Utah's Mighty Five: a Vacation Travel Itinerary
When my husband recommended Utah as our spring break destination I was less than enthused. I knew nothing about the state really, and thought it would be boring, dull, and nothing but ugly rocks. Boy was I wrong. It is a well kept secret, in my opinion, that Utah is amazing! Still rates as one of our all time favorite vacations.
We did not camp on this trip. Springtime in Utah can still be pretty cold. Also, we only had a week, so we flew and stayed in hotels in order to maximize our time visiting the parks. If you have the time to drive and bring a trailer, you could easily follow this itinerary and camp along the way. Here is how we did it.
Day 1: Fly Chicago to Salt lake City
We flew from Midway in Chicago to Salt Lake City and spent the night in a hotel there. We almost always stay at Hampton Inn hotels, or some other Hilton property, because we stay on points. Hotels nearest to the airport tend to be fewer points, so we often spend our first and last nights of a trip there. We also always fly Southwest. We typically earn a companion pass and then book the rest of our flights using points. We have both a Hilton Honors credit card and a Southwest Airlines credit card to help us earn points for travel.
Day 2: Drive Salt Lake City to Moab & visit a dinosaur quarry along the way
After a trip to Costco to buy some food, we headed to Moab. We brought an empty cooler with from home and then used that for our refrigerated items throughout the trip. You could also buy a styrofoam cooler and then just toss it when your trip ends. This was a vital part of this trip, since we were often in remote areas and had no access to restaurants or stores for meals. Planning ahead by always having our own food and water was a must on this trip!
Before we reached Moab we stopped at the Clevleland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quary. One of our daughters has always loved dinosaurs, so we couldn't take a trip to Utah and not see dinosaur bones. This Bureau of Land Management site has the greatest concentration of Jurassic dinosaur bones ever discovered. They discovered well preserved bones, but not full skeletons. This is the mystery of Cleveland-Lloyd: why are the dinosaurs all scattered in pieces? We got to see an actual fossilized bone still in the rock here. It is an off-the-beaten-path destination, but worth it for us since it was somewhat on the way and we had a dino fan with us. It is also a great reminder that public lands are not just limited to National Parks. Always consult a map to see what other public lands are near your destinations as you travel, and you may find a hidden gem that's been protected for you!
Our overnight accommodations in Moab were at another Hilton property on points. You can't go wrong with any Hilton property. We have found them to be consistently clean and comfortable. Moab is a fun town with no shortage of overnight accommodation options as well as other vacation activities if you want to do more than just visit the park. We spent two nights in Moab, before and after our visit to Arches.
Day 3: Visit Arches National Park
Arches was amazing. This is where I started to realize that I had been wrong about Utah. The sky was a bright blue, the perfect backdrop for the orange rocks to stand against. We did two longer hikes on the Park Avenue Trail and out to Landscape Arch. Both were great. We also did the short hikes/walks to Double Arch, Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint, and Balanced Rock. The weather throughout our trip was cooler in the morning when we got started but once the sun was high in the sky you will definitely want to take layers off by the afternoon. We only spent one day at Arches, but could've easily gone back to hike more another day.
Day 4: Visit Canyonlands National Park
It is about an hour drive from Moab to Canyonlands National Park. We were only able to visit the Island in the Sky portion of the park on this trip. It was here that I realized I am someone that likes the view from the bottom of a canyon rather than the top. We had planned to hike along the rim at Grand View Point Overlook, but I just couldn't. There were little kids running around and no barrier between the trail and the edge of the canyon wall. It was a long way down and made me super anxious. So we skipped that trail. We did of course walk out to Mesa Arch, which is a must. Also, all of the overlook spots are great for viewing the rivers below. It's an amazing vantage point to see how the rivers cut the canyons. This area of the park on spring break was nearly empty, and also pretty cool and windy up at the top of the canyon. I'm glad we stopped, but it was a quick stop. Visiting the lower portions of this park, The Needles and The Maze, is a completely different experience. My husband has taken several week long backpacking trips to Canyonlands. For our purposes on this trip, a few hours at the Island in the Sky portion was plenty.
We left Canyonlands and drove three hours to Torrey, UT. The Capitol Reef Resort was a fun place to stay for the next two nights. It is a large resort that, in addition to the average hotel rooms, has tee-pees and covered wagons for overnight guests. There are several campfire areas and greenspace throughout the resort. We would definitely stay here again.
Day 5: Visit Capitol Reef National Park
Driving to Capitol Reef took us through a very grey, desolate area that felt like we were driving through a large rock quarry. Then, you finally turn around a bend and find yourself entering a hidden green, lush, river valley and it feels like another world. The Waterpocket Fold and the Fremont River provided the perfect location for the Mormons to settle and stay hidden away from the rest of society.
Our entire visit to Capitol Reef was probably the highlight of our week. We all loved it. Growing up in the midwest, we learned a lot about pioneer history, life on the prairie, and westward expansion. However, this trip was our first experience with Mormon history and learning how this distinct group fit into what we knew about pioneers. This park is a great place to learn more about how the Mormon's settled in Utah. There are still pioneer structures there to see and fruit orchards that the park service maintains to this day. There was a small store that sold fresh made pastries and fruit pies that were delicious.
Our favorite hike here was into Cohab Canyon. The canyon got its name because the Mormons, who were sought by the government for their illegal polygamy, hid in the canyon together. They went to great lengths to protect their cohabitation. The Capitol Gorge to Tanks trail was where we got to see the "Pioneer Panel" where travelers etched their names into the canyon walls, and walk the road used by the pioneers to get through the canyon.
Before the Mormon pioneers settled here, there were ancient people groups that utilized the Fremont River valley as well. There are many petroglyphs etched into rock walls that are easy to see along the trails.
One last fun thing we did at Capitol Reef was drive the length of the Waterpocket Fold along Notom-Bullfrog Road. This is often an unpaved road and not traveled often. It gives you a great view of the "reef" and surrounding wilderness scenery. Our destination was to the Surprise Canyon trail, but honestly hiking the trail wasn't as memorable as driving the road to and from and kicking up dust along the way.
Day 6: more Capitol Reef & drive through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
It was about a three hour drive from Torrey, UT to our next overnight location. You'll want to take Highway 12, even though it isn't the fastest route. Driving over Boulder Mountain allowed for a spectacular view of Capitol Reef, the area that we just spent the last days exploring. The summit was 9,600 feet and then we headed back down to drive through the vast, nearly one million acres of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This was a fun drive with absolutely nothing to see for miles except wilderness. This area is so remote that it was one of the last places in the continental United States to be mapped. I love that there are still places that are natural, undeveloped, and protected. There is a visitor center in Escalante, which is about at the halfway mark.
Our overnight accommodations were at the Grand Staircase Inn. This was a small, local motel connected to a gas station, and definitely not the Hilton we are used to. But it was spacious, clean, and inexpensive. We would definitely stay again. If you wanted to drive closer to the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park, there are many other options to choose from. We found that area to be much more touristy and prices were higher. This option fit into our budget better.
Day 7: Visit Bryce Canyon National Park & drive to Springdale, UT
Our main goal at Bryce Canyon was to see a bristlecone pine tree. Bristlecone pines are some of the oldest living things on the planet. Of course, they grow at high altitudes, above 5,500 feet. On the spring day we were at Bryce Canyon, there was still several feet of snow on the trails at that elevation. In addition, there was a storm blowing in, literally. Nonetheless we found the trail, did the hike, saw the trees, and made the memories. And since none of us died in the process it was totally worth it. They are a gnarly looking species and it's amazing that they can thrive in such conditions.
We only had a few hours at Bryce because we needed to get to lower elevation before the winter storm hit. We didn't really get to hike the hoodoos or see anything at lower elevations. Hopefully someday we can go back. And next time I hope it's summer.
Day 8: Visit Zion National Park
I would say Zion is best known among the parks we visited on this trip. Because of that, it was also the most crowded. There was a mandatory shuttle bus that ran into Zion Canyon. We drove as much of the canyon as we could and took the shuttle the rest of the way. We hiked the Riverside Walk trail to the Narrows entrance, but did not hike the Narrows. The weather was not cooperating with us while we were at Zion. It was raining/sleeting which is not favorable when driving switchbacks. We did see a lot of bighorn sheep at a really close distance, which was fun. But overall, Zion would probably rate lowest of all the parks we visited on this trip. It was just ok. Someday I'd like to give it another chance and go back when the weather is better to see if it's more enjoyable.
While visiting Zion we stayed on points at a Hilton property in Springdale, UT. Like Moab at the start of our trip, Zion and the Springdale area offers many options for accommodations as well as options for other outdoor activities. We spent two nights in Springdale, one before and one after our visit to Zion.
Day 9 & 10: drive back to SLC & fly home
The drive back to SLC was about 5 hours and absolutely beautiful. In Utah, it seems there is always a mountain in the distance and lots of wide open land between. We spent one last night in SLC at a Hilton property using points, and flew out on day ten. Can't wait to go back!