Planning a trip to Southern Utah can seem a bit overwhelming at first. I spent three days in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in mid-March and I think it was a perfect length of time to do the two parks. Both parks are small and unless you’re doing a lot of back country hiking, a day or two in each should be enough.
It’s amazing to think that Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are just a few short hours from each other. They are such dramatic landscapes and so different. Bryce Canyon National Park has its unique hoodoos and striking orange rocks that makes you feel like you’re walking on Mars. Zion National park on the other hand is an oasis in the desert and has some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. You could spend weeks exploring The Mighty Five in southern Utah, but here I’ll share how I spent three days in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.
Why Bryce Canyon & Zion National Parks?
If you’re not from the Southwest or haven’t spent time there, it feels as if you’re on a different planet. It is a hiker’s paradise, but I think there are also plenty of activities for non-hikers. Because I only had a few days, I chose the two parks that were closest to each other and I could easily drive it and get in some quality hiking. It was a decision based on practicality but I have no regrets! I mean, can you even get over these views?
Planning your trip
I visited in March and the weather was amazing. There was actually a cold spell and I had to buy gloves at a gas station in Bryce City, but that is perfect for hiking. If you are able to, I’d recommend visiting during spring or fall since it can get quite hot in the summer.
As far as the best times to actually go into the parks, I always recommend going in early in the morning or later in the evening. Despite this advice being all over the internet, folks still visit in the middle of the day! So beat the crowds and get up early. When I’m planning a trip that heavily revolves around the outdoors, I check sunrise and sunset times for my destination and use that to set my schedule.
Another note that I always plug when talking about national parks: the national parks pass! There are national parks all over the country and if you plan to visit more than two in a 12 month period, it will pay for itself.
Unless you are close enough to drive from home (or are embarking on an epic road trip, in which case tell me all about it!), you pretty much have to rent a car. I rented a small SUV and it was perfect – particularly during the random springtime snow in Bryce City! If you are not offroading and are confident that the weather will be clear, a sedan should be fine.
Las Vegas is a common airport to fly into for a southern Utah road trip, but I chose to fly into the St. George, UT regional airport. St George is very close to Zion National Park and makes a convenient start and endpoint. The biggest thing to know is that you will be driving several hours between destinations on this trip, so where you fly in and out of is just part of the equation.
Bryce Canyon and Zion National parks are fairly remote, but you have multiple lodging options for both. Camping inside the parks is probably the most traditional way to experience them, but it is quite difficult to get reservations. Check out the parks websites to see availability (Bryce Canyon | Zion). You can find hotels for nearly every budget – I recommend using Booking.com to filter for what you need.
I chose to stay in Airbnbs for this trip based mostly off of affordability. The plaice I stayed in Panguitch was a cool old sheriff’s house. It is not a private house, though – I shared a bathroom with other guests. I honestly never saw anyone else and barely heard them. The days I visited Zion, I stayed in Hurricane at this comfortable little guest suite. The host was lovely and very responsive to my few inquiries. She left snacks and a ton of information – I wish I had been able to explore more of the area!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park is home to the largest collection of hoodoos in the world…but what in the world is a hoodoo? A hoodoo is a tall and thin geological formation formed by thousands of years weather-induced erosion. They are typically found in dry and arid areas. Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos are a vivid orange which makes them even more striking. Several Native American tribes used the canyon and plateau as hunting grounds for over 10,000 years, but full time settlements were not likely. Spanish and Mormon pioneers (and likely others) passed through the canyon over the last several centuries. You can read more about the history of Bryce Canyon National Park here.
Zion National Park is nothing short of a breathtaking oasis. Similar to Bryce Canyon which is just 75 miles away, evidence shows that early humans used to hunt mammoth and giant sloths in the canyon. Early mormon settlers named the canyon Zion, which means “refuge” in Hebrew. The entrance to the park is on the south end of the canyon and it gradually narrows as you drive north. It narrows so much that it ends in a river bed that visitors can hike – unsurprisingly called “The Narrows.” It is common to see many times of birds, rabbits, and mule deer while exploring the trails.
Fun fact: my trip to Bryce Canyon & Zion National Parks was the last place I visited before the world shut down due to COVID-19. I had a work event in Dallas and wanted to take a few days off following. After a bit of research, I decided to visit Southern Utah and booked a quick flight to St. George.
I remember hearing about the coronavirus before leaving for Dallas, and everyone at our meeting was slightly more on edge. Even before the pandemic, I was that person that always traveled with hand sanitizer and clorox wipes, but this felt different. Everyone was just a bit more weary and the man who coughed incessantly on the plane.
My husband called me just after I arrived in Utah from Dallas and asked if I’d been paying attention to the news. We talked about what would happen if my flight was cancelled, since they were already cancelling some from California. I decided that I simply wouldn’t return my rental car and I would make the trek home. Fortunately, that was not necessary. However, I did return home on March 11, 2020 – the day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Itinerary: Three Days in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks
Start your three days in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks by flying in and picking up a rental car or by driving from home. Head straight to Bryce Canyon National Park. It took me about two and a half hours to drive from the airport in St. George (SGU) to the park entrance and it was a very simple drive.
I always recommend making a stop at the visitor’s center to grab a map and check out any posted closures or warnings. There are a few viewpoints where you can see the incredible canyon, but Sunrise Point is probably the best.
From Sunrise Point, you can take off in either direction and walk the Rim Trail pretty much as far as you’d like to take it. It is only paved between Sunrise and Sunset Points, but remains fairly easy. After a day of travel, you’re probably starting to get a little tired – so save the canyon hike for the morning. Once you’ve explored the rim of the canyon and taken some epic photos, drive along the 18 Mile Road to where it ends at Rainbow Point.
Rainbow Point offers spectacular views of the Canyon from the south. From the Rainbow Point parking lot, you’ll find the trailhead for the Bristlecone Loop. This trail wanders through trees over 1800 years old and is only one mile long. It is flat and a nice way to end your first evening in the park.
Bryce Canyon City is right outside the park entrance and is an easy place to find food and lodging. It is a bit touristy and you’ll only find hotels or camping, but it can’t be beat if you’re looking for convenience. Because I visited during the shoulder season, many of the local restaurants were closed. I had dinner at the Cowboy’s Buffet & Steak Room. Although not fine dining, after a long and exhausting day it was nice to have a filling meal!
I chose to stay at an Airbnb in Panguitch, about 30 minutes outside Bryce Canyon National Park. It was more affordable than any hotels I could find and I do love a good historical home. This Airbnb was formerly the sheriff’s home and legend has it that wild west outlaw Butch Cassidy was detained there for a night! It did have a shared bathroom with other guests, but as I mentioned before that was never an issue. When determining where to stay, you should decide if distance or cost matters most to you – that will narrow in your choices.
Day two is the most action-packed day of this itinerary! Wake up early and head into Bryce Canyon. If you stay nearby, you’ll get to sleep in an extra 30 minutes. I always like to head into the parks about an hour before sunrise. Park at Sunrise Point and pack up your backpack for a morning hike.
To see the quintessential Bryce Canyon, start hiking the Queen’s Garden trail down through the hoodoos. If you’re comfortable hiking for several miles, continue on that trail to the Navajo Loop. It will split there and you can do the Navajo Loop (if it’s open) or cut down a connector trail to the Peekaboo Loop. I continued down the trail for about another mile before deciding to turn around. If you are enjoying yourself and have nice weather, by all means continue! Just remember that you have to hike back up out of the canyon at some point and it’s no joke.
From the canyon, you have a few options on coming back up to your car. You can come back up the way you came down, through the Queen’s Garden. This is generally considered the “easiest” trail up and down, but requires you to back through scenery you’ve already seen. Another option would be to go through the Navajo Loop up to Sunset Point and then follow the Rim Trail back to your car. The third option is to follow the Peekaboo Loop trail up to Bryce Point and then back via the Rim Trail. Keep in mind that option three is about 7 miles of moderate to strenuous hiking and could take 4-5 hours.
After you have completed your morning hike(s), wave au revoir to Bryce Canyon and start the drive to Zion National Park. It should take about an hour and a half to drive to the east entrance of Zion National Park. Although, you should probably stop to have lunch along the way. There aren’t many options, so grab a bite to eat before you leave Bryce City or stop in Glendale along the drive. Of course, if you pack a lunch there are plenty of places to pull off and enjoy the views while you eat!
I loved driving into Zion Canyon from the east side – it is full of switchbacks and cool rock features. Drive slow to soak it all in and be watchful for other drivers on the narrow road. You should start your visit to Zion National Park by hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail. The trailhead is right at the east side of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. So, driving in from the east you should start to look for parking as you get closer to the tunnel. There is a parking lot at the trailhead, but it is tiny. Most parking is spread out along the road leading up to the entrance. Here is the exact location of the parking lot.
The Canyon Overlook Trail is only about a mile long and is easy to moderate. However, the real payoff is the view! This was my first taste of Zion Canyon and I was completely blown away. With more time, I can definitely see myself setting up a picnic on the rocks here and spending hours enjoying the scenery.
Once you’ve soaked up the view, hike back down to your car and drive through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The tunnel is just over a mile long and was created as a direct link between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. Before it was finished, visitors would have to drive 2-3 hours around the north or south. If you’re traveling in an oversized vehicle, make sure you check the requirements. Buses, RVs, and vehicles that are towing a trailer can only go through the tunnel at certain times to avoid collisions.
If you still have a few hours of daylight left, I highly recommend hiking to Upper Emerald Pool. Drive to the visitor’s center and park, then catch the shuttle to the trailhead. When I was there, you did not need to schedule shuttles in advance. However, during the pandemic they have implemented a reservation system. So you should check that here before you go.
You can start your hike to Upper Emerald Pool at Stop #5 or Stop #6, and end at the other. The Lower and Middle Emerald Pool trails make a small loop south of the Upper Emerald Pool trail. Since you’re taking the shuttle, you can hike just the Emerald Pools loop and go in and out at Stop #5 or take the Kayenta trail in or at from Stop #6. You can find a map here.
I chose to stay at an Airbnb in Hurricane due to budget and availability. Laura’s guest suite was perfect for what I needed and was about 30 minutes away. There are plenty of hotel, camping, or bed and breakfast options in Springdale if you prefer to stay closer to the park. Zion National Park also has a lodge inside the park, if you want to be as close as you can get.
On the last day of your three days in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, get up early! If you’re here for hiking, you must give Angel’s Landing a try. It is a strenuous hike that is not for anyone with a fear of heights! I actually did not make it all the way to Angel’s Landing because it started lightning. I stopped at Scout Lookout for a snack and a storm rolled in. That made my decision for me and I hiked back down in the rain. I will definitely give it a try the next time I visit, though!
If you’re afraid of heights, but still love a difficult hike – go ahead and hike up to Scout Lookout! The views are still incredible and you get to “experience” Walter’s Wiggles.
After you’ve burned some serious calories, reward yourself with an elk burger from Blondies! If you have time, you can take the shuttle throughout the whole route. I found it to be very informational and interesting. The visitor’s center is always worth a stop, as I’ve mentioned before. While there are miles of trails to explore, Zion National Park isn’t actually that large. This three day trip was probably just enough to convince you to return.
There you have it – how to spend three days in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks! If you love adventure and the outdoors, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are a must-see. If you have more time, you should definitely explore the other national parks, national monuments, and state recreation areas in Utah. Like I mentioned, you could explore Utah for weeks and never visit all of the stunning places.
If you’re looking for another two-National Park itinerary, check out my guide to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks and my packing list for that trip here. I find pretty much all of my flights on Google Flights and have written an in-depth guide to using that powerful tool. Once you’ve booked your next trip, be sure to read my carry-on must haves before you pack.
Have you ever been to southern Utah? What National Park was your favorite? There are tons of other recreation areas, too – I’d love to hear recommendations in the comments! I will definitely be back to Utah before too long.