Photo by Hideaway Report editor
Beat the Crowds: Zion National Park
By Hideaway Report Editor
August 19, 2019
Zion National Park in southwest Utah is one of the most scenic and visited national parks in the country. Travelers hoping to ride the park shuttle buses during peak hours (weekends and summer) should be prepared for a long wait. The line we encountered snaked across half of the large main parking lot. Fortunately, there are still ways to escape the crowds and enjoy the beauty of the canyon landscapes in relative solitude.
The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the western United States. Ironically, except in winter, cars are not allowed to drive it into Zion Canyon. Most visitors rely on park buses to ferry them among the popular trails. Bicycles, however, are allowed on the entire length of the park road up to the head of the canyon at the Temple of Sinawava, a rock amphitheater streaked with waterfalls. Cycling is undoubtedly the best way to see Zion if you are prepared for a little exercise.
My partner and I rented hybrid-style bicycles from Zion Cycles in Springdale, near the park entrance. On a spring Saturday at 9 a.m., the town was surprisingly subdued. We flashed our annual park pass to the rangers and stopped to review the park map. The ride to the head of the canyon is 8 miles up a mellow incline that merits a middle gear most of the way. While riding, we were able to relax and enjoy the sound of songbirds and the sight of steep cliffs gliding by. Except for shuttle buses that passed every 10 minutes, we hardly saw another tourist.
Because of landslides that followed the spring snowmelt, many of the trails were closed, but we were able to take a short but satisfying hike up the Lower Emerald Pool Trail. The iconic Angels Landing trail was open as well, but the precariously steep path combined with crowds of people didn’t appeal to us. We were told that there was a two-hour wait to get to the viewpoint on the day before our visit. I preferred the solitude of our cycles.
If you’re concerned that the biking may be too difficult, know that you can always hop on a shuttle if you get tired — all shuttles are equipped with bike racks. Also, the return ride is a breeze because it’s downhill most of the way.
For lunch, we opted for burgers at Oscar’s Cafe, immediately outside the national park. It’s a Springdale dining institution, but my meal was uninspiring.
Kolob Canyons, in the northwestern section of the park, is about a 30-minute drive from the main south entrance. While it’s smaller, a less little accessible and lesser-known, the towering red cliffs are classic Zion scenery. The air is also cooler and scented with pine, due to the fact that it is several thousand feet higher in elevation than Zion Canyon. Kolob Canyons is also sunlit in the afternoon, which makes for a good hike in both spring and fall.
The huge rock faces of the canyon gave the air an orange, dreamlike glow from the reflected afternoon sun.
Serious backpackers who visit Kolob Canyons hike the Zion Traverse, a 50-mile trek to the southern entrance of the park. We were more interested in an intermediate hike, and the Taylor Creek Trail (5 miles) proved to be the perfect option. It gave us the space to take in nature. We saw other hikers only every 10 minutes or so. The trail crossed the creek dozens of times, and we passed a pair of historic log cabins under tall pine trees that were whispering in the wind. The huge rock faces of the canyon gave the air an orange, dreamlike glow from the reflected afternoon sun. The trail fades away at the Double Arch Alcove, a colorfully striped cave near the headwaters of the creek, where we rested before the walk back to our car.
The Taylor Creek Trail has limited parking, which puts a cap on the number of hikers. If there are no spaces when you arrive, take the Kolob Canyons scenic drive up to the Timber Creek Overlook until more parking opens up. From Timber Creek, you can see panoramic views of the Kolob and Zion canyons and almost as far south as the rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s a sensational sunset viewpoint, and we ended our day in Zion there.
We drove from Kolob to Cedar City to try pizza at Centro Woodfired Pizzeria, which some compare to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. It’s not quite as good, but still delicious, especially considering the restaurant’s remote location. Cedar City is adjacent to the Cedar Breaks National Monument, which has enough hoodoos (columns and pinnacles of rock) to rival nearby Bryce Canyon. The elevation makes it a great place to cool off in the summer, but snow blocked access during our spring visit.
A Note on Lodging in Zion
Unfortunately, there are no hotels in Zion that meet Hideaway Report standards. Read the review of our stay at Under Canvas Zion, which was a disappointment. When I return, I’ll consider a short-term rental or a stay at Zion Lodge for its location inside the borders of the park.