return to Boulder for the night.
From Boulder, follow Highway 12 north 39 miles over Boulder Mountain to Highway 24 and Torrey, your base for exploring Capitol Reef National Park. In the park, explore the old pioneer town of Fruita, hike to see petroglyphs, and drive the scenic park road. Add a hike up the Chimney Rock Trail or along Capitol Wash, then return to Torrey for dinner and a bed.
Head to the east side of Capitol Reef and turn south from Highway 24 onto the Notom-Bullfrog Road and follow this wellmaintained (but mostly dirt) road 68 miles south to Bullfrog Bay, where a ferry (May- Oct.) crosses Lake Powell. Ride the ferry, and once on the other side, head away from the lake for 40 miles on Highway 276 to Highway 95 and Natural Bridges National Monument. (If you’d rather stick to pavement, or if the ferry isn’t in season, continue east on Highway 24 to Hanksville, then turn south on Highway 95 to reach Natural Bridges.) Often overlooked, this small park is a gem, with three massive rock bridges and an Anasazi cliff dwelling along a nine-mile loop highway. Unfortunately, there’s no lodging at Natural Bridges, except for a small campground, so you’ll have to head back to Highway 95 and continue east to U.S. 191 to find a room for the night. The first town you’ll come to on U.S. 191 is Blanding, which has plenty of options; however, tiny Bluff, 26 miles south, is more charming.
Get an early start if you want to explore the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Head north 46 miles from Bluff and turn west off U.S. 191 at Monticello. Follow well-marked paved roads west and north to BLM Newspaper Rock Historical Monument, one of the finest and most accessible petroglyph sites in Utah. From Newspaper Rock, continue west on Highway 211 to the Needles District, where a good short hike is along the Cave Spring Trail. Unless you’re camping in Canyonlands, head back to Highway 191 and north 40 miles to spend the night in Moab.
Moab is just a few miles south of Arches National Park. You can tour Arches in half a day if you take only short hikes to viewpoints; if you want to visit all of the sites along the park road and hike to famed Delicate Arch, you’ll spend all day in the park. If you have one more day left in your trip, uses it to explore Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District, taking in the astonishing vista points (particularly Grand View Point) and saving time for a hike to the cliff edge. In the evening, enjoy the lively scene in Moab, with its good restaurants and brewpubs.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Zion & Bryce.