“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” Henry David Thoreau wrote. While I never thought I’d quote Thoreau because I believe Walden is overrated, in this case I agree with him. For an escape from city life and a piece of heaven under our feet, my husband and I took a week-long trip touring, hiking, and road tripping through the state and national parks of Utah.
As is the way of travel, things rarely go according to plan. A week before the trip, I tore my right knee ACL and spoiled our hiking plans. Instead of full-day treks, we stuck to flat trails and drove when possible. Southern Utah and Moab are accessible for a variety of trekking appetites and reward you with unique views.
Day 1: Arrival into Salt Lake City and drive to Moab
My husband and I flew into Salt Lake City and picked up a rental car from the airport. Watch out for peak hour traffic in the morning and early evening that can back up the Salt Lake area’s freeways. If traffic doesn’t hold you up, driving from the airport to Moab should take about 4 hours.
Arches National Park
We began our road trip through the national parks of Utah by heading to Arches National Park. We did this drive mid-morning around 10am and drove straight to to the park where we spent the afternoon exploring. At the entrance, we bought an America the Beautiful Pass for $80 USD, and asked for recommendations of flat trails for my unstable knee. You can drive most of the park, stopping at small parking lots to get out and hike to a rock structure or natural arch. We walked the Park Avenue path with huge rock cliffs that looked like cocoa butter on both sides. Also consider exploring Balanced Rock, Devil’s Garden, the Windows, and the famous Delicate Arch.
Day 2: Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point, or Jeep Tour
Our original plan was to explore Canyonlands in the morning and hit sunset at Dead Horse Point, which locals said has some of the best views. Note: This is a state park and is not included in the National Park Pass.
However, here’s where the knee comes in yet again. We missed both of these parks and opted for a drive instead. We headed east on Highway 128 to Castle Valley. The road follows the river and is flanked by more buttery rock formations.
Sand Flats Recreation Area Jeep Tour
In the afternoon, we went on a jeep tour with Dan Mick’s – a family company recommended to us at the tourist bureau. Tourism season slows down in September, so they were able to book us for an afternoon tour that same day. However, if you are traveling during the summer months you definitely need to book ahead. Our tour cost $300 USD and lasted the entire afternoon. We had the jeep to ourselves with our driver, but they travel with at least one other jeep for safety in case you get stuck, which at times seems likely! The tour was in the Sand Flats Recreation Area ten minutes outside of Moab.
The Hell’s Revenge trail is full of extreme climbs you wouldn’t imagine are possible in a jeep.
It’s a bumpy ride and at times a slow crawl, but there are some stunning views of the rocks, epic jeep stunts, and strawberries and cream at the clifftops overlooking the river.
Day 3: Drive to Southwestern Utah, Cedar Breaks
Outside of Moab and off Highway 70, stop off at Goblin Valley if you have some time and aren’t yet tired of weird rock formations.
We drove all the way to Saint George on this leg of our trip as we were staying with friends and using that as a base to explore the national parks. However, Saint George to Zion is about an hour’s drive, and to Bryce Canyon it is over 2 hours, so I wouldn’t recommend staying there for the rest of your trip. Consider instead a bed and breakfast near Bryce (Panguitch is an option) or Cedar City if you want a destination with more amenities.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Whichever town or city you end up driving to, you will still want to get out and walk after a couple of hours in the car. From Cedar City, head towards Cedar Breaks National Monument. This site looks similar to Bryce Canyon with it’s rust-colored rock spires. Check the weather before you go as the elevation is 10,350 feet (3155 meters). We were warm in Moab and then froze at the top of Cedar Breaks. Don’t be like us, go prepared.
There are geology talks worth sticking around for to understand how the rock formations came about. The Alpine Pond Loop is a short and simple trail that we heard is stunning during the wildflower festival in early July.
Day 4: Zion National Park
Zion National Park is one of the most famous of the Utah parks and sometimes the crowds reflect it. For that reason, it wasn’t a place of peace and serenity, but the scenery is still gorgeous. The Narrows is arguably the best-known trail in the northern part of the park. It leads hikers through the most narrow section of the canyon, through river water and over rocks. As you can probably guess, this is what my husband and I intended to do but ultimately had to turn away from because of my knee. Instead, we took the trail to the Emerald Pools.
Day 5: Bryce Canyon National Park
We continued our road trip through the national parks of Utah, heading next to Bryce Canyon, which has a totally different look to Zion. As mentioned, it has a similar look to Cedar Breaks, so think red rocks and cliff sides for amazing views. There is a large selection of hikes, from easy to challenging, tracing along the rim for a great sunrise view or descending into the “canyon.”
Spend a day and pick a few trails!
Day 6: Snow Canyon, drive on!
For the final day of exploring, we went to Snow Canyon State Park. Walk around red sandstone mountains with white swirls and stripes or scale the rocky lava flow mounds. For us, this was the best way to finish off our trip as it was the quietest park with a more secluded feeling than the big national parks.
From here, you can either drive to Salt Lake City or Las Vegas to fly to your next destination. We drove to Las Vegas and flew out from there. Vegas is a shorter drive, but it is worth considering that car rentals charge an additional fee if you return your rental in a different state than where you picked it up. For us, it still worked out better to drive the shorter distance to Vegas and fly off to our next adventure from there.
Trip Taken September 2019.