5 National Parks in 7 Days: The Ultimate U.S. Road Trip

 

Angels Landing Zion
Angels Landing Zion

Everyone rejoices at the top of Angels Landing as Zion’s cliffs loom all around. (All photos by Christy Karras unless otherwise noted)

Southern Utah sports five showoff national parks, and that brings up a question for time-crunched travelers: Which should I see? Zion’s cliff-enclosed canyon? Hoodoo-filled Bryce Canyon? Capitol Reef’s soaring rock faces? A carved plateau at Canyonlands? Funky formations at Arches? My solution: I set a course to visit them all in one road trip.

Fall is a great time to travel in America’s southwest desert. It’s not too hot, not too cold, and the crowds have gone. General advice: Bring refillable water bottles and, preferably, a cooler for leftovers, picnics, and beer. We reserve a week to hit all the parks, but as we discover, the more time you can spend on this trip, the better. 

Zion

My husband, Bill, and I start in Salt Lake City. Five highway hours later, I’m seeing signs for Zion National Park’s rarely visited northern Kolob Canyon segment. The short drive into this canyon introduces us to the park’s main theme: looming rusty rock cliffs standing sentinel over carved-out canyons.

At road’s end, we take a quick hike to a ridgeback viewpoint. I’m already wishing we’d carved out time for a backpacking trip. (With a back-country permit, you can hike from here past Kolob Arch, America’s second-largest rock span, and all the way into the heart of Zion.) Next time.

Back on the road, as we dip and then climb toward Zion’s main entrance, I’m struck by the sheer scale of everything. We’re surrounded by vast folded cliffs and mesas horizontally striped in orange, pink, and white.

Angels Landing Zion
Angels Landing Zion

Hikers plan the final assault on Angels Landing, which leads up a skinny spine of rock beyond this flat resting spot.

We take the Kolob Terrace Road to see Zion from above (and spot more great camping sites — next time!) before settling in for the night in Springdale, right outside the park entrance. The heavy stream of visitors has its downsides (crowds, fume-belching tour buses), but the upside is that we can grab big-city-quality dinner and coffee.

The next morning, we set off before dawn to board one of the shuttles that dives deep into Zion Canyon. Slender, fit-looking young Europeans on gap-year trips and equally fit-looking American retirees join us. A taped travelogue unspools facts: These are the petrified remains of what was once one of the world’s largest sand-dune expanses, and the Virgin River has spent thousands of years carving into it. A woman behind me has her camera out and is diligently recording the back of my head.

Related: America’s Best National Park: Who Ya Got?

We’re on a mission: Bill has not yet ascended Angels Landing, one of the area’s signature experiences. Calling it a hike doesn’t cover it. First, you slog up a series of steep, ever-narrowing switchbacks carved into sheer rock. But that isn’t even close to the scariest part. Nor is the initial assault on the promontory after that. No, it’s the narrow spine you climb to reach the very top, where cliffs drop straight down 1,400 feet on either side of a rock fin about 3 feet across.

A sign tells the number of people who’ve recently died attempting Angels Landing. Some tourists think anything they find in a national park must by definition be safe for everyone to do, and some of them learn the hard way that isn’t true. We climb, clutching chains bolted into the sandstone. I’m talking myself into each next step, reminding myself not to look down.

In the crowd at the top, the combined senses of accomplishment and relief are palpable. We chat with one of the fit-looking older couples who matched what I thought was our speedy climb up. She’s 68; he’s 70. I pray Bill and I will be just like them in a few decades.

En route down, I’m reminded that no matter how hard a climb up is, the descent is often tougher. The scariest part of the day: having to let go of the precious chain to work our way around those who have frozen in fear and are clinging to it until the panic subsides. 

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon

The rural West is full of touristy faux Old West shops like these.

After celebrating our exploits with ice cream and investigating a handful of shorter hikes, we drive through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, blasted into the canyon wall almost 100 years ago, and cruise through pine-dotted farming valleys bounded by Creamsicle-colored cliffs.

At the little town of Hatch, we grab lunch before turning onto Highway 12 bound for Bryce. I’ve had surprisingly good food experiences in Hatch, which I notice others confirm on Yelp. Expect kitschy themes (Hatch Station, with its country-train theme; the Galaxy of Hatch advertising “bikes, burgers and beds”), giant servings, good burgers, and thick shakes. I wonder how many miles we’ll have to hike to offset these calories.

In Red Canyon, on the way to Bryce, dark evergreens stand out against scarlet canyon walls, inviting hiking and cycling. (A paved path runs the length of it.) It’s also a terrific setting for between-park RV or tent camping.

A visitor perches above Bryce Canyon’s hoodoo-filled amphitheater.

We emerge into a high-elevation stretch (a sign tells us we’re at 7,777 feet, just as we’re wondering), passing one of the funky strip malls masquerading as a fake Old West town that populate empty stretches of Utah, along with a store selling “tourist stuff,” and the Bryce Canyon Wildlife Adventure museum, whose sign declares: “Like the Smithsonian, but this one is better.” You can rent ATVs there, too. We arrive at Bryce Canyon City, home of the sole stoplight in a county the size of Connecticut.

Zion is a canyon, but Bryce is an amphitheater, a plateau that breaks off into millions of pink, orange, and white spires, crinkles, and waves. A road runs its length, with ample pullouts and overlooks. (Even so, people stop in the road to gawk at … deer! There are only 20 million of them in the country!)

bryce canyon
bryce canyon

Hikes in Bryce are relatively easy and rewarding. Bring water!

Tour buses disgorge hundreds of Europeans and retirees. We watch tourists feeding squirrels right next to signs asking them not to feed wildlife. The hiking is both relatively easy and dramatic, with plenty of bang for the buck.

With not a whole lot of choice for dinner (restaurant options are steakhouse-with-salad-bar 1, 2, and 3) and in desperate need of a beer, we buy a six pack and $2 hot dogs from the general store just outside the park, then retreat to the hotel hot tub. Perfect.

Capitol Reef

Million Dollar Road between Bryce and Capitol Reef
Million Dollar Road between Bryce and Capitol Reef

The Million Dollar Road between Bryce and Capitol Reef

This is the Utah national park people are most likely to skip or just drive through, maybe stopping in at the visitor center and doing a quick hike to a scenic vista or two. But I’d heard about the many wonders that lie off the beaten path and wanted to discover some of them.

First, getting there: The road through the bumpy desert landscape between Bryce and Boulder, Utah, was called the Million Dollar Highway for both the funds and effort that went into whittling it out of the rock in the 1930s. Now the drive is a roller coaster ride traversing mounds of sandstone past drop-off ridges and mysterious dark canyons.

Related: 7 Gorgeous and Surprisingly Uncrowded U.S. National Parks

We pass through the vast desert playground of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Thunderstorms are forecast, and this is flash-flood territory, so we stop for weather information at the very helpful ranger station in Escalante, also home to a petrified-forest state park that makes a nice picnic spot.

We spend the night in Boulder (population: about 200). Before bed, we lie on the wide lawn at Boulder Mountain Lodge and watch falling stars streak across the glowing Milky Way.

The next morning, we drive up and over the flank of Boulder Mountain, a giant tree-covered plateau. We stop at every overlook, and every one is worth it. From these perches, we can scan from above what we will soon see from within: Capitol Reef all the way to the La Sal Mountains near Utah’s eastern border, maybe even all the way to Colorado.

Capitol Reef
Capitol Reef

This is how Capitol Reef looks from the road — spectacular, but the scenery is even better from above.

Unlike most small Utah towns, Torrey has a teeny bit of a hippie vibe, thanks to a handful of coffee shops, the Robbers Roost Bookstore, art galleries, and good restaurants (Capitol Reef Inn for vegetable lovers; Rim Rock or the Broken Spur for steak; and The Saddlery for more exotic meats — we had tasty elk).

Capitol Reef encompasses a giant lifted-up section of the earth’s crust. (“Reef” is a name for such a feature.) Bill says it’s as if a giant dinosaur is pushing up from under the surface. Water and wind have shaped the landscape into ridges, canyons, and spires. You can appreciate this both from afar and up close via world-class hikes. The brief descriptions in park brochures give little insight into what each one offers, so each trek is an exhilarating surprise: Some feature petroglyphs left by ancient people; some trace the edge of towering escarpments; some lead to pools of water that outlaws used for their hideouts.

Related: This Amazing Utah Canyon Hike Comes With a Rescue Dog

On a previous trip, I’d done the short hike up to Hickman Arch (an easy diversion from Highway 24, which runs through the park). This time, we pick Cassidy Arch, named for locally grown outlaw Butch Cassidy. Having left most of the crowds behind at Bryce, we have the trail mainly to ourselves.

Cassidy Arch
Cassidy Arch

Cassidy Arch sits regally 500 feet above the valley. You can hike right up to it.

As storm clouds build to the west, we ascend a ledge that runs the length of a cliff. We round a corner at the top, and there it is: the thick arch reigning 500 feet above the valley. The clean air smells of sage and pine and even stone. I venture out onto the sturdy arch, feel the breeze in my hair, scan the seemingly endless series of mesas and washes below me and think, “This is one of the most awesome places I have ever been in my life.”

Canyonlands

Almost immediately after Highway 24 leaves Capitol Reef’s east side, the landscape turns stark, the earth gray. The loss of color tells me how much color affects my perception of beauty, even affects my happiness. We pause at the Hollow Mountain gas station in Hanksville, at the junction of Highways 24 and 95. I can’t pass up a chance to buy souvenirs from an underground convenience store, and it will be a while before we hit another store.

Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park

Tourists take in a ranger presentation at Canyonlands National Park. (Photo: Kristen Kearse/National Park Service) 

To the south, Highway 95 stretches out toward Lake Powell. We turn north, passing desolate rangeland (no wonder a Mars research station is planted out here) before turning off into Goblin Valley State Park. It’s not a national park, but you have to see this place. It’s like a mini-Bryce, but with even deeper colors and even more strangely colored hoodoos. There’s virtually no shade as we wander among them, so we’re glad it’s not summer.

We hang a right on I-70; the interstate feels fast and impersonal. After grabbing one of Green River’s famous melons (trust me, you want a Green River melon) from a farm stand, I’m glad to turn onto US 191 toward Canyonlands, Arches, and the recreation mecca of Moab.

Canyonlands is, as much as anything else, a great place to go to feel lost. Think 127 Hours lost. We drive onto the Island in the Sky mesa and gaze, look into hundreds of miles of plateaus and mesas and think about all the people lost in them. We’re so far above these canyons that they look like mere wrinkles to us.

I look at the map and have an idea: Let’s take the Shafer Trail back to Moab! It’s a shortcut! The Shafer Trail leaves the mesa top and zigzags down a cliff face. It’s unpaved. There are no guardrails. The hairpins are just wide enough for one car to make a very slow and careful turn. And half the time, the passenger (me) is on the outside, looking into nothingness.

Shafer Trail
Shafer Trail

Shafer Trail switchbacks: no guardrails, no safety net

We don’t just go down and back up the terrifying but maintained switchbacks; we decide to take the jeep road all the way back to Moab. Last time I did it, a few years ago, it wasn’t too bad. Clearly, this jeep trail has not been graded since. Keenly aware that we’re driving a vehicle that is both not a jeep and borrowed, and having realized we have no cellphone service, we creep down the road, Bill choosing his path carefully to avoid tub-size potholes and pointy rocks in the middle of the road. At one point, I get out and direct him over one gnarly two-foot drop. For a minute, only three wheels are on the ground.

When we finally arrive in Moab, I turn to Bill. “You know how most couples have one person who’s the responsible one, who says, ‘We probably shouldn’t do that’ when the other wants to do something stupid? I guess we don’t have that.”

Arches

Double O Arch
Double O Arch

Double O Arch frames views beyond. (Photo: Neal Herbert/National Park Service)

Moab may have more good breakfast restaurants per capita than any other place in the country. We grab banana-nut pancakes at Eklecticafe one morning and the southwestern eggs Florentine at old favorite Jailhouse Cafe on another. We watch as bikers load up on carbs for their day’s adventures on the slick rock.

Arches is a playground for the slightly lazy (or, in all seriousness, for kids and people with disabilities). Almost everything is close to the road — some of its rock arches and spires are easily visible from the road — and most of the park’s hikes are short.

Delicate Arch
Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch dwarfs humans standing under it.

Whereas Cassidy Arch is broad and sturdy, some of the ones here are not, and the park service spends a lot of time trying to prevent vandalism. And sometimes, arches here fall down. I don’t need to climb onto one to enjoy it. Some of the arches (the park contains more than 2,000, ranging from delicate Landscape Arch, America’s longest, to a hole in the rock so small you hardly notice it) form windows onto the formation-studded scene or the sky beyond.

Just before sunset on our last full day in Utah, we make the must-do climb up a sandstone slope to Delicate Arch, the state’s favorite natural symbol. We tiptoe to the edge of the drop-off directly behind the 45-foot-tall foot span and peer over the edge. As the sun dips toward the far horizon, the colors burn and the rock surface seems to glow behind a small crowd parked here to watch it.

It’s been a great week. 

WATCH: Mountain Biking Has Been Life Changing for Tyson Swasey

Let Yahoo Travel inspire you every day. Hang out with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.