With otherworldly landscapes and surreal formations displaying nature’s artistry on a dramatic scale, Southern Utah is home to some of the world’s most captivating terrain. In one short trip, you’ll follow the footsteps of ancient cultures, trail the paths of pioneers, and stand in the presence of giants – hoodoos, canyons, arches, pinnacles, and buttes – that astonish the eye and expand the mind on a quest through the Wild West.
Arrival in Salt Lake City
It is only a short flight of less than 2 hours from LAX to Salt Lake City where there is a lot to see and do from the iconic Temple Square, home of the Mormons, a full lineup of performing arts, craft breweries and a growing food scene. The city is also flourishing with brewpubs and craft cocktail bars and has great walkability, rideshares and public transit. Plan to stay a couple of days, or at least overnight for an early start the next day. Another piece of advice is to check out the national parks fees. Prices vary from park to park and you might wish to consider the new America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass for $80 USD – that can be purchased online.
Day 1: Salt Lake City to Arches National Park
Picking up an Alamo car rental, best to hit the open road early for the 3.5 to 4 hour trip to Arches National Park where the real adventure begins! With thousands of natural arches, balancing rocks, giant fins, and towering pinnacles, there are endless options for an afternoon of jaw-dropping scenery. Take the short 2.5 km hike to the park’s most iconic landmark, Delicate Arch. Or, reserve a guided tour through the Fiery Furnace — a labyrinth of red ochre rocks, sandstone canyons, and natural arches. There is also a 58 km round-trip Arches scenic drive that takes about 2.5 hours. Accommodation for the next two nights is in Moab, which is perfectly located for easy access to both Arches and Canyonlands national parks .
Venture Far Insight: It is worthwhile stopping at the Arches Visitor’s Centre located to the north of Moab with information and recommendations on the ideal times to get the best photo memories.
Day 2: Arches National Park to Canyonlands National Park
It’s on to Canyonlands National Park where soaring mesas and deep canyons carved by the current of the Colorado and Green rivers create mind-blowing vistas. This place is big, really big, which means you’ll feel small, really small in the way only a wild gaping land can make you feel. Sliced into three districts: The Island in the Sky is about a 45-minute drive northwest of Moab; the Needles District is 1.5 hours south of Moab and the Maze District is extremely remote and needs a year-round permit and a lot of planning to visit. Sunrise and sunset, as can be expected, are the best times of the day and not to be missed is heading down Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway (state Route 313) for breathtaking panoramic views 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. Don’t forget to get some picnic supplies in Moab for the next day as there are not a lot of places to eat or get petrol.
Venture Far Insight: If you want to replicate one of the iconic sunrise images, get up early to be at Mesa Arch to see the sunrise — a relatively easy 30-minute walk.
Day 3: Canyonlands National Park to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Set the alarm for an early start and take in the changing scenery as the play of light casts shadows on this ancient landscape as the sun rises. Before you arrive at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, about 2 hours out of Moab you will see a signpost to Goosenecks State Park. Take the quick detour as it is only about 5 kms from the highway and at the carpark get out for spectacular views of the San Juan River that has carved its way 300 metres below in a series of oxbows. It is now only about 40 minutes to the iconic Western landscape made famous by Hollywood films — Monument Valley. While many think of it as cowboy country, it’s home — and has been for thousands of years — to indigenous Native American tribes. Monument Valley is where soaring sandstone buttes reach skyward on sunbaked red-sands barely touched by time. Drive the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway to hit all the major monuments, most notably The Mittens, John Ford’s Point, and Three Sisters. Overnight accommodation is at Monument Valley.
Venture Far Insight: Look for the “Mile Marker 13” sign about 20-minutes before reaching Navajo Tribal Park to pull over and get a great view of the road stretching out before you. This is a must-see stop for any Forrest Gump groupies.
Day 4: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park to Capitol Reef National Park
Another early rise (lucky there is not much to do at night but stargaze), head north to Natural Bridges National Monument, home to three of the world’s five largest sandstone bridges. Next stop: the geographical wonders of Capitol Reef National Park, including the spectacular Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile fold in the Earth’s crust that’s uplifted colourful swaths of sandstone canyons and reefs. Take the Capitol Reef Country Scenic Byway (state Route 24) through the park’s pristine canyons, visit Fruita, an orchard planted by pioneers, and stop to see the ancient petroglyphs — mysterious rock art created by the ancient inhabitants of the area. Overnight accommodation is at Torrey.
Venture Far Insight: Don’t forget to ask the park rangers on some of the hikes available, such as to Hickman Bridge, where you can take in the stunning scenery of this desert region with a natural bridge spanning the landscape, or the longer hike to Cohab Canyon.
Day 5: Capitol Reef National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park
It is only about a 3-hour drive and just when you thought you had seen it all, Mother Nature throws you a curveball at your next stop — Bryce Canyon National Park. Welcome to the land of hoodoos where crimson pillars stand in silent assembly in natural amphitheaters — a scene so spellbinding it’s almost unimaginable. Take the main road through the park for spectacular overlooks at Inspiration Point, Bryce Point, Sunrise Point, or Sunset Point. Or, hike the Rim Trail which gives you an expansive and shifting view of the hoodoos. Overnight accommodation is at Bryce Canyon.
Venture Far Insight: For an unforgettable experience head to Sunset Point and watch the sun close over the hoodoo dotted canyon. If it is a full moon, ask the park rangers about going on a full moon hike – or take part in one of the many stargazing events that occur during the year.
Day 6: Bryce Canyon National Park to Zion National Park
Now that you are used to getting up early – before heading to Zion National Park why not book a guided mule or horse trip in the morning, passing stunning rock formations as you travel to the floor of the park? Travel along the Mount Carmel Scenic Byway (U.S. Highway 89) through amazing scenery and Long Canyon and into Zion National Park via the Zion Park Scenic Byway. Zion us Utah’s most popular (and oldest) park. Located on the edge of the Colorado Plateau and carved by the Virgin River, Zion National Park offers an incredible diversity of wildlife and geological features, including slot canyons, natural pools, canyons, and cliffs. Or, get your adrenaline pumping with a guided canyoneering trip where you’ll rappel, climb, and hike through hidden canyons. Overnight at Zion National Park.
VFAR Insight: The Emerald Pools hike is a relatively easy 5 km round-trip loop that is great for all ages.
Day 7: Zion National Park to Las Vegas
Before leaving Zion National Park and heading to Las Vegas, there is time for one last hike. The Narrows, which follows the shallow Virgin River, is known as one of the world’s best slot canyon hikes . There is lots of information on how to adapt the walk for any ability level and time frame. It is then time to leave the stories of stone written by the forces of water and wind and head back to the big city. It’s approximately a 3.5-hour drive from Zion National Park and back to reality in Las Vegas, where the body clock changes time from early morning rises to late night settings.