EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW TO HELP YOU PLAN THE ULTIMATE ADVENTURE-FILLED ROAD TRIP THROUGH SOUTHERN UTAH - INCLUDING VISITING ALL 5 NATIONAL PARKS (THE BIG 5).
If you are hoping to plan the perfect road trip through southern Utah - including stopping at each of the states five national parks: Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion National Parks, then you have come to the right spot. This in-depth travel guide outlines everything you need to know about road tripping across the wild and rugged Utah desert; including, just how many days you actually need, the type of vehicle to use, where to start and end your trip, and even where to camp. Plus, we have also added a couple of can't-miss destinations that give even the national parks a run for their money in terms of beauty and adventure.
If you are reading to start planning the perfect southern Utah road trip, then keep reading!
UTAH BIG 5 ROAD TRIP MAP
THE ULTIMATE SOUTHERN UTAH
ROAD TRIP GUIDE
\\ How Many Days Do You Need for the Road Trip
Southern Utah is jam-packed with lots of amazing adventures, so the more time you have the better. We highly suggest putting aside at least 7 days for the road trip - though if you can double that and put aside 14 days that would be better.
One thing to know about road tripping across southern Utah is that, while places might look close on a map, in fact, because of the state’s rugged terrain, there are very few roads that connect the national parks so instead you often have to circumnavigate your way to each destination.
Another thing to note is that the road trip route you take between the five national parks will depend heavily on where you start and where you end (see more below). If you are heading in from the west (the Las Vegas or California area) you will likely start your trip at Zion National Park and end near Arches National Park on the other side of the state. While this would be fine if you were doing the route as part of a larger road trip itinerary, if you are planning to do a loop then you would then have to make the loooong drive back to where you started.
\\ Where to Start and End Your Road Trip
Due to southern Utah's relatively central location in the western half of the USA, you can (somewhat) easily reach the five national parks from four major cities: Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah and Denver, Colorado.
All four cities are within driving distance of one of the five national parks, with Denver being the farthest away (just over 5 hours). Also, each of the four cities have large enough airports to easily find flights year-round and on any time of the week. The only things to keep in mind when planning where you want to start and end is whether you want to start/end from the same city (cheaper rental car service, but more driving) or if you want to start/end from two different cities (more expensive rental car but likely less driving).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the basic driving distance listed is a rough estimate of what the total driving distance for the road trip loop would be. It is likely that the distance will be longer after taking in various stops within the parks or any scenic detours.
Likely the closest big city to southern Utah, Las Vegas, Nevada is a great spot to start your adventure. Plus, there are usually a lot of cheap flights into the city since it is such a popular tourist destination. From Las Vegas, your first stop will likely be Zion National Park which is just over 2.5 hours away.
BASIC DRIVING DISTANCE: 995 miles
Another option to start and end from is Phoenix, Arizona, which is located a couple of hours south of the Utah border. One great thing about starting and ending in Phoenix is the ability to add a couple of other interesting places to the route. This includes the town of Flagstaff, Grand Canyon National Park and stunning Monument Valley.
BASIC DRIVING DISTANCE: 1,236 miles
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH
If you are looking to head down from the north then your best bet is to start and end in Salt Lake City (SLC), the largest town in the state of Utah. From SLC your first stop will likely be Arches National Park or Canyonlands National Park, both of which are only about 3.5 hours from the city.
BASIC DRIVING DISTANCE: 908 miles
The final option when planning your route through southern Utah is to start and end in Denver, Colorado. This is a great option if you are also looking to explore parts of Colorado or can find cheap flights into Denver International Airport (one of the busiest airports in the USA). From Denver, it is just over 5 hours to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.
BASIC DRIVING DISTANCE: 1,326 miles
\\ The Best Season to Explore the Big 5 Utah National Parks
Hot, hot, hot. Think 100°+ Fahrenheit (38° C) temperatures during the day and maybe mid-80s (27° C) at night. Visiting in the summer is really only smart if you are planning to do a lot of water sports down in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area or Lake Powell. Otherwise, it can be downright miserable (and even unsafe) to explore most of southern Utah during the hot summer months.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if you are looking to go canyoneering in some wetter canyons (so most of the canyons in Zion) then the summer heat can actually be pretty nice.
FALL (SEPTEMBER - NOVEMBER)
One of the best times to explore and adventure in southern Utah is during the fall (sometimes called the “shoulder season”). This is often one of the quietest times to visit the national parks, which is especially nice in parks like Zion and Arches - both of which can be super busy during other times of the year.
💬 INSIDER TIP: we tend to make our annual pilgrimage to Utah in late November so we have had our fair share of late-fall weather. One thing to note is that while the days are super nice - think mid-50s (~10° C) and usually sunny skies - the nights can be brutally cold. If camping, come prepared for sub-freezing temperatures.
WINTER (DECEMBER - FEBRUARY)
During the winter months it starts to get quite cold - especially once the sun goes down. If you are fine layering up for a hike and don’t mind dealing with a bit of snow, then this is a good time to explore the five national parks (they will be nice and quiet). Plus, the contrast between the bright red rocks and the shiny white snow is pretty darn magical.
SPRING (MARCH - MAY) ~ PEAK SEASON
This season is often the most popular time to explore and adventure in southern Utah. You can expect blooming wildflowers, perfect weather (if only a bit rainy), lush green canyon oasis’ and waterfalls. If looking to go for a hike, then this might be the best season to do it.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the spring season is absolutely magical, but it feels like everyone has figured that out. If visiting the national parks during this time - especially Arches and Zion - expect lots of other travelers. That is why we always try to visit as early in the day as possible.
\\ Best Transportation for Road Tripping the Big 5 Utah National Parks
Due to its relatively rugged nature and far off local, southern Utah is not easy to get around without your own set of wheels. Unless you are exploring with a tour group, you will need your own form of transportation (public transportation is minimal at best). So what kind of vehicle should you rent or use for the trip?
CAR VS VAN/RV
We have road tripped numerous times through southern Utah in both a regular car (a Toyota Rav4) and in our 1995 Dodge Ram van. Both of them have their own pros and cons.
For example, a regular car - especially one with higher clearance and 4-wheel drive (like our Rav4) - will be better if you are looking to head a bit deeper into the desert on some rougher backroads (Utah has some awesome ones to explore). But a van will allow you to both sleep and cook inside (and work if you need to), meaning you will likely be able to be more self-sufficient and need civilization less often. Similarly, a van will likely be able to hold more stuff, like bikes and other outdoor gear.
In our experience, having our van was super nice because we knew we had everything we needed for all kinds of adventures (canyoneering, hiking, backpacking, etc.). Plus, the fact that we could just pull over whenever and camp in the middle of nowhere was pretty amazing.
Deciding between having a regular car or van (or an RV) comes down to really what kind of trip you want to have. If you are looking to simply drive between the national parks, stay at hotels/lodges and eat out most of the time, then you probably only need a regular car. But if you are hoping to explore the national parks and camp along the way then we suggest getting a vehicle that has all the amenities you would need - like a van or RV.
\\ Where to Camp Along the Road Trip
All five of the Utah national parks offer camping within the park at one of their established campgrounds. Most of the national park campgrounds will have some form of bathroom (either with running water or without) and sites with a picnic table and fire ring. Similarly, most of the national park campgrounds can be reserved ahead of time (usually up to 6 months in advance) - though there is also usually the chance to reserve a site the day of (though this can be tougher during peak season). You can expect to pay between $15 and $25 per night at most of the national park campgrounds.
Now if you would like to camp but don't feel like being in an established campground you also have the option to simply boondock. This means camping on either National Forest or BLM land - both of which are usually free to camp on as long as you follow their rules: camp in already established spots, don’t build more fire rings, camp a set distance from water, follow all fire rules, etc. Boondocking is a great option if you are fine going without amenities like bathrooms or running water and you are looking to stay away from other people and in a more natural setting.
Luckily, Utah has some of the best boondocking sites in the whole USA. And even better, some of the best ones are very close to the national parks. So if you are fine roughing it a bit, we highly recommend spending at least a couple of your nights camping out in the wilderness.
THE BEST WAY TO FIND FREE CAMPSITES IN UTAH
When road tripping around the USA we almost always look to the site iOverlander for an idea on where find free places to camp (aka boondocking. The site - and their super handy app - have tons of options around southern Utah, and many of them are pretty easy to reach (a 4x4 is often not needed).
💬 INSIDER TIP: if using iOverlander, we suggest reading some of the reviews beforehand so you have an idea of what the site is like. It will often say things like "rough road when wet" or "okay cell service." Like with almost everything else, we will read the reviews before deciding which spot to camp at.
Another way to find free campsites is to simply look at Google Maps for areas that are in the National Forest or on BLM land. Or better yet, find a site off of a BLM road (it will say BLM #). As long as there aren’t signs that say NO CAMPING or PRIVATE PROPERTY you should be fine. Just remember to always follow Leave No Trace Principles!
SOME GREAT FREE CAMPSITES IN SOUTHERN UTAH
| Wide open BLM land between the town of Torrey and Capitol Reef (here) - this one is great if you have a bigger group or if you are looking to be within easy proximity of the town of Torrey (where there are a decent amount of services).
| Anywhere near Goblin Valley State Park off of Goblin Valley Road (here) - if you can't get a spot in the state park (or if you don't feel like paying to camp) then anywhere off of Goblin Valley Road or Wild Horse Road is fair game (it is also really beautiful).
| Off of Hole-in-the-Rock Road near the town of Escalante (here) - this is an especially great spot if you want to explore Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument or any of the numerous slot canyons nearby.
If you don't feel like camping, then you can also get a room at a hotel or motel in many of the closest towns to the national parks: Moab for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Torrey or Hanksville for Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce City for Bryce Canyon National Park and Springdale or Virgin for Zion National Park.
💬 INSIDER TIP: or if you want a spot that is both rugged and comfortable, we highly recommend checking out Boulder Mountain Guest Ranch near the town of Boulder, Utah.