Zion National Park

7 Days   •   655 Miles

Hoodoos and Stars

Hoodoos and Stars takes advantage of the proximity of Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef national parks to slow down and discover some of the must-see southwestern Utah landscapes and experiences along the way — including the world's best dark skies.

This Utah itinerary starts in Zion National Park, which you can arrive at via Las Vegas (2.5 hour drive) or Salt Lake City (4 hour drive) — both home to international airports. The hikes at Zion include Angels Landing, a perennial top hike by any measure and 5.4 miles you’ll never forget. After a dip (or extended walk) in the Virgin River that carved The Narrows, stay overnight in or near Zion.

The next day, make way for Bryce Canyon via the historic Zion-Mt. Carmel Scenic Drive, saving time for the Canyon Overlook Trail just past the tunnel. Even better? Get there early for sunrise. The day's drive will take you to Bryce Canyon, but not before a stop at nearby Red Canyon to follow in the footsteps of outlaw Butch Cassidy or break out the mountain bikes. Once in Bryce, you'll have very good reason to stay up for the pristine dark skies. During the day, tackle the Queens Garden/Navajo trail, easily one of the best three-mile hikes around.

Following Bryce, the All-American Highway Scenic Byway 12 fills your windshield views with a splashy desert palette while you drive towards Capitol Reef National Park. There is a lot to see and do along the way, and we call a lot of that the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Much of the monument is rugged and remote, and we'll save it for another trip. For just a taste of the landscape, consider the spur road to Kodachrome Basin State Park before continuing up the byway. Then, it's dinner reservations at Hell's Backbone Grill in Boulder.

Once you arrive in Capitol Reef, cruise the scenic byway behind the visitor center to spot ancient petroglyphs or grab a hike along S.R. 24. There are shorter options for families and longer options for adventurers. Either way, save time to pick fruit in season and grab fresh-baked pies at Gifford Homestead for everyone. Nearby Torrey offers great dining options and Capitol Reef is an accredited dark sky park, so you'll welcome a couple of nights in this majestic land.

After a couple of days in Capitol Reef, return the long route to Las Vegas or consider a departure from Salt Lake City with time to explore all that this outdoorsy and welcoming city has to offer.

Day 1

Las Vegas to Zion National Park

160 Miles

To reach Zion, you'll follow the Zion Park Scenic Byway state Route 9 through the towns of Hurricane, LaVerkin, Virgin, Rockdale and Springdale. Zion translates to "The Promised Land," and that means for you some of the most spectacular hiking of your lifetime and impossible landscapes you will never forget. Carved by water and time beyond the stretch of the imagination, Zion National Park is a canyon that invites you to participate in the very forces that created it. Start with Emerald Pools (easy to moderate 3+ miles), iconic Angels Landing (strenuous 5.4 miles) and Riverside Walk (easy 2.2 miles). Time permitting, hike deeper into The Narrows of Zion National Park or, better yet, hire a guide to truly experience the park's legendary slot canyons and canyoneering. Please note that anyone hiking Angels Landing will require a permit. You can request a permit through the National Park Service. And be sure to check with the Zion visitor center for day-of trail conditions.

The campgrounds are popular so make reservations as early as possible or book a room in nearby Springdale.

Day 2

Scenic Byway 12 to Bryce Canyon

10 Miles

A morning exploration of the east side of Zion National Park's orange and white formations like Canyon Overlook and Checkerboard Mesa gives way to a scenic two-hour drive in the direction of Bryce Canyon. There is plenty to see along the way, but you'll sense it's really time to stop when you come across Red Canyon along Utah's All-American Road: Scenic Byway 12. Red Canyon is a collection of spectacular crimson-colored cliffs underneath majestic clusters of 60-million-year-old limestone pinnacles and spires known as hoodoos, the same rock formations for which the nearby Bryce Canyon National Park is famous. Old-growth ponderosas leave the area smelling of vanilla, and manzanita and various types of conifers like bristlecone, pinyon and longleaf pines make the landscape surprisingly lush. There is a visitor center and hiking trails, but travelers hauling mountain bikes may want to make haste for Thunder Mountain.

The Red Canyon Campground offers 38 shaded sites with toilets and hot showers, and there’s also dispersed camping off of forest roads. Or continue to the Bryce Canyon area for the first of two nights in lodging or park camping, with advance reservations. (See note next day.) Depending on your arrival time, this first night might be your best option for seeing Bryce Canyon's dark skies.

Day 3

Bryce Canyon National Park

90 Miles

Bryce Canyon. Some call it Hoodoo Country. It sounds like "voodoo" for reasons you'll have to see to believe. It all translates into a newfound respect for Mother Nature. Bryce Canyon's view from 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) is unlike any else in the world. Bryce Canyon National Park is a series of natural amphitheaters sunk into pink cliffs and filled with delicate red rock "hoodoos." The most brilliant hues of the park come alive with the rising and setting of the sun. Summertime offers a myriad of walking/hiking trails including the must-hike Queens Garden/Navajo Loop (3.1 miles) and a 37-mile scenic drive overlooking incredible vistas.

For closest access to the park's incredible dark skies and the longest active astronomy program in the National Park Service, reserve a campsite or stay at Bryce Canyon Lodge, a National Historic Landmark, typically open April through November. Look for additional lodging in nearby Bryce Canyon City or Tropic. (For RV or tent camping, Kodachrome Basin is also a great choice and the state park showcases pristine dark skies.)

Day 4

Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef

115 Miles

Even if you've stayed up late for the star show, consider a sunrise stroll along Bryce's Rim Trail or maybe the 1-mile Bristlecone Loop at Yovimpa Point, at the end of the scenic drive. Depending on when you leave Bryce Canyon, the drive ahead offers multiple opportunities to stop and look around. The reason? You're continuing down Utah's All-American Road: Scenic Byway 12, much of which skirts the north end of the expansive Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Kodachrome Basin State Park is probably among the most accessible and maybe the most scenic corner of the monument, and it offers hikes for every ability. (A second top choice? The 6.2-mile-round-trip Calf Creek Falls trail.) Another must-visit destination is actually one of the West's best dining experiences: Hell's Backbone Grill. Chances are, you'll be arriving in Capitol Reef Country in the evening. During the longer hours of summer, you may have time for a short sunset hike in the park. Park at Panorama Point for the short hike to the perfectly named Sunset Point. The round-trip hike is just over a half-mile and will take around 30 minutes. Take a headlamp and stay for through last light.

Book an overnight (or two — see tomorrow's note) in Torrey or other welcoming communities along S.R. 24. Camping in Capitol Reef is also an option if you reserve early.

Day 5

Capitol Reef Country

40 Miles

Capitol Reef National Park splashes color for 100 miles from its northern to southern boundaries. The central geologic feature, the Waterpocket Fold, is a bulging uplift of rainbow-hued sandstone "reefs" and canyons. Though Capitol Reef has some stunning backcountry, this quick trip stays closer to the main roads. Explore petroglyphs in the midst of Capitol Reef's red rocks that tell the story of the early indigenous people, the Fremont culture. Visit the large orchards of Fruita, an early pioneer settlement, and now headquarters for the park, where a variety of fruit may be picked for a small fee. See the old Fruita Schoolhouse and enjoy a fresh-baked pie at Historic Gifford Homestead (Read: Utah’s Pie-Ala-Road: A Sweeter Way to Explore the State), travel the excellent Capitol Reef Scenic Drive or tackle the short hikes to Hickman Bridge or Cohab Canyon. If you have the time and the ability, the view from Navajo Knobs is spectacular — but this is an expert and strenuous hike.

To give yourself the most time in the park, stay a second night and depart for Las Vegas or Salt Lake City in the morning.

Day 6

Welcome to Salt Lake City

225 Miles

It's a 3-hour drive from Capitol Reef to Salt Lake City (and 5 hours to Las Vegas). Below are a few stories and ideas to introduce you to Utah's capital city and flesh out your itinerary. We're particularly partial to the video The Salt of Sound in the Musical Tour of SLC, which visits some of the city's best music venues.

First-time visitors might also include a trip to Temple Square. The spiritual center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Temple Square offers free walking tours of the Temple grounds available in 40 languages. The area also provides access to one of the most extensive collections of genealogical records in the world and frequent performances by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Oh, and here's a pro tip: As you're navigating the city (walking, bike share, taxi, Uber, Lyft, public transit or car), if you know that part of Temple Square is essentially (0,0) on the grid, each street heading north or south adds 100 and each street heading east or west adds 100. Thus, nine blocks south and nine blocks east you'll be at 900 South and 900 East, locally known as 9th and 9th. Read about more Salt Lake City neighborhoods and more things to do. And if you haven't had your fill of stargazing, there are plenty of dark sky places near to the city as well.

Day 7

Dining and Drinks

15 Miles

So you've chosen to add some time in Salt Lake City to your trip! You'll love the extra time in Utah and the chance to get to know this vibrant destination city.

While these experiences aren't intended to occupy an itinerary day, visitors to Salt Lake could certainly spend a day exploring the best in craft coffee, cuisine and cocktails alongside a chocolate and cheese tasting or a trip to one of multiple local breweries or brewpubs.

Start your day getting to know the city's caffeinated brew scene in More Than Coffee then take a fantasy journey through a day's worth of indulgence with some of the best restaurants in Salt Lake City.

Finish things up with a distillery tour for a behind-the-scenes look at craft distillation in Utah or drop into one of downtown Salt Lake's popular cocktail bars to see these libations put to work. If you're looking for an evening outing, perhaps a sports game, ballet or symphony?

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