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Hoodoos and Stars

5–7 DAYS
Three national parks (with time to enjoy them) and some gems along the way

Start: Las Vegas
In the option shown below, you'll travel west to east from Zion to Capitol Reef National Park. Consider adding an extra day or two for a more leisurely return drive and departure from Salt Lake City. Salt Lake start: You could also reverse the days, land in Salt Lake and head first Capitol Reef for a Zion finish and a departure from Las Vegas.

Hoodoos and Gems takes advantage of the proximity of Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef national parks to also experience some of the must-see destinations along the way.

Day 1: As shown below, this Utah itinerary starts in Zion National Park by way of Las Vegas. 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.

Days 2–3: 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 3-mile hikes around.

Day 4–5: The All-American Highway Scenic Byway 12 fills your windshield 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.

Days 5–6: 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.

Days 6–7 (optional): After a couple of days in Capitol Reef, return the long route to Las Vegas or consider a departure from Salt Lake with time to explore all this outdoorsy and welcoming city has to offer.

Day 1 160 Miles
  • Emerald Pools Trail
  • Angels Landing
  • Gateway to the Narrows

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.

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

Emerald Pools Trail

Outside of Angels Landing, it doesn't get much more classic than the Emerald Pools. There are three Emerald Pools — Upper, Middle and Lower — and visitors may choose from as many trails. For families with young children, stick to the 1.2-mile round-trip loop to the Lower Pool.

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Angels Landing

This classic Utah trail provides a spectacular half-day trip for well-conditioned hikers who have no fear of heights. A series of 21 switchbacks ascend to aerial views of Scout Lookout. Stop here or take on the final hair-raising pitch to the top of Angels Landing. 5.4 miles, round-trip.

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Gateway to the Narrows

Before the Narrows, there’s the gateway to the Narrows on the Riverside Walk. You’ll enjoy glimpses at the Temple of Sinawava as you stroll the wheelchair accessible, paved trail along the Virgin River. Travelers from around the world gather to splash in the waters at the mouth of Zion’s Narrows.

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Day 2 10 Miles
  • Zion-Mt. Carmel Drive and Hikes
  • Zion Canyon Overlook
  • Cassidy Trail

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 soon after you make the turn east on to 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.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Drive and Hikes

The Zion-Mount Carmel stretch of S.R. 9 mixes one part stunning scenic byway and one part feat of engineering. The great state of Utah doesn’t want to brag, but this is one of the most spectacular dives in the world, plain and simple. Zion National Park fees apply.

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Zion Canyon Overlook

This short but scenic trail runs to a high overlook immediately above the Great Arch, commanding vistas of the lower reaches of Zion Canyon. The hike initially climbs a series of stairsteps then traverses the upper walls of deep slot canyon called Pine Creek. A "moderate" hike due to dropoffs and overhangs.

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Cassidy Trail

The Cassidy Trail wasn’t just the filming location for an iconic Western movie, it’s steeped in history. The trail is the same one Butch Cassidy used to evade the law, and it would become part of what was known as the "Outlaw Trail." Once you find this hidden trailhead, you’ll be surrounded by breathtaking scenery and Wild West legend.

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Day 3 90 Miles
  • Queens Garden to Navajo Trail
  • Bryce Canyon Lodge
  • Dark Skies of Bryce Canyon

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.)

Queens Garden to Navajo Trail

This must-hike trail descends from the rim at Sunrise Point down to the floor of Bryce Canyon past Gulliver’s Castle and Queen Elizabeth herself. Close the loop on Navajo and visit favorite hoodoo formations such as Wall Street and Twin Bridges. One of the best 3-mile hikes anywhere.

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Bryce Canyon Lodge

Enjoy rustic accommodations, a great menu, the best access to stunning sunrises and sunsets on the Rim Trail, and the dark Utah skies at Bryce Canyon Lodge. It’s the only lodging option within the Bryce Canyon National Park boundary. Image courtesy dmitri_66 on Flickr.

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Dark Skies of Bryce Canyon

As an accredited International Dark Sky Park, Bryce Canyon is the ultimate place to experience the splendor of the night sky. Protected by a special force of park rangers and volunteer Utah astronomy enthusiasts, Bryce Canyon is known as the last grand sanctuary of natural darkness and has one of the nation's oldest astronomy programs.

Photo: Prajit Ravindran

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Day 4 115 Miles
  • Kodachrome Basin State Park
  • Hell's Backbone Grill
  • Sunset Point and Goosenecks

Even if you've stayed up late for the star show, consider a sunrise stroll along the 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. Reserve a Fruita Campground campsite in Capitol Reef at

Kodachrome Basin State Park

The first official name, “Chimney Rock” reflects the area’s 67 monolithic stone spires, part of a multicolored landscape so beautiful it earned the nickname “Kodachrome” after a popular Kodak film. The name stuck and today visitors enjoy camping and hiking across 2,240 acres of photogenic, geologic wonder. Nearby Grosvenor Arch (pictured) offers a quick glimpse into Grand Staircase, but check road conditions before traveling.

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Hell's Backbone Grill

An iconic meal for an iconic road trip. This Zagat-rated, organic-farm-to-fork restaurant in Boulder, Utah, serves regionally-based cuisine. The varied menu receives rave reviews from happy patrons for its blend of Western Range, Pueblo Indian and Southwestern flavors. The proprietors source from their own organic farm and heirloom fruit trees. Reservations are recommended, so call ahead before you decide to stop in.

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Sunset Point and Goosenecks

Park at Panorama Point right off S.R. 24 then make the short hike to a couple of spectacular overlooks. The first stop peers 800 feet down to the goosenecks of Sulphur Creek (itself a separate, and wet, slot canyon hike for extremely well-prepared visitors). Continue to Sunset Point for views east toward the Fruita district (on the itinerary tomorrow) and beyond to the remote Henry Mountains. The colors pop at sunset and change with the dwindling light.

Day 5 40 Miles
  • Hickman Bridge + Navajo Knobs
  • Gifford Homestead
  • Capitol Reef Dark Skies

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 the main roads. Explore rock art petroglyphs in the midst of Capitol Reef's red rocks and 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 in season, even carried out for a small fee. See the old Fruita Schoolhouse and enjoy a fresh-baked pie at Historic Gifford Homestead, 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.

Hickman Bridge + Navajo Knobs

These front country hikes in Capitol Reef National Park lead to amazing rock formations and panoramic views of Southeastern Utah. Hickman Bridge is a short out-and-back (about 2 miles). The Rim Overlook and/or Navajo Knobs add 2.3 and 4.7 miles (one-way), respectively, for an elevated 360º panoramic view of Capitol Reef’s tilted landscapes.

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Gifford Homestead

Take a walk back in time and learn about Capitol Reef’s early pioneer life at the Gifford Homestead Museum and store. Don’t forget to treat yourself to a freshly-baked piece of pie — your taste buds will thank you. Open March through November.

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Capitol Reef Dark Skies

You may be a bit tired after your day of hiking and adventure, so go ahead and take a power nap after dinner as long as you set your alarm clock for 3 a.m. for some awe-inspiring star
gazing. As a certified International Dark-Sky Park, there is so much more you need to see in Capitol Reef when the sun goes down.

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Day 6 225 Miles
  • Shaping Temple Square
  • Musical Tour of SLC
  • An Afternoon at the Natural History Museum

It's a 3-hour drive to Salt Lake (as opposed to the 5-hour Las Vegas drive). 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 forty 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 browse accommodations here.)

Shaping Temple Square

Temple Square in Salt Lake City is Utah's most popular tourist attraction. The 35-acre area contains more than 15 attractions related to Mormon heritage and beliefs. Whether it’s the rich history, the gorgeous gardens and architecture, or the vivid culture, you’ll be sure to have an unforgettable experience.

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Musical Tour of SLC

Follow "Bad" Brad Wheeler in the video The Salt of Sound where he tours some of his favorite music venues in downtown Salt Lake City, and plays some blues along the way.

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An Afternoon at the Natural History Museum

Spanning five floors and tucked along the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, the museum is adjacent to Red Butte Garden, the Intermountain West’s largest botanical garden and part of the University of Utah campus. Follow the author on an afternoon at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

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Day 7 15 Miles
  • The Caffeinators of Salt Lake
  • The Perfect Meal
  • Distilleries

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. Since you've covered the roughly 4.5 hours to Salt Lake from the Moab area, a whole city of dining, culture and backyard Wasatch Mountains await.

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 in The Perfect Meal, a story that might help you narrow down your choices — in 2014, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Salt Lake City one of America's 5 New Foodie Cities and things have only gotten bigger and better!

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.

The Caffeinators of Salt Lake

Follow author and former barista Austin Wright as he explores the emergent coffee scene along the path of some of its most dedicated baristas.

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The Perfect Meal

Wine Enthusiast Magazine recently named Salt Lake City one of America's 5 New Foodie Cities. Settle in for comfort food at historic dives or get gussied up for multi-course wine-pairing dinners over white tablecloth. Relax with award-winning beers or be amazed with cutting-edge modern gastronomic fare.

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The business and craft of distilling is booming in the Beehive state. Visitors can experience a growing variety of unique spirits from local fruit brandies to “Valley Tan” whiskey made using best guesses of historic pioneer-era recipes. There’s a diverse and ever-growing spectrum of spirits to suit any palate.

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