Discover the joys of a scenic Utah highway adventure that weaves its way through the stunning national parks known as the Mighty Five.
When you live in Los Angeles, the last thing you want to do is spend more time driving. So when Angelinos go on vacation, they fly to get there as fast as they can. The idea of a road trip has become as old school as Route 66, an unfair conclusion, really, because a well-planned road trip is the kind of experience where getting there is the best part.
I rediscovered the joys of road tripping this summer on a scenic highway adventure through the state of Utah. Why Utah? It’s only about a six-hour drive from Los Angeles and it has an abundance of state and national parks to explore, each showcasing a unique, soul-healing beauty.
I only had six days for my round trip from Los Angeles, so I focused on the national parks that Utah calls the Mighty Five — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches — geological treasures that line up conveniently along a fascinating network of scenic byways, two-lane highways that provide panoramas you won’t find when you travel on the interstate.
All five parks provide ample opportunities for intimacy with nature. In fact, Utah is so blessed with natural wonders that not only the parks, but also the views as you drive from one to the other, will leave you gasping in wonder, incredulous that millions of years of wind and water could be solely responsible for creating such a glorious masterpiece.
Sound intriguing? No time to plan your own Utah road trip? No worries. I’ve got it all mapped out for you. Get your GPS, a paper map (you won’t always be able to get a satellite signal), gas up the car, pack up your comfortable clothes, your iPod, your camera, your hiking shoes and go!
First Night – Kanab, Utah
The hardest part of the drive to Utah is the flat, boring four- to five-hour stretch between L.A. and Las Vegas. But good things come to those who wait, so jump on Interstate 15, turn on some tunes, dip into a cooler packed with cold drinks and snacks and resolve to carry on, knowing that by early afternoon you’ll have reached St. George, Utah, where you can ditch the interstate and begin your real road trip.
I spent the first night in Kanab, a little town of 4,300 that’s about a 90-minute drive from St. George on Highway 389, a road that dips down into Arizona past the infamous polygamous compounds near Colorado City that were home to a fundamentalist sect that broke off from the Mormon Church a hundred years ago. The road then meanders through the Kaibab-Paiute Indian Reservation and back up into Utah to Kanab, about 5 miles from the state border.
The landscape surrounding the town made Kanab County a perfect backdrop for Hollywood Westerns and generated lots of motels because of the influx of film crews over the years. Of the many places still operating, I picked the Quail Park Lodge, a mid-century modern motel that has been lovingly restored by the owners. It’s a popular place, evidenced by a full parking lot.
If you follow my schedule you’ll arrive with plenty of time to stroll through town to find a restaurant for dinner, visit the Little Hollywood Museum and, for some exercise, take one of the complimentary bicycles that lean—unchained — against the lobby wall at the Quail Park for a sunset ride. The townspeople wave and smile when you pedal by and you’ll begin to wonder why you wanted to live in L.A. in the first place.
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and Zion National Park
My day started with a morning tour of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, just five miles north of Kanab on Highway 89. The sanctuary provides shelter for 1,700 companion animals — primarily dogs and cats, but not only — awaiting their forever home.
Located on 3,700 acres of green grass meadows framed with red rock cliffs, the sanctuary offers free guided tours, volunteer opportunities and animal-care classes. You can also stay overnight at one of their guest cabins. I completed my tour with lunch at their dining room, where I had the pleasure of dining with Best Friends leadership and other animal lovers while enjoying a stunning view of Angel Canyon.
Then it was time to get back on the road for Zion National Park, 20 minutes east of Best Friends. To get there, take Highway 89 to Highway 9 and enter the park at the East Entrance. The admission fee is $25 per car and is valid for seven days.
Zion was the first of my Mighty Five and mighty indeed it is with sheer vertical rock cliffs in a kaleidoscope of reds, browns and white, dizzying perspectives and a new wonder to behold everywhere you look. Much of the park is accessible only by shuttle bus, so I drove through the park and into the little town of Springdale, which lies on its edge, and checked into the Hampton Inn & Suites before exploring further.
The shuttle bus that takes you deep into the park leaves from the Visitor Center. Hop on and go to the end point at Temple of Sinawava — or get out anywhere along the way to admire the majesty of the view or enjoy one of the many hiking trails like the one I took to the Emerald Pools.
All that hiking sparks an appetite that can be assuaged with fajitas and a mango margarita on the front patio of Casas De Amigos, just outside the park in Springdale where you can marvel at your day’s adventures and feel the magic of Zion seep into your city-worn soul.
Bryce Canyon, the Shooting Star Drive-In and on to Torrey
I had one more viewing of Zion as I left Springdale on my drive back through the park to where I entered, got back onto Highway 9, took a right onto Highway 89 and headed to Bryce Canyon National Park, a two-hour drive away. I drove past cattle grazing in green meadows, sleepy villages and vast ranges before taking a right on Highway 12, which leads to the entrance of Bryce.
Admission to Bryce is $25. I parked at the Visitor Center and took the free shuttle bus to Bryce Point for an easy hike on the Rim Trail that runs alongside one of the world’s most amazing geological treasures, the hoodoos. Each twist of the trail gives a new perspective onto these magical fairyland spires that resemble a medieval city of giant kings, queens, knights and ladies that appear to have been turned into pillars of red salt. A little imagination goes a long way at Bryce.
Of course you can stay as long as you want, but I had plans that afternoon to meet SingularCity member Mark Gudenas at the Shooting Star Drive-In, an Airstream campground he created outside the town of Escalante, complete with an old-fashioned drive-in where you can watch 1960s era movies in vintage convertibles.
So I was back on Highway 12 for the 45-minute drive to meet Mark and see his singular dream creation. I had no problem finding the Shooting Star: I could see the refurbished Airstreams from the road, each with its own Hollywood movie theme. Mark says that while other men buy fancy sports cars when they divorce, he bought a half-built RV park on 36 acres and created the Shooting Star.
After visiting Mark, getting the grand tour and a great restaurant recommendation I was off for the hamlet of Torrey, next to Capitol Reef National Park, where I would spend the night.
The restaurant Mark recommended was Hell’s Backbone Grill; from its name I was expecting some kind of cowboy-style BBQ. Instead I found a Zagat treasure on the grounds of the Boulder Mountain Lodge, smack in the middle of nowhere. I reached it after driving a highway section that ran along the very top of a ridge with precipitous drops on either side and no guardrail — likely the part of Highway 12 that inspired the name of the restaurant.
Hell’s Backbone Grill specializes in “farm to fork” all-organic cuisine and grass-fed beef that you can enjoy while listening to a balladeer sing and play guitar. If you’re seated on the patio, you’ll share your meal with the resident cat. I stayed a bit too long savoring my fresh river trout, which I realized only when I went back to my car and noticed that the sun was setting and I still had to drive on a stretch of Highway 12 that runs through the Dixie National Forest before I’d reach my night’s lodging.
At nightfall the drive can be hazardous because deer are everywhere. I dropped my speed to 20 mph to avoid hitting one. But it was still a beautiful drive in the purple dusk light, the air decidedly cool and crisp in the high altitude. It was pitch dark by the time I arrived at the Best Western, which sits next to Capitol Reef National Park. The sky was a blanket of stars.
Capitol Reef National Park and Goblin Valley State Park
After a breakfast of fluffy pancakes in the Best Western’s restaurant (I inquired if someone’s grandma was cooking in the kitchen), I checked out and drove off to explore further. Capitol Reef is 100-miles long, and Highway 24, my scenic byway for the day, cuts right across the park and passes the Visitor Center that is next to the Fremont River, a small creek that nurtures the valley and has made it a desirable place for Native Americans and settlers alike. Orchards planted by Mormon pioneers still bear fruit today and can be harvested for a small fee, and the red rock cliffs provide a sharp color contrast against the lush greenery.
I would have liked to stay longer, but I planned to be in Moab by nightfall and I wanted to see Goblin Valley State Park too, so back on the road I went. En route there were new sightings of deer and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, and landscape that resembles both moonscape and Garden of Eden sewn together in a patchwork quilt. With every bend in the road there was a dramatically different topography, strange, magical and bizarre.
I saw the sign for Goblin Valley State Park on Highway 24, took a left and drove for about 11 miles on a road that wasn’t even on my map. I didn’t pass a single soul. Finally, a park gate appeared ahead and I paid the required $7 to enter. The sense of total isolation was a bit unnerving. I was glad I had plenty of water in the cooler.
A few miles further, I saw them, the comical-looking rock formations of goblins that to me resembled giant mushrooms growing in a massive bowl of hot red sand. I walked among them and rested in their shade to escape the 110 degree heat. It was easy to imagine they might come to life, annoyed to find me, an alien, wandering among them.
Moab, my destination, was still a two-hour drive away, so after communing with the goblins, I said goodbye and pushed on to Moab, where I would spend two nights and visit Arches National Park and Canyonlands – the last two on my list of Utah’s Mighty Five.
Arches and Canyonlands
Getting to Moab meant leaving my beloved scenic byways and getting back on the interstate — but there wasn’t any choice. Fortunately it was only for about an hour and then I exited back on to Highway 191 and headed south into Moab, 30 miles further on.
You pass the entrance for Arches before you get to Moab, which is five miles further south. It was late afternoon, but I couldn’t resist taking a quick drive through Arches after paying for my $10 entrance fee (good for a week).
Arches has more than 2,000 rock arches along with an enormous variety of astounding red rock formations. No shuttle busses here: you drive yourself along the scenic drives, getting out to take photos anytime it strikes your fancy or to explore hiking paths that lead to the towering red rock arches.
The town of Moab, population 5,046, caters to people who come to enjoy the parks: tourists, mountain bikers, river rafters, mountain climbers and other fun seekers. I checked in to the Red Stone Inn, a well-maintained, no-frills, rustic motel on Moab’s Main Street. After dinner at the Moab Brewery, across the street and two blocks up, I ventured out to see more of Moab’s Main Street.
The next morning I was up early to explore Arches and drove to where the self-drive pavement ends, at Devil’s Garden, so called because of the fin- shaped rocks that appear to spring out of the earth. From there I hiked along red sandy trails to Landscape Arch, which spans 290 feet and, at its narrowest point, is just six-feet thick.
It had been raining sporadically overnight and the moisture made the colors pop in brilliant Technicolor. The clay-baked heat of the day before had dissipated and the air was deliciously scented with thirst-quenched sage.
I could have stayed the entire day at Arches, but I wanted to reach my goal of visiting all of the Mighty Five so I was off to Canyonlands, a 40-minute drive away. You could spend a week at any of Utah’s national parks, and certainly that much time at this 527-square-mile wonder. But I had to settle for the Island in the Sky district, one of four districts in Canyonlands that is closest to Arches. It made for a fine afternoon of sampling yet another geological wonderland for the mere price of $10 (for a seven-day pass).
With Dead Horse Point State Park just next door, I took a quick detour there to see the 2,000-foot cliff where movie heroines Thelma and Louise drove their convertible over the edge rather than live in a world that didn’t get it. The park got its name because cowboys in the 1800s used Dead Horse Point to catch wild horses. Legend has it that once a band of horses was corralled on the waterless mesa to die of thirst with the view of the Colorado River below.
On the way back to Moab, I took one more quick spin through Arches as the sun, beginning to set, made the red rocks literally glow as if they were lit from within. The next morning, I’d be on the I-70 to the I-15 back to Los Angeles. Goodbye lovely Utah and farewell to the meandering scenic byways that had been my traveling companion through a part of America that still calls to me in my dreams. I’m sure I’ll be back to see you again.
Mighty Five Park Information
Nearby State Parks
Where to Stay
Quail Park Lodge
125 North 300 West (Highway 89)
Kanab, UT 84741
Hampton Inn & Suites
1127 Zion Park Boulevard
Springdale, UT 84767
Capitol Reef Inn
360 West Main Street
Torrey, Utah 84775
Red Stone Inn
535 South Main Street
Moab, UT 84532
Copyright © Kim Calvert/2016 Singular Communications, LLC.
Kim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single living.