Utah’s Twin Wonders: Zion And Bryce Canyon, Utah - Travel
Utah boasts five of America’s most popular national parks and is a popular destination with RV travelers. Canyonlands and Arches National Parks are located near the city of Moab, while Capital Reef NP is located midway between Utah’s Dixie country and Moab’s red rock country. Zion and Bryce Canyon are at the base of the Grand Staircase, a massive set of sedimentary rock layers that begins at the Grand Canyon and extends north 200 miles into Utah. Each rock layer reveals significantly different geology as it proceeds north.
Zion and Bryce Canyon are located fairly close to each other but are light-years apart in their appearances. Zion’s main feature is a deep and narrow canyon created by water as the Virgin River carved its way through sandstone. Visitors enter this canyon to gaze at the cliffs and rock formations towering over them. Bryce Canyon is up on a higher step of the Grand Staircase. Standing on the edge of Bryce Canyon, you look down into the expansive canyon at eerie hoodoos, multicolored spires created by wind erosion. Each park is equal in awe and scenic wonder but completely different looking.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park is actually large, but 90 percent of the visitation centers in Zion Canyon, which can be accessed from the west or east sides of the park. From the west, gain access via Utah 9, which connects I-15 to Springdale, a town at the canyon entrance. Utah 9 cuts right through the park. From the east, travelers can also use Utah 9 (also known as the Mount Carmel Highway) to enter the park from scenic U.S. 89 at Mount Carmel.
The drive from the east gate is extremely scenic, passing Checkerboard Mesa with its unique grid pattern and groups of bighorn sheep on its way to Mount Carmel Tunnel. The 1.1-mile tunnel isn’t a problem for passenger vehicles, but RV travelers must be aware of the tunnel’s restrictions. Maximum single vehicle length is 40 feet and combined vehicle length is 50 feet, so plan your route accordingly. Motorhome drivers most likely disconnect any towed vehicle prior to the tunnel and have your spouse follow behind.
Oversize vehicles are considered those exceeding 7 feet,1 inch, in width or 11 feet, 4 inches, in height. These vehicles cannot navigate the tunnel’s twists and turns without crossing the centerline. For those vehicles, a park ranger at the tunnel entrance will issue you a $15 tunnel permit, which is good for two trips through the tunnel within 7 days. Park personnel stop any oncoming traffic and allow you to drive right down the tunnel’s center, which will prevent your RV from scraping the tunnel walls and arched ceiling. The tunnel was carved into the mountainside and has three portal windows overlooking the valley. It’s a fascinating trip, well worth the $15 fee.
Exiting the west end of the tunnel, you’ll pick your way down a series of switchbacks that descend into the valley, arriving in the community of Springdale. RV parks are located in Springdale and along Utah 9 to the west. Camping is available in Zion at the South Campground and Watchman Campground. South Campground is on a first-come, first-served basis and is primitive. Watchman Campground has tent and electric campsites but requires reservations. There is no water at these campsites, but water and a dump station are available at a central location in the campground. Zion’s campgrounds are located on a hot, desert floor with minimal shade.
Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, the road leading into Zion Canyon, is closed to visitor traffic during the summer due to heavy traffic and congestion. Park your vehicle at the visitor center and ride the free, open-air shuttle that stops at points of interest. A shuttle also travels the main street of Springdale, allowing visitors to get to the visitor center from their motel or RV park. Visitors staying at Zion Lodge, which is inside the canyon, may take their vehicles to the lodge and park there. Zion is open during the winter and private vehicles are allowed on the park road into the canyon between November and March, at which time the shuttle service returns.
The shuttle takes you from the visitor center down into the canyon until the road ends at the Temple of Sinawava, a natural, high-walled stone amphitheater. At this point, the canyon narrows enough vehicular travel is no longer possible. But a hiking trail continues from this point and is one of the most popular trails in Zion. This 2-mile trail is called the Riverside Walk and runs alongside sheer cliffs with the Virgin River at your side. Eventually, the trail runs out of room and ends at The Narrows. From here, many visitors grab one of the hiking sticks lying around and walk out into the shallow water. Intrepid explorers can wade farther upstream until you can actually place one hand on each wall of the canyon. Be wary of flash floods. Only undertake this when there is no possibility of flash flooding. Local warning signs are updated when the potential exists.
Zion is filled with wonders. There is much more to see between the entrance and The Narrows. View numerous rock formations with evocative names like The Great White Throne, The Altar, The Grotto, and The Sentinel. The Emerald Pools Trail, popular due to its easy climb, crosses a bridge over the Virgin River right across from Zion Lodge. The Lower Emerald Pools drain over the edge of a cliff and visitors pass under on their way in. Farther travel takes you to the large Upper Emerald Pools. Just north of Zion Lodge is Weeping Rock, a series of rock layers that weep water from above. For those in great physical condition who can stand the heat, the climb to the top of Angel’s Landing rewards you with an unmatched view. This flat table overlooks the valley below. This strenuous climb culminates in traversing a ridge, hanging onto a chain rail. Once at the base of the landing, additional chains are fastened into the rock to allow access to the top of the landing. Avoid hiking this trail during the heat of the day.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is only 80 miles from Zion. For travelers approaching from the west, U.S. 89 connects with Utah 12, which passes through the sandstone arches of Red Canyon on the way to Bryce Canyon.
For those arriving from the east, the park can be accessed via the spectacular drive from Hanksville through Capital Reef National Park and Escalante. This drive in itself is an event. We’ve frequently made the run between Bryce Canyon and Moab and enjoyed it. This is undoubtedly the drive where you will encounter more change of scenery in one day than in any other drive. Leaving Moab’s red rock country with its canyons and arches, you’ll arrive in Hanksville. From here, Utah 24 heads west alongside the Fremont River and in amongst the massive buttes of Capital Reef.
Heading south at Torrey, you’ll pass through the Dixie National Forest, where groves of aspens glitter in the sun as you first climb and then descend through the forest. Exiting the forest at Boulder, the landscape changes to an open and desolate area. Escalante Canyon was formed as the Escalante River rushed through, and you’ll spot oasis in spots amidst the dry desolation. The road passes along a narrow, twisty ridge with large expanses of desert on either side before it descends into the lowlands around Tropic that lead into the floor of Bryce Canyon.
Bryce Canyon is at the end of a spur road heading south from Utah 12. This road passes by Ruby’s Inn, a large tourist center that features lodging, a full-service campground, helicopter flights through the canyon, or any other visitor service you could imagine. Continuing on to the park, you’ll arrive at the visitor center, Bryce Canyon Lodge, and a pair of campgrounds with no hookups. From here, you can drive to one of the many viewpoints that overlook the canyon, such as Sunrise Point, Rainbow Point, Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Farview, or Fairyland Point. Each view is unique and all look down upon the wind-eroded hoodoos. The spires reveal the various layers of geology and are multicolored, which is the key to their beauty. Sunsets can be particularly impressive. The low angle of the setting sun brings out all the hues of reds and bright ambers in the hoodoos.
A number of hiking trails descend into the canyon. One popular route is the Navajo Trail, which begins at Sunset Point and wraps around Thor’s Hammer before passing through Wall Street and returning to your start point. This 1.3-mile loop is rated at moderate difficulty but is one of the most scenic and heavily traveled trails. The 3-mile Tower Bridge trail takes you through Bristlecone Pines, which are thousands of years old, and passes by the China Wall on its way to the bridge. While hiking, be sure to wear comfortable hiking boots with good lugged traction soles and hats, and bring plenty of water. For those who would rather ride than walk, trail rides on mules and horses can be taken on a number of trails.
When to Go
Southern Utah gets hot during the summer. Summer temperatures typically range in the 80s, although temperatures in the canyon itself are significantly hotter. Plus, the Bryce Canyon overlooks average 9,000 feet of altitude, which makes the sun’s UV rays intense and the air thin. Visitors need to be properly prepared for this environment. Zion is lower, with the valley floor in the 7,000-foot range, but temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees, and there isn’t much breeze in the canyon. Spring and fall are good times of year to visit. The brilliant fall colors can make a September trip quite enjoyable. Snow and ice can make a winter trip a real challenge and certain roads, and trails may be closed. Even in May, the Narrows at the end of Zion Canyon’s Riverside Walk trail, may be impassable due to heavy snowmelt runoff. Regardless of the season, these two parks offer some fantastic views unavailable elsewhere.
Zion National Park (435) 772-3256
Bryce Canyon National Park
(435) 834-5322 www.nps.gov/brca
(435) 834-5322 www.nps.gov/brca