There’s a lot of symbolism surrounding the cornerless shape known as the circle. It represents timelessness and perfection. A circle also implies continual movement. The Grand Circle — as a collection of national parks in the southwestern United States is colloquially referred to — embodies this symbolism. The scenery in each park is constantly changing, yet never goes out of style. From deep canyons carved over millions of years to unique formations created through a series of tectonic uplifts, the Grand Circle exemplifies natural exceptionalism.
Yeah, yeah yeah. We know that geometrically speaking the Grand Circle isn’t a true circle — there are some twists and turns in the road. Geographically speaking, however, it makes one big bucket-list loop that encompasses all of Utah’s national parks, as well as a few in Arizona and Colorado.
You could plan individual trips to each national park in the Grand Circle. But if you have a “go big or don’t go at all” mentality, Southwest Adventure Tours is the way to go. This Utah-based company specializes in small group tours with supersized itineraries. Its Grand Circle Experience hits seven national parks and a coupla national monuments in 12 days. Some state parks and other must-see destinations are sprinkled in as well.
But it isn’t just a “Drive. Stop. Gawk. Repeat” kind of a trip. You’ll hike to your heart’s delight. Raft down a river. Ride a train. Immerse yourself in the culture. And you end up right back where you started geographically. But you’ll be in a better place personally, because this type of vacation transforms travelers.
The Highlight Reel
Irish Twins: Zion and Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon was designated a national park in February 1919; nine months later, Zion came along. Both of these babies had been national monuments for about a decade before that. Each park now hosts roughly 5 million visitors annually. They are iconic members of the national park family that you’ve seen in photographs countless times. But like any relatives, they are as different as they are similar, and you’ll have individual relationships with each park. You might be inspired by the vertiginous views in the Grand Canyon or find solace reflected in Zion’s Emerald Pools.
Red Alert: Vermilion Cliffs, Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon
The next leg of the Grand Circle Experience heightens your awareness. Not because you’re in danger, but rather because you’re in awe of the red rock. The scenery radiates a powerful energy that awakens your senses. Whether you’re floating down the Colorado River looking up at the boxy walls or squeezing through the curvaceous slots in Antelope Canyon with beams of sun spotlighting the striations in front of you, it’s impossible not to feel a wide spectrum of emotions. Insignificant. Overwhelmed. Grateful. Joyful.
Namaste: Four Corners
This is where all those years of yoga finally pay off. The Grand Circle Experience stops at Four Corners National Monument, where you can roll out your best wheel pose in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado — at the same time. (Photo or it didn’t happen.) Not feeling flexible? There are other ways to commemorate the visit before continuing your journey into Colorado. Flipping a coin to make a major life decision, perhaps? Walter White’s wife approves.
Construction Junction: Mesa Verde and Durango
Long before blueprints for McMansions perched precariously on hillsides were even imagined, Ancestral Puebloans were building custom homes in the alcoves of cliff walls using skilled stone masonry. The largest of these dwellings is Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park, and you can go inside a few of the rooms and check out the kivas (pronounced kee-vuhs) used for ceremonial purposes in the front courtyard here.
This leg of the Grand Circle Experience includes another human-made wonder — the historic Durango and Silverton Railroad. Construction was completed in 1882, which is modern in comparison to Mesa Verde but still an extremely impressive feat. Ride the rails and enjoy the scenery as you debate which would have been more difficult to build.
Arch Rivals: Arches and Canyonlands
There are upwards of 2,000 documented arches in Moab’s aptly named national park, compared to 80-ish in Canyonlands. It would seem that Arches is the clear winner, but those who bypass Canyonlands in favor of its more famous neighbor are missing out. The true winners are those on Southwest Adventure Tours’ Grand Circle Experience who visit both parks, checking off multiple bucket-list items off along the way. Delicate Arch is pretty amazing. But so is watching the sun set from the mesa’s edge in Canyonlands, painting the sky brilliantly as that ball of fire makes its way to the canyon floor. Then coming back to watch it rise the next morning from Mesa Arch.
Odyssey Oddities: Goblin Valley, Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon
This is where things get weird. Hoodoos that look like mythical creatures? A 100-mile “wrinkle” in the earth that created jagged cliffs? And early pioneers decided this place (Capitol Reef) was a good place to plant fruit orchards? Seriously? More hoodoos (upon hoodoos upon hoodoos) that look nothing like the ones before? In the immortal words of Ebenezer Bryce, “It’s a helluva place to lose a cow.” But each of these places has earned a spot on the Grand Circle itinerary because they are divine. The guides at Southwest Adventure Tours had countless stories of travelers falling to their knees when they looked out over Bryce Canyon for the first time.
Begin Again: Zion National Park
Remember the part about ending up right back where you started? Well that was sort of true. The Grand Circle Experience ends in Zion, but in a different section of the park than the beginning. Kolob Canyons is in the northwest corner of the park and is accessed using a different road than the main canyon. It’s less people-y here, but no less scenic. It’s the perfect way to end a truly transcendent trip.
The Grand Circle National Park Tour fills up fast. Reserve your spot today
Don’t have 12 days of PTO? Southwest Adventure Tours also offers a six-day Mighty Five Tour from Salt Lake City, which is essentially Utah's grand circle.