Touring Utah’s National Parks
Although the national parks of Utah are located in a geographically compact area, connecting the dots and visiting each of them isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. The extremely rugged topography of the area has made road building difficult, so visiting all of the parks requires a lot of driving. Get into a road trip frame of mind, cue up some good music, and head out. The following 10-day itinerary will only scratch the surface of what there is to see, but after this sampler, you’ll know where to focus your next Utah adventure.
Start in Moab, and head a few miles north to Arches National Park. Visit a few sites along the park road and hike to famed Delicate Arch. Settle into your previously reserved campsite at Devil’s Garden and take an evening stroll down the Devil’s Garden Trail.
Devote Day 2 to exploring 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. Camp at nearby Dead Horse Point State Park and explore the mountain biking there.
Head into Moab for an early breakfast, and drive south on U.S. 191. This day will require quite a bit of driving—roughly 200 miles. Pull off U.S. 191 40 miles south of Moab and drive toward the Needles District of Canyonlands. If you’re short on time, you probably won’t make the trip west to the park itself (it’s 38 miles to the park gate), but at least follow the park access road for 10 miles to BLM Newspaper Rock Historical Monument, one of the finest and most accessible petroglyph sites in Utah.
Return to U.S. 191 and continue south 78 miles, passing the ranching towns of Monticello and Blanding before turning west on Highway 95 to reach Natural Bridges National Monument. Often overlooked, this small park is a gem, with three massive rock bridges and an Anasazi cliff dwelling. Pitch your tent at the monument’s campground or press on to Lake Powell for a roof and a bed
Back on Highway 95, continue eight miles to the junction of Highway 276, then follow this route 40 miles to Halls Crossing Marina on Lake Powell, which offers car-ferry service across the lake. After a half-hour crossing, you’ll reach Bullfrog Marina on the west side of the lake, with accommodations in the Defiance House Lodge.
From Bullfrog, you can follow the well-maintained Notom-Bullfrog backcountry road to Highway 24 and the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park (80 miles), or you can follow paved Highway 276 and Highway 95 to Hanksville and enter the park along Highway 24 (117 miles). Either way, you’ll end up in Capitol Reef.
You’ll want to 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. The Fruita campground is a pleasant spot in an orchard; in season, you're free to harvest the fruit.
From Capitol Reef, follow scenic Highway 12 south through the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The 61-mile trip between Torrey and Escalante is one of the most scenic routes in all of Utah—don’t plan to drive this in an hour! Take in all the scenery and sights, including a visit to the prehistoric ruins at Anasazi State Park and a hike up dramatic Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail.
Spend the night at the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park campground.
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 Devil’s Garden. You can also visit the canyons of Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, 26 miles south of Highway 12. Return to your Escalante campground for the night.
Spend the night in the park campground, but make sure your long johns are handy, even in the summer.
Get up in time to see the rising sun light up the hoodoos, then drive west on Highway 12 to U.S. 89, and south from there to Highway 9. At Highway 9, turn west and enter Zion National Park via the dramatic Zion–Mt. Carmel Highway (Bryce to Zion is 84 miles). Settle into your campsite (reserve in advance), then ride the park shuttle for a quick overview of Zion Canyon.
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition