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The Ultimate Utah Road Trip
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It had always been a dream of mine to visit Utah before I moved to the USA. I love to hike and be outside and this seemed like the perfect holiday for me so I planned it for my 27th Birthday. We planned to do the mighty 5 which consists of Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. We started with Arches and made our way along in our RV to Zion over 10 days.
We flew into Salt Lake City and hired an RV from Cruise America which is the only place you can get your Cruise America RV in Utah. We opted for the Standard RV which included enough sleep space for 5 people but we just had 2. It had a full fridge/freezer, generator, shower/toilet, air conditioning, gas stove and microwave. We really loved out little RV (which we named Bertha). It took Liam very little time to get the hang of it and was very spacious for the two of us. We opted for the standard because it was only $10 more than the ‘Truck RV’ and cheaper than the ‘compact RV’. If you’re looking for an RV rental I can recommend Cruise America. They are so helpful and you know you are getting a legit company with insurance. Before you take away your RV you get an induction where they go through all the things you need to know. If you forget you do get a manual with everything they told you in inside which I did refer to a lot. Once you get the hang of it though it is so easy. Then you are part of the RV crew.
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☆ We started off at Arches and combined it with Canyonlands because they are so close to each other. We stayed at Ballard RV Park in Thomson Springs, Utah. It was a 40 min drive but was such a lovely RV park. We had full hook up* with access to showers and laundry ($4 per load). It had a Trash disposal and Propane fill up.
☆ We then made our way to Capitol Reef and stayed at Duke’s Slickrock RV Park in Hanksville, Utah. This was a 30 min drive to Capitol Reef. We had a full hook up access with showers and a coin operated laundromat on site. It had a Trash disposal and Propane fill up.
☆ The next stop was Bryce Canyon and we stayed at Cannonville/Bryce Valley KOA Campground in Cannonville, Utah. It was a 25 min Drive to Bryce Canyon. This was a water and Electric only hook up site but they had a communal Dump Site which was free so I would count it as Full hook up. It had free showers and laundry (unsure of cost). It had a Trash disposal and Propane fill up. This site had a very small pool but was closed due to COVID.
☆ The last stop was Zion and we Stayed at Zion River Resort Park and Campground in Virgin, Utah. It was a 20 min drive to Zion. This was the biggest campground we stayed at which was a full hook up site with showers and laundry (unsure of cost). It had trash disposal and a propane fill up. This resort had a large pool and decent sized hot tub. They were running it at 50% capacity due to COVID but it wasn’t that busy.
*Full Hook up includes: Water, Electricity and Sewer Dump station.
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We arrived after a long drive from Salt Lake City to Arches. We wandered up to La Sal Mountains Viewpoint which is just off the main road, there you get an stunning view of the La Sal Mountains that border Utah and Colorado.
Next was Balanced Rock Loop Trail which is a 128ft rock formation which looks like a huge boulder struggling to stay on top of a pedestal of more rock. It may sound a bit boring to look at a rock but eventually this massive 3,600ton rock will fall off due to erosion and no one will get to see it anymore.
We finished our first day in Arches doing the Windows Loop and Turret Arch Trail which has a few different types of rock arch formations to look at but it is also the best place the watch the sunset.
The next day we did Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch Trail which was my favourite hike in Arches, we got to see lots of deer wandering around. They seemed to like congregating around the trail head for this hike.
We headed over to Tapestry Arch Trail. It felt a bit dodgy driving to this one because it is hidden inside the Devil’s Garden Campground. There is a little place to park and we wandered down at sunset as it was a short hike.
In 2019, Arches National Park was certified as an official international dark skies park. It is said that just with the naked eye you would be able to see up to 2,500 stars. The conditions have to be right though which means you have to wait for a new moon and be sure to check out this guide. We went the furthest north possible as this is the furthest away from light pollution possible. It was amazing to witness so many stars and I 100% recommend it. We did get a better view of the stars in Bryce Canyon (I took pictures!) but we will talk about the later.
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As mentioned above we combined Canyonlands & Arches together because they are very close to one another. The landscape here is like nothing I have ever seen before, in fact it looks like nothing on earth. I would compare it to the photos of mars with it’s barren appearance and rust red rocks.
The drive through was very scenic on it’s own. Surrounded by, you guessed it… Canyons! We started off with the Grand View Point Trail which is an out & back trail that overlooks vast views of the canyons and landscape.
We then did the Green River Overlook which is a very short walk from the main road that had views of the Green River, these were really cool as you could see the clear greenery around the river that created an amazing contrast to the desert.
When I did some research I had come across a Hike called False Kiva Trail. This hike is not advertised in the park but is an authorised trail to hike. The Kiva itself is cordoned off due to vandalism so we couldn’t view it. It is basically a stone circle and the false part comes from not knowing if it an authentic religious kiva. This hike is not well marked so please only do it if you are confident.
As the name of this national park suggests, there are many canyons splashed around. One of them being White Rim Canyon which is named for the white outline that covers the edge of the canyon. This was awesome to see from the overlook as it was well defined by the rim where some are harder to see due to blending in with the surrounding rock.
Our last hike in Canyonlands was the Mesa Arch trail, the parking lot was full every time we tried to do this one so we had to come back later on. The arch featured on this short hike was beautiful, it looks like the arch frames the landscape perfectly like a picture frame.
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Inspired by the dome formations often seen on capitol buildings and its resemblance to ocean reefs, this park was aptly named due to it’s unique landscape. In the heart of this park is the town of Fruita which was home to Mormons in the late 1800s. Before, this the area was lived in by the Fremont Native Americans.
The first hike we tackled was the Cassidy Arch Trail (27ft Max. Vehicle Limit) which I absolutely loved. This hike is rated as moderate on AllTrails but I would say it is easy. It starts off with a slightly strenuous incline right at the beginning but it’s over rather quick. This arch is very impressive and you can walk over the top of it!
From the visitors centre you can do the Sulphur Creek Waterfall Hike. You hike along the creek to a pool with a waterfall at the end where we decided to dip our feet in to cool down as it was such a hot day. There were a lot of tent caterpillars so if you do this hike make sure you keep an eye on the ground so you don’t squish them!
The Cohab Canyon Trail is a hike that starts in Fruita. The canyon itself is hidden until you reach the top. This was another one that was rated at moderate on AllTrails but again I thought the initial incline was strenuous but the rest was very easy. We incorporated the extra 2 overlooks into our hike as well.
During the Cohab hike, the weather had suddenly deteriorated and rained. We could hear the rumble of a thunderstorm approximately 8 miles away which can create a dangerous environment. Flash flooding in canyons is very dangerous and you could drown, not to mention getting struck by lightening. So we rushed back to our RV and waited an hour for it to pass. For more official advice visit the American Hiking Society.
We then headed to the more western side of the park to Goosenecks and Sunset Point (27ft Max. vehicle limit) these were really short hikes but they had great views of Sulphur Creek. Before the junction you can also do Panorama Point which is another quick stop viewpoint.
The last hike at Capitol Reef was Hickman Bridge Trail. This trail leads you to a huge arch way that looks like a natural bridge between two huge rocks. There were 17 other features on this hike that you can read about if you are lucky enough to snag a guide pamphlet at the trailhead.
We also did the Petroglyph trail but I will talk about that later!
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A great morning hike is the Navajo Loop Trail as it is one of Bryce Canyon’s most popular hikes and can get really busy. Its famous for it’s switchbacks which are quite lovely when you’re going down but a killer on the way back up! Still we did it and just took little rests in the shade. There’s no shame in feeling tired while hiking in places like this because the altitude is higher and it was hotter than what we were used to so keep that in mind.
We then combined the Peekaboo Loop Trail (which was partially closed due to ice) and the Bryce Point Trail. Both of these hikes had amazing views and lots to look at with lots of cool rock formations. Peekaboo combined a lot of smaller hikes so it includes a lot of cool landmarks and very picturesque.
The last hike we did was Inspiration Point of which there are 3 stop offs, lower, mid and upper. You can hike all the way to the top or stop and turn back. This is also part of the Rim Trail so you can incorporate it into that hike. Take some binoculars and spend some time looking at different features, there is a huge viewing area that goes on for miles so you can definitely spend a lot of time here.
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DISCLAIMER. You NEED shuttle tickets to enter Zion National Park whether they are from the Recreation.gov website or you choose a private shuttle. Private vehicles are not allowed in the park unless you have lodge reservations and you would only be able to drive to the lodge and park there.
Zion is probably the most well known of the national parks and probably the most visited in Utah. It is very grand and beautiful so it’s not hard to understand why. It is also home to Angel’s Landing which is known for it’s fear inducing height and extreme difficulty.
Trigger warning – Heights. The reputation of Angel’s Landing peaked our interest so we decided to tackle it first. We arrived in the park on the 8am/9am shuttle and got it to the grotto where the hike starts. The first part of the hike was strenuous and a little tricky but there were a few nice viewpoints you could stop off. Then you get the Walter’s Wiggles which is 21 steep switchbacks to Scouts Lookout. Here you will begin the ascent up to Angel’s Landing. It is important to note that I do not have a fear of heights and did not find this hike that scary, but you might. I cannot tell you that you can do this hike because it is very subjective. All I will say is that for me, it was so worth it. It is hard and very dangerous and at the time I completed this hike 13 people had died attempting this hike so if you decide to do it please take your time, use the chains and make intelligent decisions. You will need the chain to hike this steep, narrow part to avoid falling off the edge of the 1600ft drop. In certain sections it is wide enough that there are no chains to hold onto so be aware of that if you think you can rely solely on them all the way, you can’t.
After our angels landing trail we did a lot of just chilling out. We walked the Grotto Trail to the Lodge where we wandered around the shop, grabbed an ice cream and relaxed under a huge tree on the grass!
The next day we started with the Emerald Pools Trail where you get to see lower, mid and upper emerald pool. If most of the hikes weren’t closed due to rock slides we wouldn’t have bothered. It was extremely underwhelming, the ‘pools’ were just stagnant water other than lower which had a ‘waterfall’… wouldn’t call it that though, more like drizzle. Give it a miss if you have other hikes on your list.
Disclaimer! – Toxic Cyanobacteria Bloom is currently active in the Virgin River, please proceed with The Narrows with caution. Cover up any wounds that may get exposed to the water, DO NOT DRINK THE WATER, Shower immediately after asap, if you get water on your hands do not touch your eyes, do not take pets and stay away from algae pockets! You will be hiking at your own risk. More info here.
The Narrows was next, this hike also contains the Riverside Walk for those who don’t want to hike in the narrows. You will hike the riverside walk trail from the Temple of Sinawava up to the point where the trail naturally leads you into the river. We rented water shoes (for ankle support mostly and grip), Neoprene socks and a hiking stick from Zion Guru in Springdale. I strongly advise you do this as the rocks are slippery and uneven. I watched so many people fall in and some even got hurt. This has to be one of my favourite hikes ever! took us about 5 hours altogether and we didn’t quite make it to the end but we were getting tired. Highest the water got was about chest height for me (I’m 5’9) but if you just hike the first 3 miles it will only get to your waist. This is all dependant on the time of year you go, late spring/summer will have lowest water levels. Before you hike the narrows make sure you are constantly checking the weather flash flooding is dangerous in canyons like this. If you are strapped for time this and angels landing should be prioritised in my opinion.
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Utah has a lot of historical sites that contain petroglyphs (pictures carved into the rocks) and petrographs (pictures painted onto the rocks). These are amazing pieces of the Native American history and usually depict people and animals like goats in them. It’s not entirely sure what the images mean which I actually prefer because it means I can use my imagination!
We only went to 2 different site while we were in Utah but there were loads more. Near our first campsite we visited Sego Canyon, Thompson Springs, UT which was nice and out of the way so it was quiet. These images are believed to have been the work of the Fremont, Ute and Barrier Canyon Native Americans. So some of them are as old as 4000 years!
The other was in the heart of Capitol Reef National Park which was a short walk along boardwalk, these were harder to see and there weren’t many of them. These are thought to have been left by the Fremont Native American people. Definitely worth a visit if you are into history, it’s amazing to think someone put it there to tell us a story.
Zoom into the picture of the rock, what do you see?
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Tucked away near Zion National Park behind the town of Rockville, UT is the abandoned ghost town of Grafton. It is the most photographed ghost town in the west and has been the set of many films! People settled in this town in 1859 but the town had to be moved downstream on the Virgin river due to persistent flooding. It was abandoned due to mostly flooding but during the Black Hawk War in 1866 a lot of residents were evacuated to Rockville. in 1890 there were only 4 families left in Grafton before it became completely abandoned in 1944 (officially). There is actually a lot of buildings left in this town and you can go inside all of them, including the School/Church house. Just down to road from the town is Grafton cemetery where a lot of the original settlers are buried. Warning – The road to Grafton is a small dirt road so please keep that in mind when travelling in an RV. Ours was 25ft and managed okay but it is very windy and narrow.
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In a tiny town called Hanksville outside of Capitol Reef National Park is an adorable find. This was right next to our RV park and when driving through Hanksville you can’t miss it. It is free to look at but I do recommend you pay a donation. All the sculptures are made from scrap metal and old machine parts or vehicle parts. I’m not entirely sure what this place is or what it is about as there is limited info but I’m pretty sure Carl built this garden as a hobby. I’ve tried to find more info online about Carl but I couldn’t see anything helpful. It’s a bit of a mystery which is cool. Be sure to check out this awesome and unique find on your Utah trip as it is so peaceful and beautiful.
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I know what you’re thinking… Hope, did you wear that flannel shirt the whole trip? The answer to that question would be yes. When I find a good Lumberjack shirt I wear it to death, what can I say, I do live in New England after all.
The drive from Bryce Canyon National Park to Zion Nation Park is incredible. I’m unsure if there is any other choice of road to drive but if there is make sure you take Scenic Byway 12 over Boulder Mountain as it is a gorgeous drive. This byway is known as an ‘All-American road’ due to it having so many features to stop and look at making it almost an attraction in itself. There are many places to stop and admire the view including an overlook that sits at 9,000ft, views of the Grand staircase-escalante and Dixie National Forest for just a few. We started our journey in Torrey and drove all the way to Zion. There are sections of this road that are very steep and narrow which can be a little intimidating but even in a 25ft RV it was no problem for us.
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If you decide to plan a road trip to Utah remember you can make it as long and action packed to suit you. There is so much to do beyond the things I did in Utah. There is even more to explore around the mighty 5. When doing my research for a trip I use Instagram and in this case the following pages inspired my trip: @utahisbeautiful, @visitutah, @utahunique, @weliveelevated, @bestofthebeehivestate, @archesnps, @canyonlandsnps, @capitolreefnps, @brycecanyonnps_gov and @zionnps.