7-day Road Trip to see Utah's Mighty 5 National Parks
Another Bucket List Trip
The Mighty 5 National Parks in Utah have been on my radar for years, and I finally was able to get it planned and completed in 2021. Thank you Covid Stimulus Checks! My Dad's partner, Marlene, has also had the Utah Parks on her bucket list, so I invited her along for ride. Her and my Dad were already in Las Vegas for a bowling tournament, so it was pretty easy for her to transition from that trip to mine. Also, I got to see my Dad for a late night hug and quick breakfast the next morning - truly less than 10 hours in the same city together.
Aside from wanting to visit the National Parks, the state of Utah is my 42nd visited state in America. (For inquiring minds, my remaining states are: Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Rhode Island.)
In addition to the 5 Utah National Parks, we also visited the Grand Canyon and several State Parks along the way. My main influence for deciding my route and points of interest came from the Facebook Group: National Park Service (Fan Page). Check it out (especially if you are a National Park fan!)
Route Highlights: Click Here
Total Miles Driven: 1,748
Round trip from Las Vegas
Lodging: 8 nights / 7 hotels and 1 covered wagon
National Parks Visited: 6
National Monuments Visited: 5
State Parks Visited: 5
Random Stops: too many to count
Day 1: Las Vegas to Page, Arizona
Leaving Las Vegas, we said goodbye to Dad and headed East towards the Hoover Dam. Having lots of ground to cover, we made a quick stop just to say we visited the Dam and Lake Meade. Our next stop was the Grand Canyon. We went in through the South Entrance and meandered along the Canyon Rim Trail. The Visitor's Center was closed due to Covid-19, but the trails were open. The East Entrance along Desert View Drive had just opened the week prior, and I must say the views on the East Side were amazing and a whole lot less crowded. We saw some elk grazing and saw warning signs for mountain lions, but no sightings. By the time we arrived at the East Side, it was getting dusky-dark. Perfect for some cool photos!
Day 2: Page, AZ to Kanab, Utah
Our first hike was Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona. We arrived early and set-out on the hike, all downhill. We saw some interesting characters (think nude photo shoot) and didn't hang out too long. In fact, I don't recall seeing the horseshoe at all. (That's an inside joke for Marlene...haha.)
The ladies at the hotel recommended at stop at Marble Canyon, and we did. When we walked out to the ledge, a Navajo man began playing a flute into the canyon. It quickly became a divine moment for me. The sounds were beautifully melodic. I made a short video to share. Click on the photo below. It's Ed the Native American Flute Player and he said he is on YouTube.
Also along Marble Canyon in Page, AZ is the Historic Navajo Bridge and Dam. There were several viewpoints available and below was Lake Powell. This area was part of the Glen Canyon Recreational Area which had several access points. We visited most of them.
Page, Arizona was an awesome stop and I wish we had more time to explore. One place I really hoped to see was Antelope Canyon, but the Navajo Nation was hit very hard with Covid-19 and the Canyons had not re-opened when we were there. As of this writing, the Navajo lands are still closed to tourists. Guess that just means I'll have to go back!?!
Welcome to Utah!
What's the first thing we did in Utah? We went off-roading and nearly got stuck in sand. True story. Thankfully, we made it out without any tow bill. Aside from my mis-adventure, the Glen Canyon area looks awesome for ATV riders, boaters, etc. There weren't designated camp sites, but just kind of park where you want (just not in sand.)
We made it to our lodging in Kanab, Utah and this was my favorite accommodation of the trip. We stayed in a Deluxe Room at Canyons Lodge in Kanab. The owner carried our luggage upstairs and gave great restaurant recommendations. We also had enough time left in the day to visit the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. The mountain range in the photos are called the Vermilion Cliffs and they were visible for miles and miles.
Day 3: Kanab to Bryce Canyon, Utah
We left Kanab and headed towards Scenic Byway Route 12. All my routes were suggested by the Facebook Group, and I didn't ask questions really. I verified the road through Google Maps, but had no idea what was coming with this scenic route. Our first stop was the Red Canyon area. Our first really colorful red rocks of the trip.
Not sure if you can see me in that far left photo. I didn't mean to wear a shirt the same color as the rocks. haha. We meandered along Scenic 12 and reached Bryce Canyon about lunchtime. We grabbed a sandwich at the National Park and had a picnic while we tried to adjust to the elevation change. This was the first time the altitude kicked our butts. The park seemed a little busy, especially with regard to parking spaces. After lunch we drove up the ridge. It was an out and back drive. Our plan was to stop only at overlooks on the right going up, and then catch the others on the way back down so we weren't cris-crossing traffic all day. In no time we were at the top, Rainbow Point, and an elevation of 9,115! Spectacular views. Bryce Canyon was Marlene's favorite National Park of the trip.
Bryce Canyon Overlook
Day 4: Bryce Canyon to Torrey, Utah
Our route continued on Scenic Route 12 through Utah. The road was steep with no shoulders on either side most of the way. We wove through massive rock formations and reached the highest elevation of the trip at 9,600 feet. We saw snow and Aspen trees at the highest point. Scenic Route 12 isn't for the faint of heart, but it was an amazing drive and I loved it! Google Maps showed the drive as 2.5 hours, but in reality it took nearly 4 hours.
Along the way we visited Kodachrome State Park for a very short hike and bathroom break. The rocks here were more tan colored, but had more spire type shapes. We opted out of the canyon drive as the park ranger estimated it taking 4 hours to complete. We did a short nature trail and saw the Chimney Rock. Afterward, we stopped for a delicious lunch at the local Mercantile in the town of Escalante. There's not much to offer in this part of the country. It's an area where you get fuel/food when you have the opportunity. We made a short stop at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. We were in the heat of the day and opted to just do a walk-about without much climbing. The photos don't really show the crystalized trees very well, but it was pretty neat to see. There was a reservoir within the park as well.
Scenic Route 12 ended in Torrey, Utah. We arrived in the late afternoon and entered Capitol Reef National Park just outside of town. Not having made any pre-plans for this park, we just explored as we went along. It was an out-and-back scenic drive with a few side spurs. One of the spurs was Grand Wash. Not really knowing what it was, we went for it. There were warning signs about flash flooding and not to enter if storms were imminent. It ended up being a dried river bed that we were driving in! It was bumpy with rocks jutting out and the river bed was carved out underneath rock cliffs. It was so cool to drive the 2 miles or so and we ended up dead-end at a trailhead. Marlene checked out the trail and it was 1.3 miles to a slot canyon. We didn't try it, but hind-sight, I wish we had.
We saw our first snake here, a big one, which the Park Ranger determined was a Striped Whipsnake. I also saw a Marmot for the first time in my life. They look like a groundhog or whistle pig. Capitol Reef had numerous apple orchards and exhibits of old farm equipment and barns. For my Ohio readers, it reminded of me of Mill Hollow on a much larger scale (if you were allowed to drive in the river bed there.) The Park also had Petroglyphs on the rock face. I had to break out the zoom lens because they were awesome!
Note: Capitol Reef National Park ended up being my favorite park of the trip.
Lodging: Our Stay in a Covered Wagon
Researching lodging options close to the National Park led me to the Broken Spur Inn & Steakhouse. One of their lodging options was a covered wagon. How could we pass this up? Yes, it was extra money. Yes, it had electricity and heat. It was parked in a large field and had wheels, etc. Yes, there was a bathroom, but not in the wagon. It was a private bath house about 30 yards from the wagon. We had the best meal of our trip in the steakhouse on the property before settling in for the night. The sunset was gorgeous! Temperatures were expected to be in the low 40s, so I turned the heater on Marlene. We were all snug and cozy ready to listen to the crickets and sleep under the stars. About an hour after we went to bed, a thunder storm rolled in complete with major wind gusts and lightening. The ground shook with the thunder which made the wagon rattle. The wind seemed like it would tear off the canvas cover at any point, and all I could wonder is if lightening could or couldn't come through the canvas as we were 'parked' in an open field. At one point, I thought I felt the wheels roll. I knew right then and there that I was no match to all those badass Pioneers that roamed the west for months on end. I couldn't even make it through one dang night without freaking out. Needless to say, I didn't sleep - at all! I heard Marlene snoring after the storm passed, so I knew she was okay. All in all, yes, it was the worst night sleep for me during the trip. But, the novelty of staying overnight in a covered wagon was probably worth the lost sleep. I am giving due homage to the Pioneers!!
The wagons were in Torrey, Utah at The Broken Spur Inn & Steakhouse.
Day 5: Torrey to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
After a sleepless night (for me), we headed out early. Our first stop of the day was at Goblin Valley State Park. I didn't really know what to expect as this was another recommendation from the Facebookers to see when in the area. The park was crowded and it didn't take long to understand why. This park was like something from another planet. The photos don't really do it justice. If you ever find yourself in Utah near I-70, I highly recommend this park. Even in the heat of the day, it's easy to find shade.
Arches National Park
We waited in line for about 20 minutes to get into Arches National Park. Once inside, everything flowed smoothly and there were no parking or traffic issues. It was in the heat of the day, but we had adjusted quite a bit at this point in the trip. We saw several different arches and the landscape was beautiful. We were covering Arches and Canyonlands both in one day, so we didn't hike to every arch. Most of them could be seen from overlooks.
Canyonlands National Park
We almost skipped this stop due to it being so late in the day. There were several vehicles trying to get to the park for sunset, so we decided to make a mad dash and see what we could see. I had planned to hike to Mesa Arch, but time was of the essence. Plus I had just seen half a dozen arches. We opted for the Grand Viewpoint and just made it for sunset. Once we got into the park we didn't see another vehicle for miles. There were a few cars parked at the viewpoint, but otherwise felt like we had the place to ourselves.
The sunset was life-changing and I will remember it for years to come.
Note: the sunset photo is my favorite photo from the trip. The drive out of there, not my favorite.
Day 6: Driving Day to Zion National Park
Six hour drive from the town of Green River, Utah over to the Mt. Carmel Junction and Zion National Park. We stopped in a little mountain community for a bathroom break and coffee. The little depot ended up being the community of Big Rock Candy Mountain. That may not mean much to most, but being a former clogger of bluegrass music, I remember hearing bands play the song, "Big Rock Candy Mountain." The song also became known from the movie "O, Brother Where Art Thou" which played during the opening credits. I said all that to say that our stop was in Big Rock Candy Mountains in Utah. I never knew there was even a real place. The song talks about made-up things, so I guess I thought the place was made up too. Ha! Here's a link to the song if you want to listen: click here. Sometimes life can be full of surprises!
Next up - my small rant about planning for Zion National Park. For anyone who has planned or visited Zion National Park in the past few years knows that quite a bit of coordination goes into the park visit. There is a canyon drive that requires a shuttle ticket. The shuttle tickets are timed-entry (1 hour time slots) or you've missed your opportunity. Purchasing the shuttle tickets in advance required me being logged in and ready with credit card in hand waiting for the exact moment the tickets become available. The timed-entries went live and sold out within 7 minutes. I was able to secure 2 shuttle tickets for our first day in the park - check, check. The next batch of tickets were release two weeks later which included our 2nd day inside the park. So there I sat again, ready to click as fast as I could. The 2nd day tickets sold out in 4 minutes! Low and behold, I was able to get 2 more tickets for the second day inside the park - check, check. It's nuts I'm telling you! That part of the trip gave me anxiety. End rant.
Shuttle tickets in hand, now - where to stay? There are tons of lodging options in the town of Springdale about 6 miles from the park. But, you need a Springdale shuttle to take you to the Zion Park shuttle which is the only vehicle allowed in the canyon (unless you're staying at the Zion Lodge or hire a private tour.) All of it is too much to coordinate. I wanted to stay inside the park where I could just park the vehicle and ride. I started checking the Zion Lodge for a room weeks before the trip. I checked it 2 and 3 times per day. Full. No Vacancies. Day after day. Then late Saturday night about a week before the trip, my gut told me to check it again (it was midnight and I had just checked it 5 minutes prior.) I clicked again - Holy Macaroni - my date was available! I fumbled for my credit card and was shaking trying to enter the numbers. There it was - CONFIRMED! Three days later I received a car pass and the secret code to open the canyon gate. I felt like Royalty! We still had a bit of a walk from the cabin to the lodge, but we had a special parking permit and could park right in front. And we did! Multiple times!
Zion Shuttle took us to the head of the canyon. There is a trail that follows the Virgin River and is also the starting point for the popular Narrows River Hike. It was crowded, so very crowded. We ended up hanging out in the shade on the river for a while. Marlene treated me to a very nice dinner at the Zion Lodge, and I celebrated with a lemon martini. The Zion Lodge was Marlene's favorite lodging. Admittedly, it was a nice change from the other low-budget places we had stayed. Everyone was so nice here. And the peacefulness and tranquility after the tourists left (shuttles stop at 7:30p, so if you're not staying at the Lodge, you will have a 4 mile walk out of the canyon if you miss the last shuttle. It got quiet and still inside the park. So nice and relaxing!
Day 7: Zion National Park and then back to Vegas
We had a lovely hot breakfast at the Lodge and then rode the shuttle to the Visitors Center and gift shop for some last minute gifts. We decided to hike to the Lower Emerald Pools where it was advertised that a tall waterfall flowed into the pools below and we could walk behind the waterfall. We set out on our hike and a little ways in we encountered a Park Ranger on the trail standing over a baby squirrel. The squirrel had gotten bit by a rattle snake and was in the process of crossing the Rainbow Bridge. We went on with our hike and everyone was talking about the squirrel and snake. I'm glad we had the distraction because that hike was mostly uphill and was longer than advertised. We finally reached 'the waterfall' only to find a bit of trickle coming down. We did have someone tell us along the way it wasn't worth it, but we pressed on. I was disappointed, but still glad we finished out the hike. False Advertising! haha
Note: this story can be a bit disturbing - scroll past if you're sensitive or not a fan of animal deaths.
Heading back down the trail, we found the Park Ranger hanging out by the dead squirrel. She had moved it from the trail and placed it on the bank under a tree root. Apparently the snake disturbed a nest of multiple baby squirrels. The Park Ranger explained that in the wild, it's feast or famine for all creatures. So what happened next surprised me. One of the surviving baby squirrels starting eating the dead sibling squirrel. Sorry, no photos of the squirrel cannibalism. Adjacent to the squirrels was a lizard. Just above the three animals was the rattle snake. Marlene spotted it moving towards the lizard. There was also a third squirrel who looks pretty scared. All the photos are below.
Day 8: Las Vegas to HOME!
We left Zion in plenty of time to make it back to Las Vegas. My flight was scheduled to depart at 11:30 pm Sunday night. Marlene got checked into the hotel, we had dinner and gambled a little before it was time for me to return the car rental and head to the airport. My flight ended up being delayed an hour. The delay, plus it being a red-eye into Asheville made it quite challenging. Marlene flew out just a few hours after me. We both made it home safely. The End.
random animals from the trip
When you see it...
This is a funny photograph I took during the trip. It's a slow burn, but once you see it it's kinda funny.