There aren't many places in the world where the forces of nature have come together with such dramatic results as in Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. From arid desert and desolate canyons to pine-covered peaks and awe-inspiring rock formations, these two parks -- located about 85 miles apart in colorful southern Utah -- offer some of the American West's most beautiful scenery, along with almost unlimited opportunities for hiking, camping, and other outdoor experiences.
Zion and Bryce Canyon sit on the vast, high Colorado Plateau. They share this plateau with Utah's three other national parks (Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef), as well as with Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, a number of national monuments and state parks, the Hopi Indian Reservation, and the vast Navajo Nation.
The Colorado Plateau developed millions of years ago when forces deep within the earth forced the crust to rise, exposing many strata of rocks. Over several million more years, the power of erosion and weathering sculpted spectacular rock formations, colored with an iron-rich palette of reds, oranges, pinks, and browns.
Both Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks are known for their stunning rock formations -- Zion for its massive sandstone monoliths, and Bryce for its more delicate limestone sculptures. But the wondrous natural architecture isn't the sole reason for visiting these parks. You will also find shimmering pools of deep green water, a sometimes-roaring river, forests of pine and fir, broad panoramic views, a vast array of plants and animals, and even a bit of human history.
One thing that makes both parks so inviting is that they can be experienced in a variety of ways. Adventurers can savor challenging hiking trails and backcountry routes, while the curious can examine millions of years of geologic history and have the chance to see rare plants and animals. Meanwhile, those with an artistic bent can simply lose themselves in the beauty of the parks.
In searching for the essence of these natural worlds, you'll find well-developed and maintained trail systems, overlooks offering panoramic vistas, interpretative displays, museum programs, and knowledgeable park rangers ready to help you make the most of your visit. You can't possibly see everything there is to be seen here, and you shouldn't try. Zion and Bryce Canyon are not to be visited as if they were amusement parks, racing from ride to ride; these natural wonders are to be savored, embraced, and explored, and the best way to do that is to slow down. Take time to ponder the sunrise, sit quietly at the edge of a meadow and wait for a deer to emerge from the woods, and even, as the cliché goes, stop and smell the roses.
Bryce Amphitheater is enormous, filled with countless delightfully shaped and colored formations and groups of formations, with telling names such as Wall Street, Fairyland Canyon, and Queen's Garden. Meanwhile, the rugged stone monuments at Zion, such as the Watchman and the West Temple, are overpowering and tend to highlight the insignificance of mankind in the total scheme of things. Among America's western parks, these are two of the easiest to explore -- to feel that you've gotten to know their very being. In large part, this is because their extensive trail and road systems enable visitors to explore these parks in fairly small, easily digestible bites; sampling one aspect, letting it settle, and then moving along for another taste.
We find Bryce Canyon National Park to be a bit more user-friendly than Zion, while Zion offers a greater variety of features to explore, from river canyons with colorful gardens to rocky windswept ridges. Bryce also has several fairly easy trails that lead right into the middle of some of its best scenery. This isn't to say that Zion is hard to get into, but because of the greater variety of terrain it takes a bit more time and effort to achieve that same feeling that you know the park.
One interesting difference between the parks is that at Zion you arrive at the bottom of the canyon, and in most cases look and hike up toward the rock formations. At Bryce Canyon you arrive at the top, along the rim, and look and then hike down into the amphitheaters. Foot-power is the best way to explore both parks, although those without the physical ability or desire to hike find that there is still quite a bit for them to see. Zion has the greater variety of hiking trails -- more than double the number at Bryce -- as well as more extreme variations in elevation and terrain. Because Zion is lower, you'll find more favorable hiking conditions in winter there, while summer hikers will appreciate the cooler temperatures in the higher elevations of Bryce Canyon.