Hit the Road: Salt Lake City to Moab
With four or five national park stops, a visit to Bears Ears National Monument, and endless opportunities for adventure, this Utah road trip from Salt Lake City to Moab is a definite bucket list experience. You could do it in a week, but with all that red rock country has to offer, it’s worth treating yourself to some extra time. Check out the route…
The Ultimate Utah National Parks Road Trip
As tourism restrictions fluctuate in many states and counties due to the COVID-19 pandemic, be sure to review local health department updates and guidelines before traveling and keep in mind the potential impacts you may have on the communities you travel through.
Leg 1: Salt Lake City to Zion National Park
Get an early start to leave as much time as possible to explore Utah’s first national park. From Salt Lake City, hop on I-15 south for a straight shot to the state’s southern reaches. After 280 miles of freeway driving, take exit 27 toward Toquerville. From there, you’ll follow UT-17 for six miles to its junction with UT-9, which will deliver you to Zion National Park.
There are three campgrounds in Zion, two of which (South and Watchman) can be reserved in advance. Both offer killer views of the towering rock formations. Drop off your camping gear, then head into the park to hike to the Emerald Pools or, if you’ve left most of the day, the classic (and seriously exposed) Angels Landing, which is not for the faint of heart. If you’re visiting on a busy weekend, holiday or any day between mid-March through fall, you’ll also need to make a shuttle reservation online to access many parts of the park (shuttle tickets are not available at the park).
If you can, plan a layover day here and snag a permit to do a top-down hike of Zion’s Narrows. This quintessential slot canyon hike is one of the park’s most iconic. It tends to be crowded on the weekend, so stick to weekdays and grab the earliest possible shuttle slot.
Leg 2: Bryce Canyon & Capitol Reef National Parks
This leg is a two-for-one national park special, and while the parks are relatively close together, you’ll want to be up with the sun to pack in as much exploring as possible if you plan to do both in the same day. Today’s drive is broken up into two shorter stretches—it’s just under two hours from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park. From Zion, head back to UT-9 (24 miles, then take a left on US-89 north. Follow US-89 for 43 miles, hang a right onto UT-12 (13 miles), and take another right onto US-63 south, which brings you into the park.
Bryce Canyon’s otherworldly hoodoos are truly unlike anything else on the planet. Pick up a map at the entrance station, then head to Sunrise Mesa for views of the Boat Mesa and Sinking Ship formations. Stretch your legs on the Queen’s Garden Trail, a 1.8-mile trip to Queen Victoria Hoodoo and back. Before you leave, swing by Bryce Point for some of the park’s best-loved vistas.
From Bryce Canyon, it’s about two hours to Capitol Reef National Park, the site of a geologic “wrinkle” in the earth’s crust. To get there, take US-63 north onto Johns Valley Road for 34 miles. Hang a left onto UT-22 (seven miles), then take a right onto UT-62 east (26 miles). Then it’s right on Browns Lane (2.7 miles) and, finally, a right on UT-24 east for a little over 17 miles into Capitol Reef. The Fruita Campground is the only developed campground in the park, and you can make reservations between March and October. The park also has two primitive campgrounds, which are free. Take in the sunset over Waterpocket Fold Cliffs on the 3.6-mile Chimney Rock Loop trail, before turning in for the night.
Leg 3: Capitol Reef to Bears Ears National Monument
Today’s drive through Utah’s high desert is around two hours and 45 minutes. From Capitol Reef, take Main Street to UT-24 east (48 miles), then continue straight on UT-95 south (93 miles). Finally, turn right on UT-261 south (four miles) and keep an eye out for the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, where you’ll start your journey.
Bears Ears National Monument has become a rallying cry in the fight for public lands, and though it’s gained plenty of press, this stretch of your Utah road trip is almost certain to be the quietest on your journey. Archaeologists estimate that the Bears Ears area contains more than 100,000 Indigenous cultural sites, and the concentration of human history here is truly awe-inspiring. The short hike to House on Fire from Mule Canyon is well worth the effort, and if you have more time, a longer hike in Road Canyon passes numerous archaeological sites. Established
campgrounds and pre-established campsites are free throughout the area.
Leg 4: Moab + Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
It’s a little less than two hours of easy driving from Kane Gulch Ranger Station to Moab. Follow UT-61 north back to UT-95, where you’ll take a right and drive for 28 miles to US-191. Follow 191 for just over 80 miles into Moab.
Stretch your legs after the drive and take a hike on the Devils Garden Trail in Arches National Park for a high concentration of arches, or drive out to Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky district and hike out to Murphy Point for a breathtaking view. It’s impossible to squeeze a trip to Moab into a single day (you could easily spend a week in this adventure hub), but whatever you do, don’t miss a malt at Milt’s Stop & Eat.
Camping in Arches and Canyonlands can be competitive, but there are plenty of campgrounds along the Colorado River on UT-128, as well as along Kane Creek Road.
Leg 5: Moab Whitewater Rafting
With the Colorado and Green Rivers flowing nearby, there’s no better place on the planet to start a river trip than Moab. If you have the time, a 4- or 6-day Cataract Canyon rafting trip will give you the ultimate taste of red rock country. Its towering cliffs, hidden side canyons and real-deal rapids are the stuff of river-rat legends. Plus, the trip gives you a backstage pass to Canyonlands National Park. Or opt for a rowdy 2- or 3-day Westwater Canyon rafting trip, just upstream from Moab. Westwater’s splashy Class III-IV whitewater and the chance to hike to cool sites like one of outlaw Butch Cassidy’s legendary hideouts will have you planning your next river trip before you even reach the takeout.
From Moab, it’s a little less than four hours back to Salt Lake City—that is, if you can pry yourself away.
Photos: The Narrows in Zion National Park – Frances Gunn/Unsplash; Bryce Canyon National Park – Photo by Edgar Chaparro/Unsplash; Camping near Moab – Photo by Ben Duchac/Unsplash; Arches National Park – Shutterstock; Cataract Canyon rafting trip – James Kaiser
*An earlier version of this Utah road trip post first appeared on the blog in 2013 and was last updated February 2021.