8 National Parks. 3 states explored. 2 weeks. 1 incredible trip. My boyfriend, Ethan, and I embarked on this huge trip to celebrate my graduation from college (and for a client’s adventure session!). As a full-time wedding and elopement photographer, I am an avid road-tripper at this point. In case you missed my last edition in the Wander with Me series, head over to my Minnesota to Montana Roadtrip Itinerary. But now? Let’s dive into this edition – Wander with Me: Minnesota to Utah Roadtrip Itinerary.
If you’ve spent anytime on the road for a long period of time, you know that the first day is always the toughest with so much driving. And let me tell you, this day was no exception. We were just about 3 hours into the trip when my car started making a noise. 🙄 One of my tires was about to fall off due to some loose lug nuts! Uff. After a 2 hour delay and working with some awesome guys at a dealership, we were back on the road. We made it to our hotel, downed some Chick-fil-a and drifted off to sleep.
The drive from Colorado Springs to Great Sand Dunes National Park was full of wide open fields of gold, and mountains on the horizon. There are definitely 2 sides to Colorado – the mountainous and the desert. We were so excited to make it to Great Sand Dunes. I’m usually not a big desert person, but we had so much fun.
We rented sand boards and a slab to zip down the sand dunes. It’s safe to say we had never done that before in Minnesota! Great Sand Dunes National Park is actually quite small, but we were still able to make the most of the unique landscape. I took a pretty bad tumble while sand boarding, but after a quick recovery, we were able to continue. Pro Tip: be prepared for whipping winds and to be shaking sand from your hair for the foreseeable future. 😅
After we returned our boards, we drove about 4 hours to our next Airbnb near Mesa Verde National Park. We were definitely wiped from the day on the dunes, but we caught the sunset at the park before another night’s sleep.
We didn’t spend much time at Mesa Verde due to a poor night’s sleep. There was a wind storm overnight that shook our tiny Airbnb like you wouldn’t believe. We were about 4.5 hours from Grand Canyon, so we decided to get an early start. The drive was through barren land and we saw a ton of wild horses; they looked so free galloping through the nothingness.
We finally made it to the Grand Canyon and took some time driving through the park. When we arrived at our campsite, we had an amazing dinner complete with a sunset. There were elk moseying around as the canyon turned from warm orange to a vibrant blue once the sun had set. It was stunning.
We were so eager to get our day started that we woke up at 5:15 am to catch the sunrise while on our hike on South Kaibab Trail. There was no parking at the trailhead, so we had to drive to the visitor center to hop on a shuttle. The trail had a whopping 2,000 foot elevation change; it was intense! It was absolutely incredible to be hiking in the Grand Canyon. We made it all the way to Skeleton Point when we decided we should head back to avoid mid-day heat.
We were so hungry at this point, so we pulled over to make some breakfast in the canyon. The views were endless. Heading back to the shuttle was brutal; it was pretty much all up hill, with tons of switchbacks but so rewarding. With all of our food and water breaks, the hike took us just over 6 hours to complete. It’s safe to say we were ready to head back to camp for some lunch and a fat nap. When we woke up, we headed back to the rim to catch the sunset once more; the best way to end our time in the Grand Canyon.
Another early morning to pack up and get on the road. We headed to Page, Arizona to take in the beauty of Horseshoe Bend; breathtaking but nothing like the photos! It was incredibly crowed, so we walked around for awhile to find a secluded spot. From Horseshoe Bend, we went to the Glen Canyon Dam and headed to Lake Powell, Utah. We decided to camp on Lone Rock Beach where you can literally drive your car down on the beach to camp near the water. We had a relaxing evening by the water (until a wind storm came through and almost took our tent with it…HA! There is always something when you are on a road trip).
The drive from Lake Powell to Zion was a 5 hour trek. We were excited to get to Zion but were surprised (and overwhelmed) by just how busy it was. We took our time, set up camp right outside the park, and then walked into the park after lunch. It was so fun having our campground just 100 yards from the entrance. Once inside, we wandered over to the visitor center to check out Watchman Trail. We didn’t spend a ton of time there, because I had a session on the opposite side of the park. We drove to Kolob Canyon for some sunset photos and to our surprise… there wasn’t a soul there! It was so peaceful.
One word: wow. We woke up at 5:30 am to make our 6:45 shuttle. You do have to purchase a shuttle pass, and we were lucky to score 3 out of 4 days! On this day, we decided to tackle Angel’s Landing. The shuttle dropped us off at the trailhead – “The Grotto”. If you’ve heard of Angel’s Landing, you know that it’s a famously difficult hike. Even with this knowledge, the hike kicked our butts.
The first 2 miles were straight up hill with endless switchbacks. As we climbed though, the views just kept getting better and better. After the first 2 miles is when you arrive at the “main event” – the steep drops, sharp edges, and scaling cliffs while grasping chains for dear life. We were scared, but we did it anyway and it was a RUSH. All of the hiking was worth it when we were rewarded with 360° views at the top of Angel’s Landing. We had climbed 2,000 ft of the 6,000 ft elevation and it was insane.
Once we had taken in the view as best as we could, we took our time heading back down. Our knees were screaming. We refueled once back at the picnic area and headed back to our campground on the shuttle. We rested, and then grabbed a beer from Zion Brewery before showering and going out for dinner in Springdale.
God graced us when our shuttle ticket wasn’t until 10:00 am (usually awe pick early to beat the crowds, but we were needing some rest!), so we were finally able to sleep in. This time, we rented wading boots and socks to hike the Narrows. We followed the crowd and started into the Virgin River. Although the Narrows are about 14 miles, we did about 6! It was such a unique perspective, walking through the river surrounded by canyon walls. The hike wrapped up around 3:30 pm when we stopped by the brewery for a bite to eat. We walked back to our camp to hop in our car for a drive through the park to see some desert sheep! We spotted 3 females with babies!! Once we got back to our camp, we used our spotting scope to spot even more along the ridge. So cool.
Our final day at Zion didn’t include a shuttle pass so we packed up our camp and headed out to spot some more sheep. We spotted 5 desert bighorns and watched them through our binoculars. The drive from Zion to Bryce Canyon was an absolutely stunning 2.5 hour drive. As if it couldn’t get any better, we stopped for pie just outside the park entrance! We drove around the entirety of the park scoping out our hikes for the next day after checking out the visitor center. Bryce Canyon is 100% underrated; the “hoodoo” structures protruding from the ground are otherworldly. We checked into our hotel, and headed back to the park for some stargazing (its is one of the darkest places in America!).
After another early morning, we headed straight to our trailhead before it got busy (and HOT). We chose Peek-a-Boo Loop, a 5.5 mile hike. We didn’t encounter many people and it was absolutely breathtaking. This ended up being one of my favorite hikes of the trip; it was so unique. After our hike, we were officially “hiked out”. We went to Tropic Reservoir, where Ethan’s first cast landed him a trout!
We drove from Bryce Canyon to Moab for a shoot. We had a quick stop in Capitol Reef National Park, but continued straight to Canyonlands National Park to scout for my sunset shoot. After 3 hours of exploring, we met up with the couple (check out their Canyonlands National Park Engagement). I highly recommend getting to Canyonlands early; we ended up sitting at the entrance for 2 hours. The shoot was incredible, and we headed back to Moab to our hotel.
This day was so much fun. We met up with some of our friends and camped in Moab. The day was spent spending time together, making food, and hiking 4 miles at Dead Horse Point State Park. We grabbed some groceries in Moab afterwards and grilled hamburgers over hours of conversation for the evening.
We spent the day with our friends at Canyonlands National Park. The park was packed so we didn’t get to do the original hike we had planned. We checked out Whale Rock which was actually fun to see something new. Our hikes were wrapped up by 12:15 pm, and we were ready to head back to Moab for some lunch. Pro Tip: Try to finish your hikes by noon, it gets way too hot to hike in the afternoon. We walked around town and stopped at a food truck for Hawaiian Shave Ice. Once we got back to camp, we hopped in the pool and enjoyed the evening together.
Our final national park on the trip began with another early morning, breakfast, and a longgg line. Arches National Park is a busy place! We started our hikes with Delicate Arch (one of the defining features of Utah). It was 95°, and the hike was pretty much all uphill. But once we got to the top, the trail opened up to expose the incredible arch. There were a ton of people in line waiting for photos, so we took our time and waited our turn for photos inside the arch. We felt disgusting after our hike, and headed back for a much-needed dip in the pool. We settle down early and made pizza on the grill (one of our favorites!).
This was such a fun, long-awaited trip and I was so thankful to be able to experience it with Ethan. I’m definitely not a desert kinda person, but it was so much fun being able to see a different part of the US than I normally do. Hopefully this Wander with Me: Minnesota to Utah Roadtrip Itinerary helps you plan your next roadtrip!