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Zion National Park, UT

Zion in 3 DaysThree days is barely enough time to get to know any major destination. But AAA travel editors suggest these activities to make the most of your time in Zion National Park.

By Frank Swanson

Zion National Park offers some of the most spectacular desert Southwest scenery in Utah. The park's most visited feature, Zion Canyon, can be explored in a day, although you'll want to stay longer if you're able.

Many of the best views require hiking along steep, strenuous trails up out of the canyon to its rim. But there are exceptions, notably the Riverside Walk and the Emerald Pools Trails (see Day 1), the Timber Creek Overlook Trail (see Day 2) and the Canyon Overlook Trail (see Day 3).

Day 1: MorningBegin your visit at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at the park's south entrance. You can try to find a parking space here, but during the summer high season this can be a real challenge. Instead, board the free Springdale shuttle that runs along Zion Park Boulevard; several stops are convenient to lodgings in town. The shuttle will drop you at the footbridge over the Virgin River leading to the visitor center.

The center has two large topographical models of Zion Canyon with its many landmarks labeled, and you can obtain a park newspaper listing Zion's standout features and ranger-led activities. Most of the informative displays are outdoors beneath shade trees and arbors—including those describing the unusual, energy-efficient design of the building itself, which uses solar panels, air-cooling towers, sun-shielding overhangs and carefully positioned windows to cut its power usage by nearly 75 percent from what a building its size would normally consume.

If you're visiting between the beginning of April and the end of October, the visitor center is where you'll catch a propane-powered bus that will take you into the canyon via 6-mile-long Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is closed to private vehicles during the high season. A round-trip journey lasts about 90 minutes. From November through March you can drive yourself, although you'll miss the informative narration provided by the bus driver.

You won't find a temple at the Temple of Sinawava , the final stop along the scenic drive, but you will feel like you've entered a special sanctuary once you step off the bus. Soaring walls of red Navajo sandstone press in on two sides, giving you the impression that you've entered some vast, imposing place of worship.

The Temple of Sinawava also marks the beginning of one of the path's easiest and prettiest paths, the mile-long Riverside Walk . Following this paved trail along the Virgin River, you'll be able to see how the canyon gradually constricts on either side of you as you head north. A stairway at trail's end leads down to the riverbed. If you have the appropriate footwear (that is, waterproof), you can hike through the river to reach one of the park's most photographed features: the Narrows, a boulder-littered ravine only a few yards across, shaded by rock walls more than a thousand feet high.

Day 1: Afternoonflickr/Joel Sowers
Within Zion Lodge, which has its own shuttle stop about 3.5 miles from Temple of Sinawava, is the Red Rock Grill . It has a terrace offering fantastic views and a dining room with lots of rustic touches you'd expect in a national park lodge (rough-hewn wooden chairs, stacked stone walls, etc.).

One of the benefits of eating at the lodge is that you have another beautiful walk right across the street: the Emerald Pools Trails. A footbridge leads over the Virgin River to a paved path that will bring you to the Lower Emerald Pool, which shimmers beneath a curved projecting ledge over which water trickles or, during rainy weather, pours. Trees, shrubs, ferns and moss thrive here thanks to water seeping from the surrounding porous sandstone cliffs.

The trail becomes more challenging as it continues behind the falls and up to the ledge above, where you'll find Middle Emerald Pool. From here you'll have a gorgeous view across the valley to Red Arch Mountain. An even more rigorous climb awaits if you decide to continue on to the Upper Pool, which is bordered on one side by huge boulders that have tumbled from the cliffs above.

Day 1: EveningMost everything in Springdale catering to visitors is along Zion Park Boulevard, the major thoroughfare. The Zion Pizza & Noodle Co. (Shuttle Stop 3) is a nice, low-key choice for your first night here. Pizza and pasta rule the menu, although there are also salads and a lengthy list of Utah-based microbrews. Housed in a 1930 Mormon church, the restaurant has a small indoor dining room as well as outdoor seating areas in front and back. Walk off your meal checking out the gift shops and art galleries lining Zion Park Boulevard.

Day 2: MorningHave breakfast—cereals, breakfast sandwiches, good coffee and espresso—at Cafe Soleil (Shuttle Stop 1) right outside the park entrance. You'll need the calories if you decide to conquer the Angels Landing Trail , a strenuous but worthwhile trek to an overlook with sweeping views of the canyon. If you're not physically up for that challenge—or you're uncomfortable with heights—then a drive to the Kolob Canyons section of the park offers an easier photo op.

Buy some sandwiches or wraps at Cafe Soleil to go for lunch atop Angels Landing or the picnic area at Kolob Canyons.

Angels Landing Trail Option: Ride to The Grotto shuttle stop, cross the bridge and turn right to reach the Angels Landing trailhead. The trail starts out easy enough, but soon you'll reach the western canyon wall where the path steepens. After a few switchbacks you'll enter Refrigerator Canyon, which is filled with trees and bushes. Here the trail runs alongside the base of a sheer cliff wall for a good distance and even squeezes through gaps between sandstone pillars in places.

Then there's Walter's Wiggles, a series of switchbacks zigzagging nearly two dozen times to reach Scout Lookout, a relatively flat area with a peregrine falcon-eye view of the Big Bend portion of the canyon. This is a great place to catch your breath and—if you're leery of heights—turn around and head back. If you're not troubled by this phobia, proceed out onto the narrow fin of sandstone projecting into the canyon for the last half mile to Angels Landing. A chain anchored to the rock provides a handhold in the most difficult places. Your reward for this 2.5-mile hike ascending 1,490 feet is one of the best views of the canyon possible without being in a helicopter.

Kolob Canyons Option: Not only is seeing Kolob Canyons a lot easier than a trek up to Angels Landing, the Kolob Canyons area is also a less-crowded alternative to the main canyon. The 40-mile drive northwest along SR 9, SR 17 and I-15 will have you at the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center in less than an hour. The 5-mile drive along Kolob Canyons Road features pullouts with interpretive signs. It ends at Kolob Canyons Viewpoint, where you can marvel at the series of lofty red cliffs standing sentinel-like at the entrances to the “finger canyons” (narrow canyons bunched together like the fingers on a hand) for which this area of Zion National Park is known. Picnic tables and the Timber Creek Overlook are a short walk from the viewpoint.

Day 2: AfternoonFor lunch, the Castle Dome Café offers fast food—hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and the like—but also has a patio for alfresco dining.

Day 2: EveningReward yourself at the end of this very active day with dinner at the upscale Switchback Grille , pricey by Springdale standards but worth it. The restaurant, inside the Holiday Inn Express Springdale Zion National Park , offers a selection of wood-fired pizzas as well as pasta dishes, seafood and steaks. Windows look out onto canyon scenery, and patio seating provides even better views. After selecting from the restaurant's extensive wine list, raise your glass in a toast to an unforgettable day in Zion National Park.

Day 3: MorningFor a completely different kind of landscape, embark on the 90-minute drive from Zion's East Entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park . Drive into Zion National Park as far as you're allowed during the April-through-October high season and turn right onto scenic Zion-Mount Carmel Highway , which leads through a series of switchbacks up into Pine Creek Canyon. Pullouts allow you to stop for photos of erosion-sculpted sandstone formations.

The highway leads into a mile-long tunnel blasted out of the cliffs at great expense. When completed in 1930, it was the longest tunnel in the United States. The relatively narrow tunnel can accommodate most cars traveling in opposite directions, but larger vehicles (wider than 7'10” or taller than 11'4”) must be escorted (for a fee).

As you pass through the tunnel you'll notice rough “windows” in the rock through which you can glimpse canyon scenery. Drivers used to be allowed to park at these galleries to enjoy the view, but that became too dangerous over the years as the volume of automobile traffic increased. Today you'll have to be satisfied with a quick glance.

At the tunnel's eastern end is a small parking lot on the right, and across the street is the trailhead for the Canyon Overlook Trail , a relatively easy half-mile hike ascending 163 feet to an overlook with a phenomenal view of Pine Creek Canyon and the southern end of Zion Canyon. The thousand-foot drop off may give you a bit of vertigo, but there's plenty of room here to enjoy the vista while staying safely away from the edge.

As you head east along the highway the landscape takes an otherworldly turn. Low hills of slickrock—petrified desert sand dunes—look more like carelessly poured concrete than natural rock. Pull off for a closer look at one of the most unusual things to see, Checkerboard Mesa, a conical mound etched with a pattern of vertical and horizontal lines.

Day 3: AfternoonAs you approach Bryce Canyon National Park you'll see glimpses of intensely orange rock, with a few pinkish-orange spires appearing alongside the roadway. Before reaching the park entrance, stop for lunch at Cowboy's Buffet & Steak Room in the BEST WESTERN PLUS Ruby's Inn , one of the few local restaurants in this area. Pick up a boxed lunch for a picnic inside the park or buy a sandwich or snack at the nearby General Store, which in addition to grocery items sells hiking and camping gear, Western art and clothing, Native American jewelry and every imaginable Bryce Canyon souvenir.

If you've never been to Bryce Canyon before, stop by the Bryce Canyon National Park Visitor Center to watch the 22-minute orientation film about the canyon's formation. Technically Bryce isn't even a canyon but the eroded edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Over the centuries rainwater dissolved the plateau's colorful limestone as winter frost expanded in cracks breaking down the rock further, producing U-shaped hollows or amphitheaters filled with arrays of delicate spires called hoodoos.

From the visitor center, drive along the scenic Park Road , which extends 18 miles south to Rainbow Point. Once you've seen the views of Rainbow Point and neighboring Yovimpa Point, return north: The remaining dozen or so overlooks will now be on your right. Look down through a near-perfect arch at the Natural Bridge overlook and check out the others—Fairview Point, Piracy Point, Swamp Canyon and Paria View—as time permits. Just don't miss the four viewpoints (Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce) that peer down into spectacular Bryce Amphitheater , one of the park's highlights.

Bryce Amphitheater is jam-packed with hoodoos, and the overlooks here offer picture-perfect views. You can walk among the four Bryce Amphitheater viewpoints by way of the Rim Trail. Below the rim are several trails threading among the hoodoos, but you'll have to come back another day to explore those.

Day 3: EveningOnce you're back in Springdale, take one last opportunity to admire the beautiful canyon setting while enjoying a farewell meal at the Spotted Dog Cafe At Flanigan's Inn (Shuttle Stop 2). The dining room has large picture windows, but sit outside if you can. The ambience could be described as “upscale ski lodge,” combining old-fashioned country touches with modern art. The seasonally varying menu includes homemade soups, gourmet pizzas, Black Angus beef, rabbit and lamb.

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Zion National Park, UT

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