Red Rock Loop Itinerary for Utah's National Parks:
Arches, Canyonlands, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Bears Ears, Glen Canyon, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Capitol Reef
Utah’s National Parks are famous for their unique red rock sandstone features and sweeping vistas. What is perhaps less well known is their sheer density on the map, especially in southern Utah. In the bottom third of the state, there are so many parks reachable within such a short distance that you could actually visit 11 spectacular parks utilizing a single loop comprised of 963 road miles and taking less than 20 hours of total driving time (between parks -- this doesn't include time driving once you get there.)
Not that you should try to pack that many destinations into a single trip. In this writer’s opinion, it is much better to spend a longer period in only a few places, getting to know those places more intimately. The point however, is that in Southern Utah, there are so many spectacular places to see, conveniently packed together in the lower third of the state, it makes travel to them fairly easy. If you’ve never been, you owe it to yourself to visit southern Utah's national parks.
As you can see from this map below, there are 11 National Park Service properties that can be visited by traveling in a large loop across the bottom third of the Utah (and dipping slightly into northern Arizona) – a route often called the “Red Rock Loop” (Note: not all of the NPS properties are technically national parks – some are “merely” national monuments or recreation areas.) You would probably not want to try to visit all of these in a single week – they are laid out here merely to illustrate all the options.
In planning any Red Rock Loop adventure, the first question to ask is where to begin. If you are driving straight from home, the options are wide open. However, most people will need to fly into the area. The most obvious choices are to fly into Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, or Phoenix. The downside with any of these options are that none of these cities are actually on the loop itself, requiring additional driving on either end of your tour just to get to the loop (anywhere from 2.5 to 6 hours each way.)
Grand Junction, Colorado is the closest regional airport, located about 2 hours east of Moab. With its large selection of daily flights, and with nearly all the national car rental companies to choose from, it is probably the most popular “port of entry” for people planning any version of a “Red Rock Loop” tour starting and ending in Moab. But there actually is a much better, often overlooked, option – flying directly into Moab itself.
Moab is one of the primary stops on the loop, playing host to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. So after your flight, there's no long drive before you begin the loop. You're already there. Plus, it turns out, the travel costs for flying into Moab and renting a car for a week are nearly the same or even cheaper compared to Grand Junction. This was the biggest surprise.
Below is a cost comparison conducted on April 27 for hypothetical 7-day tours in mid-May and in early September. Costs included the least expensive round-trip airfare and a 1-week economy car rental for a single person flying out of Atlanta, and also out of Chicago, and landing in Grand Junction and then comparing it to landing in Moab.
The upshot is that the cost differences are negligible: for the May tour, Chicagoans would pay anywhere from $19 to $57 dollars more by landing in Moab while their Atlanta cousins would pay $98 to $211 more. However, for those who booked ahead and were traveling in early September, they actually saved money by landing in Moab, with total costs for the Atlantans $10 to $103 cheaper, and Chicagoans saving $67 to $77.
The biggest consideration in flying in via Moab is that it involves booking a seat on a smaller prop-jet with Boutique Air, the only scheduled passenger service to the small airport. The upside of flying Boutique is that its Pilatus PC-12 aircraft are fitted with first-class sized leather armchairs that slide and swivel to give you extra room. And the windows are extra big for a much more scenic viewing experience than is available on most aircraft.
2016 statistics show that Boutique completed 98.2% of all scheduled flights to Moab, with two flights daily connecting to Salt Lake City, and one per day connecting to Denver. Reservations for the Salt Lake/Moab or Denver/Moab portion of your journey need to be made directly on the airline’s website. Moab is also scheduled to expand its runways this year which will allow it to begin being served by regional jet service beginning in 2018.