The Ultimate 10 Day National Parks Road Trip Itinerary: Utah, Arizona & Beyond
I'm sitting here so excited to type out this itinerary because I will get to re-live how amazing it was! This route leaves from San Diego, with Vegas as our first stop. I toyed with the idea of going in reverse (with first stop being Sedona), so that is an option as well depending on your home base. We visited 10 destinations in 10 days, and it was pretty much non-stop, so throughout this itinerary I'll notate stops you may want to extend or keep shorter. It all depends on what kind of vibe you want, and how long you have.
Purchase a National Parks Pass ($80) that will allow you into all the national parks for a year. This will save you money if you plan to visit multiple; entrance is typically $30 per park otherwise.
Go during the shoulder season. We went the week of Thanksgiving, I'm not sure the parks weren't crowded due to COVID, or due to the Holiday, probably a mixture of both. But what was even better about this time of year was the weather. I had originally planned this trip in the Summer, and I think I would have had a heat stroke. End of November I was STILL getting super hot on some of the hikes.
Camp if you can. We didn't do this because we didn't plan ahead enough and get a tent; also I was afraid because of my Southern California attitude towards the cold I wouldn't be able to handle it. BUT, if you aren't a baby like me and want that extra bit of adventure, camp it out, it will save you SO much money. We spent quite a bit on lodging in mostly 2 star accommodations, so I can only imagine the cost during peak season or if you want to stay somewhere nice. I'll post where we stayed as well as some other options for those who don't mind dishing out the cash.
Invest in a nice cooler and bring your food. I did all my grocery shopping before we left (food lasts for 7 days and we ate out a couple times), so that saved a ton of money and was also nice to not have to think about what we would eat each day. We mainly did sandwiches and wraps. I brought a "Thanksgiving Dinner" that we heated up in a microwave in our motel, it was actually pretty romantic if you ask me.
Make a legitimate list. I usually do these on my phone or write them down, but for this long of a trip there were too many little things I didn't want to forget and this helped so much. I'll paste my list below that I made on google docs.
Day One: San Diego to Las Vegas
It always takes longer to drive to Vegas than you want it to. It's not a pretty drive, and there are usually traffic/accidents that delay. We wanted to get it out of the way, so we left on a Friday after work at 2:00pm, and arrived around 8:00pm. Jake has family there so we crashed with them for the night. I'd recommend wherever you're starting, not putting too many plans into your Day 1, just driving is exhausting so unless you have a quick viewpoint or short sunset hike, I'd leave Day 1 to just getting to where you need to be for a fresh day of exploring when you wake up the next day.
Day Two: Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire was on our way to Springdale (Zion), so I thought it would be a nice break in the drive for a hike and lunch. I am so glad we stopped! It ended up being one of my favorite parks, and was the beginning of a trip full of a whole lot of red rock. There aren't that many hikes; the park is pretty small. We did the Fire Wave hike (the one that the rocks look like well, a wave of fire) and Fire Canyon Overlook. Both easy and highly recommend! Afterwards we drove to a random overlook for a picnic lunch, then drove 2.5 hours to Springdale, checked into our hotel (Bumbleberry Inn), and had dinner at The Spotted Dog (the vibe was a little too fine dining for us, sometimes you just want a lot of food after hiking). The second night we ate at Stage Coach Grille- loved it!! server was great and we liked the food a lot. There a lot of dining options in Springdale so just pick a cuisine and look up reviews.
Three & Four: Two Nights @ Zion National Park
HOTEL: First off, Bumbleberry Inn is legit, and the name itself sold me. If you're looking for the most budget friendly option that is right in the town, biking distance to the park, you spend most of your time outside of the hotel, and need a hot tub to soothe your sore hiking muscles, this is it. They also provided breakfast vouchers to a lovely café in town, totally unexpected, so we packed our breakfast burritos into the park and ate them mid-hike. However, if you're trying to do it up, I kept eyeing the Desert Pearl Inn every time we passed it. Very much my vibe, but will run you about $375-400 a night.
PARK: This is the only park we went to that you have to take a shuttle in (or bike/walk in), and you need to book shuttle tickets in advance at certain times. I didn't have my ish together, and there weren't any tickets available the first day (probably due to COVID, less seats in the shuttles available). We ended up renting e-bikes (lots of places in town to choose from), and it ended up being the best decision ever/blessing in disguise that we couldn't get on the bus. Highly recommend e-biking the park, it's a totally unique experience (similar to when I e-biked over the Golden Gate Bridge, just hits different than driving or walking it) and during the off-season no cars are allowed on the road so you feel like you have the park to yourself. Pretty incredible!
Hikes we did: On the biking day we just did the Emerald Pool Trail & The Riverside Walk (the trail leading up to the start of the Narrows). I enjoyed the riverside walk a lot, we stopped along the way to eat our ritos, and then spent the rest of the afternoon biking up the road to the Canyon Overlook Trail which was the highlight for me! (did not actually do this hike because you cannot walk/bike through the tunnel up there). On day 2 we shuttled in and did Angels Landing, a super popular and difficult hike. The first hour or so was pretty hard, and I thought we had made it to the top, I was wrong!! There was about another 45 mins to get to the real top (which was mostly because you had to maneuver around people slowly, the distance isn't that far). Would not recommend for those afraid of heights, you have to hold on to chains or you will quite literally fall off the face of the earth. I could hardly walk for 2 days after this one and I was truly terrified while doing it.
Day Five: Bryce Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, & Capitol Reef National Park
Yes that's right, we did all 3 of these parks in a day. After a 1/2 day at Zion we headed to Bryce Canyon in the afternoon, and the drive was incredible! I was not expecting much of anything, but we were just surrounded by beauty. It started snowing hard and was getting dark, luckily we were just pulling into our motel for the night- a Rodeway Inn. The town was pretty much deserted, but we were able to find one restaurant open for dinner. Nothing special with the motel or restaurant, this was such a short stop we just needed a place to rest our heads for the night.
The next morning we woke up early to get to Bryce, since we were only spending a 1/2 day here before heading to Moab, UT. This is probably where I would recommend a full day, or even adding a night, so you can get more than one hike in at Bryce. It was 19 degrees this morning, and definitely the coldest stop on our trip. The wind was howling, but the contrast between the orange rocks with a fresh layer of snow against the bright blue sky is burned into my memory, and totally worth freezing my ass off to see.
Bryce Hike: We spent 2 hours in the park doing the Queen's Garden/Navajo loop combination from Sunrise to Sunset point. It was the perfect blend of views from above and through the canyon, roughly 3 miles, and moderate difficulty.
We continued our road trip by taking HWY 12 from Bryce to Moab. This isn't the quickest route, and my GPS kept taking me back to the "main road", so I had to break it up in sections to keep the route we wanted. I can't remember exactly, but it took all day because on this road you drive through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef NP. Both of these stops weren't originally on the itinerary, but as they say, when in Rome. We didn't spend near enough time in Escalante. The drive was so insanely beautiful though. We stopped at the visitors center (which was closed but had recommended hikes listed outside the building), and decided to stop at a slot canyon for lunch, it was really cool!
After a little charcuterie we continued on through to Capitol Reef National Park, stopping briefly at the visitors center for a poster (we actually collected posters at each park as our souvenirs). We were exhausted but I really wanted to do a least one hike, so we landed on doing Sunset Point, .8 miles roundtrip, but takes you to what feels like the edge of the universe. We snapped some pics and got back in the car for the final 2 hours to Moab, UT, and checked into the Moab Rustic Inn for a 3 nights stay just as it was getting dark. I would recommend exploring both Escalante and Capitol Reef more than we did if you have the time!
Day Six & Seven: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, & Dead Horse Point State Park
Arches is right in Moab (maybe 10-15 minute drive), and Canyonlands is about a 40 minute drive. We really had no preference on which to do first, but I wanted to spend a day in each for sure. Dead Horse was a last minute add on a friend had recommended, which doesn't get as much love as the national parks, but is just a beautiful and worth seeing.
You can't really go wrong with any hike in Arches, and a lot of them are just drive up and walk a few feet to see. I feel like this was the most touristy park we visited though. Like there were more specific "photo opportunities" than at other parks, where people stand in line to take a photo under the arches, which I just...don't love. It reminded me of the Potato Chip rock hike in San Diego. That being said, the Delicate Arch hike was pretty effing cool. But more so I loved this little window you could climb up to right before getting to the arch even better.
That night we went went shopping down the streets of Downtown, where splurged on some boutique finds, and then out to dinner for ramen at Bangkok House Too. It was actually really good, and I would recommend carving out some time to shop and eat out.
The next day (Thanksgiving day) we devoted to Canyonlands. The night before I was reading about the Mesa Arch, which supposedly is a photographers dream if you get there at the right moment (Sunrise), the arch is lit up with an orange glow. I decided I wanted to wake up at the crack of dawn and see this for myself. I am not get up while it's still dark kind of person, especially on the tail end of an intense hiking road trip. This all came to a head the next morning on the drive there when I quite possibly broke down from exhaustion. Started laughing uncontrollably, which then turned to crying. Who knows. We got to the arch parking lot which for whatever reason I thought would be empty this early and on a holiday, I was wrong! We were late to the party in fact, and hurried up the short trail to meet a mass of people and cameras trying to capture this glimpse of orange glow. It was unique and awesome and I'm glad I saw it, but I was freezing and needed a nap. We drove to another trail head and napped in the car until it warmed up a bit outside and I felt ready for another hike.
Hikes we did: Mesa arch, as described above, not really a hike more of a walk (.5 mile loop) to viewpoint. If not at sunrise it is still an amazing view, but not nearly as cool. However the crowds of people take away from it, so it's up to you what is important.
White Rim Overlook- This one I found on a blog, and it's not listed on the hikes for the park, but you can find it on the map and there is a little sign for it on the trail head. Being less well known than a very similar hike Grandview Point Overlook, there wasn't anyone on the trail when we went, and I am SO glad we did this one, it was such a breathtaking viewpoint. I think the vastness of Canyonlands was the hardest for me to grasp. It is just SO big and you feel SO small. There are also no barriers at any of these national parks that we went to, which I liked because you just feel out in the wild and I hate feeling like cattle, but you can just walk to the edge of any cliff, either on purpose or by accident and it's just scary and dangerous.
Upheaval Dome- This 1.7 mile out and back trail was actually quite striking and I'm glad we chose it. It takes you past two craters, and there are some informational signs along the way, basically saying they don't know how they were formed but there are a few theories, which is interesting. I was getting really into rocks at this point in the trip. Part of me thought prior to leaving on the trip that most of the parks would look more or less the same, red rock etc. but I could not have been more wrong. It was insane to me how much could change just in a couple miles down the road to the next hike in the same park even.
*One day in each Arches and Canyonlands was long enough for me, personally.
We were trying to do Sunset at Dead Horse Point Overlook but since we got up so early, we were ready around 2:30pm to head to that park. If you can time it out to do at sunset the lighting is much better. We didn't do much here but chill and look at the views, I was ready to get back to the motel and make Thanksgiving Dinner.
Day Eight: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
We left early and took the scenic route from Moab to Page AZ, I wanted to drive through Monument Valley and take a photo at the famed Forrest Gump Point. Again GPS will not take you this route, so if you want to do it take HWY 163 vs 160. We didn't have any plans for Page yet, but on the way Jake said he wanted to do something on the water. I found a kayak rental and we pulled in about 12pm, just in time to secure the last kayak for the day! Seriously the best experience with an activity rental place- check them out here.)
Activity: We spent the afternoon kayaking Lake Powell through the canyons and it felt like a dream, there was no one in sight and it was warm out, tranquil, and just perfect. We pulled off to a little beach towards the end for a picnic lunch. We were told there was a hike at the end of the route, but let's just say we wanted a break from hiking for one day.
We stayed at a Sleep Inn & Suites for the night. It was just fine, had a hot tub which we used, but there are a ton of hotels and it's not a destination really, so I wouldn't spend too much. The photo below was taken just outside the hotel.
Dinner: Page is another small town with not a whole lot of options. I wanted Mexican food, so we went to El Tapatio. I wasn't expecting much from a chain but OMG, I died and went to heaven. Best margaritas, food, and service. I forbid you to go anywhere else for dinner while you're in Page.
We meant to check out Horseshoe Bend for sunset but I clearly had a one track mind for Mexican food and totally forgot until we were heading OUT of town the next day. It was only 5 minutes from our hotel so we stopped to check it out. There is a fee that your national parks pass won't cover, I think $15. It was pretty busy, nice viewpoint, for sure would have been better at sunset and I wish I had remembered.
Day 9: Flagstaff, AZ
The original plan was to do one last park, The Grand Canyon, before spending the night in Sedona and coming home. After much thought, we decided to take this stop out to spend more time in Flagstaff and Sedona. Also, the entrance to the Grand Canyon from the direction we were coming was closed (due to COVID they were trying to reduce tourists, which worked!) so it would have been an additional 3 hours of driving to go around. I am bummed because I have never been, but I also knew that a 1/2 day just wouldn't cut it, and I want to spend at least 3 days if/when I go back.
Flagstaff was less cool than I thought it was going to be, I'm just going to be blunt. The downtown area was adorable, and we had some good food at Mother Road Brewing Co. and cocktails at The Annex Cocktail Lounge. We did however spend over an hour in a crystal shop and I left with a bag full of gifts and a newfound believer in crystals. So there was some magic there for sure. I also think due to off season and COVID it was kind of deserted in town and I could totally see it being a fun spot during normal times. I will give it another chance in the future for sure.
That late afternoon/evening we headed to Sedona to check into our Airbnb. The drive from Flagstaff to Sedona was about an hour and quite pretty really. As we drove into Sedona there were Christmas lights wrapped around the trees lining the street, boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants galore, all surrounded by towering red rock on either side, it was love at first sight! That night we walked from our Airbnb to Gerardo's Italian Kitchen for a feast of pizza, pasta, and good wine- it was unreal. Sedona was off to an amazing start.
Day 10: Sedona & Home
I polled my friends on Instagram for what hike to do in Sedona if you only have time for one, and most said Devil's Bridge. We started the morning at a coffee shop with an amazing view, Creekside Coffee. I was surprised we even got a seat outside and they didn't charge you to sit there, it was stunning.
Devil's Bridge (4.2 miles) was a fun hike and I can see why it's rated #1. Similar photo opp at the top to Delicate Arch where people wait in line to take a picture, and again we skipped this part. I can't wait to go back to Sedona with more time to explore and do other hikes/activities.
From Sedona we drove straight back to San Diego, stopping once in Wellton, AZ to see my nana Carol. We actually ran out of gas a couple miles from her house. Leave it to the literal last hour of a 10 day road trip for something to go wrong with your car, but I was so relieved it wasn't at one of them many points on the trip where we had no cell service.
...and that's a wrap! The trip overall was such a whirlwind and probably the best thing I have actually ever done. We had so much fun and made the best memories. If you have any questions about the itinerary don't hesitate to reach out via Instagram or comment here and subscribe below!