Utah is home to 5 national parks and only California with 9 & Alaska with 8 have more. Considered to have the most stunning and diverse landscape in the nation, Utah has 3 major regions: the Rocky Mountains to the north, the Basin-Range region to the west and the Colorado Plateau to the east. The “Big 5” national parks are all located in the Colorado Plateau region, the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt flats are in the Basin region and you will find ski resorts and dinosaur bones in the Rocky Mountain region.
After a few days of research I decided a full two week trip would allow us to skim the surface of the Big 5 plus allow time for the Salt flats, Salt Lake City and seeing some dinosaur Bones. I would love to do a 3 week Utah trip to dedicate more time to the parks but with work and kids in school, that is just not possible. A summer trip was completely out of the question based on the fact that these parks draw most of their tourists then and it is blistering hot. Our trip started and ended in Salt Lake City and we distributed our 14 nights at hotels in the following locations: 3 in St. George, 1 in Bryce, 2 in Torrey, 2 in Bluff, 2 in Moab, 1 in Vernal & 3 in Salt Lake City. On top of the 5 National Parks we also managed to visit another 6 National Park Units (4 in Utah, 1 in Arizona, 1 in Colorado).
We did not attempt to visit the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area along with the Rainbow Bridge National Monument as access to those is from Page, AZ and water levels were low so boats were not running and even if they were we simply did not have any time to fit that into our trip.
Planetware top rated attractions in Utah
Duration: 15 days, 14 nights
3 states: Utah, Arizona, Colorado
11 National Parks Passport Stamps: Zion national Park, Pipe Spring National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Canyon Lands National Park, Arches National Park, Colorado National Monument, Dinosaur National Monument, Golden Spike National Historic Park.
Day 1: Salt lake City – St. George (driving time 4.5 hours) Our flight landed in Salt Lake City early from NYC, we picked up our rental and headed towards St. George, a fairly small city right in the heart of many attractions in south west Utah and not too far from Zion.
- Provo – Stopped to check out Utah’s 4th largest city on the way and bought some freshly made sour dough bread from Time Travelers Bakery for sandwiches.
- Red Hills Desert Garden & Pioneer Park – Decided to visit these 2 attractions next to each other in St. George before ending our day at the hotel. The kids loved the garden and did a lot of climbing at the park.
Hotel: Best Western Plus Abbey Inn St. George – windows opened
Bites & drinks: Angelica’s Mexican Grill
Day 2: St. George – Visited 1 National Park, 1 National Park Monument and a State park (about a 4 hr drive total)
- Zion National Park – I absolutely cannot express how crowded this park was. We got there fairly early but once we hit state route 9 there were hordes of people everywhere on the road, along with a ton of hotels, stores etc. Once we got to the visitors center things got even worse, there were hundreds of people waiting for the bus, long lines outside the visitors center, parking was impossible and to get our stamps my wife had to stay in the car while I ran inside to get them. Unfortunately if you are not staying at the Zion lodge you aren’t allowed to enter the 6 mile Zion Canyon scenic drive, therefore you need to use the shuttle. We decided to drive to the junction of 9 & canyon drive and park on the side of the road and walk to the 3rd stop which is right next to the junction. Once we got there we instantly saw that stop #3 is only for drop offs and does not pick up passengers, parks does this to discourage people from parking next to the road. At this point there was no turning back so we walked uphill for an hour all the way up to stop #4 to get on the shuttle. We took the shuttle all the way to the end to stop #8 Shinawa Temple and hiked the Riverside Walk which seemed more congested than the sidewalks on 5th ave in NYC. I truly do regret not having the proper gear to continue on and explore the Narrows where it was a lot less crowded. After the hike we decided it was time to take the shuttle back to our car and get outta Dodge. I know we came a bit unprepared and I am sure there are better ways to go about exploring Zion, but we had had enough of the large masses of people everywhere. If I where to go again, I would use a bicycle to get around but I doubt I ever will as it’s just not my cup of tea. Here is a link to the shuttle map.
- Coral Pink Sand Dunes Park – After getting into our car we continued east on 9 to exit Zion and went to this state Park. We had a great time climbing the dunes and sliding down them. Be prepared for the aftermath as we had sand literally everywhere, in our ears, hair, nose, socks etc. Thank god that poor car was a rental! We ended up staying here for 1.5hrs.
- Pipe Spring National Monument – Saw the film at the visitors center and then hiked the 0.8 mile ridge trail loop
Planetware top rated attractions in Zion
Day 3: St. George – Took it easy this day and just hanged out around town.
- Cottonwood Cove Park – A wonderful playground with great landscaping & play sets
- Downtown St. George – We had lunch and took a stroll around the Town Square Park (1.5 hrs).
Planetware top rated attractions in St. George Utah
Day 4: St. George to Bryce – 1 state park (total driving time 3.5 hrs.)
- Snow Canyon State Park – We started our day at this state park which is only a few minutes away from St. George. This park was absolutely fantastic, we did the Butterfly (1 hr) & Jenny’s Canyon (20 min) trails.
- Kayenta Art Village – stopped here in this little art village for a about an hour
- We started our drive to Bryce and took the 143 through Dixie National Forest. Made many stops along the way for pictures, it is a very scenic route.
Hotel: Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn – a gigantic hotel (windows opened)
Bites & drinks: Rustler’s Restaurant
Things we missed: Cedar Breaks National Monument – the scenic byway, rim road and visitors center were closed for the season, bummer!
Day 5: Bryce to Torrey – 1 National Park (total driving time 3.5 hrs)
- Bryce Canyon National Park – Although this park had a lot of traffic it did not feel anything like Zion and we fully enjoyed every minute here. We started our hike at sunrise point and took the rim trail towards sunset point then made a left and went down into the canyon on the Navajo loop trail. Instead of returning on the Navajo loop trail we turned left on the Queens Garden trail all the way back to Sunset Point. It was about 3 miles in total and you get to see a little bit of everything.
- Scenic Byway 12 – This is the route we chose to drive to Torrey, We stopped in Cannonville in the beginning to learn about the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument at the visitors center. On the way there we stopped multiple times at various pullouts for photos.
Stayed in Torrey at the stunning Capitol Reef Resort
Bites & drinks:
Rim Rick Patio – A great American restaurant across the road from Capital Reef Resort
Hunt & Gather – This restaurant was something else, extremely fresh and top quality
Day 6: Torrey – 1 National Park
- Capital Reef National Park – Spent the whole day exploring this treasure. This park beat all other parks in Utah in my opinion. Towering pillars, natural bridges, deep slot canyons are just a few of the wonders we encountered and the best part was that there were hardly any people at this park. The park is divide into 3 sections but we only stayed around the Fruita area of the park. We started with the scenic drive south until the road conditions required a 4wd vehicle and then came back to do the Cohab Canyon trail. About 30-40 min into the hike we encountered these unbelievably long & deep slot canyons, this hike was probably the best on our trip. After a quick break at the Gifford house and Fruita Farm house we checked out the Hickman Bridge and made a quick stop at Fremont Petroglyphs which were both nearby. Capitol reef is not as popular as other parks making it a secret treasure, I will definately come back and explore much more of this fascinating park.
Day 7: Torrey to Bluff – 2 National park Monuments (total driving time 5.5 hrs), the whole drive was very remote and scenic.
- Natural Bridges National Monument – Started our day real early and drove to this park which was about 3 hrs away from Torrey. An arch starts out as a bridge, so coming to this park before going to Arches was a must for us. We stopped at both the Kachina & Sipapu bridge viewpoints and hiked down to the Owachomo Bridge.
- Hovenweep National Monument – I didn’t think it was possible but we managed to make it to the visitors center before it closed and did the Square Tower Loop trail (1.5 hrs).
Hotel: Bluff Dwellings Resort – probably one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever been to. It had a great pool, access to hiking trails from your patio, awesome playground for kids, and finally a hotel without disgusting wall to wall carpeting.
Bites & drinks: Comb Ridge Eat + Drink – only a few items on the menu, but that is probably why the food was so amazing!
Steer clear of the cafe in town.
Day 8: Bluff – explored the surrounding area
- Hiked the trail to the top of the hill behind our hotel
- Bluff Fort – spent a few minutes here
- Olijato Monument Valley – We didn’t pay to do the 17 mile loop so we just enjoyed the views from main highway 163, stopped in Kayenta and went North back to the hotel on 160 to do a loop and not backtrack.
Things we missed: Navajo National Monument – we had time to see it, but felt it would be better to go another time when we visit Arizona.
Day 9: Bluff to Moab – 1 National Park
- Canyon Lands National Park – We started our day at the southern Needles District and drove on the Needles Access Rd all the way to the end and did the Slick Rock trail (2 hrs). Our plan was to head into the Northern Island in the Sky district but when we got there it was a 2hr wait to enter the park so we left. The Needles part of the park was fairly empty, so if you want to avoid crowds stick to the Needles district.
- Moab – Spent the rest of our day exploring the town center.
Planetware top rated attractions in Moab Utah
Hotel: Fairfield Inn & Suites Moab – kids loved the pool but it was super expensive to stay here (windows opened)
Bites & drinks: Spoke on the Center
Day 10: Moab – 1 National Park
- Arches National Park– A timed entry reservation is required for this national park, we arrived about 15 min before our reservation and waited about an hour to enter. We drove all around the park and did the Delicate Arch trail (2.5 hrs). We wanted to do more but the kids didn’t, they just wanted to go back to the hotel’s pool and so we did.
Planetware best hikes in Arches
Day 11: Moab to Vernal – 1 National Park Monument (total driving time 4.5 hrs.)
- Colorado National Monument – We took a bit of a detour to get to this park. The weather was pretty lousy with lots of wind and rain. We drove around the park and did a few really short hikes and got some nice pics.
- The scenery completely changed during the rest of the drive, green mountains turned to white and it started snowing heavily on the way up. We had entered the Rocky Mountain Region and loved the drastic change of scenery.
Hotel: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Vernal Dinosaur Land – windows opened
Day 12: Vernal to Salt Lake City – 1 National Park Monument (4hrs driving time)
- Dinosaur National Monument – We just went to the Quarry Exhibit Hall which is located on the Utah side of the park. The Colorado side of the monument does not have any dinosaur exhibits and we could not find much information about it.
Hotels: Courtyard by Marriott Layton – About 20 Min from Salt Lake City (my room had a balcony)
Day 13: Salt Lake City – Drove to the Lake & Flats, it took about 3.5 hrs both ways
- Downtown – walked around the city
- The Great Salt Lake – we didn’t pay to enter the Great Salt Lake State Park, we simply parked at the Great Saltair for free and went to the Lake. This is not a lake for swimming, the water seems pretty foul but seeing it up close is definitely worth it.
- Bonevville Salt Flats – It is a little out of the way but it was so worth it!
Planetware top rated attractions in Salt Lake City
Day 13: Salt Lake City – 1 National Historical Park
Golden Spike National Historical Park – This park is about an 1.5 away from Salt Lake City. It is were the last spike was hammered into the tracks connecting the two parts of the 1st U.S. intercontinental railroad. We did the tour and spent about an hour here.
Things we missed: Timpanogos Cave National Monument – It is closed October 30th – May29th.
Day 14: Salt Lake City to NYC – Our very long Utah trip came to an end and all we could think about was our Home Sweet Home as we waited for our flight!