The Ultimate Road Trip Guide to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park

We did this trip in early August 2021 and loved it!  These national parks are absolute gems of the American Southwest. The desert heat is no joke so please prepare accordingly, especially if you plan on going in the summertime. Read on for our pro tips and a sample 5-day itinerary for your next adventure!

Zion National Park

During peak season, private vehicles are not allowed to drive through the main park, so you’ll have to plan everything around their wonderful (air conditioned) shuttle system.  This is a very popular park so appropriate planning is key if your goal is to avoid crowds (ie start your day EARLY)! 

There are so many different hikes for different ages and abilities- if your fitness level allows, I would do the longer, more strenuous hikes at first light before heat becomes a concern and makes everything exponentially more difficult.  Then, save the shorter, easier hikes for the afternoon.  For us- our mornings were filled with hikes and adventures, our afternoons consisted of naps and prickly pear margaritas and ice cream, and our evenings were us trying to capture sunset photographs at easy-to-access lookouts!

Bryce Canyon National Park

This is like the eclectic little sister of Zion.  It is smaller, less popular, but so wonderfully unique!  It’s only a few hours of a drive from Zion, so many people combine visiting these two parks in one trip.

I had never seen so many hoodoos and rock formations like this before, and at sunrise and sunset, the colors beaming off of those layers are quite a magical sight to see.  You’ve just got to experience it in person. 

When Should I Visit?

  • Summer is peak season and you must be prepared for the heat.  This is when we did our trip. However, the longer days allow for ample time for multiple adventures and things to do, and this is when the free shuttle bus runs throughout the park.
  • Spring – this would not be a good time to visit the Narrows and slot canyons due to high water levels, but may be a good time to do the other hikes
  • Fall – this is a time I would love to return to this area as there are fewer crowds, cooler temperatures and probably some of the trees showing off some of their color change.  Keep track of when the shuttle bus times start and end as these will change as the days become shorter
  • Winter – access to some trailheads may be limited if there is snow.  The shuttle system is closed so private vehicles are allowed to drive through the park which does give you more flexibility.  But remember winter temperatures in the desert can be frigid and icy so you must be prepared

Need to Know

  • You will need to pay for an Entrance Pass for each park, or you can use your annual America the Beautiful Pass for any hiking on any National Park trails
  • You will see a recurring theme here: start your hikes early! This is for the best crowd control, and in the summertime, to avoid excessive heat
  • Bryce Canyon National Park in particular sits at 8,000 feet and higher elevation above sea level- this will play a role in how you much more strenuous hiking and breathing may feel
  • There is a free shuttle system that runs for part of the year- be sure to check the shuttle hours- expect there to be lines and crowds at peak hours

Our Itinerary:

Day 0: Fly into Las Vegas

  • We landed late in the evening, so we just grabbed our rental car and checked into our Air BNB for the night.  But we would’ve loved to have the opportunity to catch sunset at nearby Red Rock Canyon or Valley of Fire State Park, so if you have the time to visit these local Las Vegas parks, we highly recommend it!

Day 1: AM Drive from Las Vegas to Zion NP + PM Hike Canyon Overlook Trail

  • We stayed at Zion Canyon Campground, which was literally just outside the park entrance and walkable to everything “downtown”
  • We had the plan of hiking The Narrows the following day, so we ordered rental gear ahead of time. So, we picked up our gear rental (warm weather package at Zion Outfitters) because we planned on starting tomorrow’s The Narrow hike earlier than the rental shop opened.
    • Also, in preparation for The Narrows, please ensure the weather forecast is in the clear (ie no chance of flash floods) for the Narrows!
  • Since we arrived in the late afternoon, we only had enough time for a quick sunset hike at Canyon Overlook Trail
    • This is a quick 0.5 mile hike from the trailhead (so 1.0 mile total), but involves a small amount of elevation (187 feet of gain)
    • Note- parking is difficult here- minimal designated parking lots. Most folks lined up their cars along the street. We were surprised at how hard of a time we had finding a parking spot- likely because of all the other sunset chasing photographers out there!
Trailing headlights seen from Canyon Overlook Trail at sunset

Day 2: AM Hike the Narrows + PM Sunset at Zion Canyon Junction Bridge

  • AM: The Narrows Hike
    • Don’t forget the gear that you rented yesterday!  This is an absolute must.  You’ll need special water shoes and a pole for stability.  We used a waterproof dry-bag we got from Amazon to store our cell phones and keys.  
    • Pro-tip: start EARLY.  You do not want to miss your chance to get onto the shuttle. 
      • The first shuttle arrives at 6am, so we were in line with other folks trying to catch the first shuttle by 5:30am 
    • Take the shuttle all the way to the last stop (Temple of Sinawava).  Walk along the river for about a mile before entering The Narrows.
    • We started at the Riverwalk and hiked from “bottom-up” and hiked in as far as Big Springs (a slew of adjacent waterfalls) then turned around, which clocked about 10-11 miles. 
      • Really you could turn around at any point since it is an out-and-back, but I recommend at least getting the point of “Wall Street,” which is at least 4 miles in before turning around- this is where the tall canyon walls very dramatically close in on one another- it is very picturesque (see trio of photos below)
    • This was such a unique experience- the canyon walls surround you and it is quite an adventure simply wading through water of varying heights which takes incredible balance and awareness.  That being said, the walking pole is a lifesaver and you will go much slower than your average hiking pace.  We were exhausted by the end of it but it was so worth it!  
    • We were done by lunchtime, returned our gear at the rental shop, and spent the next hours finding ways to stay cool in the hot afternoon sun
Big Springs waterfalls above denotes the turn-around point for our Narrows adventure
  • PM: Sunset at Zion Canyon Junction Bridge
    • We were super relieved when the hot afternoon sun gave way to a cool desert night
    • We decided to try our hand at sunset photos from nearby Zion Canyon Junction Bridge- this was super easy to access and just a few minutes of a drive from our campground, just past the entrance through the Park. We easily found parking along the road.  No hiking necessary.

Day 3: Hike Angels Landing in Zion National Park

  • This is 5.4 miles roundtrip with 1,488 feet of elevation gain
  • Things have changed since we were last here!  Now, you need a permit to do this hike. Learn how to obtain one here.  
  • Again, start EARLY! To beat crowds, and for this one, to beat the heat if you’re doing it in the summertime! 
  • We again, for the second day in a row, caught the 6am shuttle bus and got in line at 5:30am to make sure we got on the first bus.
  • This is a strenuous hike- it is steep and dangerous, and sections of it you’ll be holding onto metal chains and holds.  You’ll need sturdy hiking boots/shoes and to be in good shape.  And at the top, the panoramic views looking down into the grandiose valley will, quite literally, take your breath away.

Day 4: AM Hike Observation Point at Zion + PM Bryce Canyon National Park

  • AM: Hike Observation Point at Zion
    • We had the idea of catching sunrise at Towers of the Virgin, which is just behind the Zion Human History Museum but decided last minute to try our hand at another, different, less traveled perspective of Angels Landing and into the valley
    • The hike itself does not have much elevation (700 feet total), but by distance alone, it is a moderate hike (8 miles total, out-and-back)
    • We had to park outside of the park and hike in from East Mesa Trail because the main entrance to this hike (from inside the park) was not accessible due to a rockfall at the time
  • PM: Drive from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park- hike Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop
    • The drive from Zion to Bryce took about 1.5-2 hours and it is a gorgeous one
    • We started at the Sunrise Point Trailhead (but you can also start at Sunset Point Trailhead since this is a loop) and hiked the Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop
      • In my opinion, if you only had one time to do one hike in the entire park, this would be it.  It was one of my favorite hikes out of this entire trip. The large rock formations and the red hoodoos just envelope you! It is a magical desert landscape.
      • It’s only 3 miles round trip and 625′ gain, but by the time we reached here, it was already in the dead heat of the afternoon, which made every step much more difficult! This, and the several switchbacks and sandy, loose ground beneath your feet will make this hike feel harder than it may seem on paper.
      • NOTE: parts of this hike may close in the winter- please check the National Park Service website for the most up to date information and closures
  • PM: Sunset at Bryce Point
    • We grabbed dinner and then checked into our campsite at Bryce Canyon Pines Campground (which is just outside of the actual National Park)
    • Then we returned to the National Park to catch sunset at Bryce Point

Day 5: Sunrise at Inspiration Point then Travel Home

  • This was our travel day… but not before we caught sunrise at Inspiration Point!  This is a viewpoint that is a short walk from the parking lot. 
  • Now THIS is one of my favorite sunrises to date.  It was a quiet, crisp morning- a high desert morning where you still need gloves and a hat- a stark contrast to the heat that will soon arrive with the sun. 
  • The combination of colors in such a distinctive landscape felt like a magical world.  This should be on everyone’s bucket list.  
  • We also had a bit of time to check out the Visitors Center, which we are total nerds about, but we thought this had one of the coolest exhibits we had seen at a Visitors Center! 

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