Southern Utah is home to some of the most diverse, otherworldly landscapes in the United States, including all five of Utah’s National Parks – affectionately dubbed the Utah Mighty 5. If you plan a road trip just right, you can hit all five amazing parks in a week’s time.
That’s what my husband and I decided to do in October. Come along for the ride as we recap how we successfully hit the Utah Mighty 5, along with Petrified Forest National Park and Monument Valley Tribal Park, in seven days.
Deciding Our Path
Alex and I are Phoenix-based explorers, which gives us relatively easy access to southern Utah’s national, state, and tribal parks. Unlike our last van road trip where we had two weeks, we knew we had a limited timeline for this trip. Understanding our must-see items and how much time we wanted in each park helped us decide on the best path. Ultimately we decided on a Friday to Friday trip, visiting the parks from East to West in a loop.
We reserved a converted Dodge Ram Promaster from Arizona Campervan for the journey. These vans are custom-built with different interiors and include unlimited miles. They are our go-to when planning extended road trips.
Here’s a breakdown of our day-by-day adventures.
Day 1: Petrified Forest National Park
After gearing up our van, we left Tempe and headed for Petrified Forest National Park. Admittedly, this park was added to the trip to “cross it off the list,” but ended up being quite the surprise.
Getting to the park took about 3.5 hours from Tempe by way of highways 87 and 260. We spent a grand total of about 2 hours in the park and traveled from the southern park entrance on Highway 180, through the park, and out to the northern entrance near Interstate 40. We gave ourselves time for a few stops for short walks and viewpoints.
Rainbow Forest Museum & Giant Logs Trail
At the Rainbow Forest Museum, we explored exhibits about the park’s unique geology and prehistoric history. We then walked the Giant Logs Trail adjacent to the museum. This loop is less than half a mile and is fully paved, making it an easy trail for most explorers. You get to see logs like Old Faithful and view many of the petrified trees up close.
Crystal Forest Trail
This short trail is famous for its concentration of glittering quartz in many of the petrified logs. We loved getting to examine the mineral composition of these logs and how it differed from the ones just up the road on the Giant Logs trail. The trail was only .8 miles and had a gentle elevation gain of 36 feet.
Blue Mesa Drive
This beautiful scenic loop takes you into the blueish-purple badland hills of Petrified Forest National Park. The landscape was beautiful, and for those who want to explore further, there is a one-mile trail that takes you into the badlands. We opted just for the viewpoint.
Painted Desert View Point
In direct contrast to the Blue Mesa drive, the Painted Desert viewpoint overlooks expansive hills of red and orange. There’s a one-mile trail along the rim for those who want to see different vantage points.
Overall, Petrified Forest surprised us with how unique the park’s landscape is. When visiting, keep in mind this park closes overnight to those who are not backpacking. Park rangers will remind you when it’s time to head out for the evening.
Check out Camping World’s full guide to RVing Petrified Forest National Park for more info.
We continued on our way to Monument Valley after exiting the park to be prepared for our sunrise tour the next morning. So, onward we went to our RV spot at The View Hotel.
Day 2: Monument Valley
Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, or Monument Valley, is about as iconic Southwest as it gets. Featured in many westerns and sacred to the people who call the Valley home, it’s high on many travel lists for a reason.
As tourists, we wanted to ensure we visited the park in a way that respected the land and used the Navajo Nation Tribal Parks website to find a 100% Diné (Navajo) owned-and-operated tour company. We booked the 3-hour sunrise excursion with Blackwater Tours and were lucky enough to be the only people on the tour.
Sunrise at Mitten Viewpoint
We caught the buttes just as the sun lit up the iconic red sandstone. This view gives you the opportunity to see buttes like the Mittens, Sentinel Mesa, and the Three Sisters.
John Ford’s Point
Famous for its appearance in many films, this stop offers panoramic views of the valley. We were there before most of the area opened up, but there is a Fry Bread shop and a few places where local, indigenous artisans sell their crafts. You can also opt to take a picture of the iconic view atop a beautiful Buckskin horse. Just be sure to please tip the owner!
Holes, Arches and Anasazi Petroglyphs
There are numerous holes and arches in Monument Valley. We got to spend time at The Big Hogan, Moccasin Arch, Sun’s Eye Arch, and Ear of the Wind Arch. We also got to see petroglyphs from the ancient Anasazi peoples.
If you want, you can drive the 17-mile loop in Monument Valley on your own, but you leave so much on the table, both in terms of sightseeing and cultural significance. I highly recommend booking a tour with an indigenous-owned company to truly understand the importance of the land’s history and the people who still call the Valley home today.
After our tour, we traveled to our campsite at Sand Flats Recreation area near Moab, Utah, and relaxed for the rest of the day.
Day 3: Canyonlands National Park
Here begins our tour of the Utah Mighty 5! First up, Canyonlands. This park is broken into three districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Each district has its own entrance, and traveling between them takes at least two hours. We opted to only explore Island in the Sky and come back another time to hit The Needles and The Maze.
Upheaval Dome 1st & 2nd Lookouts
We made it to both viewpoints on this trail, and each one provided beautiful views overlooking the canyon and a deep crater with mineral-tinged rocks. The trail was 1.4 miles round trip with a modest 282 feet of elevation gain.
Green River Overlook
Canyonlands was formed by the combined powers of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Green River Overlook gives you sweeping views of the canyon and is easily accessible for people of any ability.
Grand View Point Overlook
Drive to the end of Island in the Sky, and you’ll reach Grand View Point Overlook. Stand at the edge and take in the panoramic scene of Canyonlands. To your left is the Colorado River, and to your right, you’ll see the Green River. If you look in the distance toward the southeast, you can see the Needles District across the canyon. We trekked the 1.8-mile rim trail for better views.
On our way out of the park, we stopped at Mesa Arch. It’s a relatively short walk to the arch and back, just over a half-mile round trip. This was one of my favorite stops of the day. The arch acts as a window overlooking the canyon. Just be careful when you go for pictures because it is a sheer drop on the other side.
Read more tips for this park in Camping World’s guide to RVing Canyonlands.
We finished the day by heading back to Moab, where our friends Jeff and Brooke met up with us for the remaining four parks.
Day 4: Arches National Park
Arches was next on the line-up due to its proximity to Moab. This was a park that we had to plan for in advance, as it requires timed entry from April through October. We reserved a 7 am to 8 am entry slot so we could hit the trails early.
We headed straight for Delicate Arch before crowds started to roll in. The hike wasn’t long at only 3.3 miles roundtrip, but you’ll climb about 700 feet. Some of that climb is on smooth, round sandstone. There’s not much to prepare you for just how large Delicate Arch truly is in person. It was a bucket list item that we were excited to finally check off the list.
Landscape & Pine Tree Arch via Devil’s Garden
We then ventured over Devil’s Garden where you get to see Landscape Arch and take an optional offshoot to Pine Arch. I’ll admit that Landscape Arch, while beautiful, was a bit underwhelming. We really enjoyed Pine Arch because it was a bit more secluded and impressive. The trail was 2.2 miles long and 207 feet of gain.
Our last stop for the day was Double Arch. It was crowded, and for good reason. If Delicate Arch weren’t on the Utah license plate, Double Arch would be. You can take in the views from the short walk up to the arches, or you can scramble up the rocks to sit underneath them. We made the climb and spent some time relaxing under the arches.
Explore more about this park in this guide to RVing Arches National Park.
We hit the road toward Capitol Reef around 3 pm and arrived at our in-park campsite at around 5:30. We ate dinner alongside the herd of deer that were wandering around the campground and enjoyed some stargazing before heading to sleep.
Day 5: Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is newer to the roster. It gained National Park status in 1971, making it the youngest of the Utah Mighty 5. But just because it was late to the party doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive.
Capitol Gorge Trail
We started our day driving down the scenic road and continuing on the unpaved path to Capitol Gorge. Though unpaved, you don’t need a high-clearance vehicle to reach this trailhead. We walked through the gorge and passed cool features like the Pioneer Register, where former explorers left their mark. Some names date back to the late 1800s!
While it is cool to see the history of these explorers, today, it’s illegal to carve your name in the rock. Always remember to Leave No Trace when exploring our natural lands.
We also took the trail up the gorge to see the tanks. You can leave this one off the list. The payoff wasn’t worth it, and the trail is hard to find on your way back down. We all ended up off-trail, finding different ways back down into the gorge. In total, we hiked about 2.7 miles with 200 feet of gain.
We then drove back toward the park visitor center and the Hickman Bridge trail. This 1.9-mile out-and-back hike takes you to a natural bridge and gives you beautiful views of the Fremont River as you hike up into the mountains. We climbed a total of 440 feet, and this was one of my favorite hikes of the trip.
Fruita Historic District
Capitol Reef’s verdant valley has been a place where people could reliably grow food for thousands of years. To this day, it’s still a working orchard with hundreds of fruit varieties. In season, you can go into the orchards, pick, and eat fruit right off the tree.
Learn more about this district, and other sights, in this guide to RVing Capitol Reef.
After a day of exploring, it was time to head toward our next campground near Bryce Canyon. On our drive out, I hoped to stop off at the iconic rock formations known as the Temple of the Sun and Moon. Unfortunately, at the time, I thought they were called Twin Rocks, and we missed them altogether because they were on the opposite side of the park from where we were. Oops…a lesson learned for next time, and for all you future Utah Mighty 5 explorers.
Day 6: Bryce Canyon National Park
Time for the famous hoodoos! I’ve been looking forward to Bryce Canyon for a very long time. So, let’s not waste any time getting to the good stuff.
Navajo to Queens Garden Loop
Prepare your knees; it’s time for the iconic switchbacks. You can start this trail at Sunrise or Sunset Point, but the park service website recommends Sunset. So do we. You’ll venture into the canyon with the hoodoos and stunning views at each turn. You get to see iconic formations like Thor’s Hammer and Queen Victoria, along with hundreds of orange spires that look like you are on another planet. The trail is about three miles long and boasts 640 feet of climbing.
Rainbow Point & Bristlecone Loop
If you drive all the way to the end of the road, you’ll hit the highest point in Bryce Canyon at around 9,000 feet of elevation. Take the loop trail to see Bristlecone Pines that only grow at high elevations. Some of the trees are over 1,600 years old. That trail is just over a mile with under 200 feet of elevation change. Keep in mind that at this high elevation, oxygen levels are lower than you might be used to.
Natural Bridge Overlook
On our way back down, we stopped at Natural Bridge Overlook because our friend Jeff wanted to find “an arch in every park.” Spoiler alert: he was unsuccessful in Zion, but vowed to try again. It’s a nice overlook with lovely views of Natural Bridge.
Bryce Canyon truly took our breath away. There’s so much more of this park that I want to see, and we’ll absolutely be back to tackle Fairyland Loop and some longer hikes. After a fun day of exploring, it was time to make our way to the last park on the roster: Zion National Park. We got into the park late in the afternoon and set up at our spot in South Campground for the next two nights.
Day 7: Zion National Park
Home of famous hikes like The Narrows and Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park is a stunning testament to just how lush and biodiverse a desert can be. This park draws over 5 million visitors per year, so plan your activities wisely if you want to avoid crowds.
Because of its popularity, most of the year, Zion closes the scenic road into the valley to outside traffic, and visitors must utilize the park-run shuttle. It’s free and runs continuously, so you’ll never wait long, but you will need to plan for crowds. If you stay at South Campground, it’s a short walk to the visitor center to catch the shuttle.
Upper, Middle & Lower Emerald Pools
We planned for a very early start and caught the first shuttle at 7 am. to the trailhead at Zion Lodge. We took The Grotto trail up to the Kayenta trail, which takes you to all three of the Emerald Pools.
Because we got to this trail so early, when most people were heading to Angel’s Landing, we shared the trail with very few hikers. If you are the type that likes to avoid crowds, this is the way to go. The trail took us along the Virgin River and up into the mountains to see the iconic Emerald Pools. We hiked about five miles and climbed about 725 feet.
After Emerald Pools, we hopped back on the shuttle to the final stop at the Temple of Sinawava. We took the mile-long Riverside Walk to the edge of The Narrows. If you are looking to hike into the slot canyon, just step off into the river and continue on your way. We decided to save this hike for another time. If you want to do it in cooler months, you can rent waders and shoes from shops in Springdale to keep you dry. Keep in mind that The Narrows are home to flash floods, so check the weather and consult park rangers before you go.
This short walk takes you up about 80 feet in under a quarter of a mile, where you get to view hanging moss gardens fed by spring water from the mountainside. It was short, sweet, and steep, but really worth it for the views. Just be careful of slick ground at the top.
After a morning of hiking, we stopped at Zion Lodge for lunch and beer and to cheers on an incredible trip exploring. We took the shuttle back to our campground, where our friends decided to take on one final hike, Watchman Trail. Alex and I opted to relax and give our knees a break. We spent the evening grabbing dinner in Springdale and walking around the cute town that supports Zion’s many yearly visitors. We then made our final campfire and rested up for the six-hour drive back to Phoenix the following day.
Here are more tips and information to help you plan your Zion RV trip.
5 Tips for Road Tripping the Utah Mighty 5
Overall, completing a road trip of the Utah Mighty 5 within a week is absolutely feasible if you know how to optimize your time in each park. Here are the 5 biggest tips for pulling off this trip.
Tip 1: Camp at Your Next Day’s Destination
If you don’t take any other tip out of this list, take this one, please. By traveling to our next park the day before, we were able to start exploring early in the morning before the trails got too crowded. It also allowed us valuable time to rest and recharge at our campsite in the evening. We would wake up between 5:30 am and 7 am and begin exploring in the park shortly after. At around 2 pm or 3 pm, we would start the drive to our next destination. We’d get to our campsites before sunset, enjoy dinner around the campfire, and then get to bed around 9 pm.
Here’s what the drive times looked like for days between the park:
- Moab to Canyonlands: 50 minutes
- Moab to Arches: 10 minutes
- Moab to Capitol Reef: 2 hours, 15 minutes
- Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon: 2 hours, 30 minutes
- Bryce Canyon to Zion: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Tip 2: Reserve Campsites
We had friends joining us who would be camping in a tent alongside our van, so we opted to reserve campsites ahead of time that were tent and van-friendly. We didn’t need electrical hookups, so these spots may not be right for you if you do.
Here’s where we stayed:
- The View Hotel at Monument Valley (1 night)
- Sand Flats Recreation Area in Moab, Utah (2 nights)
- Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef National Park (1 night)
- Bryce Pioneer Village in Tropic, Utah (1 night)
- South Campground in Zion National Park (2 nights)
The campgrounds in the parks are popular, so keep an eye on Recreation.gov for when reservations open up. We couldn’t reserve our campground within Zion National Park until two weeks before our trip.
If you feel like winging it, you can always find public lands where you can “boondock” or off-the-grid camp. Just make sure you are following the fire regulations within the area and leave no trace.
Tip 3: Reserve Entry Times, Tours & Hiking Permits
There are certain logistics for different parks that you may need to plan for. Arches has timed entry for half the year, and some trails like Angel’s Landing require permits. As you are planning your trip, think about the activities you want to do and parks you want to attend to understand if there are reservations you need ahead of time. We used each park’s website to plan our visits and reserve items ahead of time. Our tour of Monument Valley was also an activity that we researched and booked prior to the trip.
Tip 4: Have a Loose Plan
With only around 6 to 8 hours to explore each park before heading to our next destination, we couldn’t waste time figuring out our activities on the day of our visit. We looked at park maps to understand if there were any must-see items and the ideal order to visit them. This allowed us to make straight for popular trails first thing but left us wiggle room to add unplanned stops along the way.
Tip 5: Have a Packing Strategy
It’s important to know your vehicle and pack accordingly. We used the lessons we learned from our first van camping trip to prioritize our packing.
Meals and clothes were where we focused our strategy. We planned easy-to-make meals that only required a Jetboil. For clothes, we opted for pieces we could easily layer in colors that didn’t show dirt on the days we re-wore them. This allowed us to save space for things we picked up along the way, like firewood bundles or souvenirs.
You could truly spend a week in each of the Utah Mighty 5 parks, but if you don’t have that time, it’s easy to do them in just a week. If you plan things strategically and prioritize your activities, you can enjoy a really fun road trip that truly feels like you didn’t leave anything on the table as you explore each of these unique parks. So, pack your bags and hit the road! And tell us which park you’re most excited to explore.
Are you interested in planning a similar national park road trip in your region? Check out Camping World’s full collection of guides to RVing America’s national parks to plan your adventure.
What questions do you have about road tripping the Utah Mighty 5? Let us know in the comments below.