Utah is home to the best national parks road trip in the world – Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, & Zion.
Utah National Parks Road Trip
Utah is home to *the best* road trip in all of America known by most as simply “The Utah National Parks Road Trip” or “Mighty 5 Road Trip.”
Better than the California coast road trip or Route 66 road trip, you say? Yes, the More Than Just Parks team recently ranked it the #1 national park road trip via our national park road trips ranking – here’s why.
The Utah National Parks Road Trip is great in any season. Sure summer is hot, and winter can be cool but all in all the route stays drive-able pretty much year-round and offers sunny and warm escapes even when it’s cold where I live.
The scenery is unlike anything you’ll see on this earth. I absolutely love red rock country and find myself really pining for it in late winter. The desert has a way of calling me back (especially when it’s cold).
PLUS, there are plenty of parks and trails on this route, where you will find hardly another soul despite the recent uptick in crowds – even in Zion!
Utah National Park Road Trip: Parts
This post is broken up into two parts (feel free to skip ahead to the road trip itself by clicking the Part II link below):
- Part I – Trip Planning & Road Trip Pro Tips (budgeting, groceries, creating a road trip map, etc)
- Part II – The Utah National Park Road Trip (itineraries, stops, details, etc)
Ready to hit the road? Let’s go!
About My Travels on the Utah National Park Road Trip
I have done the Utah national park road trip route more times than I can count, including this past year and there are new things to explore every time. In fact, I’ve been hired (along with my brother) by the state of Utah for the past 6 years to film different pieces of public lands along the route.
I’ve created films on 6 different Utah national parks & forests, some of which are featured below, and have more in production now. This past year I did this road trip with my wife for the first time and it was even more fun than the first time I did it many, many years ago.
I’ll be headed back to Utah again later this year and will plan to update this post regularly as conditions change and new attractions emerge.
Planning a Utah Road Trip
Things to Know Before Your Epic Mighty 5 Road Trip
Entrance Fees: You can expect $20-$30 per vehicle but we suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Sunscreen: For many of us visiting national parks in the summer means lots of sun. Seriously, some of these parks can zap you if you don’t wear sunscreen. We happen to like this one because it works AND it’s not full of a bunch of chemicals.
Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.
Desert Clothing: Wearing/packing the right clothes in the desert is essential. We highly recommend you check out this article about what to wear/pack for a trip to the desert.
Insect Repellent: You hope not to need it, but you want to have it. We typically bring an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent with us just in case.
Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check the rules before bringing along your furry friend.
Utah Road Trip Basics
Step 1 of planning your Utah national parks road trip is deciding which parks to see (we’re assuming all 5 here but that’s not always possible) and what parks at which to spend the most time.
We recommend making your decision around either a singular must see destination (“I’ve always wanted to see Natural Arch at Arches National Park!”). Having a #1 must see place and activity in mind is really helpful in guiding the trip.
Finally, check for closures on the official nps.gov website for the parks you want to visit. Rock slides (looking at you Zion), down trees, in-climate weather, toxic algae blooms, government shutdowns, global pandemics, and especially wildfires are just some of the things that lead to favorite Utah parks and trails closing. Best to check ahead of time and save yourself the disappointment.
Utah National Parks Road Trip Essentials
- Remember to bring cash for campgrounds and other random places that are cash only (there will be some)
- I’m a coffee addict and these are our go-to beans, Jim got me hooked on them.
- I like to boil water for tea, coffee, etc. and we like it to happen quickly.
- When we started packing a stove it totally changed the game for me. I love this single burner which packs small.
- I always have things to charge via a regular A/C outlet and highly recommend this adapter after going through a series of lesser quality ones.
- Be sure to pack a portable USB battery. There’s nothing worse than getting to the scenic overlook you’ve driven across the country to see only to realize you’re phone is dead.
- Wipes and sanitizer always come in handy. If I forget to pack them they’re the first thing we get at the store upon arrival.
Mapping Out Your Utah Road Trip (Creating a Road Trip Map)
One of the most fun parts of planning the Utah national parks road trip (at least for us anyway) is plotting it all out on a map. Seeing all those little points come together and the significance of each one gets us every time.
There’s just nothing like the feeling of seeing the map points come to life when you finally arrive.
Best Road Trip Map Tool
We always use google maps for this as the interface is hard to beat. However, they do currently have a 10 destination limit on the regular one. If you want/need to add more points to your map than the 10 destination limit, google also has a “my maps” tool which is free and even savable right to your google account.
Tips for Creating a Road Trip Map
- Try changing the order of the destinations. We find that often time what might seem the most logical route to us, in fact is not. Changing the order of your map points around can (and has for us) save you precious hours of drive time in between destinations
- It’s easy to get carried away adding pins to the map (we do this every time). “What’s an extra 5 hours on the trip of a lifetime!” or “When are we ever going to be out that way again?” can be dangerous questions that lead to trip stress. We recommend taking a good hard look at your map and eliminating extra time draining stops. You’d probably rather spend an extra few hours soaking in grand canyon views than fighting over bathroom stops with the back seat.
- Check the drive times between stops and determine approximately what time you will be arriving at each destination. Say you’ve always wanted to see a sunrise at Bryce Canyon, but you don’t calculate your drive and you end up getting there at 9am instead of the sunrise you always dreamed of. Not an ideal situation. This part can be a bit cumbersome but is well worth the effort.
How Long Will the Utah Road Trip Take?
Next step is determining how much time you have vs how much you “need”. On average, we recommend allowing for at least 1-2 days per park on your trip. That means if you’ve got a week (5-7 days) to do your road trip, the most parks you should include is probably 5.
You want to be able to give yourself time to appreciate and enjoy each destination and not feel rushed.
Choosing a Starting Point for the Mighty Five Road Trip
One of the toughest parts of planning a national park road can be choosing the right starting point. If you’re driving your own car and starting from your residence then feel free to skip on to the next part. For everyone else, especially if you plan on flying to your destination and renting a car, there’s a bit of a decision matrix to consider.
The question we always ask ourselves which makes it easier for us is: what is the cheapest price we can pay combined for rental car + airfare? Price is easily our biggest determining factor when choosing a starting point.
If you’re interested in other National Parks Road Trips, you might want to look over our post ranking the National Park Road Trips. You also might be interested in our ALL 63 National Parks Ranked post that lists all of the national parks. We ranked them from best to worst based on our comprehensive 50 point rating system.
Getting the Best Price for Rental Car + Airfare
Consider the following example. You’re doing a Utah National Parks Road Trip to see the Mighty 5. The most convenient airport options are Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Say you find amazing flight deals to Salt Lake City – great, we fly into salt lake, right? Maybe.
Sometimes the rental car prices in one airport are so bad that it makes flying into another destination more worthwhile despite a great flight deal and vice versa. Always check both the flight price and rental car price at each destination before booking.
Choosing the Right Lodging Options
We’ve all been there before… arriving at the campsite late at night praying there’s an open spot only to find nothing. Or pulling into town after a 4 hour cell-service blackout only to find that all the hotels are all booked up. Or realizing upon arriving to your destination that you didn’t make reservations anywhere and the prices are astronomical (we’re looking at you, Zion).
Like way more than a national park should ever cost seeing that it’s a tax-payer funded, publicly owned resource managed benefit and enjoyment of the people (all people).
The point is, planning ahead of time on lodging and deciding on the right accommodations for your budget is important. We recommend starting early and scanning what hotel prices are like during the time of year you want to visit (covered below). This will give you an idea of what availability looks like and how expensive it is.
If you plan on camping, check out recreation.gov to see if you can reserve a site ahead of time. One pro-tip we recommend is seeing if there are any nearby national forests where you might be able to camp.
National forest campgrounds are amazing for a number of reasons, two of them being price (they’re usually cheaper if not free) and availability (they’re usually way less crowded than national park campgrounds).
With that being said, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan for each night that you are unable to book something in advance.
Road Trip Food Planning
Ah, nothing says national park road trip quite like the smell of glistening hot dogs rotating over an open warming pan at Love’s gas station at 2 in the morning… With that being said, planning out your road trip food is absolutely essential.
We’ve all seen the beloved road trip companion turn Mr. Hyde after being forced to miss their self-appointed feeding hour. Avoiding this doomsday scenario can mean the difference between a warm ride home full of fond reminisces or an unscheduled stop at the Cedar City airport conducted in total silence.
We recommend a budget friendly mix of dining at local eateries and “cooler food”. Feeling the fatigue of too much fast food can tank a day in a hurry so we highly recommend finding a cooler for the trip to pack something on the healthier side.
Pro-Tip #1: We often pack a soft cooler (this is our current go-to) full of clothes on the way over (if flying) that can be removed upon arrival and replaced with ice and lunch food/snacks (sandwich fixings, dips, greens, drinks, etc).
Utah Road Trip Groceries
Typically our first stop after the airport is to a Trader Joe’s (who is not paying us to say so) to stock up on essentials. We often end up in places during dining hours that either have no food options or very limited unhealthy options.
With that being said, it’s nice to have an alternative in the car. Making food stops during your Utah road trip slows down momentum and can mean the difference between “making it there before sundown”.
Pro-Tip #2: A few years back we (finally) started packing a small, inexpensive one burner stove (this one) and it has made all the difference. Having the option to make hot food (we camp/car camp a lot) can make all the difference after a long day in the parks.
Finally, in the dining category of this post, comes the topic of coffee (should’ve been #1, I know). We are hopeless caffeine junkies and need our morning fix.
Jim swears by this incredible coffee that he always packs with us (I’ll admit, I’m addicted now). We use this gadget to heat the water and this metal pour over tin to do the job (they’ve never let us down).
Getting Gas During Your Utah Parks Road Trip
I’ll never forget running out of gas in the middle of the Mojave desert near Baker, California in 110 degree weather and no shade for miles…
Or the subsequent ride into town with my brothers and the sailor-mouthed tow-truck driver whose vernacular was completely free from the typical societal constraints one might expect with a 12 year-old (my youngest brother) present.
Good news is there was service, we lived, and Tom (youngest brother) went on to become the wisest of the bunch!
And while I’d like to say I learned my lesson from that experience, sadly it took several more extremely close terribly inconvenient calls for me to remember to plan fuel stops and check the old fuel gauge regularly.
Planning a National Park Road Trip Budget
It’s a good idea to come up with an overall budget at the outset of planning your national parks road trip. A budget makes it easy to remove unnecessary stops and keep everyone in check. A sample budget breakdown for one of our trips looks something like this:
Sample Road Trip Budget
- Food – $50/person/day
- Lodging – $150/day if hotels per two people
- Gas – $30/day (this is pretty variable depending on what kind of car you’re driving)
- Rental Car – $70/day (this is fluctuating wildly given the current vehicle shortages)
- Flights – $300 round trip/person (extremely variable)
- Fees/Attractions – $100 total (park pass, etc)
- Miscellaneous – $300 total (the unforeseen expenses)
- SAMPLE TOTAL for 7 Day Trip for 2 People = $3300 ($700/food + $900/lodging + $210/gas + $490/rental car + $600/flights + $100/fees + $300/miscellaneous)
*this is very fungible up or down depending on how many nights are spent in hotels (if any), if you can get cheap flight deals vs gauging prices, driving your own car vs renting, if you eat at nicer places vs average & groceries, how fuel efficient your vehicle is, etc
Flexibility Is The Key To A Happy Road Trip
The whole reason we take road trips is to see new sights, experience new things, and most importantly to have a good time.
Being flexible is the most important factor we’ve found in overall trip happiness (and life). A few tips based on many years of experience and running the whole gamut of trip emotions:
Tips for a Happy Trip
- Don’t plan out every second of your national parks road trip. Leave free space to either leave places early, linger longer, or just relax.
- There’s no such thing as being late on a road trip. If you miss a sunset it’s not the end of the world. If you have to nix a destination there’s always next time.
- Hydrate well and have plenty of snacks on hand. Hungry ≠ happy and neither does thirsty.
- Take time to enjoy the moment rather than always being concerned about making it to what’s next.
And Finally, The Weather
The most unpredictable factor and potentially biggest damper (intended was the pun) on any trip is the weather.
Plan ways to spend your time or alternative routes if specific places have bad weather. This way you won’t be as disappointed when it inevitably rains on your parade.
We like to check monthly forecasts to see average temperatures and precipitation before making plans.
Now who’s excited to look at some road trip itineraries? (we are)
Utah National Parks Road Trip
Utah National Park Road Trip Overview
Total Drive Time: 15hrs
Recommended Trip Time: 5-7 days
Our recommended route is a round trip loop that starts in Salt Lake City and takes you through the heart of red rock country. Featuring 5 stunning desert national parks, this Utah national parks road trip is hard to beat!
Destinations: Utah National Parks (All Five)
- Arches National Park (3.5hrs from SLC)
- Canyonlands National Park (30mins from Arches)
- Capitol Reef National Park (3hrs from Canyonlands)
- Bryce Canyon National Park (2hrs from Capitol Reef)
- Zion National Park (1.5hrs from Bryce)
Utah National Park Road Trip Map
Summary | Utah Road Trip Route
Salt Lake City to Moab (3.5hrs) > Moab to Capitol Reef (3hrs)
This route is a basic loop with a terminus in Salt Lake City and a first stop of the Moab parks (Arches & Canyonlands). After Arches & Canyonlands you’ll drive back the way you came (lame, I know but trust me, it’s worth it) and head on to Capitol Reef National Park. The route to Capitol Reef is pretty cool, especially as you get closer to the park itself.
Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon (2hrs)
From Capitol Reef we recommend you take the scenic route, Utah’s Hwy 12 which is one of the most spectacular highways in America. This drive is one of the absolute highlights of the trip and is not to be missed but it is not the natural way your GPS will route you. Be sure to add Escalante, Utah as a pin to your route or risk missing this stunner.
Bryce Canyon to Zion (1.5hrs)
From Bryce Canyon the drive continues through the Dixie National Forest (which is well worth the visit in its own right – a fraction of the visitors and equally stunning scenery) and the beautiful Red Canyon area (featured in our film below) to the east entrance of Zion National Park.
Zion National Park Drive (1.5hrs)
Upon entering the east entrance of Zion via the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway the scenery changes drastically in a wonderful way. Watch out for Bighorn sheep as you near the third tunnel! After passing through this tunnel visitors are given their first look at the epic canyons of Zion.
Zion to Salt Lake City (4.5hrs)
After exiting Zion, jump onto I-15 and make tracks to Salt Lake City! Along the way there’s another Zion entrance that you should definitely check out if you’ve got an extra hour or so called Kolob Canyon. Its a jaw-dropper and totally worth the time if you’ve got it (did I mention no crowds?).
Utah National Park Road Trip Highlights
Arches National Park – Utah Road Trip
- Delicate Arch is on the Utah license plate for a reason. This arch is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful natural arches on the planet and is much bigger in person than in photos (at least we thought so!)
- Landscape Arch/Devils Garden Trail – Behold, Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the world at over 300ft. By the look of it, this arch seems like it could collapse any day which is why folks are no longer allowed to walk under it.
- Sand Dune Arch – Take off your sandals and walk barefoot about a quarter of a mile through sandstone corridors to reach this beautiful arch.
Canyonlands National Park – Road Trip
- Mesa Arch is one of the most heavily photographed spots in the entire national park system. Get there for sunrise and you won’t be sorry (except for the crowds).
- Shafer Canyon 4WD Road is a world class four-wheel adventure featuring spectacular views and all the solitude you could hope for.
Capitol Reef National Park – Utah Road Trip
- Hickman Bridge is a beautiful natural bridge at the end of a short and rewarding trail.
- Grand Wash is a great and flat hike that follows a dry wash through a steep canyon.
Bryce Canyon National Park – Road Trip Through Utah
- Wall Street Trail is one of my personal all time favorite trails in the national parks. The trail descends steeply down mesmerizing switchbacks into a golden tunnel of light up through which ancient pines ascend toward the sky.
- Inspiration Point Sunrise is one of the best places to see a sunrise in Utah. This spot is typically not very crowded as there is a nearby spot called “Sunrise Point” which seems to have folks fooled.
Zion National Park – Mighty Five Road Trip
- Angels Landing is the first of two main hikes in the canyon. The hike features a steep ascent, switchbacks, a chain link railing to hold onto for dear life, and breathtaking views of Zion Canyon.
- The Narrows is the other of two major hikes everyone wants to do at Zion. This hike features a watery walk through a breathtaking canyon. Get in line as early as possible.
Zion National Park Video
Alternate Utah Road Trip Routes
The shortest route for the road trip loop is the one featured above that starts and ends in Salt Lake City. However there are alternate routes that are equally if not more interesting drives.
Starting in Las Vegas
Starting & ending in Las Vegas is another great option. This route is sometimes is cheaper depending on flights/rental cars. Starting in Las Vegas, this route goes through Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and then Canyonlands.
I recommend returning through Page, Arizona (not the fastest but definitely worthwhile). Add Horseshoe Bend (literally on the way) before returning to Las Vegas.
This trip can also easily be reversed with a first stop of Canyonlands (but it’s a whopping 7 hours further than Zion from Las Vegas).
One Way – Las Vegas to Salt Lake City or Salt Lake City to Las Vegas
Another potential option worth considering is starting in either Salt Lake City & ending in Las Vegas or vice versa. This is the shortest route by 2 hours but can result in a significant increase in price due to flights & rental car.
When is the Best Time of Year to Drive the Utah National Parks Road Trip?
The best time to drive the Utah National Parks Road Trip is in the Fall – think October. Most folks don’t realize but the Utah National parks have a lot of deciduous trees, particularly the vibrant cottonwood. During the fall you’ll see bright yellows and far fewer tourists as the shoulder season is on.
Alternatively, Spring is a great time as crowds are down and weather is nice (and not yet scorching).
Potential Road Trip Additions
- Grand Canyon National Park North Rim (extra 4 hours driving on SLC route or extra 2 hours on Las Vegas route). I refer to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon as “the good rim”. The views are just about as good and there is no one there. This is a good post on the North Rim.
- Death Valley National Park (extra 4 hours driving on Las Vegas route or 8 hours driving on SLC route). This stop is out of the way and will add at least an extra day to the trip unless you just want to see the park from the car. If you’ve got the time and energy it’s one of the best parks in the system – here’s why.
- Antelope Canyon (on route). Antelope Canyon is a bit pricy ($20 to park then $70 per person). Not my cup of tea because of what I consider to to be gauging prices and cattle-like experience but there’s no question this location’s beauty.
- Horseshoe Bend (on route). This stop is a no-brainier. Do it and thank me later. One of the most beautiful views in the world.
- Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument via Escalante, Utah (potentially on route). Between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, instead of going through Koosharem consider a drive through Escalante instead. Highway 12 is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the west. You won’t regret it.
National Forests to Consider Visiting
- Dixie National Forest (on route). An absolute stunning place with none of the visitors you’ll find in the parks (save maybe Capitol Reef).
- Fishlake National Forest (extra 30 – 60 minutes driving). An easy stop near Bryce Canyon that is spectacular with aspens groves and no tourists.
- Manti-La Sal National Forest (extra 30 – 60 minutes driving). Located right outside of Moab with no tourists and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.
Summary – Leave us a Comment!
Well folks, that’s a wrap! Let us know what we missed and what else we should include. We plan on updating this post with more road trip additions and tips in the future. If you’ve got any suggestions please let us know!
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