Planning Guide and Itinerary for Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park
Deserts, canyons, mountains, red rock formations, hoodoos, you can find all of these and more packed into a total of 5 national parks that make up southern Utah. It’s no wonder this region hits record breaking numbers of visitors each year with Zion and Bryce Canyon leading the pack.
When I got the opportunity to visit Utah for a long weekend, Zion and Bryce Canyon were at the top of my list and they did not disappoint. I absolutely loved my time in both parks so I’ve outlined everything to consider for your own visit.
Best Time to Visit Zion and Bryce Canyon
I visited Zion and Bryce Canyon in February and truly loved the peace and quiet of the off-season. While you do risk running into inclement weather, if you are properly prepared the ice/snow will enhance your views instead of interfering with your plans.
Pros to Winter Visits
- Snow capped views
- No crowds: this means you can drive through the park, no waiting for people to pass on popular trails, no waiting for shuttles throughout the park
- Lookouts and viewpoints completely to yourself
- Off-season pricing at hotels
Cons to Winter Visits
- Prepare for icy conditions (more layers to pack, crampons)
- Some trails/roads may be closed or less enticing
- Part of Bryce Canyon was closed due to snow but we were still able to see so much (it just made our decision on which trails to take much easier!)
- Road Closures: upper parts of Kolob Terrace Road, Lava Point
- Shorter days – less sun in the winter means you might not have as many hours in the outdoors as you want.
Pro Tip: Make sure to stop at the visitor centers of each park to get an update on trail conditions/closures and suggestions for things to do.
Packing Must-Haves for Winter Hiking
- Fleece and wool layers
- Shell or Rain Jacket
- Hand warmers (temps can drop to 30-40 F especially at dusk through the early morning)
- Sturdy, waterproof hiking boots will come in handy if you run into snow
- Crampons for icy trails
- Sunglasses – the bright sun will reflect off the snow
- Sunblock – mostly just for your face (I didn’t use any on my first day and got a sunburnt nose!)
- Camelbacks and Nalgeen (remember you can still get dehydrated in the winter)
This time of year the sun beams down on the red and orange colors of Utah and the parks become somewhat of a madhouse of visitors. In the same way that you can have a great visit in the winter with some planning and preparing for unpredictable weather, you can also have a great summer visit by planning and preparing for crowds.
Pros to Summer Visits
- All trails are open: in most cases, you won’t run into trails being closed due to icy conditions or maintenance.
- Longer days: more daylight hours means more time for activities
Cons to Summer Visits
- Crowds mean long wait times for the shuttle service when getting around the park and most likely a wait for restaurants when it’s time for dinner
- Very limited parking within the park that will require you to use the park shuttle service (which is a great service but I like being in control of my own schedule)
- Peak summer pricing for lodging
Pro Tip: not really a pro tip but more of a warning – temps are HOT (like 100 degrees F hot) so make sure to bring lots of water on your hikes and wear sunscreen of course!
Packing Must-Haves for Summer
- Hiking boots or trail shoes (trails are well maintained but can be rocky)
- Shorts, sweat wicking shirts
- Camelbacks, Nalgeen
- Electrolytes (great if you’re sweating a lot)
Where To Stay near Zion and Bryce Canyon
Inside of Zion: Campsites and Zion National Park Lodge
Both options book up quick (as do most other locations near the park really) so make sure to book and reserve far in advance.
Springdale: The town right outside of Zion which is where we stayed and where I would recommend staying for convenience and value. There are a bunch of restaurants in the town that you can easily walk to for dinner.
*Highly recommend Hampton Inn & Suites
Inside of Bryce Canyon: Campsites and Bryce Park Lodge
The Town of Bryce: a few 2 star hotels and campsites but seemed to be a bit more dated than the lodging around Zion.
You will need a rental car to get around especially if visiting more than 1 park in the area. In the winter months, you’ll be able to find a parking spot within each park with ease.
Zion’s park shuttle is an excellent way to get to popular trailheads and lookouts. You can park at the Visitor’s Center then take the shuttle to desired trailheads. In the summer months, there’s a town shuttle that can take you to the first stop of the Park Shuttle so you don’t have to worry about grabbing one of the limited number parking spots within the park.
Note: you can drive through Zion NP in the summer months but will still need to pay the park entrance fee.
Day 1: Zion National Park
Tip: Stop at the grocery store first thing to stock up on trail snacks and pack a lunch for each day. This will allow you to maximize time on the trail and guarantee lunch with a view!
Wake up early and grab breakfast at the hotel or stop for coffee at Perks (open at 6am). An early morning start will get you to the visitor center inside Zion when it opens at 8am. You can check in with the rangers on trail conditions and make sure you’re properly prepared for a day of hiking.
First Stop: Emerald Pools Hike
Distance: 2.9 miles
This is an easy, heavily trafficked loop that gives you some different perspectives of the park and natural pools. The waterfalls may be more of a sprinkle in the winter months, but the steep canyon walls are still a sight to see. The hike is broken up between the lower, middle, and upper falls – being that it’s a relatively easy hike, I suggest going all the way to the upper falls.
Next Stop: Angel’s Landing
Distance: 5 miles out and back
Elevation: 1630 ft
You can continue on the trail from Emerald Pools and start on Angel’s Landing. This is a grueling, uphill climb that will definitely require crampons on certain sections in the winter (crampons are like chains for your boots that help with icy conditions).
There will be a chain to hold onto towards the top while sheer drop-offs are on either side of the trail. With lots of exposure at a great height, this hike isn’t for the faint of heart. There have been a few deaths in recent years, so please be careful and use the safety precautions if you decide to do this hike!
I was awe-struck when we got to the peak. Getting 360 views of the park, looking down into the valley, it’s truly a breathtaking sight. Also, the top is a perfect spot for a lunch break 🙂
Final Stop: Temple of Sinawava (Entrance to The Narrows)
After finishing Angel’s Landing, you can rest your legs on the park shuttle while listening to some fun facts about the park and head to the trailhead for The Narrows. You can take a leisurely walk through some of the canyon and catch a glimpse to see why The Narrows is such a popular hike.
Finally, it’s time to head back to the hotel and grab some dinner. I recommend Bit & Spur Saloon for Tex-Mex and Margs – a perfect meal to make up for all the burned calories from the day.
Pro-Tip: Make sure your hotel has a hot tub (The Hampton Inn does!) and take full advantage after a long day of hiking.
Day 2: Zion National Park
Disclaimer: We did not get a second day in Zion National Park so I did not complete the hikes listed on this day (we opted for Park City, Utah due to a work conflict requiring me back in Salt Lake) but if we had a second day this is what we would’ve done! Always check trail conditions first.
First Stop: Zion Observation Point
Distance: 8 miles out and back
Elevation: 2300 ft
Due to rockfall at the time of this posting, you may need to start at the East Mesa trailhead which would change the elevation and distance slightly. This hike is rated strenuous but the views would make it worth it, I’m sure. I love a difficult hike that rewards you for your hard work with a beautiful view of dramatic landscape.
Next Stop: Canyon Overlook Trail
Distance: 1 mile
Elevation: 150 ft
Now on the opposite end of the spectrum, the easiest hike in the park with one of the best views: Canyon Overlook Trail. This one is certainly popular and parking can fill up (the shuttle doesn’t reach this trail). It’s also a great spot to watch the sunset (or even the sunrise for you early birds!)
Where to Eat
End your day with a quick stop at some of the local shops near the park entrance then head to the Spotted Dog Cafe for a tasty dinner.
Day 3: Bryce Canyon
The drive from Zion to Bryce is about 1.5 hours so plan your wake-up time accordingly. We left around 7:30am which worked out pretty well for us.
Bryce is less popular than Zion, especially in the winter, so we essentially had most of the trails to ourselves and ample parking at the trailheads.
First Stop: Tower Bridge Bryce Canyon
Distance: 3.4 miles out and back
Elevation: 826 ft
This is an easy to moderate hike that starts out at a higher elevation. You’ll get sweeping views of the park’s hoodoos and end at one of the park’s unique rock formations – a literal natural bridge.
Next Stop: Sunrise Point to Sunset Point via Queen's Garden and Navajo Loop
Distance: About 4 miles
Elevation: 600-800 ft
This hike was my favorite part of Bryce Canyon; I couldn’t get enough of the orange canyon walls and otherworldly-looking hoodoos all around me. You get to walk through small tunnels or walkways carved into the canyon and the end of the hike leads you back up the canyon through switchbacks. This hike also takes you past Queen Victoria, Bryce Amphitheater, and up to Thor’s Hammer.
Special Note: Bryce Canyon is at about 8000 feet elevation so it’s normal to get out of breath easily if you’re not accustomed.
Have you been to Bryce Canyon or Zion National Park?
Comment below if you plan to go or there’s anything you think I missed!