Time-wise, I’d recommend avoiding peak season. We went in February. It was very cold so you needed to take a bit more kit (crampons recommended, for example) but the trails and parks were really empty – even the most popular trails weren’t crowded, and we got to experience the hoodoos of Bryce in the snow, which was pretty special. Since it was off-season, the Zion park shuttle service wasn’t running – which was actually a blessing, as it meant we could drive ourselves right to the trailheads and not have to wait for a bus. Only downside was that a lot of the restaurants were closed, so it was really slim pickings at mealtimes! But still – overall, I’d recommend going very early (February/March) or late (October/November) in the season.
Book flights to Las Vegas, rent a car, and book accommodation near Zion (the larger of the two, this is the park you’ll spend most time in). Remember, you’re going to Utah for the incredible natural wonders – so don’t get too hung up on the accommodation (because there’s not much to choose from!!).
Here are some of the best options I could find…
WHERE TO STAY
This ranch is a great bet – excellent location between the two Parks, and more design-led than most of the things you’ll find in the area (albeit a little pricier too)! Accommodation is in secluded rustic cabins, onsite restaurant Cordwood is very highly rated, and the ranch can organise activities (hiking guides, horse riding, jeep tours).
Springdale is the town locally literally steps from the southern entrance to Zion, with a selection of shops and restaurants. There are several hotels in the town which, although maybe not the most exciting, do have excellent location going for them. The Cliffrose Springdale (a Hilton hotel) or Cable Mountain Lodge (more upmarket, with the price tag to match) are both strong contenders – be sure to book a room with a canyon view.
Plenty of good options on Airbnb, including lots of “tiny houses” (like these ones which, although small, each have their own hot tub!) – or if you’re traveling in a larger group, there are spacious ranch houses (like this one) for rent too.
If you’re on a tight budget, or just want to get up close and personal with nature, Zion also has three campgrounds.
At minimum, you want to spend two days in Zion and one day in Bryce. Buy an annual “America the beautiful” pass to the parks upon your first entry ($80); it’ll pay for itself over the next few days.
Here’s how to spend your days.
Zion: Day 1
Do these hikes on a weekday, if you can. They are popular trails that will be less crowded.
If staying in Springdale, grab breakfast and coffee at the excellent Deep Creek Coffee Company, then get into the park at a decent hour. Your first stop is The Grotto trailhead (there’s parking here, and a shuttle stop) – from here you’ll take the West Rim Trail up to Angel’s Landing, only the most iconic trail in all Zion (and not for the faint-hearted). Definitely not advisable for those with a fear of heights or young children, but totally epic and an absolute must-do for everyone else. It’s an out and back (8km total), with a fair bit of incline (uphill all the way there) and a very narrow end section with cables – check the photos to decide if it’s for you! It’ll take two to four hours, depending on how busy it is (some parts are single file) and how long you spend admiring the view at the end.
Once you’re safely back at the carpark, drive the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. There are plenty of scenic spots along the way, but if you’re craving more adventure, you can park by the Temple of Sinawava and hike The Narrows. You can see The Narrows by hiking along the paved Riverside Walk for one mile, but note that going into The Narrows requires you to hike in the river, so you’ll need the appropriate kit – details of the trail are here, but check the NPS information to determine the best time to go (in winter you’ll need a dry suit, so probably not the best time of year to do it – although in summer, there is the risk of flash floods…), and also whether you’ll need a permit (depends on which direction and how you’re hiking – upstream from the Temple of Sinawava doesn’t require one). Be safe!
Zion: Day 2
Today is for the eastern part of the park. If driving from Springdale/the southern entrance, enjoy the scenic route up the switchbacks and through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Just after the tunnel is parking for the Canyon Overlook Trail, a relatively easy out and back, that finishes up at a nice spot to sit and take in the views through the canyon.
A five minute drive away is the Many Pools Trail, which was a favourite of mine – an undulating dry river bed makes for a pretty easy hike – and a great geology lesson!
There are a number of other highly rated trails in this part of the park – listing them here, although I’ve not tried them myself:
- Cockeye Falls Trail (7.6km loop with 413m elevation gain)
- The Triplets Trail (4.5km out and back with 360m elevation)
- Clear Creek Trail (3.7km out and back, flat, with a slot canyon
- Separation Canyon Trail (4.5km with 219m elevation)
If you’ve got the time and/or energy when you’re heading back to the south exit, there’s one more trail – and a good one for golden hour: The Watchman. 5km, slight incline, but fairly easy. From here you can head straight out of the park to dinner (I’ve included some restaurant recommendations at the bottom).
Bryce: Day 3
Bryce is a ~90 min drive from Zion and, although it’s a small park which can be seen within a day, it is still 100% worth the drive. The scenery is like nothing you’ve ever seen on Earth (more like Mars, I’d say) – simply stunning, and so incredibly photogenic; I wholeheartedly believe you should make the journey out there.
Upon arrival, head straight to Sunset Point for the best views of the “amphitheatre”.
The must-do route is the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden trail, via “Wall Street”, an easy 4.5km loop that’s considered the best way to see Bryce’s hoodoos – the views from the rim are stunning (particularly after snowfall), and then you go down to the canyon floor to see them from below.
You can add on to this loop by taking the Fairyland Loop Trail from Sunrise Point (12km with 470m of elevation gain).
Now please – check your expectations 🙂 These are restaurants in a remote area of Utah, and therefore will not be on par with my usual design-led, inner-city hotspots!! Also, please do call ahead before making the trip – restaurants are often seasonal or only open on certain days, so it’s worth checking (and booking) ahead of time.
Restaurants near Bryce:
After a day in Bryce Canyon, drive the 17 minutes to Tropic, for dinner at Stone Hearth Grille. Yes, you’ll be adding miles onto the drive time back home, but this restaurant is widely regarded as the best in the area! (Do call ahead to confirm it’s open and make a reservation – this is rural Utah, and everything is closed in winter!)
A couple of others to consider:
- Showdowns, Tropic (home-style American eatery)
- idk BBQ, Tropic (casual and affordable barbecue restaurant)
- Burger Barn, Panguitch (super American, outdoor seating, barbecue)
- Calvario’s, Parowan (all-day Mexican spot)
Restaurants near Zion:
- Deep Creek Coffee, Springale (excellent coffee and breakfast/brunch)
- King’s Landing Bistro, Springdale (seasonal, European-style dishes – the top choice in Springdale)
- Rosita’s Santa Fe Kitchen, Springdale (casual Mexican restaurant with live music)
- Oscar’s Cafe, Springdale (another casual Mexican, this one with a patio)
- Moki, Springdale (New American fare within the Desert Pearl hotel)
- Stagecoach Grille, Laverkin (very American spot, with an extensive menu and lots of burgers)
- River Rock Roasters, Laverkin (good spot for coffee, breakfast and sandwiches)