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Zion, Bryce offer stunning routes for hikers

The footfalls of hikers making their way through Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks are as different as the trails they take.
Travel Trip Zion and Bryce
Hikers make their way up from the Queens Garden Trail to Sunrise Point in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.  Ross D. Franklin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The footfalls of hikers making their way through Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks are as different as the trails they take. Some are silent; some echo. Some squish through calf-deep water. Others are dusty and tired.

But each park has dozens of trails to try, from easy, short hauls and relatively flat, mile-long loops, to hikes that go on for miles and hours, with elevation verticals approaching 2,200 feet.

Both parks were formed millions of years ago when the Earth's crust violently heaved, leaving behind stunning, unique arrays of rock formations. But the resulting landscapes are very different. In Zion, massive sandstone slabs shoot skyward from the ground, thousands of feet in the air. In Bryce, the limestone has eroded over eons, leaving magical sculptures behind in reds, orange, brown, and pink.

As a veteran hiker with dust-caked boots and a deep tan told me: "You have to look straight up at Zion, and straight down at Bryce Canyon."

If you only have time for the highlights, each park has a marquee trail: Riverside Walk to The Narrows in Zion, and the Figure 8 Loop at Bryce.

A guided tour of Riverside Walk with a National Park Service ranger begins at a shuttle bus drop-off point at a formation called the Temple of Sinawava. The ranger explains Zion's unique ecosystem and the role water played in forming the landscape as the tour meanders a mile to the Virgin River.

America's national parks

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America's national parks

Nearly 400 national parks can be found all across America, and feature breathtaking vistas, rock formations millions of years old, and more.

Here most tourists dip toes in the icy water and turn back. Those who continue must wade for several hours, stepping on slippery, perfectly round rocks in the riverbed that are impossible to see. Serious hikers bring Neoprene booties, hiking poles and waterproof gear for their belongings. (You can rent gear at Zion Adventure Company in Springdale, Utah, just outside the south park entrance.)

After a few hundred yards slogging through the water, the depth inches up to mid-calf and even hip-deep, and the pretenders are left behind.

Few hikers make the full two-hour trip to a point in the river called Wall Street, but that's where you see how The Narrows got its name. The riverbed starts out 40 yards wide between steep 1,500- to 2,500-foot cliffs, but here it narrows to a claustrophobic 25 feet.

Adventurous treks at Zion
For even more adventurous treks, there are two choices. The complete Narrows Bottom-Up hike takes four to 10 hours, depending on your speed and how long you stop for pictures, with turnaround points at Big Springs or Veiled Falls to return you to the Riverside Walk starting point. The other option is The Narrows Thru hike, a one-way 10- to 12-hour hike, which can mean overnight camping, requiring a National Park permit. It starts at Chamberlain's Ranch and finishes at the Temple of Sinawava.

Other hikes worth considering at Zion include Emerald Pools, a three-mile, two-hour round-trip to three sets of pools; a strenuous eight-mile, six-hour round-trip hike called Observation Point with a summit overlook; and the park's most popular backpacking route, West Rim Trail, which includes Angels Landing, Walters Wiggles, and Scout Lookout. From the West Rim, it's 14.4 miles one-way; from Telephone Canyon, 13 miles one-way. Shuttle service is available. The 3,302-foot elevation loss makes this the most dramatic trek in either park; it takes six to nine hours.

You can only drive in Zion if you're staying at the park lodge, but the free shuttle bus service is convenient. Bryce Canyon, 85 miles away, is more driver-friendly, with parking areas at various overlooks (though they can fill up at midday).

Rewards for early risers at Bryce
For early risers at Bryce, rewards include not only empty parking lots and trails, but also the morning light, great for photographs as the sunrise brings the canyon to life, illuminating the brilliant red and orange hues of the hoodoo towers. You can experience this magical daily rebirth from several spots along the canyon's top rim.

Then the hiking can begin. If solitude is your goal, beat the crowds with an early hike at Sunset Point. Narrow switchbacks will take you 1,755 feet straight down into a formation called Wall Street, which includes a frighteningly narrow passage into the heart of Bryce Amphitheater. It's a popular round-trip trek, so a morning start is a must to avoid the throngs of daytrippers later in the day.

At the bottom, trails go in every direction. Options include a counter-clockwise trek around the Navajo Loop and a quick loop back up to Thors Hammer (just over a mile back to Sunset Point), or the Queens-Navajo combination loop, a three-mile trip from the Navajo Loop to the Queens Garden Trail. This second option requires a 1,785-foot climb back up to Sunrise Point, then a half-mile jaunt on the paved Rim Trail back to Sunset Point to finish. It's considered a moderate hike, but the final climb up out of the canyon can be tough.

Add the Peekaboo Loop to the Navajo and Queens Trail Combination and the hike is almost six and a-half miles. It takes about five hours but shows off everything Bryce Canyon has to offer in a comprehensive and challenging hike.

Figure 8 is a serious hike
For the best challenge in the park, consider the Figure 8 hike, starting and ending from Bryce Point, the park's high point at 8,300 feet. The one-mile hike down to the bottom of the canyon is a breathtaking 1,755-foot elevation drop to the floor. Once at the bottom, the Peekaboo Loop awaits, followed by the Queens Garden Trail, the Rim Trail and the Navajo Loop, and back to the other side of the Peekaboo Loop.

This is a serious hike of just over eight miles, taking about seven hours to complete. Solitude will be your reward, as relatively few hikers attempt the whole thing. The trick here is to have enough left in your hiking tank to make the final one-mile hike back up the switchback trail to your car at the end.

Any of these treks can also be cut short, as shuttle buses stop at Bryce Point, Sunrise Point and Sunset Point to pick up tired hikers and deliver them back to the parking lots.

Cycling and horseback rides are options
At Bryce, other options include Fairyland Loop, which starts and finishes at Fairyland Point. It's the longest single loop hike in the canyon at eight miles, and has an elevation change of 2,300 feet. One negative is that this trail takes hikers away from most of Bryce's main attractions.

There are other ways to get around both parks besides walking. Since Zion restricts cars, cyclists are allowed to use the park road from Canyon Junction up to the Temple of Sinawava.

In Bryce, guided horseback rides are offered from stables near the lodge. If you're hiking, you may encounter one of the horseback groups, with 10 to 15 riders. It can be unnerving to find an easy place to get out of their way; the lead rider can advise you.

Whatever trails you pick, when you're done, pull off your boots and relax. You'll be weary, dusty, and maybe sunburned, but you'll also be smiling with a sense of accomplishment.

If you go...
: Located near Springdale, Utah. The only way into the main portion of the park is via shuttle bus (though guests at Zion Lodge may drive there). Major road work starting June 7 will shut the Zion-Mount Carmel highway — the park's east entrance — weekdays 9 a.m.-4 p.m. until Oct. 28. Check web site for details on closures, detours and delays.

Accommodations: Zion Lodge is the only lodging option inside the park, with rooms and multi-unit cabins often booked months in advance. Reservations are recommended for lodge dining too. A few hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, and shops dot both sides of Route 9 in Springdale.

Permits: Both one-day and overnight "thru-hikes" at Zion require a permit from the backcountry desk at the visitor's center. These can be difficult to obtain; only 40 individual permits are issued for each day for the one-day hike and there are only 12 campsites for overnight hikers. Permits start at $10 and increase in price depending on group size. The visitor's center opens at 5 a.m. and permits must be obtained the day before your hike, with all parties present when the permit is issued. A few permits are also issued online.

: Because of roadwork this summer at Zion National Park, the National Park Service warns that the route between Zion and Bryce will involve detours and several hours of delays. Check web site for details and alternate routes.

Accommodations: Bryce Canyon Lodge is located in the park, but the rooms are a bit outdated and they book up well in advance. Dining is pedestrian at best. Just outside the park, lodging options include Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel, a new property, and Best Western Ruby's Inn, part of a busy, crowded complex that includes a restaurant, parking lot, gas station, campground and general store. The restaurant has good service and decent food, but the wait can be substantial unless you dine at off-hours.