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Summer may bring bumper-to-bumper traffic to this popular national park, but make no mistake about it: Pedestrians rule at Zion. The park boasts more miles of walking trails than road. The river is fair game for hikers. Cars are no longer permitted on its scenic 7-mile drive -- you'll have to take the shuttle.
This is a walker's park, first and foremost. Those red rock cliffs towering 2,000 feet above the canyon floor may look formidable, but there's something in them for everyone -- from short, flat strolls to gut-busting treks.
So ditch the car, put on your hiking boots, and get ready to explore. Tip: By midday, most trails are basking in full sun, so start early. The scenery won't look nearly as spectacular through swollen, sunburned eyes.
Plan to spend most of your time hiking Zion Canyon (the main section). Unlike other parks, Zion doesn't skimp in the beginners' department. What's more, the easy hikes are just as scenic as harder ones. Here are our favorite short hops, ideal for families with small (or lazy) children:
Experienced hikers can thank the Virgin River for carving out Zion's canyon walls more than 13 million years ago. Those towering cliffs now provide the perfect terrain for scaling the park's many peaks, all of which offer dizzying views of the valley below.
One of Zion's most popular hikes is Angel's Landing. You'll hear a lot about this so-called scary trek during your stay here. But don't let that stop you from trying it. Only the last half-mile is a corker. Mostly, the trail is a steep but scenic climb on wide concrete paths to Scouts Landing, with 21 switchbacks along the way named Walter's Wiggles, after a former park superintendent.
Wait at Scout's Landing, if you're prone to vertigo, while the rest of your group goes on to the 6,000-foot summit. That last half-mile gets very narrow, and there are steep drop-offs on either -- or both -- sides (chains are provided).
Looking for a unique adventure in Zion? Take a stroll or hike up the Virgin River itself. The "trail" starts as a paved, 1-mile wheelchair accessible path along the water, aptly called Riverside Walk. It is the most popular path in the park.
At the end of the path, you can turn around or join the hundreds of folks who plunge into ankle or knee-deep water for some river hiking. (Don't do this with small children!) Pick up a walking stick where the paved path turns into riverbed. (Make sure to wear sturdy hiking boots, to avoid turning an ankle on slippery rocks.)
This water portion of the trail is called The Narrows, because the canyon walls come closer and closer together as you work your way upstream (in some spots they're just 40 feet across). Along the way, there are small beaches, hanging gardens, waterfalls, and interesting side canyons to explore. It's possible to hike 18 miles upriver if you're fit for backcountry adventure. But most people turn back after 2 or 3 miles.
Fall is the best time to try this hike, when water levels and thunderstorm risks are at their lowest. Check at the visitor center when you arrive for river conditions and flash flood warnings.
Zion National Park offers wonderful opportunities for kids to explore and appreciate the park's beauty. In addition to easy trails throughout the park, the Zion Nature Center, in the South Campground, offers a Junior Ranger Program for kids 6-12.
At the visitor center, rangers lead various child-oriented evening programs and slide shows that change weekly. From spring through early fall, there are nightly campfire programs and ranger walks.
You can also take the family aboard the Zion Shuttle for a 7-mile scenic drive with sensational views of the canyon. Get off at any point to explore hiking trails, have a picnic, or grab a bite at Zion Lodge.
Here are some other exciting activities inside and outside the park:
Type of trip: Hiking, walking, sightseeing, swimming
Best ages: 6 and up
Ideal trip length: Four to five days
Distance: St. George, UT (40 miles), Cedar City, UT (60 miles), Las Vegas (158 miles), Salt Lake City (306 miles)
Best time to go: Spring and fall, when temperatures are moderate and crowds are light.
Weather: 73/36 degrees in spring, 100/66 summer, 78/49 fall
Lodging: Park lodging (hotel and motel rooms, individual cabins) is popular and sells out quickly. The town of Springdale at the entrance to the park has a larger variety of accommodations, including camping grounds, lodges, and bed and breakfasts. Make your reservations at least three months in advance.
Squirm factor: None
Zion National Park. Exit 40 off I-15, Springdale, UT, 435-772-3256.
Zion ATV Tours. 7 miles east of the park entrance, 800-293-5444.
Horseback Riding. Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, 800-293-5444. Open March through December.
Grafton Ghost Town. Grafton, UT.
Contact: Go-Utah Travel Guide.
Favorite local spots: Zion Pizza and Noodle Company, 868 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, UT, 435-772-3815. This is the place for great pizzas and pastas. In summer, expect a long wait for a prime table on the patio.
Best souvenirs: An official engraved Zion National Park walking stick broken in on the Narrows. Available in different sizes at the Zion Lodge shop.
Traffic alert: From April through October, vehicular traffic is not permitted in the park. Leave the car at the visitor center and take the shuttle.
Mother Nature must have been thinking "eye candy" when she created Bryce Canyon, just 86 miles northeast of Zion. This national park is a magical land of red rock amphitheaters, arches, and hoodoos -- eroded sandstone pinnacles -- which seem to have popped out of a fairy tale.
Just 18 miles long and 6 miles wide, it's also tiny compared to Zion's 229,000 square miles, making it a good day trip. You can see it all by car, or take an easy hike down into the amphitheaters (it's the trek back up that'll have you huffing and puffing). Our favorite walks:
The park's elevation (about 2,000 feet higher than Zion) keeps it delightfully cool in summer. But bring a warm jacket in spring; temperatures can drop into the low 30s and 20s. Off State Road 63 South, 435-834-5322.
Reviewed April 2004.