Utah is truly an outdoor mecca all year round. In summer, hiking, camping, rafting and biking reign, and it’s peak season for the state’s “Mighty 5” National Parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Capitol Reef). To see the highlights of Utah via road trip, you’ll need more than a week. Even then, plan on spending quality time in the car. There’s just no best direct route!
Located just outside Salt Lake City, Park City is best known for its ski season (and for Sundance Film Festival). In summer, highlights include the Olympic Park, mountain biking at Park City Mountain Resort, and all the ropes courses and adventure courses you could ask for. Take two or three days to soak it all in, staying at Sundance Resort to take advantage of kids’ programming and adults-only spa treatments, or at the Hyatt Escala at the base of the ski resort for the most central location to all the outdoor fun.
TIP: Don’t overlook Salt Lake City as a destination unto itself. Downtown is bursting with new restaurants, coffee houses, outdoor gear stores and cultural experiences, and the Natural History Museum of Utah shines for families.
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From Park City, drive I-15 South to Provo, then take the scenic route southeast to Moab. Spend at least one day in stunning Arches National Park, staying in either Moab, where you’re steps from boho eateries and brewpubs, or in the park boundary at one of their campgrounds (bring shade protection!). Next, be sure not to miss Canyonlands, which also showcases stunning geological formations. In Arches, start at the overlook for Delicate Arch (an easier hike with great views), then drive the short distance to Double Arch. You’ll see the visitors’ center directly after entering the park, but do that last when the temperatures rise.
Take I-70 back west, then head south again on I-15. If you need a pit stop, visit Cove Fort on I-15 for a history lesson on Utah’s Mormon past, then continue to Bryce Canyon National Park. Bryce is an excellent “day park,” but you can opt to stay at the always popular Ruby’s Inn — actually an entire complex consisting of an activities center, Wild West dinner show venue, restaurants and hotel rooms. Reuben (Ruby) and Minnie Syrett arrived in the area in 1916 and founded Ruby’s in 1923. It’s owned by the family to this day.
You can easily see the best vistas of Bryce Canyon by following your park map and signage, but to get into the park in a more intimate way, I recommend hiring Bryce Valley Tours to show you the least crowded trails.
Continue to Zion National Park and stay in iconic Springdale, located just outside the park boundary adjacent to the massive visitors’ center; this works well since, in summer, Zion is a shuttle-only park anyway. We absolutely love the Cliffrose Lodge, which is right on the Virgin River (rent a tube and float!) but also offers spacious grounds with lovely gardens and a large outdoor pool.
In Zion, explore the many hiking trails accessible from the shuttle stops, including Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock and, for the truly adventurous, Angel’s Landing. The trailhead leaves from the Grotto shuttle stop for a strenuous 2-mile hike up the canyon with amazing views of Zion. From there, however, hikers can continue an additional half mile up the sandstone rock using chain supports. This section of the trail follows a knife-edge path with dropoffs on either side. If you’re at all fearful of heights, you can skip this last section (I did).
TIP: Due to Zion’s high temperatures, we embarked on all hikes by 8 am and returned to our pool/air-conditioning/river by 1 pm. It appeared that most other families did this as well. In addition, water stations are available at most shuttle stops. You’ll need to drink lots of water, and the stations are a fun way to get kids involved in filling bottles.
From this point in your road trip, you can head south to St. George (a mecca for biking, hiking and golf) or even Las Vegas. Enjoy!
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