Hike, Gasp, Relax, Repeat In Zion & Bryce National Parks

2 December 2015

Arguably the greatest idea to ever come out of the USA is the national park. Two of the best are just a short drive from Las Vegas and billions of years of work have gone into making Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park breathtaking adventures that offer something for everyone.

 The Zion National Park landscape is full of natural wonders.

Head east on Veteran’s Memorial Highway and before you hit the border, you’ll see hints of the spectacular scenery waiting for you at Zion. It’s all a warm up though for this 24-kilometre canyon that cuts nearly one kilometre deep through red Navajo sandstone.

Zion was declared a National Park in 1919 and is one of the most popular in the USA, receiving three million visitors each year. And for good reason. A visit to Zion will allow you to tick off buttes, mesas, monoliths, natural arches and, of course, the slot canyons it is famous for. With nearly a dozen hikes that you can undertake in half a day, you can climb high or low under your own steam, take a guided hike, or go horse-riding, rock-climbing and canyoning – or canyoneering as the locals call it.

 Try canyoneering and get your feet wet in the Virgin River.

The Narrows is the most popular part of the park to visit and has a range of options for a hike down into the base of the canyon that will allow you to appreciate the scale of the cliff walls and get your feet wet in the Virgin River. Walking The Subway will throw in a bonus sighting of dinosaur tracks.

For a dizzying approach to seeing Zion, the spectacular but hair-raising Angel’s Landing hike is a strenuous day trip to 1,760 metres that is absolutely not suitable for children or anyone with even the slightest aversion to heights.

 Is it a butte or a mesa? Learn all about topography at Zion National Park.

Before you take on any of the hikes in the park, check in at ZNC Visitors Centre for the permits required and talk to the rangers. Zion is susceptible to storms and dangerous flash-flooding, so it’s best to check the latest conditions before you undertake any unguided activity in the park.

There are strict conditions imposed on self-driving through Zion in the peak season, with shuttles providing your only four-wheeled transport option through the parks from April to October.

 Do a RV road trip to experience the glory of Bryce Canyon.

From Zion, it is just a 90-minute drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. Before you get to the colder, higher, less-visited Bryce Canyon though, you’ll drive through 1.7 kilometres of a dark and narrow tunnel cut through Mount Carmel in the 1920s. This amazing feat of engineering is punctuated by galleries, which allow in natural light and the occasional glimpse of the dramatic scenery outside. If you’re travelling in a RV, you’ll need to check the hours that you can drive through.


57 more US national parks to explore. The Complete Guide To US National Parks

More USA inspiration. 101 Must-Dos In The USA In 2016


If seeing Zion is a bottom-up approach, Bryce Canyon is the more traditional top-down. You’ll approach from a plateau, looking down into what geologists say technically isn’t a canyon, rather a series of giant amphitheatres. If you’re feeling a little foot-sore, Rainbow Point sits at the end of a 29-kilometre scenic drive, with 13 stops to get your camera racing on the way. You can self-drive all year round in Bryce Canyon, but the free shuttle is intended to encourage visitors out of their cars.

 Don't let the hoodoos voodoo you at Bryce Canyon National Park.

With fewer visitors, hiking in Bryce Canyon is a more private affair, giving you a chance to quietly brush up on your geological formation knowledge or possibly to see an endangered Californian condor in one of this giant bird’s last habitats. While Bryce Canyon doesn’t have the range of formations you’ll see in Zion, it does have the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos. These distinctive red, orange and white structures are also known as fairy chimneys, and make for some magical vistas.

The Queen’s Garden/Navajo/Peekaboo loop offers options to hike up to 10.5 kilometres in a figure-8 among the hoodoos. Almost every hike in Bryce Canyon and in Zion comes with a pre-dawn start time but if you’re in Bryce Canyon near a full moon, take in one of the guided night hikes for an eerie experience.

 The vivid hues at Bryce Canyon National Park are a photographer's dream.

Year-round, if you slow down and spend a few nights in the parks, the Utah night skies will reward you with some of the world’s best stargazing.

Both parks are worth several days each, and there are with plenty of accommodation options available both within and nearby the two parks. Take your time getting out into these magical worlds however you want – wearing hiking boots or snowshoes, by bike or horse or 4WD - even then you’ll never see everything you want to.  But you’ll be glad you tried.

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Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to the USA.

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Carolyn Swindell

Sydney-based writer Carolyn Swindell has a fear of heights and a love of wine. She has explored both on all seven continents and thinks the internet was invented purely to help make travel plans. By many trials and many errors, she is learning how travelling with small children can be fun. Find her at @puffycee