The Big 5 – Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary

We have a fun little tradition in our family.  I have never been one for gifts, but I have always loved to travel!  For Christmas every year,

Papa Bear picks a trip for the coming year!

He makes me a card with the destination –  a few pictures and a list of some of the must-see things.  Its probably one of the best gifts he could give me. I look forward to the surprise every year!!

I also really love to plan trips, so once I know the place, I get to do all of the planning 😉!  In past years, we have taken trips to Chicago, Sedona, and Denali National Park in Alaska.  Christmas 2016, this Utah National Park trip was my gift.

Big 5, Big Five

We took the trip in March of 2017.  Baby Bear wasn’t born yet, but you could easily do this trip with children.  It was a FULL trip, but the drives between each destination were generally about three hours or less.  Lots of hiking and exploring which is no problem with the right gear (like our amazing hiking backpack!)

Our 23FB International Signature Airstream (towed by our 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel) was home for the 10 days of the trip.  Most of the destinations are popular enough that there are hotels nearby if you would prefer not to camp.  

23FB International Signature

Day 1 - Hoover Dam & Lake Meade

The trip started in the Southern California area.  To get out to Utah, we broke the drive into two legs and spent one night at Lake Meade.  Papa Bear and I both have visited Las Vegas a few times, so we didn’t feel a need to go back. But if you are flying into the region, you could EASILY fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, and start from there.

Our plan was to set up camp and take a tour of the Hoover Dam.  I toured the Hoover Dam in 2007 and it was very interesting!!  You can see the huge turbines and you learn about how the dam was built too.  Unfortunately, that day, tours were closed, but we were able to walk around outside to see things from the top.  Still pretty impressive!

Boulder Beach Campground is right on Lake Meade and was lovely!  It was first come first serve, but we arrived in the early afternoon and didn’t have any trouble finding a spot.  Since it is right on the lake, we were able to stroll down to the beach before dinner.  Papa Bear even got in!  

Lodging: Boulder Beach Campground – campground map

Boulder Beach Campground

Day two started with a drive to Zion National Park.  The drive took about three hours.  We arrived at the Zion South Campground in the late morning.  It is also first come first serve.  We heard that the campground can fill as early as 8am during the busy season.  March was not particularly busy, so we had no problem getting a desirable site.  By the end of the day, the campground WAS full though.

In the afternoon we walked from the campground to the Watchman Trail via the Pa-rus Trail.  The Watchman Trail was not particularly crowded (especially compared to other trails, as we found out the next day) and offered a sweeping panoramic view of the southern end of the park. 

Lodging: Zion South Campground – campground map

Watchman Trail

The northern points of Zion can only be reached by a (free) park shuttle bus.  The numbers on the map indicate the stops that the shuttle makes.  The bus was a breeze, with very little wait time.  We did hear rumors that in busy seasons (summer months and school holidays), the wait for a bus can be incredibly long.  

When planning the trip, our hope was to do the Narrows hike, which is one of the most popuplar, and seems to be one of the most unique as well.  Unfortunately, because of rain the previous days, the Virgin River was running too quickly and the Narrows hike was closed.  Depending on the season, its fairly common for the Narrows to close, so keep that in mind.  If you do luck out and the hike is open, you can rent gear from several shops just outside of the entrance gate.  

Instead, we took the shuttle all of the way north to the Temple of Sinawava (stop 9) and did the Riverside Walk.  This is a paved, handicap (or stroller!) accessible trail.  It only took us about an hour even with lots of stops for photos.  

Making our way south, we got off the shuttle at the Zion Lodge stop to do the Emerald Pool hike.  You did get some lovely views of the Virgin River flowing through the middle of the park, but otherwise, I thought this trail was a little disappointing.  It was incredibly busy even in March!  The pools themselves weren’t that amazing to see either.  

Virgin River

Another popular hike in Zion is Angels Landing.   Papa Bear is a little afraid of heights and there is a very precarious section of Angels Landing that he didn’t seem too into!  Looks like the National Park Service put out an “eHike” for Angels Landing so that you can see what you are getting yourself into before you actually go.  

LodgingZion South Campground – campground map

To leave Zion, we took the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.  Per the National Park Service website, if your vehicle is 11”4 (3.4m) tall or taller or 7’10” (2.4 m) wide or wider, including mirrors, awnings, and jacks, you will need a tunnel permit.

The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel is very narrow and there is traffic control for “oversized” vehicles, meaning someone has to stop traffic from the other direction for you to pass through the tunnel.  Even though its a little more of a hassle, I would say its well worth it if you are heading towards Bryce!  All told, the drive was only about two hours, leaving us plenty of time to explore Bryce the same day.

We arrived in the morning and set up camp at the North Campground.  Again, at this time of year, the campground was first come first serve and we had no problem!

From the campground, we drove the full park road to Rainbow Point.  Bryce is a very compact national park and most of the hiking is within the Amphitheater area.  If you get past that area, there are several overlooks and gorgeous views.  

We meandered our way back to the Amphitheater and picked Queens Garden / Navajo Loop Combination trail.  I’ve done a lot of hiking over the years and this hike is one of my all time favorites!  The first three-quarters of the trail is fairly easy because its down hill or flat.  But climbing out on the Navajo loop is no joke!  There are some serious switch backs.  Being down in the canyon and seeing the “hoodoos” up close is just so cool though!

LodgingBryce North Campground – campground map

Queens Garden Trail

Before we hit the road for our next national park, we got up before sunrise and went to Sunrise Point.  Bryce was chilly this time of year and there was even a decent amount of snow left around the “hoodoos.”  Seeing the sun rise and light up the canyon with the contrast of the white snow around it was absolutely stunning and worth getting out of bed at the crack of dawn! 

The drive from Bryce to Capitol Reef National Park, via the Highway 12 Scenic Byway, took just under three hours (no problem towing our 23ft Airstream either). The drive was beautiful, but I’m pretty sure that any route would have been beautiful.  There are red rock mountains all over….this whole area could really be a national park!

When you enter Capitol Reef National Park, you drive through these historic orchards.  In March, they were pretty barren, but in the springtime, they bloom and fruit which must be lovely to see.  The Fruita Campground is just around the corner from the orchards.  It was also first come first serve but no problem to get a spot (are you getting the pattern here??)  One of the highlights of Capitol Reef is the Gifford House that sells pies and cinnamon rolls.  Its walking distance from the campground and sooo tasty!  Definitely stop by and pick one (or a few) up!  

There is one main road through the park called the Scenic Drive.  We took the Grand Wash Road on our way along the Scenic Drive to the Capitol Gorge Trail. As you drive along, you can see why the park is named Capitol Reef – the mountainside looks like an underwater reef!  The capitol Gorge Trail is an easy hike with “tanks” at the end, which are a unique feature to Capitol Reef. The “tanks” are these pools in the rock that fill with water.  I can imagine that they are pretty extraordinary when they are full.  

Overall, Capitol Reef wasn’t my favorite park, but it was worth the stop, and the pies were delicious!!!

Lodging Fruita Campground – campground map

Since Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park are so close to each other, we decided to split the difference and stay in the town of Moab.  Also, the campground in Arches was closed for the season because they were repaving all of the park roads.  The drive from Capitol Reef to Moab took about two and a half hours.  We stayed at a campground right off of the main road through Moab.  It was nothing glamorous, but it was convenient and the owners of the property were friendly! 

Canyondlands covers a GIGANTIC area, and you can’t get from one “district” of the park to another without exiting the park and driving around.   On our first afternoon in the area, we drove to the Needles District, to the south of the park.  We chose the Elephant Hill Trailhead and hiked to the Chesler Park Viewpoint.  The hike ended up being a little over six miles and was a great hike! I enjoyed the scenary along the way as much, if not more, than the scenary at the final viewpoint.  

Lodging: ACT Campground – campground map

Elephant Hill Trailhead, Chesler Viewpoint

Day 7 - Arches National Park & Canyonlands (Island in the Sky District)

Because of the scheduled roadwork in Arches, the park was completely closed overnight.  We arrived at the gate just as the park was opening, which ended up being a wonderful decision!  Of the five Utah parks, Arches and Zion are the most popular, making them also the most crowded!  Getting to the park first thing in the morning, saved us from a lot of the crowd.  We also chose to go straight to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint since this was one of the highlights of the park, and likely to get busy the quickest.  We were able to view it with almost no one around!  

Delicate Arch

With that checked off our list, we drove all of the way to the end of the park road and slowly worked our way back towards the entrance.  From the Devils Garden Trailhead, we walked to Landscape Arch.  As we drove towards the park entrance, we stopped for quick walks and photos around Sand Dune Arch, Salt Valley Overlook, and Double Arch.  By the time we got down to the Double Arch area, the crowds were picking up.  

I had been really excited to do the Fiery Furnace, ranger guided, hike.  But, unfortunately, it had not started yet for the season.  I guess that is the price you pay for coming off season and avoiding crowds!

The Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park is fairly close to the entrance to Arches. When Arches started to fill up, we hopped over to Canyonlands.  The weather was also starting to get a little crummy, so we didn’t do any hiking in Canyonlands.  But we did explore the area.  There were some amazing viewpoints, incredible off road trails (that we did not do, but we saw) and an arch that rivals the best arches in Arches National Park.  

If you have more time, check out Dead Horse Point State Park.  You drive right by the entrance to this park on your way to Canyonlands Island in the Sky.  Several people sugested it to us and some even said it was more beautiful than the national parks in the area.  Because of time and weather (it started raining that afternoon), we didn’t get a chance to stop by.

We took advantage of the rain and found a local brewery.  Utah has some very funny liquor laws though.  There was a huge sign outside of the brewery saying they serve “Full Strength Beers.”  We were intrigued!  Turns out that beers served on tap in Utah need to be below a certain alcohol by volume, but when served in a can, they can be “full strength.”  It is also illegal to have more than one glass per person  on the table, so no flights for us.  We still enjoyed the experience – and laugh about it today!  (…when in Rome 😉)

Lodging: ACT Campground – campground map

Day 8 - Page, Arizona

From Moab, we drove to Page, Arizona where we would visit Horseshe Bend and Antelope Canyon.  It was one of our longer driving days, at about four and a half hours, with the addition of a small detour to drive through Monument Valley.  We didn’t stop, but did get some great photos!

Airstream

In Page, we camped at a very non-descript RV park that I wouldn’t recommend.  But when we explored the area, we discovered a really lovely park right on Lake Powell called Wahweap Marina RV Park & Campground.  It was very similar to the campground on Lake Meade.  If we were to go back to the Page area, I would 100% stay in that campground.

As we stumbled upon the Wahweap Campground, we also discovered the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Dam.  It was a less populated version of Lake Meade and the Hoover Dam!  Coincidentally, they were offering dam tours!  Since we weren’t able to do the Hoover Dam tour, we did this one. It was a bit of a smaller scale, but definitely informative.  

When we were finished exploring the lake and dam, we headed towards Horseshoe Bend.  Its about a half mile walk to the actual viewpoint and very popular.  As much as the photos make it look serene and secluded…its not!  Keep that in mind so you aren’t disappointed when you get there.  There is good reason for its popularity though.  Its a pretty cool sight to see!  A quick walk down, time to take some photos, and you are done!  

Page Arizona AS

Lodging: Wahweap Marina RV Park & Campground (we did NOT stay at this campground, because we didn’t know about it until we arrived in the area, but if we were to travel back again, this is where we would stay) – campground map

Day 9 - Antelope Canyon & Grand Canyon National Park

Another claim to fame for Page, Arizona is the slot canyon called Antelope Canyon.  Its on Native American land, so it must be visited with a guided tour.  There are two areas of the canyon that you can visit – Upper and Lower.  The reviews that I read said that Lower was a bit more technical to navigate (more stairs / ladders) but also more intricate to view, so that’s what we selected.  I haven’t  been to Upper myself, so I can’t compare.  I really don’t think you can go wrong with either one.  

At Lower Antelope Canyon, there is a huge parking lot and several tour operators selling tickets on site.  We reserved a time in advance, which probably wasn’t necessary in the off season, but in a busier season, you may have to wait for an available time if you don’t have reservations.  Even with reservations, there is a bit of waiting to enter the canyon.  The tour operators control the traffic through the canyon because its fairly narrow throughout.  They do a good job of giving everyone a chance to take photos, but also keep people moving.  The photos that we have from Antelope Canyon are incredible!  It was a highlight of our trip!

Page Arizona AZ

The last leg of the trip (before driving home) was to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  It was only about two hours to the Desert View entrance Gate, but then another 30-45 minutes to actually get to the campground. In 2017 when we took this trip, the road conditions of route 89 were TERRIBLE!  Even though the speed limit is a highway speed, and there are few other cars around, there were “woops” for probably 20 miles of the drive which slowed us down and were pretty annoying!  

Once we reached the Grand Canyon, we had reservations for the Mather Campground.  I highly recommend reservations because the park was FULL!  And try to reserve your dates as far in advance as possible to have the best selection.  Finding an available site at the Grand Canyon was really one of the deciding factors for the dates of our trip.

On our way in, we stopped at the Desert View Watchtower to get our first spectacular, expansive view of the Grand Canyon!  I had been once before, but it had been several years.  This was Papa Bear’s first visit.

Desert View Watchtower  

We settled into our site, then headed back out to explore.  That evening, we spent some time around Mather Point and watched the sunset.  

Lodging: Grand Canyon Mather Campground – campground map

There are a few trails that take you down into the canyon.  On my last visit, I did a portion of the South Kaibab Trail.  You certainly can do that to say you went INTO the Grand Canyon.  But, honestly, its SO vast, that the scenary doesn’t change all that much as you go down, unless you plan on hiking to the bottom.  Papa Bear and I have on our bucket list to hike rim to rim at some point, but that is for another trip!

Instead, we took the shuttle bus all of the way to Hermits Rest and walked back to Mather Point via the Rim trail.   It was almost 10 miles and took us about half a day.  Parts of the trail are paved and multi-use.  As we got closer to the village areas, the trail became much  more crowded.  But I would say, the first three quarters of the walk, we were mostly alone.  We came across different vistas along the way that offered stunning views of the canyon.  It was a great way to really feel like you got to know the area.  

South Rim

The plan was to stay another night, but we both felt like we had seen what we wanted to see of the Grand Canyon (until we come back to hike rim to rim!) and there was a blizzard forcasted for the night and next day.  

Heading Home

We packed up camp and got on the road. Once we started driving, we just kept driving!  It was long, but it was nice to get back to our own home.  Looking back, its amazing how many sights we were able to see on this trip!  Now that we are living on the East Coast, I am so grateful that we took advantage of living in Southern California to explore the Southwest.  Even if you don’t live in the area, Utah and Arizona are phenomenal places to visit!

Complete Trip Route

14 thoughts on “The Big 5 – Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary”

    1. Thank you! Maybe part of the present is the planning too! Just send your hubby over here for some trip ideas AND plans 😉

  1. Wow! You took some awesome pictures, and I loved reading about Page and Antelope Canyon… our family just did Las Vegas/Sedona/Grand Canyon in March and now I’ve got a better idea what else I want to see next time!

    1. Thanks Gail! There is soooo much to see in that area that its hard to fit it all into one trip. We did Sedona too a few years before and loved it.

    1. Thanks Marti! It really was incredible. We love seeing National Parks because they usually have the most beautiful, or at least unique, features!

  2. Wow! That is an impressive road trip! Did it ever get boring seeing that many canyons and parks in a row?! I’m a city girl 🙂

    1. You are too funny! We loved seeing all of the parks! But we did find that when you have seen that many canyons and red rocks, they become a little less impressive! I would say we got canyon snobby but not bored 😉

      1. Love this question and your honest answer. Our family did Grand Canyon/Sedona 6 years ago, and the kids said that it was too many hikes and not enough relaxing. We want to balance that this time, but you gave us great ideas!

        1. Hi Denise –
          So glad it was helpful! We really loved our trip. Hopefully you and your kiddos will make some great memories in yours!

  3. Thanks for all the information. We are planning on visiting the parks in April. Is that to early? We don’t have a camper, so we plan on staying in motels any recommendations?

    1. My pleasure! I’m glad it was helpful. We took this trip in March and at higher elevations there was definitely still snow. I would guess that it would be thawing my April. We only camped, so I don’t have any hotel recommendations for you. Good luck and have a great trip! I’d love to hear how it turns out 😉

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