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Road Trip Utah the Right Way!

Camryn graduated from the University of Oregon with a BS in Journalism. In her free time you can find her hiking, camping, and sunbathing.

epicutahroadtrip

The Idea

Going to southern Utah had been on my bucket list for as long as I could remember. I spent a few layovers in the Salt Lake City airport during various trips and had always seen advertisements for Arches and Zion National Park. Unfortunately, I always had another plane to catch.

However, my dreams of visiting these parks came to fruition one day while conversing with my boyfriend, Matt. He said something along the lines of "Ever heard of Arches National Park?" I laughed and replied, "Of course, it's a dream destination." We agreed then and there that someday we would go together, but when you're a broke college student, vacationing isn't in the cards.

Fast forward to the summer after we finally graduated, neither of us had secured a job or new living commitments. While this was stressful in itself, we soon realized that nothing held us back from jumping in the car and making our dream trip a reality.

Two days later, we were well on our way to a trip of a lifetime.

The Plan

I'll be the first to say that I would classify myself as an extreme planner, meaning when I go on trips, I want to know exactly where I am sleeping, eating, hiking, and everything in between. On the other hand, my boyfriend could pack up and go with no plan, no route, and just figure it out as he goes. It couldn't be me.

However, when we decided to go spur of the moment, I had no time to extensively plan campground reservations, restaurants, entry passes, etc. The internal planner in me was panicked, but after a few conversations, I tried to calm her by relinquishing the control and just going with the flow.

But that didn't stop me from putting a broad itinerary together. I threw a rough estimate together and figured that we had a week and a half to drive to and from Oregon while hitting Arches, Bryce, and Zion National Park in the meantime.

Roof top tent

Roof top tent

The Equipment

It wasn't a secret to either of us that we were spoiled on this trip!

My parents happen to be outdoor enthusiasts, and their gear collection accurately reflects it. My dad owns a rooftop tent that easily installs onto roof racks of any car, and just like that, you have a perfectly nice 3-inch mattress waiting for you every night. Looking back, this was our saving grace since we planned to camp the whole time. It wasn't a secret that comfort was going to be key.

In addition to the rooftop tent, we brought a gas stove, refillable gallon size water canisters, eating utensils, and two chairs.

Eugene, Oregon → Salt Lake City, Utah

  • Miles: 782

  • Driving Time: 12 hours and 2 minutes

We kicked the trip off with a whole car day. Luckily, spirits were high, so the idea of sitting still for twelve hours didn't bother us too much. Between good music, conversation, and a few naps, it was a breeze.

Once we got to Salt Lake City, I began looking for places to camp. Our idea was to camp for free the whole trip by staying on the Bureau of Land Management property (BLM for short). We used this handy website to find all of our sites.

Within a few minutes, we found this popular free spot just south of Salt Lake City called Diamond Fork. If you drive 12 miles down the road past the campground, it's free!

Once we got there, we whipped out the In n Out we picked up and had our first great night under the Utah stars.

Salt Lake City → Arches National Park

  • Miles: 229

  • Driving Time: 3 1/2 hours

This drive flew by out of pure excitement. We woke up early that morning, quickly made some breakfast, and were on the road by 9:00. Once approaching the park, we stopped at a gas station and loaded up on water, snacks, and firewood for cooking dinner later that night.

Once we finally got to the gates to purchase our pass, we saw the America the Beautiful option that gave you unlimited access to any Nation Park for a whole year for just $80. It was a no-brainer to buy this instead of paying individual entrance fees at every park; by the end of the trip, it easily paid for itself.

Upon entering the park, we were immediately graced with the beauty that we had both dreamt about for years.

South Window

South Window

Arches National Park

We gave ourselves two full days to fully explore Arches since we drove in mid-afternoon the first day.

Day 1:

On the first day, we planned just to get a feel for the park and drive their scenic road to get a lay of the land. Our first stop was the North and South Windows and Turret arch. These can be easily accessed by a short hike out from the parking lot, but wow, it was extremely surreal to see these up close and personal. I never felt smaller than standing in the middle of this rock that had been slowly eroded to produce an arch.

After driving around and soaking up the beauty for a few hours, we jumped back in the car and tried to find a place to camp for the night. After looking at our handy free camping website, we concluded that we'd rather pay $20-25 to camp 10-15 minutes away from the park rather than for free somewhere that was 45 minutes away.

We discovered multiple campgrounds off highway 128 outside of Moab, so we headed that way without a reservation. After having no luck at the first few campgrounds, we finally found a spot at Drinks Canyon. This spot is nestled into a canyon beside the Colorado River, and I cannot explain how beautiful it was. We cooked a nice dinner, watched the sun fade over the canyon walls, and headed to our tent to get some rest for the next epic day we had planned.

Day 2:

We woke up bright and early to the southern Utah heat. At a nice 93-degrees, we planned to hike the Devils Garden trail, which would come out to be about 8 miles roundtrip. I cannot recommend this trail enough since you pass by countless arches and get to see Natural Arch, which is hanging on by a thread. I couldn't help but wonder if, in the near future, we would read about its collapse.

After finishing our hike, we stopped by Sand Dune Arch, and I'm so glad we did. We practically had it to ourselves, and it was by far our favorite arch we had seen yet. It was nestled into a slot canyon surrounded by dusty orange sand. Amazing, to say the least.

On our hike, we had talked to a ranger who told us all about the park after dark and how amazing the stars are. There also happened to be a comet that night, so we decided to leave the park, get some dinner in Moab, and then come back to stargaze.

We made our way into town, and after some searching, we decided on the Moab Diner for some all-American food and milkshakes. The inside of this restaurant looked straight from the '60s and had such a home-like feel to it. 10/10 would recommend their Smothered Moab Melt; it was exactly what I wanted after a 10 mile hiking day in 93-degree weather.

Once the sun had set, we headed back into the park and ended up at Panorama Point after some recommendations. We weren't disappointed! The night sky lit up with stars, and soon enough, the comet appeared out of nowhere. It was the perfect way to say goodbye to Arches.

Around 10, we headed back to our canyon campsite and passed out from an exhausting day, but we were both too excited to make our way to Bryce Canyon next!

Sunset under South Window

Sunset under South Window

Arches → Bryce Canyon National Park

  • Miles: 259

  • Driving Time: 4 hours

This drive wasn't too bad! However, we were exhausted and frankly hot from the previous day. A tad bit of crankiness plagued a good hour or two of this segment.

The majority of this drive is desert-like but it's ever-changing terrain. There is always something to get out at and stretch your legs. I highly recommend stopping to look at the San Rafael Swell. Right off the road, there are spike-looking formations coming out of the ground and it is unlike anything I've ever seen and so unique.

Once we got near Bryce Canyon, we found a free place to camp off Tom's Best Spring Road, which was about a 20-minute drive away from the park. It was super clean, quiet, and a great place to recharge and get ready for the next day.

The Amphitheater

The Amphitheater

Bryce Canyon National Park

What a crazy unique place Bryce Canyon National Park is.

In all honesty, from the outside driving in, Bryce looks like another forest. It isn't until you head to the amphitheater that you are greeted by the natural beauties called Hoodoos. These coral orange pillars stand taller than imaginable and aren't comparable to anything I've ever seen before.

After we grabbed some lunch at the lodge, we headed back towards the amphitheater to do some hiking. We chose to do the Queen's Garden/Navajo Combination trail. While this is the most popular trail of the amphitheater, it is rightfully so. You get to come face to face with the magnificent Hoodoos and can appreciate them truly.

Bryce Canyon's ranger station also runs a fun program called "I hiked the Hoodoos," which involves hiking to various pit stops around the park, taking a picture, and later returning to the station for a free prize! While this might be for children, we highly enjoyed it, and I still have my sticker to this day.

After our hike, we traveled down to the natural bridge arch, which was beautiful. From there, we stopped by the amphitheater one last time before sunset and said goodbye to the beautiful Hoodoos.

Wall Street

Wall Street

Bryce Canyon → Zion National Park

  • Miles: 72

  • Driving Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

This was the shortest drive of the whole trip! We took our sweet time getting ready in the morning by making a bountiful breakfast and taking a second to soak it all in.

Once hitting the road, we both noticed that this segment is actually very green, unlike most of Utah that we had visited at this point.

As we approached the Zion area, we entered through the Eastside and decided to drive around a little. This helped decide where to camp, and we eventually decided to backtrack and stay about 30 minutes east of Zion. We turned around and went to our hillside campsite off highway 9 and got to see a beautiful sunset.

The Narrow's Wall Street

The Narrow's Wall Street

Zion National Park

The first thing I'll tell you about Zion is not to underestimate its size. It is larger than life on a way grander scale than both Arches and Bryce. Massive rock walls constantly surround you on all sides.

We, fortunately, made shuttle reservations through their website since the "scenic" road is closed to motor vehicles for the majority of the year. (This is where my obsessive planning came in handy.) This scenic road gives you access to all of the famous Zion hikes, including Angel's Landing and The Narrows.

In all honesty, we had no idea which hikes to do, so we just hopped on the shuttle and decided to check out the Narrows to see what all the hype was all about. Initially, we planned only to go a mile or two, but two or three hours later, we were several miles deep. There is a section of the Narrows called Wall Street, which has towering canyon walls on both sides. This was nothing short of stunning, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Since it was the middle of the summer, the colder water felt extremely refreshing since we did not rent any waders, which some people recommend. We were fine in our athletic clothes and had zero complaints.

The one thing I will say about this hike is that it is extremely crowded. It is nearly impossible to get a soul picture without numerous people in the background. However, the further you go, the less crowded it gets. I like it think it weeds out the weak.

In the end, we ended up hiking about 10-11 miles, so it was extremely exhausting because not only are you hiking, but you are hiking in calf-deep water. It really makes taking a step that much more technical and complicated, but in the end, it was a one-in-a-lifetime type of hike, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Once we got back on the shuttle, we stopped by the Zion Lodge, grabbed some ice cream, and tried to soak up our last national park of the trip.

After hopping on the shuttle one last time, we were dropped off at the visitors center, so naturally, we had to hit the gift shop hard. After spending the remaining trip funds, we finally headed back to the car to find our last camping spot of the trip.

The Narrows

The Narrows

Zion National Park → Eugene, Oregon

  • Miles: 870

  • Driving Time: 13 1/2 hours

We spent our final night on the west side of Zion since we were headed home in that direction. This drive back to Oregon was exhausting, to say the least.

We were both so tired from sleeping in the Utah heat that we decided to commit and do the drive home in one day instead of two. The thought of a shower and sleeping in a clean bed was too intriguing to ignore.

This drive was just your standard interstate drive, so nothing too excited to report back on. However, once crossing the Oregon border, it only got harder since we were so close but so far.

We ended up pulling into the driveway around midnight that night, and at that point, I was just grateful to get out of the car.

The Takeaways

1. Nature is nothing short of amazing

These National Parks were hands down the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The arches, rock formations, and the natural beauty of the desert were incomparable to any place I have ever seen, and I cannot even begin to explain how these places make you feel.

2. Take that spontaneous trip, NOW!

Being the extreme planner I am, I was beyond nervous about not having a definitive plan. However, the unexpected became half the fun. Finding new places to sleep every night and only having a broad itinerary in mind made it easy to do whatever we wanted. While I can't say that I won't plan out my future trips, it was gratifying just living in the moment.

3. Road trips with your best friend are everything and more

To this day we still talk about this trip and how much fun it was. It was the highlight of our year and we made so many memories from the good, the bad, and the ugly. You really get to know someone when you spend a week straight in the car with them. Overall, I walked away having a deeper understanding of my boyfriend, which was priceless. Maybe one day we will shut up about this trip, but it probably won't be anytime soon.

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 17, 2021:

I enjoyed reading about your Utah adventure because it brought back memories of our trip many years ago. We visited all 5 of the national parks and a couple of state parks. It was the trip of a lifetime! Like you, I would go back in a heartbeat!

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on April 17, 2021:

Really enjoyed reading about your Utah adventure. It’s been over 30 years since I visited these parks but after reading about your visit I want to return.

Jasmine Hanner from Maui, Hawai'i on April 15, 2021:

Same, I loved reading your adventure. Thanks for sharing!

Olivia Ware from Portland, OR on April 14, 2021:

Great trip! After reading this, I'm counting down the days until I get to see Wall Street in person.

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