26 Apr Best time to visit Utah’s Zion National Park | Things to do & see
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Tips to avoid the crowds that flock to one of our most overcrowded parks
Looking for the best time to visit Zion National Park? This article provides an overview for visiting Zion while minimizing the hoards that flock to one of our nation’s most overcrowded parks. Also check out my companion article about Zion National Park’s two iconic destinations that people from all over the world prioritize: Angels Landing and the Narrows.
Approximately 4.5 million people visit Utah’s Zion National Park each year, ranking it fourth among our country’s 62 national parks. At the top is Great Smoky Mountains National Park (12.5 million), followed by Grand Canyon National Park (6 million) and Rocky Mountain National Park (4.7 million).
Most people visit Zion during the summer and they congregate in its narrow and relatively short valley. That creates crowds and sometimes anxiety and tension, depending upon your vacation temperament.
But please remain upbeat about visiting Zion National Park because it’s worth a few hassles. I’ve seen people weep when they drive into the valley or reach a trail vista – the park is that inspiring. And in this article, I hope you can glean a few tidbits to help you plan your own emotional visit.
Check out Zion National Park’s Kolob Canyons
Sometimes the best strategy for avoiding crowds is to venture where fewer people explore. Elementary, I know. We really enjoy the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park. It’s a convenient stop off Interstate 15 heading to either Salt Lake City or Las Vegas.
The Kolob Canyons visitor center rangers can give you advice on exploring this section of the park, which includes a paved scenic drive as well as out and back hiking trails. Snow blankets Kolob Canyons in the winter and makes this location an exceptional photo opp, where several nearby mountain peaks reach almost 9,000 feet.
During most of our trips to Zion, we also drive Kolob Terrace Road, especially later in the day when the falling sun lights up the west-facing cliffs. You can simply make this a scenic drive or add hiking from several trailheads along the road, which you access on your drive from Hurricane to Virgin along Highway 9, about 13 miles before Springdale. We usually spot a lot of wildlife along this road at dawn and dusk.
Slowly admire Zion National Park’s east entrance drive
The drive on Highway 9 from the east entrance to the Valley, in either direction, may be the best in our national park system. You’re surrounded by views of cliffs, beehive rock formations, Checkerboard Mesa, side canyons and overlooks. And the last four times we’ve encountered desert bighorn sheep that frequent this section of Zion National Park, especially during early morning hours.
Parking along this route is limited to several small pullouts, so adopt a mindset that you’ll be driving slowly and that patience is your best virtue. If you can avoid it, don’t take this route mid-day. Sometimes there’s a line of cars waiting to go through the long tunnel on the west end of this route.
If you find a parking spot along this route, I highly encourage you to get out and walk along the rock surfaces and peer into the small canyons and dry washes. The park staff won’t give you much advice because there are no established trails. Just be safe and wander based upon your hiking and exploring skill level.
Tips for planning and preserving your sanity
Zion is one of the few national parks that has been progressive in addressing overcrowding. But you’ll still need to plan carefully to avoid lines and congested scenic views.
- Carefully select your vacation days. Avoid summer; if you can’t, arrive and depart on weekdays. And we love Zion’s mild winter.
- Embrace the bus system. You can’t drive your car into the valley; instead, you park at the visitor center and hop on the canyon shuttle that makes nine stops into the valley. Without this bus system, the valley becomes a snarled mess and ruins the beauty of this magnificent location. During winter months, though, visitors can often drive their own vehicles into the canyon.
- Stay in Springdale and use the city shuttle, which connects to the Zion Canyon bus system. It’s convenient.
- Rise early. You can always sleep in after vacation. Our personal goal is to start exploring shortly after sunrise. One morning around 11 a.m., from the south entrance outside of Springdale, the entrance line backed up one mile.
- Pack a lunch. And stay all day in the valley. Once you’re there, you can hop on and off the bus shuttle. Stop at the Zion Lodge and grab a lunch or snack, rest a little and start exploring again.
- Explore permits. Some hikes and adventures require a permit. Check the park’s website for details.
Springdale shines as gateway town
Not many national parks have a town less than a mile from the entrance. Springdale, Utah “feels” like an outdoor town versus a roadside collection of tourist traps. It offers a lot of lodging, both chains and smaller businesses. During our last trip in January, many restaurants were either closed or had limited hours. We still found the best open – Oscars Café – serving excellent Mexican and American food. We also dined at MeMe’s Café, also very good.
Springdale includes everything you might need while vacationing in a national park: gas stations, gift shops, outfitters with gear for canyoneering or hiking in the Narrows, small spas, outdoor sporting goods and local art shops. Most importantly, the town operates the shuttle system that I mentioned above.
Zion’s beauty compensates for the crowds
We’ve always enjoyed our visits to Zion National Park. We follow the strategies I’ve shared earlier in this article. And Zion’s beauty overwhelms any of the negatives. I’m hoping that other overcrowded parks, such as Arches and Yosemite, might someday consider bus systems that shuttle visitors from outside of the park into the heart of the scenic areas. It’s a challenge, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.