I’m always planning the next trip… We’re off to Antigua for Spring Break, lake time at the Ozarks this summer, and Canada fishing in the fall. Work hard to play hard! Our Utah vacation to the Big 5 National Parks ranks among our best trips.
Prior to booking reservations, I research the region, accommodations, and as many details as possible. Nailing down the key details of a trip in advance helps maximize my time enjoying the scenery!
Our family loves to visit National Parks. Each park holds its own beauty, unique experiences, and breathtaking views. I received more inquiries and questions about our Utah trip than any other trip! In July 2022, we ventured to Utah’s Big 5 National Parks which included Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capital Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. I thought I’d share my planning process, itinerary, and recommendations.
Will we want more time in one of the parks? What will the weather be like when we’re there? Are there any “must-see” sights that we can’t miss? I spend a lot of time online, researching chat rooms, blog posts, Trip Advisor, Pinterest, and more to gather information. I found an excellent resource at Utah.com. They sent me free maps and brochures of the region!
A few National Parks require reservations or a “Timed-Entry” reservation to enter the park. On our trip, Arches was the only NP that required this. I was lucky to snag reservations through the online lottery the day prior. More information about this system can be found at https://www.recreation.gov Currently, eight National parks require timed entry: Acadia, Arches, Glacier, Haleakala, Rocky Mountain, Shenandoah, Yosemite, and Muir Woods. Zion requires reservations in advance for the Angel’s Landing hike.
I also ordered an America the Beautiful US Park Pass. This pass allows entry to every United States National park for a vehicle of 4 adults and children under age 16 free. The pass costs $80, while each individual park entry fee is $35. If you’re going to visit multiple parks, it’s a no-brainer.
How to Plan:
I first determine travel dates and flights, and then progress to the fine details (where the fun begins). Important questions:
- How many days of traveling? We traveled from Friday, July 8 – Saturday, July 16, 2022. The number of days allotted for travel, combined with amount of travel time to reach each park, factors into the next decision…
- Fly or drive? To see all five National Parks, we needed to drive between the parks. We decided to fly to Utah, rent a car, and drive our route. This allowed more time in each park because we could subtract the driving time from Iowa to Utah.
- What airport do we fly into? This involved a lot of digging into blog posts, online chats, and comparison pricing. We also factored in convenience and maximizing our time at the parks. We flew into St. George airport, which is about 25 minutes from Zion. It would have been less expensive to fly into Las Vegas but involve a 3-hour drive to and from the airport (this factored in mostly for the return trip.) [Had we started our Utah tour at Arches, the closest airport is Canyonlands Regional Airport in Moab with Salt Lake City airport 4 hours away. ]
- What’s our route and itinerary? Before making any reservations, I needed to determine travel time between each park and whether we wanted to spend more time in a particular location. Again – research. I mapped out our route and made a calendar of proposed travel time. Don’t laugh, but this is what I made:
- Make lodging reservations. We have a hotel-sponsored credit card and collect points throughout the year. I look for hotels near the park entrances and use earned points when possible, or I find something comparable. [A bonus is to find a hotel with free continental breakfast to eliminate one meal on the road.]
- Plan the days! Once reservations are made, I plan the individual park adventures. I bought a Utah guidebook, searched the National Park Service app, and scoured Pinterest for the best hikes in each park. At each park, we drove through the entire park and explored the visitor centers. Going into this trip, we wanted to see a slot canyon and go white water rafting on the Colorado River. I spaced out special tours throughout the week to break up the day-to-day.
Look them up! There are many slot canyons in this region of the US. Zion is known for a huge slot canyon called The Narrows. It looked amazing but would take a full day to explore, and we would need special footwear and gear to wade through water. I found a company near Zion called East Zion Experiences and found a private UTV Slot Canyon Tour that lasted two hours. It was an amazing trip filled with breathtaking sites and a rip-roaring UTV ride. We had the slot canyon to ourselves and had over half the day to explore Zion after the tour.
White water rafting
My teenage kids were up for a white water adventure, so we booked an all-day tour toward the end of the trip. I booked this through Moab Adventure Center and chose the Westwater Canyon Full-day Rafting Adventure. The time spent broiling in the hot Utah sun was far outweighed by the Class III and IV whitewater.
The sound of the kids fearing for their lives – priceless.
Day 1: Fly into St. George.
Drive to Zion and look around and get a scope of the land! Stayed at Holiday Inn Zion for two nights.
Day 2: Guided Slot Canyon Tour followed by hikes in Zion in the afternoon.
Slot canyon tour with our guide, Sacoya, climbing on rocks, and ogling at the landscape. We were the only family on our tour and had the guide to ourselves.
After the slot canyon, we hiked a few trails in Zion. We definitely could have spent more time in Zion and barely scratched the surface of the park!
[If I did this trip again, I’d flip the sequence of hiking Zion and slot canyon tour. The location for the slot canyon tour was past Zion, so we ended up doing some backtracking. Next time, I’d hike in the cooler early morning hours and enjoy the cool slot canyon tour in the afternoon]
Day 3: Drive to Bryce Canyon. (our favorite park in Utah)
Hiked the Hoodoos (the orange spires) by combining Queen’s Garden Loop and Navajo Loop to see amazing terrain. Loved this park and it was at a higher elevation and much cooler in the July heat. We stayed at Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel.
Day 4: Drive to Capital Reef via Hwy 12 through the Grand National Staircase.
We drove through Capital Reef NP, took little hikes, and did a little off-roading! Spent all day at the park. Stayed at Red Sands Hotel in Torrey, UT.
Day 5: Start the drive toward Moab.
This was the longest road trip between parks (about 3 hours), and we broke up the trip on our way. The drive was beautiful, and we detoured to Goblin Valley State Park to explore the Little Wild Horse Slot canyon. [we were addicted to slot canyons at this point]
We continued toward Moab. We had plenty of daylight left, so we explored Canyonlands National Park (just outside of Moab) and began our three night stay at the Springhill Suites in Moab.
Day 6: Arches National Park.
We were able to get a Timed Entry slot the night before to visit Arches. We explored the whole park and saw TONS of amazing arch formations. We refrained from long hikes due to the 100 degree temperatures, but that didn’t take away from our park experience.
Before returning to hotel, I searched online for local petroglyphs sites, and I found Potash Road near our hotel. We scanned the cliff walls and found many petroglyphs!
Day 7: White Water rafting!
A great day of adventure. We bussed to our launch site and spent the day floating, rocking n’ rolling, and cheering.
Day 8: Began the journey back to St. George.
We took our time and took an alternate route to bypass the parks we’d already seen. We stopped if we saw something interesting and enjoyed the drive. Spent the night at a hotel in St. George and flew home the next morning!
Our Utah adventure was fantastic. Each park held its own unique beauty and scenery. Next time, I’d consider avoiding the mid-July high heat. We could have spent more time at each location, but our Big 5 highlight reel worked perfectly! I can’t wait to return to Utah someday.
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