Utah truly is the “Best of the West”, with 14 national parks, monuments and recreation areas, 44 state parks, and millions of acres of national forest and BLM federal lands to explore.
Central Utah consists of the Great Basin, west, and the central Wasatch Mountains. Three National Forests in the region provide ample recreation opportunities. A majority of the land in central Utah is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM.
The Wasatch Front rises abruptly from the eastern edge of Salt Lake City. The Wasatch Mountains provide a myriad of excellent summer and winter outdoor recreation. opportunities remarkably close to this large metropolitan area. Most of these mountains lie within the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. The Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake consume the barren land immediately west of Salt Lake City.
Southern Utah contains five well-known National Parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. Also in the area outdoor enthusiasts will enjoy the facilities of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Manti-LaSal National Forest, Grand Gulch Primitive Area, and Natural Bridges National Monument.
Follow our road trip guide below or find a Utah Outfitter or Guide that suits your needs.
The Utah National Parks are absolutely spectacular and the landscape of each is unlike anything else you’ve seen. From the towering spires of Bryce Canyon to the deep cliffs and canyons of Zion, to the incredible stone structures of Arches, this trip packs all of these incredible parks into one itinerary along with some downtime in beautiful St. George and a trip to an accessible slot canyon for a very unique family hike.
- Road Trip Length: Salt Lake City, Utah to Arches National Park- 230 miles (3 3/4 hrs), Arches to Bryce Canyon- 272 miles (4 1/2 hrs), Bryce to Zion National Park- 86 miles (1 3/4 hrs), Zion to St George- 42 miles (1 hour), St George to Kanarraville- 39 miles (45 min), Kanarraville to Salt Lake City- 262 miles (4 hrs).
- Kids Will Love: scrambling over red rocks, the horseback ride to the canyon floor, hiking in the cool water of the slot canyon, hanging out in the pool
- Parents Will Love: awe-inspiring vistas, taking in a performance at the Red Rocks amphitheater, hiking, (and did I mention those views?!)
Arches National Park
Arches National Park holds the largest collection of natural sandstone arches found anywhere in the world- there are over 2000 arches in the park for you to explore! Located about 5 miles north of the town of Moab, it will take you almost 4 hours to drive to Arches from Salt Lake City, so plan to leave early in order to arrive at Arches in the late morning. And since there is nowhere inside of the park to purchase meals- you’ll want to pack along a lunch so that you can make the most of your time in the park.
There is a 36-mile round trip scenic drive through Arches with many places for you to pull off and take a short hike to see some of the incredible arch formations. Certainly, you won’t want to miss Balanced Rock, the short walk to the Delicate Arch Viewing Point, and Landscape Arch- which is the longest natural rock span in the world. But for a truly amazing experience- be sure to take the guided ranger hike through the Fiery Furnace (kids must be at least 5 years old for this hike). You will need to reserve your spot for this hike in advance at Recreation.gov– and be prepared for squeezing through some tight spaces, a little rock scrambling, and some solid hiking for 2-3 hours- but you won’t want to miss this adventure!
Spend the night in nearby Moab- a great place to stay is at the Red Cliffs Lodge. They can accommodate families nicely in their suites and cabins overlooking the Colorado River. And be sure to have dinner in the dining room with incredible views of red rock cliffs all around.
Today is the longest drive of the road trip, so get an early start out of Moab and head over to Bryce Canyon. What makes Bryce Canyon so unique is the vast “collection” of rock hoodoos- odd-shaped towers of rock left standing after the forces of erosion have removed everything else around these spires. They truly defy imagination.
There are several things you’ll want to do to make the most out of your visit to Bryce Canyon- take a hike down into the canyon to walk among the hoodoos (we highly recommend the Navajo and/or Queen’s Garden Trails). Or take a horseback riding tour into the canyon- 2-hour tours are for families with kids ages 7 and up – and take you down to the canyon floor and then back up again. For families with kids 10 and older, you can opt to take the 1/2 day tour (3 1/2 hours) which gives you more time exploring the hoodoos from the canyon floor while on horseback.
In the late afternoon, drive all the way to the end of the 18-mile main park road before making your way back towards the visitor’s center. The formations will take on a completely different appearance in the setting sun. For a real treat have dinner at the Bryce Canyon Lodge (no reservations required) and stay overnight at the Lodge (must reserve far in advance) or in one of the park’s campgrounds. If you still have a bit of energy left in the evening- head over to the stargazing night sky program led by park rangers- Bryce Canyon affords the perfect opportunity to take in the view of the constellations above!
Zion National Park
I suggest getting off to an early start again this morning, so you can enjoy the incredibly scenic route between Bryce and Zion National Parks when it is the least crowded. The entrance into Zion via a series of tunnels is absolutely breathtaking- and be sure to be on the lookout for bighorn sheep hanging out on or beneath the red rocks- enjoying some shade from the sun! You might want to head into Springdale first to drop your gear off at your hotel before boarding the park shuttle to tour the main area of the park. The shuttle is free and while riding it you will get a fantastic overview of the history of Zion National Park courtesy of the recorded park tour.
We rented a privately-owned cabin inside the park boundary. Absolutely DO the Angel’s Landing trail! For those who are not actual rock climbers, it’s a chance to pretend for a few minutes there at the end. You have to use handholds, chains, and other installations to hang on as you go up the last fin. Also, when entering the park, the eastern gate is best because as you go through the tunnel, the occasional maintenance openings in the side of the tunnel afford fleeting introductory views of the canyon, and it’s gorgeous when the sun’s out!
You’ll want to hop off the shuttle occasionally to take some of the more family-friendly hikes to enjoy Zion. A tried-and-true trail is the 3-mile round trip walk to see the Emerald Pools (which might look more like mud puddles if you come during the heat of the summer!). Park rangers are often on hand to enroll kids into their Junior Ranger program- and explain some of the wildlife that is found inside of the park.
After a quick dip in the hotel, pool to cool off- be sure to spend some time in the town of Springdale for dinner and a little souvenir shopping. We loved the Zion Pizza and Noodle Company as well as the Switchback Grille (which also has a great gift shop and the only wine store in town)!
North Rim of the Grand Canyon
If you have an extra day or two- I highly recommend that you make the trip 122 miles south to visit the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Much less crowded than the South Rim area- the North Rim offers incredible views and some great hikes and activities for families to enjoy.
Relax in St George
Days 4 and 5
After so much sightseeing, it’s nice to plan a little downtime for the family in a beautiful resort area- and St. George is just perfect for this! A great place to stay in the Las Palmas Resort which is adjacent to the renowned Green Valley Spa. You can rent a condo with access to fabulous pools, tennis and fitness facilities- and Mom and Dad can take a break now and then to enjoy the amenities over at the spa!
And while in St George, be sure to take in a show at the beautiful Tuacahn Amphitheatre. The productions are first-rate, rivaling anything I’ve ever seen on Broadway- and the setting makes it a unique and fun family experience!
Kanarra Creek Slot Canyon Hike and Return to Salt Lake City
My kids had been asking about hiking a slot canyon since we started planning our Utah trip, but the idea of taking on The Narrows at Zion National Park seemed a bit too daunting. So we were thrilled to learn about the slot canyon hike at Kanarra Creek Canyon, just outside of Kanarraville. This is a 3 1/2 mile round trip hike that is doable even for kids ages 7 and up (although I did see kids younger than that along the trail!).
You follow alongside the creek until the canyon walls narrow and then you walk in the cool creek for as long as you’d like. You will come to two small waterfalls that you can climb using the makeshift ladders and ropes at each waterfall, or you can turn around at this point and head back. Our family chose to climb the first waterfall (the ladder was easier to access) and then slide down some small waterfalls in the creek to cool off, before turning around and heading back.
There are even more Utah National Parks and Monuments than I included in this itinerary, including Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Monument Valley. If you can stretch your travel dates it would be amazing to see all of them. Of course, you’ll need to balance that against your kids’ patience level and desire to “see even more red rocks”. I think the above itinerary gives a family a nice balance of sightseeing at incredible parks and enjoying some vacation downtime.
Recreation opportunities in Utah are available for every skill level and interest. Rock climbing, backpacking, hiking, boating and camping are exciting endeavors for visitors during the summer, spring and fall months. In the winter skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling are favorites of locals and tourists alike.
The climate of Utah varies with the terrain. Visitors to the mountains will experience cool summer nights and passing storms that can alter a sunny day very quickly. Be prepared with layers when recreating in the mountains.
The deserts and canyons of Utah can be dangerous places. Summer temperatures often reach above 100 degrees F, so be sure to carry water on all adventures. Flash floods in the canyons are also a threat. It is difficult to predict incoming weather when deep within a canyon so check reports before venturing into any narrow canyon areas.