As soon as I entered Utah, my conversations eventually wound to the same question: Bryce or Zion? Both of these National Parks have a reputation for spectacular scenery and adventures, and each can function as the center of a trip into Utah.
One thing that both parks share is a great location. If you’re looking for stunning scenery beneath a nice slice of desert heat, then you’d have a hard time finding a better playground than southern Utah and northern Arizona.
Bryce Canyon and Zion are both located in the southwest corner of Utah, about four hours south of Salt Lake City and seven hours north of Los Angeles along a diagonal. Zion National Park, situated along highway 9 with access to highway 15, is within reach of Las Vegas and Los Angeles to the southwest, and the Grand Canyon to the southeast. Bryce Canyon, an hour north near the junction of highways 89 and 12, sits nearby Dixie National Forest and the Grand Staircase National Monument.
But for most of us, planning a trip requires making choices. Maybe you find yourself asking that same question: which park to visit? With that question in mind, I’ve written a brief comparison of the two parks based on my recent excursion into Utah.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Simply put, Bryce Canyon is a wonderland. Walking along the rim of the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater, you’ll gain an aerial view of the park’s famous rounded spires, called “hoodoos,” that look exactly like red versions of the drip castles I used to make in the sand as a kid. Beyond the hoodoos, the canyon opens into an expansive view of the forests beyond. The contrast of colors—red rock against green trees—makes for some truly artistic vistas; in fact, this canyon is one of the most photographed areas in the west.
There are three main areas from which to view the Bryce Canyon Amphitheater: Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. These are connected by a trail that traces the semicircular rim of the canyon. Each of these points offers a different angle into the whimsical formations below.
In order to get a view of the canyon from below, you’ll need to do some hiking. As there are no accessible roads beneath the rim of the canyon, hikes into the interior of the canyon will naturally require some time and stamina.
Although the park continues after the Bryce Amphitheater, the majority of the park’s draw is contained within the walls of that canyon. Bryce Canyon National Park is a place of concentrated beauty—if you’re looking for a beautiful viewpoint, then this is the place to go. If, however, you want to really interact with the landscape through an array of hikes, then Bryce Canyon might serve better as a brief stopping-point than as the focus of a trip.
If you do choose to spend some time in Bryce Canyon, then I would highly suggest exploring the areas outside of the park. I found Red Canyon, a less dramatic but more accessible landscape a few miles west from Bryce along highway 12, to be a great place for some roadside hiking. Although the National Park Service has drawn its limits around Bryce Canyon, that canyon is ultimately just one part of the wider environment. A stop at Bryce Canyon would do well with a good dose of exploration outside the park.
Zion National Park
Unlike Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park is not easily put into words. The reason? Zion can’t be summarized in one geological feature, but draws its thrill from a number of angles that come together into a single impression: awe. In Zion, you look up into sheer sandstone cliffs hundreds of feet high, formed by an ancient desert of sand dunes larger than any ever seen on earth. You cool your feet in the river that carved those same cliffs. Whereas in Bryce Canyon you look over the top of a stunning vista, in Zion you are immersed in the landscape.
The best part of Zion, though, is the hikes. Now I love hiking as much as the next person, but I usually go on a hike in order to gain a viewpoint that I can’t get from the road. The actual movement of my legs isn’t the point of the hike, but is just a way to move my eyes into a better position.
Not so in Zion. The two most famous hikes in the park, Angels’ Landing and the Narrows, go far beyond a stroll through the forest. They take your body and re-define it, force your attention upon the way your fingers grasp stone or the flow of the river against your calves. You become an intimate part of the landscape. When you leave these hikes, the memory in your mind won’t be just a replica of the pictures on your memory card. Instead, you’ll remember the sense of betting your life on the solidity of stone.
Angels’ Landing, the most legendary hike in the area, is not a trail for the faint of heart. Of course, the climb itself can be strenuous—to reach the most inspiring part of the trail, you must first make your way along the river and up two series of switchbacks separated by a mercifully flat and shady canyon. But the most difficult part of the hike isn’t just the rise in elevation. The last half-mile of the hike leads you along a narrow ridgeline with a 1,400 foot drop just a few feet to either side. Only you aren’t just walking this trail—you’re climbing it. The path winds along a corridor of stone marked by steep inclines, smooth rock ledges and jumbled assortments of stone marked as handholds by the grime from thousands of hands. It’s clear someone has put thought into this trail—wherever the trail lacks a solid handhold or foothold, a chain or carved step waits. The views along the trail are stunning, but the panorama on top of the pinnacle can be truly inspiring. Here you can see into both sides of the canyon, watch the bright gleam of the Virgin River far below, and even search for California Condors along the rock formation called the Great White Throne.
The other famous hike in Zion National Park, the Narrows, shows you the park from a completely different perspective. At the far end of the park, the sides of the canyon pinch together until the river runs through stone walls only a few dozen yards apart. Your “trail” is the river—sometimes you follow a thin path along the banks, but for much of the hike you simply pick your way along the river bottom as the water pours around your calves. Above you, a ribbon of daylight curves along the rim of impossibly high sandstone cliffs. The river goes back for miles, making it a great place to explore for a few hours or for a couple days. Just be sure to wear proper footwear, and stay on the lookout for flash floods.
Though the heights of Angels’ Landing and the bottom of the Virgin river offer great opportunities for the adventurous, Zion also contains less strenuous ways to enjoy the park. Virtually every place you stand in the park will have some beautiful view, and there are many opportunities for short hikes to hanging gardens, pools, or the Virgin river. To access the main area of the park you will need to use the free shuttle service from the visitor center, as vehicles are not allowed on the main road. If you want to see more of the park, follow highway 9 up through a slightly terrifying mile-long tunnel, and you’ll emerge into a landscape of pillowed rock where you have a good chance of spotting desert bighorn sheep.
Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park are both stunning, but the park you visit will depend on the kind of landscape you’re looking for. Bryce Canyon offers fascinating rock formations and some outstanding photo opportunities, but the best views of the park are concentrated in a fairly small area. Zion National Park doesn’t have the same condensed beauty of Bryce Canyon, but allows for some fantastic exploration within an inspiring canyon. If you’re looking for great views on a short day trip, I’d suggest Bryce Canyon National Park. If you want a stunning backdrop for a few day’s exploration, then Zion National Park is the place for you. Either way, the beauty of the landscape is sure to amaze.