Bryce Canyon and Zion: their names are known by every family contemplating a national parks road trip because of their unusual geological formations. Along the far West edge of the Colorado Plateau –- North America’s largest plateau spanning the four states of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona — you’ll get the bigger picture, a series of colorful cliffs known as the Grand Staircase that features the two canyons.
A great choice for road trips, these distinctive national parks are easy to access by car from several neighboring states, and the stunning views are guaranteed to silence even the most squirmy backseat passengers.
Looking down into Deep Bryce Canyon
The first of these canyons is Bryce Canyon, famous for its many hoodoos, tall thin spires of sandstone rock that rise from the ground like stalagmites in caves. You can drive along the rim road, stop, hike or just pause and admire the stunning views. Along with other visually exciting formations, these exposed canyon features are part of the Grand Staircase stretching between Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon. The bottom layer of rock at Bryce Canyon is actually the top layer at Zion, and the bottom layer at Zion is the top layer at the Grand Canyon.
Before entering the canyon, stop at the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center for information, exhibits, and a 22-minute educational film which plays regularly. In the summer, guests can take wrangler-guided horseback or muleback rides, while the winter months invite snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Summer months are especially good times for guided tours, geology talks and family programs, including the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger programs.
For more information about the region and local places to stay, visit Bryce Canyon Country, the tourism promotion office of Garfield County, Utah.
Looking Up to Admire Zion
Unlike Bryce Canyon, which visitors look down into from the top road, the red rock mesa “wall” of Zion National Park opens to become a route through the bottom of the valley, where the park’s features can be admired by looking up.
A relatively flat basin near sea level over 240 million years ago, Zion Canyon lies in the southernmost part of Utah and the surrounding Zion National Park stretches over 229 square miles. Over time, the incredible amount of erosion from the surrounding mountains was carried by streams and deposited into the basin, causing the heavy layers to eventually sink, thus creating the canyon. This process of sedimentation continued until over 10,000 feet of material accumulated.
Families will find that the park itself is divided into two sections. One includes the large square area designated as Zion Canyon containing its offshoots along the Virgin River drainage basin; a smaller rectangle at the northwest corner is made up of the finger canyons of the Kolob River, and both should be explored.
After ditching the car in Springdale, hitch a ride on the free park shuttle bus heading into the South entrance of the canyon, a prime location to begin exploring. A quick stop at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and the Zion Human History Museum will get the family better acquainted with the area’s rich history and environment.
Favorite Family Hikes in Zion National Park
Along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, there are many sights to see and things to do. Guests can choose to bicycle their way down the paved Pa’rus Trail. During the summer months, parents can drop off their kids at the Zion Nature Center’s Junior Ranger Program and enjoy the trails all to themselves. While the Pa’rus Trail proves to be one of the easier hikes, Riverside Walk to Temple of Sinawava, Lower Emerald Pools, and Weeping Rock are also relatively easy trails offering brilliant views of waterfalls and the surrounding sandstone features of buttes, mesas, and arches.
The aptly named Angel’s Landing, reaching toward the heavens at an elevation of 1,488 feet, may be too strenuous of a climb for inexperienced hikers. The Angel’s Landing Trail, however, offers two miles of a paved and well-maintained path and the trailhead, like many other places, can be reached by taking the Grotto shuttle bus.
Walter’s Wiggles are also a fun sight to see, if not to hike up. The workers who slaved to build this winding vertical trail were paid a meager $3.50/day. During construction, the pioneer of this project, Walter Ruesch, purportedly was quoted as saying: “Zion is God’s country, don’t make it look like hell.”
Besides hiking, activities in the area range from rock climbing to horseback riding to wildlife viewing. Look out for a white-throated swift or a California condor, just two of the 291 species of birds in the canyon, as well as the Great Basin rattler and the common California fence lizard.
Guided Family Excursions at Rustic Zion National Park Resort
One choice well organized for large families and reunion groups is Zion Ponderosa, an outdoor adventure center and camping ground on 4,000 acres just outside the east gateway to Zion National Park. Guests can choose from tents and RV camping, to “glamping,” to nicely furnished cabins with private bathrooms, and even a covered wagon — an old-fashioned Western wagon with a solid roof and linens inside. Large vacations rentals with kitchens and many amenities sleep from 6 to 40 guests are also available.
Families can try horseback riding, ATV tours and guided canyoneering excursions into the slot canyons; jeep tours, or enroll younger kids in the daily camp and activities program. There are several restaurants and a buffet for those who don’t want to cook for themselves. Zion Ponderosa is also centrally located to explore Lake Powell; Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon National Parks; and Cedar Breaks, Grand Escalante and Pipe Spring National Monuments, none more than a two-hour drive away.
One last note: What locals call the “monsoon season” strikes in the Zion area between July and early September, a time when big thunderstorms and lightning cause flash floods and disrupt park services. Wind is another factor, with occasional winds exceeding 70 miles per hour that can blow sandstorms around your car.
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