Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary from Vegas

Mighty 5 Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary From Vegas

by Madam ZoZo

Whether you’re a nature photographer, outdoors enthusiast, geology geek, plein air artist or just want to feel like you stepped into an old Western, Utah’s Mighty 5 are the answer! With so many astounding landscapes, so close together, you can cover the best of Utah’s National Parks in a 9-day road trip from Las Vegas. For an alternate Southwest USA itinerary, check out this Las Vegas to Santa Fe route.

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Important notes

We learnt a few very big lessons on our Utah National Parks road trip, mostly relating to choice of vehicle. Heed these important notes before you embark on your journey and you’re sure to have an easier, less stressful time than we did:

  • Choice of vehicle is everything! There are lots of less explored roads in these Utah’s National Parks because they are accessed by unmaintained roads that need 4WD access. So, make sure you rent a 4WD with high clearance and you know how to drive it. Even something as simple as pulling off the road to get a photo can turn ugly if you don’t have the right vehicle – more on our experience later in this post.
  • Relating to choice of vehicle, I highly recommend to pay the extra to book the exact vehicle you want. Don’t rely on the “pick-of-the-lot” system, especially on holiday weeks when there are lots of people travelling. You want to make sure you have the exact type of vehicle you need when you need it.
  • If you do choose to chance it with “pick-of-the-lot” – double-check your vehicle specs. We made the terrible mistake of assuming all Jeeps were 4WD – apparently not. There was a small sticker on the windshield that said “2WD” but we didn’t see it until days later. If you are unsure, ask your car rental company.
  • Lastly, off-season is a great time to see Utah’s National Parks but be prepared for some limitations. There will be roads, trails, hotels, restaurants and other services that are closed for the season. So though you will benefit from fewer crowds, you will also have less choice and accessibility to attractions.
  • If you don’t have one already, buy an Annual National Parks Pass at your first Park. At $80 it will save you money considering each individual Park charges $10-35 each for a 7-day entry ticket (based on private vehicle prices).

Utah National Parks road trip itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Las Vegas, pick up your rental car and you are on your way. First stop: Valley of Fire State Park. After an hour drive, get out and stretch your legs in this beautiful desert landscape, with fantastic, 4000-yr old petroglyphs and sculpted red rock formations. Then jump back in the car and make your way to Zion. Check into your accommodation in Springdale just outside the Park. We loved Flanigan’s Inn, close to the Park entrance which provided a really comfortable, welcoming stay.

Note: The $10 State Park entry fee per vehicle is not included under the aforementioned National Parks Pass, you will need to pay this separately.

Driving distance: Las Vegas to Valley of Fire State Park 78km (49mi) 1hr. Valley of Fire State Park to Springdale (right outside of Zion National Park) 207km (129mi) 2hrs 20mins.

Photo of man walking down canyon of red rock
Photo of ancient petroglyphs on red rock
Valley of Fire State Park sign
Valley of Fire State Park
Coloured rocks of Valley of Fire State Park

Day 2

Spend a full day in Zion. Start early, grabbing breakfast and a packed lunch before hopping on the Park shuttle and let’s go! Adventurous spirits can’t go past the lure of the Angel’s Landing hike and the earlier in the day you start, the better (even in winter) – it’s a popular trail and the up-canyon hike is a killer in the desert sun. Whatever you choose to do in the Park, make sure you hit the Canyon Overlook Trail a couple of hours before sunset, for impressive views before the Canyon walls begin to cast shadows across the valley.

Driving distance: Local driving distance depends on accommodation location and chosen activities.

Day 3

Spend the morning seeing more of what Zion has to offer, then after lunch, drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. Aim to get into the Park an hour before sunset, and enjoy last light from the Rim Trail and aptly named Sunset Point.

Driving distance: Zion National Park to Bryce 136km (85mi) 1hr 50mins

Photo of red rock canyon below
Angel's Landing Trail view of Zion Canyon
Canyon Overlook right before sunset

Day 4

Spend a half day exploring Bryce Canyon National Park before making your way to Capitol Reef National Park. Be sure to take Scenic Byway 12 for a very scenic drive. Along the way you’ll witness some of the stunning landscapes of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Though you can make it between the National Parks in under 3hrs, I recommend allowing a full afternoon to enjoy the views from various overlooks and pull-offs along the road.

Check into your accommodation in Torrey (the closest town servicing Capitol Reef). We stayed at Capitol Reef Resort to be as close to the Park entrance as possible. The Resort has modern, comfy rooms with a decent restaurant and great views of the rock formations.

If there is any daylight left after you check-in, head directly to Sunset Point down a 0.65km (0.4mi) trail—the shortest in the Park—to enjoy the spectacle. If not, save this for the end of Day 5.

Driving distance: Bryce to Torrey via UT-12, 182 (113mi) 2hr 30mins without stops

Photo of sunset over Bryce Canyon rock formations
Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon
Approaching Bryce Canyon at sunset
UT-12 Scenic Byway view

Day 5

Take in Capitol Reef National Park with a full day of scenic driving and leisurely hikes. Begin with the Scenic Drive, and then explore the various canyons and valleys on foot. We experienced winter storms during our day in the Park, so our hiking was limited. The weather cleared long enough for an enjoyable hike to Hickman Bridge. This trail has great views of the Park’s namesake “Capitol Dome”.

Driving distance: Local driving distance depends on accommodation location and chosen activities.

Day 6

Cruise the exquisite UT-24 from Torrey, through Capitol Reef and on towards Moab. The section between Torrey and Hanksville is possibly the best Scenic Byway I have ever had the pleasure of driving (or rather being driven, since James was behind the wheel. I was the one in the passenger seat yelling for him to pull over so I could take another photo.). This is a case of the journey (or part thereof) being equal to the destination so allow more time on this road to really enjoy it.

Note: There aren’t many official pull-offs on this road, so be careful where you decide to stop for photos – cars tend to hurtle along this remote highway and we got bogged on the side of the road. Thanks to friendly passers-by and people of Hanksville who helped haul us out of the muck.

Check into your Moab accommodation which will be your base for the final days of your trip. We stayed in the Fairfield Inn and Suites to be closer to the two Park entries, with a short drive into town for restaurants etc. This is more pertinent in summer months when traffic jams into the Parks are more likely.

Driving distance: Torrey to Moab 251km (156mi) 2hrs 35min without stops

Photo of man standing below, natural rock bridge
Photo of red rock valley at sunset with grey clouds overhead
Sunset Point, Capitol Reef National Park
Photo of white rock dome

Day 7

Head to the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands for a full day of short hikes overlooking incredible vistas. Make your way along the Scenic Drive, taking advantage of the many overlooks and tackling the trails to get an overview of what Canyonlands is all about. If you only do one trail, make sure it’s the Grand View Point Overlook—it’s fairly easy and the views are unbelievable. Dead Horse Point is a highly recommended spot for sunset however I can’t give you any personal recommendation because we experienced a very stormy end of day in the Park.

Driving distance: Local driving distance depends on accommodation location and chosen activities.

Photograph of desert plateau with colourful soil and foliage in foreground
View along UT-24 that we pulled over to photograph, the time we got bogged
Hiking between storms passing over Canyonlands National Park
View of the Green River from Island in the Sky

Day 8

Your final Utah National Park for this road trip is Arches National Park. Make your way around all of the paved park roads in the Park, ensuring you visit The Windows Section, Devil’s Garden and Delicate Arch Viewpoint. If you’re fit and prepared to return in the dark, take the Delicate Arch Trail for the most amazing end to your day. Time your departure to reach Delicate Arch a good hour before sunset, because there will be a queue for photos under the Arch and you’ll want to get some daylight photos of the rock formation.

Driving distance: Local driving distance depends on accommodation location and chosen activities.

Skyline Arch, Arches National Park
Turret Arch, Arches National Park
Photo of red rock towers with smaller rocks balancing on top
Photo of red rock arch with snow covered mountains in background

Day 9

Departure day. You may be flying out of Salt Lake City (SLC), Grand Junction (GJT) or even Denver (DEN). There is an airport in Moab (CNY) which only offers flights to Denver. So if you are sick of driving at this point, you can take this short-haul to Denver and make your way home from there.

We chose Denver, which I wouldn’t recommend in the colder months. We were travelling Thanksgiving Week (end of November) and storms shut the Vail Pass for several days leading up to our departure and we only just got through to make our flight.

Drive distance:

Moab to Salt Lake City 376km (238mi) 3hrs 46mins

Moab to Grand Junction 182km (113mi) 1hr 45mins

Moab to Denver 570km (354mi) 5hrs 30mins

Places to eat, drink & be merry

We travelled at the end of November when a lot of businesses were already closed for the season. In some places, such as Torrey, this left us with very few options but to dine in our hotel restaurant.

Springdale

Café Soleil – breakfast, lunch & coffee – for a little extra they’ll wrap your sandwich appropriately to take hiking.

King’s Landing Bistro – dinner – delicious upscale food, ingredients sourced locally.

Escalante

Escalante Outfitters Café – breakfast, lunch and coffee along UT-12 – they were not only open when everyone else was closed but they made great coffee and sandwiches.

Torrey

Rim Rock Inn & Restaurant – dinner – casual dining with a local vibe.

Hanksville

Duke’s SlickRock Grill – breakfast, lunch & dinner (help us say thanks to the people of Hanksville for getting us out of the mud by supporting local businesses, including Duke’s where we ate a fresh and filling breakfast after our wayward adventure)

Moab

Moab Garage Co – lunch – great sandwiches and ok coffee.

Desert Bistro – dinner – delicious, upscale dining that I highly recommend as a treat after a day of hiking.

Utah National Parks road trip itinerary map

Southwest road trip soundtrack

Tunes for your road trip, carefully chosen to reflect this region of the US. It’s a genre-crossing playlist filled with music that has been written about the landscapes and locations, and/or by artists from the area. You’re sure to discover a couple of unexpected favourites (I drive my husband mad playing the Kingston Trio over and over – it makes me feel like I’m in an old Country and Western).

Are you planning a Utah National Parks road trip? Was this guide helpful? Feel free to leave any feedback or questions in the comments below.

Peace, love and inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

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