2-Week Southwest USA Itinerary
One of the most iconic places in America is without a doubt the rugged southwest region. Wide-open spaces, expansive canyons, beautiful deserts and some of the best landscapes on Earth. Our itinerary will focus on an area that is known as the Grand Circle, centering mostly on southern half of Utah (an area alone that could be made into one gigantic national park) the Grand Circle also includes parts of northern Arizona, southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico. This itinerary is jammed pack full of some of America’s best national parks and world-class hiking. The highlight is without a doubt The Narrows top-down hike in Zion National Park, easily one of the top-10 hikes in the entire world.
If you wish to to stay in any of the national park campgrounds mentioned in this itinerary, you should know that most book up 6-months in advance, often in mere minutes. You will need to plan early to ensure you get a camping spot within the national park. The most competitive campgrounds in this itinerary will likely be Dead Horse Point, Arches, Zion and Capitol Reef.
I strongly suggest buying a National Parks Annual Pass (AKA America the Beautiful Pass) because it will pay for itself after about the third or fourth park visit. Seniors (over 62) can purchase a lifetime pass and active US military get in for free. Passes can be purchased for just $80 per year (as of 2020) at any national park and is good for everyone in your vehicle. Since all of the national parks and monuments we visited were so outstanding, there was little need to rate each one individually, so instead I listed all of the major hikes in a chart and you can pick the ones that appeal to you and your skill level. The itinerary starts and ends in Salt Lake City but it can be done out of Las Vegas as well.
- Day 1) Fly to Salt Lake City
- Day 2) Gear Up & Dead Horse Point
- Day 3) Canyonlands: Island in the Sky
- Day 4) Arches National Park
- Day 5) Canyonlands: Needles
- Day 6) Mesa Verde National Park
- Day 7) Goosenecks & Monument Valley
- Day 8) Antelope Canyon & Page, Arizona
- Day 9) Zion National Park
- Day 10) Start The Narrows Top-Down
- Day 11) Finish The Narrows Top-Down
- Day 12) Bryce Canyon National Park
- Day 13) Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
- Day 14) The Grand Staircase & Calf Creek Falls
- Day 15) Capitol Reef National Park
- Day 16) Goblin Valley & Salt Lake City
- Day 17) Fly Home
Detailed 2-Week Itinerary (17-Days)
Day 1) Fly to Salt Lake City
Arrive in the late afternoon or evening to Salt Lake City, UT. Rent a car and drive to the town of Lehi, UT, just 30 miles south of the airport. While you can stay in Salt Lake City instead, staying south of the city give you a jump on tomorrows driving, helps beat the rush-hour traffic and saves money since the hotels are cheaper outside of town. We stayed at the Staybridge Suites Lehi – Traverse Ridge Center, the hotel is very new, modern, clean and right off of Interstate 15. The real highlight is the fabulous breakfast with lots of fresh fruit and make-your-own Belgium waffles. The price made this hotel a great value, especially for such a nice new hotel.
Spend the night in Lehi, UT.
Day 2) Gear Up & Dead Horse Point
Wake up early and have a hearty breakfast before gearing up for 2-weeks of intense camping at a nearby store in Lehi.
Head south toward Moab, UT and if time permits make a quick stop in Price, UT to visit the Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum. This museum might be small but they pack a lot of interesting stuff into a small area; plus it doesn’t take much time to see (maybe 30-45 minutes) so it makes a perfect stop for those seeking to break up the long drive between Salt Lake City and Moab. They have everything from dinosaur bones to Native American art. Young kids will love it but for those a little order or without kids might not find it quite as as interesting. Look for the WWI & WWII memorial out front with a statue of an American Doughboy.
The first major stop of the trip is Dead Horse Point State Park. Just outside of Canyonlands it is a complete mystery how this amazing place was not included in Canyonlands National Park. Either way its Wingate Campground is the perfect campground for the first night of camping. The advantage of spending the night in the Dead Horse Point, is that you can see the sunset in the evening and wake up early to see the sunrise. The hike around the rim is well worth it, if you have the time (5-mile moderate loop trail with an elevation change of 908-ft that takes 3-hours to complete) — otherwise drive directly to the point and take in the sunset. Unlike most campsites, there was a metal covered area above the picnic table offering shade and protection from the elements. They have to truck in all of the the water in so use it sparingly.
Spend the night at Wingate Campground in Dead Horse Point.
Day 3) Canyonlands: Island in the Sky
While it is still dark, wake up and make the short drive to the point of Dead Horse Point for one of, if not the best sunrise you will see on this trip. After which, head back to the campsite for a quick breakfast, breakup camp and make the short drive to Canyonlands: Island in the Sky.
Canyonlands National Park is broken up into 4 different sections; Island in the Sky, Needles, Maze and the rivers. Split into wedges by the Green and Colorado Rivers, it is not possible to hike or drive directly from one section to another. Island in the Sky is the most accessible so it receives over 75% of the total visitors to Canyonlands, Needles gets about 20% and the Maze and the rivers sections getting just over 1% each. We will visit Needles later but today is all about Island in the Sky.
Make a quick stop at the visitors center to get a map, talk to a ranger, fill up on water and plan out the day of hiking. Here is a chart of some of the more popular hikes in Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park:
|Mesa Arch||0.5||30 min||Loop||100||Easy|
|Grand View||2.0||1 hour||In/Out||50||Easy|
|Syncline Loop||8.3||5-6 hours||Loop||1,300||Strenuous|
|Upheaval Dome||2.0||1 hour||In/Out||150||Easy|
|False Kiva||2.5||2 hours||In/Out||449||Moderate|
|Aztec Butte||2.0||1.5 hours||In/Out||200||Moderate|
Ensure that you leave Island in the Sky with plenty of daylight left and drive towards Moab, UT. Moab which is a touristy town perfectly positioned between Canyonlands: Island in the Sky and Arches National Parks. Compared to Southern Utah’s other small desert towns, Moab is bustling with outdoor activities and nightlife. For now it is the perfect place to stock-up on food, supplies and gas. Once you enter Arches National Park, drive to Devils Garden Campground, located at the very end of an amazingly scenic road.
During our 2-week trip to the southwest, Devils Garden was our favorite campground, or at the very least one of our favorites. Set among impressive rock formations, this very small campground has no bad sites to pitch a tent or park an RV — This is because all sites are along a single road so there is never anyone behind you to obstruct the amazing views. You are also near Skyline Arch as well as several popular trailheads and hikes. Every evening there are ranger programs at an amphitheater located within the campground, on different topics (the evening we were there the topic was "wilderness"). With limited light pollution and clear air, this is a great place to watch the night-sky. When we came out of our tents on our first morning, we were greeted by a herd of deer grazing mere feet from us. They also sell firewood at the ranger station at the entrance but it is relatively expensive at $7 per bundle, so best to buy it in Moab if you can (although you cannot beat the convenience).
Spend the night at Devils Garden Campground in Arches National Park.
Day 4) Arches National Park
Explore Arches National Park, which can be easily seen in a single day. With at least 2,000 documented arches within this relatively small park, it is not hard to figure out how this place got its name. Spend all day exploring as many arches, windows, fins and other strange rock formations as you can before returning to camp. Checkout the evening ranger program and watch the stars besides the campfire. Here is a list of the more popular hikes in Arches:
|Devils Garden (Full Loop)||7.2||2-3 hours||Loop||1,069||Strenuous|
|Delicate Arch||3.0||2-3 hours||In/Out||480||Strenuous|
|Double Arch||0.5||30 min||In/Out||62||Easy|
|Windows Loop & Turret Arch||1.2||30-60 min||Loop||115||Easy|
|Landscape Arch||1.6||1 hour||In/Out||60||Easy|
|Fiery Furnace (Tour Only)||2.0||2-3 hours||Loop||250||Strenuous|
Spend the night at Devils Garden Campground in Arches National Park.
Day 5) Canyonlands: Needles
Wake up early and head south to Canyonlands: Needles, stopping for breakfast in Moab if hungry. The scenery alone along Hwy-211 makes a visit to this out-of-the-way section of Canyonlands well worth the effort. Make sure to stop at Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument located along the side of the road. These are probably the most accessible ancient petroglyphs in the entire USA and the best we saw on our trip. While the actual rock is smaller than you might expect, it is jammed pack full of all sorts of strange shapes and alien-like figures.
Since the Needles section is so isolated there are not many options for a cold drink, snacks or other supplies — the Needles Outpost Campground is the only game around for miles. Located just outside of Canyonlands, they sell just about everything. Some things had prices on it and others did not. Look for the remnants of a small airplane fuselage that I was told crashed there many years ago near the main building.
The visitors center is the best place to fill up on water, pickup a map and ask a ranger for hiking advice. Here are some of the more popular hikes in Canyonlands: Needles, a section known for its longer hikes:
|Chesler Park/Joint||11.0||5-6 hours||Loop||560||Moderate|
|Cave Springs||0.6||30 minutes||Loop||50||Easy|
|Slickrock Trail||2.4||1.5 hours||Loop||150||Moderate|
|Confluence Overlook||10.0||5-6 hours||In/Out||1,250||Strenuous|
|Elephant Canyon/Druid Arch||11.0||5-6 hours||In/Out||1,000||Strenuous|
After a day of hiking, drive back towards civilization and to the town of Cortez, CO. This is a great place to stop for supplies before continuing to Mesa Verde located just outside of town. The large Morefield Campground is a good option and is so large that unlike most other national park campgrounds, it rarely ever sells-out. It also has the most amenities of any campground we have visited previously with showers, laundry, general store, cafe and gasoline. It should be noted that this is the highest elevation of the trip so expect it to be much colder at night but a good campfire always helps.
Staying at the Fair View Lodge, also located within the park but much closer to the actual ruins might be a better option instead of camping as Morefield Campground isn’t as memorable as the others on this trip. It could also be a nice change of pace for those looking to trade a sleeping bag for a real bed, even for just a night or two. We did not stop here so I cannot review it.
Spend the night at Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde National Park.
Day 6) Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park is home to the best Native American ruins in the United State and to see the best of what this park has to offer requires tour tickets. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Availability of each ruin site depends on the time of year you are visiting and during the colder months, some ruins have reduced daily tours while other sections close entirely.
Stop at the main visitors center near the park entrance to purchase or pickup tour tickets before continuing to the camping area or to the ruins themselves (which are several miles away down a winding mountain road). Tickets can be purchased in person up to 2-days in advance, although certain times of year tickets can be purchased at the visitor center near the ruins. Starting in 2020 a percentage of tour tickets can be purchased in advance online while the rest will continue to be sold on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Here is a list of many of the popular ruins, hikes and tours within Mesa Verde:
|Tour Name||Tour Length|
|Cliff Palace||1 hour|
|Balcony House||1 hour|
|Long House||2 hours|
|Spruce Tree House||Closed indefinitely|
|Soda Canyon Overlook (3 ruins)||1.2||30 min||In/Out||72||Easy|
|Far View Sites||0.8||1 hour||Loop||78||Easy|
|Petroglyph Point (Must Register)||2.4||1-2 hours||Loop||196||Moderate|
|Step House (Wetherill Mesa)||0.8||45 min||Loop||154||Moderate|
Return to the campsite after a day of exploring the park and as many of the Pueblo ruins as you can. Near the lodge, you can stop at the Far View Terrace for food, coffee and snack options served in a food-court-like setting. Try the Navajo fry bread tacos.
Spend the night at Morefield Campground in Mesa Verde National Park.
Day 7) Goosenecks & Monument Valley
After packing up the campground, head to Cortez, CO. Those hungry for an old-fashioned diner serving hearty breakfasts and strong coffee (nothing fancy), should consider Pippo’s Cafe. The service was good and the staff very friendly. My steak was a bit tough but everyone else’s meal was fine so considering that the prices were very affordable, I can mildly recommend this place.
On the drive to Monument Valley there are two stops that you might want to consider as they are only a few minutes out of your way. The first is the Four Corners Monument, located on Navajo Nation land, this is the place where the states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona all meet. However considering they were charing $5 per person to look at the intersection of two imaginary lines we decided to save our money and skip it. The next is Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, UT and this stop is definitely worth the price of admission at just $5 per vehicle. Located at a dramatic double-bend in the San Juan River, this small park offers sweeping views right up along the edge of the canyon.
Coming into Monument Valley you will drive over the location where Forest Gump stopped running in the 1994 film. Finding the exact spot is a bit tricky but look for other film buffs or nerds (depending on your viewpoint) stopped by the side of the road and a makeshift sign that reads “Forrest Gump Hill”. Don’t forget to watch out for traffic if you are compelled to recreate this famous scene for yourself.
Located on a Navajo reservation and straddling the Utah/Arizona border, Monument Valley is the American West — if your only point of reference was movies. Starting with legendary director John Ford, countless classic films especially westerns have wisely used Monument Valley as their backdrop. These include famous movies like Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), Easy Rider (1968), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), Back to the Future Part III (1990) and many others. Unlike many iconic places around the world, the Hollywood icon that is Monument Valley will not disappoint either hardcore film buffs as well as those who cannot tell John Wayne from John Ford.
Monument Valley has accommodation options for all types of travelers and they all comes with same spectacular view. Chose between the hotel, campground or cabins. We stayed at The View Campground, which is not so much a campground but a place to pitch a tent for the night. Unlike most of the other campgrounds we have been to, there is no picnic tables, no fire pits/grills and you are limited to 1-tent per site. Each site is small and close together. Depending on which site you get you might have to carry your gear quite a ways up and down a sandy slope to your vehicle. These minor issues can be easily overlooked because we are here the unbelievable views and of course the sunset and sunrise over Monument Valley. The bathrooms and showers are very nice and clean.
The best activity at Monument Valley is the self-guided scenic drive down a dirt-road which takes you to all the major spots and viewpoints within the valley — it is 17-miles long and takes about 2-3 hours to complete. For those wanting to hike, the 3.8-mile long moderate Wildcat Trail loops around the “Left Mitten” and take 2-3 hours to complete.
Since there is no cooking at the campground, The View Restaurant a short walk right up the hill is the best and only option (unless you want to drive out of the valley). The food here is good but not great — however the amazing views of Monument Valley more than makes up for it. They also had several Navajo dishes which were fun to try and I would definitely recommend the Navajo fry bread. Each meal includes a single trip to the salad bar and the food comes out quickly. As with most Native American reservations they don’t sell alcohol of any kind. If staying in Monument Valley, you cannot beat the convenience or the reasonable prices.
Watch the sunset and turn-in early.
Spend the night at The View Campground in Monument Valley.
Day 8) Antelope Canyon & Page, Arizona
Wake up early and watch the sunrise over Monument Valley before packing up your campsite and driving to Antelope Canyon near Page, AZ. Antelope Canyon is one of those amazing places you have seen in countless photographs but unlike a lot of places, it is just as amazing in real-life… That is if you only look up. At eye-level it is a mob of people all jostling for the best photo angles and made me feel as though I was waiting in line at Disney World. We knew this before going in but still figured it would make a nice stop on our drive between Monument Valley and Zion.
We picked Adventurous Antelope Canyon for our Upper Antelope Canyon prime-time tour and from our experience, they were a good tour company to go with. Parking is free at the tour meeting place. Everyone will be loaded onto the back of trucks and driven to the canyon entrance. The entire tour takes about 1.5 to 2 hours and runs with clockwork-like efficiency, so make sure you arrive early. Our guide was very friendly and while he didn’t give us much information about the canyon itself, he knew all the best camera settings and photo angles — often taking our camera to snap some Instagram-perfect photos.
It would be nice if the Navajo Nation would limit the number of people who enter the canyon each day but with throngs of paying tourists clambering to visit, that is unlikely to ever happen as money talks. So overall I am glad I visited and would recommend to anyone that hasn’t but if I am ever in the area again, I would skip seeing it a second time — I can however recommend going with Adventurous Antelope Canyon if you choose to go as well as booking online early. Choose between standard sightseer, prime-time or photographer tours.
If you are looking for a tasty and quick place to eat either before or after your visit to Antelope Canyon, I would recommend R.D.’s Drive-In in Page. This place is a great old-fashioned burger joint with amazing burgers, fries, onion rings and malts. Think of it as a 1950s dinner but with a 1970s decor, however don’t let the extremely dated interior deter you, the food was fast, hot and most importantly extremely delicious. I would highly recommend.
Just south of Page, AZ is a dramatic bend in the Colorado River called Horseshoe Bend. This amazing overlook, similar to Goosenecks but with just a single-bend, was not well known until only recently when it became famous thanks to social media, so expect crowds (especially at sunset). On the way out of town you will drive near the Glen Canyon Dam. If time allows, stop at Paria Rimrocks (AKA Toadstools) in the Grand Staircase for a quick hike to see some unusual rock formations (1.5-mile moderate in/out trail with an elevation change of 100-ft that takes 30-minutes to complete), otherwise proceed directly to Zion.
The Watchman Campground is the perfect camping location for those visiting Zion. The sites are standard as with most other national parks (fire pit, grill grate, basic picnic table, etc) but everyone except for us was living in the lap of luxury — This is definitely the campground for DIY glamping! We saw fancy tents, full couches, Christmas lights strung up everywhere, decked out RVs, gourmet spreads and much more. Needless to say our simple setup looked downright homely by comparison.
Set among large trees with the Virgin River on one side and the imposing Watchman mountain on the other, it is a short walk across the river into the incredibly touristy town of Springdale, UT with its many restaurants, shops, bars and outfitters. More importantly, you can leave your car parked at the campsite because is also a short walk to the Zion National Park visitor center and the free-shuttle that bring you in and out of the park. Light sleepers should know that this is a bit more of a “lively” crowd than other national park campsites we have visited in the past (at least on the nights we were there) but it was all in good fun and nothing that crossed the line. A little evening noise can easily be overlooked when you consider the amazing natural setting, ideal location and wildlife with zero fear of humans freely roaming the campgrounds. The bathrooms were clean and the staff was very helpful. I would definitely recommend for those camping or glamping in Zion.
Spend the night at the Watchman Campground in Zion National Park.
Day 9) Zion National Park
Zion National Park is one of the best national parks in the USA is also one of the most crowded, however once you see the amazing valley you will know why people from all over the world flock here. For those looking to escape the crowds and that “Disney World feeling”, my suggestion is to do a longer or less popular hike. All those pesky tourists did create one advantage which is the free shuttle service that runs the length of the valley making getting to the major sites and trailheads a breeze. Here is a list of some of the most popular hikes in Zion (see the next day for information on hiking The Narrows):
|Angles Landing (via West Rim)||5.4||4-5 hours||Loop||3,740||Strenuous|
|Observation Point (via East Rim)||8.0||6 hours||In/Out||2,788||Strenuous|
|Emerald Pools (Lower)||1.2||1 hour||In/Out||69||Easy|
|Weeping Rock||0.4||30 min||In/Out||78||Easy|
|Watchman Trail||3.3||2 hours||Loop||368||Moderate|
|Hidden Canyon||2.4||2-3 hours||In/Out||850||Moderate|
|Canyon Overlook||1.0||1 hour||In/Out||147||Easy|
Spend the night at the Watchman Campground in Zion National Park.
Day 10) Start The Narrows Top-Down
Zion is home to one of the top-10 hikes in the world — The Narrows. Click here to learn more about hiking The Narrows as a day hike or overnight top-down hike plus many other helpful tips. For those unable to obtain an overnight permit, this extra day can be added elsewhere to the trip or omitted completely.
Spend the night camping alongside the banks of the Virgin River in The Narrows of Zion National Park.
Day 11) Finish The Narrows Top-Down
If doing the The Narrows top-down, spend the day hiking out and back to civilization. When back in Springdale, UT head to Oscar’s Cafe for a much needed hearty and warm meal. They had a very good draft beer selection and delicious food. I got the full-rack of ribs with onion rings and both were perfect — it was so big I even got another meal out of it. We sat outside under the canopy with good views of the surrounding valley cliffs. Our waiter was very friendly and helpful. Prices were very reasonable for the quality of the food so I would definitely recommend.
After dinner, make the scenic drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. Having spent the previous week camping, The Lodge at Bryce Canyon with real beds was a welcomed change of pace. This is a great place to stay if visiting Bryce because it puts you mere steps away from the canyon rim, making seeing the sunrise and sunset extremely easy. The historic main lodge built in the 1920s has the classic rustic look which makes places like this so special. We ended up staying in the newer Sunrise Motel section which while slightly-dated, were comfy and clean. Our room included a balcony, refrigerator and microwave.
Spend the night at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon National Park.
Day 12) Bryce Canyon National Park
Wake up early and watch the sunrise over Bryce Canyon National Park at where else but “Sunrise Point”. As the valley become illuminated by the rising sun, the strangeness of this place becomes apparent. Spend the day hiking and exploring the strange, alien-like rock formations called “hoodoos” which dominate the landscape. Here is a list of some of the most popular trails in Bryce:
|Navajo Loop & Queen’s Garden||2.6||2-3 hours||Loop||623||Moderate|
|Fairyland Loop||8.0||5 hours||Loop||1,541||Strenuous|
|Mossy Cave||0.8||30 min||In/Out||300||Easy|
To see the hoodoos up close without having to hike consider taking a horseback tour. We signed up for the 1.5-hour horseback tour with Canyon Trail Rides and had a great time — It was just long enough for a newbie like myself to get the hang of it. Our cowboy guide was very friendly and most importantly, well stocked with a wide array of well-tested jokes and colorful anecdotes. We booked the tour in the lobby of Bryce Canyon Lodge the morning of without any issue. They do offer longer tours but those were unfortunately booked up on the day of our visit.
How can there be a “Sunrise Point” without a “Sunset Point”? So end the day at Sunset Point watching the sun go down before heading to dinner. We ate breakfast and dinner at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon and both meals were very delicious. For dinner it was absolutely packed so plan on waiting for a table and don’t expect super-fast service when you finally get seated. The great draft beer selection and quality of the food more than make up for the slow service. The apple pie for dessert is an absolute must-order to close out the meal. Because it is in the national park the prices will be on higher side as you pay a premium to stay and eat in the classic lodge. Staff was friendly and helpful. I would highly-recommend.
Spend the night at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon National Park.
Day 13) Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Drive towards the town of Escalante, UT stopping at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center to pickup a free camping permit, maps, information and useful tips. For those hungry, stop at the Circle D Motel & Eatery for a quick breakfast before heading into the Grand Staircase for a day of hiking. Food was very good and our waitress extremely friendly. We had the omelets along with the biscuits and gravy and can recommend both dishes. The atmosphere was no-thrills but very comfortable and clean.
Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (or BLM), the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is huge, taking up much of South-Central Utah. Your gateway to the Grand Staircase will be Hole-in-the-Rock Road, a gravel and dirt road which will take you to many of the best sites and some of most accessible slot-canyons in the southwest. The road starts off fine but will get progressively worse the further you go, so make sure your vehicle is adequate for the current conditions. The farthest south we drove was to the Peek-A-Boo & Spooky trailhead and up to this point the road was very manageable with our 4×4 vehicle; after this however the road supposedly gets much worse. Here are some of the best hikes and slot canyons in the Grand Staircase (near Hole-in-the-Rock Road):
|Peek-A-Boo & Spooky||3.5||4-5 hours||Loop||459||Moderate|
|Devils Garden||0.5||30-60 min||Loop||10||Easy|
|Zebra & Tunnel Slots (Harris Wash)||6.6||3-4 hours||Loop||442||Moderate|
|Lower Calf Creek Falls||5.9||3 hours||In/Out||250||Moderate|
|Upper Calf Creek Falls||2.2||1-2 hours||In/Out||606||Moderate|
After a day of hiking, find a place to camp alongside Hole-in-the-Rock Road. The camping in the Grand Staircase is free but there are a few easy-to-follow rules: Don’t make new roads, don’t make new campsites, don’t make new fire pits and take everything with you. Besides that you are free to explore and camp wherever you wish. We just drove along the road and if we saw an existing small road branching off and followed it to see if there was a good camping site there. After rejecting a few spots we found a perfect site overlooking a slight ridge with a stone fire pit.
Being so far from civilization there is little light-pollution around, making the Grand Staircase one of the best places in the USA for dark skies and stargazing. The stars were so vibrant that it didn’t even look real and everyone in our group all agreed, it was the best night sky any of us had ever seen. For that reason alone, spending at least one night in the Grand Staircase seated around a campfire looking up into the night sky is an absolute must.
Find an existing campsite along the Hole-in-the-Rock Road and spend the night camping in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Day 14) The Grand Staircase & Calf Creek Falls
Spend the morning doing another hike along Hole-in-the-Rock Road before heading to Calf Creek Falls to explore either the upper or lower section. Unfortunately while driving out of Hole-in-the-Rock-Road we got a flat-tire and were forced to skip Calf Creek Falls. Instead, we headed to Bicknell, UT a small town that we would not even have driven through had it not been for the flat-tire to spend the day getting it fixed.
While waiting for our tire to be patched, we walked across the street to Curry Pizza, a restaurant that was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. The mango and strawberry lassi drinks were amazing and were alone totally worth the stop. For food, we started with the chicken wings and as a self-described chicken wing expert, they were among the best I have ever had — extremely crispy with a delicious sauce. We finished our meal with their signature chicken tikka masala pizza which, while it did not knock our socks off like the lassi or wings did, it was still very good. The person who took our order at the counter (who I think was the owner) was was very friendly and helpful. A truly local restaurant, the walls were decorated with photos and memorabilia from the local school sports teams. Prices were extremely fair considering the quality of the food so I couldn’t recommend this place more… Although I still wish the flat-tire could have been avoided but that is life.
After the unexpected tire adventure which blew most of our day, we headed to Capitol Reef National Park. Definitely one of the most unique campgrounds I have stayed at in my travels. The Fruita Campground is situated in a green valley oasis that was once the site of an old town called “Fruita”, so named because of the apple, pear and other fruit orchards that still exist today — best of all, you can pick fruit right off the trees and eat it. While it might be hard to find any ripe fruit left on the trees and what you do find might not be the best, it is still a lot of fun. As with most national parks we stayed in, the deer and other wildlife has no fear of humans and adds to the charm of this place.
The campground itself is small compared to other national park campgrounds and most sites appear to be RV specific but they do have a few tent-only sites. The bathroom facilities were not the cleanest but it was a small issue for an otherwise perfect stay. Don’t forget to checkout the nightly ranger-led program (it was “dark skies” on the night we were here). With many hiking trails leading in and out of Fruita, it makes a perfect base for exploring the underrated Capitol Reef National Park. I would definitely recommend staying here.
Spend the night at the Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef National Park.
Day 15) Capitol Reef National Park
The second largest but least visited of Utah’s 5 amazing national parks, Capitol Reef National Park is often relegated to a quick stop for those driving between Bryce and Canyonlands or skipped entirely. Its peculiar name doesn’t help much either — named for the white dome rock formations that resemble a capitol building and impenetrable rocky cliffs encountered by early settlers that act as a barrier to land travel (as reefs do to sea travel). This underrated park deserves at least one full day of your time. Here are some of the best hikes in Capitol Reef:
|Hickman Bridge||0.9||1-2 hours||In/Out||379||Moderate|
|Cohab Canyon||3.0||3 hours||In/Out||793||Moderate|
|Frying Pan||5.8||3 hours||In/Out||810||Strenuous|
|Chimney Rock Canyon||3.6||2-3 hours||Loop||800||Strenuous|
|Goosenecks & Sunset Point||2.5||1 hour||In/Out||554||Easy|
|Grand Wash||4.8||2 hours||In/Out||200||Easy|
|Capitol Gorge||2.0||1 hour||In/Out||100||Easy|
Make sure to stop at Gifford Homestead a place which was one of the highlights of Capitol Reef and our entire trip. Located in the rustic and historic house walking distance from the Fruita Campground, they sell everything from honey, jams, tea, coffee, pastries, bread, salsa, hats, cooking utensils, souvenirs and much more… but lets not beat-around-the-bush… we are here for the unbelievably delicious freshly baked mini-pies. I tried the strawberry-rhubarb and cherry on separate day, while both were amazing, cherry was the hands-down winner. I wished we were staying a few more days so I could try every pie flavor. Get there early because there will be a line before opening and they will sell out before the day is out. Who says you cannot have pie for breakfast? Don’t forget to grab a mini vanilla ice cream as well because pie is always better à la mode. There is no seating inside, instead enjoy your pie outside at the picnic-tables with postcard-perfect views of the barn, wildlife, mountains and surrounding valley. Had it not been for the fact that I was flying home without checking a bag, I would have grabbed some canned goods (damn TSA). The staff here is very friendly and the prices fair. I cannot recommend this place more, especially for those camping in Capitol Reef.
Spend the night at the Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef National Park.
Day 16) Goblin Valley & Salt Lake City
Wake up, grab a slice of pie at Gifford Homestead and head north to Goblin Valley State Park — the name alone makes this place a must-see. While Bryce Canyon is known for it tall imposing hoodoos, Goblin Valley is known for its short stubby hoodoos affectionately called “goblins”. There is no real hike here, instead spend an hour or so aimlessly wandering amongst the goblin’s. The deeper into the valley you explore, the stranger the rock formations will become. The 1999 film Galaxy Quest had a scene filmed here. Time permitting, head to nearby Little Wild Horse Canyon for another slot canyon hike or proceed directly to Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake City to the Mormons is like Mecca to the Muslims. A visit to Temple Square and its centerpiece, the majestic Salt Lake Temple of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is worth a quick stop. While you cannot enter the actual temple (unless you are church member in good standing), you can still get amazing views of it from the square and its statue filled gardens . Make sure to stop in the visitor center/museum for history and exhibits related to the Mormon Church as well as the temple itself.
One of the most popular and well-known restaurants in Salt Lake City, the Red Iguana offers amazing Mexican food. We visited on a Saturday evening and it was absolutely packed; we ended up waiting at over 1-hour for a table but it was well worth it (while you wait, help yourself to a glass of hot apple cider if it cold outside). This is really good Mexican food and their mole (pronounced “MOH-LAY” as it says on their menu) seemed very authentic. The waiter even gave us a sample plate of the different moles they offer so we could try each before ordering. They also have several different classic and signature margaritas you can try or create a custom one. Prices were very good considering the quality of the food. My only criticism is that the tortilla chips seemed out-of-a-bag instead of freshly made at the restaurant; which is a shame as who doesn’t love fresh chips and salsa while waiting for your main course? Besides that minor criticism, I can definitely recommend this place for those in the mood for authentic Mexican in the Salt Lake City area.
Since we were flying out early the next morning we stayed at the Comfort Inn & Suites Salt Lake City Airport. The shuttle to and from the airport is free, short and the driver was very friendly. Don’t forget to reserve a shuttle ride when checking in to ensure a seat at your desired time. The hotel is exactly what you want from an airport adjacent hotel — clean rooms, helpful staff and no thrills; although there an indoor pool and hot-tub which was the perfect way to end a 2-week long hiking trip around the Grand Circle. Breakfast in the morning was included in the price and was very standard for these types of places. For those wanting to explore Salt Lake City, it is only a short drive to downtown, restaurants and all the major sites. I would definitely recommend this place.
Spend the night near the Salt Lake City airport.
Day 17) Fly Home
After a whirlwind trip through 4 states, 6 national parks and countless other state parks and national monuments it is finally time to head home.