Despite their proximity, visiting all of Utah’s national parks is a bit complicated because of the rugged terrain and lack of roads. 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.
From Bryce Canyon National Park, 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 Hell’s Backbone Grill when you book your hotel room).
Explore more of the Escalante River canyons. Backtrack along Highway 12 about 23 miles toward the town of Escalante 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 bumpy dirt-road 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 Grand Wash, then return to Torrey for dinner and bed.
Head to the east side of Capitol Reef and turn south from Highway 24 onto the Notom-Bullfrog Road and follow this well-maintained (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 onto Highway 95 to reach Natural Bridges.)
Often overlooked, this small park is a gem, with three massive rock bridges and an Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling along a nine-mile loop highway. A small campground is the only lodging at Natural Bridges, 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 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 U.S. 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.
Spend your last day 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. In the evening, enjoy the lively scene in Moab, with its good restaurants and brewpubs.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Zion & Bryce.