Yabba dabba doo Wilma! Let’s head on a Grand Circle road trip.
Yes sir the Flintstones would love this trip through the rocks. Covering nearly 1500 miles of the Colorado Plateau, the Grand Circle comprises a variety of canyons, monuments and rock formations. The iconic National Parks of the Grand Circle spread across Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. It has been an American Destination for 100 years. It is truly a journey worthy of anyone’s travel bucket list.
Let’s Go Learn Things about the Grand Circle…
Planning a Grand Circle Road Trip Itinerary
You can see by the map above, that this is an ambitious road trip. Initially, it is hard to sort out all the spectacular parks in the region. Often this road trip is called the Utah grand circle. However, Grand Canyon and the optional Lake Powell are in Northern Arizona. The full circle typically entails 7 major destinations. These include:
- Grand Canyon NP
- Zion NP
- Bryce Canyon NP
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Capitol Reef NP
- Arches NP
- Canyonlands NP
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Each Park has miles to explore, and in some cases, several separate segments to navigate. There are also additional National and State Areas of interest in the vast area.
Unless you are retired (or location independent) most visitors will not have time to visit everything. Each Park warrants at least 2 designated days and the Parks are about a 3-4 hour drive apart. Therefore, it will probably be necessary to prioritize according to the length of your vacation and your special interests.
Special Interests that require additional time
Adrenaline junkies or advanced adventurers, you will need extra time for long hikes, backcountry trails, and extreme tours (ie white water rafting, ORVs, mountain biking etc.)
Photographers, you will need to take into account ideal sunrises, sunsets and star-gazing time.
If you like a day relaxing at the pool or reading a book you definitely need to pad your time. None of these itineraries leave much time for chillin’.
Grand Circle Itineraries
One week Grand Circle Itinerary
- Day 1 Fly into Las Vegas and drive to Zion NP
- Day 2 & 3 in Zion NP
- Day 4 Bryce NP
- Day 5 & 6 Grand Canyon NP
- Day 7 Drive back to Las Vegas
- Optional: Lake Powell/Antelope Canyons
These seven days will be an amazing, albeit, whirlwind glimpse of the Colorado Plateau. Warning: Seven days will leave you yearning to return.
Two Week Grand Circle Itinerary
- Day 1 Travel day Fly into Las Vegas and drive to Zion NP
- Days 2, 3 & 4 Zion NP (3 nights of lodging)
- Day 4 Travel day to Bryce Canyon NP
- Day 5 & 6 in Bryce Canyon NP (2 nights lodging)
- Day 6 Travel day to Arches NP
- Day 7, 8 & 9 Arches NP and Canyonlands NP (3 nights lodging)
- Day 10 Travel day to Page, AZ
- Day 10 & 11 Glen Canyon NRA/Lake Powell/Antelope Canyons ( 1 night lodging)
- Day 11 Travel to Grand Canyon NP
- Day 12 &13 Grand Canyon NP (3 nights lodging)
- Day 14 Travel back to Las Vegas
The two week itinerary is the most feasible plan. This assumes at least two nights in or near each Park with the exception of Arches and Canyonlands, that should be three nights in Moab, UT for both Parks.
If you won the lottery or you are retired: Three Week Grand Circle Itinerary
- Fly in and out of Las Vegas
- Zion NP
- Bryce NP
- Capitol Reef NP
- Arches NP
- Canyonlands NP
- Glen Canyon NRA/Lake Powell/Antelope Canyon
- Grand Canyon NP North and South Rim
- A night of pampering in Vegas
The three week itinerary will allow for three nights in each Park area. This still works out to only two days to explore each Park because of driving time. Both Zion NP and Moab, UT (Arches NP and Canyonlands NP) are ideal for an extra night.
Grand Circle Park highlights
Every Park a Gem
Within the Grand Circle Tour each park is unique and stunning. Just when you think you have seen all the rock formations imaginable, the terrain starts to change before your eyes and a new geologic wonder spreads across the horizon. Every day the sky was an impressive deep and bold blue that the array of rock colors played against beautifully. Limestone, Sandstone, Siltstone, Mudstone, Shale, bring back vague memories from middle school science class. The wind, water and volcanic forces have left different effects on each rock formation. These forces have created the monuments, hoodoos, slot canyons and arches. The color words of alabaster, ash, clay, sage, wheat, coral and brick come to mind. Whether you can spend a week or a month you should make a visit to this region a priority.
Zion National Park
Typically, Zion NP is your first stop out of Las Vegas. It is a 3 hour drive heading northeast into Utah. Zion is a hiker/backpackers paradise, with easy paved nature trails, steep expert climbs or strenuous backcountry trails. The vistas in Zion are majestic and breathtaking everywhere you look.
There is a shuttle that carries you from Springdale, the gateway town, through the Park to the various trails. In an effort to reduce the negative impact of car traffic on the habitat, much of the Park must be accessed by the shuttle. If you stay at the Park Lodge you are able to drive farther into the Park and shorten some of the shuttle ride.
Just before entering the Park is the small touristy village of Springdale. This is where visitors will find an array of lodging. If you plan ahead (probably almost a year) you can book into the actual Zion National Park lodge. The Lodge has some hotel style rooms in the main building and a variety of separate cabins depending on the size of your group. Below I have shared a video of the view from our cabin inside the Park. It was extraordinary to be in the heart of everything during the quiet early morning and late evening hours.
*Extra tip: Be sure to venture out to the Kolob Canyon in the far northwest corner of the park. This segment, showcasing Vermillion Cliffs, is typically less crowded and a perfect spot for sunsets.
Utah Scenic Highway 12
Next stop is Bryce Canyon, a 2 hour drive further northeast into the Colorado Plateau. The back exit out of Zion on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Hwy is absolutely amazing. It was hard to drive 10 minutes without stopping for more photos. As you grow closer to Bryce, the darker rock formations of Zion start to shift into red limestone sculptures. Portions of this drive are the Utah Scenic Byway 12 and Heritage Highway 89.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The iconic Bryce Canyon “hoodoos” are columns of rock formations created by weather erosion. Typically the top portion of the formation is harder rock than the base, allowing for a top cap to form.
Bryce Canyon National Park is not as large as Zion so you can get by with two days here. However, it is incredibly beautiful and you may find it hard to leave. There are 5 hiking trails that traverse the rim and the base of the canyon. Bryce also has a shuttle through the park, which they encourage. However, it is not mandatory like it is at Zion. Be careful though, the shuttle does stop running at 8PM which means it is back at the parking outside the park at 8. We missed the last shuttle because we were trying to get sunset photos. This left us walking along the side of the road in the dark for several miles. Oooops!
*Extra tip: All Canyons should be explored from the rim and from below. The views, habitat and overall experiences are completely different between the rim and the base.
Arches National Park and Moab, UT
The drive to Moab from Bryce is 4 hours and an optional route can take you through Capitol Reef National Park. This was quite a long drive, so don’t expect to see much of Moab the first night. A good reason to plan at least three nights in Moab.
Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park are about 30 minutes apart with the town of Moab, UT closest to Arches. Neither of these parks have their own lodging so Moab is the natural choice. Moab is considered a premier “extreme” adventure center. Surrounded by red rocks and backcountry prime for hiking, camping, mountain biking and off-roading, they earn that designation.
Remember earlier I mentioned possibly planning a poolside day. By the time we reached Moab, 5 days into our trip, we were pretty fried. Although the rock formations we still amazing, they were beginning to all look the same to us. Anticipating this dilemma, I had booked us at the Red Cliffs Lodge, a zen paradise outside Moab, along the Colorado River. Man! did we hit the jackpot.
Taking a Break
The only problem with this lovely spot was that we had to choose between a day of catch up or another Park. Unfortunately, we had to forfeit Canyonlands NP and didn’t really do Arches justice NP. The Moab region could easily be a full weeks vacation without any of the other Parks.
Arches NP is fairly small but many of the arches require extensive hiking and this is certainly a place that you want to visit at sunrise, sunset, moonrise and for stargazing. Canyonlands NP has two distinct areas, Sky Islands and Needles. They are not connected and require a two hour drive between them.
*Extra tip: Remember to pad your time for hiking fatigue and stargazing.
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area/Lake Powell
Page, Arizona sits perched directly on the border between Arizona and Utah. At the far southwest corner of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. The Glen Canyon NRA covers over a million acres and Lake Powell is the largest man-made lake in North America.
Within 10 miles of Page, AZ are the instagrammable and photogenic Horseshoe Bend to the west and Antelope Canyons to the east. The land to the east, including Antelope Canyon, is owned by the Navajo Nation. To visit and explore the Navajo lands you must have a Navajo guide.
Grand Canyon National Park
From Page, AZ the South Rim Grand Canyon National Park is a two hour drive. It is a slightly longer drive two and a half hours to the much less crowded North Rim. The Park Service reports only 10% of all Grand Canyon visitors explore the North Rim portion. Both North and South Rims have in-park lodging, campgrounds, hiking trails, scenic drive and multiple viewpoints.
For all intents and purposes, the North Rim closes for the season on October 31. The South Rim is open year round with several lodging options, an Historic Village, Market Plaza, Art Studio and Geology Museum. As with all the Parks, book your lodging far in advance and be sure to explore above and below the rim.
Learn More: Grand Canyon at the North Rim
Complete the Grand Circle
After the days of natural beauty, you might find Las Vegas a bit jarring. But if you have been lucky enough to visit all these Parks, you will likely be ready for some luxury and trendy food in Las Vegas.
Even with all these tips I have only scratched the surface. It is a massive bucket list item. Be prepared to come home with literally 1000 photos, none of which can quite represent the magnificence you have just experienced.