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Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park – Cross Country USA Road Trip (Part 5)

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Welcome back to Part 5 of our six week road trip across the United States! In this article, we explore two of Utah’s top natural wonders: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park.

A brief recap: we set out from our home in Raleigh in early June and made it back home toward the end of July. In total we spent over six weeks (46 nights!!) on the road and drove 8,200 miles. 

Along the way, we visited 14 national parks and a ton of other interesting places. It was quite a busy trip, since we stayed in 25 different airbnbs or hotels and spent more than 100 hours traveling in the van

To cover the whole trip, I am breaking up the trip summary into thirteen separate blog posts plus a bonus article covering the trip logistics for a six week road trip for a family of five.

Here is a table of contents for our whole trip if you want to check out other parts of our journey (once those other blog posts go live!):

  1. North Carolina to Kansas via West Virginia and St. Louis
  2. Colorado: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Frisco
  3. Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks plus Ouray
  4. Utah: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park
  5. Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park
  6. Arizona: Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam
  7. Las Vegas, Nevada
  8. California: Los Angeles and Long Beach
  9. California: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks
  10. Crossing the Desert in Nevada and Utah: Hawthorne and Bonneville Salt Flats
  11. Salt Lake City, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho
  12. Yellowstone National Park
  13. Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and National Museum of the US Air Force
  14. Road Trip Logistics

Join me for part 5 of our trip across the country as we explore two of Utah’s best natural attractions: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park!

 

 This map shows our starting point at the Rodeway Inn Bryce Canyon (A). We visited Bryce Canyon during the day (B). The next day we entered Zion National Park (D) through the East Gate (C). After Zion, we spent the night in Page, Arizona (E)

After we left Capitol Reef National Park, we drove for 2.5 hours to our hotel for the next two nights. We stayed in the Rodeway Inn Bryce Canyon. It was located in the middle of nowhere about 15 minutes away from Panguitch, Utah and Bryce, Utah along the Utah Route 12 highway. 

We weren’t expecting the hotel to be much way out there in the middle of nowhere. It turns out it was pretty nice for the $56 per night per room price tag! The hotel was older but clean and in decent condition. I’m glad we got two rooms at this hotel instead of trying to squeeze the five of us into one room or suite.

The Rodeway Inn Panguitch was a nice reprieve from the $100+ per night per room places we stayed in close proximity to other national parks. Recreational lodging inflation was alive and well for us in the summer of 2021! 

Amazing landscapes throughout Bryce Canyon National Park

Exploring Bryce Canyon National Park

After a good night’s rest, we got up and headed out to Bryce Canyon National Park for another day of sightseeing. After a short 15 minute drive, we were entering the park gates. 

Bryce Canyon offers a shuttle bus to take you around to all the overlooks and trailheads. We decided to drive it ourselves so that we could maintain our own pace. 

As it turns out, parking was never an issue for us. Overall the park wasn’t that crowded. 

Easy parking to stop and check out the landmarks like the Natural Bridge

We also got lucky with the weather. It was slightly windy, partly cloudy, and drizzling a tiny bit with the temperature around 70 degrees. Perfect weather after many days of roasting in triple digit heat in the blazing sun. In fact it was cool enough that I had to bust out my lightweight windbreaker to keep comfy!

I really enjoyed Bryce Canyon. It’s one of the more unique parks we visited. The park’s main attractions are the hoodoos, or vertical columns of rock, protruding from the ground. Over the millennia, the water, wind, and ice eroded away the softer rock and left the harder stone of the hoodoos covering entire valleys and sloped hillsides in Bryce Canyon. 

Breath-taking views in Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)

We spent most of our time driving around to the various overlooks and walking a bit at each one to check out the different vantage points.

Hiking in Bryce Canyon… A little bit

Near the end of our day in Bryce Canyon, we walked along the rim trail between Inspiration Point and Sunset Point. It’s a little over a mile round trip between these two points, but we turned back before we completed the full hike. Then we drove to Sunset Point to check out those overlooks. 

Our family is on the rim trail on the left side of the photo

We thought about doing the Navajo Loop Trail at Sunset Point. It’s a mere 1.3 miles in length but includes 550 feet of vertical elevation gain. Since we had so many days of back to back walking/hiking, we were tired. We decided to skip this trail and enjoy the scenic vistas from the rim of the cliff. I’d like to go back and do the Navajo Loop trail at a future point should we find ourselves back in central Utah. 

The steep section of trail. A series of a dozen or more switchbacks descending hundreds of feet to the valley below.

As the day drew to a close, we hit the road for the short 15 minute drive back to our hotel. 

Bryce Canyon was a favorite for me. Those steep canyons between the tall hoodoos were cool!

We departed our hotel near Panguitch, Utah and headed south toward Zion National Park. It’s about a one hour drive to the eastern Zion Park entrance gate. From the eastern entrance, it’s another 30 minutes drive west to get to the main parking lot for Zion. 

Once we cleared the eastern gate, the wonders of Zion began! So many beautiful rock formations along both sides of the road the whole way in. We were planning on exiting the park through the same route, so we postponed exploration at the overlooks along the entrance road till we exited the park later in the day.

Along the drive into Zion National Park.

Encountering difficulties within Zion

Eventually we passed through a tunnel then a series of switchbacks that brought us down to the canyon floor and the central part of Zion. At this point we encountered some horrific traffic congestion. We knew Zion would be busy but the road construction made the traffic jams even worse. 

Traffic backed up for a mile on the switchback road in the valley below. At least the view was nice while we waited!

We persevered and eventually made it to the parking lot after an extra 30 minutes of waiting in traffic. At least the views from the traffic jam were pretty! 

Let’s talk for a minute about setting proper expectations. I was fully expecting Zion to be a complete clusterf*#k based on everything I read/saw. Traffic congestion, impossible to find parking, long lines for shuttles, crowds everywhere, low water levels in the rivers and waterfalls.  So I showed up expecting problems. 

I’d say the park “met expectations” in that regard. It’s still worth visiting in general, but I’d suggest visiting other parks during the summer because it was so crowded. Unless you like Disney World. In that case, enjoy the park during peak summer season. It’ll be just as hot and crowded but without the humidity (and high price tags!). 

We searched for parking for a long time, then waited in line for the bathrooms, then waited in line for the shuttle, then waited for the shuttle to drop us off at the lodge in the middle of the shuttle loop. 

Exploring the main central section of Zion National Park

Once we got off the shuttle, we scrambled to find an unoccupied bench. We enjoyed our picnic lunch in the shade and shortly set out for a quick hike to the Lower Emerald Pool and waterfall. 

We were very fortunate to snag an empty bench in the shade in the central part of Zion.

The trail was extremely packed with people. Almost like we were on a guided tour. 

Eventually we made it to the falls. Or more accurately, “the dribbles”. The flow rate over the lip of the falls couldn’t have been more than what we get from our bathroom sink. There was no Emerald Pool to speak of. Basically just a small puddle of murky water.  

Emerald Pools lower “falls”. Not much of a waterfall when we visited!

At least the Virgin River that runs along the trail had some water in it. That was probably the most scenic part of the hike. 

Virgin River as it runs through Zion National Park.

We headed back toward the lodge to refill our water and use the restrooms. We waited in line for the bathrooms. Then we waited in line for quite a while for the shuttle bus to the next stop to arrive.

One major theme of our visit to Zion was “waiting”. 

As the shuttle bus pulled out of the parking lot and headed left, I quickly realized that this wasn’t taking us to the next stop in the park. Instead, we apparently got on the shuttle headed back toward the main parking lot.

We were going in the wrong direction. It would have been nice if they announced before they departed that the bus was southbound/heading back toward the parking lot. And there was no way to get off the bus. The next (and only) stop was the main parking lot! 

Mrs. Root of Good and I quickly discussed this mistake. We really didn’t feel like spending another 30-60 minutes riding the bus and waiting in line just to get to another hour in the park before they close for the day.

We accepted our mistaken bus ride as a sign that it was time for us to move on. 

Zion wasn’t a total bummer though. As we exited the park through the eastern entrance, we stopped at several overlooks and scrambled up, down and around the rocks and had a generally good time. The sun dipped lower in the sky and the heat of the day started to dissipate. We had a better time once we got away from all the crowds (and away from all the waiting in line!). 

The slope wasn’t too steep so we were able to climb up the side and relax on our way out of the Zion park
Checkerboard Mesa

Thoughts on Zion National Park

Am I glad I visited? Yes. 

Will I ever again visit in summer when they don’t cap the number of entrants? Unlikely. 

They have been capping the number of admissions per day in highly popular parks like Yosemite and Rocky Mountain National Park. There has been talk of doing that in Zion and I hope they do exactly that. 

It’s a great park overall with lots of potential. For us, the crowds, long lines everywhere and high heat worsened the experience inside the main section of the park. 

Once we got out of the park, we headed east through some beautiful desert landscapes. It was about a two hour drive to Page, Arizona where we stayed in an Airbnb for two nights. We arrived right as the sun was setting (which seemed to happen an awful lot on our trip!). 

Our family of five visited Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park in Utah in the summer of 2021. The most impressive part of Bryce Canyon was the strange looking hoodoos, or stone pillars that protrude from the hillsides and valley floors throughout the park. The vibrant orange coloring added to the amazingly unique scenery. 

Once we got to Zion National Park, we continued to be amazed at the sheer stone cliff faces and smooth rock inclines. The most popular section of the park in the center proved to be very crowded, so our experience wasn’t as enjoyable as it could have been. Overall, it’s a very pretty scenic National Park, but one best visited off season once the crowds and high heat dissipate. 

Do you prefer a vacation where you see a lot of things? Or a slower paced itinerary with more rest and relaxation?


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