If it’s time to plan that hiking or camping trip out west, but you’ve been juggling the many options of where to go, wait no more! Here’s how we tackled our Southwest National Park trip with our teenagers. And remember, there are literally dozens of route and destination possibilities, but, seriously, you can only get it right. It’s rated as one of the best vacations ever by so many people I’ve talked with - and we agree! And with so many National and State Park options, you’re sure to enjoy your time there.
Ultimately, we settled on a Utah National Park tour. Our itinerary below could be broken into a few smaller trips or modified several ways to include other close by parks and sites, but hopefully there will be some take-aways here for anyone with plans for an outdoor themed trip to Southern UT/Northern AZ.
Preamble – Fly to Las Vegas and spend the night/see the sites of Vegas (even if just the lights on the strip)
Day 1 – Drive to Zion, rent bikes (eBike or regular) ahead of time to for afternoon pickup. Check in (or not), Bike the Zion Scenic Drive – use Pa’rus trail for optimal scenery and to avoid riding bikes in traffic.
Day 2 – Explore Zion via Shuttle. Points of Interest: Emerald Pools, Angels Landing, The Narrows
Day 3 – Day trip to Kanab to see southern end of The Grand Staircase and take a Slot Canyon Tour. Downtown Kanab is also worth a drop in.
Day 4 – Drive first portion of Scenic Hwy 12 via Bryce Canyon and Kodachrome Basin State Park. Stay in Escalante.
Day 5 – Drive the rest of Scenic Hwy 12 and Scenic Hwy 24 to Moab via Grand Staircase views (Devil’s Garden in Escalante) and Coral Reef National Park (check out the Petroglyphs and history in this park) & Goblin Valley State Park.
Day 6 – Arches National Park (get timed entry tix ahead of time)
Day 7 – Checkout downtown Moab, have a 2nd day’s Arches Park tix handy, take a sunset Hell’s Revenge Jeep tour
Day 8 – Drive to Grand Junction Colorado along the Colorado River on Hwy 128. Stop in downtown Grand Junction if you have time before flying home.
We took this trip in April and it served up a variety of weather conditions, temps ranging from 4 and snowing to 64 and sunny; typically, for the area we covered, the lows are in the 30’s, but we caught it in a chilly Spring. Zion, Kanab and Moab were significantly warmer than Bryce and Escalante. As native Southerners we saw what we classified as a lot of snow enroute from Zion, through Bryce and on to Escalante as well as the drive from Escalante to Moab - across Hwy 12 & 24 - but it was gorgeous!
The drive across Scenic Hwy 12 & Scenic Hwy 24 is a geological wonder; the differences from park to park and across the Scenic Byways were almost cosmic and there are a variety of activities to keep you entertained along the way. (If you've visited the entirety of Yellowstone, you'll understand how varied the geological differences can be and the scenery on this trip can be as varied as that in Yellowstone). Here are a few things to plan ahead for if planning a trip similar to ours:
- Weather fluctuations - pack layers
- Zion - Renting bikes and neoprene suits ahead of time. There are several options, we used ZionOutfitter – we stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge which is right by the South Entrance to Zion and Visitors center. It was easy to get to Zion Outfitter as well as the shuttle – and there were a few shopping options within walking distance and Springdale is a short walk or shuttle ride away.
- Be flexible – things do change and are sometimes closed due to weather
- Secure your Arches National Park tix (April – October) ahead of time – we got our tix for April in January. Forgot your timed entry tickets? You can still enter the park before 8am or after 4pm and they also sell tix for the following day, open at 6pm the night before.
- We also booked our excursions ahead of time via Viator. Payment wasn’t due until a few days before and the activities could be cancelled a day or 2 before.
- If you have small kids and haven't done so already - read about the Jr Ranger program and grab them National Park Passports. The passport program is a fun and educational way to get your kids more interested in our nation's parks. The program offers many ranger led programs as well as fun activities. Also, if you have a 4th grader - check out the National Park Service "Every Kid Outdoor" program where you can get a free 1-year National Park Pass.
- Even if you don't have a 4th grader, if you plan to visit more than two national parks in a year, it makes sense to get an America the Beautiful annual park pass.
Some trip highlights were... Most notably, we were lucky to hike part of The Narrows in Zion which was a “Bucket List” lifetime experience. The water level can rise in the Spring due to snow melt and rain, but we hiked the first portion (in Neoprene suits rented from Zion Outfitters) at 102cfs which meant we were wading in water most of the time. I’m 5’3 and the water was to my waste at times, but for someone who’s athletic and up for a unique experience, albeit a bit challenging, it was well worth the unique hiking experience and the views offered by The Narrows. Even if you only hike for 30 minutes and turn around, do it, it’s a lifetime experience. Definitely check the weather conditions before exploring The Narrows (we used ZionGuru.com who posts the water level each day).
We also enjoyed biking Zion Canyon Scenic Drive as well as part of Lions Park along the Colorado River in Moab. Biking is such a great way to get exercise, cover more ground than hiking, and take in more scenery in than driving through an area. The biking infrastructure in Moab is extensive and varied. Slickrock is a great spot for a challenging mountain biking experience – or eBike experience – and there are several bike rental shops in downtown Moab if bringing your bike isn’t an option. Biking in Zion is easy to moderate and there are bike racks at every shuttle stop, so you can jump on a trail. They also allow you to place your stand bike on the shuttle bus racks in case you want to shuttle a portion of the park, but it's an easy 9 miles from the visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava (last stop on the shuttle), then 9 miles back.
Other close-by options to include/trade out on your trip:
- Cloudland Canyon – is supposed to rank high in the awe department – on a scale with The Grand Canyon.
- The Grand Canyon is reachable from Zion and many people do that combo.
- Park City, UT is also a short drive from Zion.
- Page, AZ also has some stunning Slot Canyons - Antelope Canyons.
- Many people visit Sedona along with the Grand Canyon and/or Zion which can has several resort options if you're looking for that.
Remember to bring your Rugged Nation Hat on your next adventure and send us a photo along with description to email@example.com to be featured in our next blog post! And let us know if you take a trip similar to ours and how it was! We would love to hear your tips/advice and about your adventures!
Looking for more UT travel tips. See our 3 Top 10's lists below!
Top 10 Off the Beaten Path, Southern UT