An RV Road Trip Through Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ National Parks

May 16, 2022 | Travel & Destinations

An RV Road Trip Through Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ National Parks

RVers flock to Southern Utah for jaw-dropping scenery and hiking opportunities—here's where to camp and what not to miss.

By Robert Annis

Photo: Robert Annis

Visiting Utah’s “Mighty Five” is at the top of most RVers’ bucket lists, and it’s easy to see why. Each of the state’s five national parks is packed with jaw-dropping scenery and a variety of hiking opportunities. 

But those views bring crowds, and several of the parks are battling overcrowding issues. You don’t have to skip the national parks, but do visit responsibly—follow Leave No Trace principles, seek out lesser-used trails, and visit early or late to avoid the crowds. You may also want to consider pairing your trip with a nearby state park or national forest that offers a similar experience with fewer people. 

View from inside a red rock arch of people walking along a trail
Photo: Robert Annis

Arches National Park

Arches is known for its more than 2,000 iconic natural stone arches and formations. The second smallest of Utah’s national parks, it’s easy to hit the highlights in 1 or 2 days. The bulk of the park’s hikes are 2 miles or less, with terrain that’s not overly challenging; it’s a great park for casual hikers. While you’ll find stunning examples of natural architecture in Arches, you won’t find solitude; every trail is crowded. If you go in with realistic expectations, you’ll enjoy your time. 

Due to its popularity, Arches requires a timed-entry ticket purchased in advance to enter the park between April 2 and October 3, 2022. Tickets are $2 per vehicle (in addition to the regular park entrance fee) and can be booked via Recreation.gov. 

Highlights

The best time to visit Double Arch is right before sunrise or after sunset. It’s an easy half-mile trail that can be navigated by a headlamp with no problems.

Most visitors want to see Arches’ most famous landmark, Delicate Arch. It’s about 1.5 miles from the trailhead to get to the Upper Viewpoint, with one steep section and some slight exposure. Stand in line for your turn under the arch, hand the people behind you your phone, and 10 seconds later, the process repeats itself.  

The Devils Garden trails are longer and a bit more challenging than others in the park, with some elevation changes and steep exposure. They’re also significantly less visited. If you do the entire 8-mile length, you can see about eight different arches, including Landscape, Dark Angel, and Double O. 

How to Get There by RV

U.S. Route 191 is the main road leading into the park and nearby Moab, Utah. There are some dirt roads in the park you can access if you have four-wheel drive. 

Where to Stay

If you want to reserve one of the 51 sites at Devils Garden Campground, do so early, because sites fill up fast; you can make a reservation up to 6 months in advance. The Devils Garden sites are a bit small, but the views are massive. Trailheads are within walking distance of the campground. There are no hookups, but you’ll have the basic amenities.

I found an open spot at Horsethief Campground. The 85 sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, but five group campsites can be reserved through Recreation.gov. The campground gets bonus points for its location halfway between Arches and Canyonlands.

Other Options


A red rock canyon landscape
Photo: Robert Annis

Canyonlands National Park

The often-overlooked little sibling to Arches—at least metaphorically; it’s actually the largest of Utah’s national parks—Canyonlands boasts fewer people and arguably more spectacular scenery. It features massive cliffs, with a deep valley where you can see the Green River flowing below. Most hikes in the north section of the park are only about 2 to 3 miles and lead to vast overlooks. In the southern half, the trails can be a bit longer and lead to even more arches, spires, and other natural rock sculptures. There’s a third area of the park called The Maze, but it can only be accessed via dirt road—many of those roads require four-wheel drive.

Highlights

The hikes to Upland Dome, Grand View, and White Rim range from 1 to 2 miles, are mostly easy, and lead to beautiful overlooks. The snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the background are a gorgeous contrast to the sandstone bench.

Mesa Arch may be the park’s most popular sunrise spot, and the trail leading to it is an easy half-mile walk.

Looking for more of an adventure? The 10.5-mile Chesler Park Loop Trail takes hikers through the towering sandstone spires known as the Needles and a small slot canyon, through a few steep rock scrambles, and to some gorgeous scenic viewpoints. 

How to Get There by RV

Most visitors enter through the park’s north entrance. There’s no through road to the southern half of the park, so you have to backtrack through Moab and down U.S. Route 191.

Where to Stay

Canyonlands has two campgrounds inside the park: Needles, which features 29 sites on the south side, and Island in the Sky/Willow Flat with 12 sites on the north. Islands in the Sky and Needles’ Loop A sites are first come, first served. You can reserve sites at Needles’ Loop B up to 6 months in advance March through May and September through October. There are no hookups, but there are flush toilets.

Devils Canyon Campground has well-spaced campsites with the basic amenities (no hookups) and several pull-through options. There may be a bit of highway noise in the early evening, but it dies down at night.

Other Options


View from a parking area of towering cliffs in varying color shades
Photo: Robert Annis

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef has a little bit of everything—sandstone arches, slot canyons, petroglyphs, expansive views—without the crowds. 

Highlights

The park is small enough that you can use an e-bike to get around. In fact, the narrow, 8-mile Scenic Drive might be best done on an e-bike. The pavement ends near the Capitol Gorge, where you can continue on foot for several more miles.

The Cohab Canyon trailhead lies across the road from the Fruita Campground. Hikers immediately have a steep set of switchbacks to climb. From there, it’s a 2-mile (one-way) hike through sandstone canyons, with some panoramic viewpoints. At times, hikers need to follow cairns to stay on the correct trail, so you may want to download a digital map ahead of time. You can continue to follow the trail to the Hickman Bridge trailhead or take the slightly more strenuous Frying Pan Trail (8 miles out and back) to Cassidy Arch and Grand Wash. 

If you have a sweet tooth, the Gifford House sells pies baked with apples grown in the park’s orchard. 

How to Get There by RV

Utah State Route24 bisects the top part of the park, while State Route 12 parallels it to the west. The paved roads in and around the park are generally easy to navigate with RVs of all sizes. Some areas of the park do require traversing dirt roads; to the south, most can be navigated in a typical van or small RV, but in the northern part of the park, four-wheel drive is a must.  

Related 7 RV Camping Locations Along Utah’s Scenic Byway 12

Where to Stay

Reservations for the park’s Fruita Campground can be made for stays between March 1 to October 31; after that, all sites are first come, first served. The campground sits in a lush apple orchard. Most spots can accommodate a standard campervan, and some can handle big rigs. There are no hookups, but there is a dump station and fresh water fill. Bathrooms have flush toilets and a dishwashing station, but no showers. 

Pleasant Creek is another option for those who can’t get a reservation in the park or would rather stay for free. It’s a typical dispersed camping area with nice views and a creek.

Other Options


A sprawling canyon with hoodoos and trees
Photo: Sanna Boman

Bryce Canyon National Park

Despite being the smallest of Utah’s national parks, Bryce Canyon has some of the biggest views. Seeing the thousands of hoodoos for the first time can be an absolutely breathtaking experience. 

Highlights

While there is a Sunrise (and Sunset) Point, don’t get too hung up on the name; the sunrise (and sunset) is amazing at any of the four major overlooks. As an added benefit, Inspiration Point tends to be much less crowded than Sunrise Point.

Hiking the Queens Garden/Navajo Loop trails, you’re surrounded by towering spires on all sides for nearly 4 miles. This is likely the most popular loop in the park, so expect lots of other visitors on the trail with you. The Fairyland Loop a bit further north is a great alternative, but two or three times longer.

If you’re looking for a little more solitude, continue down the park’s main road to Rainbow Point. At each overlook, you can access the out-and-back Under the Rim trail (a difficult 22 miles, if you do the entire length). From Yovimpa Point, you can hop on the 8-mile Riggs Spring Loop; you won’t see many hoodoos, but you’ll be surrounded by a thick forest.

How to Get There by RV

State Route 12 runs just to the north of the park and is an incredibly popular scenic drive for RVers. State Route 63 runs down the middle of the park, ending at Rainbow Point.

Where to Stay

The North Campground has nearly 100 sites, but only half are earmarked for RVs, and there are  no hookups. A paved multi-use trail leads to the four main scenic overlooks and the Bryce Canyon Lodge. You can make reservations for dates between the end of May to October 1; sites are first come, first served the rest of the year. Mature pine trees give plenty of shade during the summer months.

Located in the neighboring Dixie National Forest, Kings Creek Campground offers the expected national forest amenities—fire ring and picnic table—in a quiet location, about 20 minutes from the park.

Other Options


A stream flows through a lush green valley framed by towering red rock mountains on both sides
Photo: Robert Annis

Zion National Park

Zion is an otherworldly cathedral that offers awe-inspiring views and a chance to commune with the ultimate higher power, Mother Nature.

Highlights

New in 2022, the iconic Angels Landing Trail now requires a lottery permit. While it’s a fun hike—until you get to the chain leading to the end, where it turns slightly terrifying—there are plenty of other incredible experiences in the park if you don’t win a permit. 

The second-most iconic hike in the park, the Narrows, is a 9-mile (one-way) hike through the narrowest part of Zion Canyon while partially submerged in the Zion River. Depending on the section you’re hiking, the time of year, and your height, the water can sometimes be as deep as your chest. The best time of year to hike the Narrows is typically late spring and summer, but you can do it year-round. You can rent equipment to help you during the hike from outfitters in the gateway town of Springdale, Utah.  

While there are a few semi-steep sections on the way up another iconic Zion hike, the 3.2-mile Watchman Trail, it’s not too taxing. Begin the hike early and you might just have the incredible views of the surrounding sandstone monoliths to yourself. 

The Middle and Upper Emerald Pools trails will take you to water features, then connect to the Kayenta Trail heading down to the Grotto. About a half-mile from the bottom, you’ll come across a viewpoint of the river, mountains, and Cottonwood trees. 

To avoid the crowds, especially during peak season, head toward the Kolob Terrace or Kolob Canyons trailheads on the west side of the park, away from the valley. The 5-mile Taylor Creek Trail takes hikers through a narrow box canyon toward the Double Arch Alcove, with incredible mountain views and stream crossings along the way.

How to Get There by RV

If you’re heading into the park from the east via State Route 9, you may have to pay $15 for the park ranger to stop traffic to allow your RV through the two-lane Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. Class A owners should take a quick measurement; any vehicle wider than 7 feet, 10 inches in width or taller than 11 feet, 4 inches needs a tunnel permit. 

Private vehicles aren’t allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive for much of the year; visitors are encouraged to park and either use the shuttle bus or a bicycle to get where they need to go. If you have a Class A or Class C RV, you’ll need to park in the designated RV lot, which can fill up early in the day during the high season.

Where to Stay

If you want any chance of staying inside the national park, you’ve got to reserve a spot early. The Watchman Campground is open year-round and has nearly 180 sites, about half of which include electric hookups. The views, not to mention the convenience, makes the effort to get a reservation worthwhile. 

There’s a lot to like about the North Creek Dispersed Camping, located about 30 minutes west of the park and just north of Virgin, Utah. It’s free and close to Kolob Terrace Wilderness trailheads. Be aware that the ground is very sandy, and it’s easy for a heavy vehicle to get stuck. A small creek runs along one side of the camping area.

Other Options

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Robert Annis

After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis became an award-winning outdoor-travel journalist. Over the years, Robert's byline has appeared in numerous publications and websites, including Outside, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, Men's Journal, Lonely Planet, and more. If you’re looking for Robert, chances are you'll find him either pedaling the backroads and trails of the Midwest on his bicycle or hunched over his laptop in an airport bar, frantically trying to make his next deadline.

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