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Road Tripping National Parks in the Southwest

Vibrant orange, rust, and pinks paint the national parks in the Southwest. These colors pop when the light glints off deep river-carved canyons and smooth sandstone walls. The land also seems to defy gravity with otherworldly spires stretching upwards and arches that seem like they should just crumble into dust, yet they persist against the elements. To soak up these wonders, a 718-mile loop from Salt Lake City can take you to five national parks, and optional side trips can add on two more.

These parks often see big crowds in summer, when the thermometer can hit triple digits, while fall and spring see more moderate temperatures. You’ll also need advanced reservations for all park lodges, campgrounds, and tours. 

Peering down into Zion Canyon and Angel’s Landing/Photo by Marc Neidig/Courtesy of NPS

Zion National Park
How to get there: From Salt Lake City, drive south on I-15 and cut east on UT-17 (313 miles/4.5 hours).

What to do: Hop the shuttle into Zion Canyon, where rock walls tower around the Virgin River. For short adventures, check out Court of the Patriarchs, Emerald Pools, and the Narrows. Although crowded, the longer trail to Angel’s Landing skitters along a narrow ridge for a stunning vantage into the canyon. 

Mather Point at Grand Canyon National Park/Photo courtesy of NPS

Optional Side Trip to Grand Canyon National Park
How to get there: Exit Zion eastward through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel on UT-9 to US-89 south and AZ-64 west to the east entrance (216 miles/3.5 hours).

What to do: Being at the Grand Canyon is all about peering in from different overlooks. Along Desert View Drive, stop to climb the Watchtower and gaze at the monstrous chasm from the accessible Grandview Point. Catch the canyon lighting up with rich color at sunset from Hopi Point and sunrise from Mather Point. Take the shuttle bus or get a Scenic Drive Accessibility Permit for the Hermit Road to peer down from Mohave Point to the Colorado River. Explore a bit below the canyon rim on a few switchbacks, but remember you have to climb back up.

Thor’s Hammer from Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon National Park/Photo courtesy of NPS

Bryce Canyon National Park
How to get there: Exit Zion via the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel and drive UT-9 and US-89 north, east onto UT-12/63, and south onto UT-63 (87 miles/1.5 hours).

What to do: Pink, orange, and red hoodoos fill this canyon. To enjoy the canyon from above, hike the rim between Sunrise and Sunset Points and drive the park road to Rainbow Point. But the canyon is best on the inside. Drop below the rim on the Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop to walk among dramatic hoodoos and rock features before a steep climb out. 

Hickman Bridge at Capitol Reef National Park/Photo courtesy of NPS

Capitol Reef National Park
How to get there: Exit Bryce north on UT-63 and continue north on UT-22 and UT-62, then east on UT-24 (133 miles/2.5 hours).

What to do: To slice through the famous Waterpocket Fold, drive UT-24. You’ll cross right through the layers of the 100-mile-long eroded geologic upthrust. But you can get more intimate with the geological feature via dirt roads and trails. Take the scenic drive to Capitol Gorge to see petroglyphs, the pioneer register, and natural water tanks. Then hike to Hickman Natural Bridge to see a large arch. 

Grand View Point at Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park/Photo by Neal Herbert/Courtesy of NPS

Canyonlands National Park
How to get there: From Capitol Reef, go east on UT-24 and I-70 to US-191 south to Canyonlands (156 miles/2.5 hours). 

What to do: The Colorado and Green Rivers divide Canyonlands into three distinct parts, some only with 4WD primitive roads. For the easiest experience, go to the Island in the Sky District. Grand View Point yields views of the rugged canyons, and the trail pokes out to overlook the confluence of the rivers. Two hours south, the Needles District has more challenges with trails touring slot canyons, spires, and passes crossed only by steps carved in rock. 

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park/Photo by Neal Herbert/Courtesy of NPS

Arches National Park
How to get there: From the entrance to Island in the Sky, drive UT-313 east to Arches (29 miles/35 minutes).

What to do: Drive the park road to see arches and spires, stopping at the Windows area to walk to four arches. To see the freestanding Delicate Arch, hike to the arch itself. Or see it from below on the accessible trail to the lower viewpoint and the steeper trail to a second viewpoint. For an adventure among orange fins, get a reservation for the ranger-led tour of the Fiery Furnace.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park/Photo courtesy of NPS

Optional Side Trip to Mesa Verde National Park
How to get there: From Arches, take US-191, US-491, and US-160 to Mesa Verde in western Colorado (129 miles/2.3 hours).

What to do: Mesa Verde preserves ancient cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. Get reservations in advance for touring Cliff Palace, Balcony Palace, or Long House. Be ready for strenuous ladder-climbing on these tours. For a self-guided archeological site without the ladders, drive to Wetherill Mesa to tour Step House. 

Header photo: The Windows at Arches/Photo by Neal Herbert/Courtesy of NPS

From her home outside Glacier National Park, Becky Lomax revels in the Intermountain parks. You’ll find her hiking the mountain parks in summer and skiing them in winter. In spring and fall, the Southwest parks satisfy her need to hike. She’s the author of Moon USA National ParksMoon Glacier National Park, and Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton.

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