When I returned to live in the US after eleven years overseas, I knew it was time to start ticking off some US bucket list items. My top three places to visit were Antelope Canyon on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona, and Zion and Bryce National Parks in southern Utah. I can tick those off my bucket list now, but all I really want to do is go back!
I wrote about Antelope Canyon in another post. Just click the link to read about that amazing place on the Navajo Reservation. After three nights camping in Page, Arizona and visiting both Upper and Lower Antelope slot canyons, I headed west to Zion and Bryce National Park in southwest Utah. I had seen photos, and researched where to camp, but I didn’t really know what to expect from either park.
Below is a rundown of what you’ll find in both of these stunning national parks. If you only have time to visit one, hopefully this information will help you decide. They are only a 1.5 hour drive apart.
Hiking in Zion National Park
Zion NP has something for everyone. While a lot of the pictures you see may show what appears to be challenging landscape, there really are easier hikes and places to visit with the kids. One of the best things about Zion is the free shuttle. There are two entrances to the park, and somewhat limited parking, so the shuttle is a necessity, but one that is certainly well-done.
There is an entrance to the south, in the town of Springdale, and one to the east that is not commercialized, populated, or congested with traffic. Most of the time. To visit the north side of Zion, you can take Exit 40 off of I-15 to the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center. You can enter from the southwest from Kolob Terrace Road off of Hwy 9 as well. These little-visited sections of Zion will suit those who want to avoid the crowds. The road to Zion Lodge is not accessible to private vehicles unless the occupants are staying at the lodge, but to access the trails on this road, take the free shuttle from the Visitor’s Center or the museum.
I didn’t have time to visit the north side of Zion. I had two days to explore this natural wonder, and some stunning weather to do it in. Here’s a review of the two hikes I did.
Day 1: Emerald Pools – Kayenta Trail – (section of) West Rim Trail – Angel’s Landing (app 8.5 miles)
Emerald Pools trailhead is at shuttle stop #5 Zion Lodge. There are three pools and all three are easily reached by all fitness levels, but that doesn’t mean the terrain is flat. After returning to the middle pool, I veered off on to the Kayenta Trail which leads to shuttle stop #6 The Grotto. This route is actually easier than backtracking to the lower pool to stop #5 and the views are much better.
The Grotto has toilets (port-a-johns, but very clean) and a picnic area. I stopped for a snack, and then crossed the road back to the West Rim trailhead, which veers off to the right after you cross over the bridge. Not long into this trek, steep switchbacks, and then even tighter switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles. This entire section of the trail is paved, so it is easy in terms of terrain, but difficult because it is steep.
After the switchbacks, there’s a path of sandstone that slants precariously. Chains are embedded in the rock I strongly suggest holding on to them. At the end of this section is the truly treacherous part. The narrow span of rock leading to the final uphill climb isn’t difficult unless you’re afraid of heights. There’s a chain to hold on to, it is flat, and it’s not nearly as narrow as I thought it would be. It’s several meters across.
But it was at this point, when I looked up at the crowds headed up and down the final stretch, on what is truly a one way path, that I had my doubts about going further. I wasn’t 100% confident I could get back down with my somewhat tricky knee, and I didn’t like the non-stop flow of traffic in both directions. So I turned back. It’s at this point that I would suggest evaluating your risk tolerance before proceeding. I also thought some hikers were naive in their attempt to climb this, and others were just downright foolish in their behavior.
Day 2: Observation Point via the East Mesa (Rim) Trail (6.5 miles)
There are two ways to get to Observation Point, which gives you an incredible view of Angel’s Landing and the valley. My accommodation at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort allowed me to drive to the East Mesa Trailhead. From here, it is 3.3 miles of flat, easy walking to Observation Point. Yes, I took the easy route through pine forest.
The other way is from shuttle stop #7 Weeping Rock. It’s a steep climb and one of the most difficult and most rewarding climbs in the park, but it is not treacherous like Angel’s Landing. I will do this trail next time. I feel like I cheated. Either trail ends at Observation Point, which has amazing views and lots of very cheeky chipmunks. I didn’t feed them, but one whiff of cashews and they were all over me. Fearless. That’s a bad sign. Don’t ever feed wildlife, no matter how small.
Other Treks in Zion National Park
Here’s some general information about other hikes in the park. I’d suggest using the Lonely Planet Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks guidebook for more specific information to help plan your trip.
West Rim Trail – Stop #6 The Grotto – difficult – 14.5 miles – overnight wilderness camping
The Subway – Wildcat Canyon trailhead – difficult and technical canyoneering route – 9.5 miles – 7 hours -involves 5 rappels and the route is a creek and you will get wet – both the up route and down route require a backcountry permit
The Narrows: Bottom up – Temple of Sinawava trailhead – difficult – wade and swim through the Virgin River – up to 10 miles – over 8 hours – Zion iconic trek
The Narrows: Top down – Chamberlain’s Ranch – difficult – 16 miles – 2 days – wade, swim, and hike through Zion’s most famous canyon
Accommodation In or Near Zion
Inside Zion National Park, there are two main options for camping. They are:
- Watchman Campground – reservation required – 184 sites, 94 with electricity – toilets, no showers – open year round
- South Campground – no reservations – 127 sites – no electricity – no showers – open year round
Near Zion’s two main entrances there are numerous camping options. Again, I will refer you to Lonely Planet Zion & Bryce Canyon for more details, but here are a few good options I checked out.
- Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort – near east entrance – lodge, cabins, rustic cabins with no bathrooms, and 18 gorgeous tent sites (I stayed here), but they are huge – tent sites are 12 USD/night – nicest showers and toilets I’ve ever seen at a campground – both are heated – wifi available, but not at tent sites
- Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort – in Springdale, near south entrance – tent sites and RV hookups – pool and river access – 200 sites – wifi available – crowded, social, happening place
So that’s the run down on Zion. I will let the photos speak for themselves in terms of views and landscape. It is quite different from Bryce, even though they aren’t that far apart.
Hiking in Bryce National Park
Bryce has a very different landscape from Zion. You may already be familiar with the hoodoos in Bryce. These unique and interesting rock formations are everywhere. But there is another reason to visit Bryce National Park instead of Zion if you only have time to visit one. Well, a good reason in winter at least. No crowds! Zion was busy in November, and traffic exiting Zion’s south exit in the evening was at a standstill. Not Bryce. No traffic, no crowds, and no lines.
Bryce has a free shuttle in summer, but fall through spring you’ll need a private vehicle to get around. The roads are easy to drive, but the southern wilderness road access will be closed in snow.
I was here for two days and covered quite a bit of ground. These two hikes didn’t seem as difficult as hikes in Zion, but there are more challenging hikes within Bryce that I did not have time to do. But the overall level of difficulty of hiking in Bryce is less than in Zion. Here’s a description of the hikes I did.
Day 1: Sunrise Point – Queen’s Garden – Navajo Trail – Sunset Point Loop
This moderately difficult trail is quite easy for someone with a reasonable level of fitness, but there is a steep climb up a set of switchbacks known as Wall Street. Hikers can also choose to do this route the opposite way, going down Wall Street, but will have a longer climb out of the valley to Sunrise Point. This loop is the most popular in Bryce, with fantastic views of the hoodoos, both from the rim and from the valley.
This trail will have more traffic than any other, but when I was there in November, it was nowhere near as crowded as Zion.
Day 2: Fairyland Trail Loop
There are numerous starting points for the Fairyland Trail Loop. Some are after the official park entrance and one before actually entering the park. I started at the trailhead to the left before actually entering the park. There is plenty of room to park, but no facilities, including toilets, at this trailhead. The Fairyland Loop is 8 miles and takes you down to the valley, but not through the Amphitheater like Navajo Loop does. The last 2.5 miles (or the first, depending on which way you go) is along the rim trail, which has the most spectacular views in all of Bryce Canyon. In my opinion. Even if you only did this 2.5 mile stretch, you’ll get amazing photos.
While you’re in the valley, be sure to take the 200 meter long side trail to Tower Bridge. This natural rock formation is beautiful, and it does actually remind me of Tower Bridge in London. On this trail, you’ll walk through the pine forest in the valley and amidst the hoodoos while climbing out. This trail is easy for people with a moderate level of fitness. There are some long, but not super steep climbs. I hardly saw anyone on this trail in November.
Other Treks in Bryce Canyon
Here’s some general information about three other treks in Bryce Canyon. For more specific information and other treks in Bryce, check Lonely Planet Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.
Peekaboo Loop Trail – difficult – 5.5 miles – 3 to 5 hours – access via Queen’s Garden or Navajo Loop trail – wide variety of terrain and landscape – horse trail
Rim Trail – easy to moderate – 5.5 miles – 2 to 3 hours – start at Bryce Point and end at Fairyland Point – trail hugs the rim and provides amazing views
Under the Rim Trail – overnight hike, moderate to difficult – 23 miles – 3 days – start at Bryce Point and finish at Rainbow Point – you’ll descend into the valley and no matter where you start, you’ll finish with a 3 mile ascent out of the valley.
Accommodation In or Near Bryce
North Campground – inside Bryce NP – reservation required May thru Sept – 101 sites – no showers, but has flush toilets and allows dogs – open year round
Sunset Campground – inside Bryce NP – reservation required May thru Sept – 102 sites – shady but few amenities – allows dogs – open late spring thru fall
Near Bryce’s main entrance and in nearby towns, there are numerous camping options. Check out Lonely Planet Zion & Bryce Canyon for more details, but here are a couple of good options I checked out.
Ruby’s RV Park and Campground – near the entrance to Bryce in Bryce Canyon City – partial reservation required (?) – 200 sites – lots of amenities, including a pool, but little privacy – open April thru Oct
Hitch N Post Campground – located in Panguitch 24 miles from Bryce – no reservation required – full amenities including showers – allows dogs – open year round
Bryce Canyon Pines Campground and RV Park – near the entrance to Bryce in Bryce Canyon City – reservation required – 24 sites – full amenities – open April thru October
The real reason I am recommending Bryce Canyon Pines is because of the restaurant there. I ate at Bryce Canyon Pines Restaurant both days after hiking in the canyon. I went for two reasons. One, when I asked for jalapeños on my burger, they sliced and grilled them and didn’t skimp! Two, the pie. The PIE! It was amazing. The lemon creme and banana blueberry creme are divine.
As you can see the views in Bryce are quite different from Zion, but just as beautiful and striking. I actually preferred Bryce because there were fewer people and the hoodoos create such a surreal, almost alien landscape.
If Zion and Bryce National Parks weren’t on your bucket list already, I hope this post has inspired you to add them. I was so impressed with the natural beauty of both of these parks, and with how well-managed they are.