Utah, home to some of the world’s most famous and awe inspiring national parks, is a hidden gem of the mid-west. It is a pleasurable retreat for those who seek comfort in wilderness. To witness this spectacle of nature, we decided to spend a long weekend in Utah exploring two of its most famous national parks—Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.
In order to avoid the long weekend rush, we picked the week right after Memorial Day for our adventure. The airports nearby are Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and St. George. We chose St. George because of its proximity to the parks. If you do not want to spend a lot of time driving, pick St. George. Just make sure you book in advance, since there aren’t many airlines that fly there.
I would recommend staying inside the park, since it saves a lot of time and the experience is so much better. You can camp inside the park or stay at the lodge. The lodges usually sell out very soon, so book at least three to six months in advance.
From St. George to Bryce Canyon is a three hour drive (including some rest breaks). I was awed by the landscape around me as we started driving from the airport towards I-5 North. Vast open spaces reveal themselves as you drive up the highway. As you approach Bryce Canyon, you will come across the bright red hoodoos of Red Rock Canyon which will give you a sense of what you will see and experience in Bryce later on.
If you stay at Bryce Lodge, the famous “amphitheater” is just two hundred steps from your room. The vastness and beauty of this amphitheater can leave you spellbound. I saw miles and miles of strange and beautiful formations unfolding before me. The fact that these natural formations have been there for several years give it a sense of timelessness. How amazing is nature! These formations have been standing, maintaining their balance, unshaken by rains and storms over several million years.
You can walk the rim of this amphitheater or take the shuttle that goes around the park, making stops at major tourist attractions like Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point and more. If you are up for a short but steep hike going deep into the canyon, Navajo Loop trail is a good one. There is also a short hike that starts from Sunrise Point goes around The Queen’s Garden and Thor’s Hammer and brings you to the originating point of Navajo Loop. You must hike Inspiration Point. It is a very short hike, but steep climbs take you to one of the highest lookouts overlooking the amphitheater. You can feel the air getting thinner as you climb up. The name is apt—you will leave inspired by the variety and scale of the formations.
The Rainbow Tour is offered free to park visitors. You need to book it in advance at the Visitors Center, usually a day prior to your trip. It is a short three-hour trip that takes you to the highest elevation points in the park—Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point. The bus also makes several stops along the way and gives you ample time to explore some notable hoodoos. The tour guide also shares some interesting trivia about the local fauna, history and origins of the park. Some interesting points of interest on this tour are Natural Bridge, Aqua Canyon and Ponderosa Point.
If you are short on time then the attractions covered above are pretty much what you can cover in a day and a half at Bryce. If you are staying at the park, the lodge offers a very comfortable stay and is walking distance to the shuttle bus. Dining options are limited in the area, but the lodge dining hall has an impressive menu and an even more impressive wine list. The dining hall takes reservations for all meals, but walk-ins are also welcome.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park is a ninety-minute drive from Bryce, and an hour’s drive from St. George. There are several entrances to the park but the one from the east side is the most scenic and gives you an opportunity to drive through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel. Look out for Checkerboard Mesa and Zion Arch as you drive.
Zion receives thousands of visitors every day, and to avoid the traffic on what is mostly a single lane road, the park provides a shuttle that covers all the major points of interest. The quickest and simplest way to see the park is to ride the shuttle and get off at stops that interest you. Simply leave your car in the parking lot and enjoy the recorded narration in the shuttle that tells you about the significance and history of each of the major attractions. Zion is an eco-friendly park, where bottled mineral water is not sold in stores or restaurants. The gift shops sells reusable water bottles made with recyclable plastic that can be refilled at each shuttle stop.
The Temple of Sinawawa is the last stop of the park shuttle, and also the originating point of the famous river water hike, “The Narrows.” It is a 16-mile hike through the narrow rock formations on the Virgin River. The water is not cold, and you can always do a part of this hike, instead of going all the way. It is quite an awesome feeling to paddle your way through water, as you balance yourself on the bed of rocks. Make sure you pick up walking sticks from the gift shop to help you on your way.
Like Yosemite, Zion is a favorite for hikers. Some of the noteworthy hikes are Angel’s Landing and Observation Point, which are both quite strenuous. There are several small to medium hikes in the area and some of them are also wheelchair accessible. Make sure you get a daily park newsletter (or check with a ranger) to know which hikes are currently open.
The Emerald Pools trail is small but interesting and starts right opposite Zion Lodge. This hike can be completed in less than two hours.
Some other major attractions of the park are—Weeping Rock, The Great White Throne, (which can be best viewed from Angel’s Landing) and The Organ. You can also enjoy quick photo opportunities at the Court of Patriarchs and Canyon Junction. There is a short scenic trail that runs from Canyon junction to the Human History Museum, called the Pa’rus trail.
Don’t miss a short break at a small waterfall, halfway through this trail. The museum is a great place to catch the sunset and also offers great views of the West Temple, the Sundial and the Altar of Sacrifice. There is also a movie that is screened every hour about the origin and development of Zion National Park and the people who inhabited this region once upon a time. If you have additional time on hand, Kolob Canyon is a great area to explore and hike.
Unlike Bryce, Zion has plenty of food options in the vicinity and you don’t have to depend on the food available in the lodge and the cafe. The town of Springdale is eight miles from Zion lodge and offers plenty of options to satisfy your appetite.
Our three day tryst with nature in Utah left us wanting more of it. The silence and grandeur of these parks is imprinted in my memory and there is no doubt in my mind that I will be back to explore more of Utah in the coming months and years.
One of the pleasures of living in the United States and especially on the west coast is the proximity to natural wilderness that is well maintained and regulated by the National Park Services (NPS). We take the best things in life for granted and NPS is one such organization that is undervalued and is currently operating under severe budget cuts. Let’s do our bit, and helps NPS maintain these splendors for us, so we can keep coming back.
Shivam Khullar is an astute business consultant, an opinionated writer, an avid reader, a creative cook, a hopeless coffee lover, a light traveler and a loving wife.