Last updated on November 8th, 2022
Southern Utah is home to five national parks, each with a unique personality and story to tell. Despite rising visitor numbers, road tripping in this part of America is the ultimate expression of freedom and a trip back to the days of the Wild West. This guide will explore how to maximize your time with an itinerary for spending one week in Utah, extending from Zion National Park to Canyonlands.
This one-week in Utah road trip itinerary is primarily based on my experience while traveling across the American Southwest on a five-week road trip. I spent nearly two weeks in Southern Utah, exploring its national parks, extensively hiking, and exploring some of its backcountry roads where nature is your only friend.
Several sections comprise this 7 days in Utah road trip itinerary:
Here’s the driving route we’ll follow on this Utah itinerary. Simply click on the image to open it in Google Maps.
Check out in-depth national park guides, sample itineraries, essential planning tips, and lots more on the Southern Utah travel guides collection, as well as additional travel guides to America’s Southwest.
Before hitting the road, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Begin your week-long Utah road trip in Zion National Park, conveniently located about 2.5 hours from Las Vegas or four hours from the Grand Canyon. Zion National Park’s highlight is Zion Canyon, with its scenic viewpoints and hiking trails along the canyon floor or strenuous paths to eye-catching spots on the canyon rims.
Most visitors to Zion stay in Springdale, a small town lying at the edge of the visitor center. The national park operates a free shuttle in Springdale, connecting the town’s principal accommodations with the visitor center. Beyond Springdale, the best options are at La Verkin and Hurricane. Both towns are only about 30 minutes away from Zion Canyon. If you want to stay in style, the Zion Lodge is the only place to stay inside the park. For camping options, try scoring a free spot at the Watchman and South Campgrounds.
Spend the first day in Zion NP focusing on highlights along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Use the free park shuttles to travel the length of the scenic drive from the visitor center and back.
Start at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop, the starting point for the easy Riverside Walk. The trail ends in a secluded spot from where the Mountain of Mystery and the Virgin River are seen in a single frame. This spot also marks the starting point for the famous Narrows Trail. Prepared hikers can continue walking up the river and experience the canyon walls closing in.
The next stop is at Big Bend, a scenic overlook on the canyon floor from where the pinnacles known as the Organ, Great White Throne, and Angel’s Landing are bunched together. The Grotto shuttle stop is our next point of call. It offers the chance to get off the bus and walk to the next stop via the relaxing Grotto Trail to Zion Lodge. After catching some rays on the lawn in front of the lodge, hike to the Emerald Pools, one of the best hikes in Zion National Park.
Pause for a well-deserved lunch at the Zion Lodge and head back to the visitor center after catching the views from the Court of the Patriarchs. End the day by hiking the Watchman Trail for rewarding views of Zion Canyon’s lower section.
Get an early start on your second day in Zion and take the shuttle back to the Grotto stop, the starting point for the legendary Angel’s Landing Trail (permit likely required). Perched atop a seemingly impossible-to-reach cliff 5,790 feet above the canyon floor (1,765 m), the views from Angel’s Landing are hard to forget.
Back in the car, take the scenic Zion-Mount Carmel Highway to Canyon Overlook Trail. Stop on the way to see the Great Arch and cross the historic Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The view from the end of the short Canyon Overlook Trail is a great way to say goodbye to Zion National Park.
It takes about two hours to drive Bryce Canyon from Zion. The goal is to reach our destination in time to catch the sunset at Bryce Canyon. From the Canyon Overlook Trail, continue on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway to Highway 89, stopping at scenic viewpoints such as Checkerboard Mesa. Then, take Scenic Byway 12 and drive through the Red Canyon Arch, which was blasted to create the gateway to Bryce Canyon.
Book early and perhaps find a reasonably-priced room at the Lodge at Bryce Canyon. If not, Bryce Canyon City is your best bet, with the well-operated Ruby’s Inn a good mid-range option. If you can’t find anything close to the park, check what’s available nearby in Tropic. For camping options, see if there’s space at the North and Sunset Campgrounds.
If there’s any daylight left, head to Sunset Point, where you’ll catch your first glimpse of magnificent Bryce Canyon and hopefully experience the sun’s last rays painting the famous hoodoos in fiery red and gold. Book a table for the evening at Ebenezer’s Barn & Grill and enjoy Southwest cooking and country music.
We’ll spend the third day of this seven days in Utah road trip exploring Bryce Canyon on foot and by car. Surprisingly, Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon but rather a series of amphitheater-like depressions in which erosion created the spikey-looking hoodoos we see today. The Bryce Amphitheater is the most impressive section of the national park.
Start your visit at Sunset Point and plunge to the amphitheater floor via the Navajo Loop Trail. This is the park’s most popular trail, taking in highlights such as the 150-foot tall Thor’s Hammer and the squeeze at Wall Street. If inclines do not deter you, consider extending the hike with the Peekaboo Loop Trail, one of the finest hikes in Bryce Canyon. The trail is less crowded than others and leads to beautiful lookouts such as The Cathedral. The Peekaboo and Navajo trails connect with the easy Queen’s Garden Trail, which takes us back to the amphitheater rim at Sunrise Point.
Use the Bryce Canyon Rim Trail from Sunrise Point to return to the car or continue for as long as your feet take you until its termination at Bryce Point. The Bryce Amphitheater reveals itself in all its glory from this strategic spot. At this point, return to your car and drive the length of the Bryce Canyon Road, stopping in additional scenic viewpoints culminating at Rainbow Point, the park’s highest viewpoint at 9,115 feet.
Day four of this one-week road trip in Southern Utah is a driving day, but there will be plenty of opportunities to stretch your legs. The shortest way to get from Bryce Canyon to Moab is by “racing” north to reach Interstate 70 as quickly as possible. However, a more scenic route takes about five hours and slices through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park.
The first leg of this road trip offers a quick taste of the immense Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This 1.87 million acre reserve (7,568 km2) deserves a few days to explore properly, so we’ll limit ourselves to roadside stops in the interest of time.
Before entering Grand Staircase-Escalante, consider hiking the short Mossy Cave Trail just before the town of Tropic. After entering the park, stop at several roadside viewpoints, especially at Head of the Rocks Overlook. From this vantage point, you can gaze at the horizon from Aquarius Plateau to Navajo Mountain.
If you’re making good time, hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls. This desert oasis is one of the top highlights in Grand Staircase-Escalante. If you don’t have the time, get a bird’s eye view of the canyon that hides the waterfall from Calf Creek Viewpoint. Scenic Highway 12 then quickly gains elevation up to around 9,000 feet, and the desert landscape momentarily gives way to forests thick with aspen trees and cattle. Be sure to stop at Homestead Overlook to enjoy sweeping views of the area.
In the town of Torrey, head east on Highway 24 and drive on one of Utah’s premier scenic roads. Scenic Byway 24 cuts through the northern tip of Capitol Reef National Park. Once again, we’ll use the time to make roadside stops and even squeeze a short hike.
On the stretch of road to Fruita, stop at Chimney Rock and Panorama Point to enjoy “classic” Wild West views. In Fruita, drive the length of the scenic drive (fee required), then stop at the Native American Petroglyphs, where a wooden boardwalk leads to several viewing areas. If there’s enough time, hike to Hickman Bridge to see a 133-foot natural arch or the Grand Wash Trail further down the road if you want to see your arches at Arches National Park.
As you exit Capitol Reef, Highway 24 is as straight as an arrow beyond the town of Hanksville. This is another enjoyable section of the drive, with nothing but open desert on either side until Interstate 70.
Day five of our one week in Utah road trip takes us to Arches Park, home to the world’s largest concentration of natural rock arches and Mars-like landscapes. Arches is one of Utah’s most popular national parks and one of its smallest. The park’s 18-mile scenic drive leads to dozens of scenic viewpoints and includes two detours to different sections.
Moab is the optimal base for a visit to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. The small city has a lot of charm and useful visitor services, such as hotels and restaurants. The campground at Devils Garden is the only accommodation option inside Arches NP, but it is challenging to reserve a spot in peak months. If you’re out of luck at Devils Garden, look for other camping options in BLM campgrounds along State Route 128.
Get an early start and perhaps catch the sunrise at Arches NP from the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint. Then, resist the urge and drive the length of the scenic drive to Devils Garden. Start hiking the Devil’s Garden Trail to Landscape Arch, the biggest arch in the national park. The Devils Garden Trail is the longest hike in the park, but since we’re only spending one day in Arches NP, it’s probably wise to return to the car park, perhaps slightly extending this hike with a visit to Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch.
Back on the scenic drive, stop at roadside viewpoints in the stretch between Devils Garden and the turnoff to the Windows Section. Highlights include the oddly-shaped Skyline Arch, the hidden Sand Dune Arch, and the Fiery Furnace.
As you turn from the scenic drive to Windows Road, stop at the Garden of Eden Viewpoint to see the Parade of Elephants, an impressive series of mighty sandstone pinnacles that resemble something you’ve seen in a NASA mission to Mars. At the end of the road, hike the length of Windows Loop Trail and then cross the road to hike the short trail to Double Arch.
In the afternoon, patiently look for a parking spot at the Delicate Arch trailhead. Hiking to Delicate Arch is the top highlight in Arches NP, though some sections of the trail are challenging. Back in the car, check out the bizarre-looking Balanced Rock, and then spend the rest of the afternoon around the Courthouse Towers and Park Avenue before heading back to Moab.
We’ll end this one week in Utah itinerary in Canyonlands National Park, the largest yet least visited of Utah’s five national parks. Canyonlands is split by the Colorado and Green Rivers into four districts, so we’ll need to concentrate our efforts on the park’s more accessible areas that do not require multi-day visits or 4WD vehicles.
If you don’t want to move too much, stay in Moab for the next two days. Moab is the closest town to Island in the Sky, but if you want to shorten the distance to Horseshoe Canyon, consider moving to Green River for one night, and if you’re heading to the Needles, staying in Monticello or La Sal will shave off some driving time. For camping options, see if there’s space available at the Island in the Sky or the Needles campgrounds. If there’s none, look for a free spot in BLM campgrounds outside Moab along State Route 128.
Spend the first day in Canyonlands NP in Island in the Sky, the park’s most visited and accessible district. Island in the Sky derives its name from its commanding position on the edge of a 6,000-foot sandstone mesa, overlooking 100 miles of stunning Canyonlands scenery. Y-shaped Island in the Sky is bordered by the Colorado and Green Rivers, whose confluence is at its southern tip.
Island in the Sky is easy to explore, thanks to a 34-mile scenic drive that offers access to many gorgeous scenic lookouts and trailheads. Spend the morning driving the length of the scenic drive. Start the day at Mesa Arch and enjoy morning colors shining through this natural window. Then, head to Grand View Overlook and hike the length of the Grand View Point Trail to better understand why they call it Island in the Sky.
After the hike, continue to additional insanely scenic spots, including Buck Canyon and White Rim Overlooks. At the Green River Overlook, witness how the serpent-like river helped to create Canyonlands and then continue to Upheaval Dome to see the mighty meteorite impact crater.
Spend the afternoon hiking one of Island in the Sky’s medium or long trails. Challenging trails descend over 1,000 feet from “the island” and can take you to the famous 4WD-only White Rim Road. Remember, though, that what goes down must come up. Shorter trails like the Neck Spring Trail and Murphy Point Trail are easier options. Before heading back to Moab, leave enough time for a glorious sunset next door at Dead Horse Point State Park.
On day two in Canyonlands, and the last day on this seven days in Utah itinerary, head to either Horseshoe Canyon or the Needles.
Little-known and even less visited Horseshoe Canyon contains some of North America’s most significant and magnificent rock paintings. However, getting here is quite challenging. It takes about 2.5 hours to reach Horseshoe Canyon from Moab or 1.5 hours from Green River, with most of the drive on dirt roads suitable for regular cars if it hasn’t recently rained.
The moderately difficult Horseshoe Canyon Trail leads to several galleries whose mysterious rock art is estimated at 3000-4000 years old. Nobody really knows why the ancient hunter-gatherer tribes painted these figures or what exactly they collectively mean, but the feeling of hiking in this secluded canyon and seeing these ancient works is hard to describe.
The trail’s highlight is the Great Gallery, with its life-sized human figures, intricate patterns, and impressive use of color.
The Needles section is the second-most visited district in Canyonlands, after Island in the Sky. It’s not far from Moab but not close either, so you’ll need to get an early start, especially if you want to hike one of its popular trails.
The Needles’ scenic drive is only 6.5 miles long, but it does offer several stops and access to short hikes, the best of which is at Big Spring Canyon Overlook. If you’re not planning on tackling a “serious hike” spend the day in the Needles casually driving the length of the scenic drive and hiking short trails, such as the Cave Spring Trail and the Slickrock Foot Trail. However, the best way to see the famous needles is on long hikes that take 5-8 hours, the finest of which is the Chesler Park Loop Trail.
On this 7 days in Utah itinerary, we managed to rapidly yet properly cover four of Utah’s five national parks while getting a quick taste of Capitol Reef and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Of course, you can slow things down with more days and devote more time to hiking or exploring backcountry roads. Before planning your road trip, check out additional Southern Utah and Southwest USA travel guides.
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