Virgin River in Zion National Park on May 10, 2023. (Photo by Sarah Kuta/Special to The Denver Post)
Warming my arms around a campfire outside Zion National Park, I scan the horizon and take in the panoramic view: As the sun begins to set in southwestern Utah, the region’s famous Navajo sandstone glows pink in the fading light. I hear the eerie, haunting notes of a canyon wren calling to a nearby place.
Not a soul to be seen at this independent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) site. Although we can see some of Zion’s iconic landscapes from the quiet vantage point atop Smith Mesa, including the virgin rock formations, my friends and I are miles away from the thousands of hikers who flock to the national park every day.
Last year, Zion was the third largest national park in the country, with a total of 4.69 million visits. The park’s popularity with hikers who want to see Zion’s colorful sandstone cliffs and canyons, especially during the busy summer months, typically means crowded hiking trails, long lines at entrances, packed shuttles, and crowded parking lots. .
But it doesn’t have to be like this. With a little preparation, it’s still possible to plan a relaxing, stress-free trip to Zion and get away from all the crowds. Here’s how to make it happen.
ride a bike
During peak season, the road to Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles – most people get to the canyon via free shuttle buses. Zion’s transportation system is actually pretty good – the buses run frequently, the drivers are friendly and accommodating, and you can listen to insightful recorded information about the park’s history, geology, flora, and fauna.
But if you’re looking to get away from other tourists, consider cycling instead. This lesser-known road trip on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive allows you to access all the same areas, but with a more peaceful nature. And since you’re not sitting in a bus, you’re traveling in the open air, with unobstructed views of the 2,000-foot canyon walls.
You can stop when you want to take photos on the bike, admire the grazing mule deer or see the rocks that brave the exposed sandstone cliffs. If you’re very lucky, you might even see an endangered California condor soaring overhead.
For safety reasons, cyclists must come to a complete stop and let their wheels pass whenever someone comes up behind them. But even with this slight problem, cycling in the valley is still relaxed and calm because there are no other vehicles on the road. (And, honestly, you’ll want to stop to soak up the scenery at any point.)
Another perk: Bypass the main Zion Canyon entrance station, which is backed up by traffic, and instead head straight to the special pedestrian/bicycle entrance, where you can waltz in. An easy two-wheeler ride into the canyon via the covered Parris Trail, which hugs the Virgin River and features interpretive signs.
Bring your own bike, or rent one from the many nearby outfitters. E-bikes are allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, and many rental shops offer both classic and pedal-assist models to take out for the day. If you want to learn more about the park, some companies like Zion Adventure Company offer guided bike tours ($219 for a half-day tour that includes a rental bike).
Go to the other side of the park
Most visitors to Zion National Park spend their time in Zion Canyon, which offers hiking trails like Angel’s Landing and narrow trails. If you don’t mind going a bit off the beaten path, consider visiting another part of the park, less trafficked and just as beautiful.
The Kolob Canyon area, about an hour’s drive from Zion Canyon, occupies the northwest corner of the park. Here, you can drive your own car, hike solo on more than 20 miles of trails, and explore some of the most unique landscapes — primarily steep canyons carved into the edge of the Colorado Plateau.
Before heading to Kolob Arch, one of the largest free-standing arches on the planet, park yourself at the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center.
Zion National Park became an International Dark Sky Area in June 2021, and the nearby town of Springdale is on track for a confirmed dark sky this winter. Since there is very little light pollution here, once the sun goes down, it gets dark – really dark. So, it’s the perfect destination to stay up a little later and stargaze. And sleeping in RVs or hotel beds with other Zion visitors, you’ll have the place all to yourself.
The park itself is open 24 hours a day, so set an alarm to stay up late, get up early, or marvel at the night sky at midnight. In a private field outside the park boundary, tour company Stargazing Zion hosts nightly stargazing programs ($150 for adults, $85 for 12 and under). During these two-hour tours, a local astronomer will give you a tour of the solar system, pointing out different constellations and talking about different astronomical and cosmological phenomena, such as different types of eclipses and black holes. Through it all, you can relax under a blanket in a squishy, zero-gravity bean bag chair while sipping hot chocolate and looking through a pair of binoculars.
When you book a stay at a new off-the-grid resort in Virgin, Utah, opening in summer 2021, you can check out the comfort of a sparkling tent. The property’s “star seeker” tents have large glass. Wake up to clear views of the cosmos from the ceiling above the bed (nightly rates start at $688).
Venture out of the park
Zion National Park covers 229 square miles, or about 150,000 acres. But there are more public lands to explore when you venture outside the park—and they’re all much less busy than Zion Canyon.
The 7,300-acre Snow Canyon State Park, for example, has burnt orange dunes formed over millions of years as sand grains solidify into magical mounds. It also helps protect the habitat of 13 endangered species protected by federal or state laws, including desert tortoises and Gila monsters.
At Red Rocks National Preserve, meanwhile, you’ll find tracks from a 190-million-year-old three-toed dinosaur (probably Grlater, Caintapus, or Eurontus dino), as well as petroglyphs and indigenous rock art.
Go paddle boarding on the turquoise waters of Sand Hollow Reservoir in Sand Hollow State Park. Keep your eyes peeled for wild horses as you zip along on an all-terrain or utility vehicle (ATV or UTV) on the Stud Horse Drawing Loop in Dixie National Forest. Or ride your mountain bike on the singletrack and slickrock trails that flow through the BLM-managed Gooseberry Mesa.
Although the summer travel season is upon us, if your schedule allows, consider a trip to Zion in late fall or winter. The park’s monthly visit statistics tell the whole story: 70% of tourists arrive between April and September. December and January combined, for comparison, see only 5% of the park’s annual visitors. Even if you can’t reach the region’s high-alpine terrain, there’s plenty of wilderness to climb and explore – and your photos of the snow-capped sandstone cliffs will be mind-blowing.
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