Destination

Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Utah, USA

TL;DR

  • Stay
    • Rodeway Inn (near Zion), 650 W. State Street, Hurricane, UT 84737
      • Very friendly staff in a no-frills hotel
    • Rodeway Inn Bryce Canyon, 3090 UT-12, Panguitch, UT, 84759
      • I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this place but it was $50/night and on the way back to Vegas from Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Eat
    • China Buffet, 222 W. State St., Hurricane, UT 84737
      • Did you really go eat Chinese food in Utah? Yeah yeah. It was open, I was hungry, and I didn’t want diner food. That said, I would not go out of my way to eat at this place again
    • Henrie’s Drive-In, 166 N Main, Panguitch, UT 84759
      • Have a Chubby Cheese and fries. You’ll be happy. If you’re really hungry and it’s hot outside, bide your time with a baby swirl (a small ice cream cone…no harming kids here)
    • Target
      • If you’re gonna be walking through these national parks, buy a loaf of wheat bread, a jar of Skippy creamy, and some jelly (I picked strawberry, but whatever floats your boat)
  • See
    • Zion National Park, 1 Zion Park Blvd., State Route 9, Springdale, UT 84767
      • Angel’s Landing was my one and only hike. Well worth it, though I would advise you to consider spending a couple days here as opposed to one afternoon
    • Bryce Canyon National Park, UT-63, Bryce, Utah 84764
      • The Rim Trail is an easy way to see a lot. If you’re feeling adventurous, wander down into the Bryce Amphitheater for a longer hike or drive to Rainbow Point for views from on high
    • Kolob Canyons
      • Technically Kolob Canyons is part of Zion National Park, but it is easily accessed off Interstate 15 at exit 40. Worth a look for its easy trails and the fact that it’s not crowded at all

 

Trip Background

Back at the start of April 2017, I left my job knowing that I had a week off between the end of my former role and the start of my new one. I decided to try my hand at a short trip and several American national parks have been on my list ever since I bought the National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the USA.

Part of the appeal of coming to Utah and to Zion specifically was this desire to conquer my fear of heights. Awhile back, I heard about this company in Silicon Valley called Medallia. During their onboarding, part of their orientation activities exposes people to some of their greatest fears and then helps those folks conquer their fears. As a result, people who join the organization feel like they’ve accomplished something major when they get to work, and I really admired this style of thinking. My wife and I had been talking about visiting national parks, but I’d always come up with an excuse (it’s too far / I don’t have the time / I’d rather go elsewhere). When I started researching national parks and heard about Angel’s Landing at Zion, Utah shot up the list. Oh, and this trip makes my 29th state!

By the way, if you want some ideas on what to pack (and what not to pack for this trip), see below. I over-packed and unintentionally made the hikes harder on myself than I had to:

Must Haves

  • Camelbak Hydration System + lots of water
  • Hat + Sunglasses
  • Suntan Lotion
  • Snacks (energy bar, almonds, and peanut butter/jelly sandwiches worked for me)
  • Sturdy hiking shoes
  • Shorts
  • A camera or phone to snag the memories of being up on high

Nice to Have’s

Beyond this, you really don’t need a lot. Just a spirit of adventure and a willingness to see the great outdoors!

Day 0: Transit

I arrived in Las Vegas on a Tuesday to see my cousins and my uncle and spent the afternoon loading up on supplies from Target. If you’re doing a lot of hiking, buy a couple gallons of bottles water, suntan lotion, any snacks you might want for the hikes. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were my go-to food; they’re cheap, easy to make, and transport easily. Renting a car is the easiest way to get to Zion and Bryce Canyon and I managed to book mine a week in advance for $69 through CarRentals.com.

Day 1 (April 12, 2017): Driving from Vegas to Zion and Hiking Angel’s Landing

As I left from Las Vegas with a cup of coffee and bagel in hand, the sun was shining and blue skies invited me to enjoy the ride. The first hour away from Vegas is pretty boring, but then you come to the Virgin River Gorge. It will be your first reminder of truly awesome sights. In order to see beauty in the world, one need only look around at the natural landscape of a place relatively untouched by mankind (minus that whole highway I was driving on). Jagged canyons carved out by the river’s erosive powers coupled with beautiful color mixes…it really is a breathtaking visual.

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The Virgin River Gorge

You’re technically in Arizona at this point, but your time in the Grand Canyon state is short-lived, as you cross the border into St. George, Utah. If you’ve not done any research, you can stop at the Visitor’s Center. A helpful fellow named Dean was manning the desk and was quick to notice my San Francisco Giants hat. A brief but spirited discussion followed about the cost of renting in San Francisco (his son just moved back from there) and the 22 McDonald’s franchises that he owns. Then with some questions on the parks answered, I bid him adieu and set off to continue my journey.

After you pass St. George, you’ll come to State Route 9 and the Hurricane Valley. The landscape noticeably changes here – patches of dramatic rolling hills. You will see green on top of brown on top of orange on top of white, along with the first highway signs that call out Zion National Park. You’ll also start driving through a couple of charming communities.

The first of these towns is La Verkin – which is literally the bridge to Zion – cross over a very cute little bridge as you drive over the Virgin River again. Eventually, you come to the town of Rockville, which appears almost like an oasis in the middle of the desert. Well paved roads with two lanes and lots of street parking and bed and breakfasts, green lawns and small homes – all of which comes after a major industrial highway.

As you drive, you may feel compelled to pull over and admire the natural beauty. While I would advise you to do it safely and with the other motorists in mind, you should definitely soak up the scenery. Even as you pull up to Springdale, the small town just outside the gates to Zion National Park, have a gander at nature’s beauty.

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Just outside Springdale, UT

The easiest thing you can do is to park in Springdale and take the free Springdale shuttle which makes numerous stops in town before delivering all of the eager visitors right to the front door of Zion. Stop 1 (Zion Canyon Village) is the closest to the park and Stop 9 (Majestic View Lodge) is the furthest. If you park further, you’ll likely get a seat for the drive – but it will take longer to get back to your car later. If you’re staying in Springdale, this point is moot cause you should just park at your hotel and then walk to the nearest shuttle stop. But if you’re not staying locally, figure out where you can park and then hop on board the closest stop.

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The sign once you get to the main gate

When you pay your park fee (or show your pass), you’ll receive a map and newspaper guide which distinguishes the easy hikes for the more strenuous ones. Each hike is identified by difficulty, duration, distance, elevation change(s) and a brief description. I recommend doing your reading before you arrive so you don’t waste time.

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Angel’s Landing Trail

By the time I got into the park, it was past 1 PM. Luckily I had already set my sights on Angel’s Landing, in spite of the fact that my brother-in-law (who is a park ranger and has worked at Rocky Mountain National Park and Volcanoes National Park) told me it was a strenuous hike. After entering, you board a second bus line (the Zion Canyon shuttle line) that takes you within the park itself. Be forewarned, the line just to get on the bus can be long!

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This is the line just to get on the park shuttle!

To get to Angel’s Landing, take the shuttle to The Grotto (stop #6), where a lovely reminder of your imminent death awaits you at the base of the trail.

The first part of Angel’s Landing is a set of easy trails and reasonable grades with enough space for several people to hike up and down at the same time. The views get progressively better as you continue to ascend.

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About 20 minutes in – see how happy I look?

After proceeding through a canyon, you’ll get to Walter’s Wiggles, which is a set of switchbacks (21 in total) that may leave you a little winded. It definitely made me a bit dizzy. But my advice is take your time here. You’re increasing your elevation quickly and you’ll feel it if you hit it too hard.

When you reach the top of Walter’s Wiggles, congratulations!

However, you are NOT done. Please do not make the mistake I made by thinking you are finished with the hike. This is called Angel’s Landing for a reason.

As I came to terms with my non-accomplishment, I realized the trail descended to a small plateau, then continued climbing. I contemplated suspending my efforts there but suddenly a small, angry voice inside my head began complaining.

“Dude. Are you going to come this far and stop now? If you physically can’t, fine. But if you can, then quit your whining and let’s go.”

I’m not in super great shape but I made it to the summit in a little over two hours (from start to finish), in spite of my occasionally paralyzing fear of heights, the single lane walkways that permit people to ascend or descend at any given time, and just a lot of people who were hiking that day.

I’ve spent the last year and a half making sure I recognize what I am grateful for, and this view was definitely one of those experiences. I mean, look at that view from the summit!

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I turned back to look at winding trail that I’d just vanquished and it was an amazing feeling:

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After spending 15 minutes admiring the view, I began to descend. By the time I got back to that original first landing, the sun had started to set and shadows had already darkened one side of Angel’s Landing.

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Looking back at the conquered summit

When I came out of the canyon and began to start descending rapidly, it was late afternoon. The long shadows that started to encroach on the valley turned my previous visuals into an incredible set of photos.

With a couple hours of daylight left, I took the shuttle back to the Zion Lodge stop and decided to take a breather to have a snack, rehydrate, and read. This place is great for families as the green space is perfect for picnics, sports, and general frolicking.

I took the shuttle back into Springdale, got into my car, and drove into Hurricane, UT, about 23 miles away, where I stayed at the Rodeway Inn. Unless you want to go big and get a hotel near the park, you may have to consider Hurricane for your lodging. There’s not a whole lot of dining options here and I opted for the local Chinese buffet. If I could do this over again, I probably would have sought out other options…any other options! :-/

Day 2 (April 13, 2017): Bryce Canyon National Park

With a solid afternoon of hiking behind me, I contemplated returning to Zion for some greater exploration, but I didn’t want to miss out in seeing Bryce Canyon. So I decided to take the long way to Bryce. The quickest drive from Zion to Bryce Canyon involves a circuitous journey: west on State Route 9 from Springdale back to Interstate 15, going north for almost 70 miles, then going east on State Route 20 and south on U.S. Route 89.

But if you have the time and inclination, what you should consider is taking route 14 – it’s a slow, winding route where the max speed does not exceed 40-50 mph, and there’s numerous drop offs…so if you’re afraid of heights, this might not be the best place. But the trade-off is that you may will be treated to spectacular views – including snow-covered plains in mid-April, as I was fortunate to see. Then you turn back onto US 89 where the speed limit rises, but the number of beautiful views decreases.

Regardless of which route you take, you’ll eventually need to take State Route 12 east until you reach State Route 63 South and eventually reach the town of Bryce. My original plan was to park in town and take the shuttle into the park, but shuttle service started (literally) the day after I arrived at Bryce. So as a result, I drove my car into Bryce Canyon National Park with the intention of driving to some of the various sites and then hiking. Realizing I would have to pay extra to drive my car in, I asked the ranger at the booth if the annual pass was an option. It was –  and she told me that I could even get a refund for my entrance to Zion since I had just paid that the previous day! If you plan to hit up a few parks and drive to any of them, this pass will pay for itself in a hurry.

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As you drive in, the visitor center is your first stop on the right. You can grab a drink or a souvenir here, but I decided to bypass the center and head directly to Sunset Point so I could hike as much of the Bryce Amphitheater as possible before I could see Rainbow Point.

There’s more than enough scenery here to take your breath away, and if you start at Sunset Point, continue south along the rim towards Inspiration Point and Bryce Point.

The speed of your journey is totally up to you. The good news is that if you need a break while walking, there’s plenty of places to take a breather. Especially here:

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The best seat in the house

Another lesson I learned was that if you want spectacular photos, try to avoid coming here at midday. Morning and late afternoon provide the best visuals and I started to catch some of my favorite photos at the end of the day (around 4 PM).

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The colors look better later in the afternoon

After I’d spent a couple hours hiking the Rim Trail, I returned to my car and drove south to Rainbow Point. You’re at over 9,000 feet when you get here and the views will reflect how much altitude you’ve gained just by driving here.

 

One thing to be careful of is the wind. Because of the height, it’s quite blustery and you might lose a hat if you’re not careful!

With the day coming to a close, I left the park – but not before getting one souvenir. Bryce has a reward program that’s designed to let you see a lot and also be rewarded for your hiking efforts. If you walk at least three miles and capture either a rubbing of or a photo with the various hiking images, you’ll receive a cool prize!

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I Hiked the Hoodoo’s!

From there, I drove 20 minutes to the town of Panguitch to the Rodeway Inn Bryce Canyon. This place was a bit of a dump as the room smelled like industrial coolant or paint and the hurricane-strength wind gusts kept doors slamming, but it did allow me to find a safe place to crash for the night. After checking-in, the hunger bug hit me so I drove into downtown Panguitch in search of food. The practical side of me opted not to try two straight nights of Utah Chinese food and my wandering eye spotted Henrie’s Drive-In on the side of the road. Henrie’s is a cute little burger joint famous for the Chubby Cheese – a big burger that earns its name well. The prices here are quite modest and the food was delicious, but make sure you’re patient. They cook to order and seeing that some people had been waiting awhile, I also ordered a small ice cream (what they term a baby cone).

With a burger-driven coma happily taking hold of me, I spent the rest of the evening watching TV before I passed out.

Day 3 (April 14, 2017): Kolob Canyons

For my last day in Utah, I decided to stop at Kolob Canyons on the way back to Las Vegas. Kolob is part of Zion, but it’s about 40 miles north of the Zion Canyon and most easily accessed off exit 40 on Interstate 15. Kolob is a great contrast to the rest of Zion because of the reddish roads, the ease of which you can get in and hike, and the fact that it has way fewer visitors.

I drove to the trailhead for the Timber Creek Trail, a super easy, hour-long walk that had a few families ahead of and behind me. When you get to the end, you’ll know it because you’ll see the sprawling terrain down below you and because you’ll have nowhere left to walk.

 

With that, I bid Utah adieu and drove back to my cousin’s home in Las Vegas to chill out for a night before flying back to San Francisco the following day.

Final Thoughts

My trip to Utah was a whirlwind and I can’t believe I actually considered trying to do all five (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef) in one trip. That would have been nuts. Even the two parks I did see merit more than an afternoon each. If you’re planning to hit these two (or start at Salt Lake City and see the other three), make sure you book enough time to adequately plan and explore each well. I did my trip planning with less notice than I would have liked and without any camping – but in spite of that, I really enjoyed my time. I returned to San Francisco physically tired and mentally rejuvenated; ready to take on the challenge of a new job. And I look forward to getting back to Utah to either dive deeper into Zion and Bryce Canyon or to see Arches, Canyonlands, and Capital Reef.

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