Gateway Airport: McCarran International, Las Vegas
This multiday adventure on remote byways is a journey through the slickrock heart of the American West, linking Utah’s five national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands, each an hour or two drive from the other. Each park showcases the iconic landscape of the Colorado Plateau, much of it an ancient Sahara now turned to stone. The surreal tableau of arches, alcoves, hoodoos, and epic canyons is so otherworldly, you may wonder what planet you’re on.
Zion National Park
A free park shuttle follows the Virgin River, which flows in the shadows of some of the world’s tallest sandstone cliffs, creating a walled sanctuary adorned with hanging gardens and emerald pools. Get out at any of the eight stops and be stunned by the immensity of it all. Escape the crowds at the park’s more remote Kolob Canyons and Kolob Terrace sections (accessible by private vehicle only).
The Route: Las Vegas > I-15 N > UT 9 E (160 miles)
On the Way: Stretch car-weary legs on a self-guided walking tour of St. George’s orderly Historic District. Free tours are offered of church leader Brigham Young’s Winter Home. For an authentic taste of Mormon pioneer life, don’t miss the more than century-old Judd’s Store for classic sodas and breadsticks.
Stay: Zion Lodge, the only in-park lodging, fills up fast, especially the 28 vintage cabins with gas log fireplaces ($205-$270). Cliffrose Lodge ($129-$649) just outside park boundaries is a spiffier, more contemporary alternative.
Don’t Miss: Don’t overlook the Zion Human History Museum (your first shuttle stop), which gives a historical slant to the natural wonders of Zion Canyon.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: Canyon Overlook is a real rail-grabber, with dizzy views of Lower Pine Creek Canyon dropping into Zion Canyon. From the Timber Creek Overlook at Kolob Canyons, views on clear days reach a hundred miles to Mount Trumbull, marking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Tour: At the visitors center, reserve a spot on a free, 90-minute ranger-led shuttle tour (reservations must be made in person up to three days in advance; April to November). You'll get an insightful stand-up routine from the rangers and sometimes stop where regular shuttles don’t.
- Easy: On the 1.1-mile-long Riverside Walk, you'll see the Virgin River rushing through a primeval glen of mossy hanging gardens. The epic Narrows Trail begins at the end of the Riverside Walk. To continue you’ll need a walking stick, as the river itself now becomes the trail.
- Moderate: Follow the Virgin along the two-mile Kayenta Trail to Emerald Pools, an oasis of water-filled basins and misting spray.
- Strenuous: Nerves of steel? Try legging it up the narrow spine of rock to Angels Landing via the West Rim Trail for adrenaline-fueled views of Zion Canyon. Or skip bragging rights and only go as far as Scout’s Lookout.
Side Drive: A roadster’s dream, the five-mile volcanic-red Kolob Canyon Road complements the coral-hued cliffs of the Kolob Plateau as it skirts the box canyons far below. For maximum effect, add a glowing red sunset.
Oddity: It showers 365 days a year at Weeping Rock, where groundwater takes an average of a thousand years to percolate through the Navajo Sandstone before emerging in a sparkling curtain of rain.
Before You Come: Read A Zion Canyon Reader, a compendium published by the University of Utah Press.
Park Website: nps.gov/zion
Seasonal Notes: Spring comes on strong at Zion, where March showers bring April wildflowers, peaking in May. Expect smaller crowds but prime wildlife viewing: Look for fawns among the mule deer grazing canyon floors or bighorn sheep along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Layer up, as temperatures can drop or rise 30 degrees within hours.
Bryce Canyon National Park
If you think rocks only come in one color, you’ll be floored by the polychromatic spectacle of the world’s largest display of hoodoos. Looking down on them from the forested plateau is like gazing at China's terra-cotta warriors, thinking at any moment that they could come to life. Drop down the rim to walk among them, and you’ll swear they do.
The Route: Zion National Park > UT 9 E > US 89 N > UT 12 E > UT 63 S (72 miles)
On the Way: You're in Maynard Dixon Country. For tours of the artist’s home and studio, stop in Mount Carmel. For a preview of Bryce’s hoodoos, take a 30-minute leg-stretcher on the interpretive Pink Ledges Trail in Red Canyon.
Stay: Nestled close to the rim, the dormered Lodge at Bryce Canyon (opened in 1925) sets the mold for classic National Park Service architecture: Rubble stone walls and fireplaces, rustic log framing, and wavelike shingling on the gabled roof complement the natural setting. Rooms begin at $193. Ruby’s Inn Best Western Plus, just outside the park, is a more affordable commercial catchall.
Don’t Miss: Watching the sunrise—period. Doesn’t matter from where: Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, anyplace in between. Prepare to be transfixed as the rocks unleash their vibrant colors, as if glowing from within. It’s arguably the best sunrise on the planet.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: Which one isn’t? Of the 14 park overlooks, Paria View is one of the only ones to catch the last rays of the setting sun; plus, you might glimpse the peregrine falcons that nest here.
Tour: Ancient legends and constellation stories bring the hoodoos to life on ranger-led full-moon hikes below the rim.
- Easy: For a shifting take on the hoodoos below (and to lose the crowds thronging the viewpoints), stroll the Rim Trail along the amphitheater’s edge, from Sunrise Point to Inspiration Point. Acrobatic cliff swallows and white-throated swifts entertain along the way.
- Moderate: To experience the hoodoos lorded over by Queen Victoria and her stone-faced court, head to Sunset Point and take the Navajo Loop Trail to connect with Queen’s Garden Trail, returning via Sunrise Point.
Side Drive: From the visitors center, drive the 18-mile scenic stretch on Main Park Road to forested Rainbow Point, the highest point of elevation at more than 9,100 feet, for Colorado Plateau views limited only by Earth’s curvature.
Oddity: Bryce Canyon skies are so clear that on a moonless night, Venus glows so bright it can cast your shadow on the ground.
Before You Come: Hit the Stairmaster at your local gym; you’ll need your legs to get down into the hoodoos and even more to get back up to the rim.
Park Website: nps.gov/brca
Seasonal Notes: In spring, hiking temps are ideal during the day (45º to 75ºF) but cool rapidly at night, often dropping below freezing through mid-May, so bundle up for nighttime astronomy and hiking. Wildflowers burst onto the scene by mid- to late June; the fuchsia Bryce Canyon paintbrush, which only grows below the rim of Bryce Canyon, blooms in May.
Capitol Reef National Park
The Reef is the least known and most remote of Utah’s five national parks and encompasses the hundred-mile-long Waterpocket Fold, a wall-like rift of stone in Earth’s surface that kept out all but the hardiest of pioneers. Those who persevered found an idyllic oasis pocketed amid the Reef’s monumental Capitol-like domes, natural bridges, spires, and slot canyons—and you will too.
The Route: Bryce Canyon > UT 63 N > UT 12 E > UT 24 E (116 miles)
Stay: Red River Ranch serves up genteel Western luxury—but with a swagger. Motels in Torrey provide a quicker launch into the park.
Eat: Local trout is served up at Rim Rock Restaurant in Torrey.
Don’t Miss: The park's 1908 Gifford Homestead for an authentic taste of Mormon pioneer living. Not for the museum-like displays—OK, maybe those too—but for the locally-baked mini-apple pies available in the gift shop.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: Hike less than 20 minutes to a solitary bench at the end of the Sunset Point Trail for the park’s most elemental panorama—brick red Moenkopi towers, domes of bone white Navajo Sandstone, and the distant Henry Mountains. The green swath of trees lining Sulphur Creek as it joins the Fremont River ties it all together.
Tour: The Fruita Rural Historic District provides an idyllic look at pioneer life: a classic barn, the old blacksmith’s shop, Fruita’s first tractor, horse-drawn farming equipment. Walk among the 22 legacy fruit and nut orchards and pick some fruit using fruit-pickers and three-legged ladders, weighing your harvest at one of the self-pay stations.
- Easy: Ease through the inner sanctum of the Waterpocket Fold on the 2.2-mile (one-way) Grand Wash, a natural defile 800 feet high and in some places only 16 feet wide. Set up a shuttle on Highway 24, or just hike back out the way you came.
- Moderate: Past an ancient granary and pit house, past black lava boulders and a natural arch, the 0.9-mile Hickman Bridge Trail winds 0.25 miles up to the grand finale: the 133-foot span of Hickman Bridge, perhaps one of the largest arches in the park.
- Moderate: Head up the 1.7-mile Cohab Canyon Trail, past mini-slot canyons, to a hideout overlooking Fruita. Local legend: Back in the day “cohabitationists” (i.e., polygamists) would hide up here when the Feds came through town.
Side Drive: Head to Cathedral Valley to see iconic Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. You’ll need a high-clearance vehicle for the rough spots, which include fording a hubcap-deep river. Call the park for road and river conditions before attempting this 59-mile loop.
Oddity: Capitol Reef has evolved its own unique strain of apple, the Capitol Reef Red. You’ll find them in Jackson Orchard.
Before You Come: Read Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty by W.L. Rusho.
Park Website: nps.gov/care
Seasonal Notes: From March to mid-April, the orchards explode in blossoms, and the mercury hovers at around 60º to 70ºF, ideal for hiking the backcountry as long as spring storms aren’t in the forecast. Summers are quite a bit hotter and at the mercy of occasional monsoons. Come between the second week of June and October to harvest orchard fruit. (Call 435-425-3791 for orchard updates.)
Arches National Park
These 120 square miles contain the highest density of stone arches in the world—2,000 and counting. Some are iconic, such as Delicate Arch (the one printed on Utah's license plates). Others shatter records, including pencil-thin Landscape Arch, one of the world's longest freestanding arches. And some you’ll have to search out yourself on trails that lead you deep into a sandstone world dating back 300 million years.
The Route: Capitol Reef > UT 24 E > I-70 E > US 191 S (147 miles)
On the Way: Learn about the one-armed wonder who first surveyed the Colorado River at the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River. Then have lunch at family-friendly Ray’s Tavern (established 1943), a favorite among river rats.
Stay: On a quickening bend of the Colorado, in John Wayne country, Red Cliffs Lodge ($120 to $240) offers views of the riverside and sunsets reflecting off red mesas. For fun, a life-size cutout of the Duke in the movie museum downstairs makes for great selfies.
Eat: In Moab, locals choose Love Muffin for breakfast, Milt’s Stop and Eat for lunch, and Moab Brewery for dinner and ale brewed on site. In a hurry? Chase down the bright-yellow food truck Quesadilla Mobilla for quesadillas to go.
Don’t Miss: To go to Arches and not see Delicate Arch is like going to the Louvre and not seeing the "Mona Lisa." The march to the arch takes close to an hour, most of it uphill, so bring plenty of water.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: The overlook at Park Avenue peers down a ravine walled in by monolithic sandstone formations, some vaguely human in appearance. Look for Queen Nefertiti on the left and Queen Victoria—which actually looks more like "Whistler’s Mother"—on the right.
Tour: The safest way to visit Fiery Furnace, a confusing labyrinth of sandstone fins, is on a three-hour tour led by park rangers (offered at least once daily during summer). Maps or GPS are useless, so don’t go it alone unless you’ve been here before. Breadcrumbs—or any other trail markers—aren’t allowed.
- Easy: Join the 1.6-mile parade to Landscape Arch, a fragile 306-foot span held up by little more than a suspension of belief, which is why, unlike at Delicate Arch, you’re not allowed to stand under it.
- Easy: Put on your fedora and hike the half-mile trail to explore Double Arch; it’s where the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed.
- Strenuous: The Devils Garden Trail, returning via the Primitive Trail, is the park’s longest hike, a half-day huff-and-puff through the park’s largest concentration of arches.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Side Drive: Get off the pavement and away from the crowds by driving 8.3 miles up Salt Valley Road to the Tower Arch trailhead. Once there, why not hike the 3.4-mile (round-trip) trail to Tower Arch? A series of pinnacles called Marching Men will point you in the right direction.
Oddity: In the Fiery Furnace, ask the ranger to point out Canyonlands lomatium (also called Arches biscuitroot), which blooms from February to April. It just might be the only time you’ll ever see it, as most of the world’s supply is only found in the park’s Entrada fins.
Before You Come: Read the Edward Abbey classic Desert Solitaire, a memoir about his time as a ranger here.
Park Website: www.nps.gov/arch
Seasonal Notes: Spring can be erratic, with blustery storms punctuating long stretches of warm and settled weather (60º to 70ºF). By April and May, wildflowers speckle the desert floor. The first scorching breaths of summer hit in June. Summer monsoons can bust loose anytime in July and August, bringing with them flash flooding and ephemeral waterfalls and setting off a second bloom of color in September and October.
Canyonlands National Park
This is as wild as it gets. Canyonlands is the largest and most undeveloped of Utah’s national parks, so vast it’s divided into four sections. The rivers—the Colorado and Green Rivers and their tributaries—make up one section. The Maze is rough, remote, and rarely visited. Island in the Sky (I-SKY) floats high above the canyon bottoms, a mesa rimmed with vertiginous vistas. The Needles—from I-SKY more than 110 miles to the south via roads outside the park—offers miles of stupendous hiking. If time’s an issue, stick to I-SKY. If not, head to the Needles as well.
The Route to Island in the Sky: Arches > US 191 N > US 313 W (26 miles)
The Route to the Needles: Arches > US 191 S > UT 211 W (88 miles)
On the Way: When heading to I-SKY, check out progress on the Moab Giants, a soon-to-open dinosaur tracks museum at the junction of U.S. 313 and 191. Heading to the Needles? Stop at Newspaper Rock (along Utah Route 211) to decipher hundreds of petroglyphs incised in stone.
Stay: Moab’s many in-town hotels and motels provide the option of early morning starts to either the Needles or I-SKY. Lodging in Monticello, the nearest town to the Needles district, is a more prosaic alternative.
Eat: Besides Moab’s burger-and-brew restaurants, there are Thai, Japanese, Mexican, and Italian restaurants within walking distance of each other. Some menu browsing is called for. In Monticello, poke into the Peace Tree Juice Cafe.
Don’t Miss: Take any chance to see the park’s desert bighorn sheep, one of the few remaining native herds of this magnificent animal. (Canyonlands’ bighorns have been used to restock the dwindling herds at Arches and Capitol Reef.) Ask rangers about recent sightings.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: Drive to I-SKY’s Grand View Point overlook for seriously epic views of an endless succession of red rock canyons—with nothing human visible—stretching as far as the eye can see. For maximum effect, settle in for the sunset.
Tour: Ditch the car and set out on a half-day to multiday Canyonlands adventure in 4x4s that will get you deep into the backcountry.
- Moderate: In I-SKY, head a mile down a sandy wash and up a slickrock butte on the Aztec Butte Trail and you just might find some 800-year-old Puebloan granaries. (Tip: Look for them under the cap rock).
- Easy/Moderate: In the Needles, a 0.6-mile loop on the Cave Springs Trail has it all: an old cowboy camp, a natural spring, Ancestral Puebloan paintings, hanging gardens, and wooden ladders to hoist you up on the slickrock for fine views of the Needles’ banded spires.
- Moderate/Strenuous: In the Needles, take half a day to hike from the Elephant Hill trailhead to the Chesler Park Viewpoint (six miles round-trip), ending up at a thousand-acre grassland meadow edged by the park’s most spectacular display of its colorful spires.
Side Drive: Any side drives in Canyonlands require a 4x4 and/or high-clearance vehicle, as things can get nasty very quickly depending on the weather. If you've got the wheels for it, try I-SKY’s Shafer Trail or the Needles’ Colorado Overlook Road.
Oddity: Geologists are still debating the origins of I-SKY’s Upheaval Dome, a mysterious crater three miles across that could either be a collapsed salt dome or the result of a 60-million-year-old meteor strike.
Before You Come: Dress code is "desert rat casual," so hit up an outdoor outfitter for breathable wide-brim hats, vented shirts, convertible hiking pants, and lightweight lugged shoes—and don’t forget the bandanna.
Park Website: nps.gov/cany