Utah Big 5 National Parks in Seven Days – October 2020

Visiting the national parks in Utah had been on our travel bucket list for awhile. It was one of my favorite trips to date. Utah’s scenery is unreal. So many times, we felt like we were exploring another planet. This trip was just Alex and I because we wanted to do some serious hiking, but the Utah parks are totally doable with kids and we saw plenty of families during our trip.

We had planned a trip before the pandemic but pushed it back a month to the end of October once the pandemic hit since there was a ton of flight availability. There were several reasons for this, one of which was that we realized that it might still be incredibly hot in September when we originally planned to go, and more crowded as well. We were also worried about being restricted by COVID. I think we made the right call, because the weather was absolutely perfect in late October (minus the freezing cold morning in Bryce Canyon!). It was still fairly crowded, particularly in Zion and Arches, but not unbearably so. And we were not restricted in our travel at all. The single downside to moving our trip is that we technically visited after the season, so Torrey, the town we stayed at near Capitol Reef, had closed for the season and there wasn’t a lot open.

Before I get into our specific itinerary, I have a couple of general tips about going to the Utah national parks.

  1. Buy the national park pass – it’s $80 and worth it if you’re going to visit all the parks. You can buy it at the first park you visit.
  2. Our total trip time was 8 days – we did 2 full days and 2 half days (on the front and back ends) in Zion and one day in each of the other parks. You could break it up differently but we wanted to devote a day each for the Angels Landing and the Narrows hikes in Zion. 
  3. We always try to plan ahead, but it is essential to do so for a visit to Zion because you have to reserve seats on the park shuttle in advance. It is not an option to drive into the park yourself. Know the dates/times shuttle tickets will be released and be on your computer to purchase the tickets at that time. They sell out in minutes.
  4. I highly recommend waking up early to do hikes in all of the parks, but especially in Zion, Bryce, and Arches. You will beat the crowds this way and hike in the cooler part of the day while saving your drive/rest time for the hot parts of the day.

I’ll go into more detail when I recap our time in each park, but our overall itinerary looked like this:

  • Day 1: Arrive in St. George Utah, drive to Zion NP (45 min). Stay in Springdale.
  • Day 2: Zion NP. Stay in Springdale.
  • Day 3: Zion NP. Drive to Bryce Canyon (2 hrs). Stay in Bryce.
  • Day 4: Bryce Canyon NP. Drive to Capitol Reef NP (2.5 hrs). Stay in Torrey.
  • Day 5: Capitol Reef NP. Drive to Arches NP (2.5 hrs). Stay in Moab.
  • Day 6: Arches NP. Stay in Moab.
  • Day 7: Drive to Canyonlands NP. Stay in Richfield (on way back to St. George).
  • Day 8: Drive to Zion NP, Kolob Canyons section. Drive to St. George to fly home.

This itinerary was perfect, in my opinion. We had ample time in each park to do the best hikes and see everything we wanted to see. We woke up every day around 6am to get our day started and hiked until about 3pm. Other than the days we stayed in Springdale and Moab, we’d drive about 2 hours to the next destination, just in time for dinner and an early bedtime. It was a great routine!

Zion NP

Park Shuttle

For Zion, the national park system instituted a shuttle system during the pandemic where you had to reserve seats on the park shuttle on the website in advance. They were only $1, but sell out in minutes so make sure you know the dates they will be available and get online as soon as they release tickets for the dates you are there. I may or may not have been in actual tears when I missed the first release. Thankfully, my brother saved the day and got us the extra tickets released the day before your visit since we were either flying or in the park with no service the days before our visits. However, if you don’t get tickets, don’t fret – you can go through one of the private shuttles (about $50 each) or even bike in. Make sure you screenshot your ticket because they check tickets at every stop.

With all of that said, I recently learned that as of May 28, 2021, there is no longer a required shuttle reservation system. The shuttles are boarded on a first-come, first-served basis. This means long lines! So for many reasons, I strongly urge trying to get the 7am shuttle into Zion. The park gets extremely busy as the morning goes on and it’s just more enjoyable in my opinion to hike before there are thousands of people crowding the park. Also, if you take the early shuttle, you can park in the Visitor Center parking lot. Otherwise you have to park in Springdale and take a city shuttle to the Zion shuttle. 

The shuttle is open from 6 am to 5pm mountain time. However, we visited in October and the first shuttle was at 7am because of the time of year. Either way – take the first shuttle you can!

On our first afternoon, we drove straight to the park from the airport and had time to do the short 1 mile trail to Canyon Overlook. It’s a bit crowded, especially in the afternoon, but has great views. The overlook is the perfect place to have a picnic lunch or snack. There’s a parking lot across the street, but if it’s full, there’s a lot more parking just up the road.

Our first full day in Zion, we did the infamous Angels Landing hike (5.4 miles round-trip). I wanted to have fresh legs since I knew it was a tough one. We were on the first shuttle so it was nice that we weren’t passing anyone coming down along the hike. The first half mile or so is flat, but the rest of the hike is a constant climb until you reach the chains portion. It took us about an hour to reach the chains, including time to stop and take photos. There is a bathroom and water available here. Luckily the chains had opened a couple of days before our visit (they had been closed due to COVID previously). As many have pointed out, the chains section is pretty scary and definitely not the best if you are afraid of hikes. To be honest, I didn’t make it the entire way. I made it maybe halfway to a really fantastic lookout point and then decided that was enough for me. There are a lot of people so you have to go one by one and it’s a very sheer drop. I can’t even imagine what it’s like when it’s even busier.

Once we got to the bottom of the chains, we hiked a bit of the West Rim trail. It is a lot less crowded and has excellent views of the north side of the canyon. This would be a great option if you didn’t want to do the chains portion, or you could add it into your hike. After Angels Landing, we hiked to the Upper Emerald Pool (1.3 mi from Grotto/Angels Landing start). Then we took the shuttle to the Zion Lodge, where we relaxed and ate lunch on the lawn. 

On our second full day, we did the Narrows hike. The night before, we picked up gear for the hike at Zion Outfitter, located just outside the park visitor center. It’s $25 for the day for the socks/shoes and $41 for the socks/shoes and dry pants – both include a walking stick. Depending on what time of year you’re going, you’ll definitely want to get the gear for this hike to stay dry and warm! I would recommend getting the dry socks/shoes no matter what time of year you’re going, to stay dry and avoid blisters from wet socks and shoes. The Narrows hike is one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. It is so unique to hike literally through a river in a canyon. I had actually thought about not doing the hike because I didn’t find the idea of being cold and wet that appealing, but I can’t believe I ever thought that after doing it. After the trip, I would say this hike cannot be missed. It’s not particularly hard as it’s flat the whole way, but it is still somewhat tiring because you’re walking on a riverbed the entire way. You can make the hike as long as you want – we hiked into the canyon 3 miles before we turned around. Our turnaround point was past Wall Street at a big boulder where the river gets very deep. It took us about 4 or 5 hours, including stopping for lunch in the canyon. This hike also gets very crowded the later you go, so we definitely recommend an early shuttle. The downside to going early and missing the crowds is that the lighting isn’t great for photographs early in the morning.

After the Narrows, we stopped at Big Bend to take in the views and take some photos. The views were gorgeous, but I would only do this when it’s early. Otherwise, it gets really difficult to get a shuttle because they are all full coming from the Narrows. We finished our day by hiking part of the Watchman trails (just up to where we had pretty views). You could skip this if you want to get on the road – the views are beautiful but it’s hard to follow Angels Landing and Narrows! We just weren’t quite ready to leave the park yet.

On our last day in Utah, we returned to Zion to explore the Kolob Canyon entrance of Zion. There was hardly anyone at this entrance of Zion park so it was a really enjoyable way to end our time in Utah! We did the short Timber Creek Overlook Trail, as well as a “no-name trail” that we were shown by a ranger at the south fork. I wish we had more time to do the whole trail because it was almost empty and so beautiful. However, we had a flight to catch so did an out and back for about an hour before heading to the St. George airport.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Springdale and it was perfect. It was a short drive to the park every day and was a great place to relax at the end of the day. They have a big patio with firepits and excellent views, where we had drinks and snacks at the end of the day. They also have a pool and hot tub. They do a big breakfast which was really nice before our big hikes. 

We got groceries to pack lunches and snacks for our hikes and some wine and snacks to enjoy in the evenings. We had breakfast at the hotel each day and ate out at restaurants for dinners. The first night we ate at Whiptail Grill, which is a delicious Mexican fusion/grill with burritos and burgers. They were able to seat us after a 5 minute wait with no reservations. The second night, we had a lovely dinner outside at the Spotted Dog, which has Modern American cuisine. We had a 45 min wait after walking up to put our name in, so I’d recommend making reservations if you plan to eat here.

Bryce NP

We arrived at Bryce in the early evening and drove to Sunrise Point to watch the sunset over the canyon. In the morning, we woke up early and returned to watch the Sunrise at Sunrise Point over the hoodoos. It is important to mention that it was FREEZING in Bryce during our stay so we had a unique experience. The high was only in the twenties and it was snowing when we arrived. On one hand, the cold weather meant the park was basically empty except for a handful of visitors. However, it was COLD. The scenery is incredible, but it’s not the most fun to hike in such extreme temperatures. I think on a normal day, it can be very busy at the park so it is a good idea to start early.

Because of the weather, we began the day with the scenic drive through the length of the park, stopping at all the viewpoints. I think there are about 10. After our drive, we went to the Visitor Center to warm up and learn about the park. It’s an excellent visitor center so I recommend stopping if you’re interested in the geology of the area. Then we parked and hiked the Queens Garden to Navajo loop. This is a really cool hike amongst the hoodoos and truly feels like you are exploring another world. There are two routes to take up to finish the hike and we recommend taking Wall Street for the best experience. up (there are two routes) to finish the hike.

We stayed at the Ruby Inn Best Western. It is a huge complex with a general store, restaurant, and liquor store. Normally, it has a big breakfast buffet, but because of COVID, they were giving out bagged hot or cold breakfasts.

We got some snacks and groceries at the general store at the hotel and bought more wine at the state liquor store inside the resort complex. Note that Utah has different liquor laws than most other states so you have to buy alcohol at special stores that are only open at certain times/days.

Capitol Reef NP

We arrived at Capitol Reef NP just in time to watch the sunset at Sunset Point before dinner. In the morning, we stopped at the Visitor Center to plan our hikes. On our way to the first hike, we stopped at the Gifford House for a giant homemade cinnamon roll. You cannot miss this stop! They also sell homemade pies, so we made a second stop in the afternoon after our hikes.

We started out with a hike through Capitol Gorge, where you can see the pioneer register and petroglyphs of people who traveled through the gorge. It was neat, but it’s completely shaded by the canyon walls and it was a very cold morning. Next, we hiked to Cassidy Arch, which was our favorite hike of the day. It has beautiful views of the park, which we enjoyed while we ate our lunch and watched people repel from the arch before hiking back down. We also did a short hike through the Grand Wash up to the Narrows (not quite as impressive as the Narrows in Zion, but still worthwhile). After our hikes, we stopped at the Gifford House for a second time for peach pie and ice cream, which we enjoyed with a bottle of wine before heading to our next destination.

We stayed at Capitol Reef Resort on the recommendation of my brother, who had stayed there before. It’s a great hotel with fire pits – they even sell s’more kits in the gift shop! The rooms have beautiful views so ask for one on the back side of the building. Some of the best stargazing is in this remote area – don’t miss it!

For dinner we stopped at Curry Pizza, which I highly, highly recommend! The Indian pizzas were delicious and so unique. We had to drive into Bicknell – all of the restaurants in Torrey had recently closed for the season. Bicknell isn’t far, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the town of Torrey closes in mid-October. The only thing open was a general store, but even it was very picked over because it was closing for the season soon and wasn’t restocking anything. Fortunately, we were able to buy a few items for our next day’s lunch. If we had known that Torrey would be closed, we would have stopped at a grocery store in one of the bigger towns on our drive in so keep that in mind if you’re going in or close to the off-season.

Arches NP
We drove from Capitol Reef to Moab, where we stayed for the next two nights to access Arches and Canyonlands NP. Arches NP is different from the other four national parks. While you can do a couple of longer hikes, most of the hikes are shorter so you can plan on more driving if you’re wanting to see a lot of the arches. It’s also quite popular so busier than some of the other parks (busier than Capitol Reef and Canyonlands, but not as busy as Zion). When we arrived our first night, we hiked to the 0.5 mile mark to view the sunset at Delicate Arch. There are three viewpoints so you can hike 3 miles from Wolfe Ranch up to the arch, but we didn’t want to go back down in the dark and were ready for dinner so we opted for the shorter trail. There’s another viewpoint that is only 100 yards away, but it’s worth the short hike if you’re able to get to the viewpoint. The sunset is also beautiful over Balancing Rock.

I read that the stargazing is incredible in Arches, but it was really cold when we visited, so we did not go to the park at night. In the morning, we hiked the Devils Garden hike to the Double O Arch (4.1 miles roundtrip, not including the spur trails we took), which is a fantastic hike. Part of the trail is primitive so there is some minor scrambling. You can hike a loop and actually take the primitive trail for longer (7.8 miles roundtrip) or you can make it an out and back. You’ll get to see several arches so it’s well worth it! We saw Tunnel, Pine Tree, Landscape, Partition, Navajo, and Double O arches.

The rest of the day, we stopped at a lot of viewpoints and did short hikes to see other arches (details below, distances are round-trip). 

  • Lunch at Skyline Arch (0.4 miles)
  • Hike to Sand Dune (0.3 miles) and Broken Arch (2 miles)
  • Saw Wolfe Ranch, Panorama Point, and Garden of Eden
  • Hike to North and South Window, Turret Arch (1 mile), and Double Arch (0.5 miles)
  • Stopped at the Petrified Dunes and Courthouse Towers Viewpoints

We stayed at the Hyatt House in Moab. It’s a convenient location very close to Arches NP and was a comfortable and new hotel. We have stayed at a lot of Hyatt Houses in our travels and I really like the consistency and setup. They have excellent hot breakfasts and this location was no exception, although you had to order it individually to take back to your room because of COVID. I also like that the rooms have nice bathroom amenities and a seating area so it’s a bit more like a suite.

We stocked up on groceries for our hikes and lunches at City Market. On our first night in Moab, we had dinner at Moab Brewery. They have great burgers, sandwiches, and burritos. On our second night, we had an excellent Italian dinner at Pasta Jay’s. They had a nice outdoor heated seating area which we enjoyed. 

Canyonlands NP
Canyonlands NP is huge – there are three areas of the park so you could easily spend several days here. The views are unbelievable and it was probably one of the least crowded parks, so we really enjoyed that aspect. In the morning, we packed up and made the short drive to Canyonlands NP. We started with a hike to Upheaval Dome (1 mile round-trip) to see a crater.

Then, we did a hike up Aztec Butte (2 miles round-trip). Most of the hike is flat and then you have to climb the butte (some scaling required), where you will get amazing views of the canyon. We ate our lunch at the Green River Overlook and in the afternoon stopped to see Mesa Arch, Buck Canyon Overlook, and the Orange Cliffs Overlook.

In the afternoon, we hiked Grand View Point (2 miles round-trip) – it’s a very flat and easy cliff walk with incredible views the whole way.

On our way out of town, we stopped at Dead Horse Point Overlook (note this is a state park with a separate $20 entry fee) and then started the drive back to St. George. We stayed at a Fairfield in Richfield, Utah, which was a town about halfway on the drive back.

Utah is an incredible state and there is so much fantastic hiking! I can’t wait to take our kids to see this part of the country when they are a bit older. Have you been to any of Utah’s national parks? I’d love to hear about it! Drop me a comment to share your experiences. And if you have any questions about planning a trip, I’d be happy to answer!

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