Starting in the Pacific Northwest, head southeast to hit some of the most spectacular natural scenery the country has to offer.
More than 2,800 miles, six national parks, a state park, a national forest, a national monument, an animal sanctuary, a broken windshield and too many subpar hotel continental breakfasts — all in nine days.
It sounds ambitious, but this road trip, which can start anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, comes with great scenery and surprises. And getting to hit six national parks in as few as six days is the perfect way to celebrate the National Park Centennial this year.
Starting from Portland, Oregon, my wife and I embarked on a nine-day road trip with the goal of visiting six national parks, spending a day at each. Once we decided our route, we booked most of our lodging in advance and timed our driving routes for each day, allowing for at least six hours at each park and a little extra time for spontaneous stops along the way.
The entire trip cost about $2,000, with the majority of the cost going to hotels, food and gas. Park entrances range from $10–$30. Camping is an option to save money, but you still need to reserve your camping sites in advance as the parks don’t offer large campgrounds.
The key to visiting so many national parks in a short amount of time is to arrive at your lodging the night before, allowing you to access the park early in the morning and travel to your next destination’s lodging in the late afternoon or early evening. This will give you several hours at each park, and time to travel and rest in the evenings.
Here are more details on each leg:
Day 1: Traveling to Utah
Starting in Portland, we drove U.S. 26 across the entire state of Oregon, which was the most scenic drive of the trip. If you haven’t driven this stretch of highway, put it on your list.
We stopped at the Painted Hills, four hours east of Portland. Considered one of the “seven wonders of Oregon,” this quiet, secluded and well-maintained national monument is worth the stop if you’re in central Oregon. Two hours is plenty of time for a scenic drive, overlook pictures and a couple of short hiking trails.
Boise, Idaho, was our first night’s stop. This is a good resting point if you’re coming from Portland or Seattle. There are plenty of affordable hotels, and you’re a day’s drive from southern Utah.
Day 2: Time for a pit stop
Driving southern Idaho was the low point of the trip. Even with 80 mph freeways, all you experience is hundreds of dead insects on your windshield.
As with most road trips, there are plenty of unscheduled stops and sites along the way. We were ahead of schedule to arrive in southern Utah so we stopped at Little Cottonwood Canyon, located south of Salt Lake City. Part of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, this is a quick, free way to sneak in a scenic hike with mountain, lake and city views of Salt Lake City.
Night two ended in Green River, Utah, 45 minutes north of Utah’s national parks. The parks are somewhat linear, so we started from the eastern side to back-track west for our return to Portland.
Day 3: Park 1 — Canyonlands
Canyonlands is the largest of Utah’s five national parks. It’s so large that it includes two visiting areas: Islands in the Sky and the Needles District. With only one day, we visited Islands in the Sky. If you plan to visit both, you will need two days.
As with all the parks, it’s worth making a quick pit stop at the visitor center to pick up a hiking map and get advice from the rangers. I always asked “what’s the best way to spend six hours at the park?” and I always was given helpful advice. Some of the parks include kiosks with activity recommendations based on how much time you have. Six hours typically gets you the “greatest hits collection” of sites.
Canyonlands is a quiet and vast park with similarities to the Grand Canyon. Plan on spending half your time doing “drive and stops” at overlooks for pictures and the other half taking a few hikes. The famous Mesa Arch is an easy hike for all ages. Grand View Point Trail and Upheaval Dome are also easy 1- to 2-mile hikes with rewarding views.
But the highlight of this area was located a few miles outside the park’s entrance: Dead Horse Point State Park. This is a must-do if you have an extra hour or two. One of the best hikes of our trip started at the visitor center and took us on a 4-mile secluded trek along the canyon’s rim to Dead Horse Point that includes one of the best scenic views in Utah. If you’re not up for the hike, you can park at the viewpoint.
While visiting Utah’s eastern national parks, Moab is your best option for lodging and dining. A classic tourist town, you can plan outdoor adventures from your hotel or via any of the dozens of billboards that greet you along the town’s main drag. Moab is 45 minutes from Canyonlands and 10 minutes to Arches National Park.
Day 4: Park 2 — Arches
Get to Arches early. This is good advice for any of the parks, but Arches fills up particularly fast and there’s a lot to see. The park includes a long road with several stops along the way. Go to Delicate Arch first. There, you can take a semi-challenging 3-mile roundtrip hike that features the famous arch showcased on Utah’s license plates. This is a must-see. If you’re not up for the hike, there are two parking lots with views of Delicate Arch from a distance. But the hike will take you to the point where you can stand under the arch (after waiting in line with a dozen other tourists).
Additional easy-to-moderate hikes include Landscape Arch, Double Arch and Windows. All have parking lots nearby and well-maintained trails. If you plan in advance, the Fiery Furnace hike looks like another highlight in the park. A limited number of visitors are allowed each day. This is the “one that got away” for our trip, and I regret not reserving a spot in advance.
The drive from Arches to Capitol Reef National park is 2.5 hours. Along the way, you can visit Goblin Valley State Park. We planned to spend 90 minutes at this park, but thunderstorms kept us away. This looks like a worthy stop if you have the time.
After a night in Torrey, Utah, located 10 miles west of the park, we set out for park No. 3.
Day 5: Park 3 — Capitol Reef
This park is very different from the other Utah parks — because there’s hardly anyone there! If you like quiet parks, you’ll love this one.
Capitol Reef is kind of a greatest hits collection of the other parks, but without any iconic landmarks. The hiking is good, you’ll see arches, you’ll walk along cliffs and narrows, and you’ll see unique rock formations. But there isn’t one single site that makes you say “wow,” compared to the other parks.
Since it’s less crowded, you can cover a lot of ground in Capitol Reef in one day. Recommended hiking trails: Hickman Bridge, Grand Wash Narrows and Cassidy Arch.
The drive from Capitol Reef to Bryce Canyon is 2.5 hours. The city of Bryce includes several lodging options. We found options 15 miles outside of the park that were affordable and didn’t require advanced booking.
Day 6: Park 4 — Bryce Canyon
Like at Arches, arrive at Bryce early. We arrived at 8 a.m., which seemed like the sweet spot. There were storms predicted for the afternoon, so we planned for five hours in the park.
After the visitor center, head directly for the parking lot at Sunset Point. The parking lot will be overflowing by 11 a.m. From there you’ll experience one of the best views in all of the national parks: the Bryce Amphitheater. This was my favorite scenery and hike of the trip.
The Navajo Loop/Queen’s Garden Trail combines into a very scenic and entertaining 3-mile hike. People of all ages can handle this trail and there are many areas to rest and take pictures. Bryce includes several park-and-stop photo overlooks.
Due to the afternoon storm, we had some free time and made a 3-hour stop at Best Friends Animal Society, near the city of Kanab, Utah. This is the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the United States and has more than 1,700 animals that are available for adoption. The facilities are top-notch and it’s an amazing desert sanctuary. It’s worth the stop if you have time between Bryce and Zion.
Bryce Canyon and Zion are only a little over an hour from each other, so you can plan your lodging strategically between the parks. We stayed in Mount Carmel Junction at a roadside hotel, which was a great location.
Day 7: Park 5 — Zion
There are two entrances to Zion. We took the east entrance, which includes the starting point for a scenic drive. We arrived at the Zion visitor center at 9 a.m. expecting to beat the crowds, but the lot was already nearing capacity. You have to park at the visitor center, with shuttles acting as the only way to access the park’s trails and overlooks.
This, unfortunately, makes your park experience feel more like a theme park than a national park. Even early in the morning, it’s a long wait to access a shuttle and frustrating to rely on the crowded vehicles after visiting several parks where you have the freedom of your own car. Zion is the most beautiful of the six national parks, but it’s by far the most crowded, which nearly ruined the experience.
Short hikes included the Emerald Pools, Weeping Wall and River Walk to the famous Narrows (which were closed due to high water). These were the most crowded hiking trails I’ve ever experienced. The River Walk is similar to walking down a street in Manhattan. It’s difficult to find peace on the easy trails at Zion.
For a one-day experience, Zion is frustrating and cramped. The park offers several challenging, day-long hikes that are likely a much better experience since they won’t attract as many visitors. I don’t suggest you skip Zion, but arrive early and prepare for clogged hiking trails and long waits for shuttles. Or plan for a longer stay and take the challenging trails.
After a night’s stay in Ely, Nevada, a remote casino town one hour from the park, we headed to our last stop.
Day 8: Park 6 – Great Basin
Who knew there is a national park in eastern Nevada? The only reason I added this park to the Utah park trip is because it wasn’t far off the route on our return trip to Portland. A newer park (it was designated in 1986), Great Basin National Park is located near the Nevada/Utah border and is only 45 minutes out of your way if taking Highway 93 North.
We arrived at Great Basin early for a 9 a.m. tour of the Lehman Caves. This is a tour you have to reserve in advance, and I booked it two days prior. The 90-minute tour is the main attraction of the park. This was my first cave tour and a must-do if you’re visiting the park.
There’s a nice scenic drive, and hiking trails that don’t compare to the Utah parks, but there isn’t all that much to do at Great Basin. Is it worth the drive just to see the cave? Not really. But if you’re checking national parks off your list, it’s easy to visit while traveling between Utah and the Pacific Northwest.
We left Great Basin in the early afternoon and drove the rest of Highway 93 through Nevada. I’ve always wanted to drive through northern Nevada, but was let down. It’s desolate and lonely. Just as I was thinking about how I would hate to have car trouble in this region, a baseball-sized rock hit my windshield, kicked up from a semi-truck. We decided to have it fixed back in Portland. It’s a good reminder to budget for surprise expenses.
After leaving Nevada and driving through southern Idaho, we arrived in Ontario, Ore., in the evening to rest up for our final day of driving.
Day 9: Returning home
If you’ve yet to experience it, the drive along I-84 along the Columbia River Gorge is as scenic of a drive as anywhere in the world. But as long-time Oregon residents, we were ready to get home and didn’t stop to gawk at scenery along the way. We made it back to Portland midafternoon with our goal accomplished and hundreds of pictures to sort through.