Denver, Colorado to Utah National Parks Road Trip
One of our favorite road trips takes you from Denver’s lively urban scene in Colorado to the red rock wilderness of Zion National Park, Utah’s first national park. From ancient Native American rock drawings to incredible hikes through red-rock country, this unforgettable road trip takes you through some of the country’s least inhabited areas and offers something fun for for everyone.
Start: Denver International Airport
From DIA, visit Rocky Mountain National Park to the north, or Pike’s Peak to the south. Or explore Denver, known as the Mile High City, and its vibrant downtown full of great places to eat, stay and feed your cultural soul.
Make advanced reservations for tea or have lunch in Denver’s beautiful historic Brown Palace Hotel built in 1892 in the Italian Renaissance style. The Brown Palace has attracted many notable guests over time, including the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” who reportedly stayed there one week after surviving the Titanic disaster, the Beatles, President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower, among many others.
Afterwards, make your way to the Denver Art Museum. It’s 2006 addition was designed by world-renown architect Daniel Libeskind and is fascinating to look at from the outside since the museum’s exterior features geometric angles made from titanium.
The Denver Art Museum has an incredible permanent collection and great temporary exhibits. When you need a break, try your own hand in creating masterpieces in the Paint Studio, a beautiful room full of easels, which is free to all museum patrons.
Within a five-minute walk is the fascinating History Colorado Center, which offers great, interactive exhibits for families to learn more about Colorado. Don’t miss the Howelsen Hill ski jump simulator that makes you feel like you are skiing off an extremely high jump and landing in front of a crowd of spectators in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
I-70 is the quickest way to travel west, punching through the spine of the Continental Divide via the Eisenhower Tunnel, and taking you past many of Colorado’s famed ski towns like Vail. Wilderness areas and ritzy ski towns abound throughout the central Rockies of Colorado. If you want to take a break and swim, the hot spring pools in Glenwood Springs will relax sore muscles and rejuvenate you for the next leg of your trip.
Grand Junction, Colorado
As you approach Grand Junction, keep an eye out for fresh peaches in local orchards, or find one of the growing number of vineyards and buy a bottle of wine. Wine, food and plenty of life’s finer things flow freely at the Colorado Mountain Winefest held annually.
Nearby is Colorado National Monument — a glimpse of the redrock country you’ll see in abundance in the Four Corners area and beyond into Utah. The monument has spectacular views of the valley floor and great ranger talks in the evenings, if you plan on camping at one of the scenic campgrounds in the monument.
Take I-70W at Grand Junction and continue to the Moab exit. Be sure to fill up your gas tank in Grand Junction as this route offers very few services.
Two must-see national parks along this route are Arches and Canyonlands located near Moab, Utah. Moab is a fantastic town to spend time in as it is a true adventurer’s town. It’s an 80-mile drive from Dove Creek, Colo., to Moab via US Hwy. 491. At Monticello, take US 191 N. to Moab, a fantastic town for outdoor enthusiasts to spend time.
From multiple bike rental shops, river-rafting companies and a main street full of restaurants for all budgets, Moab makes it easy to explore the incredible red-rock canyons around it. There are a variety of places to camp for the night or stay indoors at one of the myriad of hotels there. Plus, you’ll have all the energy in the world to see it all after drinking a fantastic latte in the morning at one of the town’s fantastic breakfast and coffee shops.
Arches National Park
Several minutes from the heart of Moab is the entrance to Arches National Park. Stop at the visitor center to learn more about the park’s fascinating history before you drive up the steep road to the park. To really experience the park, get out of your car and hike the three-mile roundtrip trail to Delicate Arch, the arch on Utah’s license plates. Be sure to start early and bring a lot of water with you as there is no shade on this route.
A longer but thrilling hiking experience is the Devils Garden Primitive Loop. It’s over seven miles in length and has narrow ledges with a rocky surface that requires scrambling on slickrock. You pass by eight arches along the way, making the trail worth the effort.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Further beyond Arches, drive 40 minutes to Island in the Sky District along US 191 until you get to UT-313. On your way to Canyonlands’ Island District, stop by the state park where the final scene in the movie “Thelma and Louise” was shot. Dead Horse Point State Park was named after a tragic event at one of the natural rock corrals back in the 1800s.
Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky District
Resting on a mesa 1,000 feet above the canyon floor in Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky District overlooks the Green River, the White Rim Trail and a crater as well as offers glimpses of an ancient granary and evidence of a historic ranch. Stay on UT-313 for 22 miles until you get to the visitor center. This district offers incredible scenic views of the park via a great paved road, but there are also a number of hikes you can do to explore by foot. Stop at the visitor center to find the hike the best suits your abilities. Head back to Moab.
Dinosaurs and History
Make your way south to Blanding, Utah on UT-191. On your way, stop at the Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument, a famous petroglyph panel. Ancient Puebloan people who lived in the area from 100 B.C, to 1540 A.D. carved many of the symbols, animals and figures into the rock. You will notice some of the art is lighter in color. It’s different because it is more recent, having been created by the Ute people who still live in the Four Corners region. There are toilet facilities here, as well as plenty of parking, including for RVs.
The Canyonlands Needles District is an additional 22 lonely but scenic miles past Newspaper Rock to the park. To see an ancestral Puebloan ruin in the Needles District, take Roadside Ruin, a .3-mile hike that takes about 20 minutes. For a 40-minute hike, check out Cave Springs, which will bring you by a historic cowboy camp and prehistoric petroglyphs. There are two ladders to climb on this hike. Check in with the visitor center there for more strenuous day hikes. The Needles District is a beacon for backpackers, so a number of people in this district are there for overnight trips.
Loop back to UT-191 and head south to Monticello. A half-mile before town, stop at the Canyon County Discovery Center of the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education. Explore hands-on learning stations and exhibits about the Colorado Plateau. Afterwards, stretch your legs on a leisurely hike on the campus trails.
Continue south on UT-191. In Blanding, stop at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum which invites visitors to understand the life and culture of the ancient Puebloans. A restored site includes pathways through ruins as well as the chance to enter a kiva the old way, via ladder. Rare artifacts are housed in the museum.
Also in Blanding is The Dinosaur Museum where exhibits invoke the question, did all dinosaurs have feathers? The museum also has an extensive collection of dinosaur movie posters from around the world.
Continue on UT-191 South and turn west on UT-163 at the city of Bluff. Located in Southeast Utah and the Northern border of Arizona, the drive through Monument Valley has been called the most scenic in America by many and it’s no wonder why. To get a closer view, stop by the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park Visitor Center to browse the museums and get a guided jeep tour. The View Hotel and its restaurant have spectacular views of the rock formations.
Page and Lake Powell
Continue south on UT-163 then turn west on Highway 160, and west on AZ-98 to Lake Powell. It’s the ultimate playground with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline, perfect weather and some of the west’s most spectacular scenery. Rent a houseboat or enjoy our resorts and take a guided tour at Lake Powell Resorts & Marina, and explore the Glen Canyon Dam and slot Canyons near Page, Arizona. Nearby take a photography tour of famous Antelope Canyon, accessible only by Navajo Guide.
To the northwest of Page, travel on UT-89 to Kanab, Utah. Its location allows you to stay in one place while visiting a many parks: Grand Canyon North Rim, Zion, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Lake Powell. There are many pro tour guides in Kanab, so you may consider making it your basecamp for a couple of days.
Zion National Park
Drive north of Kanab on UT-89 and take a west turn at Mt. Carmel Junction on UT-9. You arrive at Zion National Park through the Mount Carmel Tunnel and drive the Mount Carmel Highway to Zion Canyon. Along the drive you will see and learn why people have been coming to this striking geologic area for thousands of years from ancient peoples to the Paiute Indians to Mormons, frontier explorers and tourists. Start your exploration at Zion Canyon Visitor Center. Here you can get recommendations from park rangers and hop on a park shuttle. Bucket-list activities include wading the Virgin River thorugh the Zion Narrows and climbing to Angel’s Landing. Lodging can be found in the gateway towns of Springdale or further to the west in St. George. A unique overnight experience can be had with Zion Backcountry Yurts.
From Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon is only 1.5-hour drive away. Head east on UT-9 and north on US-89, then east on UT-12.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Famous for its weird and wonderful hoodoos—bulbous rock pillars—Bryce Canyon National Park in southwestern Utah park also offers hiking, horseback riding, camping, and some of the country’s darkest skies for stargazing. Drive the park’s scenic road for access to a dozen stunning overlooks. Head to Ruby’s Inn for an out-of-the-ordinary night in a tipi, or rustic cabin.
From Bryce Canyon, take the incredibly scenic 2 hour-and-30-minute (with no stops) route on UT-12W. From the park, head east on UT-24 to Torrey, Utah.
Capitol Reef National Park
Walk by 200 million years of geologic history at Capitol Reef Country in Torrey, Utah, as you check out Capitol Reef National Park‘s scenic domes and narrow valleys. Its human history is much shorter, although humans have inhabited this area for more than 7,000 years, first as hunter and gatherers and much later as Mormon settlers. A mile or two of the park’s visitor center, you will see evidence of the Mormon setters who planted the apple, peach, pear, apricot and cherry trees growing alongside the road.
Stay the night at the Broken Spur Inn and wake up to a hot breakfast buffet with fresh-baked pastries and rolls.
Back to Denver
From Capitol Reef National Park, head northeast to join I-70 East. Skip over any Colorado attractions on the way? Now’s your second chance to explore the Rockies.