Utah is an incredible state: It has a mix of rugged deserts, alpine forests, a vast Salt Lake, and a culture that is unique in the U.S. I lived there for about a decade, and consequently had the luxury of experiencing the state’s many natural wonders at a leisurely pace.

For those who don’t have quite that much time, here’s a short itinerary that hits some of the most spectacular sites in the southern part of the state. There is plenty more to see in the region, but I’ve kept this list short so that it can be done in a week, or even a long weekend. I’ve embedded a map at the bottom of this post that shows where all of these places are.

Day 1: Zion

IMG_3899Spend at least a day exploring Zion. Angels’ Landing is a busy but impressive hike, and there are many, many others with varying levels of difficulty and crowds. The town of Springdale is the most common launching point, and I recommend the locally-owned Zion Park Motel for basic, competitively-priced lodging. A cheaper, quirkier option is to stay on the east side of the park in Orderville. There’s not much there and this option requires more driving, but it’s also scenic and hotel rooms are less expensive.

You could spend years exploring Zion, but if you’re in a hurry you can at least get the gist in a day or so.

Day 2: Bryce and Goblin Valley.

IMG_8215Whenever you finish with Zion, head east for about an hour and a half to Bryce National Park. I’d leave early, spend the morning exploring Bryce, then head to Goblin Valley State Park for the afternoon.

Goblin Valley is small and you probably only need an hour or two there (though of course you could spend more). But don’t be fooled by the size; Goblin Valley is definitely worth it.

Green River is the nearest town to Goblin Valley. It has some hotels and campsites and is famous for growing delicious melons.

Day 3: Arches and Canyonlands

Arches and Canyonlands are right next to each other. You really need at least a day for each of these incredible national parks but if you have to choose, I’d go with Arches because it’s more iconic — though Canyonlands has more stunning views. This is Arches on the left and Canyonlands on the right (click to enlarge the photos):

Moab is the nearest town and has a hostel, a bunch of hotels, and campsites. I recommend the Inca Inn. Moab caters to tourists, but also has a kind of off the grid, alternative vibe that I find charming.

If you have additional time, one of my favorite things to do in Moab is to rent inflatable kayaks from local shops and paddle down the Colorado River. It’s a leisurely-but-stunning adventure that does not require a guide.

Bonus: Mesa Verde, Colorado

Mesa Verde is three hours from Arches, but if you’ve come this far what’s a few more hours of driving. And Mesa Verde is hands down one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been.


As the picture above shows, Mesa Verde is a series of ruins tucked away into cliffs. It’s a uniquely ancient site, especially for the U.S., and I’d recommend spending at least a day there.

Here’s the map:

Related Reading: Goblin Valley is a stunning alien landscape in an American desert

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


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