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Planning a Trip to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks

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This post was sponsored by Moon Travel Guides. All opinions expressed are my own.

Bryce Canyon Hoodoos from the rim

Utah’s National Parks are some of the most breathtaking and most-visited in the country. Two of the most popular are Zion and Bryce Canyon, both located in the southwestern corner of the state. Because of their close proximity to one another (about a 2.5 hour drive apart), they are often visited together by many travelers on Southwest road trips. Zion is also just 2 hours from Las Vegas, so it’s a popular day or overnight trip for Sin City visitors as well.

If you are planning a trip to Zion and Bryce, a little planning goes a long way to making the most of your vacation. We just returned from a road trip where we spent two nights and two days at each park. Here are some of the planning tips we utilized (including a few tips we wish we had known beforehand!) to make any Zion and Bryce Canyon trip more successful.

Zion National Park - Biking Zion Canyon
Biking Zion Canyon.

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Trip Planning Tips for Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks

1. Book a Hotel Early

Both Zion and Bryce Canyon have only one hotel within the park borders. At Zion, the Zion Lodge is managed by Xanterra, a concessionaire that manages lodges at a number of national parks across the country. At Bryce Canyon, the only in-park hotel is the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, which is managed by Forever Resorts.

Zion National Park - Zion Lodge
Zion Lodge.

Both of these park lodges are extraordinarily popular. They book up completely many months in advance, especially for high season in summer and also for spring break. Booking very early is essential. And since both hotels have generous cancellation policies, there’s really no reason to wait even if you aren’t certain of your plans.

We luckily managed to snag a room a Zion Lodge for our April trip in January, but nearly everything was sold out at the time. We never were able to find success at Bryce that late in the game. For spring break trips, you need to book before the new year at the very least.

If you are willing to stay outside the park, time isn’t as much of the essence for bookings. Off-site hotels are more plentiful and fairly well-located compared to many national parks where outside-the-park lodging can be inconvenient. Both parks have some lodging that is just minutes from popular park entry points.

At Zion, book any of the hotels in the town of Springdale which is just a two minute drive from the park’s visitor center. There are hotels in every major chain (Marriott, IHG, Hilton, etc.) if you are loyal to one for points-earning purposes. Some of the best mid-range options in Springdale, all of which include free breakfast, include:

And of course, there are also plenty of Zion camping options if you are more adventurous than I!

At Bryce Canyon, there is a enclave of several hotels right outside the park border in a town called Bryce, the most famous of which is the utilitarian Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn. In addition, there several other lodging options within an easy 15 minute radius of that entry point. We ultimately stayed in the town of Tropic at the Stone Canyon Inn where we could have condo/house like accommodations for our bigger group.

2. Plan for Variable Weather

Zion National Park - Many Pools Hike and Waterfalls
Chasing waterfalls in Zion on the Many Pools trail on a rainy day.

Both Bryce Canyon and Zion are located at some elevation, which can mean unusual and changing weather patterns, especially if you are visiting outside of the warmer summer season.

The highest elevation point at Bryce Canyon is over 9000 feet above sea level so it probably goes without saying that Bryce can get downright cold even in April for spring break. We experienced snow showers in the air during our visit on one day and there was still plenty of snow on the ground at the higher elevation overlooks. Bryce was also very windy up on the rim so additional layers were even more essential.

Zion was pleasant during the day in the 60s for hiking while wearing a single long sleeved layer but coats were needed as soon as the sun went down. And in the summer, I hear it can get quite hot so you need to plan for that.

At Zion, visitors really need to watch the weather for another important reason in the spring —  the Narrows. If the Narrows is on your must-hike list, it’s important to know that snow melt is traditionally too great in March and April for the Narrows to open. This was the case for our trip. And even if it is open, the water is freezing, so having the right gear to cope with that is essential. Several outfitters in Springdale rent the equipment you will need.

In short, pack layers with a lot of versatility and watch the weather so you aren’t uncomfortable as you set off on your adventures. And if you are doing any kind of harder hiking where specialized gear is required, get your ducks in a row far in advance. It is also never a bad idea to pack a travel poncho – we certainly used ours!

3. Pack a Road Map

Zion National Park Zion Canyon Views
Majestic Zion Canyon views.

Who uses maps anymore? We did for the first time in years. Why? Cell service within both parks as well as the surrounding areas is pretty non-existent. This is not the time to rely on your phone for GPS directions. Grab an old fashioned road map before your trip or at least download a map or screenshot the area on your phone. The park visitors centers have maps of the park roads but if your travels will take you outside park boundaries, you need more.

4. Get a Good Guidebook

As much as I’d like to say you can get all your travel advice from travel blogs these days, there really is still no substitute for a comprehensive travel guidebook. Before all of our longer family trips, we usually head to our local library and check out a few or buy one or two online.

Moon Zion and Bryce Guide

Before this trip, I downloaded the just-revised Moon Zion & Bryce Guide. The guide is available in paperback or as an e-book. I found the advantage of the e-book was that it was less to lug, and I could access it on my phone or laptop without a WiFi connection. I’ve always found Moon Guides to be well-researched and comprehensive, and the Moon Zion & Bryce Guide was no different. The book included special star ratings for attractions and businesses that were the most-recommended. We ultimately went to several of the restaurants and used one of the adventure guide companies that the book highlighted. The recommendations were spot on. We ate well and had amazing experiences as a result.

Moon has an updated line of guides specifically covering some of America’s most beloved national parks, including Bryce and Zion, if you want to grab one before your trip:

5. Don’t Rush It

Bryce Canyon National Park Entrance
The whole family (minus the little guy) entering Bryce.

One of the most popular Utah National Parks itineraries is to tour the state’s “Mighty Five” – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. My family strongly considered doing the entire loop with our kids during our week-long spring break. After looking at the route – which required over 16 hours of driving often not on Interstate highways – we smartly abandoned that plan. We realized it would mean spending less than a day in each of the parks. That much car time in such a short time window with a toddler would likely be painful. Picking a more doable route ultimately made it possible for my parents to come along too for a multi-generational national park adventure.

Related: 1 Day Arches National Park Itinerary

Look realistically at how much you really can accomplish, with an eye toward the specific tolerances of the travel companions you have in your family. Both Zion and Bryce are impressive enough that longer stays are well worth it. Don’t shortchange your experiences there just to hit more parks on a single trip. Two Utah national parks in 4 days (followed by a few days by the pool in Las Vegas) was just right for our traveling family.

Visiting Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks? This complete planning guide will help you prepare for the perfect trip to some of Utah's best national parks.

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