I was looking for somewhere to visit over Labor Day weekend and Salt Lake City was one of the cheapest places to fly. So, I chose to go there on a whim! I had heard good things about the national parks and the city scene so I tried to make some time for both. I’ll say that this was a great trip! I was surprised at how much I liked Utah, and would definitely want to come back in the winter for the snow season.
This article will be structured a little differently than my other ones. Over the course of 5 days, I had 3 “actual days”. 1 for Arches National Park, 1 for Canyonlands National Park, and 2 half-days at Salt Lake City. Each section in this article will be structured as a “day trip”.
Visiting Arches/Canyonlands is around a ~4 hour drive from Salt Lake City to Moab. I would highly recommend staying in Moab, even if it’s a little more expensive. This is because staying anywhere else would probably require lots of driving day-to-day and your time is better spent exploring! You’ll also probably be tired at the end of the day, so you won’t feel like driving.
Arches is only ~15min away from Moab, while Canyonland is around ~45min. I stayed at the Mainstay Suites Moab Near Arches National Park in Moab, which I highly recommend. I used hotel points for this particular reservation and the room I got was solid. There was a kitchen built into my room, which is something I’ve never experienced in a hotel room! Moab has a lot of accommodation, so if you’re visiting it shouldn’t be too hard to find something.
Arches national park
I was surprised at how much I liked Arches National Park. After a while, it may seem like you’re just looking at arches but there’s a surprising amount of beauty to it. I would highly recommend starting the day early and doing as much hiking as you can in the morning, since it can get pretty hot in the afternoon.
Sunrise - get up at 6:30am to go to The Windows (budget ~1 hour)
I would recommend coming early to get a good spot for the sunrise. The best view is at North Window, but after the sunrise I would recommend seeing South Window and Turret Arch (they’re all in the same area). You can probably get away with arriving a few minutes before sunrise, but then it’s going to be hard to get a good shot. On the way back down, there’s a lookout for the Garden of Eden - it shouldn’t take up too much of your time.
Morning - hike the Devil’s Garden (budget ~3-4 hours)
To make the most of the time I had, I put this hike first since the Devil’s Garden Trailhead is at the back of the park. I did this so I would work my way from the end and go towards the exit.
I would say hiking the Devil’s Garden was the most challenging hike during my 2 days visiting the parks because of how long it took. You will be doing some rock scrambling and spending time on your hands and knees. However, this is only the case if you opt to go to Double O Arch and hike the Primitive Trail. If you’re not feeling so confident in your abilities, I would just go as far as Landscape Arch and skip the Primitive Trail / Double O Arch. Going from the start, doing the Primitive Trail and making your way back would be around ~7.8 miles.
However, hiking the entire thing was SO rewarding and beautiful. I got a lot of good pictures and just took in the entire experience. If you do have the time and/or energy, I would definitely recommend this.
The way I did it was…
Early afternoon - work my way back to the park entrance (budget ~2-3 hours)
On the way back down, I saw what’s listed below. Some of these are just overlooks, so it won’t take up too much of your time. If you’re pressed for time or feel tired, I would skip the ones that are actual “hikes” or where you can see it at a distance. You can even skip this section entirely if you only have a half day.
Midday break - eat lunch at Moab and rest (~2pm-6pm)
At this point, it was the hottest point of the day so I went back to Moab to eat some lunch and rest at the hotel.
Sunset - Delicate Arch and its viewpoints (~7:45pm, budget 2-3 hours)
The Delicate Arch hike is around ~1.5 miles one-way, so I would recommend starting 1-2 hours before sunset. There will be a lot of people, so I would say head out early if you want to do the hike leisurely, get some pictures and take in the view.
What I did (which I wouldn’t recommend) is that I miscalculated how much time it would take to get up to the arch. So, I ended up arriving at around 7:05pm and power-walked uphill to get there at around 7:35pm for a 7:45pm sunset. Although this worked out for me (no waiting around needed), I felt very rushed and was incredibly winded when I got up to the top.
If I were to do it again, I would come much earlier and even bring some food to make it a picnic! I would say to not linger too long after sunset, since you don’t want to hike and drive back down in the dark. However, what I did was that I just followed the other people going down. It’s a great way to end the day!
Canyonlands national park
I didn’t expect much from Canyonlands, but once again I was surprised at how beautiful the views were. Canyonlands is technically pretty “big”, since there’s 3 different areas to the park, all with different entrances. However, the area that I’ll be focusing on (and is the closest to Moab and entirely doable from a day trip) is Island in the Sky.
One thing to note is that a lot of the overlooks/hikes are very high up. If you are scared of heights, I would be cautious while hiking. There were a few moments where I looked down and was like “holy crap, I should step further back”.
Sunrise - arrive at ~6:15am to go to Mesa Arch
Getting up early to watch the sunrise at Mesa Arch is an absolute must, and you definitely should get there early. I didn’t get there as early as I would have liked since I was tired from the previous day. When I got there, there was a horde of people in position to take a picture of the sunrise. The arch is a lot smaller, so there’s less room for people to spread out.
I did manage to get a semi-good spot and get some great pictures, but if you really want that perfect photo you’ll have to get there at least 1 hour before sunrise (just my guess). I got there around half an hour before sunrise.
Morning - work my way backwards to the park’s midpoint (budget ~3-4 hours)
The thing about Canyonlands is that you can technically hit all the most notable hikes/viewpoints in half a day and the hikes are generally kind of short! After seeing Mesa Arch, I went all the way to the end at Grand View to work my way backwards.
The actual hikes are bolded, while the other overlooks probably can just take you ~15min-30min since it’s just right there.
If you’re pressed on time, I would recommend just doing the bolded aspects (they’re both around ~1 hour and 1-2 miles round trip. Overall, very manageable!
Early afternoon - work your way back towards the park entrance (budget ~2-3 hours)
I would strongly recommend the bolded aspects, while the other points could be “optional”.
Upheaval Dome is definitely pretty unique and I would recommend going all the way to the 2nd Overlook. Also, the Shafer Canyon overlooks and viewpoints also have amazing views and don’t require much hiking at all! The visitor’s center also has a decent viewpoint.
Aztec Butte is a very cool hike, but I would make this optional depending on how much time/energy you have and how confident you feel in your hiking abilities. It’s not long, but it looks deceptively easy since you will definitely be doing some rock scrambling. If you go all the way to the end, you’ll basically have to climb at a 90 degree angle (some parts are steeper) for a while. Going back down is also slightly terrifying and the harder part (in my opinion). I would only recommend doing this if you’re feeling the need for adventure!
Places to Eat in Moab:
Side Trip TO Salt Lake City
If you have half a day, I would highly recommend visiting the Bonneville Salt Flats. It’s a little out of the city towards the Nevada border, but it’s simply a surreal sight to see all the white salt going on for miles and miles. Words don’t do it justice. If you’re feeling brave, you could even drive your car out on the sand (but don’t do this if it rained the day before, otherwise you’ll get stuck).
Some other places I visited when I was in the city:
Places to Eat