It’s hard not to be amazed by Bryce Canyon’s wonderfully weird hoodoo rock formations and Zion National Park’s massive red rock canyon walls. But to truly experience the beauty of these two stunning Utah gems, make full use of your park pass ($25 per vehicle, per park for seven days) and get up close with nature on one of the following hikes -- all of which can be done without a guide. Here, the top five best day hikes in the area:
1. The Narrows, Zion National Park
The quintessential Zion experience, the trail on The Narrows hike is the Virgin River itself. Follow it deeper and deeper into the slot canyon picking your way through water that, depending on the season, will be mostly ankle-to-hip deep -- check current water levels and temperature at the visitor center. On this out-and-back hike, try to make it at least to mile 2.5, where the towering canyon walls close in around you in a section known as Wall Street (day hikers have to turn around at mile five). Renting specialty shoes, neoprene socks, and a hiking stick at a local outfitter will make this a much more enjoyable experience at a price point of about $25.
2. Observation Point, Zion National Park
Those wanting to escape the crowds (and steep drop-offs) of Zion’s famed Angel’s Landing hike, should make the strenuous eight-mile round-trip trek up to Observation Point, which at 2,150 feet above the canyon floor offers sweeping views over the stunning landscape below. Before hopping back on the park shuttle bus, be sure to walk the quarter mile each way to Weeping Rock, a cool alcove featuring the park’s largest hanging gardens that are watered by a steady curtain of “weeping” water that has been in the rocks for around 1,200 years. Start early to beat the midday heat and crowds.
3. Navajo Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park
If you only have time for one hike in otherworldly Bryce National Park, make it this one. The spectacularly, moderate to strenuous 1.3-mile Navajo Loop Trail takes you down on switchbacks to the canyon bottom and up again through Wall Street, where the 100-foot-tall canyon walls and 750-year-old Douglas fir trees create a stunning setting. If you feel like exploring more, add the Peek-a-boo loop trail (see below), which forks off about halfway through the hike.
4. Watchman Trail, Zion National Park
A great, moderate introduction to Zion National Park is the 2.7-mile round-trip Watchman Trail, which starts right at the visitor center. Leading past the ranger quarters, the trail ascends moderately to a plateau, where a (somewhat confusing) loop trail offers scenic views of both the park and the town of Springdale. If you’re lucky you may see wildlife, including deer mule, along the way.
5. Peek-a-Boo Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park
One of the most fun and less-visited trails in Bryce Canyon National Park, the moderate to strenuous Peek-a-boo Loop Trail, is aptly named with surprising hikes and stunning views of spectacular red rock formations near and far around every corner. On an ascending and descending trail of three miles, you’ll pass through varied terrain, catching some of the best views, including Silent City and Wall of Windows. A short connecting trail links it to the Navajo Loop Trail (see above), making it about 4.5 miles total.