Utah: Family Vacation Guide to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks

We love our National Parks Service, and try to visit a few parks and monuments every year. August 2018, we were supposed to camp in Yosemite National Park.  Then the Ferguson Fire happened, and we had to cancel our trip due to the ongoing fire and poor air quality.  I had one week to come up with a plan B for our family and the other families that had been planning on visiting Yosemite with us.

I quickly did some research and pulled together a 5 day, 4 night itinerary road trip from Southern California to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.  We covering over 1000 miles during these few days between Orange County, California and the two national parks.  In this post, I’ll share an overview of our itinerary, and highlights from the trip.

Day 1:  On the road, Seven Magic Mountains and Canyon Overlook Trail

I knew we had a big drive on the first day (460 miles between our home and Orderville, Utah), and planned stops that would be along the way.  Our group included two families and grandparents with ages ranging form 3 to 70.  I’ve learned that it is not worth attempting to adhere to a strict schedule when travelling as a family or big group.  Trying to do so is rarely productive, and can become stressful and frustrating. Instead, I plan family travel with a maximum of 1 or 2 “must dos” per day, but keep a list of additional “nice to see” stops/ activities in case there is more time, or as backup options in case of unforeseen cancellations or closures.  This way, whatever we’re able to see and do, we’re happy about, rather than worrying about what we might be missing.

We set a realistic goal (for our family) of hitting the road around 8am. I loaded most of the car the night before, as I like to do on most trips, so that the morning would be less hectic. We planned our first stop mid way in Nevada to stretch our legs, and picked up drive through (we only do fast food on road trips) for lunch.

Seven Magic Mountains, Henderson, NV.

The Seven Magic Mountains is a public art installation (up until 2021) approximately 10 miles south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, Nevada.  Please see the installation’s  website for more detailed directions and information.   When we arrived, it was about 110 F degrees. It was so hot that my iPhone lens fogged up from the steam.  Nonetheless, we all enjoyed the art and spent about 30 minutes here.  

Yes, I did plan to coordinate our outfits with the installation 🙂

Canyon Overlook Trail:  We arrived in Zion late in afternoon, in time to stop by the Visitor Center to get a map and park guide. We then drove through the park and did the Canyon Overlook Trail before exiting the east entrance and continuing on to our Airbnb in Orderville, Utah.

Family photo at the Canyon Overlook Trail

The Canyon Overlook Trail is a short out and back trail (about 1 mile total) with spectacular views along the way, and at the namesake vista point.  I found this information provided by fellow blogger Joe to be very helpful.  I agree with his advice, “While this hike is fairly short and easy, there are a few exposed spots where a fall could be dangerous. If you have trouble with balance or are hiking with young children, please exercise caution on this trail.”  

Day 2: Bryce Canyon National Park

I intentionally chose an AirBnB in Orderville, which is between Zion and Bryce Canyon.  This made it a good home base for exploring both parks. On day 2, we decided to venture further east to visit Bryce Canyon National Park.

I had read some great reviews about Red Canyon, UT –  which is on the way to Bryce Canyon and wanted to try to stop there and Bryce on the same day. However, travelling with two families and four kids meant a relaxed and slower start to the day, and by the time we made it to Red Canyon, we all decided that we’d rather skip it to make sure we had enough time to fully enjoy Bryce Canyon.img_9769At Bryce Canyon, our first stop was the Visitor’s Center, where we picked up a park map and guide.  We then started hiking.  Although we had the kids walk on their own the entire time, it’s important to note that there are switchbacks with steep drops where a fall could be dangerous. We had a more than 1:1 adult to child ratio, and constantly reminded our children to slow down and not to run. Despite a few stressful moments here and there, with parental hypervigilence, we all enjoyed the hike and magnificent views. We parked at sunset point, and started and ended our hike there. We hiked a part of the Rim trail to the Queens Garden Trail to the Navajo Loop (approximately 3 miles total)

Rim Trail :  Sunset Point to Sunrise Point (0.5 miles). This is a paved and relatively flat section that is wheel-chair accessible.  We could have continued on (the full rim trail is 5.5 miles and considered easy to moderate) but decided to venture off to the Queen’s Garden trail.

brycefuji-22

Queens Garden Trail :  This trail begins at Sunrise Point and descends 320 feet into the canyon, and takes hikers past famous rock formations including Gulliver’s castle, the Queen’s castle and Queen Elizabeth.  This trail got its name because one of the formations reminded someone of Queen Victoria overlooking her garden. This can be done as an out and back trail, but we decided to continue onto the Navajo Loop at the bottom of the canyon (about 1 mile in).

Navajo Loop:  (approximately 1.5 miles)  We continued to enjoy the scenary on the Navajo Loop before making our way back up the canyon 550 feet to the rim.  This part of the trail is called Wall Street, due to the dense, towering hoodoos resembling city skyscrapers.  This part is considered strenuous, but our energetic boys enjoyed climbing these switchbacks without a single whine! I think it helped to tell them that it was like a racetrack with hairpin turns – they’re in a “Cars” stage.  🙂

After this hike, we were all pretty tired. We drove to and stopped at one more viewpoint before heading home to our AirBnB for the day.img_9282

Day 3:  Zion:  Hiking the Narrows

narrowsdraft-22We had planned to do the Narrows hike on Day 4.  But when we learned that rain was in the forecast and that meant possible flash floods, we adjusted our schedule to hike the Narrows a day earlier. I want to emphasize and clarify that we did NOT complete the full Narrows 10 mile round trip hike.  We considered the ability and comfort of every family and group member (toddler to grandparent), and turned around after 0.5-1 miles in the river (approximately 3 miles out and back to the shuttle stop) . Of note, we saw several parents with babies in carriers, so that is another option if your littles are not ready to hike themselves.

Here are some key tips for hiking the Narrows as a family during peak tourist season (summer):

  • Give yourself plenty of time to get to the Narrows, and take the Shuttle:  Park at a shuttle stop in Springdale, and take it into the park. We were able to park at our hotel and take the shuttle from that stop to the visitor center. From the visitor center, we hopped onto the Zion shuttle (the wait for was less than 10 minutes, though I’ve heard that it can be up to an hour).  Take the park shuttle to the last stop “Temple of Sinewava” (about 45 minutes).
  • Hike only what you are comfortable hiking: The Riverside Walk to the start of the Narrows is an easy 1 mile hike (each way).  The Riverside Walk is a paved and mostly flat trail along the river that carves its way through the canyon.  If you are with small children, or if the river water level is too high, or current too strong, the view is still worth walking to the end of Riverside Walk.  There is a nice place to sit and rest with shade.  If you decide to do the Narrows hike, the Virgin River is the trail. Your feet will get wet.  You can walk in the river and hike as far as you like, and turn around and return.   The Riverwalk
  • Choose the right footwear and clothing:  From the Zion National Park website, “hiking the Narrows is like walking on slippery bowling balls”.  During most seasons, people recommend hiking boots with good ankle support and socks. However since we were visiting during a hot summer month/ August, we were comfortable hiking in our waterproof sandals by Keen (Newport style).  I dressed my children in board shorts and rash guards, my husband wore swim trunks and a tank, and I wore a sports tank and quick dry shorts. It was in the 90’s (farenheit) when we were there, so the cool water was refreshing. I do recommend bringing a dry top to change into, because once the kids’ tops were wet, they did complain about the cold a little. They were much more comfortable riding the shuttle at the end of the day wearing a dry shirt.  We also had hats and sunglasses, and of course sunscreen. We rented walking sticks for adults and children from Zion Adventures.
  •  Bring water and snacks, plan to pack in and out, and use the restrooms at the start and end of the Riverwalk trail. There are no bathrooms on the trail, so it is highly recommended that you use the restrooms at the Temple of Sinewava shuttle stop.  There are also no concession stands, or trash cans.
  • Check the weather before you go:  The NPS Narrows information website notes, “Always check the weather forecast and the flash flood potential before you start your trip. Despite the forecast, flooding is possible at any time, and floods have occurred on days they were not expected. Your safety is your responsibility.”

The Narrows was enough activity for our group for this day. So we hopped back onto the park shuttle, connected back to the town shuttle and enjoyed an evening at our hotel. We picnicked and ordered takeout from a local restaurant, and the kids played in the pool until the sun set.  This Marriott had a laundry room, so I was able to use the dryer to dry out all out wet clothes for the day.

Day 4: Rainy day exploration: Zion National Park and Under Canvas Zion

There were intermittent thunderstorms and rain forecasted for this day. Of note, rain was not predicted in the initial forecast at the start of our trip, but was accurately predicted one day prior. We were thankful that we had made the decision to hike the Narrows the previous day, because the Virgin River was closed to hikers on this day due to the potential for flash floods. We decided that we wanted to see a little more of the park, but didn’t do any formal hikes (see bottom of post to links providing information about other Zion family friendly hikes).

We drove the scenic highway towards the east side of the park, and let the boys out to do some running and exploring.  We found the same place I visited during my childhood in the 1980s!   When the rain drops started falling again, we decided to leave the park and headed to our glamping retreat at Under Canvas Zion.

img_8918-1After we checked in at Under Canvas, we still had a few hours of daylight so we asked their team for recommendations for sightseeing around the area. They recommended we take a scenic drive to the Kolob Resevoir.  We drove past forests, farms, and horses, and saw several rainbows along the way.  Even though it rained on and off, we enjoyed the relaxing drive and beautiful views.  When we returned to Under Canvas, we had dinner there and enjoyed s’mores by the campfire.

We loved our stay at Under Canvas Zion, and felt it really added to the overall trip.  We chose a stargazer tent.  Although we could not see the stars  clearly due to the clouds and rain, it was really neat to see the rain fall and sun rise over our bed in the morning.  The storm continued through the night and despite the limited cell reception, we all got several flash flood emergency warnings on our phones several times that night.  This, plus the howling winds and flapping canvas, kept all the adults in our group awake, but our kids slept soundly through the entire night.

img_8723

Day 5:  On the road back home

We enjoyed breakfast at the main tent where they have complimentary coffee, tea, hot chocolate and water, and board games which the boys enjoyed playing. We enjoyed a relaxing morning at the camp, and then headed home after checkout.  We all agreed the trip was a wonderful way to end summer vacation.

I hope our trip details are helpful for others thinking about visiting Zion and/or Bryce Canyon National Parks.  Although there is so much more to see and do at both parks and the surrounding areas, we thoroughly enjoyed what we did see and do, and highly recommend this trip!

Lodging information:

  •  First 2 nights – AirBnB in Orderville, Utah:    I chose an AirBnB that could comfortably accommodate 10 since we were a group of 2 families and a set of grandparents. I chose to stay in Orderville because I wanted to have easy access to both Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.  Although we didn’t have extra time, there are many other fun things to do including the Pink Coral Sand Dunes and ***
  • 3rd Night – Marriott Springhill Suites Springdale, 1141 Canyon Springs Drive, Springdale, Utah 84767 435-619-8220:  I booked this because I had starwood (now Marriot Bonvoy) points. These rooms had 2 queens and a sofabed, as well as a small refrigerator. They were very comfortable and spacious, and we also enjoyed spending time at the pool which had a great view of red rocks.  There is a shuttle to the park directly in front of the hotel, which was also very convenient.
  • 4th Night – Under Canvas Zion,  3955 North Kolob Rd, Virgin UT 84779 435-359-2911:  I have wanted to stay at an Under Canvas for many years! In fact, I had planned another multifamily vacation back in 2013 specifically around the opening of the Moab location. Unfortunately, their site opening was delayed and we ended up staying at an AirBnB instead.  I was so excited to finally stay at Under Canvas Zion, and it did not disappoint. Despite the poor sleep we got due to the winds and rain, the overall glamping experience was magical and the views from the location can not be beat.  I can’t wait to stay at another Under Canvas property!  For those who are wondering, we found it to our tent to be very family friendly.  Although our boys ended up piling into the king bed with us (which was super comfortable with warm bedding), there were cots for each of them set up in the tent when we arriveOur .

Useful Links:

Bryce Canyon guides:

Zion National Park Guides:

Recommended Gear :

  • Hydration backpacks:  We brought Osprey hydration backpacks that have decent storage and pockets for carrying our cameras, phones, layers, snacks and trail mix, etc.  I have the Raven, Jason has the Raptor.  We found this to be much easier than carrying multiple water bottles.  You will need a lot of water if you choose to visit Zion or Bryce, especially in the summer.  You will need more water than you think. It is the desert and it is easy to dehydrate quickly while hiking.
  • Waterproof Hiking Sandals:  Our Keen waterproof sandals worked well for hiking the narrows.  I felt they had good traction and did not find it to be too slippery hiking through the Narrows. 
  • Waterproof Phone lanyard : I can’t remember the brand, but I bought the plastic ziplock type case to wear around my neck to protect my phone while hiking the Narrows.
  • Gopro or other waterproof camera/ video recorder: I ended up taking most photos with my regular camera and iphone, and fortunately did not fall or trip into the water. However, if hiking the narrows, it’s generally a good idea to have waterproof cases and/or cameras.  
  • Hiking sticks:  We rented these for adults and kids from Zion Adventures.  It did make it easier to keep our balance while hiking the Narrows.
  • Walkie Talkie if travelling in more than one car. Cell phones (at least our Verizon Service)did not work in either park.  Although our friends followed our car closely, it was helpful having a walkie talkie in each car so we could touch base about stops and restaurant breaks.

Please note, this is not a sponsored post, and all opinions expressed are my own.  Our family wore Keen hiking sandals at Zion and Bryce, which were gifted to us from the company as brand ambassadors.

Posted by

I am a mom, wife, daughter, sister, doctor, adventure enthusiast, food lover, and photographer. I spend a lot of time researching fun things for my family to do, explore and eat - so I created this space to share some information that might be helpful to others.

3 thoughts on “Utah: Family Vacation Guide to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s