Itinerary: Five Day Southern Utah Road Trip

I love taking road trips, both with my kids and on my own. In April, I had the chance to travel to Southern Utah, a beautiful part of the country I’d been wanting to explore for ages. I was flying in to run the Zion Half Marathon, but was sure to add in a few extra days for a Utah road trip to take in the scenery.

Day One

I started my adventure in Las Vegas, flying in on a Friday morning. I picked up a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad that I’d reserved from Basecamp Outdoor Gear Rental. I was planning on camping in Utah the night before the half marathon on a mesa adjacent to the race course in Virgin, Utah. The closest hotel was at least 45 minutes away, so tent camping in Utah was the best way to start my Utah road trip.

But first, I was off to Snow Canyon State Park in the high desert of Ivins, Utah. It’s about a two-hour drive from Las Vegas. It was a sunny day and the landscape was all I wanted to take in since it’s so different from what we have here on the east coast. Completely beautiful.

When I arrived, I made a beeline for the Butterfly Trail. It’s a relatively easy out-and-back trail that boasts petrified sand dunes, open lava tubes, and scrubby lowland brush. Kids will love scrambling to the top of the Lava Flow Overlook for 360-degree views of the lava fields.

It was just me and a handful of others hiking that day, so I could have perched atop the overlook for hours. It was so peaceful. The beauty of this state park easily rivals some of the national parks, so don’t bypass this one on the way to explore the much more crowded Mighty Five on a Utah road trip.

Next, I drove 40 minutes west to Sand Hollow State Park for delightful blue waters and red sandstone as far as the eye can see. I rented a kayak from The Beach at Sand Hollow and I was on my way. By now, it was 4 pm on a Friday and families were beginning to venture in for the weekend, setting up at picnic tables and taking motorized boats out in the water.

The beach is not a traditional beach area. It’s more like soft red sand with rocks mixed in here and there, but it’s enough of a beach for kids. There was plenty of splashing, swimming, and stand-up paddleboarding going on that afternoon. Super family-friendly.

While I was there for the warm water reservoir, Sand Hollow State Park also rents out ATVs to take out on the sand dunes. You can even get to know the Sand Hollow area by booking a guided tour on an ATV to learn more about this gem in Southern Utah.

Once I had my fill of kayaking in the reservoir, I got back into my rental car to continue my Utah road trip and drove on about 30 minutes to Virgin, Utah. The road was winding, bumpy, and dusty, but eventually I made it to the mesa where the half marathon runners would be camping out for the night.

Day Two 

The half marathon was more like a dusty trail run than a road race, so I didn’t exactly finish in record time, but I finished and the medal now hangs on a bulletin board above my desk. Plus, the views were fantastic. And, the race t-shirt is pretty nice too.

Once I completed the race, I took a few obligatory race photos, then packed up my camping gear and was on my way to the next stop on my Utah road trip. The drive to Springdale, gateway to Zion National Park, was less than an hour by car. The scenery is beautiful and there are loads of bike rental shops, cute boutiques, and restaurants in town Thank goodness because I was starving by this point.

Zion National Park more than met my expectations. I had just a half day on race day, then a half day the following day to explore and I wanted to see it all. Or at the very least, see all I really wanted to see after running 13 miles. The park was crowded, so I had to wait nearly an hour to get on a shuttle bus from the Visitor Center in Springdale to the end point, Temple of Sinawava.

I wanted to hike, but for those who just want to take in the views, it’s a scenic 90-minute round-trip journey on the park shuttle bus and it’s eight stops to Temple of Sinawava. This is the stop for the uber-popular (and relatively kid-friendly) hike at The Narrows, a popular slot canyon hike that may require you to wade the river at some points.

Since I didn’t much care to rent waterproof gear (which you can do at Zion Outfitter, located just outside the park entrance), I opted to hike the Riverside Walk Trail. It’s an easy two-mile round-trip hike on mostly paved surfaces that takes you to the starting point for The Narrows hike, which is a great place to stop for a picnic lunch and watch hikers wade into the water.

Next, I took the park shuttle back to the Zion Lodge stop, which is across the street from the trailhead for the Upper and Lower Emerald Pools hikes. The Lower hike is mostly (if not entirely, paved) though it can be fairly steep in some places.

The Upper hike is mostly unpaved with lots of steps, so keep that mind if you decide to go on past the Lower Pools. Still, the full hike is rated as easy to moderate and I wouldn’t hesitate about taking kids on this hiking trail to see the beautiful pools.

Since the days are fairly long in late-April, I had time for one more hike, but this one was not on the shuttle bus route, which only makes stops along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. To get to points east and hiking trails along the 25-mile Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (still inside the park), you need a car. So I picked up my car and set off for the Canyon Overlook Trail.

The Canyon Overlook Trail is just one-mile in length (mostly up) but the views at the lookout point are fantastic. The sunset is supposed to be spectacular here, but in late-April, the sun wasn’t going down until nearly 8:30 pm, and I was eager to get dinner. Next time, for sure.

For lodging near Zion National Park, I recommend Springhill Suites Springdale. The location was fantastic and it was a very short walk to the stop for the shuttle to take you to the Visitor Center. The hotel is also less than a two-mile walk to the park entrance if you’re so motivated.

Day Three

The next day, I was just so motivated and walked the two miles to Zion Outfitter to rent a fairly basic bike to cycle along the wide Pa’rus Trail. This 3.5-mile (one way) trail is the only paved bike trail in the park. It starts just past the park shuttle bus line and skirts the Virgin River through lower Zion Canyon, offering magnificent views of the towering monoliths all along the way.

Once I checked my bike in, I packed it up and drove to the often-overlooked Kolob Canyons section of the park. The five-mile drive along Kolob Canyons Road is delightful, taking view-seekers from the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center up 1,000 feet to be awed by soaring peaks and red, sandstone canyons from the Kolob Canyons Viewpoint.

I still can’t believe how much of Zion National Park I was able to see in one day (as in, half day + half day). Then I realized I saw nearly all of Bryce Canyon National Park before sunset despite not arriving at the Visitor Center until almost 3 pm (it was just under a two-hour drive between the two national parks).

Originally, I did not have Bryce Canyon on my Utah itinerary. I wanted to see the lesser-known parks and intended to explore Cedar Breaks National Monument. Unfortunately, at over 10,000 feet elevation, the roads were still covered in snow and the Visitor Center was not yet open (it’s only open from late-May to mid-October). That will have to wait until my next road trip in Utah.

So I kept on driving to Bryce Canyon National Park. I was so glad I did. For whatever reason, I didn’t think I would like this park, and I was right, because I loved this park. It’s easily in my top-five favorite national parks. The hoodoos, the red rocks, the endless views. Gorgeous.

In just five hours, I felt like I did it all. I hiked three miles from Sunset Point to Sunrise Point by way of the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Gardens Trails, which take you all the way to the base of the hoodoos. The hike is a steep switchback both on the way down and on the way up, but the views were so worth the effort.

Next, I drove 17 miles out to Yovimpa Point, the furthest point in the park, and hiked the one-mile Bristle Cone Loop Trail over to Rainbow Loop. The views here were much different, as in, more coniferous trees, less red rocks, though the trail does delight with some hoodoo views.

After this, I got back in my rental car and stopped at all the scenic pull-out points on the return, like Natural Bridge and Agua Canyon. I finished up with a side trip out to see Bryce Point and Inspiration Point. Every view was better than the last. I would have loved to have been able to stay for a colorful sunset.

Alas, it was getting dark, and since I’m not a great night driver, I opted to call it a day and head to the Stone Canyon Inn, a delightful stay in nearby Tropic, which offers cabins, bungalows, even tree houses. The property is quiet and secluded, very relaxing. Bring a flashlight if you can since it can also get very, very dark at night.

Day Four 

The next day, I woke up early to continue on my Utah road trip to Kodachrome Basin State Park, a colorful state park dominated by 67 monolithic stone spires. It’s less than 40 minutes from Bryce Canyon National Park and so worth the drive to explore this sandstone landscape. I hiked two trails, Angel’s Palace and Panorama, and at times it was so quiet. It was just me out there on the trails.

I planned for my next stop on my Utah road trip to be Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, but I soon discovered Red Canyon, a part of Utah’s Dixie National Forest. I had never heard of it before, but it beckoned me to come and explore, even despite the fact that the Visitors Center was closed and I wasn’t entirely sure what to do there.

I quickly discovered the three-mile Golden Wall Trail. I began walking through a ponderosa pine forest amidst golden and red rock walls. About half-way into the hike the trail turned into all switchbacks uphill. I’d walk, then pause, wondering whether I should keep going. Then walk a little farther. Eventually I made it to the top and the views were amazing. So incredible.

Once I returned, I drove a bit further to the Arches Trail, a true hidden gem. It was just a .75-mile hike with lots of arches and window rocks that kids will find fun to peek through and enjoy the views. It’s a loop trail through a red rock cove and up to sandstone cliffs for panoramic views in every direction. A must-do hike.

I eventually made it to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, but not all went as planned. I went in the main entrance, and walked a short, sandy trail, but I never found where you can go for sand boarding, which was my main reason for visiting this park. You can drive ATVs here too. Clearly, I will need to be a bit more prepared next time, since both would have been fun.

So I drove on to Kanab, which bills itself as at the heart of the “Grand Circle,” very close to Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Coral Pink Sand Dunes, though I personally found the town to be a bit too far away from any one park to make it worth a stay more than one night. Here, I checked in to the Canyons Boutique Hotel, a quaint and colorful hotel that’s an easy walk to points around town.

Day Five

One of the true highlights of my trip to Utah was volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, just a few minutes’ drive from my hotel. Best Friends is home to nearly 1,600 animals, including dogs, cats, parrots, horses, and pigs. My volunteer placement was in the “Old Friends” section of Dogtown, an area for older and special needs dogs.

Some are hurricane rescue animals, others were rescued from hoarders, still others have been injured or were born with disabilities, making them less than what many “forever families” can or want to handle. I walked a lot of dogs that morning, including one that was chained up his whole life as a guard dog and another that never saw daylight and will squint the rest of his days.

Children as young as six can volunteer, though Dogtown requires kids to be at least 10. It’s even possible to take animals for a sleepover at one of the on-site cottages. I signed up too late to book a doggie sleepover, but I will definitely be back one day. Hopefully sooner than later.

After my volunteer shift, I drove on to Las Vegas since I was due to fly home that evening, but first, a stop at Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, about an hour northeast of Las Vegas. The temperature was perfect (in the upper-60’s), so I took on a few easy family-friendly hiking trails, including White Domes, Elephant Rock, and Fire Waves.

This was my second visit to Valley of Fire State Park. The first time was three years ago when the mercury read 106 degrees. I was nervous about hiking too far in the heat, even with a full bottle of water. This time was far more pleasant, perfect weather for exploring with kids.

Have you explored Southern Utah? I’d love to hear a few of your favorite, must-do activities on a Utah road trip. Please let me know in the comments section below.