To drive the Grand Circle is like wrapping the best of the Southwest up in a bow. Ancient volcanic mountains, protruding plateaus and buttes, and deeply carved canyons reveal themselves in a rainbow of colors. Civilizations dating back thousands of years, followed by the Navajo, Apache, Spanish, Mormons, crystal readers, and adrenaline junkies have created a multicultural mix unique to this part of the world. The Colorado Plateau has the densest concentration of national parks in the US and this road trip connects the best of them. Drive away from the neon metropolis of Las Vegas and the cityscape will quickly give way to the country’s most precious natural monuments, including Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches, and Grand Canyon national parks, plus Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Monument Valley Tribal Park, and a slew of wonderful nature preserves and cultural destinations. This journey would woo any road tripper but it holds a special spot in our hearts because we completed the full loop with my mom over the course of two road trips for her 77th and 78th birthdays. To share some of our favorite destinations, take her glamping, and have some true firsts…like ice trekking slot canyons and sleeping on the rim of the Grand Canyon, were moments made more incredible with her on our travel team. This Grand Circle Road Trip guide includes all we’ve gleaned over the years of visiting these national treasures and how we connected the dots for an epic family road trip.
How Long is the Grand Circle & When Should I Go
This is around a 1,000-mile journey with hundreds of miles worth of awesome detours. While the simplest version of the Grand Circle is do-able in 12 days, the longer you have the better and if you can break it up into two trips, that’s double the fun! There is too much beauty to rush and there is something to be said for seeing these breathtaking parks in different seasons. Spring brings the most greenery and pleasant hiking weather, while winter has the fewest crowds and a dusting of snow on the red rocks is pure magic. Summer is by far the hottest and most crowded so if that’s the only time you can go, think about saving the second half for another time of year. We’ve packed this post with our favorite tips for the greater Grand Circle Road Trip, so pick and choose per your schedule and bookmark the rest for when you hop back on the open road.
Where to Start
Where you begin this road trip is mostly based on what’s the most convenient starting point for you; these sites will be fabulous in any order. If you are flying and renting a vehicle, our suggestion would be to land in Las Vegas, where flights, hotels, and car/RV rentals tend to be the most affordable and abundant. Plus, the airport is a mere 2.5-hour drive to the nearest Grand Circle park (Zion) so you can hit the ground running on your first day. We’ve written this blog traveling clockwise from Las Vegas, that said, if you’re finding better deals out of Phoenix, simply do this itinerary in reverse.
ZION NATIONAL PARK
As you approach Zion National Park, the Navajo sandstone cliffs grow taller and closer; the rocks redder and the vegetation greener from the Virgin River that sculpted this geological cathedral. Zion will leave your mouth agape and lift your foot off the gas. Since no one can help but pull over at each stunning vista, and there are so many visitors in high season, a hop-on-hop off shuttle is the mandatory mode of transport from March through November. This does help congestion and preserve the park’s natural beauty, so roll with it or consider coming off season.
What to Do: Zion National Park
– Angel’s Landing. If you aren’t afraid of heights and love an adrenaline kick, hike along the steep switchbacks and hang on to the chain railing for one of the most rewarding hikes in the park.
– Narrows. This is another iconic Zion hike, wading your way up the Virgin River and its sheer canyon. Due to its incredible popularity, you’ll need to get a permit in advance.
– Canyoneering Orderville Slot Canyon. Rappel down the waterfalls and swim through the emerald pools on a full-day excursion.
Where to Stay: Zion National Park
– Zion Lodge. The only in-park lodging with upscale and recently renovated cabins.
– Watchman and South Campgrounds are the go-to for tent and RV campers in the park. Reserve your spot early on Recreation.gov.
– Glamping…choices, choices! A slew of glamping camps (our favorite way to stay) have recently opened around Zion. Open Sky and Zion Wildflower look particularly fab.
– Dispersed Camping. If you’re the type to wing it and travel on a budget, check out Campendium’s roundup of free & affordable camping spots near Zion
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
The incredibly scenic Route 12 winds 80 miles from Zion to Bryce National Park. In a short distance, the smooth monoliths change to craggy pinnacles and the color palette is cranked up to fiery hues. The desert’s extreme heat and nightfall’s temperature drop start a near-daily process of freezing and thawing which sculpts the landscape into hoodoos or as some call them, “fairy chimneys” for the rocks whimsical drip-castle effect.
What to Do: Bryce Canyon
– The Scenic Drive. From the visitor’s center, take the 18-mile route for a fantastic park overview. Note, it’s an in-and-out road so if you’re short on time, the first half offers the most impressive scenery.
– Fairyland Loop. Hike this eight-mile trail with scenery well worth your efforts.
– Night Hike with Bryce Astronomy Rangers. During full moons, (1-2 consecutive nights each month), when the mix of shadows and light cause the hoodoos to take on an otherworldly look, join the pros for these ~2 mile-long magical moonlit hike.
Where to Stay: Bryce National Park
To be honest, we’d suggest not staying in Bryce and drive the extra hour to Escalante at the end of the day. At 7,664 feet in elevation it’s a little cold for the campgrounds (Mike and I tented in July, trust us), RV boondocking spots are super remote, and the lodging outside the park is pretty outdated. If you do want to stay at the park, Bryce Canyon Lodge is definitely the best way to go, and if you’re looking for more options in the area check out this roundup:
GRAND CIRCLE ROAD TRIP BONUS: ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Unlike the well-crafted national parks, the beauty of Escalante is that it remains wild. This million-plus acres of rugged terrain (low-lying desert to coniferous forest) made it one of the last places in the lower 48 to be mapped. Don’t expect many ranger stations, signage, or paved roads; it’s made for blazing your own trail and remembering the land as it once was. For the purposes of this road trip, you’ll likely only make it to the north half but we’ve included our favorites from the south, as well.
What to do: Escalante National Monument
– Willis Creek Slot Canyon. For an easier hike with big reward, try this 2.6-mile roundtrip trail near Cannonville. You’ll dip into a river valley and walk the shallow waters (or in winter, have an impromptu ice skating session like we did) until it narrows to a rippling red slot canyon, framing a sliver of blue sky.
– Spooky & Peek-a-boo Slot Canyon. This three-mile loop trail in the Dry Fork area is a full-body rock scramble through a labyrinth of narrow and multi-level passageways—some only a foot wide. While that may sound intimidating, we did this hike with our our friends at y Travel Blog and Crazy Family Adventure, including kids as young as seven, and they had the time of their lives. Check out y Travel’s great hiking overview.
– Pariah Canyon. In the southerly section of Escalante, adjacent to the Vermillion Cliffs, this striped mountain range and canyon system had us hiking for days! Start at the old “Movie Set” built for Western films in the 1930s to bop around or go deeper with the 8.4-mile round-trip hike to Buckskin Gulch.
Where to Stay: Escalante
Pariah Movie Set: This is one of our favorite camping spots of all time. Epic views of the rainbow mountains, the camping basics (table, pit toilet, etc) and endless hiking opportunities.
Escalante Yurts. We used this glamping camp in the town of Escalante as our base for both the national monument and Bryce Canyon. It’s so lovely we featured it in our book Comfortably Wild.
Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Tons of free dispersed camping options exist along this road to Spooky Canyon. Just keep driving and pull off where it suits your group, our crew rounded up 4 RVs, no problem.
CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
Gorgeous Highway 12 continues from Escalante to Torrey, the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. What’s different about Capitol Reef? A Waterpocket Fold. This defining geological feature is a wrinkle in the Earth’s crust that has left colorful cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges extending a hundred miles through the park.
What to Do: Capitol Reef
– Capitol Gorge. Take this dramatic drive beyond the pavement, through an alley of sheer cliffs, with glimpses of the 1,400-foot-high Golden Throne formation, until you hit the trailhead. The two-mile trail is shaded most of the day for a nice walk, even in the hottest months. Pay close attention to the canyon walls, you’ll spot everything from pioneer signatures to Native American petroglyphs.
– Catch a Ranger Talk. From a geologic and human history perspective, this is a particularly interesting park for a lecture. Check the ranger station to see what’s on.
– Fruita. A green oasis in a sea of red rocks, people have lived in this valley for thousands of years. See the old Morman homesteader buildings, 2,000-tree orchard, and rock art from the Freemont culture.
Where to Stay: Capitol Reef
– Capitol Reef Resort. This hotel and glamping camp is a great place to try covered wagons and tipis for a refined taste of the Wild West.
– Fruita Campground. Adjacent to the river, orchards, historic village, and dramatic cliffs, this is a unique full-service campground in the middle of the park. Cabins also available.
–Cathedral Valley. A great free camping option; though with just six spots, don’t arrive on a Friday at 6pm hoping for a spot.
GRAND CIRCLE ROAD TRIP BONUS: MOAB
Often dubbed the adventure capital of the Southwest, Moab (featured in Ultimate Journeys for Two) is the gateway to Canyonlands and Arches national parks, plus Dead Horse Point State Park and countless adrenaline-pumping activities. The little city of Moab first boomed in the 1950s, when uranium was discovered in the hills. Those days are long gone, but the old mining roads are now legendary for 4×4 and biking trails along their grippy “slickrock” sandstone. Everyone from climbers to crystal readers flock to this town, which means you’ll find more international cuisine, good brews, live music, and a whole lot of fun.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
The forces of erosion are working a special kind of magic in this park, crafting over 2,000 natural stone arches and hundreds of towering pinnacles, mega rock fins, and precariously balanced rocks. As if this landscape wasn’t pretty enough, viewing them through the lens of a soaring sandstone frame makes the Southwest that much more photogenic. Drive the entirety of the park, with special stops at the Windows Section, Devil’s Garden, Balanced Rock, and at least one trailhead for a multi-mile hike.
What to do in Arches & Moab
– Off-Road Hell’s Revenge. Hop in a 4×4 and traverse the sandstone domes and slickrock fins on this legendary 6.5-mile trail. Steep climbs and descents ride rodeo-style through Abyss Canyon and past striking vistas of the La Sal Mountains and Colorado River. Stop to check out the fossilized dinosaur footprints, and take lots of hard-core selfies.
– Devil’s Garden. This section of Arches National Park contains the largest concentration of significant natural arches in the country and arguably the world. Begin your hike between two sandstone fins and reach the 306-fot-long Landscape Arch. Admire the desert views framed in Partition Arch, and countless other wonders on this 7.5-mile loop.
– Scenic Flight. Grasp the magnitude of the valleys, peaks, and plateaus of both Arches & Canyonlands with an hour in the air. Flying low in a Cessna, look into the Maze, the Island in the Sky, the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers, and spot rock formations you’d never see from land.
– Dead Horse State Park. A great place for mountain bikers of all levels, this park let’s you cruise up the mesa, ride the rim, and flow down groomed trails for 14 miles (or less with bail-out options). Not a biker? Just go gawk the formations at twilight; it’s the best sunset spot in town.
Where to Stay: Moab & Arches
– Moab Under Canvas. Try these sophisticated safari style tents and tepees at the scenic juncture of Arches and Canyonlands.
– Moab Springs Ranch. My mom and I loved this place, perfectly located at the edge of town (read: views!) with buildings on the national historic register and brand new bungalows.
– Devil’s Garden Campground. Some national park campgrounds are more akin to a forested parking lot. Not Devil’s Garden. Tucked 18 miles from the park entrance, enjoying a quiet corner of the park under the stars is worth an advanced reservation.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
The expansive Canyonlands has three distinct sections. With main entrances a couple hours apart, it’s best to see the north section (Island in the Sky) from Moab and on your way south, dive into the more remote Needles District, and skip the third section unless you want to get into some serious backcountry.
What to do in Canyonlands
– Island in the Sky Scenic Drive + Hikes. The 34-mile out-and-back road up the mesa brings you 1,000-feet above the surrounding mountain and desert terrain with tons of excellent vista points and short hikes along the way. It takes an hour to get to Grand View Point but you’ll want to buffer in time for the half-mile hike to Mesa Arch or longer to hit up the 2.5-mile West Rim Trail.
– Newspaper Rock. On the way to the Needles District Ranger Station, you’ll find one of Utah’s most famous petroglyphs. Over the course of 2,000 years, different native American groups—starting with the Ancestral Puebloans to the Navajo—have left their mark, revealing different values and moments in time.
– Needles’ Big Spring Canyon. Where the main park road ends, rocks poke out like thick spires, or “needles” as they say, hovering over the deep streambed. Hike the 2.6-mile trail along the upper canyon or just enjoy the panoramic views with a picnic. On the way back take the short trail to the Ancestral Puebloan granary tucked under the cliff.
For where to stay near Canyonlands, see Moab above.
GRAND CIRCLE ROAD TRIP BONUS: BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT
The Grand Circle focuses on the US national park system and all its natural beauty, but with a slight detour, you’ll experience a wealth of first nations culture for a well-rounded American journey. You’ve probably heard more about this national monument in the news than from travelers. This highly sacred region containing more than 100,000 Native American archaeological and cultural sites fell victim to Trump’s national monument cuts, despite its cultural value. And we’ll admit, we didn’t know much about the region until we lived here for two months in the home of the park’s only ranger. We were farmlet with 36 animals, they gave us their best tips to explore this little-known park. Ancestral Puebloan cave dwellings, granaries, petroglyphs, and artifacts are literally everywhere; the only caveat he gave was to leave no trace—words that are always true but hold even deeper meaning in sacred spaces at risk.
What to Do: Bears Ears
–Butler Wash Ruins. Just off the main road and short trail away, this village carved into the cliffs dates back to the 1200s. Good signage explains how the village was laid out and functioned.
– House on Fire. This rock outcropping is a granary circa 1150 CE and when light is right, the textured red rock looks like it’s going up in flames. While just a short 2.2-mile hike and unmanned area, be sure to pay the day-use fee at the collection box.
– San Juan River Kayak Trip. We did a self-guide paddle (in our basic rec kayak) along the calm waters and red cliffs from the town of Bluff to Sand Island Petroglyphs and it was one of our favorite days during our two-month stay in the area. If you want to do bigger guided trip, go all the way from Sand Island to Mexican Hat.
– Moon House. This one requires a permit and 4WD to get here but it’s freakin awesome. These millenia-year old cliff dwellings at the top of mountain are spectacular and with a keen eye you can spy even more hidden dwellings in the canyon.
– Grist Mill Inn & Glow-in-the-dark Mini Golf. Grab a drink at the only bar in San Juan County. From the lobby, enter through the secret bookcase and it opens up to a speak-easy serving top notch cocktails like the Gun Smoke, a cinnamon smoked peach pecan whiskey. Walk down the street to the ACE Hardware store, where their extra warehouse has been turned into a glow-in-the-dark, gold-mining themed putt-putt course (it’s as bizarre and amazing as it sounds).
VALLEY OF THE GODS TO GOOSENECKS STATE PARK
By adding Bears Ears to your route, so many more gorgeous places will be right on the way. Heading south on Highway 261, take a short detour to Mule Point for views over Valley of the Gods all the way to Arizona. (Pro Tip: Muley Point is epic for boondocking.) Continue down the famous Moki Dugway section for a 3-mile roller coaster of switchbacks. When you hit the flats, head to Goosenecks State Park for one of the most spectacular and little known gems in the Southwest. This section of the San Juan River takes the sinuous shape of a gooseneck as it wraps around the canyon floor and exposes 300 million years of geology. Tip your hat to the town of Mexican Hat and keep on moving to Monument Valley.
Following Highway 163, you’ll reach the rock skyline of Monument Valley and the heart of Navajo Nation. With sandstone pinnacles towering as high as 1,000 feet and with miles of mesas and buttes, you’ll have plenty to gawk at from the road but the way to truly explore the area is with a native guide to Monument Valley Tribal Park. This not only allows you to see much more of the park, their local and ancestral knowledge will vastly enrich your experience. FYI: Check the park’s website for possible closures.
Where to Stay: Monument Valley
– Gouldings Lodge. An early 20th-century trading post and base for many a western movie (including John Wayne’s Stagecoach), Goulding’s has a wide range of options, from hotel rooms to RV sites to new tiny houses, set to a red rock backdrop.
Monument Valley Tipi Village. When in the Navajo Nation, a hogan is the most authentic way to stay. The Navajo people’s traditional dwelling, an octagonal log cabin with an east-facing door to welcome the sun, is honored alongside the iconic Plains Indians tipis at this native-owned camp. Featured in the Living History chapter of Comfortably Wild.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Welcome to Arizona and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The Grand Canyon needs no introduction, though it should be said that this profound gash in the Earth’s crust is 277 miles long and there are no bridges across, so you need to pick a side to explore. The South Rim is the most accessible and the most logical for this road trip (we’re still dying to get to the North Rim but it’s so darn remote and closed half the year!). Unlike many of the other parks that are built for scenic drives, the Grand Canyon can only really be seen well on foot (or river raft, but that’s for another trip!). The park also has a free hop-on-hop-off bus to help you skip ahead or get a break from the heat. While you shouldn’t hike to the bottom without good fitness and a sound plan to stay there overnight, it’s worth hiking down a wee bit to see the layers up close. Just remember, this ranger rule of thumb: However long it takes you to hike into your destination, plan on twice the time to hike out.
What to Do: Grand Canyon
– Wake up for Sunrise at Mather Point. While sunset is obviously gorgeous at the Grand Canyon, it’s the busiest time of day. Set your alarm, brew that coffee, and get out there before dawn to enjoy it without the throngs.
– Hike South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point. This six-mile out-and-back trail is the best way to see the canyon walls up close without going all the way to the bottom. If three miles straight up sounds like too much, turning around at Ooh-Aah Point or Cedar Ridge will still give you a lovely winding trail and views to the Colorado River.
– Have a meal at El Tovar. This grand historic lodge is first one to be built (est 1905) in national park system. And while it’s tough to get a room and it’s a bit spendy, you should at least enjoy a meal in their grand dining room with painted ceilings and carved beams.
Where to Stay: Grand Canyon
– Bright Angel Lodge: While El Tovar would be a fabulous place to stay, Bright Angel is also right at the edge of the canyon for a better price and its own charm as a registered historic national landmark. Spring for a cabin on the rim, sunrise from your room will blow your mind. (Just look at the photo from our room, above).
– Wander Camp: This glamping outfitter actually has pop-up camps outside a number of the national parks on this list (Bryce, Zion, Arches, and the Grand Canyon), they are usually about 20-minutes from the park but offer far more serenity than the heart of the parks.
– Forest Road 302. Just south of the park entrance, this is the closest option for free camping AND there’s cell service!
More Grand Circle Lodging Resources
Everyone dreams of staying inside of the national parks, which means they fill up fast. Book ahead or consider staying in the more laidback public lands or incredible glamping camps in the surrounding areas, they often provide more serenity, less advanced planning, and more unique expereinces than the crowded campgrounds.
Recreation.gov: The place to book all national park campgrounds on site.
Campendium.com. Great site for both formal and free campsites, with photos and reviews.
HipCamp.com. Unique sites on private land near the national parks and along this route.
Ultimate Public Campgrounds Project. “UC Pubic CG” is our go-to camping app! It maps out over 44,000 sites on public lands, (15,000+ of which are free).
CampgroundViews.com. Can’t decide which spot will be better than the next? This site lets you look at photos and videos from over 16,049 campgrounds.
Comfortably Wild. Our guide to the best glamping destinations in North America features 13 camps across the Southwest and 150 more across the continent. It’s the ultimate resource for unique outdoor accommodations and your purchase helps support our blog.
Mix it Up! Stay at a historic hotel, go glamping, and sleep under the stars; changing up your lodging style will keep things interesting and make you appreciate nature in new ways.
Making the Most of Your Grand Circle Road Trip
–Get the National Parks Pass. At around $30 per park, entrance fees add up fast. Get the annual pass for $80; it grants you (and a car’s worth of people) entry into all these parks and 100s more.
– Always go to the visitor center for their maps, museums, and events and talk to the rangers to help you select the best activities for that day and your group. Ask them to mark up your map with their favorite vista points and hikes.
– Time Your Week Right. Try to visit these popular national parks on weekdays and lesser known regions with the weekends to minimize the crowds.
– Get to trailheads early. Parking lots tend to fill up by 10am and the heat comes on fast in the Southwest.
Download AllTrails to scope out hikes, read recent reviews, and download offline maps.
– Road Reads. Get copies of National Geographic’s Secrets to the National Parks & Scenic Highways & Byways books to find the hidden gems and cool stops along your route. And for extra Southwest tips, check out the Road Trip chapter of Ultimate Journeys or Two.
– Rock Shop Hop. This is a crazy area for geology, palaeontology, and quirky people passionate about it all. Stop at the rock shops, meet the crazy rockhounds and bring home a treasure from the store (not the ground. #LNT)
– Do at least one big adventure. Rappel down waterfalls, take a slickrock 4×4 ride, soar over the golden buttes in a Cesna, and see some of the world’s most incredible landscapes with the wind in your hair. After all, this trip is what bucket lists are made off.
The Grand Circle Road Trip is a lot to cover in one blog and we know there are many many more wonderful adventures to be had. We’d love to hear which ones you’d add to this list!
For more photos of these adventures, see our Facebook Gallery on Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.