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Zion National Park, UT

Best Attractions in Zion National ParkIn a national park with dozens of attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for this destination, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

By Frank Swanson

If you visit from April through October, when Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles, you literally can't miss the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at the park's southern entrance (after crossing a footbridge over the tree-lined Virgin River). Outdoor displays describe the park's history, geology and plant and animal life. The building's environmentally friendly design incorporates several innovative methods to save energy.

Exhibits at the Zion Human History Museum explain the canyon's Native American and pioneer heritage, its history as a national park and the importance of water in creating and shaping the canyon as well as attracting humans to the area. The patio behind the museum offers an excellent view of the peaks known as the Towers of the Virgin, the Altar of Sacrifice and the West Temple.

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive ends at the Temple of Sinawava , a natural amphitheater at a bend in the Virgin River with two sandstone pillars at its center. In spring and summer, water seeps from the cliff walls here into clear pools fringed with ferns—not what you'd expect to see in a desert environment.

Beginning at the Temple of Sinawava, the paved, 1-mile-long Riverside Walk winds along the Virgin River's east bank, offering a pleasant stroll in the shadow of sandstone cliffs more than 1,000 feet high. The river supports a lush environment of cottonwood trees, ferns and grasses, and the sound or rushing water echoes off the canyon walls. Where the pavement ends, a trail continues that follows the riverbed into the Narrows, where the canyon is only a few yards across.

The best views of Zion Canyon usually involve a rigorous hike up from the canyon floor, but the viewpoint at the end of the Canyon Overlook Trail is an exception. You'll find the trailhead across the highway from a small parking lot at the eastern end of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The trail ascends 163 feet, hugging the edge of a narrow slot canyon. At one point it disappears entirely and becomes a boardwalk embedded into the cliff face before reappearing and curving through a cave-like cleft. At trail's end is a spectacular vista of Pine Creek and Zion canyons from more than a thousand feet above.

The view is just as spectacular—if not more so—at the end of the Angels Landing Trail . This is a rigorous hike that climbs up the west side of Zion Canyon in meandering switchbacks leading into narrow Refrigerator Canyon, then proceeds in a series of tight zigzagging switchbacks called Walter's Wiggles up to Scout Lookout. That's the easy part; it's the last half mile along the top of a 1,500-foot-tall fin of rock that's a doozy (if you have the stomach for it). A chain along this part of the trail offers a not entirely reassuring handhold for your white-knuckled grip. Easing out along this ridge is definitely one of Zion’s most adventurous things to do.

Although Zion Canyon is the national park's centerpiece, it's only one part of a vast tract of land stretching across more than 147,000 acres. Make a reservation with Zion Outback Safaris and Jeep Tours to tour the park's less-visited areas aboard a customized open-air truck. Among the area's fun things to do with friends, The Outback Safari Tour takes passengers into rugged backcountry most visitors don't get to see.

The Kolob Canyons area may be just off I-15, but it doesn't draw the tourist hordes the way Zion Canyon (on the park's opposite side) does. That's a pity, because the lineup of soaring red rock monoliths is amazing, particularly at sunset. Stop by the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center to pay your park entrance fee, if you haven't already, then head to Kolob Canyons Viewpoint at the end of the main road for the best vantage point.

You might be tempted to skip a side trip to AAA GEM-rated Bryce Canyon National Park ; it's just another canyon, right? Not by a long shot. While Zion awes visitors with its imposing vertical walls and massive reddish-brown sandstone cliffs, Bryce displays delicate hoodoos, limestone spires in shades of pink and orange arranged in curved hollows called amphitheaters. The main road into Zion Canyon lies at its bottom, with hiking trails leading up to the rim; the main road at Bryce Canyon follows its edge, from which hiking trails descend. Although only 85 miles from each other, the two canyons seem worlds apart.

Stop by the Bryce Canyon National Park Visitor Center to see a 22-minute orientation film about the canyon's formation, and be sure to check out the large model of the Colorado Plateau rock strata underlying not only Bryce Canyon but Zion Canyon (and the Grand Canyon, too). It also has maps, hiking directions, weather forecasts and a current schedule of ranger-led activities.

Bryce Canyon's 18-mile Park Road is a scenic drive through a pine forest offering intermittent views of the canyon. It also connects a chain of 15 overlooks along the canyon's rim, including Rainbow and Yovimpa points at the road's southern end; Natural Bridge, from which you'll have an up-close view of a limestone arch; and by way of spur roads, the four main viewpoints around Bryce Amphitheater —Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce.

Like Bryce Canyon—which isn't actually a canyon but the eroded edge of a plateau—the central feature of Cedar Breaks National Monument , a AAA GEM, is a limestone amphitheater. If anything, the hoodoos, fins and arches here display an even more vibrant palette of colors. Park at the Chessman Ridge Overlook for a great view of these weathered cliffs, and from there you can hike the Alpine Pond Nature Trail along the rim to a lovely spring-fed lake nestled among evergreens.

About 60 miles from Springdale and Zion National Park's south entrance, in an isolated area known as the Arizona Strip, is Pipe Spring National Monument . Mormon settlers began building a fortified ranch compound here in 1870. You can tour the sandstone fort, called Winsor Castle, which sits directly on top of a freshwater spring. Ranching equipment, livestock pens and vegetable gardens are on the grounds. Exhibits in the visitor center describe the Ancient Puebloan and Paiute Indian cultures that preceded pioneer settlement.

If you've had your fill of canyons and are ready to spend some time indoors—especially in the heat of summer—drive to the town of St. George , about an hour west of Zion Canyon, and visit the Rosenbruch Wildlife Museum . This AAA GEM attraction is filled with animal dioramas that will make you think you're outdoors. There's even an indoor “mountain” with waterfalls.

See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.

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Zion National Park, UT

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