Road tripping through the Utah big 5 is one of the best vacations you can do. It’s something that draws people from all around the world, as you’ll see if you do a Delicate Arch hike in August and notice that only half of the people there are speaking English. Utah has landscapes that can’t be seen anywhere else, and you’ll only get the full experience when you get in your car and go. Get yourself ready for camping, hiking, and jaw-dropping views.
***Bonus tip: If you happen to have a fourth grader, you may be able to apply for a free National Parks pass. This will give your entire family free entry if you apply and have the form filled out so that you can avoid paying the entry fee! You can read more about that here.
Of course, I can’t give you a comprehensive guide of all 5 parks (and the stops in-between) in just one article, but I can give you some pretty great tips and starting points for while you’re planning your trip. So here we go…
Utah’s “Big 5” consist of Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef. All five parks are located in the south half of the state, an area dominated by fascinating red rock landscape, and known for being unforgivingly hot during the peak summer months. The parks are all close enough that you could drive to the entrances of all 5 in a day without breaking a sweat. But of course, you’d never want to do that. In fact, I highly recommend planning out enough time to do some substantial, long hikes (or at least one) and maybe an additional activity, like horseback riding in Bryce, or rafting through Canyonlands.
You should also remember that while those are the only 5 National Parks in Utah, there are also numerous State Parks, National Forests, and National Monuments dotting the same region, and many of them are just as worth a stop as the National Parks. Consider, for example, Goblin Valley, or Monument Valley. Trying to hit it all in one visit can be overwhelming, so make sure to pace yourself. For more specific tips about the parks, read on…
General Tips for the Parks
- Stop in at the ranger station: A lot of people skip this step, and I think it’s a shame. You might think that if you do your research ahead of time online, you’ve got the whole story, but a ranger can help you know which trails are washed out right now, whether there’s flood risk, if there have been any cougar sightings lately, and where you’ll find a secret patch of wildflowers. Even better, they can tell you which trails are over-trafficked, and which ones are hidden gems that not enough people know about.
- Hydrate and prepare for heat: Most of the parks will remind you of this at parking lots and at the stations. However, way too many people still forget. If you’re in Zion in the summer, temperatures can reach upwards of 100 degrees. Arches is the same, and about 95% of that entire park is entirely exposed (meaning no tree cover and very minimal shade!) You don’t just need one water bottle per person; you need several. I’ve seen friends who have to be treated at the hospital for dehydration after a day in Moab. Factor in breaks during your hiking time, and if you’re going on a trail that’s going to be exposed and arduous (I’m talking about Angel’s Landing here, people) then plan to start early in the morning before the heat sets in.
- Do you need to worry about animals? Any time you’re out in the wild, you need to factor in the risks of wildlife–not only to protect yourself, but also to protect the local ecosystem. Utah’s national parks have an abundance of deer, raccoons, and squirrels. There are also predators out there that can be dangerous to humans, including bears, cougars, and rattlesnakes. The best things that you can do to avoid having an animal attack you (or your stuff, which is much more likely) are (1) keeping your camping area clean, and (2) making noise when you hike so that no wildlife is startled by your presence. If you’re worried about anything, talk to the rangers. Oh, and one more thing: don’t feed the squirrels! It’s not good for them.
- Care for your car: Driving from place to place in the heat is going to take a toll on you, but it will also take a toll on your car. The parks aren’t that far apart from each other, but there will be really long stretches of isolated road, both within and outside of the parks. For example, the drive from Capitol Reef to Goblin Valley is just a whole lot of nothing. And considering the weather, the likelihood of overheating could be high. So, before you set out on your trip, get your car checked over, make sure that you’ve changed the oil, and topped off the fluids. Remember that having your car in good repair will also give you better gas mileage, which is better for your wallet, and better for the beautiful environments that you’re driving through.
- You can camp outside of the park: Camping can be one of the most confusing things to figure out during these trips. Every single national park will have lots of options for hotels and RV parks outside of the actual park boundaries. Within the boundaries, you’ll usually only be able to camp. And if you camp, it can only be within designated campgrounds (unless you have a backcountry pass, which you need to clear at the ranger station beforehand.) Site prices will range from $10-$30, depending on the demand at the time. If prices are high and space is tight, though, you can usually find some top-notch camping just outside of the park for much cheaper. You’re also much more likely to get some peace and quiet out there.
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Hello! I am Camille, a wife, mother of four, Disney obsessed, certified teacher, and reality optimist. Motherhood comes with its ups and downs, and I hope while you’re here you’ll find something that makes your #momlife easier!
These are great tips! We are a roadtrekking fam so i’m going to bookmark this. We also have a second grader and this is something we could definitely do when she is in fourth grade!