Take the family on one of the best RV road trips in the USA.
My family and I have been RVing for more than 12 years - first as renters and now as owners. Hands down, the road trip that my friends ask me about most often is the one through Utah and northern Arizona that includes some of the USA’s most stunning national parks: Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon. It’s one of my favorite routes. I often end up writing out a very detailed, 2-week itinerary for those friends, based on my family’s travels through this part of the country. Now I’m writing it down for you, too!
If you’re new to RVing, I suggest you first read our 10 Lessons for first-time RVers. That article discusses how to select the best RV rental for your family.
The itinerary below is designed to begin your trip in Salt Lake City. However, know that you also could fly into Las Vegas and start your trip there.
KidTripster Tip: Because this area of the country is so popular, it’s imperative that you make reservations for all your campgrounds in advance. Reservations open six months to a year in advance, depending on the location.
So buckle up, we’re going on quite the ride!
Editor’s note: Consider renting an RV or camper with our friends at Outdoorsy. It’s the Airbnb of RVs, matching RV owners with would-be renters. Use this link to book, and KidTripster will get some coffee money from Outdoorsy at no additional cost to you. And you’ll get a $50 discount!
What to do?
Assuming that you’re arriving in Salt Lake City, your first stop will be to pick up your rig. If you’ve booked with a rental company, ask if the dealer provides free pick-up service from the airport. If you’re renting from a private party, arrange your pick-up location in advance.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure you’re clear on any mileage restrictions that your rental may have. Typically, you’ll be allotted 100 free miles per day; you’ll then be charged a fee for additional miles. The itinerary laid out below is designed to keep you under 700 miles per the week.
Make sure you leave plenty of time for the rental company or private owner to walk you through all your RV’s systems before you drive away. And yes, you’ll learn how to dump the holding tanks without having a scene like the one in movie RV with Robin Williams. (This movie is mandatory pre-trip viewing for the whole family!) Ask questions and take notes.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure that you get an emergency number from the rental company or private owner, just in case you have any questions on the road. The first time that we rented, we used that number within 24 hours of pulling out of the parking lot!
Where to stay?
After you’ve stopped at the local big box store to load up on food and supplies, head to Salt Lake City KOA. Not far from downtown, this RV park is a good spot for novices. There are easy-to-navigate, pull-thru sites and full hookups, so you can practice connecting the water, sewer, electric, and cable TV lines on your own. While you’re figuring it out, the kids can take a dip in the pool.
KidTripster Tip: Having trouble? RVers are friendly folks. Look for one who appears to have some experience and simply ask them to give you a hand.
Unpack, get organized, and take a deep breath.
What to do?
In the morning, board the free shuttle from the KOA to Temple Square, home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for a free 45-minute tour. You don’t have to be Mormon to get something out of this tour (though if you’re not Mormon, you’ll only be able to view the Temple itself from the outside). Our favorite part was the demonstration of the acoustics inside the Tabernacle where the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir performs. This tour is best suited for school-aged children and up.
After the tour, head to nearby City Creek Center with its splash pads, shopping, and dining. Discovery Gateway, a hand-on children’s museum, is a good place to burn off some energy.
KidTripster Tip: You may be tempted to drive to Antelope Island State Park on the Great Salt Lake for a float in the largest salt lake in the Western Hemisphere. Skip it. Especially in the summer, the lake is swarming with water bugs, making the whole experience quite unpleasant. If you do go, there’s an outdoor shower at the beach, so you can rinse the chalky salt off your body.
It’s time to hit the open road! Drive 3-1/2 hours from Salt Lake City to Moab. Briefly stop at the Arches National Park visitor center to pick up your child’s Junior Ranger book and loaner Red Rock Explorer backpack. Also, watch the park movie so that you’re primed for your visit the following day.
KidTripster Tip: Make sure to do the Junior Ranger program (designed for ages 5 to 13, but everyone can participate) at each of the national parks and monuments that you visit. By the end of your trip, your child will have an impressive collection of Junior Ranger badges and patches. Best of all, everyone will be a lot more educated on the sights that you’ve seen.
In Moab, I like the convenience and amenities at Moab Valley RV Resort and Campground. Located about three miles from the entrance to Arches, the park offers tent sites, cabins, cottages, and full hook-up RV sites with cable. There’s a playground, putting green, life-sized chess set, and horseshoe pits. But the real selling point is the pool. After a day of hiking, you’ll need it!
Where to eat?
Moab Adventure Center offers both dinner and a show! First, you’ll sit down to a cowboy-style dinner. Honestly, I’d never seen my kids pack away so much food: BBQ, baked beans, and corn on the cob. What’s not to love? Then you board the Moab Queen II and head up the Colorado River with your guide for a two-hour cruise. At the turnaround point, the real magic begins. Set to music and stories from the area’s cowboy and Native American past, you float by the canyon walls as they’re being illuminated by 40,000 watts of light. It’s truly a unique way to experience the landscape. Cost: Youth (4-12) $59; Adult $69.
Photo courtesy: Moab Adventure Center
What to do?
Arches National Park is one of the most stunning spots in the national park system. The park boasts over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. Your family will need to work to make it to the park’s most spectacular prize - Delicate Arch - but it’s worth it!
Start your hike to Delicate Arch early in the morning. This 3-mile hike is strenuous with an initial climb of 480 feet. There’s also a 600-foot rock ledge at the end of this hike where you’ll want to keep a watchful eye on young children. But man, the payoff! It’s truly a memorable sight. The hike will take you about 2-1/2 to 3 hours. On the day that my family did this hike, it was 106°F by the time that we returned to trailhead. I’ve never been so happy to see our RV! We all took cold showers right there in the parking lot before moving on.
KidTripster Tip: Get to the park when it opens (7:30 a.m. in the summer) to avoid the heat of the day and find a parking spot. Be prepared for the relentless sun with sunscreen (reapply!) and a wide-brimmed hat. And bring more water than you think you’ll need; I’d recommend at least 1.5 liters per person.
After some rest and grub, head to the trailhead for Landscape Arch. This flat, 1.6-mile hike is much easier and will take you to the longest arch in the park. Stop to check out Balanced Rock on your way out of the park.
Carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries, Canyonlands National Park is an enormous place, divided into four districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves. Because of its vastness, it has a “we’ve got the place to ourselves” sort of feel. On a 30-mile drive to the visitor center, we never passed a single vehicle.
For kids, especially younger children, I think the Needles district - named for its colorful sandstone spires - is most ideal for a half-day visit. Here I’d focus on easy but interesting trails. Start with the .6-mile Pothole Point Trail where little ones can inspect the potholes for signs of life. If you’re hiking during the summer, the holes will be dry, but your kids still will enjoy the challenge of scampering up the giant boulders on this hike.
On the .6-mile Cave Spring Trail, you’ll see the remnants of an old cowboy camp and prehistoric pictographs inside a cave. But again, climbing will be the highlight of this trail. The kids can ascend on two wooden ladders to a slickrock plateau above the alcoves. From here, you’ll have great views of North and South Six-Shooter Peaks and the La Sal and Abajo Mountains.
Where to stay?
Drive about 1-1/2 hours to Devils Canyon Campground on US-191 near Monticello. Situated on national forest land, this campground is quiet and rustic; picnic tables, fire rings, vault toilets, and drinking water (no showers) are available. There are no hookups for RVs. It’s a good, inexpensive spot for a one-night stop.
KidTripster Tip: Need a laundromat? You’ll find one in Monticello.
In a state that has its fair share of famous national parks, little-known Natural Bridges National Monument gets overlooked. That’s okay, because now you know! Of all the trails that my family has hiked in Utah (and there have been a lot!), the trail to Sipapu Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument is one of our favorites. A little over a mile roundtrip with an elevation change of 500 feet, this trail has three wooden ladders, stairs, switchbacks, and short steep sections of slickrock. Best of all, you’ll likely never pass a single soul.
KidTripster Tip: Keep an eye on little ones as some parts of the trail are steep with drop-offs, but it’s completely doable, as my 4-year-old easily hiked this trail.
And what a payoff! Sipapu is the largest and most spectacular of the three bridges at the monument, and it's the second largest natural bridge in the world behind Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon. The opening nearly could house the dome of the United States Capitol! Its name means “the place of emergence,” an entryway by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world. It’s considered middle-aged as far as bridges go, older than Kachina Bridge but younger than Owachomo, both of which can bee seen in this park. Formed thousands of years ago by a river - not wind (like arches) - Sipapu will someday collapse and erode as part of the endless cycle of change. Best to get here while you can.
KidTripster Tip: Once you make it to the bridge, sit in the shade of the Gambel oak grove and have a snack while admiring the bridge’s beauty.
After your hike, drive the park’s loop to see the other two bridges, Kachina and Owachomo, from their viewpoints.
Where to stay?
Located just a half mile from the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park, Ruby’s Inn is the only horse in a one-horse town. It offers lodge rooms, campsites for tents and RVS, and even tepees. There’s also a laundromat and a small, often crowded pool.
Is Ruby’s our favorite place to stay? No, but it’s the most convenient campground for visiting Bryce.
The names of the viewpoints at Bryce Canyon National Park - Fairyland, Sunset, and Rainbow - are nearly as colorful as the oddly-shaped hoodoos themselves. Hoodoos are totem pole-shaped rock formations, different from spires which taper uniformly. Photographs don’t do this park justice. Your family will need to see it in person!
There are countless trails to explore at Bryce Canyon. However, many of them are long and strenuous. Especially for a young family, a better option is riding the park shuttle around the park. Get off at the various viewpoints and take in the spectacular vistas. Some of the viewpoints have short trails under a mile that are well-suited for young children.
However, there is one family-friendly trail that I highly recommend. The Mossy Cave Trail leads to a waterfall, which on a hot, summer day is like the Holy Grail. My sons played, kicked, and splashed in the water for nearly an hour - moments of pure joy! And the rocks! The slickrock here is a beautiful shade of pink, and the pebbles in the water are hues of pink, yellow, and coral, reminiscent of Miami Beach. It’s truly a spectacular spot.
KidTripster Tip: Check at the visitor center to see if there’s a ranger-guided tour to this spot on the day that you visit. If not, go anyway.
KidTripster Tip: We attended our first rodeo just across the street from the campground. Maybe it was because we were watching amateurs or maybe it was the painstakingly-long delays between riders, but we learned very quickly that we’re not rodeo people. The finer points of watching a boy flip a calf on its back and tie its feet together were just lost on us. We actually left early, mumbling that it was two hours of our life that we’d never get back.
The vast Grand Canyon is one of the most visited national parks in the national park system. However, only 10-percent of visitors venture to the North Rim, or the “other side.” The season here is shorter from mid-May to mid-October, but the North Rim makes more sense than the South Rim if your family is visiting the national parks of Utah, as well.
Compared to the South Rim, the North Rim is very low-key. There are far fewer services and options, but that’s also part of the attraction. For classic North Rim views, start at the Grand Canyon Lodge patio and then walk the paved, 1/2-mile trail to Bright Angel Point. Do keep a hand on little ones, as there are steep drop-offs.
Catch a ranger program at the lodge. My boys enjoyed the one on California condors that encouraged audience participation.
It’s possible to do one of the famous mule rides from the North Rim, but they don’t go to the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. You can choose from a 1-hour rim ride, 3-hour rim ride or 3-hour inner canyon ride. Kids must be at least 7 years old for the short trip (220 lb. weight limit) and 10 years old for the longer rides (200 lb. weight limit). Cost: 1-hr. ride $45; 3-hr. ride $90. If you really want to ride, I’d recommend the shorter trip, especially for kids. It’s not all that comfortable.
Where to eat?
Dining choices are more limited on the North Rim. The Main Lodge Dining Room serves a buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a lovely setting. Deli in the Pines offers to-go sandwiches and salads, if you’re looking to take a picnic on a hike. There’s also pizza by the slice and ice cream. Snacks and drinks are available at The Coffee Shop & Roughrider Saloon.
Where to stay?
I’d recommend the North Rim Campground, literally steps from the canyon wall. Many visitors consider it to be the best campground in the park. Some sites (11, 14, 15, 16, and 18) actually have canyon views through the ponderosa pines. In the morning or evening, it’s just a short walk to catch the sunrise or sunset.
KidTripster Tip: If you have small children, you may want to avoid the sites nearest the canyon, just for peace of mind.
A spectacular canyon cut by the Virgin River, Zion National Park is perfection. My family has visited 44 national parks to date, and Zion is in our Top 3. With its town and park shuttle systems (April-October), it’s also one of the most RV-friendly national parks.
Take a bike ride along the 1.75-mile Pa’rus Trail, a paved path between the visitor center and Canyon Junction that hugs the Virgin River. If you ride at dusk, you’ll likely see mule deer and wild turkeys along the path. If you’re traveling with pets, they, too, are allowed on this scenic trail. Don't be surprised if you come across a tarantula on the trail. Not to worry, these amazing arachnids are basically harmless.
KidTripster Tip: Didn’t bring your bikes? You can take the Springdale shuttle into town and rent bikes. There are several shops.
Where to stay?
I’d recommend staying in the national park at Watchman Campground; reservations are available for these electrical hookup-only sites. There are a few sites along the Virgin River, but they go quickly, so reserve early… like the-minute-reservations-open early! Playing in the water here was one of my boys’ favorite memories of the trip.
What to do?
There are plenty of easy and moderate hiking trails at Zion National Park to keep you busy for several days. We enjoyed the hike to both the Upper and Lower Emerald Pools and waterfalls. The gorgeous, green water here is stunning. Also, don’t miss the hike to Weeping Rock and its hanging garden where you can catch water droplets that have been making their way down inside the canyon walls for 1,200 years!
Remember all the trailheads are accessible from the park shuttle. You’re not allowed to drive the park in your own vehicle.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re really fortunate, you’ll experience a sudden rainstorm. Why would you hope for rain? When we were there, a heavy rainstorm caused a small landslide that washed iron-laden rocks from the canyon walls into the Virgin River, turning it blood red. It was an astounding sight!
Where to eat?
Plan to have a sit-down meal at the Red Rock Grill inside the historic Zion Lodge and enjoy the tasty food and fantastic views.
The Narrows is an unforgettable gorge with soaring walls, sandstone grottos, natural springs, and hanging gardens in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon. It measures 16 miles long, up to 2,000 feet deep, and at points, only 20 to 30 feet wide. However, it’s a hike not to be attempted lightly.
You begin the hike on the paved Riverside Walk that follows the Virgin River. This trail is popular and quite crowded. The herd starts to thin when you reach the river crossing. From this point on, hiking The Narrows means hiking in the river. In fact, at least 60-percent of the hike is spent wading, walking or swimming in the water. We ventured about a mile into the gorge. My youngest son spent much of the time on his father’s shoulders because of the deep water. If you have teens, this would be a perfect adventure hike for them.
KidTripster Tip: Before you attempt to hike The Narrows, make sure to check with park rangers at the visitor center. There is a real and serious threat of flash flooding in the gorge, especially in mid-summer and fall. It’s safest to hike when there’s little chance of rain in the forecast, and the river is low, clear, and relatively warm. If you heed the warnings and prepare well for the conditions, this hike likely will be the most memorable of your trip! However, I would only attempt the full hike with older kids.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re a list checker and would like to visit all the national parks in Utah, one remains: Capitol Reef National Park. You could take a detour on your way back to Salt Lake City and add two more days to your itinerary to visit this park.
Where to stay?
You’ll come full circle as you drive into Salt Lake City KOA, this time as an experienced RV family!
Say goodbye to your home on wheels and head to the airport. After savoring the memories, start planning your next RV adventure. Need some ideas? Check out KidTripster’s Outdoors section for more itineraries.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s 38-foot Newmar Ventana 3709.
Looking to get out into the Great Outdoors? Consider renting an RV or camper with our friends at Outdoorsy. It’s the Airbnb of RVs, matching RV owners with would-be renters. Use this link and get an extra $50 off your booking just for being a KidTripster fan! In addition, KidTripster will get some coffee money from Outdoorsy at no cost to you.