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
ZION NATIONAL PARK
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
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
What to do: Escalante National Monument
– 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
What to Do: Capitol Reef
– 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
– 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
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
What to do in Arches & Moab
– 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 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
What to do in Canyonlands
– 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
What to Do: Bears Ears
– 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
Where to Stay: Monument Valley
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
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
– 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
– 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.
For my mom’s birthday last year, we wanted to give her the gift of national parks. We did a Utah road trip to the…