The Colorado Plateau covers 360,000 sq km. Zion National Park is the remains of what once was the largest desert in the history of the world, a desert that made the Sahara look like a child's sandbox. Distances are vast, even though travel time is fast. Plan ahead. Do not make the mistake some German tourists made when we met them one morning in Moab. They wanted to check with me the route for their planned day, to see Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Zion National Parks and be in Las Vegas in time to attend an event at 7:00pm that evening. I told them this, "Las Vegas is 800 km. It can’t be done by 7:00 pm even if you never stop. You need at least three days, and that’s a very rushed trip."
America’s National Parks are vast. Yellowstone covers 9,000 sq km; The Grand Canyon, 5,000 sq km; and tiny Zion National Park is still 600 sq km. UT Rt 12 runs for 150 km across the 8,000 sq km Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. You will not, you cannot see it all on one trip unless you stay for years, so plan ahead on what you want to see and where you want to spend your time.
The cost of a rental car will be much more if you pick it up at one airport and leave it at another, so a loop tour bringing you back to where you started will be considerably less expensive. Look at a map, and the loop tour fro back to Las Vegas is obvious. If you want to include Yellowness, it is about 12 hours driving time from the most northern point on the loop through Utah’s National Parks. It adds many hours to the total driving time to go to Yellowstone from Las Vegas compared to Salt Lake City. Consider skipping Las Vegas if Yellowstone is a must see stop.
From Salt Lake City, make two loops, one to Yellowstone and one to the southern Utah parks.
The USA does not use International Road signs excepting for stop lights and stop signs. Study up before leaving home on American road signs. Road signs almost always contain words telling you what to do as well as the message of the unique shape of the sign. A "Yield" sign is essentially the equivalent of a "priority road" sign in Europe– if there is no cross traffic, you don’t have to stop. If there is cross traffic, you must yield the right of way and stop until the intersection is clear.
The types of roads in Utah are Interstate Highways, expressways (limited access, high speed roads) designated by a number preceded by the letter I-. The Interstate highways in Utah are I-70, I-80, I-15, and I-215 (Interstates ending in 0 run east-west. Those ending in 5 run north-south). Like the Intestate system, US routes are partially maintained by the Federal government and partially by the State government. These highways are designated by a shield with the highway identifying number on it. State roads are designated by a sign in the shape of a Beehive with a number identifying the route number. US and State roads may or may not be multilane and/or limited access.
Not all Utah highways are paved and some of the unpaved roads are nearly impassible with a standard automobile. Unpaved road may be covered with either dirt or gravel or both and all are equally irritating and uncomfortable to drive on. Paved and unpaved roads are designated on maps.
The only unpaved road you may encounter is the Muley Dugway entrance to Monument Valley on UT Rt 261. The rest of UT Rt 261 is paved. The Muley Dugway is well worth experiencing as part of a loop trip through Utah (inconvenient if your loop is a return to Las Vegas through Arizona). From Capitol Reef National Park, go east on UT Rt 24 toward Arches and Canyonlands only turn right onto UT Rt 95 at Hanksville. After a visit to Natural Bridges Notational Monument, go toward Monument Valley on UT Rt 261 with a side trip to Goosenecks of the San Juan State Park. Back on UT Rt 261, stop at the pullover at the top of the cliff overlooking Monument Valley for a monumental view of the Navajo Reservation. The road quickly descends 300m at the Muley Dugway. Return to Utah via Moab on US Rt 191.
Because highway traffic in America is much less dense than in many other lands, Americans do not follow the car ahead of them as closely as you may be used to. Following close will upset the driver in front of you, and could get a police warning or fine for dangerous driving. The basic rule is drop back one car length for each 10 mph.
America does not use the metric system. Distances are in miles. One mile is approximately 1.6 km. Other measurements you will encounter are feet ( one foot is about 5-6 cm); and yards, one yard is almost one meter; one meter is 3.3 yards.
Gasoline is priced by the gallon (one gallon is about 4.4 liters) and is considerably cheaper than in many other countries because taxes are lower. Considering the vast empty spaces in Utah, play it safe and fill up the gas when the gauge is down to one-quarter.
Almost all service stations in Utah and neighboring states are self-service--- you pump your own gas. Instructions are usually provided on the gas pump. The basics are, first, insert your credit card in the slot as shown by the diagram showing which way to face the magnetic strip. Remove it quickly. Pick up the hose by its handle. Select the grade of gas you want. There are three choices by greater octane rating and greater price. Choosing the least expensive always works.
Some gas stations keep the pumps working even when the station is closed at night or on Sundays.
Speed limits in town are 20-40mph. On expressways(autobahn), 55-75 mph. On country roads, 45-65 mph. Signs will tell you what it is.
Lodging is typically in motels, essentially a hotel located on a main highway with a large parking lot.
Lodging for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks is mostly in the nearby town of Moab.
Lodging for Capitol Reef National Park is mostly in the town of Torrey. Sometimes, Hanksville is convenient depending on where you are as night comes on.
Lodging for Bryce Canyon National Park is in the park at Bryce Canyon Lodge or at the entrance to the park at Ruby’s Inn or along UT Rt 12 in nearby Tropic in and along T. Rt 12 going to Panguitch. Food and lodging in Panguitch are considerably less expensive than elsewhere around Bryce. Panguitch is about 30 km from Bryce, about a 20 minute scenic drive.
Zion National Park lodging is at the Zion Lodge in the park or in the town of Springdale at the park entrance,which has essentially the same setting as Zion Lodge. Sometimes we stay in the town of Hurricane, about 30 km away, where rooms and food are much less expensive and the scenic road between hurricane and the park is well worth driving over.
By driving yourself, you can see sights that bus tours passengers cannot get to like the Capitol Reef National Park Scenic Road, the descent into Canyonlands National Park on UT Rt 211, or the grand view of Canyonlands from the Needles Overlook(our favorite); or visit all the stopping places in Arches and take a walk down Park Avenue.
There are three places where visitors can get a view of Zion Canyon from the canyon rim. Two of them require climbing 600-650m. The Canyon Overlook trial requires a climb of only 20m. Parking– no buses– is just outside the uphill end of the tunnel. Self-drivers can also stop at all the overlooks along UT Rt 9 above the tunnel, something well worth doing. If time allows, visit Zion’s Kolob Canyon, 80km from Zion Canyon.
There are four view areas at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The best are Bright Angle Point, where the lodge and visitors’ center are, and Point Imperial, rarely included on a bus tour.
One of the greatest advantages of do it yourself is, if your schedule permits, you can travel in the off season when the crowds are gone, temperatures are moderate, and prices lower. We occasionally visit the parks at Christmas time. One year, we were hiking in Zion on December 27th in shirt sleeves and shorts. Last Christmas, there was a rare foot of snow on the floor of Zion Canyon. Both were great experience.