A road trip in Utah is a journey of otherworldly vistas, colorful history, and diverse natural life – all wrapped up in the rugged trappings of the Old West. This is one rambling ride you will never forget. So buckle up and start your engines. Let’s set off on a road trip in Utah.
Start in the sprawling Canyonlands National Park
Launch your road trip in Utah in the Canyonlands National Park, Utah’s largest. Head straight to the park’s Island in the Sky outlook in the park’s northern sector, where the expansive views are a definite cause for pause. The sheer intersection of vertical canyon walls with the flat desert plain looks like a sink hole on steroids.
Take a detour to the Dead Horse Point State Park
At Dead Horse Point, the bird’s eye view of the serpentine Colorado River from a dizzying height of 2,000 feet will stagger you. Look west to see the Shafer Trail, a dusty road leading to a sheer cliff. If the scene looks oddly familiar, you are not dreaming. Shafer Trail is where Thelma and Louise ended their ill-fated road trip.
Hit the highlights of the Arches National Park
Arches National Park is a freaky fairyland of improbable rock formations, including over 2,000 natural arches. Just beyond the park entrance, ditch the wheels for an easy stroll along the Park Avenue trail. You will pass through a canyon lined with geometrically scored cliffs and towering pinnacles resembling urban skyscrapers.
Next, do a drive-by the precarious Balanced Rock in favor of the one-mile round trip walk to the dramatic Double Arch. It comes as no surprise that the show-stopping Double Arch served as the backdrop for the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The last stop in Arches National Park is a trek to the Delicate Arch, featured on the Utah license plate. Strap on your hiking shoes for a challenging 3-mile round trip scramble, often on steep, bare rock. The payoff is a close encounter with the Delicate Arch, arguably Utah’s most iconic landmark.
Make Moab your base for recreation – and rest
Off-roading, river rafting, canyoneering, mountain biking, jetboating….how much action can you stand? Adrift Adventures is a one-stop shop in Moab for adrenaline junkies. Fuel up beforehand at the endearingly old school Love Muffin Café, and unwind afterward with a local lager at the Moab Brewery.
Lay your weary head a scenic 30-minute drive outside Moab at the Red Cliffs Lodge. Aside from the drop-dead gorgeous riverside setting, the Red Cliffs Lodge is a real multi-tasker: a working ranch, cowboy-chic accommodations, and an award-winning winery. Don’t miss a visit to the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage at the Red Cliffs Lodge, a collection of memorabilia from the many movies shot in the area.
Browse Newspaper Rock, or should we say Facebook Rock?
About an hour south of Moab on Utah Route 211, the foreboding desert landscape suddenly gives way to an unexpected oasis of cottonwoods fringing a pristine stream. It is easy to imagine weary travelers, hunters, and explorers gathering at this place of refuge over the years.
But you don’t have to use your imagination. For thousands of years, visitors have expressed themselves in carvings here on the sheer rock wall. Some 650 petroglyphs and pictographs remain intact on what is now called Newspaper Rock. Call it really retro social media.
Lose the crowds, not the experience
The Natural Bridges National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park are two less-trafficked gems that pack a big punch. On the two-lane roads that lead to these remote beauties, you will go for miles without passing another car, hours without seeing a gas station, and – be forewarned – what seems like forever until you come upon a State Licensed Liquor Store.
Along the way, scour the improbably precarious rocky ledges for bighorn sheep. Be on the lookout for the second fastest animal on the planet, the pronghorn. Scan the sky for the peregrine falcon, the talented, lethal, dive-bombing bird of prey.
The sleepy town of Torrey makes a good place to hang your hat after exploring the Natural Bridges National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park. At the Capitol Reef Resort, modern-day pioneers can opt for standard guest rooms, cabins, tepees or Conestoga Wagons. Dine at the surprisingly sophisticated Café Diablo in Torrey, where rattlesnake cakes and pumpkin seed trout are among the offerings.
End your road trip in Utah on a high note: Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks
The climax of any road trip in Utah is a visit to the state’s two national park powerhouses: Zion and Bryce Canyon. Both Bryce Canyon and Zion are rich with vivid vistas that will leave you breathless. Accordingly, both parks are wildly popular with visitors.
To handle the traffic, the Park Service operates free shuttles along the scenic roads in both parks from spring through fall. For a more intimate experience, take a hike along one of more than one hundred miles of trails traversing the two parks. Better yet, book ahead to snag an overnight stay on park property at the Zion or Bryce Canyon lodges.
Though only 80 miles apart, the geology of the two parks is strikingly diverse. In Zion, the scenic drive follows the canyon floor. The eye is continually drawn up toward the colorful towering cliffs of Navajo sandstone. Along the Zion canyon floor, the waters of the Virgin River nourish an abundance of life.
In contrast, the Bryce Canyon scenic drive crawls along the edge of a massive plateau. The vertigo-inducing views are downward, toward the arid land below. Bryce Canyon is famous for a unique rock formation known as a ‘hoodoo’. A hoodoo is a towering limestone column topped with a rocky orb. Consider the hoodoo nature’s erotica – undeniably phallic in form.
Sunset and sunrise are prime viewing hours in Bryce Canyon, but the night sky is the main event. The elevation, dry air and remoteness combine to make Bryce Canyon one of the darkest places in the world, and a superlative stage for stargazing. Dark Ranger Telescope Tours offers witty, insightful excursions through the cosmos.