Fodor's National Park Road Trips:
How to Avoid Massive Crowds in the National Parks This Summer
With this itinerary, you’ll get to experience two of Utah’s best parks. There’s Arches, famous for its spectacular colors and unique landforms—natural stone arches, soaring pinnacles, plus giant fins and balanced rocks—and Canyonlands, with a wilderness of canyons and buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. A few hours away, Colorado’s Mesa Verde offers a peek into the lives of the Ancestral Puebloan people, who made it their home from AD 600 to 1300.
At a Glance:
Miles Traveled: 190
Suggested Duration: 6 Days
Start & End Point: Moab, UT
Parks Visited: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Mesa Verde National Park
Best Time To Go: Apr - Oct
Day 1: Welcome to Utah
Stop Locations: Moab, UT
The closest airport to your first two destinations is Canyonlands Field, also known as Moab Airport, where you can get flights to and from Denver. After you land and get your rental car, head into Moab (18 miles; 25 minutes away), where you’ll find plenty of options for food and lodging. Book yourself a room for the next three nights.
Days 2-3: Arches National Park
Stop Locations: Arches National Park, UT
Your trip begins at Arches National Park, which holds the world’s largest concentration of natural rock windows or “arches.” Start with a guided hike in the Fiery Furnace, a maze of sandstone canyons and fins that is considered one of the most spectacular hikes in the park. On your second day, explore the Devil’s Garden and Windows sections of the park. Head back to Moab for the night.
Days 4-5: Canyonlands National Park
Stop Locations: Canyonlands National Park, UT to Dead Horse Point State Park, UT to Cortez, CO
From Moab, head to Canyonlands National Park. Start at the park’s Island in the Sky District, at the northern end of the park (about 30 miles from Moab). Explore the area from the road, which has many overlooks, or hike the first section of the Upheaval Dome Trail, an 8.3-mile loop that starts at Whale Rock, about 11 miles from the visitor center and spotlights an enormous syncline, or downward fold in the Earth’s crust (there are overlooks ½ mile and 1 mile from the trailhead). At the end of the day, on your way back to Moab, take a detour into Dead Horse Point State Park, about 11 miles from the Canyonlands entrance, and head up to the top of the mesa for magnificent views of the Colorado River as it goosenecks through the canyons below.
On Day 5, head to the Needles District, at the southwest corner of the park, and hike the Slickrock Trail (2.4 miles round-trip), keeping an eye out for bighorn sheep. At the end of the day, drive east about 110 miles (2 hours) to Cortez, where you can find a hotel for the night.
Day 6: Mesa Verde National Park
Stop Locations: Mesa Verde National Park, CO to Moab, UT
From Cortez, drive about 11 miles east to Mesa Verde National Park, with 5,000 archaeological sites (including 600 cliff dwellings) left behind by the Ancestral Puebloan people, who lived here more than 1,000 years ago. Begin your visit at the visitor center, just before the entrance station, to get the latest park information and purchase tour tickets for some of the more popular tours (to get the most out of your visit, plan to take at least one ranger-led tour). Inside the park, stop at the Chapin Mesa Museum, then hike the 0.5-mile Spruce Tree House Trail for a glimpse of the best-preserved cliff dwelling in the park.
After exploring Mesa Verde, you can spend the night at the Far View Lodge inside the park or head back to Cortez. Or, if you’ve got an early flight in the morning, you can drive back to Moab.
From Mesa Verde, it’s a 143-mile (2½-hour) drive to Canyonlands Field airport.