Utah Unleashed: An Epic Road Trip Exploring the Mighty 5

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Advisor - Jaycee Moore
Curated By

Jaycee Moore

  • Active Travel

  • Adventure Travel

  • Utah

  • Road Trip Travel

  • Nature Escapes

  • Entertainment

  • Sightseeing

  • Local Culture

canyonlands in Utah
Curator’s statement

Utah's national parks, aka the Mighty 5, are a treasure trove of natural wonders, showcasing some of the most breathtaking landscapes on Earth. From the towering cliffs and narrow canyons of Zion National Park to the otherworldly hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park, each park offers a unique and awe-inspiring experience. Arches National Park boasts over 2,000 natural sandstone arches, while Canyonlands National Park presents a dramatic vista of deep canyons and rugged terrain. These parks are a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, offering opportunities for hiking, camping, photography and immersing oneself in the sheer beauty of the desert landscapes.

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Day 1: Arrive in Utah

a brown mountain rises in a lush desert valley

You have a few options on how to get to your first national park of the trip - Zion. The three airports that are closest are Las Vegas International, St. George Regional, and Salt Lake International. I would suggest flying into Las Vegas or St. George if possible since they are much closer to Zion than Salt Lake.

After grabbing your rental car, head straight to the cute little town known as Springdale. You'll be staying here for the next two nights. Immerse yourself in the charming atmosphere of this vibrant town, brimming with delightful shops, delectable eateries and art galleries that celebrate the spirit of the Southwest. Take a leisurely stroll along the streets, savoring the unique blend of small-town charm and outdoor excitement.

Where to eat

Bit & Spur Restaurant and Saloon: This lively spot offers a scrumptious Southwestern menu that will have you saying, "Yeehaw!" Sink your teeth into their mouthwatering grilled elk tenderloin or wrangle up some tasty chicken enchiladas while you enjoy the live music.

Oscar's Cafe: This local gem is renowned for its juicy burgers and perfectly crispy hand-cut fries. Whether you're craving a classic cheeseburger or a creative specialty creation, Oscar's has got you covered. Vegetarian options are also available, so everyone can join in the deliciousness!

Zion Pizza & Noodle Co: The go-to spot for all things Italian, and my personal favorite! Treat yourself to a mouthwatering pizza topped with your favorite ingredients or try one of their mouthwatering noodle dishes. With each bite, you'll experience a burst of flavors that will have you coming back for more.

Day 2: Zion National Park

 a red-rock canyon on a sunny day

Start your day early (I'm talking sunrise baby) by entering Zion National Park and catching the park's shuttle system, which operates from early morning to late evening during peak season. Trust me, the earlier you can start the better because those lines can get long.

It's time to tackle the legendary Angel's Landing (5.4 miles round trip). Challenge yourself as you navigate steep cliffs, hanging on to chains for that adrenaline rush. Reach the summit and bask in the triumph while soaking in the panoramic views. Note that this hike is not recommended for those with a fear of heights. Also be prepared to enter the lottery to obtain a permit as they only allow a certain amount of people to do the chains section each day.

Afterward, cool off and venture into The Narrows, a world-renowned slot canyon hike that involves wading through the Virgin River. You can rent the necessary equipment in Springdale if you don't have your own. Traverse the narrow canyon walls, feeling the thrill of every step. Let the mesmerizing beauty of the sculpted rock formations take your breath away as you forge your way through this unique hike.

As an alternative or later in the afternoon, you can embark on a moderate hike to the stunning Emerald Pools (2.5 miles round trip depending on which pool you hike to). The trail offers a mix of waterfalls, lush vegetation, and serene pools where you can relax and take in the beauty of the surroundings. It's the perfect oasis to unwind and connect with nature's tranquility.

Around sunset, end the day by doing the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail (1 mile round trip). This short, but sweet, hike rewards you with an incredible vantage point to soak in the awe-inspiring beauty of Zion's grandeur. Snap photos, breathe in the fresh air and let the panoramic views leave you in awe. This is the perfect moment to reflect on the unforgettable adventures of the day. Note that the shuttle does not visit this trailhead so you will have to drive your own car and park.

If you're looking for other options, the Riverside Walk, Weeping Rock and The Watchman are all good trails too.

Day 3: Bryce Canyon National Park

A mountain range in the day time.

This morning, begin your day by driving towards Bryce Canyon National Park. Grab a park map at the Visitor Center and get ready to dive into the wonders that await you.

Start your adventure with a scenic drive along the park's main road, stopping at viewpoints like Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, and Inspiration Point. Marvel at the famous hoodoos—towering, colorful rock formations that will leave you in awe.

Ready for a hike? Choose the Queen's Garden and Navajo Loop Trail (3 miles) for a moderate hike that takes you through breathtaking landscapes and lets you get up close and personal with the unique hoodoos. Be prepared for stunning views at every turn. This is the famous hike everyone has to do when they visit Bryce.

Afterward, take a leisurely stroll along the Rim Trail in the Bryce Amphitheater area. This walk along the canyon rim offers spectacular vistas of the hoodoos and the vast expanse of the amphitheater. Pause at overlooks such as Bryce Point and Fairyland Point to soak in all the scenery.

For an extra dash of excitement, saddle up for a guided horseback riding tour! Channel your inner cowboy or cowgirl as you trot through the rugged terrain, feeling the wind in your hair and experiencing the thrill of the Wild West.

As the sun starts to set, make your way to Sunset Point (obviously) for a magical experience. Watch in awe as the canyon transforms into a kaleidoscope of colors during sunset.

Not ready to hit the hay quite yet? Before leaving the park, take a moment to stargaze. This park is renowned for its outstanding stargazing opportunities.

Where to eat

The Lodge at Bryce Canyon: This historic lodge offers a charming atmosphere and delectable dining options. Feast on regional specialties and American classics while enjoying panoramic views of the canyon. Don't miss their signature dishes like the bison chili or the mouthwatering trout.

Cowboy's Buffet & Steak Room: Indulge in their all-you-can-eat buffet featuring a variety of comfort food favorites like prime rib, fried chicken, and delicious sides.

Stone Hearth Grille: This upscale restaurant offers a refined dining experience with a menu that highlights local and seasonal ingredients. Choose from perfectly grilled steaks, fresh seafood and a selection of fine wines.

Day 4: Capitol Reef National Park

A mountain in daytime.

Once you arrive in the park, begin by driving on the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive. Cruise along the winding road, taking in the jaw-dropping vistas of majestic cliffs, vibrant red rock formations and the rugged beauty of the park.

For your first hike of the day, head to Cassidy Arch (3.4 miles round trip). Follow the trail through the enchanting red rock landscape, and feel the thrill as you arrive at the awe-inspiring Cassidy Arch. Be sure to get your picture standing on top of the arch. Fun fact: Cassidy Arch is named after the infamous Butch Cassidy who used to hide out in the area.

Next, venture to the charming Fruita District. Immerse yourself in the rich history of the area as you stroll through the Fruita Orchards. Depending on the season, you may have the chance to pick fresh fruit straight from the trees. Take a moment to learn about the pioneers who once thrived in this oasis and indulge in some delectable homemade treats at the Gifford Homestead. They're famous for their pies, but hurry because they sell out fast! There is plenty of space and shade to have a picnic lunch if you need a little break.

After taking a break, lace up your hiking boots again and set off on the Hickman Bridge Trail (2 miles round trip). Follow the path through the captivating desert landscape, and let the beauty of the red rock cliffs and vibrant flora and fauna surround you. Reach the Hickman Bridge, an impressive natural bridge and soak in the panoramic views.

As the day winds down, make your way to Sunset Point for a magical experience. Witness the setting sun casting a warm, golden glow on the red rock formations. Let the serene beauty of the landscape take your breath away as you soak in all the views and capture the essence of Capitol Reef.

Sulphur Creek and Grand Wash are other great trails to consider if you want to spend more time in the area.

Stay the night in Torrey, Teasdale or Loa.

Where to eat

Capitol Burger: Indulge in their mouthwatering burgers made with high-quality ingredients and cooked to perfection. Whether you prefer a classic cheeseburger or want to try one of their specialty creations, Capitol Burger will leave you craving more. Don't forget to pair your burger with their crispy fries for the ultimate comfort food experience. It'll be one of the best burgers you'll ever eat, trust me!

Rimrock Restaurant: Situated within the scenic confines of Capitol Reef Resort, Rim Rock Restaurant promises a delightful dining experience. Feast on a range of options from juicy steaks to fresh seafood, all expertly prepared to tantalize your taste buds. Enjoy the warm and inviting atmosphere while taking in the stunning views of the surrounding red rock landscape.

Day 5: Canyonlands National Park

a flat brown desert landscape

Pack up the car and get excited because today you're heading to Moab, home to two of Utah's national parks. First up is Canyonlands.

Once you arrive in the park, start with a scenic drive along the Island in the Sky Road. Roll down the windows, let the desert breeze tousle your hair, and soak in the jaw-dropping views of majestic canyons and towering mesas. Stop at some of the must-see viewpoints such as Grand View Point and Mesa Arch to get some of the best views in the park.

It's time to hit the trails! Choose a moderate hike like the Upheaval Dome Trail (1.2 miles round trip) to explore the park's unique geological formations. Discover the mystery behind the striking crater-like structure and marvel at the natural wonders that abound.

Next up, head to the Green River Overlook for another perspective of the park's majestic beauty. Witness the meandering river carving through the vast canyons, creating a tapestry of colors and textures. Take your time to capture the moment and let the serenity of the surroundings wash over you.

Afterwards take a hike on the Mesa Arch Trail (0.5 miles round trip). This short and rewarding hike takes you to an arch perched on the edge of a cliff, offering stunning views of the canyons below. Stand beneath the arch and feel like you're peering into another world. This is one of the most famous arches in Moab (and there are lots of them).

Make your way to the Shafer Trail Overlook for a mesmerizing sunset experience. You won't regret it.

You'll stay the next two nights in Moab.

Where to eat

Moab Diner: This local gem serves up classic American comfort food with a southwestern twist. Dive into mouthwatering burgers, hearty breakfast dishes, and indulgent milkshakes. The friendly atmosphere and retro vibes make it a perfect spot to fuel up before your Moab adventures.

Moab Brewery: This lively brewpub offers a fantastic selection of handcrafted beers, ranging from refreshing ales to hoppy IPAs. Pair your brew with their delicious pub fare, including juicy burgers, gourmet pizzas and tasty appetizers. Relax on the outdoor patio and soak in the Moab vibes while enjoying a pint or two.

Quesadilla Mobilla: For a flavorful twist, head to this local food truck specializing in mouthwatering quesadillas. Prepare your taste buds for a culinary adventure with creative fillings like pulled pork, grilled vegetables and spicy chorizo. With generous portions and a variety of tasty options, this food truck is a must-visit for quesadilla lovers. Grab your delicious creation and savor the flavors on the go as you explore Moab's natural wonders.

Pasta Jay's: This Italian eatery offers a range of delectable pasta dishes made with homemade sauces and fresh ingredients. From classic spaghetti and meatballs to creamy fettuccine Alfredo, every dish is crafted with love and authenticity. Add a glass of wine from their extensive selection to complete your Italian feast.

Day 6: Arches National Park

A rock arch in the daytime.

Rise and shine, travelers! Start your day while it's still dark out. That's right, you're getting up EARLY. Arrive at the Delicate Arch Trail (3 miles round trip) early enough to accomplish the hike and get to the end by sunrise. This iconic arch glows in the soft morning light, creating a breathtaking scene. It'll be one of the highlights of your trip.

After, grab some breakfast and then explore the fascinating wonders of the Windows Section. Begin with an easy stroll to Double Arch (0.6 miles round trip), where you can stand in awe beneath the towering double arches.

Continue your adventure with a visit to the North and South Windows. Marvel at these massive arches and admire the stunning views of the surrounding red rock formations. Climb up to the nearby Turret Arch for a unique perspective and capture stunning photos of these natural wonders.

This afternoon, head to the Devil's Garden area for a more challenging hike. The Devil's Garden Trail (4.1 miles round trip) offers a loop that takes you past numerous impressive arches, including Landscape Arch, the longest arch in North America. Take your time exploring this trail and marvel at the intricate rock formations along the way.

For a cool and refreshing break, make a stop at the impressive Fiery Furnace Viewpoint. Gaze into this intricate maze of narrow canyons and towering fins. If you're up for a guided adventure, consider booking a ranger-led hike through the Fiery Furnace to experience this unique area up close.

As the day winds down, head to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint for a different perspective of the iconic arch. Observe as the setting sun casts its warm glow on Delicate Arch, creating a breathtaking scene. You can decide for yourself if sunrise or sunset is better. What a perfect end to a perfect trip.

Tomorrow say goodbye to Utah and head back home or continue your adventure exploring new sights.

Need to Know

Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out my guide, Fire and Ice: A Thrilling 5-Day Adventure in Iceland.

Advisor - Jaycee Moore

Travel Advisor

Jaycee Moore

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Utah.