Happy New Year! Friday Foto Talk will return next week. Let’s continue the travel series on Zion National Park in Utah.
Zion is the 7th most popular national park in the U.S. More than 3 million people visited last year alone! What makes it feel more crowded than a park like Yellowstone (which sees at least a half million more annual visitors than Zion) is that most people come to see a single strip of ground: Zion Canyon. The mandatory shuttle system has helped greatly, but the main entrance at Springdale is very much a hectic bottleneck at busy times.
Zion is popular for good reason; it’s spectacular! By all means plan a visit. This post (plus the next one) is to help you navigate the numbers of people and have a great time. I’ll begin with some basic tips on travel to Zion, then next time get more specific with recommendations on places to see and photograph for both first-time and repeat visitors. For planning online, start with the Park Service’s Zion site.
WHEN TO GO:
Summer is busier than other times of course, and the heat can get pretty intense while hiking the usually shade-free trails. I would avoid summer weekends unless you’re planning on getting way off the beaten track and well away from Zion Canyon.
One good thing about summer, at least for photographers, is the late summer monsoon rains. This weather pattern, widespread across the Southwest from July to early September, can bring spectacular clouds in the afternoon. Just be careful. Don’t get caught in high, exposed places when lightning is in the sky.
Spring is a great time to come to Zion. The flowers are blooming and crowds are not normally what summer and some fall weekends can bring. Higher elevations like Kolob Canyons may remain snow-covered well into spring.
The mandatory shuttle up and down Zion Canyon begins in mid-March, so weekends leading up to that time can be pretty busy in the canyon. If you’re planning to hike the narrows or do any other canyoneering, spring is when water levels are highest, making some canyons difficult or impossible. In fact, if you plan to do much slot canyon exploration at Zion, I’d recommend summer or early fall.
Autumn is a fantastic time to visit the park. Fall colors in the canyons start around mid-October and run to about mid-November. Starting 1st of November the shuttle quits running and cars are allowed in Zion Canyon. Since this is usually prime time for fall colors as well, early November (especially weekends) can be quite crowded.
The long Thanksgiving weekend is the de facto finish to the season at Zion. The shuttle runs then however, making the canyon much nicer without all the cars of other November weekends. Visitors largely disappear after Thanksgiving.
Winter is a delightfully uncrowded time to visit Zion. Last week of December can see a jump in visitors, but generally low temps. keep numbers down. In some years, December and then again starting in late February, Zion is blessed with perfect late autumn or early spring-like weather.
Unless you want the best chance for snow, I’d avoid January. But in any shoulder season expect cold mornings. Snow is not infrequent at these times, more so in East Zion and to the north in Kolob Canyons. Cross-country skiing is possible at these times.
Zion is located in the southwestern corner of Utah. The nearest city of any size is Las Vegas, but Salt Lake City is not too far either. St. George, about a 45-minute drive from Springdale, is the largest nearby town. It’s the best place to fill up with gas and stock up on groceries or camping gear.
Most visitors either drive their own cars or fly into Vegas or Salt Lake City and rent a car. You don’t need four-wheel drive unless you’re planning to go into remote areas of the Grand Staircase. But you’ll be happy to have a vehicle with decent ground clearance if you’re doing a self-drive tour of the Southwest.
And for many, Zion is part of a grand tour of the desert southwest, one that includes other parks in the area like Bryce Canyon, Arches, etc. Just be careful you’re not leaving too little time for this kind of trip. Don’t make the common mistake and do what ends up to be one long drive with short stops to look at rocks! If you’re coming from afar, consider two separate trips to the region.
There are two entrances to the main part of Zion. One is at Springdale on the west end and this is by far the busiest. The east entrance is perfect if you’re coming from Page, AZ or Bryce Canyon. There are two areas to the NW of Zion Canyon: Kolob Canyons is accessible off I-15 between Cedar City and St. George; and Kolob Terrace (including the Subway hike) is accessed by a road heading north from the town of Virgin, not far west of Springdale.
WHERE TO STAY & GETTING AROUND
The choice of whether to camp or stay in a motel or lodge depends on the nature of your trip and your preferences. Either is perfectly suitable for Zion. By camping you have a bit more versatility, but the two campgrounds near the Visitor Center (Watchman and South) fill up every day in the busy season. Besides those two, there’s only one other campground inside the park, Lava Point high up on Kolob terrace.
For camping March through November at these two campgrounds you can make reservations up to 6 months ahead of time. A loop with electrical hookups is kept open through the winter at Watchman Campground. Lava Point is first-come first-serve and closes for winter. Several campgrounds exist outside the park, open seasonally. Check the NPS site for details on camping.
If you have a small RV/van you can find spots to free-camp in remote areas outside the park. But that depends to some extent on season and whether you’re the type to fly “under the radar”. For either camping in the canyon or staying at a lodge/motel in Springdale, make reservations as far ahead of time as possible. Failing that show up in the morning on weekdays. Zion Lodge is an option if money is no object. If you stay there you get to drive your car up the canyon during shuttle season.
The great thing about staying in Springdale or camping in the canyon is that you can park your car and not get back behind the wheel for the duration of your visit. A free town shuttle runs along the main highway from Springdale to the entrance area, where you can hop on the park’s free shuttle and continue all the way up-canyon, getting off and back on as you please. The last shuttle heads back down-canyon at 11 p.m. You’ll need a car to visit East Zion and also for Kolob Terrace and Kolob Canyons.
Several companies offer shuttles and tours throughout the park. It’s a nice option if you want to limit your driving and concentrate on sight-seeing. A shuttle is necessary if you have only one car and you’re planning a thru-hike of the Narrows or other one-way hikes. Let’s face it. Getting around is easiest when chauffeured by a local. So whether you hire a one-off shuttle or spend one or more of your days fully guided, going with one of the local tour companies means you have one less thing to worry about.
That brings us finally to the point of recommending places to go and photograph. And without presuming to tell you exactly how your visit should go, the next post in the series is a guide to making the most of your time at Zion, whether it’s your first, second or tenth visit. Have a wonderful 2016!