Unforgettable Utah – 4 National Parks in One Epic Week

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Jake Cain is an entrepreneur and writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. He spends his free time driving around the country in his late 90’s conversion van, affectionately known as the “Monster Van” with his wife and 3 boys.

If you polled our group, you’d probably find that our week in Utah was the best week of our trip.

Though polling kids can be tricky, so maybe I should amend that to say “if you polled the adults in our group…”

Kids are a bit of a wildcard when it comes to their favorite part of any given trip.

Parents: What was your favorite thing at Disney World?!

Kid: “When we saw that lizard climb in the garbage can!”

This post will most likely be the longest of my entire trip, but I thought it would be fun to make one big epic guide to the beautiful state of Utah.

Zion National Park

When we left Vegas, we took a relatively short drive and stayed in St. George Utah. St. George is probably 40 minutes from Zion, and there’s a city of Springdale that’s basically at the doorstep of Zion, but I found the hotel rooms were much cheaper in St. George.

Plus, a 40-minute drive on a trip like this feels more like a trip to your corner drug store.

When we arrived at Zion, I knew that in high season they only let national park buses inside, so we needed to park and ride to explore the park.

Zion Monster Van

The problem was, parking spaces at all those park & ride areas were few and far between. The good news was that on my agenda, I’d put the Canyon Overlook hike on our list of things to do early in the day.

Depending on where you do your research, the Canyon Overlook trail is one of the easiest ones.

We started by driving through the super cool, manmade tunnel drive on the east side of the park, which lets you out right next to the (very small) parking area for Canyon Overlook.

Tunnel Zion National Park

I ended up going back and forth through the tunnel before we eventually resorted to the “mall parking lot at Christmas” approach and just sat in the lot waiting for someone to leave.

Eventually, they did, I was able to squeeze the Monster Van in there.

Canyon Overlook Trail

I’d assured my parents the Canyon Overlook Trail was rated as “easy.”

The problem is, the view from the parking lot makes you feel more like Moses about to ascend Mt. Sinai.

The only thing you see are steps carved out of the mountain that wind back and forth and then disappear into the great unknown.

Once we got out of the van and assessed the situation, dad started the conversation by saying “Yeah, I’ll just stay here.” 

Mom was a little more determined, so she decided she was going to go for it. I took some bottled water and snacks in my backpack and off we went.

I asked a guy who was getting back to his car how the hike was and if he thought our group of people from age 5 to 60+ could make it. He seemed a lot more confident than I was about our ability and told me we could take our time and only need an hour and 15 minutes.

I rounded up a bit and told dad if we weren’t back in 2 hours that he should call a park ranger…

Once you got past the stairway to heaven, it was relatively flat. However, there were plenty of tight squeezes, awkward footing, and scary ledges along the way.

We did pass a number of people working their way back to the parking lot who assured us we were so close, and it was definitely worth the effort.

Zion hike with mom 1 Canyon Overlook

The view at the end was rather spectacular:

IMG 6635 Canyon Overlook View Zion

By the time we made it back in eyesight of dad and the Monster Van, it’d been exactly 2 hours. Thankfully, dad hadn’t contacted a park ranger yet and we were set to move onto our next adventure in Zion.

Riverside Walk

Now that mom was on the verge of hospitalization from our “easy” hike to Canyon Overlook, I decided to strikethrough a couple of the other Zion hikes I’d penciled in for the day.

So we found a place to park, and rode the Zion shuttle through the park and went to the last stop – Riverside Walk.

This flat trail is what leads you to one of the most famous hikes in Zion, and maybe the entire national park system – The Narrows.

The nature of that hike was more than what we could have handled, but the Riverside Walk was a nice way to get a taste of the beauty in store for those braving the Narrows hike.

The timing was perfect, as it was nearing sunset and those red rocks in Utah really shine when the sun is going down.

RIverside Walk Zion

(I’ve heard they’ve got a striking color when the sun is rising as well, I just don’t wake up early enough to be able to confirm that.)

Predictably, Gray had fallen asleep on the ride through Zion, which meant we had to take shifts walking back through the Riverside Walk so someone could stay with Gray sleeping on a bench.

Grayson Sleeping Zion NP

Once we’d finished our walk, we headed over to Oscar’s Cafe which is in the shadows of Zion National Park.

The food was excellent, and we waited for patio seating which provided dinner with an incredible view.

Oscars Cafe Zion

Bryce Canyon National Park

After Zion, we’d booked a stay at an Airbnb in Cedar City, UT which was somewhat close to the midway point between Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park.

Here’s the place we stayed if you’re curious. It was a garage converted into a 2 bedroom place that worked perfectly for us.

We had about an hour and a half drive to Bryce Canyon, and of course, it was pretty scenic along the way.

Driving to Bryce Canyon

When we arrived, signs were everywhere about the Astronomy Festival which is an annual, multi-day event.

Bryce is a fairly small national park, so the plan was to check out the hoodoos and then stay for after dark and check out the night skies.

Bryce Canyon Entrance Sign

We went over to sunset point and then walked to sunrise point, giving the kids plenty of time to stare and contemplate the meaning of life.

Kids at Bryce Canyon

Everyone was impressed with the overlooks at Bryce Canyon, and mom was especially excited as it’s a place she’s always wanted to see in person.

Mom Dad Bryce Canyon

Here’s a look at the natural bridge in Bryce Canyon:

Bryce Natural Bridge

As the evening got closer, we left the park and went to IDK Barbecue in nearby Tropic, UT. It was good, not great.

We killed some more time grabbing ice cream and doing some shopping, kind of waiting on the sun to set so we could participate in the Astronomy Festival.

As it was cooling down a bit, we were walking around some of the observation areas checking out the beautiful colors of sunset in the canyon.

Sunset at Bryce Canyon

The kids, of course, were really itching to stop standing around and walk down a nearby trail.

The trail they set their sites on is known as the Navajo Loop Trail and is one of the best-known hikes in the park.

Navajo Loop Trail

I have to admit, standing above the zig-zag pattern that goes down seemingly forever does have a certain appeal.

The kids were dying to go down there, but the adult in me knew if I lead them down that zig-zag trail, I’d also have to lead them back while they would be petitioning me to carry them because they were so close to death.

So off we went, optimistic and ready to explore.

Beginning of hike

I didn’t carry a trip diary, but if I did, it would have gone something like this:

3 minutes in: This was a great idea, we’re practically jogging down this hill! Wave to mom, guys!

7 minutes in: Wave to mom again! Wait… what color shirt was mom wearing? Man, we’re pretty far down here…

12 minutes in: (Kids sprinting further down into the canyon). Alright guys, let’s take a couple of pictures and start heading back. Kids response: “No! Let’s keep going!”

15 minutes in: Alright guys, we can’t even see the top anymore. Let’s go back. Wait, let’s take a picture first so mom doesn’t make us walk back down here to get one…

Bottom of Navajo Loop

19 minutes in: “Dad, I’m “tiiiired” can we take a break?”

24 minutes in:  “Dad, are we almost there?” (I look up and see this:)

Navajo Loop trail

Me: “Uhhhh… yeah, almost. ”

29 minutes in: “Dad, I’m dying! Can you carry me?” My response: You’re fine. Keep walking. (Meanwhile, my quads and hamstrings are begging for mercy.)

33 minutes in: I should have packed more water…

36 minutes in: We finally saw the end of the trail just around the corner. We weren’t feeling quite as fresh as we were 30 minutes ago.

End of walk

42 minutes in: Finally! We made it back to the observation area and we’re excited to tell mom how cool it was at the bottom!

Sarah: “Jeesh! What took you guys so long?”

Night Skies At Bryce

I was excited to see the stars over Bryce Canyon, and all the fuss about the Astronomy Festival had me really jazzed for the darkness to set in.

Of course, we’ve all seen striking photos of night skies and perhaps thought some fancy editing made them look better than they actually are…

I’m happy to report – that’s not the case.

In fact, I’ve picked our stargazing at Bryce Canyon as my #1 moment from this entire trip.

It was that incredible.

In the visitor center, I learned that because of the lack of dense civilization and light pollution in the area, you see about 3X more stars there than you do in other rural areas of the country, plus easily see Jupiter, the Milky Way & more.

For the Astronomy Festival, dozens of astronomers volunteer their time to come set up their high powered telescopes out in this open field for people to use.

After chatting with a few of them, I’m pretty sure this was their Super Bowl.

They all point their telescope toward different constellations, planets, etc. and excitedly explain what you’re looking at while you’re looking into it.

Honestly, they could have been making it all up and I would have believed every word.

Wow, that’s the Millenium Falcon orbiting over Neptune? So cool!

But for me, looking up at the skies with the naked eye was the best part of it all.

In fact, I distinctly remember walking off the shuttle bus with tempered expectations and then looking up to see skies like this:

Night skies milky way

You almost couldn’t help but audibly say “wow!”

Some of the Utah national parks are among the darkest places in North America, and I’d certainly add a trip like this to your bucket list.

We just so happened to be there on the new moon – which is the optimal time for viewing stars. It really worked out perfectly.

In fact, once we were done using the telescopes we headed back inside the park and were pretty much the only people around to check out the stars over the hoodoos.

It was absolutely a spectacular sight.

Night Sky Bryce Canyon

I probably could have parked a chair and stayed for a few hours, but we had to get driving back to Cedar City so I pointed the Monster Van in that direction.

Horseshoe Bend

We’d talked about visiting the north rim of the Grand Canyon on this trip, but after what we’d seen at Zion and Bryce, we decided it wasn’t worth going that far out of the way.

Instead, we took a more direct route and ended up in Page, Arizona.

Nearby is the somewhat famous overlook of Horseshoe Bend.

I’m more of a sunset than a sunrise person, so after we had dinner we headed down to the overlook.

It seems that the spot has gotten a little more “corporate” in recent years as they are building out a real parking lot and charge $10 to get in. It seems like the spot has picked up internet popularity thanks to the kids and their Instagrams – so I guess it’s becoming a “thing” now.

The walk to get there wasn’t too bad, but the reward at the end was views like this: (Hudson even found a Lion King photo opp)

Horseshoe bend Lion King Horseshoe bend IMG 1928 IMG 1929

That’s pretty much all there is to it, but it’s absolutely worth the stop if you’re passing through this route.

Don’t plan a vacation around it, but if you’re in this part of the country – don’t miss it, especially at sunset.

Four Corners Monument

We visited Four Corners on accident.

I just punched our next address in the GPS and started driving, not realizing that I was skipping a popular drive-through scene known as Monument Valley.

Mom tried to advise me with her paper atlas, but it was too late. I was on the similar ETA route, and now we were seeing mileage signs for “Four Corners.”

I’d never heard of Four Corners.

Dad apparently had.

He was all pumped up and thought if we came within 30 minutes of it, we’d be crazy not to go.

After all, where else can you stand in 4 states at one time?!

Answer: Nowhere!

I wondered aloud what could they possibly have there? Maybe just a sign that marks the spot? Is that really worth an hour detour?

To dad, it was a no-brainer.

So the GPS was now set to Four Corners, and when we finally arrived all my fears were immediately confirmed.

It looked like a Navajo version of Trader’s World.

We were in a line of cars that seemed to stretch forever just to get in. The line was so long I was starting to wonder “maybe it just looks like crap but it’s actually really cool?”

So as we were getting closer, I rolled down my window and flagged down a mini-van driving dad who was exiting the monument.

He rolled down his window and I said “Was it pretty cool?”

He paused for a couple of seconds and flatly responded “No.” 

He continued “There’s basically just a sign that says here are the Four Corners where you take a picture and leave.” 

Now I wish I would have never asked…

We were ready to enter and had already driven at least 30 minutes out of the way – so there was no way we weren’t going to see for ourselves…

We paid the exorbitant $5 per person entry fee, then nearly lost a tire driving through their “parking lot” that should have been marked for trail-rated vehicles only.

Then, we hopped in line and snapped the obligatory photos:

Four Corners Monument Four Corners Foot

To make matters worse, mom ended up tweaking her ankle walking in the treacherous parking lot which didn’t bode well for her future hiking plans at Arches National Park.

All in all, Four Corners was a definite bust and I put it down as one of the places I’d never go back. 

On the bright side, dad was glad that we went and saw what all the fuss was about. Just know that if you go, you’ll never get that hour of your life back.

The other plus was that somewhere along the way we drove through a small town and finally found a “Grayson” sign for Gray to get a picture next to. He was pumped up for the occasion.

Grayson General Store

Red Cliffs Lodge

Perhaps the blessing in disguise of the time and money wasted going to Four Corners was that it made our arrival time to Moab, UT nearly perfect.

I’ve said it before – but the red rocks take on a whole other level of beauty when that sun starts going down.

I was excited about our 3-night stay at the Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab, because it seemed like a really serene setting with views that you simply don’t find in other places.

In fact, we actually had the executive suite for our stay which was originally built for the owner. I’d stumbled into this by calling the office to make my booking and chatting with an older lady at the desk about our plans for a big road trip. She ended up upgrading us for free because she thought my western-loving mom would love it.

Let’s just say that was an understatement.

The Red Cliffs Lodge is maybe 30 minutes outside of town, but here are the kinds of views you’re treated to while driving back to the property:

It seemed like that with every turn it only got more beautiful.

In fact, I’m pretty sure my mom was so overwhelmed by the scenery that she actually started crying.

When we got to the lodge, we checked in and got the keys to our property which treated us to this view from our deck:

View From Deck Red Cliffs Lodge

Overall, the property was the perfect place to stay for exploring Moab over the next 3 days.

The pool area was amazing, the breakfast buffet was top-notch, and the views from anywhere on the property were breathtaking.

Red cliffs room Red Cliff lodge pool red cliffs lodge

Arches National Park

Moab, UT is a quirky & fun place with all kinds of great freebies.

For example, the gas station we filled up at in town offered this free shade:

Free Stuff Moab UT

We definitely took advantage of that one!

Of course, the big draw of Moab is the proximity to 2 national parks: Arches and Canyonlands.

We spent our first day exploring Arches.

Arches sunset arches sign balanced rock thelma arches sisters Arches National Park

We didn’t brave the advanced level hike out to the delicate arch but took in one of the distant viewpoints.

It was blazing hot day, but we came back after dark and took in some stargazing like we did at Bryce Canyon.

The stars at Arches don’t disappoint either.

Canyonlands National Park

On our next day in the area, we drove about 40 minutes and went to Moab’s other national park – Canyonlands.

With the lack of plumbing and other amenities, this place certainly felt more remote than Arches which is just outside of town.

Here’s a quick video I shot with my iPhone and DJI mobile on the first overlook:

As we drove around the park and took in more overlooks, we were treated to more views of the “Island in the sky” and others.

Island in the sky

We also hiked out to the Mesa Arch which provided some amazing views of the canyon down below:

Mesa Arch

Once we wrapped up our tour of Canyonlands, we headed into Moab and bought some t-shirts and ate some Mexican food.

Finally, we retreated back to Red Cliffs Lodge for one final stay.

Up Next

We’re headed to Denver to take in some Rocky Mountains and some Rockies baseball.


2 thoughts on “Unforgettable Utah – 4 National Parks in One Epic Week”

  1. “Jeesh! What took you guys so long?”

    As much as the Cain family thoroughly enjoyed your trip, I think it will be many years down the road when everyone will begin to realize just how awesome of an event that took place in your family’s lives.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your adventure with us.

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