Also known as the Grand Circle Road of National Parks, the Grand Circle is a giant loop that encompasses some of the most amazing parts of the United States’ Southwest area. Inside and skirting the edge of the loop you’ll find 10 national parks, plus national monuments, historical sites, and other landmarks. Let’s see what’s along the circle.
Where is the Grand Circle?
The Grand Circle is in the Four Corners region in the Southwestern United States. If you think of the Grand Circle as a perfect circle, some national parks lie outside the circle. But if you think of it as a jagged loop that goes through portions of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, with one national park in Nevada you will find 10 national parks
Read about the fascinating geology of the Four Corners here.
Rather than lay out a point-to-point trip around the loop, we’ll describe the parks and sites that are along the way or inside the circle. If you decide to travel the entire loop in one trip, it will take some time because, however you draw it, the length of the loop is about 1,500 miles!
If you divide the Grand Circle into four sections, here are the national parks you can visit in each part. Always check with the park service for current weather conditions before you go to any national park. The directions included here assume that you’ll fly into the area and drive to the various destinations. In general, due to the locations of these parks, summers can be very hot and winters very cold.
Read about the weather in the four corners region here.
Grand Circle: Northwest Section
This area of the Grand Circle includes Utah’s five national parks, plus one just over the state line in Nevada.
Great Basin National Park This off-the-beaten-path park is in a remote area of east-central Nevada. The closest full-service airport is in Salt Lake City 234 miles away. From there you can rent a car and head off to the park. Be aware that the National Park Service recommends that you not rely on navigation apps in this area. Get a detailed paper map or order some information from the National Park Service before your trip.
You might be asking, if it’s so remote, why go there? This is a chance to really get away from it all. Inside Grand Basin National Park, you’ll find caves, dozens of miles of hiking trails, pristine mountain streams, and bristlecone pines. In addition to hiking and exploring, while you’re there you can enjoy stargazing, fishing, birding, and camping.
Arches National Park True to its name, this national park has more than 2,000 natural stone arches. Other interesting features include tall pinnacles, rock fins, and giant balanced rocks. Near Moab, this park is more accessible than some others described here. That also makes it one of the most crowded, so plan ahead. This is a great place to see amazing natural structures, learn about Ancestral Puebloans, and enjoy sunsets and dark night skies.
Canyonlands National Park Buttes and canyons carved by the Colorado River over thousands of years make this spot a popular destination for visitors. Take a paved scenic drive to view many of the formations. The park is divided into four sections, with each one offering a different experience. You can even take flatwater excursions on the Green or Colorado Rivers and whitewater trips in Cataract Canyon.
Capitol Reef National Park Located in south central Utah, this park is home to an unusual formation called the Waterpocket Fold which is a fold in the earth’s crust. In this instance, the term reef refers to the rocky barrier formed by the fold. While most of the park is an arid desert, its geologically interesting features like canyons, cliffs, towers, domes, and arches attract visitors. The park has three campgrounds and visitors can enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, wildlife viewing, horseback riding, and rock climbing. During harvest season you can even pick fruit from trees planted long ago by Latter Day Saints pioneers.
Bryce Canyon National Park If it’s hoodoos you’re looking for, Bryce Canyon National Park is the place to go. Rather than being a single canyon, the park is a collection of basins, also called amphitheaters, that formed along the edge of an elevated plateau.
To see these stunning views, hop on the shuttle service that takes visitors to each of the four lookout points. In addition to viewing the spectacular geologic features, take in some hiking, biking, camping, or even horseback riding while you’re there.
Zion National Park is in the southwest corner of Utah. Hikers will enjoy the many trails that range from short walks to more strenuous hikes. The Pa’rus trail and the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive are accessible to bicycles. More adventurous visitors can try their skills at canyoneering — an activity that combines route finding, rappelling, swimming, and hiking — or climbing sandstone cliffs. Be sure to take your binoculars on the hiking trails: Zion National Park is home to 291 species of birds! There are three campgrounds in the park, but plan well ahead as they fill up quickly.
Read about tips for Four Corners Travelers here.
Grand Circle: Northeast Section
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park You’ll find this park not too far from Gunnison, Colorado, or Grand Junction, depending on the direction you’re traveling. Unlike the red rock formations found in parts of Utah, the geology of this canyon was formed from uplifts and volcanoes. Eons later, the Gunnison River eroded the volcanic rock and created this deep, narrow canyon.
While you’re there check out the scenic drives, view wildlife, hike, and fish. Stargazing and fishing are also on the list of things to do here.
Mesa Verde National Park Easily accessible from Farmington, New Mexico, and Cortez and Durango, Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is in the southwest corner of Colorado. Instead of the geologic features in many national parks, the view here is of man-made dwellings left behind by Ancestral Puebloans. It can be mind-boggling to imagine living in a home that required climbing up to harvest crops and down to collect water. Although the structures were abandoned, they’re fascinating to visit.
Grand Circle: Southeast Section
While there are no national parks in this section, you will find Aztec Ruins National Monument, Bandelier National Monument, El Malpais National Monument, El Morro National Monument, and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Grand Circle: Southwest Section
Two very popular national parks that are part of the Grand Circle are located in this section, both in Arizona.
Grand Canyon National Park This park gets millions of visitors annually. If you’ve ever been, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. The South Rim gets more visitors due to easier access from nearby cities like Flagstaff and Williams, plus there are more visitor services on the South Rim. The list of things to do reads like a list of adventures of a lifetime. The views are worthy of the trip itself, but plan to take in a guided river trip down the Colorado River which formed these canyons over millions of years. Another exciting adventure is a mule ride down to the river.
Other fun, but not quite so adventurous activities, include hiking, sightseeing, and attending ranger demonstrations and informational talks. In addition to being a national park, the Grand Canyon is like a small city with several restaurants, hotels, and lodges within the park. There are several campgrounds and an RV park inside the park. However, if you hope to stay in lodging inside the park, plan far in advance.
The Grand Canyon is significant to Native communities in the Southwest. It borders the lands of three federally recognized tribes, and 11 tribes in total have historic ties to the region now designated as Grand Canyon National Park.
Go here to read about the Indigenous Tribes of the Four Corners. Petrified Forest National Park located near the edge of the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Arizona is another popular park in the Four Corners region. One of the great things about this park is that visitors can drive through in about an hour if you’re short of time. Get out and look at petrified trees and drive through the Painted Desert. If you have more time, take a hike, listen to a ranger presentation, and check out the paleo lab to see Triassic fossils. The only overnight accommodation is for those who want to backpack into the designated Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area, so for most visitors, the Petrified Forest National Park will be a day trip. Despite the lack of lodging, it’s worth the trip to see the sites of this national park.