The Best Utah Road Trip Itinerary (Hanksville, Capital Reef National Park & Escalante)
If you’ve been yearning for an epic road trip that combines otherworldly landscapes, hidden gems, and a healthy dose of outdoor thrills, then you’re in for a treat. Utah, the land of red rocks and insane viewpoints is calling your name.
In this guide, I’ll show you some of the most insane landscapes you have ever seen over a 7-day road trip itinerary from Salt Lake City that’ll introduce you to the captivating wonders of Hanksville, the colourful rocky landscapes of Escalante, and the beautiful Capitol Reef National Park. Oh and also a bonus hot spring adventure for your return drive to Salt Lake City.
We will be ditching the crowded tourist traps and uncovering some of Utah’s hidden gems, as well as some of the best hikes and our favourite spots along the way.
Utah is one of those places where everywhere you look, there is an unusual rock formation, a dramatic landscape or a super straight road that could have come straight out of a western movie! If you are a photographer like us, you are going to be absolutely blown away.
I’m going to admit now that our road trip was pretty wild as we did everything in this itinerary in just 5 days, including our return flight from Vancouver.
I can tell you that it is definitely possible to do it in 5 days but not relaxing at all, so for this exact road trip I recommend 7 days.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links that may earn us a small commission should you decide to click through and make a valid purchase (at no extra cost to you). Thanks so much for your support!
📅 Best Time of the Year to Visit Utah
Despite the heat, Utah comes alive during the Summer months with outdoor adventurers hiking, camping, river rafting and mountain biking. Summer is beautiful in Utah for cooling off in waterfalls or in rivers, but it is fairly busy and we found that the heat really drained our energy.
From late September through October, the trees in Utah are colourful with the changing foliage and the temperatures begin to drop, making outdoor activities much more pleasant.
Winter in Utah brings snow and with it, all of the Winter activities you could think of! Snowshoeing, skiing and snowmobiling. If you love the snow, Utah is a great place to spend the Winter.
Spring is a really popular time for outdoor adventurers and for good reason. The temperatures begin to warm up and wildflowers begin appearing all over the desert. Spring is also a perfect time for river rafting, as melting snow creates wild rapids on Utah’s waterways.
We did this particular road trip during Spring in early April which was right as the weather was changing. The nights were freezing but the sun during the day was beautiful and it was weather for hiking.
✈ Where to Begin Your Road Trip From
We have done a few different Utah road trips over the years and have found that Salt Lake City is the best place to start from. Of course, this will depend on where exactly you are going and whether you also want to visit places in the surrounding states but for this 7 day road trip itinerary, Salt Lake City is the best starting point.
Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) serves as a major hub, offering direct flights from various domestic and international destinations.
Our flight from Vancouver, BC was only 2.5 hours direct to Salt Lake City which is crazy to think considering it would have taken 15 hour to drive!
If you choose to fly into SLC, you can then easily hire a car (by pre-booking) and pick it up at the airport. I love using Rentalcar.com so that I can compare all of the different websites’ prices all in one place and choose the best one.
🗺 Road Trip Map
The below map shows our entire 7-day Utah road trip and includes all of the places we stopped at.
Click here to open the map in Google Maps!
Day 1 – Salt Lake City, Hanksville and Factory Butte
Day 2 – Moonscape Overlook, Long Dong Silver Spire & Mars Desert Research Station
Day 3 – Cathedral Valley Loop
Day 4 – Hiking in Capital Reef National Park
Day 5 – Capital Reef to Escalante
Day 6 – Hiking in Escalante and drive to Springville
Day 7 – Hot Springs Hike and return to SLC
💼 Packing Essentials List
What you pack for your Utah road trip will depend on what time of year you are going. This packing list is based off the time that we did this road trip, which was Spring. The weather was really cold at night but the sun warmed things up during the day.
- Hiking Boots
- Merino t-shirt or other casual t-shirts for 7 days
- Hiking Pants,
- Puffer Jacket
- Bug Spray
- Hiking Poles – If you prefer to hike with poles.
- Camping Equipment if you would like to camp
- Camera! There will be plenty of photography opportunities! We have a list of our camera gear here.
🌲 Leave No Trace
The 7 Leave No Trace principles are important to be aware of to help keep Utah beautiful. Nature is there for us to enjoy but also respect and leave the way we found it but as well as respecting nature, we should also be respecting and treating each other with nothing but kindness. To remind yourself of the 7 Leave No Trace principles, check out the LNT website.
🚗 Road Trip Itinerary
Salt Lake City to Hanksville – Distance from SLC Airport: 3.5 hours
Once you have arrived at Salt Lake City International Airport and picked up your rental car, you should first stop at Walmart and pick up some snacks for the next few days. Make sure you have everything you might want and need because where you are going, there won’t be much around. Once you have completed your Walmart stopover, you are ready to hit the road!
The drive from SLC to Hanksville will “wow you” with the epic scenery in no time at all. I tried to sleep while Dave was driving, but couldn’t keep my eyes closed to stop admiring the incredible mountains, rock formations and red dirt.
Take your time and enjoy the drive because its stunning!
Grab some dinner in Hanksville before heading to Factory Butte for sunset, followed by Moonscape Overlook to set up your camp for the evening.
Some great food options that we enjoyed while we were there were Stan’s Burger Shak, Duke’s Slickrock Grill and Outlaw’s Roost – our favourite, we loved the tacos and burritos from here).
If you are visiting Hanksville and would prefer to go on a tour to explore the area, I recommend this Moonscape, Factory Butte, and Capitol Reef Park Tour or this Goblin Valley Canyoneering Adventure Tour.
There are a few options for camping in and around Hanksville. You can free-camp at Moonscape Overlook. We did this so that we were already there for sunrise but note that there are no facilities there as this is a wild camping spot. Remember to pack out everything you bring in.
There are also paid campsites: Duke’s Slickrock Campground & RV, Off-road RV Resort and Red Rock Steakhouse and Campground or BLM campgrounds: Lonesome Beaver Campground and McMillan Spring Campground.
There isn’t a lot of hotel accommodation in the area.
Options include the Whispering Sands Motel in Hanksville or Cathedral Valley Inn which is a 20 minute drive from Hanksville.
Today you will spend the entire day seeing the sights of Hanksville. Moonscape Overlook is the perfect spot for sunrise. The light makes the rocks glow golden and it is absolutely gorgeous! This was our favourite sunrise spot of the trip.
Even with the early wake up, as you would expect, there were a handful of other photographers at the overlook capturing the golden light. Beware that it does get a bit disorientating driving across the desert so make sure you have some sort of gps navigation with you.
Once you have had breakfast and are ready for another adventure, use rest of the daylight hours to check out Long Dong Silver which is a lesser known rock formation that looks like it could have come straight out of a Star Wars movie!
This adventure includes some off-roading where there is no determined road to follow and a bit of walking to reach the incredible Long Dong Silver Spire.
The Mars Desert Research Station is perfect for sunset. After a bit of off-roading which requires a 4×4 vehicle, you will find the Bentonite Hills (or Blue Hills). You cannot actually go into the Research Station as this would be trespassing, but if you drive a little past it, you will find what you are looking for.
Tip: The blue hues of the hills are able to be seen best just after sunset at blue hour. In the middle of the day the hills look really washed out from the sunlight.
Same options as day 1.
Same options as day 1
Cathedral Valley Loop – start of loop: 20 – 30 minutes from Hanksville
The Cathedral Valley Loop is a 4×4 58-mile (94km) scenic drive through the desert. The drive is even longer if you include extra turn offs to viewpoints so make sure you have a full tank for this full day adventure.
Some of the best viewpoints along the drive include the Temple of the Sun and the Moon, Bentonite Hills, Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook and the Gypsum Sinkhole. As the loop is a 4×4 road, I recommend checking the current road conditions by calling 435-425-3791 before you go.
⚠ Note: There is a river crossing at the very end, or beginning of the loop depending on which direction you choose to drive it in. Make sure you have a high clearance vehicle and check the conditions including the water level before heading out there to ensure you don’t get stuck!
When we reached the river crossing, we actually turned around because we had not expected it. A lesson to myself to put in more research when planning. 😅
This would have meant driving an extra 5 hours on 4×4 road. Luckily a rancher that we had passed quite a few times told us we would be fine and so we went for it and survived. The adrenaline was really pumping that afternoon!
If you haven’t already felt like you are really out of the city, the Cathedral Valley Loop will 100% convince you. There was barely anyone else around when we were there and the desert felt so so wild! We even came across a bunch of ranchers herding cattle which we had to drive through not 1 but 3 times because we chickened out of doing the river crossing at first.
Not wanting to drive the Cathedral Valley Loop by yourself? I recommend joining this Cathedral Valley Day Trip Tour instead!
Once you have completed the Cathedral Valley loop we recommend either staying at the Cathedral Valley Inn or driving closer to Capital Reef National Park.
In Capital Reef National Park, there is the Fruita Campground, which is the only developed campground in Capitol Reef and has 71 sites. Reservations are available from March 1to October 31 for the Fruita Campground.
There are also 2 primitive campgrounds, the Cedar Mesa Campground which has 5 sites and a pit toilet and the Cathedral Valley Campground, which is located halfway along the Cathedral Valley Loop Road. There are no toilets available at this campground.
Capital Reef Resort
The views from the Capital Reef Resort and the outdoor swimming pool look incredible!
Broken Spurr Inn and Steakhouse
We stayed here and it was newly renovated, pretty affordable and the bed was super comfy! They also serve a full breakfast with we were very sad we missed out on because we got up too early.
This is another hotel with incredible views of the classic red rock Utah landscape! The Skyview also offers a continental or gluten free breakfast.
Red Sands Hotel
Red Sands ALSO has stunning views and includes an indoor heated pool, fitness centre and hot tub! There is also an onsite restaurant and bar available.
Capital Reef National Park – 40 minutes from Hanksville
Capital Reef is a beautiful national park and you could spend more than one day if you preferred but we opted to do the Cassidy Arch Trail.
Cassidy Arch Trail
Distance: 5km / 3.1 miles | Elevation: 203m / 666 ft | Time: 2.5 – 3 hours | Difficulty: Moderate
The Cassidy Arch hike is an easy-moderate trail that will take you to an impressive orange arch and some incredible views! The arch was awesome and we were even able to get a photo standing on it!
Other great hikes include Chimney Rock, Hickman Natural Bridge and Capital Gorge.
If you are not into hiking, don’t worry! There are plenty of drive to viewpoints in Capital Reef too like Panorama Point, Sunset Point, The Fluted Wall, and Slickrock Divide.
Stargazing in Capital Reef
The stars in Capital Reef are absolutely incredible! Why not join this Milky Way Portraits & Stargazing Tour where you will follow your tour guide to one of the best star gazing spots in the park and learn all about the stars as well as getting a photo of you against the Milky Way to take home as a souvenir!
Capital Reef Park Entry Fees
You will need to purchase a national parks permit to do a lot of the Capital Reef hikes. If you are planning on visiting a few of the US national parks over the course of a year, I recommend purchasing an America the Beautiful Annual Pass which is only $80 and well worth it!
Same as day 4 – spend two nights at your campsite near or in Capital Reef National Park.
Same as day 4 – spend two nights at your hotel near Capital Reef National Park.
Capital Reef to Escalante – 2 hours 40 minutes
Take day 5 to drive from Capital Reef to Escalante. In total this should take you 1 hour 40 minutes – 2 hours. We did this drive late at night and drove all the way from Hanksville because we had less days but it would have been so much more enjoyable if we had been able to take it a little bit slower. Stop in Torrey to fuel up and get some extra snacks before continuing on to Escalante.
This is a really awesome drive. One of the things I love about Utah is how often and drastically the landscape changes while driving from place to place.
Escalante is home to Grand Staircase Escalante – National Monument which is a protected area around the Grand Staircase, Canyons of the Escalante and the Kaiparowits Plateau.
Spots that you should stop at along the way include:
- Larb Hollow Overlook
- Steep Creek Overlook
- Homestead Overlook
- Calf Creek Viewpoint
- Kiva Koffeehouse
- Boyton Overlook
- Head of the Rocks Overlook
- Hole in the Wall Wayside
Tonight you will be staying in Escalante. There are loads of camping options available in the warmer months such as Calf Creek Campground, Escalante Heritage Center Campground and Canyons of Escalante RV Park.
Ponderosa Inn is rustic but beautiful cabin accommodation that has rooms for 1 to up to 7 people!
Cowboy Country Inn
The Cowboy Country Inn is where we stayed in Escalante. The rooms were lovely and clean and affordable.
Yonder Escalante Luxury Glamping
Okay this place looks incredible! I only wish it had been available when we stayed!
Red Rock Ranch Log Cabin
If you have a large group, don’t miss out on this gorgeous log cabin!
Lower Calf Creek Falls to Springville – 4 hours
Day 6 is a hiking and driving day so you will need your energy. Make sure you get plenty of sleep the night before so you are able to get up relatively early and ready to adventure!
We were exhausted and slept in until around 9am before hiking Lower Calf Creek Falls and then driving to Springville. We still managed to arrive in Springville with plenty of time to rest, have dinner and prepare for our last day.
There are lots of awesome hikes to do in Escalante and on this road trip, you will only get a small taste of the gorgeous red rocks but it will be enough to make you want to plan a return trip.
Lower Calf Creek Falls Hike
Distance: 9.8km / 6 miles | Elevation: 162m / 531 ft | Time: 2.5 – 3 hours | Difficulty: Moderate
The hike we opted to do on our one day in Escalante was Lower Calf Creek Falls. We were blown away by this hike because not only was the waterfalls stunning but the entire hike was absolutely gorgeous too!
You will need an America the Beautiful National Parks Permit for this hike or alternatively you can pay with cash for a day pass on entry.
You are going to want to try to set out early for this hike, especially during Summer as it gets extremely hot. Part of the hike is through sand and the entire trail is surrounded by rocks which heat everything up quickly.
Make sure you bring your swimmers to cool off in the waterfall!
Once you have finished hiking, its time to begin the 4 hours drive to Springville.
If you would prefer to see Escalante in a group with a guide, I can recommend this Grand Staircase-Escalante Drive & Hike Tour starting in Kanab.
If you decide to camp, I recommend staying near the Fifth Water Hot Springs Trailhead so that you have less far to travel in the morning. There are a few campgrounds near the trailhead to Fifth Water Hot Springs. These are called Three Forks Campground, Diamond Fork Campground, and Diamond Campground.
Three Forks Campground – This is a primitive campground meaning that there are limited facilities.
Diamond Fork Campground – This campground has a pit toilet and is located very close to the start of the Fifth Water Hot Springs Trail.
Diamond Campground – This campground is great for car camping and has picnic tables and pit toilets.
We stayed at the Days Inn by Wyndham in Springville which was great! You can’t go wrong with a Days Inn. 😉
Days Inn by Wyndham Springville
Best Western Mountain View Inn
It’s the last day of your epic Utah road trip and you are probably feeling a mixture of exhaustion and sadness that your adventure is about to come to an end. Don’t worry though because you have one last hiking adventure left!
Fifth Water Hot Springs Hike
Distance: 8km / 5 miles | Elevation: 213m / 700 ft | Time: 2 – 3 hours | Difficulty: Easy – Moderate
Fifth Water Hot Springs, also known as Diamond Fork Hot Springs are bright blue hot springs which look like they have come out of a fantasy movie!
I highly recommend starting this hike nice and early as it does get extremely busy! We arrived at the hot springs just after sunrise and were the only ones there which was perfect!
Make sure you are prepared to hike an extra 5km if the road leading to the trailhead is closed due to snowy conditions and if this is the case, definitely bring along a pair of micro spikes!
You can soak in the hot springs and you will probably find, like we did, that each of the pools were different temperatures. The greener springs were hotter than the bright blue ones.
Once you have finished this amazing hike, I recommend taking a shower. Occasionally, there is bacteria present in the hot springs which can cause a rash. Do your research prior to hiking to figure out if you want to jump in or not.
We paid $15 each for a truck stop shower at Loves and it was the best $15 we have ever spent!
We love love love road tripping through Utah and we love that in this trip, we were able to visit some less popular spots, off the beaten path as well as some popular hikes.
Our favourite spot of this road trip was Moonscape Overlook and our favourite hike was Lower Calf Creek Falls because even though it was super popular, the hike was absolutely stunning the entire way!
You might also enjoy:
- Guide to the Fifth Water Hot Springs Trail, Utah
- Cassidy Arch Trail – A Must Do Hike in Capital Reef National Park
- How to Hike the Lower Calf Creek Falls Trail, Escalante Utah
- How to Get to Moonscape Overlook in Utah
- Long Dong Silver Spire – One of Utah’s Hidden Gems
- How to Visit the Bentonite Hills in Utah
📌 Share and Save for Later!