Zion and Bryce Canyon parks have beauty of Grand Canyon or Yosemite, minus the stress

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Historical cemetery at Grafton Ghost Town in Zion National Park, Utah. , J. HILDEBRANDT, ZUMAPRESS.COM

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The Virgin River flows through the famous Narrows in Zion National Park in Utah. , DAVID WALLACE ZUMAPRESS.COM

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A visitor rappels through the sandstone in Pine Creek Canyon in Zion National Park in Utah. , DAVID WALLACE, ZUMAPRESS.COM

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Hikers in upper Zion canyon at Zion National Park. , RUARIDH STEWART, ZUMAPRESS.COM

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Check for flash flooding alerts before setting out on the Narrows hike, where the trail is the Virgin River. , RUARIDH STEWART, ZUMAPRESS.COM

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Zion National Park in Utah covers 229 square miles. The Pa rus Trail, which goes through Zion Canyon, also passes campgrounds along the Virgin River. , RUARIDH STEWART, ZUMAPRESS.COM FILE PHOTO

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Zion National Park in Utah. , KOBBY DAGAN ZUMAPRESS.COM

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In Zion, there s no shortage of natural wonders, like the Subway canyon. MARIO VERIN, MARIO VERIN, ZUMAPRESS.COM FILE PHOTO

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Zion National Park s Subway canyon. , MARIO VERIN, ZUMAPRESS.COM

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The Narrows trail in Zion National Park , SAMANTHA MITCHELL, ZUMAPRESS.COM

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Thor’s Hammer, left, is perhaps the best example of an odd rock formation at Bryce Canyon known as “hoodoos,” which are formed when erosion leaves harder stone atop softer stone, which erodes faster, sometimes leaving a boulder perched atop a tall, narrow pillar. , JOHN BIEMER, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Hoodoos, rock spires formed through erosion, are scattered throughout Bryce Canyon National Park. BETH J HARPAZ, BETH J.


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Hikers wade through the cold Virgin River along The Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah. , ROSS D. FRANKLIN AP

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Photographers stand on the Rim Trail photographing the changing sunset light on Bryce Canyon in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. , ROSS D. FRANKLIN, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Accommodations: Discount Holidays © Holiday Inn Express, 1215 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, Utah; 435-772-3200. This newly renovated hotel alongside the Virgin River has a large pool for taking a refreshing swim after a day of hiking. The hotel offers two-bedroom suites with a full kitchen. Wi-Fi and breakfast are included, and outdoor patio seating is available. The hotel is clean, the staff is friendly and a free shuttle pickup and drop-off stop is right out front. The grounds were beautifully landscaped with lush lawns and flowing drought-tolerant plants. It’s a short walk to the shops and restaurants in Springdale, and it’s fun to explore the wooded area behind the hotel, where the river flows.

Also: Zion Lodge, the only hotel inside Zion National Park; 435-772-7700, zionlodge.com1. Dining: Bit and Spur, 1212 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale; 435-772-3498, bitandspur.com2. Bit and Spur’s menu offers popular Mexican dishes with Southwestern flair. The food was outstanding and reasonably priced: enchiladas, burritos, tamales and shrimp tacos with rice and black beans, or a steak, a Southwest Salad (with delicious tomato, black bean and corn salsa) or pasta. Appetizers include stuffed jalapenos and smoked chicken taquitos. Activities: The Zion Adventure Co. is the go-to place for guided hiking and canyoneering excursions, including in the Narrows, and for outdoor adventure gear rentals. The signature Cliffs and Canyons backcountry tour takes visitors on a narrated tour in a large, open-air, all-terrain Mitsubishi truck to cliff-top lookout spots, mesas, the Mormon settlement town of Rockville and the Grafton ghost town; 435-772-1001, zionadventures.com3. Grafton ghost town and the Grafton Heritage Partnership project, graftonheritage.org4.

If you ve been considering a trip to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite but are put off by the big crowds and lodging and transportation hassles, rethink your destination. An equally beautiful and more accessible nature adventure awaits in Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in southern Utah. Zion is a relatively easy one-day drive from Orange County or the Inland region via I-15.

Drive about two hours past Las Vegas and you ll reach Springdale, the quaint Utah town just outside the park. Springdale is clean and beautiful, with funky boutiques, decent hotels and good dinners at reasonable prices. Zion is just as beautiful, more accessible and less crowded much of the year than the Grand Canyon, where the rim walking paths and the main trails into the canyon can be packed with people during peak travel seasons. You won t need your car much, either. A terrific free shuttle system ferries visitors around Springdale and Zion.

During a visit in June, we never waited more than five minutes for a shuttle. Even better, the drivers were friendly and happy to answer questions. Zion is a natural gorge with more than 146,000 acres of cliffs and canyons and massive sandstone walls reaching up 3,800 feet. There are green meadows, waterfalls and campgrounds throughout. The shuttles take visitors to all the main trailheads for walks along the Virgin River, which flows throughout the canyon, or for a challenging hike to lush pools or a higher-elevation overlook site such as Angels Landing.

One of the most popular hikes is along the Narrows, where the Virgin River is the trail. The Narrows is on several lists of best hikes, including National Geographic s top 20 hikes in the national parks and its top 10 outdoor adventures, and the best hikes list on backpacker.com5. The Narrows is a deep slot canyon at the north end of the park, where the parallel walls come close as they encroach into the river. My husband, 14-year-old son and I, and the friends we traveled with, braved the Narrows for about three hours. We probably only walked a mile or two each way it s slow going.

The river bottom is rocky, uneven and slippery. At some points the water was thigh deep, and though it was mostly calm, it became swifter in a few areas. You also have to watch for flash flooding alerts and hypothermia. We took our time to enjoy the scenery and to shoot lots of photos. The canyon walls look different at various points, as shadows, lighting, hanging gardens and colors change with each turn of a corner. There are some small, dry sandbars where visitors can take a break for lunch or a snack, but for the most part, hikers are ankle-deep in cold water.

Be prepared by wearing sneakers or hiking boots and expect them to get soaked (sandals aren t safe). Or you can rent dry pants, insulated neoprene hiking boots and socks, along with hiking sticks, at the park. We didn t rent these on this visit, but next time I probably would pick up the shoes and socks. Permits for overnight hikes in the Narrows are also available. The Narrows is accessed from the Riverside Walk, a lovely, 2-mile round-trip paved trail along the Virgin River. Once you reach the end, it s into the water at the Narrows, or turn back.

You can also wade into shallow and safer areas of the Virgin River from the Riverside Walk. On a different day, we took the half-mile hike to Weeping Rock, an overhanging arch in Zion where water rains down from the porous sandstone walls above. There s lots of greenery, stunning views and a wide, paved path. We also spent a half-day on the Pa rus Trail, which passes by the campgrounds along the Virgin River and goes through Zion Canyon. This peaceful, 31/2-mile round-trip trail took us through open meadows along the river, over bridges and near towering canyon walls.

We saw only a few other people and enjoyed the quiet. We hiked up to the Emerald Pools, too. The trek to the lower two pools was easy, but the trail to the top pool is more challenging and includes climbing over rocks and a hefty elevation gain. We enjoyed lunch at the historic Zion Lodge, built in 1924 by the Union Pacific Railroad, then destroyed by a fire, rebuilt within 100 days and then remodeled in 1990. We learned more about the park, the Native Americans who lived there, and the plant and animal life at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and the Zion Human History Museum, both in the park.

For a day of rest from hiking, we drove to Bryce Canyon, a two-hour trip each way from Springdale that s well worth it for the stunning scenery. The drive took us through the lush, green countryside where we saw creeks, old ranches and funky roadside antique and rock shops. At Bryce Canyon, we marveled at the colorful cliffs and the hoodoos tall, skinny spires of rock created by erosion.

Thunderstorms were threatening all day, so we hit the main overlook spots at Bryce Canyon but didn t hike down. Sure enough, as we stepped into our car to drive back to Springdale, the heavens opened up and it poured for about a half hour. Back in Springdale, though, there were bright blue skies and fluffy white clouds. It s a typical weather pattern in southern Utah. Before heading home, we enjoyed a side trip to the ghost town of Grafton, an abandoned rural Mormon settlement that has avoided commercialization.

Mormon pioneer families established Grafton from 1859-1862 and grew cotton next to the Virgin River. Frequent flooding and Indian attacks eventually led them to abandon the town. Grafton s old cemetery reflects the harshness of life there at the time, with several grave markers for babies and children.

The nonprofit Grafton Heritage Partnership Project restored a rustic cabin, a two-story house and an adobe church-schoolhouse built in 1886.

Today, these buildings remain in Grafton s eerily quiet, tree-lined pastureland as a reminder of a bygone era and have been used as the backdrop for several Hollywood movies.


  1. ^ zionlodge.com (www.zionlodge.com)
  2. ^ bitandspur.com (www.bitandspur.com)
  3. ^ zionadventures.com (www.zionadventures.com)
  4. ^ graftonheritage.org (www.graftonheritage.com)
  5. ^ backpacker.com (backpacker.com)

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