Utah’s National Parks feature some of the most stunning and surreal landscapes in the world. Zion, Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon have put Utah high up on many adventurers’ bucket lists and we’re no exception!
Earlier this month, Visit Utah invited me to try one of their Mighty 5 National Park itineraries. They’ve put together these in-depth itineraries to give travelers an easy way to plan their next Utah road trip. I chose their “Roughing it” itinerary which covers Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands and everything in between.
If you want to visit all five parks on your road trip, you can easily add Bryce Canyon and Zion to this itinerary. Here are my recommendations for planning the ultimate Mighty 5 road trip!
SALT LAKE CITY TO FISHLAKE & ZION
On your way to Zion from Salt Lake City airport, I highly recommend taking all or a portion of the 40-mile Fishlake loop. Towering aspen trees line much of this drive, which is quite a change of scenery from the national parks in this state. If you want to stay overnight here, you can camp along the lake, rent a cabin or stay in nearby Richfield (I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express here and it was very comfortable!).
Zion is just three hours away from Fishlake. This national park is the most visited out of the five parks, so make sure to head out early to explore for the day. Check out our Zion travel and hiking guide for must-do hikes and suggestions on where to stay.
ZION TO BRYCE CANYON
Bryce Canyon is an easy 1.5 hour drive from Zion. You’ll probably want to spend a day here exploring this park. Bryce Canyon has the largest collection of hoodoos in the world and photographs really do not do this place justice!
There are numerous accommodation options near Bryce Canyon — in addition to camping — including Bryce Valley Lodging, the Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel, and Bryce Canyon Log Cabins.
BRYCE CANYON TO BOULDER MOUNTAIN, BURR TRAIL, & CAPITOL REEF
From Bryce Canyon you can head through Boulder Mountain on to Capitol Reef National Park — or take a detour along the Burr Trail scenic backway with stops at Singing Canyon and Lower Muley Twist Canyon.
I recommend staying overnight near Capitol Reef National Park. I stayed at the Capitol Reef Resort in a luxury teepee with a king size bed and flatscreen TV! They also offer luxury cabins and basic guest rooms. The town of Torrey has other accommodation options or, if you book in advance, you can camp at one of Capitol Reef National Park’s campgrounds.
Popular and easy hikes at Capitol Reef National Park include: Grand Wash, Cassidy Arch Trail, and Hickman Bridge.
CAPITOL REEF TO SAN RAFAEL SWELL
This portion of the road trip covers some of my favorite areas of Utah. After Hanksville, continue on UT 24 E for about 20 miles until you see Temple Mt Road on your left.
Follow signs for Goblin Valley State Park (which is also worth a stop if you have time!) and just before the visitor’s center, take a right onto Wild Horse Road. This will take you to Little Wild Horse Canyon, a perfect hike for those interested in a little slot canyon exploration. The hike is fairly well marked and usually reasonably busy. I hiked about 2 miles in before heading back, but you have the option to do the full 8-mile loop — just make sure to bring PLENTY of water!
Ding & Dang is another slot canyon hike just up the road from Little Wild Horse Canyon, which is a slightly more difficult hike and should only be attempted by experienced hikers. From here, I recommend heading to the Wedge Overlook and hiking one of the trails in the Little Grand Canyon.
SAN RAFAEL SWELL TO ARCHES & CANYONLANDS
Arches and Canyonlands are within about 30 minutes from each other, so both of these parks can be easily explored using Moab as your base. The brand new Aarchway Inn is only 2-miles away from the Arches National Park entrance. Staying here means you will be very close to Arches, which makes things really nice for sunrise and sunset exploration in the park, but you’ll need to drive a couple of minutes into downtown for meals (or order delivery!).
In town, there are plenty of options for accommodation; Comfort Suites Moab is right in town and gets excellent reviews. For food in Moab, I highly recommend the Village Market for huge sandwiches to take on your excursions, Bangkok House for Thai food and delivery, and MOYO for an enormous selection of frozen yogurt — perfect on a hot day.
Popular hikes in Arches National Park include: Windows, Double Arch, Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch and Balanced Rock. Canyonlands is a great park to explore by car, but if you want to get out to stretch your legs, try Mesa Arch, White Rim Overlook, and Grand View Point.
I will let you in on a little secret. You absolutely must visit Fisher Towers, which is about a 25-minute drive from downtown Moab. It’s a hidden gem and great for those travelers looking to get away from the crowds. The photo below shows the lookout from just above the parking lot.
FLYING INTO LAS VEGAS?
If Las Vegas is your preferred airport, it’s easy to experience this same itinerary from that location. However, I have found Salt Lake City to be a much easier airport to get in and out of — especially with the constant Las Vegas construction. Also, keep in mind: the drive from Moab to Las Vegas is almost 7 hours, versus the 3.5-hour drive to/from Salt Lake City.
PACKING ESSENTIALS FOR UTAH
Photo Equipment – Utah is a photographer’s dream destination — do not forget your camera! To find out what camera I used for all of the above photos, see my full Sony a7II review and visit our complete travel camera buying guide.
Clothing and Hiking Gear – Plan on bringing comfortable clothes for hiking. The weather can be fickle in some areas — even in the summer. I drove through rainstorms where the temperature dropped 30 degrees within minutes. For extra sun protection, I recommend a long-sleeve synthetic top that wicks away sweat.
Good hiking shoes and socks will make or break your trip. I wear these women’s hiking shoes and I cannot live without these smartwool hiking socks — which provide cushion and keep my feet dry.
Sunscreen – Bring plenty of sunblock or make sure to buy it when you arrive. I never leave home without this travel-size face lotion with SPF. Some of the locations mentioned above sit at almost 7,000 feet, so do not forget to apply sunscreen!
Daypack for Hiking – I use this backpack on all of my hiking adventures. It has everything I need — including two large side pockets for water, an internal padded sleeve for a 3L hydration bladder, lots of internal and external compartments, and an attached rainfly.
Reusable Water Bottle – Refilling your water bottle not only saves money, but it’s so much better for the environment! We use this CamelBak water bottle at home, but if you want something more compact, this collapsible water bottle is perfect for travel days and hiking.
Navigation – Don’t count on your phone for navigation because you will rarely have service. The Garmin Nuvi is affordable and has all the features you’ll need on a road trip including Smartphone Link, Bluetooth, and lifetime maps.