A Utah National Park Adventure

I had so much fun writing my Iceland post that I am back at it with another round-up about one of my trips. In August (yes...August) I set out to road trip Utah and visit some of the big national parks out there. And I’m here to tell you what we did and what I’d do differently next time!

Throughout this post I'll link to the AirBnBs we stayed in! If you want to stay there too and it's your first time using AirBnB, you can get some money off your first stay with my referral link.

National Parks in Utah

We started and ended our trip in Salt Lake City, but I imagine a similar exploration could be done traveling from Las Vegas to Denver. Just depends on the time you have, your rental company, and where you can get a cheap flight!

Entrance fees add up right quick on a trip like this. If you were to just go to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, you will already be $55 in the hole. Will you see some incredible stuff? Abso-freaking-lutely. But should you snag the America the Beautiful Pass before your trip? Heck yes. $80 will cover all your entrance fees for National Parks of which there are five in this itinerary alone.

 Listed below from left to right. This is also the order we happened to visit the parks!

Listed below from left to right. This is also the order we happened to visit the parks!

Zion National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Arches National Park

The Itinerary

Day Zero: Salt Lake City

I’m a big fan of the Southwest companion pass (how I miss you so), and for this trip it made the most sense cents-wise to fly through Southwest into Salt Lake City. Holy moly, can we talk about an unnecessarily expensive flight? We stayed the night in a cheap AirBnB (super close to the airport) to cut costs on a rental car by a few hours.

Would I do it this way again? If I were grabbing a rental car, sure. But I think I’d actually fly into Las Vegas and rent a car/campervan/etc from there (still all about those Jucy rentals…I would totally go for that next time!). That way we could have stopped at the Grand Canyon on the way into Utah. 

Day One - Two: Zion National Park

After a quick coffee fuel stop, we set off towards Zion National Park. It’s about a 4.5 hour drive from SLC to Zion, and the drive really wasn’t bad. Utah scenery definitely helps with that. Kesha’s new album dropping right before the trip didn't hurt the playlist either. Once we got there, we had enough time to do a quick hike and practice our jaw-dropping face before bed time. We didn't have a place to stay and camp, so our plan was to grab dinner in Springdale which has shuttle service from Zion. If your feet aren't too tired from hiking, you can always walk into town! There were a bunch of places to eat and grab groceries, but we chose the Whiptail Grill and it was decent! If you eat outside, you've got great views of the canyon...and storm clouds if they decide to roll in.

The next day was all about hiking, as soon as we nabbed a campsite! As a general rule for Zion in August, always make sure you have way more water than you think is necessary because it is HOT. As far as navigating the park itself, the less you have to drive the better. In fact, they have a shuttle service that takes you the length of the park. Keep in mind that this is one of the most crowded National Parks, so get there early if you want to park and want to hit the trail without a mass of people. They will inevitably run into you throughout your stay!

Zion National Park.JPG

Hikes Completed:

Emerald Pool Trail and the surrounding area. I’m just going to say it - I didn’t totally love this trail. I’m not sure if it was because it was the middle of August and, thus, the Emerald pools weren’t as full as they could be? It was a nice hike, but not my favorite of the trip. That doesn't mean the views weren't lovely! This trail about will be 2.2 miles if you head up to the upper pool too. You leave from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop.

Angel’s Landing. Holy smokes, I didn’t know I was afraid of heights until I did this hike. When you’re faced with a sheer drop on either side...oof. This was a big personal challenge for me, but if you do this hike be warned that it almost seems the biggest risk is OTHER people on the trail. It was very crowded and people are not patient. So they made me more scared than anything. You can get up to Angel's Landing via the West Rim Trail, which leaves from The Grotto shuttle stop. It's a heart-pounding 5.4 miles.

Where to Rest Your Head:

AirBnB in Hurricane. Our first night some pretty intense clouds rolled in and a Summer thunderstorm hit! We were planning to camp on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land to save a couple of bucks, but setting up a tent in the midst of a thunderstorm is not a strong suit of mine. So last-minute AirBnB it is! It was a bit of a drive, but overall led to a beautiful drive into Zion the next day.

South Campground. $20/night for a campsite. If you don't have a reservation, you'd best show up EARLY. We probably showed up around 9:30 am and the line was already pretty long. Pretty standard National Parks campground, but a phenomenal view to wake up to in the canyon! There's also a river that runs through it with some adjacent campsites, but the ranger says those spots fill up super fast.

 The Virgin River running through camp.

The Virgin River running through camp.

Wishlist:

The Narrows. This is the only hike that I was a little bummed we missed, but we missed it for safety reasons! You’re hiking through a canyon and during the later summer months, there seems to always be a chance of flash flooding on the hike. Check the visitor's center to see what they recommend!

Day Three-Four: Bryce Canyon National Park

We left Zion belting Broadway tunes and set out for Bryce Canyon. I was particularly excited for this park because I had heard so much about the hoodoos from Katie. It's a little less than an hour and a half drive between Zion and Bryce, but we left early in order to get a campsite for the night. Leaving Zion, where the majority of our hikes were within a canyon, and going to Bryce, to stand atop one, was definitely a change in scenery. And holy moly, Bryce is beautiful. It's still got those orangey-red rock formations you dream of, but it's got a huge population of pine trees too! Who knew? Not me!

Bryce has a shuttle that will let you off at a number of stops along the rim of the canyon. I do know they have tours as well, because sometimes we were lucky enough to overhear a guide chatting at an overlook. You can also drive this road, and parking did not seem to be a problem. In general, the crowds at Bryce seemed much more manageable.

 You can see why they call it Sunrise Point, right?

You can see why they call it Sunrise Point, right?

Hikes Completed: 

Rim Trail. Classic views! This trail technically runs for 5.5 miles, but we didn't do the whole thing. Sunset to Sunrise Point is about a mile long and is a paved trail so it's fairly accessible. Around sunrise there were definitely a good chunk of people there. But it was beautiful and so worth it. 

Peek-a-boo Loop. This was my favorite hike in Bryce Canyon because you're actually descending into the canyon. I'm sure I cursed the switchbacks a couple hundred times, but the trail was awesome. You can also complete the "Hike the Hoodoos" challenge and receive an extra sticker at the visitor center. Just make sure you've got water! This is 5.5 miles and rated as strenuous. If you wanted to get down into the canyon but aren't looking for a strenuous hike, check out Queens Garden instead.

Bristlecone Loop Trail. This trail is at the opposite end of the park from the Visitor Center and it truly does feel like you're in another world. The landscape seems totally different! This trail is about a mile long and is rated an easy hike. It's got some great views!

 Checking out the hoodoos on the Peek-a-boo trail!

Checking out the hoodoos on the Peek-a-boo trail!

Where to Rest Your Head:

Sunset Campground. This campground is a bit further into the park than North Campground, but it definitely seemed to be the quieter option. Though if you're looking to be close to a camp store and pizza, North is the way to go. It is $20/night for tent camping and getting a spot was a BREEZE compared to Zion. But speaking of breezes, please know that Bryce gets COLD at night, even in August. And I mean cold. When we got up for sunrise I'm talking in the 30s (Fahrenheit). For this, I was vastly unprepared.

Wishlist:

I don't feel like I missed any of the big hikes I wanted to do in Bryce! I could of course spend more time exploring the trails, especially those descending into the canyon. I'd check out Fairyland Loop and Riggs Spring Loop if I go back!

Day Five: Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef was probably the park I knew least about before this trip. It's about a 2 hour drive from Bryce, and for some reason a lot of people skip it. I'm SO glad we didn't, because Capitol Reef is so. freaking. cool. They even have orchards where you can pick fruit. Aside from my crankiness that inevitably sets in halfway through a trip (sorry, Adam), it was a great park!

Reason number one? Capitol Reef is a designated dark sky park. I didn't even know that was a thing! An International Dark Sky Park is defined as (ahem) "a land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment." The park and surrounding areas have worked to decrease light pollution and the night skies are stunning. I saw the Milky Way for the first time here and most definitely cried. I HIGHLY recommend stopping by the Visitor Center and attending a ranger-led night sky talk because it was honestly one of the best parts of my entire trip.

Reason number two? CINNAMON ROLLS. Go here. Get the cinnamon rolls. Get two. Hiking snack. Camp snack. Driving snack. All of the above. It's a little beyond the Visitor Center, before you hit the campground. Do it.

Cinnamon Rolls.JPG

Hikes Completed: 

Hickman Bridge. This is probably right around 2 miles round trip. It's great to see a natural bridge, and this is where I first learned the difference between a bridge and an arch. Not the hike for sweeping views, though!

Golden Throne. 4 miles round trip, and you get a really beautiful drive on the way to the trailhead! It's rated as strenuous and I believe this is the point in the trip where Adam most wanted to strangle me. You see, there are signs to be careful about mountain lions. I chose to deal with my anxiety by being loud to scare them off. Adam believes that you should be quiet so as to not attract them. Whichever theory is correct, we definitely did not see any. And we both made it back to the East coast. You get some pretty views at the end (see below), but otherwise this is just a fun trail!

Capitol Reef.JPG

Where to Rest Your Head:

Fruita Campground. By now I'm sure you're catching on that the cost is $20/night to stay here. We had no problems with this campground filling up, but we were directly in the middle of the week. The National Park Service website does say that it can fill up, but we didn't personally have a problem with that. A plus: the amphitheater is close by for your stargazing talk!

Wishlist:

Honestly if I could go back and just see the sky, I'd be happy.

Oh, and the cinnamon rolls.

Day Six-Eight: Canyonlands National Park & Arches National Park

Driving from Capitol Reef to this area will take a bit more than 2 hours. We bopped around between Canyonlands and Arches for most of the rest of our trip. I also want to take this point to tell you how GINORMOUS Canyonlands National Park is. We only stayed towards the northern end (Island in the Sky) but there's an entire portion (The Needles) we didn't even see.

The night we arrived, we spent some time in Moab while I hastily tried to accept a job offer with service. Turns out, it's hard to come by cell signal in a lot of these lands! We also visited Moab Brewery to sample some beer from Utah. Add this to the list of things I learned: flights of beer are illegal in Utah! They can only serve you a certain amount of beer at a time.

Oh, here's where I'll finally let you in on the difference between that natural bridge and natural arches. A natural bridge is apparently a TYPE of natural arch, but the hole was formed by a current of water running through it. An arch has a hole due to the removal of rock in some way, shape, or form. Here's to hoping that's a trivia question for you some day!

 The vastness of Canyonlands.

The vastness of Canyonlands.

Hikes Completed (Canyonlands):

Due to the heat and the fact that we had hiked more than either of us are used to in a week, we mostly stuck to the car in Canyonlands to get around. That doesn't mean we did a decent amount of hiking! Canyonlands is awesome for short hikes. The ones we did include Mesa Arch, White Rim Overlook, Upheaval Dome, and Whale Rock. Each of these hikes is less than 2 miles round trip.

Hikes Completed (Arches):

So. Many. Arches. We took the Primitive Trail at Devil's Garden. Holy bajeezus was it hot. It's also a fairly challenging hike because you're traversing over some slickrock! Definitely make sure you've got water because this one clocks in at 7.2 miles roundtrip. We did this trail on the way back from Double O Arch.

We took the more populous route to get to Double O! This path is the trail to Landscape Arch with some optional spurs to Partition ArchNavajo Arch, and Dark Angel

Some shorter options include Delicate Arch Viewpoints (though you can get closer!), Balanced RockDouble ArchSkyline Arch, and Sand Dune Arch. Whichever way you look at it, you're going to see a lot of arches here.

Where to Rest Your Head:

Moab! Moab is a central place to stay for Canyonlands and Arches exploring. It also happens to show up in my Instagram stories ALL. THE. TIME. for climbing, mountain biking, and exploring. We definitely didn't scratch the surface too much here, but we did have a nice AirBnB! Plus she has a dog, which is always good.

BLM Land. Finally! There is a TON of BLM land surrounding Arches, which is lucky considering the campground there was closed when we visited. This night is one of my fondest memories of the entire trip. We slept at a site by the Colorado River with the rainfly off of our tents. The stars and the river combined to just rock my world. I'm not your pro to explain BLM land, but this guide seems to cover what you need to know!

 Our campsite by the Colorado River.

Our campsite by the Colorado River.

Wishlist:

We barely scratched the surface of Canyonlands, so I'd love to explore more of that park in general. We wanted to hike Fiery Furnace, but you need a ranger guide. Alas, there were no spots while we were in town so we missed out on this!

Day Nine: Salt Lake City

The haul from Moab back to Salt Lake City comes in at just under 4 hours. But here's a pro tip: there's an In-N-Out Burger waiting for you when you're almost in Salt Lake. So thank your lucky stars!

We spent the last night and day exploring Salt Lake City a little more. Frankly, we were a bit exhausted after this trip! We got out for custard at Nielsen's, brunch at The Park Cafe, Mormon Temple learning, and (of course) more walking. This trip wasn't really about exploring Salt Lake City, so I feel like we left a lot to do there. But that just means another trip is someday down the line!

Is there anything i'd do differently?

Yes! While this trip was so much fun, I think there are a couple of things I'd do differently if I went back to explore Utah again. 

  • Fly into Las Vegas and fly out of Denver. It might be the more expensive option (but maybe it's not!), but I think it would be fun to see the in-between spaces there.
  • Visit more state parks and other national land. I'm especially kicking myself for missing out on Goblin Valley State Park because the pictures look incredible! I do also wish I had time to stop by Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It (as well as other areas) were...and still are...going through a land battle and I really wish I would have attached a memory to the land and really dig into learning what was being fought for.
  • In general, I think I would have looked into the history of the National Parks a bit more, particularly when it comes to whose land it actually was to begin with. This goes for all National land and I know better now, but I do wish I would have taken the time before going on this trip (heck, even while I was on it!) to learn about the history. Luckily, there's the internet and I still can!
  • Camp on more BLM land! Now that I'm more comfortable with it, I don't think I would have spent much money at all on AirBnBs or National Park Campsites. But you live, you learn! We don't have BLM land around Philadelphia to get comfortable using. ;) 

is there anything else you'd like to know? drop me a comment below or reach out on twitter!

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