The best, and most scenic, road trip in Utah is called the Grand Circle Tour. It takes you (the road-tripper) on 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 start up the Harley, or load up the mini-van, and head out on the road.
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 home,) see the others, and come back to your starting place. You can also customize your trip, and add or leave out a location or two.
Zion National Park, the definitive Utah National Park. So much has been written about Zion that it is hard to believe that it can live up to its reputation. But, trust us, it does. Try to spend as many days here as possible. (Although you will have to leave sometime.) Consider staying in the Zion Lodge in the park.
• Drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, complete with one-mile tunnel. Hold your breath.
• 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 has a very different feeling than Zion. We have no doubt you will appreciate it. The strange hoodoos have drawn audiences 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 Amphitheatre. 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. (Just use a map.)
Capitol Reef National Park is our favorite national park in the whole state. (But, then again, 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 in the state, 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 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. Arches attracts more tourists, and it has some pretty iconic scenery. Canyonlands is larger and has more diversity of scenery.
• 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 desert.
• 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.
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 is (in our opinion) Utah’s finest scenic routes. 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 is a fun detour on the way to the Grand Canyon. Natural Bridges National Monument is a collection of three of the world’s best 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 Indian dwelling sites.
• Hike to one of bridges. You can even get on top and look down.
Monument Valley National Tribal Area has some pretty cool 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.) If you 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-field canyons.
Grand Canyon National Park is also a good park to toss in for good measure. The Grand Canyon is one of America’s favorite national parks. So if you haven’t been before, now’s the time. We prefer the North rim, but the South rim is more frequented.
• 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.