It's time to embark on an epic family road trip adventure through the rugged wilderness of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Whether you're planning to hit only a few of these places or want to cover the entire park circuit through Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Monument Valley, Arches, and Canyonlands, here's how to make the most of your trip without wasting a cent.
Slow down and savor the beautiful scenic byways
While your trusty GPS might say there are faster ways to get you from point A to point B, stick to Utah's Scenic Byways as you travel between the parks. State Route 12 takes you from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon on a beautiful 124-mile journey with awe-inspiring views at every turn. Give yourself at least three hours so you can stop for photo ops along the way.
Step into your favorite movies in the places they were filmed
There's a reason why some of this scenery looks so familiar. It's been the background in plenty of films, from John Wayne classics like Stagecoach (filmed in the Monument Valley area) to Thelma & Louise, (filmed in Arches National Park; the final scene was really filmed in Dead Horse State Point State Park, not the Grand Canyon—who knew?) Die-hard Forrest Gump fans can also be seen pulling over at Mile Marker 13 on Highway 163, outside Monument Valley, for a chance to take the perfect photo in the spot where, one day, Forrest just stopped running.
Get to know lesser-known national parks like Capitol Reef
Often overshadowed by Zion and Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef National Park is definitely worth visiting: Admission is only $5 per vehicle, and you'll have access to unspoiled views of red rock country and a chance to explore the area's rich pioneer history. Infamous outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid even used parts of the park as a hideout! Stop by Rim Rock Restaurant for a gorgeous vantage point of the red rock as you dine, and stay around the corner at Broken Spur Inn (Rim Rock Restaurant, 2523 E. Highway 24 in Torrey, therimrock.net; Broken Spur Inn, rooms from $99 per night, 955, E. SR-24, brokenspurinn.com.)
Don't miss Page, Arizona, on your way to or from Monument Valley
Spend some time on the shores of Lake Powell, part of Arizona's scenic Glen Canyon Recreation Area ($15 per vehicle for a weekly pass), or rent a kayak at Lake Powell Resort to see the area from the water (kayak rentals from $45 per day, 100 Lakeshore Drive, lakepowell.com). Stop by Horseshoe Bend just south of Page on Highway 89 (free). Don't be intimidated by the three-quarters-of-a-mile hike through desert sands to reach the scenic overlook point. (Author's note: If I can do it, you can do it, and that amazing view from the top of the ridge was totally worth it!)
Immerse yourself in Native American culture and history in Monument Valley
Stay at Goulding's Lodge, a remote but charming outpost minutes from Monument Valley that's home to Goulding's Trading Post Museum. View photos and artifacts from the Old West; learn about the area's Native American tribes; check out John Wayne's Cabin, where She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was filmed; and catch classic western flicks at the Earth Spirit Theater. Goulding's also offers several guided trips into Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, including its three-and-a-half hour deluxe tour, which gives you a close-up look at scenic rock formations like the Mittens, the Three Sisters, and North Window, and the chance to explore parts of the park that are off-limits to the general public (tour from $70 per person, rooms from $89 per night November through April, from $211 per night May through October, gouldings.com).
Explore Bryce Canyon on horseback
Embrace your inner cowboy (or cowgirl) and get a different view of the park from the back of your trusty steed. Bryce Canyon Rides takes you on a two-hour guided tour from Bryce Canyon Lodge down to the canyon floor, past scenic spots like the Wall of Windows and the Chessmen. Bring plenty of water, and whatever you do, don't forget your camera! (from $60 per person for a two-hour trip, from $80 per person for a half-day guided tour, canyonrides.com; admission to the park includes unlimited use of park shuttles and is valid for seven days, $25 per vehicle or $12 per person entering on foot, nps.gov/brca).
C'mon and take a free ride at Zion and Bryce Canyon
While you can bring your car to Bryce Canyon National Park, we recommend staying at Ruby's Inn (rooms from $149 per night, 25 S. Main St., rubysinn.com), leaving your car there, and hopping on the free Bryce Canyon Shuttle to avoid spending your precious time in the park worrying about traffic. Parking at Zion National Park, meanwhile, is limited to a frequently overcrowded parking lot near the entrance, and after a certain point, no cars are allowed and you must take free shuttles to see the rest. Leave the car at your hotel—we love the Hampton Inn & Suites Springdale/Zion National Park (rooms from $197 per night, 1127 Zion Park Blvd, hamptoninn.com)—and take the Springdale Shuttle to Zion, where you can catch the Zion Canyon Shuttle inside the park (admission to the park includes unlimited use of park shuttles and is valid for seven days, $25 per vehicle or $12 per person entering on foot, nps.gov/zion).
Treat yourself to dinner and a show
For the Moab portion of your trip, spend your days exploring nearby Arches and Canyonlands national parks (admission to the parks is valid for seven days, $10 per vehicle or $5 per person entering on foot for each park). Don't miss the Moab Adventure Center's Dinner and Night Show: You'll start with an hour-long Dutch oven cowboy-style dinner, then board a jet boat for a two-hour journey up and down the Colorado River. Watch as the canyon walls are lit up by 40,000 watts of light and hear stories of how the are came to be settled by Native Americans and later, cowboys ($69 for adults, $59 for children ages 12 and under, 1861 N. Highway 191, moabadventurecenter.com). Back in Moab, stay at Kokopelli Lodge, a funky, retro-style motel a few blocks from Moab's walkable downtown along Highway 191 (From $79 per night, 72 S. 100 East, kokopellilodge.com).
Surround yourself with culture and history in Salt Lake City
Use Salt Lake City as a base for your first or last night and spend a day at the Natural History Museum of Utah, one of 13 attractions covered by the Visit Salt Lake Connect Pass ($29 for adults, $24 for children 12 and under, $23 for seniors over 65 for a one-day pass; two-day, three-day, and annual passes are also available). If you're working on a family tree, stop by the Family History Library for access to millions of records and complimentary help with your research. Stay at Hotel Monaco, a swanky Kimpton hotel with family-sized rooms from $159 per night (15 W. 200 South, Monaco-saltlakecity.com) and stop by Eva's Bakery for a delightful French café breakfast (155 S. Main St., evasbakeryslc.com).
Don't forget to pack:
Sunscreen: apply an ounce (about a shot glass) of SPF 30 broad-spectrum sunscreen every two hours while you're exposed to the sun.
Sun-protective clothing: Wear a wide-brimmed hat and protective shirt and pants. (Hold them up to the light; if you can see the sun through your shirt, it's not protecting your skin from damaging UV rays).
Water: The National Park Service recommends that you bring one gallon of water per person per day. Sure, it sounds like a lot, but you'll be glad you did.
Layers: While the dry heat of midday in Utah can be challenging, don't forget that evening temperatures drop quickly, especially at altitude. Be sure to bring sweaters and jackets.
Hiking shoes: Leave the sandals and flip-flops in your hotel room! When exploring any national park or other wild place, it's best to wear durable socks and closed-toe shoes with sturdy support and water-resistance.
Take advantage of free weekends at all national parks
Aug. 25, National Park Service Birthday
Sept. 26, Public Lands Day
Nov. 11, Veterans Day
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Presidents' Day Weekend
Opening weekend of National Park Week in April