I live in California and we have traveled to quite a few places in Cali, but I have to admit, Utah is one state that is blessed with tremendous natural beauty. From stupefying natural arches at Arches National Park, to colorful canyon formations at Canyonlands National Park, to the enchanting hoodoos at Bryce National Park, to the world-famous slot canyons at Zion National Park, Utah is home to the most scenic natural formations in the world. We visited Zion and Bryce during the Labor Day weekend in 2011 and my first reaction to Zion was ‘Been there, seen that, done that!!’. And that reaction was probably because our Zion/Bryce trip was after a successful hike to the top of Half Dome, and it would have been hard to beat that feeling if you decide to skip things in Zion that are MUST DOs. But in retrospect, while I was going through the photographs, I realized that Zion is in fact extremely pretty and I would like to go back to conquer the Narrows some day!
Zion National Park: Zion is a 3 hour drive from Las Vegas, Nevada. There is only one lodging option inside the park and since we made reservations at the last moment, we did not get accommodation inside the park. However, we stayed at Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens which is literally outside the park entrance and I am glad we did not get to stay inside the park. The lodge is along the Virgin river surrounded by canyons of Zion so it feels as if you are staying inside the park. I highly suggest this lodging option. It is walking distance to the park entrance from where you can board the park shuttle and close to a lot of dinner options in Springsdale. During crowded seasons, you have to use one of the shuttles run by the park. I say, even if it is not peak season, use the shuttle if available to avoid driving and the hassle of finding parking.
What to do in Zion: Plan on spending at least 2 nights if you want to enjoy the beauty of the park. The easiest way would be to sit in the park shuttle and visit all the vista points that the shuttle stops at. But there’s not much fun if you don’t explore the vistas, right? We started with the Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava. Even though we were not planning on doing the Narrows, this trail can be hiked to view the Narrows of the Virgin River Canyon and so we decided on doing it. We also hiked the Lower, Middle and Upper Emerald Pools. Only the Upper Emerald Pool is impressive. The short walk to Weeping Rock is only worth if you go during Spring time. Court of the Patriarchs can be easily viewed from the bus stop itself! The East side of the park is missed by a lot of visitors to Zion because the shuttles don’t go there. Take the drive through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel and the scenic byway. On the way you will also pass through the Zion Arch as well as Checkerboard Mesa and if you are lucky enough spot some wildlife too. But while you are at Zion, make sure to view either sunrise or sunset to see the white, ochre, orange and red colors of canyon walls change. Having said that, my trip to Zion was incomplete because I skipped Angel’s Landing as well as Narrows! So if you absolutely enjoy hiking, that might be high up on your things to do for Zion.
Bryce Canyon National Park: Bryce Canyon is about an hour’s drive from Zion National Park and route from Zion to Bryce is full of stunning vistas. You pass through Red Canyon and is definitely one of the top scenic routes I have traveled on. We stayed in Bryce Canyon for one night. Bryce is at a much higher altitude than Zion so it is much cooler. Bryce Canyon National Park is home to spectacular and colorful hoodoo structures. A lot of people are bound to like Bryce more than Zion because of the picturesque landscape it has to offer, not to mention: the enchanted hoodoos too 🙂
What to do in Bryce Canyon: Start at the visitor center and take the shuttle to cover the major vistas which include the Inspiration Point, Sunrise and Sunset Points. All three vista points offer amazing views of the Bryce Amphitheater. You can walk from one point to the other if you follow the rim trail and that is a great way of enjoying the stunning vistas. The main loop would be best visited through the shuttle, however; it would be good idea to drive through the rest of the 18 mile scenic route in your own vehicle. Stop by at the Natural Bridge for sure. If you have not been to Arches in Utah, this vista could be a quick preview. We also stopped by at Ponderosa Point, Rainbow Point, Blackbirch Canyon. But after a while, it seems as if each point is just a different angle of the same view-point. So, if you have more time in Bryce, I highly suggest hiking down the canyon in the hoodoos. It is going to be much prettier from within the canyon then outside. I have heard that sunrise in Bryce is not to miss, but it rained when we were in Bryce, so we missed sunrise.
Zion happens to be the most visited national park in Utah so it is definitely more popular than Bryce, but I personally like Bryce a tad bit more than Zion. That might change if I ever hike the Narrows in Zion.