By W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell, authors of Moon Utah
Despite their proximity, visiting all of Utah’s national parks is a bit complicated because of the rugged terrain and lack of roads. You must plan on a lot of driving, but it’s worth it to see each park’s unique sights, from Arches’ colorful rock fins to Bryce Canyon’s towering hoodoos to the desert hiking trails of Canyonlands’ Needles District. The roads between the parks are also unbelievably scenic, so get into a road-trip frame of mind, cue up some good music, and head out to explore.
Start in Moab and head a few miles north to Arches National Park. Visit a few sites along the park road and hike to the famed Delicate Arch. Settle into your previously reserved campsite at Devils Garden and take an evening stroll down the Devils Garden Trail.
Devote Day 2 to exploring Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District, taking in the astonishing vista points (particularly Grand View Point, perched high above the Colorado River) and saving time for a hike to the cliff edge. Camp at nearby Dead Horse Point State Park and explore the mountain biking there.
Head into Moab for an early breakfast, and head south on U.S. 191. Pull off U.S. 191 south of Moab 40 miles (64 km) and drive toward the Needles District of Canyonlands. It’s 38 miles (61 km) to the park gate (which will add considerably to the 115-mile (185-km) straight shot down 191), but good hiking awaits. If you’re short on time just follow the park access road for 10 miles (16 km) from the highway to BLM Newspaper Rock Historical Monument, one of Utah’s finest and most accessible petroglyph sites.
Head back to U.S. 191, drive south to just past Blanding and head east on UT 95 across Cedar Mesa to the campground at Natural Bridges National Monument.
From Natural Bridges, it’s a pretty 100-mile (161-km) easy drive north on Highway 95 to Hanksville and west 28 miles (45 km) on Highway 24 to Capitol Reef, one of the National Park Service’s unsung heroes, with scenery to match the other Utah parks but fewer visitors, a grassy campground, and a fruit orchard.
From Capitol Reef, follow Highway 12 south to Escalante Canyons National Monument. The 61-mile (98-km) trip between Torrey and Escalante is one of the most scenic routes in all of Utah—don’t plan to drive this in an hour. Take in all the scenery and sights, including a visit to the prehistoric ruins at Anasazi State Park and a hike across slickrock up the dramatic Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail to a waterfall.
Explore more of the Escalante River canyons. Drive 12.5 miles (20.1 km) southeast on Highway 12 and turn onto the dirt Hole-in-the-Rock Road to traipse around Devil’s Garden. You can also visit the slot canyons of Dry Fork of Coyote Gulch, 26 bumpy miles (42 km) south of Highway 12.
From Escalante, continue west 42 miles (68 km) on Highway 12 to Bryce Canyon. Spend the day riding the park shuttle to vista points and exploring hoodoos from trailheads along the road.
Get up in time to see the rising sun light up the hoodoos, then drive west on Highway 12 to U.S. 89, and south from there to Highway 9. At Highway 9, turn west and enter Zion National Park via the dramatic Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (Bryce to Zion is 84 miles/135 km). Settle into your campsite (reserve in advance), then ride the park shuttle for a quick overview of Zion Canyon.
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