It’s almost the weekend and you’re itching for a getaway! But where to go? If you’re near Los Angeles, hop in the car and get on the I-15 highway toward Vegas (but don’t worry, that’s not our final stop). We’re headed past sin city and into Southern Utah for some hiking and fun in two iconic National Parks: Bryce Canyon, known for its orange-red hoodoo formations; and Zion, a behemoth of a playground famous for the Narrows and striking walls of rock that tower over the park.
Four hours into your drive, as Las Vegas fades from your rearview mirror, you’ll see signs for Valley of Fire State Park. The red sandstone formations make for a fun detour on the 10.5-mile road that runs through the park, where you can visit Elephant Rock, see petroglyphs at Mouse’s Tank and have a picnic near the Fire Wave.
A few more hours on the road . . .
Bryce Canyon National Park
Just before entering Bryce Canyon, you’ll drive through Red Canyon’s two carved tunnels.
But once in the park, you can pitch a tent (or park your RV) at North campground or Sunset campground (only open April to October). Starting in May, you’ll want to make reservations. If you prefer your stay to include some creature comforts of home, book a room at the Bryce Canyon Lodge.
Head to the Amphitheater (if you’re staying at the Lodge, you’re already there), Bryce Canyon’s main attraction. If you’re lucky, there might still be a soft blanket of snow dusting the tops of the hoodoo rock formations.
The go-to hike here is the Queens Trail-Navajo Loop trails. You’ll start by walking along the Rim Trail from the parking lot area toward Sunrise Point and the Queens Garden trailhead. This otherworldly trail takes hikers down into the canyon, where you meander around–and sometimes straight through–the park’s iconic hoodoo formations. On the canyon floor you’ll reach the Navajo junction, where you’ll continue to wander through this magical landscape, now decorated with fir and pine trees. The three-mile trail ends with a series of steep switchbacks with Thor’s Hammer waiting at the top as you end at Sunset Point.
If you haven’t gotten your fill of hoodoos or want to try a longer trek, take the Fairyland Loop, which also starts near the Sunset Point end of the Rim Trail. This scenic counter-clockwise loop is eight miles and worth the trek, especially if you’re looking to escape the crowds.
To get to the next park, you’ll need to drive about an hour and a half . . .
Zion National Park
You’ll probably enter Zion from the east entrance if driving from Bryce Canyon, which means you’ll begin your time in the park with a scenic cruise along Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. It’s a beautiful road with a tunnel that opens into Zion’s main stretch.
If you’re camping here, book a site at Watchman campground or take a chance on the first-come sites at South campground. If you’re not camping but want to stay in the park, Zion Lodge is your place. Otherwise, there are plenty of lodging options in Springdale just outside the park.
With only a few days in Zion, it’s best to plan for one challenging hike, two moderate, and two-to-three easy hikes.
If you’re ambitious (and not terrified of heights), Angels Landing is a rewarding trip. The Narrows is perhaps the most popular (and crowded!) Zion hike that wades through the Virgin River inside of a gorge. (Note: as of April 2017 the Narrows is closed due to snowmelt. Check here for updates.)
The Emerald Pools trail begins at the .5-miles Grotto trail and can be as easy–or difficult–as you want depending on if you choose to visit the lower, middle or upper pools. Watchman Trail is another moderate 2-mile hike (which was actually built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934. The CCC also built one of Pinnacles NP’s most popular trails.)
Easier hikes include the Riverside Walk, a paved, flat path along the Virgin River that ends at the entrance of the Narrows and the Weeping Rock trail, which is a short .5-mile roundtrip paved uphill climb. If you’re looking for an easy sunset or sunrise stroll, take the Pa’rus trail from the South campground for a stunning view of the Watchman’s face and Zion’s landmarks.
–The Wandering Alligator
Interested in visiting more National Parks? Check out this weekenders’ guide to Death Valley National Park.