Utah’s mighty 5 national parks road trip

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Over and over again, Utah is mentioned as one of the most beautiful states in America. The Southwest state is blessed with 5 national parks — Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Zion — and this mighty 5 road trip itinerary takes you to all of them. Are you ready to set out on an epic drive loaded with majestic Mother Earth creations?

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Mighty 5 road trip guide

Mighty 5 road trip routes

There’re different ways to approach a mighty 5 national parks road trip. Taking a one-way drive requires the least possible driving time, while the mighty 5 loops are a few hours longer.

Option 1: One-way road trip (non loop)

The one-way road trip means that you start in either Salt Lake City or Las Vegas and finish in the other of the two. That way you minimize the driving time, allowing more time for the national parks.

But if you plan to rent a car for the journey, it’s possible that the rental fee might be higher for this option because of the common one-way extra. Or maybe you simply use your own car and therefore want it with you back home — then opt for one of the loop options.

  • Route from SLC: SLC – Arches – Canyonlands – Capitol Reef – Bryce – Zion – Vegas
  • Route from Vegas: Vegas – Zion – Bryce – Capitol Reef – Canyonlands – Arches – SLC
  • Driving time: 13 hours
  • Driving distance: 767 miles (1,234 km)
Winding Shafer Canyon Road in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Option 2: Loop from Salt Lake City

If you start in Utah’s capital, you can choose to have your first national park stop in Arches (clockwise) or Zion (counterclockwise). However, start out with the longer drive to Zion to save the parks (and fun) for the way back.

  • Route: SLC – Zion – Bryce – Capitol Reef – Canyonlands – Arches – SLC
  • Driving time: 15.5 hours
  • Driving distance: 919 miles (1479 km)

Option 3: Loop from Las Vegas

From Las Vegas, the loop is slightly longer compared to if you begin the journey in Salt Lake City. On the other hand, it’s often easier, especially for international visitors, to find flights to Las Vegas.

To begin with the longest drive, head directly to Arches and tick off the parks on your way back to Vegas.

  • Route: Vegas – Arches – Canyonlands – Capitol Reef – Bryce – Zion – Vegas
  • Driving time: 16.5 hours
  • Driving distance: 1,000 miles (1,609 km)
Road in Utah among red cliffs and green vegetation
Road trip in Utah.

1. Salt Lake City – Get the mighty 5 road trip started

If you have limited time for your Utah drive, it’s a good idea to leave town as soon as you can: After all, this road trip is about Utah’s lovely national parks. But if you have time to spare, Salt Lake City, founded by Mormons in 1847, can be much more than just a city where you begin or end your adventure.

Sightsee the downtown area, where Temple Square encompasses five blocks of eye-catching buildings, including the Gothic-style Salt Lake Temple, historic monuments and peaceful gardens. Whether you’re religious or not, it’s a rewarding experience.

If you visit in winter, you won’t miss that the locals like to brag about having the greatest snow on earth. Less than a 45-minute drive from the city, the framing mountains offer great skiing opportunities during the colder months of the year. Up there, more than one foot snow falls every five days from December to March.

A popular year-round activity is visiting Great Salt Lake, which the city is named after. Choose from hiking, swimming, boating or just soaking up the scenery, maybe while enjoying a picnic.

Salt Like City skyscrapers backdropped by rising snow-capped mountains
Salt Lake City, Utah.

2. Arches National Park – Spot eye-catching arches

Arches National Park is a cocktail of fascinating rock formations in various shapes. The most famous structures are, like you might have already guessed, the glorious sandstone arches.

The park, located northwest of the city of Moab, contains more than 2,000 signature arches waiting to be explored. Be sure to tick off the most recognizable arch of them all: The Delicate Arch.

Park your car at the Delicate Arch Trailhead and hike away for a close-up view. This 3-mile (4.8 km) round trip is great at any time during the day, but beware of the heat and lack of shade, especially if you visit in summer.

Although the arches undoubtedly are the main attraction, neither miss the sandstone fins, towers and hoodoos. Arches National Park is truly a great mix of unusual rock formations, some of them you wouldn’t even think could exist.

Where to stay

Pick the town of Moab for places to stay near Arches National Park. It’s only about 5 miles (8 km) from Moab to Arches National Park Visitor Center.

Delicate Arch protruding from the landscape in Arches National Park during sunset
Delicate Arch, Arches National Park.

3. Canyonlands National Park – Unveil a red-rock Utah park with distinct districts

The next stop on the Utah mighty 5 road trip itinerary is Canyonlands National Park, a park divided into three different areas: Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze.

Visit Island in the Sky, located closest to Moab and by far the most popular district, to soak up its vast canyons. Under a mile long, the Mesa Arch Trail features expansive landscape views crowned by the namesake formation brilliantly clinging to the rim.

An off-the-beaten-path addition, The Needles district is recognized for its rock spires, or needles, and popular for hiking. Extremely remote, The Maze caters to seasoned adventurers who travel by four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Need to cool off a little? The shady rivers in Canyonlands National Park provide opportunities for kayaking, canoeing and rafting.

Where to stay

You don’t need to change home base between Arches and Canyonlands. Moab puts you in the front row for Canyonland’s most popular district — Island in the Sky, a 30-mile (48 km) drive away — too.

View through Mesa Arch, capturing the maze-like landscape below
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park.

4. Capitol Reef National Park – Savor great nature and interesting history

Discover Capitol Reef National Park, an under-the-radar park that often surprises its visitors with how much it has to offer. Here, you can both explore amazing nature and captivating human history.

On your own two feet, immerse yourself in the diverse landscape characterized by the Waterpocket Fold, an 87-mile (140 km) buckle in the earth’s surface. Choose from hikes ranging from easy, short and well-marked trails to strenuous backcountry challenges.

To add a historical perspective, visit the park’s heart, Fruita Historic District.

Fruita invites you to wander through its orchards, dating back to the 1880s. These trees — producing apples, apricots, cherries, peaches, pears and plums — used to generate income for settlers and gave the community its name. If you visit during the picking season, running from June to October, be sure to sample some fruit.

Absorb more history at the Gifford Homestead, where Fruita’s last residents lived until 1969. Also stop by at the one-room Fruita Schoolhouse, providing education for the local children during the community’s heyday.

Where to stay

There’s no lodging within Capitol Reef National Park, but staying in the nearby town Torrey is both peaceful and convenient. From Torrey, it’s an easy 11-mile drive to Capitol Reef Visitor Center.

Lonely barn in Fruita Valley in Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

5. Bryce Canyon National Park – Find eccentrically shaped rock hoodoos wherever you look

Bryce Canyon National Park may not be the most visited Utah park (Zion wins that one) or the oldest national park (another win for Zion), but Bryce Canyon has its unique drawcard: Hoodoos, lots of them.

Wait, what’s a hoodoo? A rock hoodoo is a tall and thin spire of rock that reaches out from a terrain, typically consisting of soft rock at the bottom and less easily eroded stone at the top.

These eccentrically shaped formations come in thousands in Bryce, boasting the world’s largest concentration and making Bryce one of the most unique places to visit in Utah — if not the most.

Enjoy the special views from easily accessible overlooks, such as Sunrise Point, Inspiration Point, Bryce Point and Sunset Point. Bryce is so compact that you easily can visit all the most popular viewpoints in less than a day, yet for the best experience, allow at least a full day.

Where to stay

Bryce Canyon Lodge offers lodging within Bryce Canyon National Park. For more lodging near Bryce Canyon, you can also stay in the town of Bryce just minutes away.

A jungle of rock hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

6. Zion National Park – Hike through the first national park in Utah

Stretching your legs is a true pleasure in Utah’s oldest national park, Zion, established already in 1919. Park your car to quickly find out what makes it one of the USA’s most visited national parks, with millions of visits each year.

In front of you, red, pink and cream sandstone cliffs — some 2,000 feet (610 m) tall — tower high above Virgin River and its tributaries, supplying the surprisingly green park with all the water it needs to thrive.

The dramatic elevation change — it’s 5,000 feet (1,524 m) from Zion’s highest point to its lowest — brings diverse plant and animal species, including endangered California condors and Mexican spotted owls.

Lace up your favorite hiking boots to become one with the contrasting landscape. Angels Landing, The Narrows and Observation Point are strenuous bucket-list hikes, while the Riverside Walk caters to leisure expeditions.

Where to stay

You have two appealing alternatives: Live a rustic life at the only place to stay inside Zion National Park, or bed down with all the amenities you could ask for in the adjacent gateway town of Springdale.

River running through lush Zion Canyon guarded by rising red cliffs
Zion National Park, Utah.

7. Las Vegas – Finish the mighty 5 road trip with a buzz

Nicely done! You have completed the Utah mighty 5 road trip and arrived in Vegas with new impressions and memories that will last for a lifetime.

Sin City is a great city to have some fun whenever you visit.

Much of the entertainment scene with shows, musicals and concerts is centered around the Las Vegas Strip. This stretch of South Las Vegas Boulevard is just packed with thing to do, eat and drink.

But if you have time to explore Vegas after finishing the Utah national parks road trip, check out Fremont Street as well. On Fremont Street, the boom that really put Vegas on the map took place in the 1930s.

Even though the mighty 5 road trip now is over, there’re many ways to extend the classic travel route with some additional stops. Continue reading for more destinations to consider.

Iconic welcome sign in Las Vegas, Nevada
Welcome to Las Vegas, Nevada.

Additional destinations to the mighty 5 itinerary

There’re more great places to road trip in the Southwest than Utah’s five national parks. These other spots, spread out across Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, can easily be added to the the itinerary.

Want them all? Take advantage of the already-prepared Grand Circle itinerary, capturing all the Southwest’s best attractions.

Monument Valley – Stop where Forrest Gump stopped

Monument Valley sits on the border between Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. This otherworldly valley is characterized by its red color and huge rock buttes reaching for the sky.

Soak it up as you drive the Tribal Park Loop, also known as the Valley Drive. You, of course, also have to stop at Forrest Gump Point, like the namesake movie character, and get that iconic picture.

For an extra “wow” factor, book lodging with valley view, allowing you to take in the unreal scenery from the comfort of your own hotel room.

Red valley with huge buttes straddling the Arizona-Utah border during daytime
Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah.

Horseshoe Bend – Tick off Colorado River’s number-one bend

The beauty that Utah is so known for doesn’t end just because you cross the state border to Arizona. Another breathtaking experience to add to the Utah national parks road trip is Horseshoe Bend.

Sometimes Horseshoe Bend is referred to as Grand Canyon East. However, it’s not part of Grand Canyon National Park; it belongs to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

But that doesn’t make the scenery less stunning.

Enjoy a stunning vista with the bending Colorado River beneath you. Just make sure to have your feet steady; the drop down to the river is 1,000 feet (300 m).

Red cliffs reflected in Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend, its most famous meander
Horseshoe Bend, Arizona.

Antelope Canyon – Marvel at a wavy slot canyon

Only 7 miles (11 km) away from Horseshoe Bend, you find another Arizona gem. Visiting Antelope Canyon is another spectacular experience in the Southwest.

The wavy rock formations in Antelope Canyon continue to stun people year after year. And if you visit during the golden months, from the second half of March to early October, you might even get to see its famous light beams.

However, you can only visit Antelope Canyon with a tour guide. So be sure to make your tour reservation as early as you can for this extension of the mighty 5 national parks road trip.

Light beam reaching to the floor of narrow Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Antelope Canyon, Arizona.

Grand Canyon National Park – Visit the world-famous wonder

Last but not least, we have Grand Canyon National Park, maybe the most famous of them all. Marvel at the unthinkable Colorado River creation from one of its two rims: South Rim or North Rim.

South Rim, the most frequented, is open year round and offers a wide range of lodging options. North Rim, at higher elevation, is opened seasonally from late spring to mid fall, with few accommodation alternatives.

You can hike Grand Canyon National Park from either North Rim or South Rim. Both also provide majestic overlooks — you can’t go wrong here.

View of Grand Canyon through the branches of a tree on the South Rim
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Utah mighty 5 hotel search

Use the booking tool below to find the perfect accommodation for your Utah mighty 5 road trip. Browse the map for options in various areas, or click on the search button to start with Zion National Park.

Booking.com

Utah’s mighty 5 road trip FAQ

How long does it take to drive the mighty 5 road trip?

The one-way route is 767 miles (1,234 km), taking 13 hours to complete. If you opt for a loop from Salt Lake City, the distance is 919 miles (1,479 km) with a driving time of 15.5 hours. From Las Vegas, the loop is slightly longer, totaling 1,000 miles (1,609 km) and a driving time of 16.5 hours.

Where should I stay for the mighty 5 in Utah?

Moab offers the perfect base for both Arches and Canyonlands. For the other national parks, you find convenient lodging in Torrey for Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon City for Bryce Canyon and Springdale for Zion.

What is the most visited park in Utah?

Zion National Park is by a wide margin the most visited national park among Utah’s mighty 5. With several millions of visitors each year, it’s also one of the busiest parks in the United States.

When is the best time to visit Utah’s national parks?

Summer is the peak season in Utah, with most visitors and the hottest temperatures. The shoulder months, April and May and September and October, bring moderate temperatures and smaller crowds. To avoid hordes altogether, take the drive during the cooler winter season (but avoid the holidays).

How many days do I need to take the mighty 5 drive?

We recommend allowing 7 days or more for the mighty 5 road trip. If you have more time, you can explore the national parks along the route more extensively.

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