Utah is home to five scenic national parks, together The Mighty 5 make a great road trip loop that can fill any vacation itinerary with plenty to do. This road trip includes Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef National Parks. Add in the Grand Canyon and you have the ultimate vacation of 6 national parks. This loop is often referred to as The Grand Circle Tour when starting from Las Vegas.
There are several starting point options for the trip. If you’re driving from Las Vegas, you can start the loop at Zion, travel clockwise, and end at the Grand Canyon. If you start from Denver or Salt Lake City, you can start the loop at Moab by visiting Arches first.
Eight days for this national park loop is quite aggressive and might be too tightly packed for your crew. We suggest this trip length for families with tweens or older. You may want to add a few days if you want additional time at any of the parks. You might be able to combine Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef into one day if you start the day early.
Day 1, Drive to Moab, UT/late afternoon visit to Arches
The Delicate Arch famously appears on Utah license plates, but did you know there are more than 2,000 nature sandstone arches in the park? You’ll also see massive fins, giant balanced rocks, monoliths, and pinnacles as your big family explores this grand park.
Drive time to Moab:
- Grand Junction, Colorado – 110 miles or about a 1 hour and 40-minute drive
- Salt Lake City, Utah – 236 miles or a 3 hour and 43-minute drive
- Denver, Colorado – 360 miles or a 5 hour and 36-minute drive
Visit Arches in the late afternoon or early evening and drive straight to the back of the park. This first evening you can cover:
- Devil’s Garden
- Landscape Arch
- Skyline Arch
- Sand Dune Arch
Read our guide to visiting Arches with kids. We cover when to go, where to stay, what to hike, and 12 tips for visiting,
Day 2, Arches National Park
Arrive early and drive straight to Wolf Ranch parking lot to hike Delicate Arch first thing in the morning. The parking lot fills early so a visit before 8:00 is best. Take a break and eat an early lunch. Then drive the Scenic Drive stopping at all the overlooks and viewpoints. During the heat of the day, visit the Visitor Center to cool off and relax during the orientation film.
Drive time: none! Spend another night in Moab.
Day 3, Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky
Divided into four districts by the Green and Colorado Rivers, two canyons separate the very different parts of the park: The Needles on the east, The Maze on the west, the two rivers, and the most visited area, Island in the Sky on the north. With 257,640 acres of rugged land, there’s plenty to see. Read our guide on Canyonlands to help plan your trip.
Arrive early (are you sensing a theme here?) and drive straight to the Mesa Arch trailhead. This popular hike is an easy one that your big family will enjoy after hiking to Arches the day before! You can follow up with a moderate trail afterward or 2-3 more easy trails. Cool down in the car while you drive to every overlook and viewpoint. Wrap up your visit by stopping at the Visitor Center to have the kids earn their Junior Ranger badge.
If you cover the park by lunch, combine your visit with Dead Horse State Park for a $20 entry fee. The state park offers nice covered picnic pavilions by Dead Horse Point Overlook. After a lunch break, walk out to the overlook of the gooseneck of the Colorado River 2000 feet below. The park offers hiking along the rim for fantastic views of the canyon below.
Drive time to Bluff, UT:
After you’ve visited Canyonlands/Dead Horse State Park, drive 2.5 hours south on US-191 to Bluff, UT for the night. Visit the free Fort Bluff museum. The visitor’s center closes at 6 pm.
Day 4, Drive through Monument Valley to the Grand Canyon through the East Entrance
Today everyone gets to sleep in! Have a lazy morning before hitting the road. We recommend driving US-163 through Mexican Hat and Monument Valley. This scenic drive takes you through a red-sand desert landscape dotted with mesas and buttes, some as tall as 1000 feet. The landscape may seem familiar if you’re a fan of old American western movies as many films were filmed from this location.
Although not a western, thirteen miles past Mexican Hat, you’ll find the famous point where Forrest Gump stopped running cross-country. It’s a popular spot with many people taking pics in the road but dirt pullouts on both sides of the road allow you to stop for a safe quick pic and stretch your legs.
Monument Valley lies within the Navajo Nation Reservation. Monument Valley Tribal Park offers guided tours or admission for a self-guided drive-through the park. (Currently closed due to Covid)
Your next stop isn’t until Cameron, AZ. Stop at the Cameron Trading Post to view the Native American Fine Art Gallery, peruse the gift shop, and have a bite to eat. Established in 1916, the trading post is a great way to break up the day’s road trip.
Now that you’ve recharged, drive the 33 miles to the East Entrance of the Grand Canyon. In mid-May, we expected lines to enter the park but only found three vehicles in front of us.
Explore the Desert View Watchtower area as your first view of the Grand Canyon. From this area to the popular Mather’s Point is another 25 miles. Explore the park until 45 minute-1 hour before sunset. Then join the crowds at the overlooks to watch the sunset.
Drive time to Grand Canyon – East Entrance
From Bluff, UT to the East Entrance is 202 miles, driveable in 3.5 hours. But true drivetime will depend on how many stops you make.
Day 5, View the Sunrise at Mather’s Point or Yavapai Point
If you viewed the sunset the night before, you have to get everyone up for the sunrise! Your crew might not be happy about the early hour but everyone can nap later during the next drive.
Suggested activities with kids:
- Walk parts of the Rim Trail for different views of the canyon
- Visit the Yavapai Point Geology Museum
- Explore the Village and walk the Rim Trail
- Visit the Lookout Studio and Kolb Studio
- Walk past the Train Depot and the Mule Barn
Grand Canyon National Park has many activities that could fill up a multiple-day visit. Check out our 15 tips for visiting and suggested activities.
Drive time from Grand Canyon to Zion National Park:
No later than mid-afternoon you’ll want to start the next driving leg of the trip. The Grand Canyon to Zion National Park is a 3.5-hour drive. You’ll drive through Zion to get to Springdale, UT for your overnight stay.
Day 6, Zion National Park
Zion is a popular national park with 4.5 million visitors a year. Sheer sandstone cliffs, pine and juniper dotted slopes, waterfalls, and river combine as gorgeous backdrops for family hikes and viewpoints. Although we only schedule a day here, you could easily add a day or more exploring. See our guide to Zion for itineraries and 10 tips for visiting.
We suggest the following for a one day visit:
- Visit as early as possible as any available parking is filled fast. The park will then limit car access to the park.
- Hike one or two of the easy hikes
- Eat your packed lunch
- Drive the beautiful Zion – Mt Carmel Highway and stop at the overlooks
- Complete a free Junior Range handbook at the visitor centers to earn a badge
Drive time from Zion to Bryce Canyon:
Bryce Canyon is an easy 1.5-hour drive. Stay in Bryce Canyon City.
Day 7, Bryce Canyon National Park
Visitors come to see the star of the park, the abundant hoodoos. While you’ve seen pictures of the famous Bryce Amphitheater, there’s nothing like seeing the vista in person. An early morning visit will leave you jaw-dropped by the beauty of red-rock spires, pinnacles, and hoodoos. Read our complete guide to visiting Bryce Canyon.
Arrive early and drive straight to Bryce Point to enjoy the early morning with limited crowds. This parking lot fills up quickly, so the earlier your visit the better. After you take in the amazing view, we suggest the following activities:
- Visit Inspiration, Sunset, and Sunrise Points
- Hike Rim Trail to all Bryce Amphitheater viewpoints
- Explore the Navajo Loop
- Trek up Queens Garden Trail
- Explore the Scenic Drive during the heat of the day from Yovimpa Point to the Visitor Center
- Stop at the Visitors Center
Drive time from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef:
While you might think the drive to Capitol Reef is a good time to nap, you won’t want to miss a minute of the drive along Scenic Byway 12. (we’ll explore why in an upcoming post!) Depending on how many stops you make, the drive can be done in as little as 2.5 hours. The closest hotels to Capitol Reef are in the Torrey area.
Day 8, Capitol Reef National Park
The star of Capitol Reef National Park is the Waterpocket Fold. This 100-mile long buckle in the earth’s surface reveals multiple rock layers and creates deep narrow canyons and formations. We suggest 10 activities with kids in our guide to Capitol reef.
One day itinerary to Capitol Reef:
- Stop at the Visitor Center to get a map and check conditions
- Drive back to UT-24 to hike to either Hickman Bridge or Cassidy Arch. If you started early, you might get both of these done before lunch
- Eat lunch in the picnic area
- Drive the Scenic Drive in the heat of the day
- View the Petroglyphs
- Explore the Fruita Historic District
- Visit Gooseneck Overlook and Sunset Point
Drive home – time varies:
Although we started at Arches in this Grand Circle Tour, you could pick up the loop from Salt Lake City, Denver, Flagstaff, or Las Vegas.
- Buy an America the Beautiful National Park pass for $80. It’s easy to pop in for short multi-day visits when you have a national park pass.
- Instead of visiting the Grand Canyon, you can schedule a day at Lake Powell.
- Combine this road trip with our 6-day Southwest Colorado Loop to add 3 additional National Parks for a two-week vacation
- We hiked more difficult hikes at Arches and Zion National Park, planning more strenuous hikes every other day gives you a day to recover a little.
- Try this road trip in an RV. Check out RVShare for rentals.
- If you’re flying in to drive the loop, we suggest flying into Las Vegas.
- Easily extend the trip to two weeks by adding a second day or more at your favorite national park.
- Pre-plan your meals out and grocery store trips. We suggest stocking up in Moab, UT.
We hope you find this itinerary helpful and the individual national park guides. Tell us about your visits to the parks! What tips would you give?