With open blue skies, famous red rocks, and even more famous natural arches, Utah is an absolute must-visit for any adventure-minded traveler. Not only is it home to 5 stunning national parks—Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion—but it also has 5 national forests, over 40 state parks, and a whopping 23 million acres of public lands. This American icon and true staple of the Wild West is the perfect getaway for thrill-seekers, while still serving as a meditative place for camping beneath dazzling stars and waking to radiant sunrises.
Here, we’ve pulled together the best of what Utah has to offer in a 9-day itinerary.
First, you’ll need to book a flight. There are two main entries into Utah: Salt Lake and Las Vegas. Although the casinos and flashing lights of Vegas might be unappealing to some, it’s normally a cheaper option.
Once you arrive, you’ll want to have a map and guidebook on hand, both of which can provide you with directions and ideas to the state’s coolest spots. We recommend the National Geographic Atlas, which outlines all state and national parks on a map, allowing you to plan your routes accordingly.
If you hope to see the “Mighty 5”’—a quintuplet of stunning National Parks dotted throughout Utah—you may want to also consider purchasing an $80 Annual Park Pass.
Other than that, strap yourself in for scenic drives, strenuous hikes, and exhilarating experiences.
Day 1: Vegas to Zion National Park
After flying into Vegas, rent a car, and drive 3 hours to Zion National Park . As mentioned, flights are cheaper to Las Vegas than to Salt Lake, and the drive is shorter than the 5-hour drive from SLC to Zion as well. While en route to Zion, after driving through the park tunnel, pull off at the Canyon Overlook Trail. This short, moderate hike will allow you to stretch your legs and get a peek at Utah’s vast beauty. Then, check into Zion Canyon Campground (right outside the national park) and set up camp. Campsites are affordable and offer hot showers and clean facilities. If you can, get a site by the Virgin River. These sites have shade, and you can take a swim when it gets hot!
Day 2: Angel’s Landing
On your second day in Zion, be sure to check out Angel’s Landing Trail, one of the world’s most famous and revered hikes. Dizzying drop-offs on either side of a monolithic rock fin make for an adrenaline-pumping journey. It’s short, but very steep, and arguably one of the hardest day hikes in the country . If you’re scared of heights or don’t have great balance, you may want to reconsider attempting this hike. If this is the case, you can take the hike to Scout Lookout and assess your confidence. The first stretch is a good indicator of whether or not you should go. If you can make it past the first section, you’ll be fine to complete the rest. Atop the trail’s summit, the view is indescribably awesome. It’s around a 4-hour hike, so you might either be done for the day, or you can check out Emerald Pools, too, which takes around 1.5 hours. For post-hike grub, head back into town and eat dinner at Whiptail Grill , an old Texaco gas station, which was converted into a restaurant in 2006. This Mexican hotspot has some of the best drinks and grub around.
Day 3: The Narrows + Bryce Canyon Sunset
For the average adventurer, the Zion Narrows are easily one of the most amazing experiences you could ever have. It’s also the most entry-level canyoneering experience out there, and it shouldn’t be missed. It’s a shaded hike, in the water, surrounded by 1,000-foot canyon walls on either side of the Virgin River, occasionally getting as narrow as 25 feet wide.
Zion Adventure Company (among other outfitters in town) will provide you with special canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, and a wooden staff. If you have questions about whether this special gear is necessary, rest assured that it will give you a significantly better experience. The sticky rubber on the shoes provides you with great traction and allows you to walk through the river rocks with ease. The neoprene socks keep you perfectly insulated so that your feet won’t get cold. And the wooden staff is the perfect tool for balancing through the river rocks. Trekking poles are too lightweight and can break when lodged between rocks. Most people make it a goal to hike to the junction with Orderville Canyon before turning around, which is around 4 hours total.
Once you get back into town, pack up camp and enjoy the 2 hour drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. Upon arrival, head straight to the park and catch the sunset at Sunset Point. This place is one of the most photographed locations in the National Parks System due to the vibrant colors and the unique hoodoo formations in the park.
At night, check into Ruby’s Campground for hot showers and facilities. They have campsites, RV sites, rustic teepee rentals, and several small log cabins. The one-room cabins are a reasonable rate and have a bunk bed and heater.
Day 4: Bryce Canyon + Escalante
Since Bryce Canyon is relatively small, you only need a full day to explore its sites. Wake up early and eat breakfast at Ruby’s Inn. Then head to Bryce and hike the Queen’s Garden and Navajo Trail, ~3 miles of trail that weaves through the world-famous collection of hoodoos—uniquely shaped pillars of rock that form from freeze/thaw erosion. This pathway takes you deep into the canyon, before working its way back up the famous set of switchbacks known as “Wall Street.”
Once you’ve explored the hoodoos and are ready to leave the park, begin the 1-hour drive to Escalante. When you arrive, check into one of Escalante Outfitters’ tiny rental cabins. Escalante Outfitters is a super-quaint cabin rental outpost, outfitter, and restaurant bar, and it’s a great base camp for adventuring in Escalante.
That afternoon, head out to Calf Creek Recreation Area and hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls. This is a moderate hike to a really cool destination that features a 126-foot waterfall cascading into a clear pool seemingly destined for swimming. On your way to the waterfall, you’ll venture past petroglyphs and stunning canyon scenery. It’s a wonderful way to spend the afternoon. (Don’t forget $2 for a parking fee.)
Day 5: Escalante
Start your day off right, with some coffee and breakfast at Escalante Outfitters. Grab a map or ask the staff for directions on how to reach the Spooky Slot and Peek-a-Boo Canyons. Four-wheel drive isn’t mandatory, but without it you can’t drive all the way to the on-site parking lot. The drive takes about a half an hour in total, winding over well-manicured gravel via Hole in the Rock Road.
Spooky and Peek-a-Boo are non-technical slot canyons, which means that you don’t need ropes, but you do need to be fairly agile to navigate the terrain inside the canyons. Also, if you’re at all claustrophobic, be warned that there are many tight squeezes. There is only one spot entering Peek-a-Boo where it helps to have a short rope and someone with some climbing experience. It’s not difficult, but you could fall if you’re not comfortable navigating steep terrain. Worst case, you enter into the back of Spooky and hike the trip in reverse and just turn around whenever you want.
While driving back up the gravel road, you’ll pass Devil’s Garden, which is located right off a spur road. This is a very interesting park full of unique rock formations and well worth the stop. Take a break for lunch and some exploration before hitting the road back out of Escalante.
From there, you can take the 1 hour 15 minutes drive over the “Hog’s Back” to Capitol Reef National Park. Thousand Lakes RV Park has campsites, cabins, and clean facilities. It’s only a mile outside of Torrey, Utah and is really close to the park. You’ll probably be ready for dinner and relaxing, so check out one of the restaurants right down the street. Café Diablo is surprisingly upscale considering the remoteness of Torrey, and there are several other restaurants right down the street if you want to keep it on the cheaper side.
Day 6: Capitol Reef National Park + Moab
After a classic breakfast at Capitol Reef Inn & Café , head into Capitol Reef and check out the Grand Wash. This out and back hike is reminiscent of the Zion Narrows, but without the water and not as narrow. However, it’s a great option for an easy hike through towering walls and unique geography. After that, the petroglyph panel along highway 12 is home to famous, must-see petroglyphs. Taking an easy “park and walk” to the cliff line, you can view these iconic rock etchings. You’ll also want to stop in Fruita and check out the orchard and snap the popular photo of the barn and cliff line backdrop.
Once you’ve had you fill at Capitol Reef, it’s time to head to Moab. This drive is a little bit longer than some of the others at 2 hours 45 minutes, but it will fly by with the knowledge that you’ll be staying in Moab for two nights. Crossing Luna Mesa and San Rafael Desert, this is one of the more desolate parts of Utah, so be sure that you never let your gas tank get past halfway if you can help it. There is no cell phone reception (or even radio reception for that matter) for the majority of this drive, so be prepared.
Arriving in Moab, check into Moab Under Canvas for a really cool glamping experience. Their safari cabins have really comfortable beds and wood burning stoves to keep the chill off at night. You can also upgrade to have your own private teepee bathroom!
If there’s time, take the relatively short drive out to Dead Horse Point State Park to watch the sunset. You’ll be glad you did! Note: your National Park Pass will not work at State Parks, so you’ll need to carry some cash to get through the gate.
Day 7: Arches National Park
Known as a “red rock wonderland,” Arches is an iconic Utah destination. The diverse texture and contrasting hues of the park’s 2,000 natural bridges and massive cliffs make for an awe-inspiring setting.
There are several hikes right off the road, which don’t require much commitment, while still allowing small glimpses into the park’s breathtaking features. However, make sure to allot enough time for Delicate Arch, which can’t be missed. Due to its fame and low commitment, there are sure to be several other visitors around. Don’t let the tourists bog you down though; this park could perhaps end up being the most memorable of your trip!
End the night back in Moab for some scrumptious dinner and drinks, before heading back to your home base at Moab Under Canvas.
Days 8-9: Salt Lake City
The last two days of your trip should be spent recovering and reminiscing. Head to Salt Lake City—nearly 4 hours. Get a nice hotel. Grab coffee at the Rose Establishment . Eat at the Red Iguana and get a few margaritas. Sleep in. If you still have any energy left, there is no shortage of adventurous things to do in the Cottonwood Canyons and Wasatch Mountains, but there’s real value in taking some time to recover before heading back to “real life,” especially if you’re going to have to hit the ground running when you get back. Take your time to look back over the photos from your trip and soak in all the things you’ve seen. After all, you have just covered the entire state of Utah in a week.
Originally written by RootsRated for Rock/Creek.
Featured image provided by Robbie Shade