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  • Sunset from the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park, Utah
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    Zion National Park: Stargazing Among the Red Rocks

  • Tunnel through Red Canyon on Scenic Byway 12 near Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah
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    Astronomy Tours in Bryce Canyon National Park

  • Night skies over Hickman Bridge in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
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    Stargazing in Scenic Capitol Reef National Park

  • Sunset over Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah
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    Exploring the Mountain Capital of Salt Lake City

Night skies of the Temple of the Moon rock formation in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
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Royce Bair MMXIV

Utah Stargazing Tour: From Hoodoos to the Milky Way

By Zaida Rios

  • Route distance:
    672 km
  • Suggested Time:
    6 days

Escape to Utah’s gorgeous national parks for a week’s worth of scenic day hikes and enchanting star-filled nights.

Watch stunning terrain unfold before you as you cruise on a road trip through unforgettable beauty. Daylight gives you the awe factor of Southern Utah’s national parks: otherworldly hoodoos, cavernous canyons and russet-colored rock formations stretching like bridges across the sandstone landscape. But when the sun dips, dark skies set the stage for phenomenal starlit nights. Fly into McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas, Nevada, and rent a car for the 2½-hour drive to Zion National Park.

Sunset from the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park, Utah
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David Swindler

Zion National Park: Stargazing Among the Red Rocks

Drive into southwest Utah to start your trip at Zion National Park. It’s hard to beat the photo-worthy scenes of slot canyons, red rock formations and cliffs in this otherworldly landscape. Spend a night or two at the historic Zion National Park Lodge; the décor is appropriately rustic, but the amenities are 100% modern.

Begin exploring with an easy hike on the 3.5-kilometer paved Riverside Walk. The peaceful hum of the Virgin River makes the perfect soundtrack. You won’t want to miss the popular Emerald Pools trail with segments passing through stunning grottos and across picturesque bridges. This trail is divided into lower, middle and upper trails with the latter two a bit more challenging. A hidden gem of a hike is the moderate, 5-kilometer Watchman Trail, which sits beneath the Watchman Spire and leads to an overlook of Zion and the nearby town of Springdale. For an adventure on wheels paired with gorgeous scenery, rent a road bike or electronic bike from a local outfitter, then take the park shuttle to the top of Zion Canyon Road and pedal back down to the visitor’s center.

Nighttime yields cooler temperatures – bring a jacket – along with bewitching stargazing opportunities at Zion, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Download a mobile app for guides to map constellations and planets. Catch epic views of the Milky Way at the Human History Museum patio overlooking the Towers of the Virgin rock wall. The Kolob Canyons Viewpoint is another fantastic spot with several overlooks along Kolob Canyon Scenic Drive. Celestial lights illuminate the red rock spires adding to the awe of it all. Checkerboard Mesa is another prime locale to spot constellations, and it’s conveniently located near the East Entrance Ranger Station.

136 km
2 hours by car
Tunnel through Red Canyon on Scenic Byway 12 near Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah
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Steve Greenwood

Astronomy Tours in Bryce Canyon National Park

Road trippers will be happy to discover the scenic route through the canyons with pull-offs for photo ops of hoodoos and breathtaking views along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and Tunnel, the quickest way to get to Bryce Canyon National Park. Once in the park, venture onto the Queens Garden Trail, a 3-kilometer hike that can be taken singularly or as part of the Navajo Loop Trail. It’s a relatively easy trek with the best views near the rim overlooking hoodoos and clay mounds on the floor of Fairyland Canyon, surrounded by a ponderosa pine forest. Queens Garden is a semi-circle of thinly eroded spires in varying shades of orange, pink, brown and yellow in perpetual bloom. The Navajo Loop Trail starts at Sunset Point along the rim of the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater and descends over 100 meters into hoodoos and bristlecone pines. This 2.2-kilometer loop trail is popular, so be sure to get there early.

The Bryce Canyon Lodge, a National Historic Landmark, is a fabulous place to stay overnight, but don’t tuck in too early. During the spring, summer and fall, rangers in one of the USA’s oldest astronomy programs offer stargazing sessions. In this certified International Dark Sky Park, you can observe more than 7,000 stars in the night sky. Marvel at the enormity of the Milky Way. Spy planets such as Jupiter and Venus. Seek out the Big Dipper or Orion. If you’re a true enthusiast, visit in late June for the annual Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival.

189 km
2.5 hours by car
Night skies over Hickman Bridge in Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
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Ariel Solomon

Stargazing in Scenic Capitol Reef National Park

Most of the drive to Capitol Reef National Park from Bryce Canyon National Park is interstate highway, but the last 12 kilometers or so will find you cruising along the Scenic Drive into Capitol Reef. The park is famous for mix of red and white sandstone cliffs that create rocky barriers, and two trails stand out. Start on the Hickman Bridge Trail. It’s a 2-kilometer, moderate hike to Hickman Bridge, a natural bridge nestled in a side canyon set along a backdrop of giant white sandstone domes. Hiking underneath the 40.5-meter bridge gives you a cool perspective. Beyond the epic setting, there are little caves to explore along the way. Make Goosenecks Trail your next hiking adventure. This short trail is less than a kilometer but stunning. Walk along red rocks as the trail guides you to Goosenecks Overlook, where you’ll catch a remarkable view of Sulfur Creek Canyon below. The creek wraps around so tightly that it resembles a goose’s neck.

Stay after dark – that’s when the magic begins. Also certified as an International Dark Sky Park, Capitol Reef’s pitch-black skies set the stage for wonderment – an extraordinary starry night, where even the Milky Way can be seen with the naked eye. Head to the end of Sunset Point Trail for a dreamy view of thousands of twinkling stars spanning the clear night sky, or sign up for a ranger-led stargazing excursion. Grab a hearty breakfast in the morning in the quaint town of Torrey (itself a certified Dark Sky Community) before heading out on the last leg of your road trip to Salt Lake City.

347 km
3.5 hours by car
Sunset over Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah
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Exploring the Mountain Capital of Salt Lake City

Flanked by the Wasatch Mountains on one side and the Great Salt Lake on the other, Salt Lake City is a fun-loving, outdoorsy city – a happy place to end your road trip adventure. Spend your day indulging in city fun. Hop on a GREENBike to explore the downtown scene. There’s an abundance of trendy coffeehouses, shops and restaurants to explore. In the winter, you’re close to exceptional skiing in nearby Park City, a Utah resort town that is also famous for the Sundance Film Festival founded by Hollywood legend Robert Redford. Held annually in January, the festival highlights the best in independent filmmaking. An hour outside the city, you can also visit the city’s namesake, the Great Salt Lake, often called the USA’s Dead Sea for its high salt content. Walk along the sandy white beach or even take a dip. If you plan to be in Salt Lake City on a Wednesday night, sign up ahead of time for a star party at the University of Utah’s South Physics Observatory, where you can join a group stargazing event to spot planets, constellations and the moon. For one last hike, head to The Living Room Trail near the Natural History Museum of Utah. It leads to a set of stacked stones with views overlooking the city and mountains. Consider it the best seat in the house as you say goodbye to your last Utah sunset until you return. Fly out of Salt Lake International Airport (SLC) with a week’s worth of amazing memories to accompany you home.