5 Best Road Trips in Utah

Drive through one of the most geographically diverse states.

A road cuts through Zion National Park in Utah.
Drive through Zion National Park in Utah.
Damien VERRIER / Shutterstock

From the striped Kings Peak to the sandy Beaver Dam Wash, Utah is a state of great scale. It’s no surprise that three distinct geological regions—the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau—converge here. This vast and varied landscape lends itself to outdoor recreation of all kinds, especially because more than 70 percent of the state is considered public land and every county touches a national forest. You’ll never pack all of the state’s natural wonders into one visit, but you can see quite a bit on one of these five scenic road trips beyond the Mighty Five.

Zion National Park and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

No traveler can deny the beauty of Zion National Park, a land of steep red cliffs, emerald pools and waterfalls, and a deep canyon with trails along the Virgin River. Permits are required to hike the strenuous trail to Angels Landing, but there are a few more accessible trails. The other major draw is the Narrows, a hike in the Virgin River through the narrowest part of Zion Canyon.

About an hour southeast on U.S. Route 89 is the town of Kanab, where you can gas up, stock up on snacks, or grab a sit-down meal at restaurants like Sego and Wild Thyme Cafe. While you’re out there, take a short detour to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park to see the rose-tinted, eroded Navajo sandstone. About 90 percent of the dunes are open to OHV riders, but the other 10 percent still leaves plenty of room for hiking and sandboarding. Rent a board at the visitors center or at Kanab Tour Company to slide down the dunes.

Cars driving on Moki Dugway road in Utah.
Moki Dugway Scenic Byway in Utah.
Gordon Montgomery / Shutterstock

Trail of the Ancients 

If you want a sample of Utah’s iconic high desert landscape, the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway is 182 miles of spread out cliff dwellings, native landmarks, steep canyons, and mind-boggling rock formations on the Colorado Plateau. The route loops through Mexican Hat, Blanding, and Bluff with opportunities to extend your trip into the other Four Corners states.

In the summer, Natural Bridges National Monument rangers roll out telescopes for dark-sky viewing of the moon, planets, and star clusters. During the day, head to the House on Fire ruin built into the Cedar Mesa sandstone on a flat 2.2-mile roundtrip path that’s good for families. At certain times of day, the ruin glows in sunlight. Make room in your itinerary to check out Valley of the Gods, Butler Wash Puebloan Cliff Dwellings, Hovenweep National Monument, and Comb Ridge. In Blanding, grab postcards, souvenirs, and coffee at Hunt’s Trading Post, and fuel up on burgers and thick shakes that require a spoon at Patio Diner, around since 1959.

The murky Colorado River flows past Dead Horse State Park’s West Rim overlook trail.
See the location of the final scene of Thelma & Louise from Dead Horse State Park’s West Rim overlook trail.
Kris Wiktor / Shutterstock

Thelma & Louise Film Buff Road Trip

Over four to six days, you can tour the places the iconic film Thelma & Louise was shot on a 312-mile loop. Starting at Arches National Park, cruise by Courthouse Towers and Delicate Arch. Don’t miss the film memorabilia at the free-to-enter Movie Museum at Red Cliffs Lodge. The second stop at Fossil Point, visible from Dead Horse Point State Park, is the backdrop of the film’s final unforgettable scene: the blue 1966 Ford Thunderbird flying through the air. 

Grab a bite at Field Station Moab or Woody’s Tavern in Moab before continuing on to the ghost towns of Cisco, Thompson Springs, and Sego. The last stop on the road trip leads to the La Sal Mountains, where peaks reach more than 12,000 feet. Drive up La Sal Pass Road for scenic views, and stretch your legs by venturing to the Bull Canyons Overlook Interpretive Site to see dinosaur tracks from the Jurassic period.

Milky Way Galaxy seen over Chimney Rock in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.
Milky Way over Chimney Rock in Capitol Reef National Park.
Marina Poushkina / Shutterstock

Astrotourism Road Trip

One of the best spots in the world to spot the Milky Way is in Utah’s southwestern corner, where four parks are certified by DarkSky International as optimal viewing points of the celestial wonders above. Hike, bike, nature walk, bird, or hang out at camp during the day but save some energy for the nighttime star parties. The stars sparkle most during New Moons in summer (July 5, August 4, and Sept. 2 this year).

For your first night, head out from Salt Lake City and cruise the Capitol Reef Country Scenic Byway to Capitol Reef National Park. Hike a slot canyon, grab pie at Gifford Homestead, and set up camp in the park or in nearby Torrey for a night of stargazing. The next day, drive to Kodachrome Basin State Park along Scenic Byway 12. Cool off on a hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls and spend the night in the park or in nearby Cannonville. On the third night, join a ranger-led astronomy program in Bryce Canyon National Park. Last stop is Cedar Breaks National Monument, where you can get closer to the sky at the park’s high-elevation campground.

Sunrise over Moon Lake, Ashley National Forest seen from the shore.
Moon Lake in the Ashley National Forest.
Yao Li Photography / Shutterstock

Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway

In the upper easternmost corner of the state, the Flaming Gorge-Uintas National Scenic Byway stretching north from Vernal to Manila is meant to be traveled slowly. Along 82 miles, you’ll find 15 Wildlife Through the Ages interpretive sites and four nature trails marked to showcase 770 million years of geologic history. For a preview of what’s ahead, start your journey at the Utah Fieldhouse of Natural History in Vernal after taking a picture with the grinning pink dinosaur at the city’s welcome sign. Travel back in time through the museum’s Anthropology Hall, Eocene Gallery, and Dinosaur Garden. 

Farther down the byway, the 1937 Ute Fire Lookout Tower is the first and last standing of its kind in the state. Staffed Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors can see what it was like for wildland firefighters to live high off the ground and receive messages from homing pigeons. Other points of interest on the way to Manila include Dinosaur National Monument for more bones, and Ashley National Forest for trout fishing, pine and aspen stands, and stunning scenery no matter the season.