Interested in visiting Utah and taking a road trip across the 5 National Parks? Here we have a sample itinerary and Google map you can follow, and edit to your liking, as well as additional information and tips about each park so you can try to squeeze in as much of the stunning Utah as you possibly can.
While you can decide which direction to go, at the end of the day you’re going to be hitting five national parks in about 7 hours of driving! This is one of the most densely packed parts of the country for national park visitors as millions descend for each season to explore the Utah desert. With 4.5 million visitors in 2019, these parks see far and above more people than your most popular state park and have challenges to think of. Planning ahead will ensure you have the best chance of doing everything you want when you want to!
One of the most challenging parts is getting to your first park. The closest major city to Zion National Park is Las Vegas – about a 2.5-hour drive away. On the north end, you can either fly into Grand Junction, Colorado (1 hour 40 minutes from Arches) or use another regional airport where you can rent a car to start your journey. Las Vegas is likely the preferred starting point due to its good location, and often cheaper flights and rentals than Salt Lake City, or Grand Junction Colorado.
Creating A Road Trip Map
If you are looking to understand driving times from each area, start by creating a Google Map and adding stops. We have created one here for you to start from: See here.
You can add more destinations, as well as your airport / starting location, and drag and drop the order of your destination to change your overall driving time. This is a great tool when trying to understand travel times between destinations. For instance, this would enable you to add in Las Vegas as your starting destination, and even plug in Grand Escalante National Monument if you wanted to add in another location to your trip.
Lodging Options & Gear Planning
The lowest cost and best way to connect with the desert is to camp your week through the national parks. Almost any type of camping tent will work and since you’ll be traveling right next to a car, you don’t have to worry about having as much space to haul around heavy gear. Campgrounds are usually one of the best places to be to get away from nighttime light pollution and maybe even catch a glimpse of the milky way. You can camp either inside the national parks (if you can get a reservation) or at any one of the private campgrounds that have sprung up around in the area.
Alternative options for those with a higher budget include motels, glamping pods, lodges, and hotels. It is also extremely common to car camp, or camp in a van. Many areas allow you to park and camp for free. If car camping or tenting isn’t your thing, all of these National Parks have dozens of nearby lodging options with a wide variety of price ranges to choose from to align with your budget and needs.
7 Day Road Trip Itinerary
Here is an example itinerary starting from Las Vegas (the most common starting location), but this can be reversed or changed dependant upon your goals and objectives. It is worth saying that 7 days in Utah is simply not enough to explore it all, but it still is incredible that in a 7 day window, you can experience 5 stunning National Parks and really have an amazing time. If you only have 7 days to explore Utah’s National Parks, here’s how you should do it (we have bonus information on each park below as well):
Arrive in Las Vegas, grab you rental vehicle, and begin driving the 2.5 hours to Zion National Park. Pick up supplies in Hurricane, Utah. Enjoy Zion National Parks most popular hikes. Choose 1 of the following (2 if you are up for long days). Begin your drive or pick lodging for your next day heading towards Bryce Canyon National Park.
Can’t get enough of Zion? Check out all of Zion’s best hikes.
Drive to Bryce Canyon National Park from Zion (about 1.5 hours). Take your car to all of the viewpoints, and do one larger loop hike that covers most of the incredible scenery in the park: The Queen’s Garden Trail & Navajo Loop Trail.
With a little bit of driving, and a solid hike, you can experience much of the incredibly unique scenery of Bryce in a single day.
This day will include more driving, as you drive the 2.5 hours towards Capitol Reef National Park. This park has some of the most incredible roads in the United States. Enjoy the drive through the park, see viewpoints, and pick a small day hike to enjoy the terrain. Once enjoying Capitol Reef for a few hours, continue to Canyonlands National Park. This is about a 2 hour drive. Day 3 is full of driving, but incredible scenery, and you can mix in some hikes. On your way to Capital Reef, if you love waterfalls, consider a stop for a solid hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls.
Drive to Arches National Park (about a 2.25 hour drive). Arches is loaded with tons of shorter hikes to see all of the most stunning arches in the park. Arches is an incredible place to watch both sunrise and sunset, so be sure to experience at least one of those. Most of the hikes in the park are less than 3 miles, and you can combine nearly 10 arches and other stunning viewpoints by connecting a few short hikes into one larger day.
It is easy to spend a full day doing a bunch of smaller hikes in Arches.
Canyonlands and arches are located only 30 minutes apart. Canyonlands is filled with stunning locations to drive to. We suggest you drive to all of the beautiful viewpoints, and pick 1 or two hikes or roads to experience while you are there. The parks most stunning viewpoints are easily accessible via short spur hikes off of the roads. Experience as many as you can!
Day 6 is reserved for an extra day in Canyonlands, Arches, or for travel back to any of your favorite parks that you have experienced so far. You will notice that there is an extra day built in this itinerary for your ability to spend two days in your park of choice instead of going back. Our recommendation is to spend an extra day in Zion National Park as the hikes are a bit longer, and it is well worth an extra day there.
Zion National Park
First on the list is Zion National Park. Two hours from Las Vegas, Zion is Utah’s oldest national park. This park is so popular that for most of the year, the main road is only open to shuttle buses to reduce the traffic and pollution within the park.
To access any of the trails, park outside the visitors center and hop on a shuttle headed in! There are too many hikes to cover in this section but adventure seekers must put the Angel’s Landing hike on their list (we also have an article on all of the best hikes below). This 4-5 hour hike takes you 1,500 feet directly up the west rim to the top of the valley for spectacular views (as long as you aren’t afraid of heights). There are very steep drop-offs and the trail can be crowded so keep that in mind as you evaluate your ability!
For those who want a little less terror, the Emerald pool hikes are a series of trails between an hour and 1.5 hours for views of the lush canyon forest and peaceful times of these small ponds.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Another 1.5 hours beyond Zion you’ll arrive at Bryce Canyon!
Bryce Canyon is a truly unique park that is known for the striking rock formations created by hundreds of years of rain erosion combined with the expansion and contraction of water within the rocks during the wild temperature swings this part of the country experiences. The best view of these ‘Hoodoos’ can be found at the top of the natural amphitheater where the photo above was taken.
To experience all of the beauty of Bryce Canyon, take the 5.5-mile peekaboo loop trail. This trail descends from the top of the rim, down 1,500 feet to the base of the basin. You’ll have the opportunity to see every angle of the Hoodoos and see how they change as the light shifts throughout the day.
Capitol Reef National Park
For the first long drive of the trip, head away from Bryce and towards Capitol Reef! A little over two hours away, Capitol Reef is home to brilliantly colored sandstone cliffs that show millions of years of earth’s history through erosion and a rare collision of continental plates that created the rocky barriers that give this rocky ‘reef’ its name.
While there are plenty of hikes to choose from, this park is also great for a long drive to view famous rock formations like Chimney Rock and Capitol Dome along route 24. The visitor’s center is housed within the historic district that offers a chance to see ancient petroglyphs and see a historical farm-house and school.
Because this park is great for driving, it makes for a great visit after longer hiking days in Zion, and then Bryce.
Whether you take the time to spend a full day in Capitol Reef or as a stop on the longer drive to Arches is your choice – Take a look at some photos and plan out your hikes to see where you’d prefer to spend your time!
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is best known for its namesake stone arches. With over 2,000 recorded around the park, many hikes are focused on hiking to one or more of the arches and back to the car.
One of the most common hikes is out to the Delicate Arch (pictured here). About 3.2 miles roundtrip, be sure to follow the rocky cairns to avoid getting lost on the way! Being fairly moderate and only 1.5 miles away from the car, you’ll probably have a lot of company when you get to the arch itself. Be sure to bring water and snacks if you plan to spend a while at the arch!
In addition to this arch, there are fantastic trails that allow hikers to combine multiple hikes into one. Parking at the Devil’s Garden trailhead gives visitors the best bang for their buck in terms of visiting the most stunning spots in one hike.
Canyonlands National Park
About 30 minutes away from Arches National Park is Canyonlands. The park is divided into three areas known as Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze.
The most well known part of the park is the Mesa Arch, found in the Island of the Sky. You’ve probably seen this arch without knowing it in magazines or on advertisements as it is especially popular with photographers to capture incredible sunrise shots. Join the photographers by waking up just a bit earlier than normal and taking the quarter-mile path out to the arch for great views of the La Sal mountains to greet the day.
For a more extensive hike – take a portion of the Lathrop trail about 2.5 miles out to the canyon rim (and another 2.5 back). This will end with views of the Colorado River and Airport Tower formation after traveling through unique open grassland paths.
Robert is a Co-Founder and editor at Midwest Camping. Robbie has backpacked over two hundred miles of the Appalachian trail, visited seventeen national parks, and camped regularly for the last two decades.