Warming my hands around a campfire just outside Zion National Park, I scan the horizon and take in the panoramic view: As the sun begins to set in southwest Utah, the region’s famed Navajo sandstone glows pink in the fading light. I hear the eerie, cascading notes of a canyon wren calling somewhere nearby.
There’s not a soul in sight at this secluded Bureau of Land Management (BLM) site. Though we can see some of Zion’s iconic landscapes from our quiet perch atop Smith Mesa, including the Towers of the Virgin rock formations, my friends and I are miles away from the thousands of travelers who flock to the national park each day.
Last year, Zion was the country’s third-busiest national park, with 4.69 million total visits. For travelers who want to experience Zion’s colorful sandstone cliffs and slot canyons, especially during the busy summer months, the park’s popularity typically means crowded hiking trails, long lines at entrance stations, jam-packed shuttles and full-to-the-brim parking lots.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. With a little preparation, it is still possible to plan a relaxing, stress-free trip to Zion and largely steer clear of all the crowds. Here’s how to make it happen.
Ride a bike
During peak season, the road into Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles — most people access the canyon via free shuttle buses. Zion’s shuttle system is actually really great — the buses run frequently, the drivers are friendly and communicative, and you can listen to insightful recorded information about the park’s history, geology, flora and fauna.
But if you’re looking to get away from other tourists, consider riding a bike instead. This lesser-known way of traveling along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive lets you access all the same areas, but with a more peaceful, nature-filled vibe. And since you’re riding out in the open air, not sitting inside a bus, you’ll have unobstructed views of the towering, 2,000-foot canyon walls.
On a bike, you can stop whenever you want to snap photos, admire a grazing mule deer or peer up at the rock climbers who are brave enough to tackle the exposed sandstone cliffs. If you’re extra lucky, you may even spot an endangered California condor soaring overhead.
For safety reasons, cyclists must stop completely and let shuttles pass whenever one comes up from behind. But even with this minor inconvenience, riding a bike through the canyon is still relaxing and serene because there aren’t any other vehicles on the road. (And, honestly, you’re probably going to want to stop to soak up the scenery every so often anyway.)
Another perk: You can bypass the main Zion Canyon entrance station, which often gets backed up with traffic, and instead head straight for the special pedestrian/bicycle entrance, where you’ll be able to waltz right in. From this entrance, it’s also easy to start your two-wheeled journey into the canyon along the paved Pa’rus Trail, which hugs the Virgin River and features interpretive signs.
Bring your own bike, or rent one from one of the many outfitters nearby. E-bikes are allowed on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, and many rental shops offer both classic and pedal-assist models to take out for the day. If you want to learn even more about the park, some companies, such as Zion Adventure Co., also offer guided cycling tours ($219 for a half-day tour that includes a rental bike).
Head to the other side of the park
The vast majority of visitors to Zion National Park spend their time in Zion Canyon, which provides access to well-known hiking trails like Angels Landing and the Narrows. If you don’t mind venturing off the beaten path a bit, consider visiting the other side of the park, which is much less trafficked and equally as beautiful.
Situated roughly an hour’s drive from Zion Canyon, the Kolob Canyons area makes up the park’s northwest corner. Here, you can drive your own car, take solitary hikes on more than 20 miles of trails and explore slightly different terrain — chiefly, steep box canyons carved into the edge of the Colorado Plateau.
Orient yourself with a stop at the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center before hiking to Kolob Arch, one of the largest freestanding arches on the planet.
Stay up late
Zion National Park became an International Dark Sky Area in June 2021, and the nearby town of Springdale is also on track to become dark-sky certified this summer. Because there’s very little light pollution here, once the sun goes down, it gets dark — really dark. As such, it’s an ideal destination to stay up a little later than usual and go stargazing. And with all the other Zion visitors asleep in their RVs or hotel beds, you’ll have the place almost entirely to yourself.
The park itself is open 24 hours a day, so you can stay up late, get up super early or set an alarm for the middle of the night to marvel at the night sky. Just outside the bounds of the park in a private field, the tour company Stargazing Zion also hosts nightly stargazing programs ($150 for adults; $85 for kids 12 and under). During these two-hour outings, a local astronomer will take you on a tour of the solar system, point out various constellations and go in-depth on a variety of astronomical and cosmological phenomena, such as the different types of twilight and black holes. Through it all, you’ll be able to relax under a blanket on a squishy, zero-gravity bean bag chair while sipping hot chocolate and looking through a provided pair of binoculars.
You can also stargaze from the comfort of a glamping tent when you book a stay at Open Sky, a new off-grid resort in Virgin, Utah, that opened in the summer of 2021. The property’s “Star Seeker” tents have a large glass ceiling above one of the beds for clear views of the cosmos as you nod off to sleep (nightly rates start at $688).
Venture outside the park
Zion National Park encompasses 229 square miles, or about 150,000 acres. But there are even more public lands to explore when you venture outside the park — and they’re all much less busy than Zion Canyon.
The 7,300-acre Snow Canyon State Park, for instance, has burnt orange petrified dunes that formed when grains of sand solidified into whimsical mounds over millions of years. It also helps safeguard the habitat of 13 vulnerable species protected by federal or state laws, including desert tortoises and Gila monsters.
Inside Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, meanwhile, you’ll find the tracks a three-toed dinosaur made 190 million years ago (likely a Grallator, Kayentapus or Eubrontes dino), as well as petroglyphs and Indigenous rock art.
Go paddleboarding atop the turquoise waters of Sand Hollow Reservoir, located inside Sand Hollow State Park. Keep your eyes peeled for wild horses while zipping around on an all-terrain or utility task vehicle (ATV or UTV) on the Stud Horse Draw loop in Dixie National Forest. Or ride your mountain bike on flowy single-track and slickrock trails at Gooseberry Mesa, managed by the BLM.
Visit during the off-season
Though the summer travel season is upon us, if your schedule allows, consider traveling to Zion in late fall or winter. The park’s monthly visitation statistics tell the whole story: 70% of all tourists come between April and September. December and January combined, for comparison, see just 5% of the park’s annual visitors. Though you may not be able to access the region’s high-alpine terrain, there’s still plenty of wilderness to get out and explore — and your photos of the snow-dusted sandstone cliffs will be mind-blowing.
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