Utah Mighty Five - One Week Itinerary
No pictures or words can capture how vast and stunning southern Utah is. The land here is so beautiful that the majority of the state, about 75%, is protected public land held by the government. Utah has an impressive five national parks, nicknamed the “Mighty Five”: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands.
This road trip itinerary takes you to all five, starting in Las Vegas and ending in Salt Lake City. This itinerary can be done at any time of year but I actually prefer to visit the southwest USA in winter. The crowds are smaller and I think the snow makes the mountains even more beautiful. Bryce Canyon National Park is particularly stunning with a layer of snow.
The entrance fee for each national park is about $30-$35, so it is cheaper if you purchase an annual America the Beautiful pass for $80. This pass will give you access to all federally operated parks and recreation sites for one year. You can purchase the annual pass at any national park ranger station.
Day 1: Arrive in Las Vegas
Las Vegas McCarran is the closest major airport to Zion National Park. If you have never been to Vegas before, consider taking some time to explore the strip before driving on to Utah. Enjoy a nice meal or a drink in the city because most of the trip will be spent in rural areas and small towns where the choices are limited.
I suggest you spend the night as close to Zion National Park as possible. This is a very popular park so you want to be there early. Stock up on supplies in Hurricane, UT, and stay the night in Springdale, UT. The drive from Las Vegas to Springdale is about 2.5 hours.
Tip: Do not forget that Nevada is one hour behind Utah.
Day 2: Zion National Park
Zion is probably the most popular of the five national parks in Utah. You could easily spend two or three days here exploring all the trails. To get a good feel for the park in just one day, I recommend you:
- Drive the full length of the scenic drive.
- Drive the stretch of Zion- Mount Carmel Highway between Canyon Junction Bridge and the east entrance.
- Pick one or two trails to hike.
During holidays, the only way to access the scenic drive is using the park’s shuttle system. See the national park website for specific dates and ticket information. The rest of the year, the scenic drive is open to private cars, so you can drive it yourself. The number of visitors to the park has increased dramatically during the pandemic, and so the park has been forced to restrict the number of cars on the scenic drive for safety reasons. When capacity is reached the scenic drive (not Zion-Mount Carmel Highway) is closed until enough cars have exited. To avoid disappointment, get to the park as early as possible, especially on weekends. Check out the Zion National Park twitter account for an idea of what time they have been closing the road (if at all) in previous days.
Information boards and park rangers at the visitor center are great resources if you need help figuring out what to do or what trails to hike. Here are some of my recommendations for hiking trails:
- Canyon Overlook - relatively easy trail with fantastic canyon views. Accessed from Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.
- Angels Landing - an iconic trail but difficult and dangerous. Trailhead located on the scenic drive. See my hiking guide for details.
- Observation Point - the highest point that overlooks the whole valley. Not accessible from the scenic road any more because of rockfall, but can still be accessed from a trail on the east side of the park.
- The Narrows - another iconic hike that takes you through a narrow section of the canyon. This hike includes crossing a river and so is best done in warmer months. Accessed from the scenic drive.
Day 3: Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is about a 1.5 hour drive from the Zion National Park east entrance. With one day at Bryce Canyon I recommend you:
- Drive to the four main overlook points: Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point.
- Hike a short trail down to the canyon floor. I recommend the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail starting at Sunset Point.
During the busy summer months the park has a shuttle service between Bryce Canyon City, the visitor center, and the main park viewpoints. The shuttle is optional.
Day 4: Capitol Reef National Park
There are two possible routes between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. The shorter one takes you north via 62 and then east on 24. This way is about 2 hours. However, I highly recommend you take Utah Scenic Byway 12 through Escalante and Boulder. “Scenic” is a bit of an understatement. The views on this road are incredible, every turn is a new landscape. Driving straight through this route is 2.5 hours, but you are going to want to stop a lot, so budget extra time. There are many overlooks and not all of them are marked on google maps.
A half day is enough time to see the highlights of Capitol Reef National Park. With this amount of time I recommend you:
- Drive to Panorama Point and Goosenecks Overlook. The road between Panorama Point and Goosenecks Overlook is not paved. It is bumpy but is still passable for most cars if you take it slow.
- Drive the scenic road (all paved).
- Check out the petroglyphs on Utah State Route 24
If you have more time and have an SUV or truck, you could continue on to Capitol Gorge Road from the Scenic Drive. This is a bumpy, winding, unpaved road that follows the canyon as it narrows. At the end of the road is Capitol Gorge Trailhead. This is an easy out and back trail that passes petroglyphs and inscriptions made by pioneers. It’s a good trail for the summer because the high canyon walls keep the path shaded.
Another option if you have more time is to hike to Hickman Natural Bridge. The trailhead is located on Utah State Route 24, past the petroglyphs.
Day 5: Arches National Park
Moab is the closest town to both Arches and Canyonlands. This is a good base for the next two nights because you will find lots of choices for hotels and restaurants here. Arches National Park is just 10 mins from the town. With one day I recommend you:
- Drive the scenic road. The scenic drive is about 36 miles round-trip and has lots of overlooks. Be careful not to underestimate how much time you will need just to drive the full length of the park.
- Hike to the Windows (1 mi round-trip)
- Hike to Double Arch (0.5 mi round-trip)
- Hike to Delicate Arch viewpoints (0.7 mi round-trip). These viewpoints will give you a distant view of Delicate Arch. The hike up to the arch is more challenging, about 3 mi round-trip and 600 ft elevation gain.
- Hike to Landscape Arch (1.8 mi roundtrip). This arch doesn’t get as much attention as the others, but it was actually my favorite. This is the longest stone arch in the world and is so narrow that I’m impressed it is still standing.
Day 6: Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is divided into four districts. The most popular and most accessible district is Island in the Sky, about 40 mins from Moab. As the name suggests, the highlight of this district is the dramatic sweeping views over the canyon below, so it’s important that you go on a clear day. In half a day day you can:
- Drive the scenic road (34 miles total)
- Hike to Mesa Arch (0.5mi round-trip). This is a popular spot to watch the sunrise.
- Hike to Grand Viewpoint (2mi round-trip). The best views on this hike are actually from the viewpoint right at the beginning, so if you are too tired or don’t have time to do the full hike, it’s still worth the drive to the trailhead.
If you have more time, add the hike to Upheaval Dome. Or, if you are interested in dinosaurs, consider visiting Moab Giants, located on the road between Moab and Island in the Sky. This indoor and outdoor museum has full-size models of over 100 dinosaurs.
Day 7: Depart from Salt Lake City
The closest airport to Moab, UT is Salt Lake City, UT. However, you might also consider Denver, CO or even going back to Las Vegas, NV. It’s often cheaper for flights and car rental if you arrive and depart from the same airport. There are interstates that you can take to get back to Las Vegas rather than the scenic route through all of the parks.
About the Author
Lauren K. www.wayscaped.com
Lauren works a regular 9-5 day job, but traveling and sharing her experiences is her passion. She prefers nature to the cities and her favorite vacations are ones that involve hiking in the mountains.