This just may be the most beautiful place in the United States. I’m talking about Zion National Park in southwestern Utah, often referred to as “the Promised Land.” It is jaw-droppingly beautiful. In 2014 Zion logged 3,211,596 official visitors from around the world so it's a good idea to plan and decide when to go. I hope this guide will help you make the best decisions about your visit to Zion.
LOCATION & GETTING THERE:
Nestled in Springdale, Utah, Zion National Park is about 2+ hours from Las Vegas, making Vegas the the place to fly into if you don't live within driving distance to Zion. Getting a rental car for a week from Vegas back to Vegas is usually less than $300 unless you’re trying to go luxury or huge. Most people won't spend a week at Zion, although they surely could, so a car rental will be much less than my $300 estimate.
Zion National Park is only 2 & 1/2 hours from Vegas with the majority spent on I-15 North, leaving Nevada, crossing over the northwestern tip of Arizona and then entering Utah. At the halfway point is the Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, about an hour into the trip. It’s really worth visiting and the park earns 5 Stars on TripAdvisor. It'll also make the trip to Zion seem much shorter.
WHEN TO GO - PEAK vs OFF SEASON
November through March may be the best time to visit. Summer months pack between one and two million tourists, and the crowds and weather are far more tolerable in the off-season. No automobiles are allowed in the park from April 1 through the first weekend of November, so you must ride the shuttle bus. That means you don’t have the same freedom to drive into the park or go where you want to go until the off season. It isn’t until 1 November that the park doesn’t require you to ride the shuttle bus and you can enter at your leisure, coming and going anywhere you please. It's so much better than riding a crowded shuttle with a bunch of strangers and having to stop where the bus stops! Who needs that? And the weather is cool, the colors still vibrant… the freedom and independence of meandering through in your car on your terms is why I will never go during the late spring or summer months. The crowds are burdensome.
Hotels are much easier to book November through March and nearly impossible during peak months. In fact, unless you book months in advance if you are visiting between June and September, don’t count on getting a hotel any closer than 35 minutes away in the town of Hurricane, because everything in Springdale is likely to be booked solid.
Springdale is the lovely little town you'll pass through as you approach Zion National Park. Hotels are much easier to book in November and December (and of course January-March) and nearly impossible during peak months. In fact, unless you book months in advance if you are visiting in June-September, don’t count on getting a hotel any closer than 35 minutes away in the town of Hurricane. Because everything in Springdale will be booked solid.
We stayed in a cute little place called the Bumbleberry Inn. It was perfect; $75 a night for a very decent double room with great mountain views and a microwave, frig and free wi-fi with an on-the-premises restaurant, gift and coffee shop. The rustic Wildcat Willies Ranch Grill Saloon is a great place go authentic southwestern food… and you’ve gotta try the world famous Bumbleberry Pie for dessert!
Aside from the Bumbleberry Inn, there are many great places to stay in Springdale and the surrounding area. Utah's tourism department suggests these hotels and bed & breakfasts.
ENTRANCE FEES & PARK INFO
Entrance fees to the park are $25 per private vehicle, $12 per motorcycle and $12 for individuals (say if you’re walking into the park to hike) and are valid for seven full days. The national parks of Utah are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so if you enter after hours they put you on the honor system and hope you’ll pay the next day. I love the fact that they let you in at all hours because, let’s face it, these are your parks, America.
If you are active duty Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Reserves, National Guard or military dependent (spouse or child with a valid Military ID card), you can request an Annual National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass at the entrance, which gives you free access to all national parks, forests and monuments anywhere in the U.S. If you're not U.S. military, you as U.S. citizen can buy an annual pass for $80, which covers everyone in your non-commercial vehicle (a commercial vehicle would be a tour bus for example) into the park. Seniors 62 years and older can obtain a lifetime pass for only $10 (another 14 years and I'm there!) and those with disabilities can obtain a free lifetime pass as well.
INSIDE THE PARK
Entrance through the Zion's Southern Gate of the park from Springdale leads right to the Virgin River. The first recognizable and famously photographed location is probably 30 seconds down the road after entering through the Southern Gate; it is the bridge that extends over the Virgin River. Particularly at sunset, which in November is between 5:05 and 5:15 pm, you won’t be able to miss the bridge which will be packed with photographers marking their territory to capture the sunset over the famous river. The sun begins to dance off the mountains around 3:30 pm or so and that time is also great for getting beautiful shots.
Zion Canyon Scenic Drive- take an immediate left onto the 6 mile long Zion Canyon Scenic Drive after crossing the bridge over the Virgin River and follow the Virgin River north (only in the off-season! No cars allowed during peak months, only shuttle buses). You could spend weeks exploring just this small area of the Scenic Drive, which finishes in a dead end loop. Along the way you’ll find the Emerald Pool Trails (lower pool, middle pool and upper pool). The Grotto Trail, Angels Landing, Weeping Rock and the Temple of Sinawava, which is where “the Narrows” begins. Here's a good video showing the hike through the Narrows and the Subway.
Zion Park Scenic Byway- also known as Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, this scenic 54 mile byway will take you meandering through Zion’s heights, through tunnels and amazing scenery, which in turn leads to the Checkerboard Mesa and some weird rock formations, along with a good lot of wildlife. Zion Park Scenic Byway is an amazing way to see Zion from far above the canyon's floor.
Literally weeks could be spent exploring Zion National Park. It truly is a national treasure. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime places that shouldn't be missed, especially if you're a bucket list kind of person.
Visit www.nps.gov/zion for more information about this amazing park or feel free to ask me quetions below in the comment section.