The Ultimate Utah Road Trip
So it’s been nine (NINE?!?!) months since the pandemic read the rights to our social lives and travel plans, and as the weather starts to get colder, it’s becoming glaringly obvious that our inner wanderlust did not get the corona-memo. We can’t recommend international travel now or for the foreseeable future for our fellow Americans (just because you can go doesn’t mean you should go?), but we may have a COVID-19-safe loophole to satisfy that nagging travel junkie: buckle up baby, let’s road trip!!!
Ok, so we’re not pretending that the road trip idea is revolutionary; some of our national parks have been seeing record numbers of visitors this year, but there’s a reason people are taking to the outdoors in hoards… it’s the only thing to do! There’s so much to see and do in these United States, but this post will focus on a Utah road trip itinerary for a couple reasons: the southwest is more temperate during the winter than its northeast counterparts, Utah is chock-full of some of the country’s best national parks, the state has the best free dispersed camping, and we’re simply obsessed. Whether you rent a van, RV, or car camp the old fashion way this 12-day itinerary will be sure to cure those travel withdrawal symptoms and turn you into a bonafide desert rat.
MOAB – 4 days
The spirit of adventure is alive and well in Moab. It’s old world charm mixed with strong ~vacation energy~ will take hold of your heart the same way it did to ours. Moab is an old wild west town that’s experiencing an outdoor-chic growth spurt. As you enter town heading southbound, you’ll first pass lots of prime boondocking spots looking over into the red and green (yes green!) marscape and the outskirts of Arches National Park. As you drive into town you’ll understand the kind of massive development boom this little town is experiencing. You’ll see instagram-worthy glamping has moved in next to a hippy hand-painted t-shirt shop which is also next to Woody’s Tavern. The Tavern is a dive and the only true bar in town where the more rugged locals hang out (warning: Utah’s got some funky liquor laws). Zooming through town are side-by-sides that have just returned from a day of off-roading (these things are truly the real deal). Something about this town makes you forget that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and things seem as carefree as they used to, partially because of a few anti-maskers (we don’t love their energy), but mostly because of the positive vibes of the town (that we do love). We loved our time there so much that we kept saying “Moab is home” over and over joking that we would never leave. If boondocking isn’t your idea of home, we recommend Slickrock Campground (a brand new traditional campground with very clean bathrooms) or Under Canvas (très chic luxury glamping $$$) for camping experiences with more amenities.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
Spend your first two days exploring Arches National Park. If you’re visiting in the winter months, heat will not play as large a role in planning your day as it would in the summer months (when we visited). Still, as a general rule be prepared for the desert by packing lots of water, salty snacks, and knowing your limits. Arches is one of the more popular national parks in the state (and for good reason!), so try to hit the park as early as possible to beat the crowds. For more populated hikes like the trail to Delicate Arch, be prepared to don a mask in larger crowds.
All roads lead to Moab! No really, there are hundreds of miles of off-roading trails that sprawl out from every direction of Moab. These rigs are next level; you would not believe the kinds of terrain they’re capable of traversing. Truly a marvel of machinery. Take some sunscreen, sunglasses, and some gumption, and experience the slickrock in the most exhilarating way possible. It is the thing to do in Moab, and we promise you’ve never done anything like it.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Spend your last day in Moab exploring Canyonlands National Park. Arches gets all the attention, but Canyonlands left a lasting impression on us. Stop and see Mesa Arch and Whale Rock, and enjoy the panoramic canyon views. Hot take: the canyons of Canyonlands NP rival even that of the Grand Canyon. If you’re looking for an extension of this leg of the trip, look into rafting trips on the Green River which flows through the park. This will definitely be on our itinerary next time around!
Another point of interest is Canyonlands’ neighbor, Dead Horse State Park, which we had to reluctantly pass up during our visit. Quick question, why are there so many points of attraction named after dead horses in the American West??? Anyway, note that Dead Horse State Park is the only place on this itinerary that is not included under the “America the Beautiful” national park pass and is $20 to enter.
We’re sure that, like us, you’ll be leaving Moab with a heavy heart, but before you leave, make sure to stock up on any alcohol you may want for the rest of the trip, because it will be literally hundreds of miles before the next liquor store.
CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK – 2 days
From Moab, Capitol Reef National Park is only a 2.5 hour drive. Entering Capitol Reef is like going back in time, like wayyyyy back in time; it’s one of the less visited national parks (why? we can’t explain) and all the park signs are relics from the 1970s. Driving by, it’s a landscape that so obviously resembles the sea floor, it’s hard to believe that it’s been millions of years since it was under water. There’s lots of smaller hikes in the northern section of the park such as Cassidy Arch and Chimney Rock Trails. If you happen to be here in the summer, we recommend doing two shorter hikes (one in the morning and one later in the day) instead of one long hike as it can get really hot here mid day. In the middle of the park you’ll find orchards, and if you’re lucky enough that your trip coincides with a harvest, you can eat as much as you can for free. If you’re looking for more of a challenge and want the park to yourself, the southern part of the park is only accessible by a few dirt roads and backpacking trails.
GRAND STAIRCASE ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT – 2 days
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is a little over an hour away from Capitol Reef and may be one of the most scenic drives we’ve ever experienced. You’ll drive through forested mountains with free range cattle (we would not recommend driving this route during nightfall, the cows here rule the roost). At one point, the winding road takes you down a precipitous narrow ridgeline that is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. It really left us wondering who looked at that knife’s edge and said, “let’s put a major road here!” Head-scratching civil engineering aside, it’s a scenic route not to be missed.
About 20 minutes outside the park, you’ll pass Kiva Koffeehouse which is the best breakfast and coffee in town. OK, it’s the only breakfast and coffee in town, but this little oasis tucked away in the mountains is a genuine treat. It offers breathtaking views and delicious food. The koffeehouse is open and bright and makes you want to stay forever! And if you indeed never want to leave, we’ve got good news for you– they rent out a guest house just underneath the restaurant! Pro-tip: get there early. The line starts when they open; good news (coffee?) travels fast.
After you’ve been fed and caffeinated, there’s many options for a proper day spent in Grand Staircase Escalante. There’s world famous slot canyons (get an early start, pack lots of water, and pack light- they can be a ~tight squeeze~). If you’re looking for more of an adventure, there’s also more involved trails that require climbing equipment.
Grand Staircase Escalante is an adult playground, there’s so many natural wonders to discover here. Unfortunately, under the Trump Administration, the protected land designated as Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument has shrunk by over 47%. Some of the most popular hikes and natural formations are no longer protected (like the one pictured below). If you’d like to use your voice to help, send a message to President Trump and his administration to stop the destruction of our public lands.
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK – 1 day
From Grand Staircase Escalante, you’ll make the short drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. In Bryce Canyon City you’ll be met with more civilization than you’ve seen since Moab (we’re talking a single street of businesses with questionable mask-wearing policies, but hey, there’s a gas station that sells beer and peanut butter, we can’t have it all). Bryce Canyon NP is long and skinny and basically encompasses a canyon (no, really??!). The star of the show here is definitely a formation called a hoodoo. Aside from being a great band name, these structures are tall, thin spires of rock made from softer rock around them eroding over time (geology lesson over, we promise). To get the best view of Bryce Canyon’s impressive display of hoodoos is by hiking the “Figure 8 Loop.” It’s a 7 mile loop that hikes down and up both sides of the canyon. Parts of it are heavily trafficked, but less visitors commit to hiking the full loop. If you’re looking for an alternative way to experience the trail, we saw groups of trail riding tours and it seemed like a very romantic way to take in the scenery.
ZION NATIONAL PARK – 3 days
The drive to Zion is about an hour and a half to the Eastern Gate. To be perfectly honest, we were not prepared for the spiritual experience that it is to drive through Zion; you’ll drive past massive towering rocks of granite and their biblical proportions make you understand why it’s named after the promised land.
We allotted three days for this national park not only because we wish we had planned more time here, but there’s so many different things to do. A quick COVID-19 disclaimer: the main road of the park is completely closed to private cars and runs completely on a shuttle system. Most of the main attractions like the Narrows or Angels Landing are along this road, but we opted out of the shuttle system seeing as the wait times are 40+ minutes and they’re gasoline powered corona virus vectors. If you do happen to use the shuttle system, you’ll have to buy tickets ahead of time. There is a finite number of tickets that they release for each day, so make sure your first in the virtual line.
There are a couple ways to enjoy the park sans-shuttle, and they all require a fair amount of physical activity. We’re gluttons for punishment and embarked on a 21-mile day hike to Observation Point from the east entrance, only to find out that there is a much shorter trail from Ponderosa Ranch, so pick your poison! Another way to experience the shuttle road is to rent a bike and pedal down the 8 mile road and back. The town of Springdale has both regular and electric bikes for rent to accommodate this journey. There’s lots of different backpacking opportunities throughout the park, the most popular being the West Rim Trail and the Narrows, but plan ahead because the backpacking permits for most overnight treks get snatched up quickly. When you’ve finished your hike, be sure to check out Spotted Dog Cafe in Springdale which fed our souls and stomachs with amazing pasta after our 21 mile hike. Whatever adventure you choose in Zion, we’re sure that it will be one to remember, and the perfect way to end your COVID-19-safe road trip.
A few helpful resources:
Campendium is like the Tripadvisor of camping. Whether you’re looking for free dispersed camping (we’ve become very well acquainted with BLM lands and Walmart parking lots) or privately run campgrounds, this app has reviews, contact information, and even cell signal data (ya girls need some functional cell service here and there) that will enable you to choose the perfect spot for you!
For a general idea of the route, click here!