Utah presents an array of scenic drives that will leave roadtrippers salivating for more. The terrain is vast and scarred with stunning canyons, defiant mountains, random but complex rock formations, fossil and archeological remnants from distant eras, and plenty of cool pit-stop or side-trip lookouts, interpretive sites, hikes, towns, parks, and even additional branching roadways.
Utah is a valued chunk of many inspiring National Scenic Byways and All-American Roadways. Also, it contributes its slew of state-sponsored drives across a wide spectrum of lengths and intensities. Depending on your odometer goals and gas fund, these are the best, most scenic road trips to undertake in the Beehive State.
1. Zion National Park Roadways
Picturesque and world-famous Zion National Park has a few great options for exploring with wheels. A lovely lead-up to the East entrance is the Zion National Scenic Byway (State Route 9) which begins at the intersection with State Route 17 in the city of La Verkin and cruises for 54 miles to the park entrance and then onwards to Mount Carmel Junction. Along the way, the byway passes through the towns of Rockville and Springdale and the mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.
Also en route is the turnoff for Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. If adventuring after the Thanksgiving long weekend, motorists can continue in their own car along this cherished route. However, during peak season (late spring through early fall) visitors must transfer to the official shuttles to ease the congestion in the heart of the park.
2. Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway
The Utah segment of the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway provides an extensive tour through the past and present stomping grounds of the Ancestral Puebloan and other Indigenous peoples of the Four Corners region (the meeting point of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico).
It’s best to break this over 400-mile drive into two or three-day chunks to hit all of the amazing stops spread across sections of U.S. 191 and 163 and State Route 261 and 262. Such highlights include the cliff dwellings of the Canyonlands region, Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, Hovenweep National Monument, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Valley of the Gods, and Natural Bridges National Monument to name a few. Round trippers can return the way they came perhaps saving certain stops for the return journey or jumping on this next entry to switch up the scenery.
3. Bicentennial Highway
Southeastern Utah’s Bicentennial Highway (U.S. 95) is a perfect complement to the culturally-focused Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway. This highway goes for 133 miles from the small town of Hanksville back to the San Juan city of Blanding (where the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, a highlight shared with the Trail of the Ancients can be found).
To the West, views of the Henry Mountains can be enjoyed. The road then dives into classic canyon country before booting across the long and lean Lake Powell/Colorado River at the Hite Crossing Bridge (near the arresting Hite Overlook). As with the Trail of the Ancients, a side-trip loop around Bridge View Drive in Natural Bridges National Monument is a must.
4. Connecting Arches, Dead Horse, and Canyonlands
This one is more of a makeshift road trip based out of Moab with a bunch of cool stops that can be made at your leisure. For starters, head north into Arches National Park and make the out-and-back journey on Arches Scenic Drive.
Depending on how much time you invest in the various viewpoints and hikes either return to Moab to enjoy the offerings of this pretty desert town or head up to the turn-off for UT-313, marked by the Moab Giants Dinosaur Park. Shoot all the way down to Dead Horse State Park, and then backtrack to Grand View Point Road and descend into Canyonlands National Park/the Island in the Sky mesa.
5. Scenic Byway 12
Utah’s State Route/Scenic Byway 12 is designated as an All-American Road meaning it exemplifies particularly unique features of the country’s landscape. This 123-mile stretch links U.S. 89 just south of Panguitch (the Western terminus) with State Route 24 just east of Torrey (the Northeastern terminus). Travelers will get a taste of the Dixie National Forest, the army of hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park, a view of the Henry Mountains, the sandstone cliffs of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the pastel hues of Capitol Reef National Park plus the state parks of Kodachrome Basin, Escalante Petrified Forest, and Anasazi Museum with random tunnels and eye-catching rock formations randomly punctuating the drive.
6. Potash Scenic Byway
If a short, Moab-based, add-on road trip is all that is desired, scoot off on the Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway for 17 miles of bliss. State Route 279 or simply Potash Road is a hidden gem drive and given the low density of traffic is also a favorite among cyclists. This route follows the curves of the Colorado River to the border of Canyonlands National Park.
The river is contrasted by prominent sandstone cliffs and a popular climbing spot known as Wall Street. Right out of the gates, this drive offers terrific views of Moab Valley. Next, jump out at Potash Road Dinosaur Tracks and Petroglyphs to appreciate the accidental imprints left behind by the extinct giants and the intentional markings left behind by some of the area’s first human inhabitants. And all the while, keep a keen eye for those amazing arches and creative rock formations that Utah is famous for.
7. Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway (State Route 128)
This spectacular route along the Colorado River gorge begins at the Colorado River Bridge on the north end of Moab. For the first 13 miles, it parallels the Colorado River within a narrow section of the gorge providing breathtaking views of the surrounding red sandstone cliffs. Popular attractions along this portion of the route include viewpoints of the river, public camping areas, and Grandstaff Canyon.
After 24.7 miles the highway passes a viewpoint for an amazing view of the red rock spires of the Fisher Towers. After leaving the valley, the road winds farther up the river gorge until arriving at the site of historic Dewey Bridge at 29.8 miles. Unfortunately Dewey Bridge was destroyed in April 2008 by a brush fire. The road then follows the northern bank of the river before exiting the Colorado River gorge. The highway proceeds across open desert toward the ghost town of Cisco at 44 miles. After another 5 miles the route intersects Interstate 70.
8. Patchwork Parkway
Very few routes in the U.S. exhibit a 4,500-foot elevation change that crosses six major life zones in 51 miles. The Patchwork Parkway (State Route 143) skirts lava flow only a few thousand years old before passing Panguitch Lake, a spectacular, large mountain lake renowned for its excellent fishing.
This topmost rise of the geological Grand Staircase showcases the 2,000-foot-deep Cedar Breaks amphitheater with its vibrant hues of pink, orange, red, and other coral colors carved from the Claron Formation.
This highway is also known as the Brian Head-Panguitch Lake Scenic Byway.
9. Nine Mile Canyon
Cutting through the Book Cliffs of Eastern Utah is the must-see Nine Mile Canyon, dubbed the longest art gallery in the world. In this already seemingly sculpted place, the prehistoric Fremont Culture, Ute people, and other indigenous groups inscribed over 10,000 petroglyphs onto the canyon walls.
The 46-mile-long (one-way), winding Nine Mile Canyon Road brings these ancient and captivating works of art into view. Yes, despite the name, this road trip will chew up some solid miles. Thankfully, the road has been recently paved which makes the going a little easier for casual motorists but also spares the petroglyphs from harm that the kicked-up dust was causing over the years. Nine Mile Canyon Road can be accessed off Highway 191 near the Utah/Colorado border towns of Helper and Price.
10. La Sal Mountain Loop
From the alpine ridges of the La Sal Mountains to the red rock desert and sandstone pinnacles of Castle Rock, this back road is an adventure. This 60-mile route is paved and starts about 8 miles south of Moab off US-191 and loops through the mountains down to Castle Valley and SR 128 where it follows the Colorado River back to Moab.
It takes about 3 hours to complete this drive. The narrow winding road while suitable for passenger cars is not suitable for large RVs. The La Sals are the most photographed mountain range in Utah, providing a dramatic background to the red rock mesas, buttes, and arches below.
With so many chart-topping national, state, and native parks/monuments, having a car is essential for taking in all Utah offers. Sometimes the trick is to drive just a little bit at a time, taking many breaks along the way or transitioning to an adventure on foot (rope, boat, or bicycle). But on other occasions, it can be rewarding to bank a ton of miles and appreciate how much the landscape can change with the climbing odometer. The best road trip is the one that calls to you but these ten entries are a great place to start.
Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhumane spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally…
—Edward Abbey, once a park ranger at Arches, from his classic novel Desert Solitaire