I live just outside of Los Angeles and somehow never realized how well-situated I am to exploring the infamous national parks of Utah. It wasn’t until international flight and travel restrictions halted my scheduled time abroad and forced me out of my comfort zone and onto the road that I discovered how ideal my location is. It turns out I reside in the perfect starting place for one of the most epic road trips in the US.
If you’re considering a road trip in the American southwest and live outside of the area, flying in to Los Angeles or Las Vegas and renting a car is a great option. There are so many different ways this trip can be done, but I spent a lot of time researching how to cram as much as possible into a two week time frame, and the route I mapped out worked like a dream for me. I took this trip at the end of September/beginning of October and encountered ideal weather and road conditions the entire way. This is an optimal time of year for a similar trip.
The first leg of my journey was a 4 hour drive to Las Vegas that included a panic-inducing flash of my check engine light (more on that later) just before I arrived at my hotel. I stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites for the night and would happily stay there again. I’ve been to Vegas many times, and had no intention of leaving my hotel on this stay, so being off the strip worked well for me. If you want to turn your stay in Las Vegas into an opportunity to explore the city, a hotel on the strip would put you in the middle of the action and in walking distance to the best sites.
Zion National Park
From Las Vegas it took me less than 2 hours to get to Kanarra Falls, my first stop of the day. I purchased the permit for this river hike north of Zion months in advance. The morning I arrived a handful of permits were still available, but during the busier months this may not be the case. If you have time to spare, this is a fun water hike through a slot canyon similar to the Narrows, but without the waist-deep waters and hoards of people.
By midday I finished my hike and made my way to the only car mechanic I could find near Zion. Luckily my car’s issue was not serious, and I was on my way in less than an hour. I set up camp at Watchman Campground inside the national park where I stayed for 3 nights at a walk-in tent site. This is my favorite campground to date, and I highly recommend if you have the opportunity to reserve a spot at Watchman you take it!
Over the next several days I explored Zion National Park and the surrounding area. I hiked to the Emerald Pools and through the Narrows. I saw the sun rise at Canyon Overlook and set on The Watchman. I loved every minute of my time in Zion, and though 3 days was enough time to see the highlights, I could have spent a couple weeks in the area and never grown tired of it. The scenery in Zion Canyon and along the Mt. Carmel Highway is breathtaking. Check out the link below for an in-depth look at my favorite spots and how to beat the crowds at the increasingly popular park.
Can’t Miss Spots in Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
A quick 2 hour drive from Zion brought me to Bryce Canyon National Park. I used the morning to explore the area just outside the entrance. I hiked the Mossy Cave Turret Arch/Little Windows Trail and some of the Great Western Trail before heading in to the park and setting up camp at Sunset Campground. This turned out to be an excellent base for exploring the park.
That afternoon I took the Scenic Drive and stopped at several lookout points scattered along the way. I didn’t encounter traffic along the 20 mile drive and found parking quickly at every lot I entered. I stopped to see Natural Bridge and Natural Arch and hiked a portion of the Rim Trail from Bryce Point. It might not be possible to do this drive so quickly during the busy summer months, but I was back at my campsite and ready for sunset in less than 2 hours. I walked from the campground to Sunset Point and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset over the hoodoos.
The next morning I caught the sunrise at the same spot and enjoyed the early morning much more. The crowds were minimal and the changing colors of Thor’s Hammer and the sun hitting Silver City was really spectacular. I hiked the Wall Street and Queen’s Garden Loop Trail before the crowds started arriving and thoroughly enjoyed the unique scenery in this part of the park.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
I had seen everything I wanted in Bryce Canyon, so I made the hour and a half drive to the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail in the neighboring Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The scenic 6.7 mile trail followed Calf Creek much of the way and ended at an incredible waterfall (pictured above). This trail is without shade in several spots, and due to hiking through sand in parts, is more strenuous than it looks. If you can get to this trail early in the day, it’s well worth a try. The drive from Bryce Canyon winds through some beautiful scenery and is worth checking out even without the hike.
I plan to go back and explore this area in greater depth on my next trip out that way.
Capitol Reef National Park
After my 2 nights at Bryce Canyon I was ready to head east. I set out before dawn for the 5 hour drive to Dead Horse Point State Park, opting to take the route that would lead me through Capitol Reef National Park. I wanted to give myself plenty of time to explore the parks in the Moab area, so I didn’t give much thought to Capitol Reef. I spent 2 hours driving the scenic roads and stopping at the lookouts and points of interest along the way. I especially enjoyed my time in the Fruita area of the park. If I ever return, I intend to stop for longer and take the time to explore 1 or 2 hiking trails. This was the least crowded of all the national parks I visited on this trip, so if minimal crowds are what you’re after, this is a great park for you. The scenery was interesting and beautiful, but I don’t see myself needing to spend more than a day exploring there in the future.
Dead Horse Point State Park
A friend of mine told me Dead Horse Point State Park was one of the most awe-inspiring places she’s visited. Since it’s between Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, I thought it would be the perfect place to base myself for this part of the trip. I camped for 3 nights at the Wingate Campground located inside the state park. The location of the campground was perfect to visit the nearby parks, and being able to wander the Dead Horse Rim Trail at sunset each night (pictured above) with zero crowds was icing on the cake.
If you’re in the area to visit the national parks, this state park is undoubtedly worth a side trip. The views into the canyon and the Colorado River from here are spectacular. My friend was right about this park, and I would stay there again in a heartbeat.
Arches National Park
I drove into Arches before the sun came up on my first morning in the area. The drive in was beautiful and eerie, seeing only shadows of the towering rock formations lining the road. I wanted to hit one of the busier trails in the park before the crowds descended. I settled on the Devil’s Garden Trail and am so glad I did. This gorgeous trail leads you to 7 different arches and is one of my favorite sunrise hikes thus far. I passed few people during my hike, but on my return as I approached the famous Landscape Arch near the beginning of the trail, I saw it was now surrounded by several dozen visitors. I was thankful I had the arch to myself and saw it at dawn in all it’s glory without having to fight for a spot to get a good look.
Next, I made my way to the Delicate Arch area. Since it was now late morning, it took me four passes through the parking lot to nab a spot. I knew this was a relatively short hike, but I was not expecting the strenuous uphill climb that seemed to drag on forever in the heat of the day. There were groups of visitors gathering in the few shaded spots near the top trying to catch their breath and not wanting to continue. This is an exposed steep climb, so make sure you bring plenty of water with you. Once at the top of the bowl there’s a line of people waiting to get their picture taken with the most famous arch in Utah. The Delicate Arch is perched on top of a ledge that slopes to dizzying drop-offs on either side. If you want your picture taken with the arch be careful and watch your footing. I’m not big on heights, so I opted out of seeing the arch up close. But there are several areas to take a seat at the top and enjoy the magnificent scenery.
I spent the rest of the day stopping at spots that peaked my interest on the drive back toward the entrance. Seeing the rock formations in the daylight was a completely different experience to my pre-dawn drive. Somehow everything looked bigger and more majestic, and I found myself stopping every chance I got to get a better view of my surroundings. Arches was my biggest surprise on this trip, and I can’t wait to return to see more of it.
Canyonlands National Park
I wanted to catch the sunrise at Mesa Arch inside Canyonlands National Park. Apparently 100 other people had the same idea that morning. I often visit popular places at the crack of dawn in order to avoid crowds and enjoy some peace and quiet, but some spots are more popular at sunrise than any other time of day. This is one of those spots. The short hike to the arch was uneventful, but after rounding the top of the hill and seeing the hoards of people congregating at the arch I decided to head to the empty plateau to the right. I enjoyed the breakfast I packed while looking out over the canyon. As the sun peaked above the horizon the whole canyon lit up. My little spot on the plateau was perfect for viewing the changing scenery in the lands below the arch. After I finished breakfast I took my chances and approached the chaos at the arch. The site of the sun rising through the arch is truly as magical as the hype makes it out to be. If you can ignore the pushy visitors surrounding you, it’s a beautiful thing to witness.
For the rest of the day I drove around the park stopping at numerous overlooks. I hiked along the rims of the canyons as far as the trail would take me. I found it was an easy park to navigate, and unless you have a particularly lengthy day hike planned, this is a great park to see in one day. Though I should note the park is broken up in to 4 districts. Island of the Sky, the most accessible, is the only district I visited. The other districts are more remote and often require permits, more time to explore, and involve backcountry hiking/camping or boating experience.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
I watched one last glorious sunrise on the rim of Dead Horse Point then packed up my stuff and set out for Monument Valley. I hoped for a full day of wandering around the red-desert region with imposing buttes, but because the Navajo Nation was hit particularly hard by Covid, all Navajo lands were (and still currently are) closed to the public. Since it was on the way to Page, my next stop, I was still able to pass through the Monument Valley area and view the scenery from afar. The drive through these lands straddling the Utah/Arizona border is stunning, and facilities outside the tribal park remain open. There are several pull-outs along the highway to stop for pictures. I grabbed a quick lunch at the Stagecoach Restaurant (amazing burger!) and wandered around the Goulding’s gift shop and outdoor museum. I found the views from here even better than on the highway. It was a perfect break for the 5 hour drive from Dead Horse Point to Page. I originally planned to stay in Page for a couple days in order to see all the sites in the area, but because Antelope Canyon, and many of the other places I wanted to visit, are Navajo land, I decided I only needed one night in Page before heading to the Grand Canyon. I stayed at the Wingate by Wyndham in Page and discovered how ideally close it was to Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend. For amazing sunset views, check out Wahweap Overlook or pack a dinner and watch the sun set from Wahweap beach.
The next morning I made it to the Horseshoe Bend parking area 20 minutes before sunrise. The large parking lot was mostly empty. After paying the entrance fee there’s a short (less than 1 mile) hike to the overlook of Horseshoe Bend. As the sun came up and illuminated the canyon walls curving around the Colorado River down below it was easy to see why this spot has gained increasing popularity in the last decade. You can’t wander too far off the path in this area, but if you walk a short distance away from the main overlook, you can find some beautiful spots to sit and enjoy the scenery in quiet. I stayed for an hour taking pictures and chatting with other early risers. On my way back to the parking area, large numbers of people began to arrive. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, try getting there when they first open.
Grand Canyon National Park
Horseshoe Bend lies at the east end of the Grand Canyon, but because the east entrance was not open (the road to the entrance passes through Navajo Nation), the drive from Page to the South Rim took 4 hours. Once I entered the national park, I drove from South Entrance Drive to the farthest point vehicles were allowed on East Rim Drive. I stopped at all of the lookout points vehicles were allowed, and marveled at the many different views into the canyon.
After my drive I set up camp at Mather Campground. This campsite was one of the largest I’ve ever stayed at (middle picture above). Mather is a gorgeous campground with few amenities, but incredible scenery and wildlife at every turn. That evening I made my way to Mather Point to watch the sunset. The sunset there was beautiful, but the sunrises I experienced over my next 2 mornings would top it by leaps and bounds.
There are several hikes that take you down into the canyon, but park services strongly discourage hiking to the river and back in one day. Since there was a minor heat wave at the time I visited, I decided to stay above the rim for all of my hikes. Once again I was up before sunrise and walked to Mather Point. From here I walked west along the Rim Trail stopping at each overlook along the way. The lookout points were all beautiful, but I preferred the time I spent on the trail away from the lookouts. The end point on the West Rim Trail is Hermit’s Rest. I hiked a mile down the Hermit’s Rest Trail into the canyon before turning around and making my way back up to the rim. I loved the scenery and quiet this trail provided, but it was getting uncomfortably warm, so I shuttled back to the area near the visitor center. The rest of the day I spent time at the Hopi Museum and the many shops scattered along the rim. I had lunch at El Tovar, and cannot recommend their delicious menu enough. This was the best food I had the entire trip.
There was so much more to see at the Grand Canyon, and the two and a half days I had there flew by quickly. If you’re a hiker, I recommend adding a day or two and taking the Bright Angel or South Kaibab trail part of the way in to the canyon. There is also another side to the canyon that is visited less frequently. The North Rim is only open seasonally (May through October), but looks like a fun place to check out if you want to avoid the crowds of the South Rim.
Joshua Tree National Park
I made the decision to stop at Joshua Tree after I discovered how long the drive back to LA would be. Joshua Tree seemed like a good place to break up the long drive. After nearly 6 hours of driving from the the Grand Canyon, I arrived at Indian Cove Campground and was blown away. I fell in love with Joshua Tree and have been back a handful of times since this first visit.
I spent 2 days exploring the area around the campground, visiting Arch Rock and Heart Rock, and wandering through cactus gardens. I ventured into town to browse the shops and ate an amazing breakfast at Joshua Tree Saloon. The saloon is now a mandatory stop for me on every visit. For a comprehensive look at this unique national park and the surrounding area, check out the below link.
Can’t Miss Spots in Joshua Tree
Of all the places in the world I’ve been lucky enough to explore, the stops I visited on this road trip are way up there in my favorites. The scenery in this part of the United States is absolutely breathtaking. If you’re thinking about taking a similar trip, I can’t recommend it enough. If you’ve done a road trip to this area or think I’ve left anything out, let me know in the comments below!
Above all else, HAVE FUN and TRAVEL SAFE!