Best. Road Trip. Ever.
The best, and most scenic, road trip in Utah is called the Grand Circle Tour. It takes you (the road-tripper) on a tour of all five national parks in the state — Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon. And if you feel like it, you can include some out-of-state stuff. Like the Grand Canyon. You will see an amazing amount of scenery on this trip. So rev up the Harley, or load up the mini-van, and come see what we’re talking about!
One of the perks of driving the Grand Circle is that the route is, well, a circle. Which means you can start at any of these locations (probably the one closest to your home or arrival airport) see the others, and come back to your starting place. You can also customize your trip, and add or omit a location or two.
Zion National Park
Zion is the crown jewel in the Utah national parks system. It’s such a beautiful place, and such a microcosm of Utah’s fantastic geology, that we recommend that you spend as much time as you can exploring the park. (Although you will have to leave sometime to finish doing your road trip.) Consider staying in the Zion Lodge in the park. Here’s some thoughts on what to see while you’re there.
- Drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, complete with one-mile tunnel.
- Get dirty in the Narrows. These are some of the best slot canyons in the world.
- Tour the Zion History Museum and The Zion Canyon Visitor’s Center.
- Hike Angel’s Landing at sunset. You’ll never forget the spectacular view.
- Hike to Upper Emerald Pool. It’s a very special place.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon has a very different feeling compared to Zion. It’s not as sprawling, nor as varied in its scenery, but we have no doubt you will appreciate it. The main attraction is the amphitheater, which is famous for its unique rock formations. These strange hoodoos have drawn visitors here since the early 1900s.
- Check out Mossy Cave. The trail to the cave takes you through the best parts of the park. And not too many people head down that way.
- Hike along the rim of the Amphitheater. The hoodoos appear to change shape when viewed at different angles.
- Walk among the hoodoos at sunset. The experience can be incredible.
- Explore one of the many trails in the upper highland forests. There are arches and bridges out there, take the time to find them.
Capitol Reef National Park
Zion might be the crown jewel, but Capitol Reef is the hidden gem of Utah’s parks. And, it’s our favorite national park in the whole state. (But then again, we might be biased, we live there.) Check out the little tree-lined town of Torrey, Utah. Capitol Reef has elements from all the other national parks in the state, and since it is one of the least visited parks, you have a better chance to see it all.
- Stop by the Gifford House. The history is interesting, and the specialty foods are delicious.
- If you show up at the right season, you can pick your own fruit from the orchards.
- Drive the Scenic Road to Capitol Gorge trailhead. Then hike Capitol Gorge.
- Hike one of the trails near the visitor’s center. Try the Rim Overlook, The Castle or Cassidy Arch.
- Time permitting, go south, into the Waterpocket Fold for some canyon exploration. The Burr Trail is also down there.
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
The twin parks of Utah should be see together. They’re right across the street from each other, after all. Arches attracts more tourists, and it has some pretty iconic scenery – you’ve definitely seen Delicate Arch somewhere before. But Canyonlands is larger and has more diversity of scenery. Taken together, they offer a rich landscape of Utah’s wild desert country.
- There are over 2,000 natural arches in Arches National Park. See as many as you can. Don’t miss the Delicate Arch. We also recommend Double Arch.
- Check out some of the sandstone formations in Arches, like The Tower of Babel and The Organ.
- Go Jeeping or ATV riding in the deserts around Moab.
- Canyonlands is the perfect outdoor playground. If you can, shoot the rapids in Cataract Canyon on a guided tour.
- Canyonlands also has some intense slot canyons. Think thin.
But Wait, There’s More…
This concludes our thoughts on the five Utah national parks; however, you will also be driving through lots of other beautiful places. Here are some tips about these in-between spots. Just in case you want them.
Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument
This monument contains some of Utah’s finest scenic routes. During sections along Highway 12, the world seems to drop off each side of the winding road. It’s really fun, especially for the kids. Be sure to stop at some of the scenic overlooks to look back at what you just driven through.
- Hike to Upper Calf Creek Falls. But you know you’ll have to jump in the pool.
Natural Bridges National Monument
This is a is a fun little detour on the way to the Grand Canyon (if you add the Grand Canyon to your list, and after all why not?) Natural Bridges National Monument protects three of the world’s best and longest natural bridges. It also boasts extensive American Indian archeological treasures.
- Look at the historical artifacts inside the Visitor’s Center.
- Drive to each of the overlooks for the natural bridges. You can also see American Indian dwelling sites.
- Hike to one of bridges. Trail guides are available at the Visitor Center.
Monument Valley National Tribal Area
This iconic valley has some amazing monoliths, but we especially like driving Highway 261 to the town of Mexican Hat. You will get to go through The Valley of the Gods and a terrific winding road that makes a 1200-foot descent into the desert below.
- Visit some of the local Navajo Tradesmen in Monument Valley. They are true artists.
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Better known simply as Lake Powell, Glen Canyon is a water wonderland. If you can work this into your route you will have a blast. Splash around in the 186 miles of open water.
- Rent a houseboat and watch the Earth spin under the stars at night.
- Hike to Rainbow Bridge. It is the tallest arch in the world and worth the effort to see.
- Play around on personal watercraft. These are the best way to get into the remote water-filled canyons.
Grand Canyon National Park
You’ve come all this way, you gotta stop to see the Grand Canyon. It’s one of America’s favorite national parks, after all. So if you haven’t been before, now’s the time. We prefer the North rim, but the South rim is more frequented. Lots of people have lots to say about the Grand Canyon, so we’ll only mention a couple of activities.
- Hike or take a burro ride to the canyon bottom.
- More rafting anyone? Take a trip on the Colorado River.
- Watch the sunset paint the cliffs. This is one of the most beautiful moments you will ever see.
That’s the Lodge at Red River Ranch’s thoughts about the Grand Circle Tour. We hope you get the chance to visit some, or all, of these awesome places.