SOUTHERN UTAH – “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “for beauty is God’s handwriting.”
Two of God’s most beautiful spectacles – Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks – were recently lost to the public thanks to the federal government shutdown. But, they were only lost for a brief period and people can now enjoy them again.
For those rejuvenated by the re-openings of the parks, or those just looking to show appreciation to the parks and those who support them, use this one-day tour-guide on a favorite Zion-Bryce hiking and driving excursion.
This is all about the views. With two moderate one-hour hikes and four sections of scenic byways along the drive, you’ll constantly be collecting your jaw. The views from the end of Zion’s Overlook Trail and Bryce’s Navajo Loop are two of the ultimate panoramic views in the Western United States.
With roughly six hours of drive time and two hours of hike time, this day trip will take you on an unforgettable scenic drive and still land you back in St. George before the frozen yogurt shops close.
Total trip time is 8-9 hours depending on variables. Again, this includes six hours of total drive time and two-three hours for hiking. If you have a weakness for natural beauty, plan on extra time for views that will frequently stop you in your steps. And, don’t forget to add time for nourishment and bathroom breaks depending on your appetite and bladder size.
Hiking summary – Two world-famous panoramas
This trip highlights two short one-hour, no-guide-needed hikes. The hikes are straight-forward and well marked, and doable for almost any level of hiker. Both hikes will place you on the precipice of respective neighboring canyons, Zion and Bryce.
The view from the end of Zion’s Overlook trail is of Zion Canyon – a colossal sandstone trench, flanked by massive natural towers. The view from the beginning and end of the Navajo Loop trail is of Bryce Canyon, a deep crater, brimming with countless mudstone goblin-spires. The Bryce Canyon hike is slightly more difficult because of the elevation loss and then subsequent gain – Bryce Canyon is 500 feet deep.
Driving summary: Four scenic byways in one day
The drive alone is worth the trip, and the fall road conditions should be good – the return trip over Cedar Mountain always has a possibility of snow from this time of year on through the winter, but the brilliant fall colors are well worth the risk. The entire trip is on mostly rural, two-lane roads.
The drive covers four different sections that have been designated as Utah Scenic Byways: U.S. Highway 89, state Route 9, U.S. Highway 12 and Cedar Breaks Scenic Byway.
These are designated scenic byways for a reason. Tourists from all over the world pump through these byways every year, shocked by the beauty.
Highway 12, the drive into Bryce Canyon, was rated one of the top ten scenic byways in America by Car and Driver Magazine and SR-9 through Zion National Park belongs in a so-scenic-you-can’t-believe-it Porsche commercial.
Zion Overlook hike – Standing on the edge of the world
The Zion Overlook Trail begins halfway through the Zion Canyon Scenic Highway. As you drive up the freaky zigzag switchbacks rising higher out of the depths of Zion Canyon, you will catch multiple glimpses of a great arch off to the left. See if you can see anyone standing on top of the arch. This is where you will be standing at the end of your first hike!
Don’t worry, it’s much easier than it might seem from the roadway perspective. The Zion Overlook trail is one of the park’s easiest hikes.
After the switchback section, the road takes you through the long Zion Mount Carmel tunnel (1.2 miles). Immediately after exiting the tunnel, park in the small parking lot to the right or on the side of the road to the left. The trailhead is very visible on the same side of the road as the Zion ranger shack.
The mostly level trail begins with steep steps carved out of sandstone but continues for most of the one-mile up and back. There are a few “wooden plank bridge” sections, where the trail has fallen off and man-made “bridges” have replaced the trail. Don’t worry, these sections are all flanked by handrails for those afraid of heights.
Like most Zion hikes, this hike comes with some exposure to cliff edges. Stay away from cliff edges and keep kids on a tight leash. The trail itself – until the lookout – is fairly monotonous, but does traverse under a striking overhanging natural sandstone roof. This 7-foot-tall roof marks the halfway point.
After the roof, sweat out the gradual uphill. The hike culminates on the edge of a seemingly-bottomless cliff with a jaw-dropping view and a stiff updraft breeze to dry your sweaty brow. Now you can find a natural seat on the precipice of the massive cavity that is Zion Canyon.
Notice the “Towers of the Virgin” on the horizon and towering “Bridge Mountain” to the left. It’s tradition to memorize the names of the towers throughout the park, so get memorizing.
Hike back to your car and head east toward Bryce Canyon – an hour and a half away.
Bryce’s Navajo Loop – A trip into the depths of the underworld
After you drive through the pay entrance of Bryce Canyon, continue straight for a mile through a pine-tree lined pathway to Sunset Point. Do not mistake this for “Sunrise Point,” a common blunder. Follow the signs for the Navajo Loop as the hike immediately starts descending into Bryce Canyon.
This trail starts off with a spectacular view – an otherworldly sight. It begins on the precipice of a massive natural, rusted-red stadium, packed full of thousands of telephone pole-height spires. It’s as if an ancient sculptor built thousands of gargoyles out of red mud lined up next to each other for miles. These soft mudstone spires appear as if the next stiff wind could topple them all over. The hike gradually weaves you down and around these spires, locally know as “hoodoos.” As you descend deeper into the depths of the canyon, the hoodoos, lined up so tight, become walls and close in tight around you. It feels like you’re descending into a labyrinth. Near the bottom of the hike, the freestanding walls and hoodoos tower so high above you, and stand so tight together that it actually feels like you’re underground, in the depths of a cave on mars.
This dark shaded section of the hike is called “Wall Street.” The air is much cooler down here in the depths than at the start of the hike on the canyon’s rim.
Once you exit Wall Street, a few peculiarly placed massive Douglas Fir trees mark the beginning of the flattest section of the hike where the labyrinth of dry drainages converge and the trail parallels a large dry drainage for a while. This section of the hike is packed with gnarled pines and manzanita bushes. Enjoy the warm sun on your skin before the trail curves around a wall of lined-up hoodoos and back into the shade.
This is when the trail begins it’s steep zigzag ascent out of the underworld. As you appear out of the depths, the sun warms your skin which quickly gathers a layer of sweat from solar energy combined with physical exertion from the steep hike out. The climb doesn’t ease up but the views around every turn inspire you to carry on. You finish close to where you started off on the rim of the great Bryce Canyon amphitheatre with a short walk to the car. And then you’ll begin your drive over Cedar mountain, through Cedar City and back to St. George.
Remember, any stop you make you will help the rural towns who have greatly struggled because of the shutdown. Stop off at some of the local restaurants and unique stores – there’s everything from rock shops to ole-western collectors stores. For lunch, try the Soup Town Café, in Orderville.
All of us who live in and around Zion and Bryce have lost big time during this park closure. But, when we lose something important, humankind often finds a renewed appreciation for that thing. And like Emerson realized, when that thing is returned, it’s beauty shines brighter than ever before.
Driving directions follow the photo gallery
Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.
Note: There are two different $25 tolls along this drive. Both tolls are at the entrances of each National Park and are per car. There are multiple ways back, but most people prefer the route listed here since it is more scenic to drive over Cedar Mountain than through Pangutich and Parowan.
SUMMARY: From St. George to your first stop, the Zion Canyon Overlook Trailhead is 48 miles or roughly one hour and fifteen minutes. From there to the Navajo Loop trailhead is 80 miles or roughly one hour and 45 minutes.
SPECIFIC DIRECTIONS: From St. George take I-15 east toward Hurricane. After 10 miles, exit onto Highway 9, and head east. Highway 9 will wind you through Hurricane and LaVerkin for 12 miles (20 minutes) before you turn right at the “Farmers Market” grocery store in LaVerkin. Even though you turn right, you will still be on Highway 9. You will remain on this road for the next 26 miles (roughly 40 minutes) until your first stop at the Zion Canyon Overlook trailhead.
After hiking the trail, continue through Zion National Park on highway 9, for 18 miles (roughly 25 minutes) till Carmel Junction. At Carmel junction take a left – follow the signs to Bryce Canyon – on Highway 89. Stay on 89 for 43 miles (roughly 45 mins) until you turn right onto Highway 12. Again, follow the signs to Bryce. Stay on Highway 12 for 13 miles (15 minutes) before turning onto Highway 63, which will quickly take you in to Bryce Canyon. Stay on Highway 63 for 5 miles, passing through the Bryce Canyon toll booth. Turn left into your destination, the Sunset Point parking lot.
SUMMARY: From your last hike, at Sunset Point, the drive to Cedar City is 80 miles and takes roughly one hour and 40 minutes. From Cedar City to St. George is 55 miles and takes roughly 45 minutes.
SPECIFIC DIRECTIONS: Retrace your last 40 miles. Take highway 63 out of the park to Highway 12. Follow highway 12 to the Highway 89 junction. Head south toward Zion but Instead of taking this all the way back to Carmel Junction, only stay on highway 89 for 22 miles (25 mins) and turn right toward Cedar City at Highway 14. Stay on Highway 14 for 40 miles (50 minutes) until you reach the I-15 freeway entrance in Cedar City. Take I-15 South for 55 miles (45 minutes) to St. George.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.