September 7, 2023 - 11:02 am
Outlandishly priced hotel rooms, nonsensical Interstate 15 traffic and hourlong queues for park shuttle rides. Who could blame any Southern Nevadan for being reluctant to visit Zion National Park’s famed canyon with its towering sandstone walls, winding river, shifting autumn light and tiny opportunity to spot one of 300 free-flying California condors remaining on the planet?
Sticker shock and crowd cringe aside, a visit to one of the West’s most stunning and heavily visited natural treasures can be filled with joyful and inspiring moments. Careful planning and compromises can erode some of the hassle and make your trip unforgettable, in a good way.
Hotels in the Hurricane area, for instance, are only 20 miles away from the Zion gateway town of Springdale, yet the choice means getting a room for under $200 a night. Timing your interstate travel right and catching one of the first morning shuttles at Zion’s visitor center are also smart, stress-reducing strategies. So is renting a standard or electric bicycle to bypass the shuttle bus ride along Zion Scenic Canyon Drive. Don’t forget to bring sandwich fixings and plenty of snacks to avoid long lunch lines and hangry outbursts.
Second-most popular park
Zion, only a three-hour drive in ideal traffic from Las Vegas, was second in popularity last year only to the Grand Canyon among iconic national parks in the Western U.S. In recent years, the Southern Utah park has seen a significant spike in visitor volume. In 2021, the park had more than 5 million visitors, up from about 2.6 million visitors a decade earlier.
With Zion’s beauty now taking the breath away from so many people, it’s become difficult but not impossible to find uncrowded spots on trails early in the morning and later in the afternoon. Generally, the biggest crowds are found near the visitor center, at the lodge and along the riverside trail leading to the start of the in-the-river path called the Narrows. Quieter areas include the Court of the Patriarchs and Big Bend, both with shuttle stops, shorter walks and places to sit and enjoy the views. The 3.3-mile, out-and-back Watchman trail, which begins close to the visitor center, has become a personal favorite in part because it’s accessible without having to travel up canyon by shuttle or bike.
In early September, the first Zion Scenic Canyon Road shuttles of the day leave the visitor center at 6 a.m., but the start time switches to 7 a.m. from Sept. 18 to Nov. 4. With the exception of a few weeks in fall and winter, cars aren’t allowed on the 7-mile Zion Scenic Canyon Road leading from the visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava. That’s the final shuttle stop and where a short path leads visitors to where many step into the Virgin River and begin the Narrows hike with wooden sticks in hand (always check weather and safety conditions first).
The cost to enter Zion National Park is $35 for anyone who does not have an annual park system pass. After gaining entrance, there are no additional costs for riding shuttles up and back down Zion canyon or on the nine-stop loop that connects the visitor center to hotels in Springdale, where many visitors end up parking because of crowded conditions. Midweek visits are a pleasant alternative to weekends. If that’s impossible, try to plan for Sunday, rather than Saturday, to be your most ambitious Zion day.
Here’s a less-crowd-stress, less-hotel-expense itinerary for a quick weekend getaway to Zion National Park:
Friday: Drive from Las Vegas to Hurricane area for a reserved two-night hotel stay.
Saturday: Wake up before the sun, pack a lunch and snacks for the day, eat breakfast, drive 30 minutes to Springdale, arrive at Zion visitor center parking lot by 6:30 a.m. (cross your fingers for an available space) and get in line for the shuttle. Take the shuttle to the last up-canyon stop, Temple of Sinawava. Hike along Riverside Walk in the canyon’s shade, and be on the lookout for deer, squirrels and birds such as woodpeckers and American dippers. Displays of fall foliage and seeing the start of the Narrows trail are highlights on a path that’s packed with splendid scenery along the Virgin River.
Board the down-canyon shuttle and get off at the Big Bend stop. Here you may catch a lucky glimpse of a California condor, and park wildlife specialists often have scopes available in case of a sighting of the endangered bird with a remarkable comeback story. The next stop might be the Grotto, which has access to the strenuous West Rim Trail leading to Scout Lookout or along the moderate Kayenta Trail, which has an option to go to the Emerald Pools.
Once back on the down-canyon shuttle, the next stop would be Zion Lodge, which will be packed with people that time of day. Whether to stop at the Court of the Patriarchs will be another judgment call that could be based on the size of crowds gathered at stops waiting to board a shuttle. Stopping at Canyon Junction might be a good idea for anyone who wishes to get more steps on Zion trails. It leads to the Pa’rus trail, an easy 1.75-mile paved route leading back to the visitor center, parked cars and Springdale shuttles.
Biking Saturday alternative: Wake up with the sun, pack a lunch and snacks for the day, eat breakfast, drive 30 minutes to Springdale and arrive at a Springdale bicycle rental shop when it opens after you’ve made reservations earlier in the week (several outfitters exist; inquire about keeping your car there while you ride; cost for full day can top $100 for an e-bike). Ride to Zion fee station and into the park; take Pa’rus trail and then get on the same road shared by up-canyon shuttles; stop when and where you’d like along Zion Scenic Canyon Drive.
Look for wild turkeys foraging near Zion Lodge, great blue herons fishing in the Virgin River and deer crossing the relatively quiet road reserved for shuttles and bikes only. Enjoy the scenery and details of a canyon oasis that supports diverse plant and animal life.
As you ride, remember that shuttle bus drivers must remain idle until bicyclists have pulled off the road and made a complete stop. Only then can they pass bicyclists.
Sunday: Grab a beverage and breakfast at River Rock Roasting Company right when it opens at 6:30 a.m. in La Verkin; otherwise, good luck dealing with the crowds. Drive 30 minutes to Springdale, and find a spot to park at or near Zion National Park. Get on the Watchman Trail early, appreciate the vistas and be on the lookout for bighorn sheep above the trail. Have lunch. Get back to Las Vegas in time for work on Monday.