An Amazing Southern Utah Roadtrip: Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks
For years I’ve been saying that I need to spend more time exploring the amazing natural beauty that the U.S. offers. So often, the lures of European food and culture call me, the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, or…basically anywhere else. And that’s a shame. So I finally put a Zion and Bryce Canyon itinerary together…a perfect long weekend soaking on stunning scenery!
How this post is laid out:
- Why these parks should be on your itinerary
- What you need to know for planning a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon
- What time of year is best
- How to get there
- Where to stay
- A roadtrip route
- 2 Days in Zion National Park
- Red Canyon
- 1 Day in Bryce Canyon National Park
- A few odds and ends
Why it should be on your itinerary
You can’t go wrong when it comes to national parks and natural beauty in Utah…not to mention the surrounding states like Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado. These two had been on my list for a long time, so were my first choices. I tried to figure out adding on one of the eastern Utah parks but we just didn’t have the time.
One thing that’s great about both Zion and Bryce are that they’re really good choices for casual walkers and hikers, and even have quite a bit of wheelchair access on some of the trails.
Both have good shuttle systems within the park, making it easy to get around. And even if you only want to see beautiful scenery from a car or static position, you’ll be spoiled for choice. For seeing and doing a ton with only a few days, these parks are a perfect option.
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What you need to know to plan your trip
One of the biggest things to consider on a Zion and Bryce Canyon itinerary is your ability to nail down housing. Generally you’ll need to plan ahead, since housing around both parks is somewhat limited and fills up early—particularly in peak season.
We lucked out and I was able to find what I needed for a long weekend only 6 weeks ahead of time, but we also weren’t traveling in peak season and we managed to avoid higher-demand times like spring break.
When to visit
There’s no *wrong* time to visit either of them, though the dead of winter will be tough. It depends on what you’re looking for.
If you’re visiting both parks, you also need to consider the differences in climate. The temperatures at Bryce are typically cooler than Zion due to its higher elevation. You’ll be around 8,000 feet elevation, whereas you’ll spend most of your time in Zion in the 4,000-6,000 feet range.
When we visited at the beginning of April, Bryce still had quite a bit of snow (though temperatures were pleasant) and major parts of the park (including most of the hiking) were not yet opened back up from the winter. At that same time we were wearing tank tops to hike, as Zion got quite hot and dusty during the day.
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For us, I think, that time of year was perfect (maybe October would have been similar?). We didn’t have to deal with insane crowds, which was definitely one of our big priorities. We also were more focused on pretty walks and easy or moderate hikes, rather than any of the most famous intense hikes. The trade-off in timing and lack of crowds was that some of the hikes we would have liked to do weren’t open yet.
I wouldn’t visit any earlier in the year for Bryce, though…there were still big chunks of the park closed due to snow and ice. April and like September/October for me seems perfect.
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How to get there
Neither of these parks is super close to civilization, so you’ll probably need to fly somewhere and then rent a car and drive (unless you’re doing a long roadtrip from somewhere else). There are a few options, and they will help dictate how you structure your itinerary. Your three main options would be Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and St. George (Utah), and it partly depends on how you want to structure your Zion and Bryce Canyon itinerary.
Las Vegas is weirdly one of the best options, and it’s only a couple hours’ drive from there to Zion. There is a shuttle from Vegas to St. George, but I still think you’ll need a rental car either way. In general I think it would be a bit challenging and limiting not to have a car for this trip. Vegas is about 4 hours to Bryce Canyon.
I flew into Salt Lake City, but only because we had family there and so that’s where I met up with my parents. The drive from there to Zion was about 5 hours (Bryce is about 4 hours), so it’s not the most convenient airport. It is a gorgeous drive, though.
It’s worth checking flights into St. George, Utah, as well…a smaller airport for sure and could be more expensive, but you might get lucky. It’s only about an hour from Zion. This was my view flying into Salt Lake.
Tl;dr…the Las Vegas airport is probably the closest and most convenient if you’re flying and *only* doing these two parks.
Where to stay in Zion and Bryce Canyon
There are several good options, including staying inside the park at Zion Canyon Lodge. We stayed at the Desert Pearl Inn right outside the park, which came highly recommended. It was awesome, couldn’t have been happier.
My deeper post on Zion gives some great tips for getting a room with a a view and what to expect at the hotel…room was huge, and had a nice pool area too. The Desert Pearl’s location is super central to both the park and the shops and restaurants of Springdale, with a shuttle stop right out front.
With Bryce Canyon I had pretty limited options, partly because of the time of year. I got lucky and found exactly the housing I wanted with less than two months’ notice…in “shoulder season”, but that was perfect because it meant fewer crowds and less heat. We stayed at Bryce Canyon Lodge, right within the park.
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A Utah roadtrip route
Solely due to when I could lock down the housing I wanted, we decided to do Zion first and then Bryce Canyon. If you’re only doing these two parks then it doesn’t matter which you do first.
If you’re going over to the other Utah national parks (on the east side of the state), then it makes sense to do Zion first, then Bryce and head on east.
If, instead, you want to do the Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, etc., then Bryce might make sense to do first since Zion is a closer and more direct drive to those places. Google Maps is your friend…just know that a lot of the driving is a bit slower.
For reference, here is the route we drove. You can view the live map here. Like I mentioned above, this is probably not the most efficient route but it worked well for us.
We started our roadtrip with a 5-hour drive from the northern suburbs of Salt Lake City down to Zion National Park. The scenery is beautiful, but it is a long drive (we got out early in the morning to avoid rush out in Salt Lake City).
A weekend in Zion National Park
We spent two days at the park, which doesn’t sound like much. But you can actually do a ton in that amount of time. You can certainly explore all of the main shuttle stops, catch a sunrise and sunset if weather permits, and do a few short hikes or one longer one. If you’re interested in really exploring the many amazing hikes then you could easily spend a week or more.
I’ve done a much deeper post on Zion, including maps, photography tips, some recommendations for hikes, where to eat, and more. In this post I’ll hit some of the highlights and how this part of the trip connected to the other parts.
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You’ll want to spend some time with the official Zion National Park website to make sure you’re aware of up-to-date info on hours, fees, trail or road closures, activities, and anything else you’ll need to know. You should also snap a photo of the shuttle stop map for later reference.
Being able to get around and park *inside* the park is tough, just so many people and cars and very limited space. So you’ll want to park your car for the majority of your stay and use the shuttle system both in Springdale and inside Zion. Both run smoothly and frequently, and the connection point between them is fast, efficient, and easy to use. Assume you’ll be able to catch a shuttle at any of the stops every 5-15 minutes.
Shuttle stops inside Zion National Park (in order): Zion Canyon Visitor Center, Museum, Canyon Junction, Court of the Patriarchs, Zion Lodge, The Grotto, Weeping Rock, Big Bend, and Temple of Sinawava
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I recommend that one of the first things you do upon arrival is to take the shuttle all the way around the park to get oriented. It takes about 40 minutes round trip if you don’t get on and off, and will give you a good sense of the “lay of the land”. I did jump off a couple times briefly, but overall it helped me plot which things to prioritize…particularly lighting for photography based on time of day.
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A few view highlights in Zion National Park
- Jump off at #3 for the views of the Sentinel
- Then hop off at #4 for the views and a quick (seriously like 2-minute) hike up Court of the Patriarchs. Great early afternoon, as well as in the morning.
- Both sunrise and sunset are tough to photograph at Zion (due to the high canyon walls), but the Watchman viewpoint at the bridge near shuttle stop #3 is pretty for both. I have more sunset and sunrise considerations in my deeper Zion post.
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And then there’s the hiking…Zion is perhaps most famous for two specific hikes: the harrowing and stunning Angel’s Landing hike, and the cold, wet, and gorgeous Narrows.
But it has a wide variety to offer, for all fitness levels. From the 3-minute jaunt up to the Court of the Patriarchs view, to the 1.5-hour Lower Emerald Pools, to full-day hikes, anyone can find something.
Three fairly easy “real” hikes are Lower Emerald Pools (1-1.5 hours round trip), the Pa’arus Trail (~2 hours round trip), and Riverside Walk (1-2 hours round trip). All are basically flat. The latter brings you right up to the mouth of the Narrows (which was closed due to flooding when we visited). For something a little more difficult try the Upper Emerald Pools and Kayenta (both were closed when we were there)
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One activity that sometimes gets overlooked at Zion is exploring the eastern side of the park. This can only be done by car, and is a great way to spend a half day. It’s like you’re in a different park—the geography, colors, overall look are all quite different to the main canyon.
If you’re planning a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon you can do this little drive as its own half day, or you can just build in some extra time on your drive from Zion to Bryce…it’s the same drive as you’ll have to take in order to get from one park to the other.
The first little bit is still in the canyon, so you get some great angles of the iconic cliffs but from further away—easier to photograph.
Eventually you’ll come to two tunnels…a shorter one (in the pic below) and then on that’s INSANELY long. The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel was built in the 1920s and is honestly *still* really impressive. It’s over a mile long, and pitch dark except for occasionally tiny windows (for ventilation, I assume). It’s a bit disconcerting but cool.
Where to eat and drink in Zion Canyon: Cafe Soleil, Meme’s Cafe, Deep Creek Coffee, Oscar’s Cafe
Where to stay: Desert Pearl Inn
Where to get booze: Switchback Liquors (shockingly good selection for how tiny it is)
So that wraps up Zion National Park. On our last morning, we grabbed a delicious breakfast at Meme’s Cafe, and then headed back over Canyon Junction Bridge and through the eastern side of the park once more. Only this time we didn’t turn around. It was onto Bryce!
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Bryce Canyon is about 1.5 to 2 hours from Zion. Once out of Zion National Park, we drove through pastureland for a while. There was a cool little gas station/trading post kind of place somewhere in that area (would have been on our left) where I purchased some gorgeous agate bookends. Otherwise nothing much of note until we got to Dixie National Forest and Red Canyon.
This is just a bit before you hit Bryce Canyon, and it is so cool and vivid! With the blue skies, the intensely orange rock really popped. We pulled over and climbed around a bit to stretch our legs.
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We were already running later than we would have liked, so just got out and climbed around for a bit. But if you have time there are a number of cool hiking trails in the park.
I’m just so in love with this rich burnt orange, deep green trees, and vivid blue skies!
And that’s me, that tiny little gray speck on the tower there.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce is in one of the smallest national parks in the U.S., but also in the top-10 busiest. The park gets over 2.7 million visitors a year, coming to see the otherworldly “hoodoos” of Bryce Canyon Amphitheater—cool geological erosion-created rock formations.
It’s a perfect park for a short visit, with a very unique landscape…making it a great pairing with Zion!
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You can plan your trip using the official website, which will be up-to-date on everything from weather to road and trail closures as well as hours and fees. Generally the park is open 8a-8p in the peak season and more like 8a-6p during the fall and spring (winter hours are even shorter).
I’d recommend stopping at the Visitor Center early in your visit, to get some good maps and recos for views, which trails are closed, and more. For us, being there at the beginning of April, we benefited from the crowds being light, but there was still a lot of ice and snow so we couldn’t do much hiking or get down and see the hoodoos up close.
The Mormon settler after whom the park is named called it “one hell of a place to lose a cow” (literally still makes me laugh every time). They just look like something from another planet.
As a visitor, though, it’s really easy to get around the park. There’s just one long road running through the park, with well-marked turn-offs. There is a shuttle system that runs much of the year (roughly April 12 – October 20), though it wasn’t in service when we visited so our car was fine for getting around (I have to assume it’s super crowded in peak season).
Sadly most of the trails were closed while we were there due to ice, snow, and mud, but we could walk the Rim Trail from Sunrise Point out to Inspiration Point. We still saw tons of gorgeous views…while I was sad we couldn’t get down to walk among the hoodoos, the trip was still worth it.
You can’t go wrong with views at Bryce Canyon but here were a few of my faves:
- Natural Bridge
- Inspiration Point – awesome during the day, and gorgeous at sunrise
- Sunset Point – excepting my sunrise pics, probably my favorite views overall
We weren’t able to hike it, but my friends told me that Queens Garden/Navajo Loop is a great easy/moderate hike that still gets you down among the hoodoos. Additionally, take a drive all of the way to the end of Highway 63 (about 15 extra miles), as there are tons of beautiful lookouts. Rainbow and Yovimpa Points are the last two, with insanely far views on a clear day (you can see to the rim of the Grand Canyon!). We could only go as far as Natural Bridge when we were there.
Sunrise is really where the magic happens at Bryce. Because the amphitheater faces east, the sunsets aren’t as interesting. I’ve written an entire post about watching the sunrise wash over Bryce Canyon Amphitheater, jam-packed with gorgeous photos and tips for when and where to make sure you make the most of it.
Where to eat and drink: Bryce Canyon Pines, Bryce Canyon Lodge; I can’t vouch for Fort Zion Restaurant & Virgin Trading Post but heard it was great
Other things on the route back to Salt Lake City
After finishing at Bryce Canyon National Park, in general we were driving back toward Salt Lake City, but meandered a bit. We first drove toward Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument…the drive is INSANE and changes scenery constantly. The pics below don’t really do it justice.
We *tried* to stop off and do Zebra Slot Canyon. I was really wanting to try a slot canyon hike, and this one had been recommended. But the info I received wasn’t great on how long the hike actually took and we ran out of time…had to turn back partway before getting to the canyon.
Finally we drove up toward Capitol Reef National Park and just kind of skirted it before heading back to Salt Lake City so I could catch my flight. We didn’t feel like our Zion and Bryce Canyon itinerary was cheated in any way…these would have been total bonuses but we were ultimately just short on time.
Extra tips if you’re planning a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon:
- Utah has some strict alcohol laws. Towns mostly don’t have bars or pubs. At the grocery store you can only buy beer, and for wine or liquor you have to go to the liquor store. Liquor stores aren’t open on Sundays and close early on Saturdays typically. There’s only one in Zion that we found, and didn’t find one in Bryce. Worth stocking up in a bigger city if you care.
- I didn’t get a chance to try this out, but a friend told me to consider visiting Snow Canyon State Park in St. George, “the little Zion”. As you drive up the center of the park and park close to each site with little walking required to visit. As beautiful, unique and precious as any national park—and far less crowded.
- The Circle D Eatery between Bryce and Capitol Reef is supposed to be great.
So have I convinced you that a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks should be at the top of your list?? Hit me up in the comments with any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them!
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