Have you ever considered taking an epic multi-week road trip to a ton of national parks? If so, chances are you’ve heard that the Southwest U.S. offers some of the country’s most dramatic and adventurous spots. But did you know there is an informal collection of ten amazing national parks that make a perfect itinerary for a Southwestern road trip?
Welcome to the Grand Circle. This collection of ten national parks is located in the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada. Scattered roughly across the high-desert region known as the Colorado Plateau, each park offers something a little different. There’s plenty of big western scenery, rugged outdoor adventures, fascinating geology, and a variety of wildlife.
Because of the limited interstates and highways that access these parks, there’s no perfect loop for exploring the entire Grand Circle. If you want to visit all ten parks, you’re looking at driving at least 1,500 miles! For that reason, most visitors tend to focus on part of the Grand Circle while skipping a few of the lesser-known stops. To help you decide which parks you want to visit, we’ve provided a short summary of each park below. Plus, each park name links to individual blog posts that offer more details about that park, including what to do, where to stay, and when to go. However you explore the Grand Circle, whether visiting all ten parks or just a few, you won’t be disappointed.
National Parks of the Grand Circle
Grand Canyon National Park is probably the best-known park in the Grand Circle. Located in Northwestern Arizona, this massive park protects the Colorado River through its stunning 280-mile gorge of the Grand Canyon. The park is split by the river into the South Rim and North Rim, with most visitors heading toward the former. Highlights include visiting scenic viewpoints along the rim, day hiking along the rim or inside the upper canyon, backpacking for several days inside the canyon, and the so-called trip of a lifetime—a multiday white water rafting trip down the Colorado River! For most road trippers, the Grand Canyon is a must-see destination.
Zion National Park is the second-best known park on the list. Located in red rock country of southwestern Utah, the park preserves the stunning Zion Canyon, where cliffs of Navajo sandstone rise several thousand feet above the North Fork of the Virgin River. The hikes in Zion National Park are some of the biggest highlights. There’s a variety of easy and challenging trails, including the famous Angel’s Landing trail, a strenuous and steep hike with amazing cliff-top views. Another popular attraction is wading through the Narrows of the Virgin River. And camping in Zion National Park is a big draw, as well. For many visitors, Zion should definitely be included in their Southwestern Utah road trip.
Bryce Canyon National Park is another Utah park that’s located atop the Grand Staircase, a sedimentary geologic sequence that stretches all the way to the Grand Canyon. This park is known for having the world’s largest concentration of colorful hoodoos, or irregularly shaped stone towers. Highlights include driving the park road, viewing the hoodoos from the rim of Bryce Amphitheater, and hiking short and longer trails down into the rock formations. Bryce Canyon in Utah is a popular park and many visitors include this one in their road trip itinerary.
Arches National Park in Utah is known for having the densest collection of sandstone arches in the world. Located near Moab, not far from Interstate 70, the park also offers impressive windows in red-rock cliffs and towering spires. Highlights at this park include driving the scenic main park road, stopping at viewpoints, and hiking mostly short trails to the famous arches. And, of course, camping in Arches National Park is a popular activity, as well. Because of its proximity to Moab, Arches is a very busy park, and most people include it in their Southwestern road trip.
Capitol Reef National Park, located near Hanksville, Utah, protects the Waterpocket Fold, a dramatic geologic rift in the earth’s crust. Most visitors focus on the area around the Fruita Historic District, which preserves evidence of thousands of years human occupation, including petroglyphs and homesteading. Other highlights include the park’s Scenic Drive and a variety of hikes throughout the remarkable landscape. In general, Capitol Reef is somewhat less visited than the other parks listed above—for some, this is a benefit, while others may choose to skip this park or only make a quick stop.
Canyonlands National Park is the least visited of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks, and it also includes some of the most remote sites in the Grand Circle. The park is divided into three districts by the Green and Colorado Rivers. Among these, Island in the Sky in Canyonlands, near Moab, Utah, is the most accessible district. Highlights include driving to park viewpoints, short hikes, and 4×4 driving the White Rim Road. Other popular activities include flatwater and whitewater paddling and mountain biking. All of this makes Canyonlands great for multisport outdoor adventures!
Mesa Verde National Park protects some of the best-preserved and most impressive Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the U.S. Located in Southwestern Colorado, the park’s most famous attractions are ranger-guided and self-guided tours of cliff dwellings, multi-room structures built around 800 years ago. Other highlights include a park museum, driving the park road, and short hikes. This park is a great stop for those road trippers who are interested in archeology and Ancestral Puebloan culture.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park protects a stunning gorge of the Gunnison River, with sheer cliffs over 2000 feet deep in places. Located in western Colorado, the highlights of this park mostly involve driving the scenic South Rim Drive to a series of canyon viewpoints. There are also some short hikes along the rim. This park is most appreciated by visitors who enjoy stunning viewpoints and mountain scenery but some more active visitors may choose to skip it.
Petrified Forest National Park is a small park known for its many petrified wood formations. Conveniently located on Interstate 40 in Northwest Arizona, about three hour’s drive from the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest is great for a short visit from a few hours to a full day. Highlights include driving the main park road to viewpoints, visiting the park museum, and hiking short trails through petrified log formations. This park tends to be most visited by travelers who are passing through on I-40 or who have a strong interest in geology. It’s definitely a fascinating experience among Arizona places to visit.
Great Basin National Park is the least visited park in the Grand Circle. Located in remote eastern Nevada on U.S. Highway 50, it’s about a 4.5-hour drive north of Las Vegas. For the few visitors who make the trek, highlights include driving the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, hiking a variety of trails, visiting a bristlecone pine grove, and touring the Lehman Caves. This park tends to be most appreciated by visitors who enjoy off-the-beaten-track destinations.
Which Parks to Visit and When to Go
To visit all ten Grand Circle parks in a leisurely way would probably take around three weeks, which allows for a mix of driving days and adventure days spent exploring the parks. Such a lengthy trip will be unrealistic for many road trippers, who will likely have to pick and choose which parks to visit and which to skip. Making such decisions entirely depends on the particular tastes of each party. Follow the links above to detailed articles about each park to help you make your decisions—furthermore, each article contains links to national park webpages to help you conduct additional research.
When making your decisions, it can be helpful to consider which activities interest you the most. Scenic viewpoints and photography? Shorter or longer hikes? Other outdoor adventures like biking, paddling, or 4×4 driving? Identifying which parks offer your favorite activities can help you narrow your choices. Additionally, make sure to budget time at the relevant parks for completing these activities.
Another consideration is when to take your trip. Most visitors to the Grand Circle do so during summer vacation. However, during the summer months, parks are most crowded. Temperatures and sunlight tend to be peaking, meaning some activities like long hikes and bike rides are not advisable, especially at lower elevation parks. Summer trips tend to be best for scenic drives, visiting viewpoints, short hikes, and water activities.
If your goal is more physical activities like longer hikes and bike rides, consider visiting during spring and fall. Some parks, especially at higher elevations, are ideal to visit during late spring and early fall. Meanwhile, other parks at lower elevations can be comfortably visited from late fall through the winter and into early spring. During winter trips to national parks, visitors need to plan for variable weather, including cold temperatures and possibly snow.
Regardless of when you go, the Grand Circle is one of the best collections of national parks in this country. The more effort you put into researching your trip, the more fun you’ll have when the time comes.
Which sounds like the best parks for you to visit? Why? Comment below, we would love to learn from your perspective!