Greater Zion: Three-Day Exploration
From intricate slot canyons to peaceful sagebrush flats, wild wonders spread across southwestern Utah. Zion Canyon is beloved for good reason. But when it comes to this astounding region, it’s just a starting point. In partnership with our friends at AutoCamp, we schemed up a dreamy three-day itinerary, using their new Zion location as our home base.
Day 1: The Zion Canyon Classic
Hop on and off the shuttle for an awe-filled highlight reel.
Zion Canyon shuttles begin running at 7 a.m. It’s advisable to catch an early one: smaller crowds first thing, more of the day to enjoy. Get off at the Grotto stop–this is the starting point for the epic, and slightly treacherous, Angels Landing hike, but save that for another time. Instead, opt for the Kayenta Trail, which runs along the river at enough of a height to offer sweeping canyon views without Angels Landing’s heart palpitations. The trail hooks up to the Emerald Pools route, where three spring-fed oases greenly beckon. Get back on the shuttle and make a stop at Big Bend–as its name implies, a large curve in the Virgin River. Enjoy a picnic lunch (perhaps from a pre-park sandwich stop at Cafe Soleil in Springdale, or from Zion Lodge) with views of the looming rock formation known as the Great White Throne. Look out for regal, comeback-making California condors, who like to perch here. At the shuttle’s final stop, it’s just over a mile on the Riverside Walk to the Temple of Sinawava, where the canyon walls grow tall and close. The tired-legged can sit here and revel, while the ambitious can wade into the river and check out a mile or two of the Narrows.
Day 2: Kolob Terrace—A Quieter Zion Experience
Spend the day exploring the less-seen scene.
The easiest part of the park to access from AutoCamp Zion is just up Kolob Terrace Road. Head north to drive into the park’s southwest quadrant, surrounded by scrubby desert flora. Lower-elevation hikes include the spectacular left and right forks of North Creek, each of which offers plenty of opportunities for dips and crowd-free canyon scenery. (Both routes are challenging, dangerous in wet weather and require backcountry permits. Inquire at the Visitor Center about current details.)
As the road rises in elevation, it traverses private land, then enters the sublime transition zone of the Lower and Upper Kolob Plateaus, where the temperature drops and Gambel oak and ponderosa pine replace desert scrub. Those seeking a long warm-season hike can stride among sagebrush on the Hop Valley Trail, which strikes out northwest toward remote La Verkin Creek. For a shorter trek, take the 2.5-mile trail to the Northgate Peaks from the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, a route that pays high dividends in scenery for relatively little exertion, as it doesn’t entail much elevation gain. Just north of the trailhead, look for pleasant picnic sites on the left side of the road. From there, the ascent continues, through ranchland and past summer cabins to the aspen groves and grand vistas of Lava Point Road. On a hot summer day, consider continuing to Kolob Reservoir, a local favorite for swimming, camping and trout fishing.
Day 3: Choose Your Bryce Canyon Adventure
Marvel at the sea of orange hoodoos by hike or by horseback.
Though it’s a bit of a haul from AutoCamp Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park, it’s an enjoyable one: The drive itself is stunning, beginning with the slickrock paradise that is the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Make a lunch stop in Orderville, where sandwich-slinging newcomer The Shop Coffee Co. shares a converted mechanic shop with East Zion Adventures. (Note the gorgeous mural on the wall by local landscape artist Kierstin Johnson.) When you arrive at Bryce Canyon–home of the largest assortment of the strange balanced rocks called hoodoos found anywhere–choose your mode of enjoyment:
SHORT HIKES, LONG VIEWS
Beginning at Sunrise Point, the 1.8-mile Queen’s Garden Trail offers the easiest descent into the amphitheater, with plenty of hoodoos to admire along the way. Combine with the steep but short Navajo Loop to see the hoodoo known as Thor’s Hammer and rock arches Two Bridges. End the day watching the light fade from the rock formations at the aptly named Sunset Point.
A 5.5-mile loop, the Peekaboo Trail is considered difficult because it drops quite steeply to the canyon floor. It’s a popular route, and with good reason: hikers weave among a wide range of rock formations, including spindly spires and improbable-looking arches. You will encounter horses and mules along the way, so if hitching a ride sounds more your speed, read on.
Tropic, Utah-based Canyon Trail Rides has a corral right at Bryce, with cowboys at the ready to introduce you to your new best pal: a horse or mule to ride through the canyon. Astride your trusty steed, trace a loop from Sunrise Point down into the heart of the canyon and back to the rim, wending among hoodoos along the way. Canyonrides.com