Utah is packed with a lot of national parks (5 in fact!), making Utah an adventurous destination with wonders that are so uniquely striking and always a good idea for exploring. Utah is all about the attitude for those adventurous souls and also the altitude, thus its tagline is “Life elevated.” If you’re coming from a neighboring Southwest state like Arizona, you can consider taking a road trip up to Utah to visit its national parks. And if you’re in a time crunch, this article is for you.
My family and I took a road trip to Utah from Arizona, which is 6 hours away, but that’s not including the time we took up to make stops. It’s a lengthy drive and we even left in the early morning on a Friday to get to Utah, which took up most of the day. We arrived in the evening to check in our hotel at Best Western Plus Zion West (highly recommended!) in La Verkin, Utah, which is 30 minutes away and kind of the base of going up the mountain to Zion National Park.
When we went to check out Zion National Park, we arrived just slightly before sunset. Sunset flew pretty fast since this visit was during the fall time, so it got dark easily. Since it was getting dark, we did not have time to explore the national park, let alone check out the visitor center to gain some information. We did enjoy the scenic drive getting before the national park and the sights of the rugged mountains. We had to push back the plans to go explore the park by the next morning, yet we still had plans to go visit Bryce Canyon National Park.
The thought of visiting two national parks is nerve-wracking when you want to get a good experience of both the national parks. But, it’s highly doable! Zion and Bryce are an hour and a half drive from each other.
Some important tips before attempting to do both national parks in a day
First things first, allow yourself time to get up early. We woke up at 6 am to get ready, go downstairs to the lobby of our hotel to take advantage of the free breakfast (because the free breakfast started at 7 am!), then we ended our breakfast after an hour and left at 8 am.
Timing is everything as you can see. Aside from being organized with that, make sure you have plenty of gas in your car. Gas stations are so far in between and you’ll be driving along long highways.
Get to the visitor center for both as always! I always recommend stopping at visitor centers to get the best-explained guide of visiting national parks from park rangers because when you visit a new national park every time, they’re quite intimidating from how huge they are and how to find your way around.
Also, if you do not want to waste time, I recommend packing all your lunch and dinner ahead instead of stopping for it. That was something we didn’t do on our way to Bryce and being in a long line in Subway just took time away.
Let’s set a time for your exploration to each park at a maximum of 3 hours. This is good enough if you’re trying to crunch both visits in a day, but it’s always recommended that you spend a good 2-3 days and more if you want to explore each park thoroughly.
Exploring Zion National Park
Some history and information on the park
Zion National Park will be first on your list to visit if you’re heading from south of Utah. You’ll be arriving in the city of Springdale, Utah which is the city where the park is located. You’ll probably be in awe once you see those canyon walls for yourself and even before that, as you’re driving before the national park, you’ll not only see multi-patterned badlands, but other mountainous views, farms that spread in acres, homes that are luckily right there, and curving roads surrounded by smaller segments of the canyons.
What makes Zion National Park remarkable are the 3,000+ foot high red rock canyon walls. It’s also like a hiker’s paradise since it offers visitors so many hiking opportunities. It’s such a huge canyon at 147,551 acres and down deep at about 2,000 feet deep. It consists of canyon walls that are side-by-side around shallow waters called The Narrows and the area is 20-30 feet wide.
Before it became designated as a national park, it was a national monument called Mukuntuweap National Monument and in 1909, it was a protected area allowed by President William Howard Taft. By 1919, it then became what we know as Zion National Park and transferred as a national park. What does ‘Zion’ mean? It’s a Hebrew word meaning “sanctuary or refuge” that was assigned for the Mormon settlers in the 1860s.
Interestingly, the tallest canyon in the park stands at 8,776 feet, called the Kolob Canyon, and the lowest at 3,666 feet, called the Coal Pits Wash. So, how did these canyons form and how old were they around? Well, the water is what helped create the magnificence of Zion in what we see in the present-day. The rainfall from the 11,000 feet Colorado Plateau has slid down, cutting through soft layers where debris took off from its southern edge from the cliffs and slopes of the Grand Staircase.
Zion used to be a destination with an ocean, volcanoes, and already had the desert scenery. The volcanoes were a contribution to how the pressure of accumulated mud, lime, sand, and ash in thousands of feet created layers into stone. Rainwater then continued to create crack and fractures that eroded the canyons. The canyons of Zion and Kolob were estimated to be around 150 million years.
Important info before visiting
The entrance fee for a vehicle to Zion National Park is $35, which is valid for 7 days. A motorcycle is $30 and an individual with no car is $20, all valid for 7 days too. Of course, you can save more with an annual national park service pass and I recommend that you get one if you plan to travel to as many national parks as you can in a year as it will reduce your costs for entrance fees every time until its expiration date.
I would also check on the hours of the day of the week when the visitor center for Zion National Park is open until. It varies during holidays though. Here’s a useful schedule from the National Park Service site.
Take the shuttle.
The best way to get around the park is to use its daily shuttle, but make sure you get to the visitor parking lot early because it fills up quick. It’s free to take the shuttle and they leave from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. They arrive every 7 to 10 minutes. The shuttle stops at all 9 stops in the park, but remember it does take a while to tour around and get back to the visitor center as it has to circle back around and stop at other stops.
If you do not plan to take advantage of any of the stops, you can just take a joyride in the shuttle to do some sightseeing. The shuttle has the best views of the whole canyon!
Do a hike like the Lower Emerald Pool Trail (with a list of other suggestions.)
With limited time, doing the Lower Emerald Pool hike was not my original plan to hike, but it did give a good glimpse of the Virgin River and good views of the canyons… as well as the waterfall (that hardly flowed at the time)! It’s easy and scenic, but it may be heavily trafficked as many visitors do visit the park on a daily so this trail will have many visitors walk in and out. It’s 1.3 miles long round trip with a 114 feet elevation gain and it’s usually done in 1 hour.
Other easy and quicker hikes you can do for the meanwhile of visiting the park in a limited time:
- Pa’rus Trail: 2 hours long on average, 3.5 mi round trip, 50 ft elevation gain (It has a paved trail.)
- Archaeology Trail: 0.5 hour long on average, 0.4 mi round trip, 80 ft elevation gain
- The Grotto Trail: 0.5 hour long on average, 1 mi round trip, 35 ft elevation gain
- Weeping Rock Trail: 0.5 hour long on average, 0.4 mi round trip, 98 ft elevation gain
- Riverside Walk: 1.5 hours long on average, 2.2 mi round trip, 57 ft elevation gain
- Upper Emerald Pool Trail: 1 hour long on average, 1 mi round trip, 200 ft elevation gain
- Kayenta Trail: 1.5 hours long on average, 2 mi round trip, 150 ft elevation gain
- Canyon Overlook Trail: 1 hour long on average, 1 mi round trip, 163 ft elevation gain
- Timber Creek Overlook Trail: 0.5 hour long on average, 1 mi round trip, 100 ft elevation gain
Do the scenic drive and stop for some vista points.
I don’t know about you, but I love doing scenic drives around all national parks. They’ll give you the best overlook of the majority of the national park without taking up too much time if you do shorter drives. The best scenic drive in Zion can be found when you’re passing through it to get to Bryce Canyon National Park. It’s the Highway 9 to Mount Carmel Junction. It does have steep drops with no railings on some parts of the drive and there’s a cool dark tunnel dug out of a rock to pass through (with small windows to give you glimpses of Zion Canyons), but oh man, the canyons’ texturized patterns, colors, and size changes as you drive through. They’re glorious!
*You can read the continued post of “How To Visit Bryce Canyon National Park In One Day” here.
ELEVATION: 3,000 FT TO 9,000 FT
AREA: 229.058 MI²
DECLARED AS NATIONAL PARK: 1919
CLOSEST CITY/CITY LOCATION: SPRINGDALE
Find a place to stay by Zion National Park!
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