Day-to-Day: Southern Utah National Parks

Before this trip gets too far out of my memory, I thought I would jot down notes about our itinerary and what worked and what could be improved upon. We took the family to Utah for Spring Break this year, with the idea to sweep across the southern part of the state and visit National Parks. The week we chose also happened to be National Park Week, so entrance fees into the parks were waived. Such a deal!

Our trip started in Salt Lake City, which worked well for us because we visited family friends, stocked up on car trip supplies at Whole Foods and Target, and decompressed with visits to Park City, treats from Nielsen’s Frozen Custard, and a great dinner at Cucina Toscana. Others choose to start such a trip in Las Vegas or if you skip the eastern parks, in Phoenix.

Day 1: Arrive in Salt Lake City, two nights at the Springhill Suites by Marriott

Day 3: Depart for Zion National Park and Springdale, Utah

On the way in, we stopped at the Kolob Canyon Visitor’s Center, to stretch our legs and have our first view of Zion Park. In Springdale, we stayed two nights at the Cliffrose Lodge. In addition to being a mere 200 YARDS from the front of Zion Park, the room was also comfortable and the kids loved the pool area. The garden area is gorgeous (we won’t talk about how much water it probably uses to keep it that way) and the hotel was within walking distance of the Spotted Dog Cafe, our new favorite dinner spot. We also enjoyed a great breakfast at Oscars Cafe, on the outside patio with great brunch specials.

In the park, we took the shuttle from the visitor’s center and enjoyed the narrative on the way through the park. We had 1.5 days in the park, and on the full day, we took a hike to Emerald Pools Trail to the Upper Emerald Pool, which was a great hike for our kids. Since our hotel was so close to the park, we got an early start and finished the hike in about 2 hours. A quick stop at the deli cafe at the Zion Lodge for lunch, then we caught the shuttle again to the end of the line, Temple of Sinawava, for the Riverside Walk. This easy mile long hike was flat and scenic and fully paved. The kids actually raced down and back, timing themselves to get a mile-time at altitude. Weird-os. At the end, you can see the start of the Narrows hike, which was off limits in April due to high water.

While in Zion, we also managed to catch a viewing of Hop at the Zion Canyon Theater, the largest screen in the United States at 6 stories high. Pretty impressive to see all that bunny love magnified. During the day the theater shows Treasure of the Gods, a film about the origins and history of Zion Park.

Day 5: Depart for Bryce Canyon National Park, overnight in Kodachrome Basin State Park at the Red Stone Cabins

We took Highway 9 out of Zion National Park towards Bryce Canyon, along a very scenic drive. I wish we would have stopped outside the East entrance to play on the massive rocks jutting out sideways. There were a few places to pull off, but I never found the perfect one. Oh well, next trip.

The visit to Bryce was pretty quick. Stopped in at the main Visitor’s Center and picked up the Jr. Ranger information. Headed over to the Rim Trail and listened to a ranger program on geology. Then we hiked down to the Queen’s Garden, a nice walk through the Hoodoos with good photo opportunities. I could see that it would be very hot in the summer, so take water and wear a hat. Total time in Bryce was about 3 hours, although there were more hikes we could have taken if we stayed longer. The Bryce Canyon Lodge looked like a good place to stay, but they were full when I tried to make reservations, so we went down the road a bit to Kodachrome Basin State Park and the Red Stone Cabins.

A word about state parks in Utah – in my opinion, there is a reason some parks are national and some are state. National parks are truly awesome and awe inspiring. Not all state parks are that way. Kodachrome Basin is a nice state park, but paled in comparison to Bryce and Zion, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which was right next door. And the Red Stone Cabins, while conveniently located inside the park, are a bit dated and the beds are SMALL. I should have booked two cabins, or packed an inflatable mattress or two with some sleeping bags. We would have been much more comfortable. In addition, there are no services near the park, so unless you bring your pick-i-nick basket, be prepared to drive for dinner. In the little store next to the cabins there were convenience foods and toasters, microwaves and I think a toaster oven, so clever campers and backpackers would have been well served.

Day 6: Visit Grosvenor Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and drive to Torrey, Utah

10 miles down a primitive (read: dirt) road is the Grosvenor Arch (side note: we had a delightful conversation with the two rangers in the GSENM Visitor’s Center about the pronunciation of Grosvenor. I, along with one of the rangers, pronounce the word with the “S’. Dear husband, and the other ranger, pronounce the word Grovner. It was funny at the time, trust me) which was worth the drive, simply because you can walk right on up to the arch. Beautiful photo opportunities and the chance to get a little dirt on your rental car.

One of the reasons we stayed in Kodachrome was because we wanted to be fresh and rested for the drive from Escalante to Torrey, which is one of the most beautiful in the state. Next time, I might look around for better lodging options further along towards Escalante, although we did not reach Kodachrome until about 5pm, so that would have made for a long day. But, the drive between Escalante and Torrey was beautiful and worth the visit. Stopping at the Petrified Forest State Park was not worth it (see above discussion about state vs. national parks). The Dixon National Forest, which you enter and exit several times along the way, is attractive and we noticed a few campgrounds that looked promising.

In Torrey, we stayed the night at the Best Western Capital Reef, which has a pool, laundry facilities and a decent breakfast. Dinner that night was at the delightfully eclectic Cafe Diablo. Next time, we are going to order two appetizers and a 3 desserts with 3 scoops of ice cream. My recommendation.

Day 7: Depart Torrey, visit Capital Reef National Park, onto Bullfrog and Lake Powell

This day started out super well, with a visit to Capital Reef National Park and Fruita. Fruita is one of the original Mormon settlements and because of a nice convergence of soil conditions and weather, the area was built up with fruit trees and orchards. If you can, camp there in the Fruita campground, set among fruit trees. Also, there is pie at the little Historic Gifford Homestead, and you know we are suckers for pie.

We drove into the park, but construction made it difficult to continue, so we drove as far as the Grand Wash and enjoyed the one mile drive in to view massive rocks. After eating pie, we hit the road for Bullfrog, where we had planned to spend the night, take the ferry across Lake Powell the next day, and continue through Natural Bridges National Monument onto Moab.

Unfortunately, best laid plans sometimes fail. Upon arriving in Bullfrog, we found that the ferry would not be running the next day, because the water was not quite high enough in the lake. Not only that, a wind storm was kicking up, so spending time on the beach was out, and then to top it off, the hotel we had booked looked dreary and depressing. So, we got on the horn to Moab and managed to find the last room at the Best Western Canyonlands Inn and hightailed it out of Bullfrog.

Going back the way we came, we encountered a severe sand storm with near white-out conditions, which made the drive that much more unpleasant, but we made it up to Moab in about 2.5 hours, in time for beer and a burger at Eddie McStiffs. The Best Western Canyonlands was a great hotel; we would definitely stay again. The rooms were comfortable and the breakfast was plentiful and green. Compostable plates and utensils, or reusable, your choice. I loved it.

Day 8-9: Moab, with visits to Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park

Our last few days of adventures in Utah! Canyonlands is a beautiful park to visit, without many barriers, so you can get really close to the edge and freak yourself (or your parents) out. We only explored the Island in the Sky district, the closest area to Moab, and spent about 3 hours driving through the park, stopping and hiking to outlooks on the way. We were pretty tired at this point (actually, we were tired back in Torrey) so our energy was low and kids were not motivated to get out and hike. As a result, we visited the Mesa Arch in shifts with one of us staying back in the car with the kids. Fortunately, the movie back at the Visitor’s Center was great and we did feel as though we absorbed some of the more important aspects of the park.

The last day in Moab was spent at Arches National Park, which we all agree was one of the best parts of the entire trip, because we enjoyed the ranger-led Fiery Furnace trip so much. I booked this trip ahead of time, $10 for adults and $5 for kids, and it was worth every penny. The three hour tour starts at the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint and the ranger leads you through the slot canyons and fins. The kids stuck close to the ranger and enjoyed scrambling in the rocks. You can also book a special permit to explore on your own – this can be done up to 7 days in advance in the Visitor’s Center and requires watching a video of the area. Go with the ranger tour, it is fun.


Day 10: Depart for Salt Lake City and flight home

One of the reasons we flew in and out of SLC is because we wanted to do a circle tour of the state, without back tracking. The trip from Moab back to SLC took about 3 hours and on a Sunday morning was a pretty easy drive. Before leaving Moab, we stopped at the Love Muffin Cafe for super awesome muffins and red quinoa hot cereal breakfast before leaving. Thus fortified we hit the road for an uneventful trip back to the city. With easy car rental drop off at the airport (although gas stations nearby were difficult to find) and a 1.5 hour flight home, our trip was complete.

Final tally – 1150 miles driven, three movies viewed (in theaters), 5 National Parks, 2 State Parks, 1 National Forest, more hamburgers than I care to admit, 2 Best Western Hotels (new family favorite), 1 miss, a couple of raging hits and a great trip all around.



  1. I love your family trip story! The photos are great, love the scenery! Wished I could visit it too someday! Thank you for sharing this with us! recently posted…ENJ VenturesMy Profile

  2. I went the Moab and the Arches for a wedding last year. Was like any other place I’ve ever been! Living right outside NYC made it a bit of a culture shock for me! But I loved the vast outdoors and dry heat! Air dried my hair outside in 10 minutes!
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