There are a number of factors to consider in choosing when to visit Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. Those with children in school will usually have their travel schedules dictated by the school calendar, which means they will be visiting the parks at their busiest times. But this is not necessarily bad, because that's also when both parks offer the largest number of children's activities. Those with more flexibility in their travel schedules may want to avoid school vacation times and visit during the less-crowded seasons.
Another consideration is lodging. Rates at and near both parks are higher -- sometimes considerably higher -- in summer. However, visitors have more choices during the summer, because some properties, including the wonderful Bryce Canyon Lodge, close in winter.
Although Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks are in the same general area, there are differences in climate as a result of differences in elevation. Zion ranges from 3,700 to 8,726 feet, while the elevation at Bryce Canyon starts at 6,620 and rises to 9,115 feet.
Both parks experience all four seasons, although the winters at Zion are relatively mild and little snow falls in the canyon. Weather-wise, spring and fall are the best times to visit Zion, with temperatures ranging from lows in the 40s (single digits in Celsius) to pleasant highs in the 80s (upper-20s to low-30s Celsius). Summer daytime highs often soar well above 100°F (38°C), with lows dipping only into the 70s (low- to mid-20s Celsius). During this time, hiking is best done in the early mornings, especially considering the frequent afternoon thunderstorms in July and August that can change a babbling brook into a raging torrent in minutes.
Because of its higher elevation, Bryce Canyon is almost always cooler than Zion. May through October, daytime temperatures are pleasant -- usually from the low 60s (mid-teens Celsius) to the upper 80s (lower-30s Celsius) -- while nights are cool, dropping into the 40s (single digits in Celsius) even at the height of summer. Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August. During winter, days are generally clear and crisp, with high temperatures often reaching the 40s (single digits in Celsius), while nights are cold, usually in the single digits or teens (negative in Celsius), and it is not uncommon to see temperatures well below zero (below -18 Celsius). Snow is common in winter, although park staff plow the roads to the viewpoints.
In both parks, weather conditions may limit some activities at certain times. For instance, at Zion you'll want to avoid long hikes in midsummer, when the park bakes under the desert sun; and at Bryce Canyon, winter storms can make hiking on steep trails treacherous.
Avoiding The Crowds
Both parks get their highest visitation in summer -- particularly during school vacations, from early June to mid-August -- and those who prefer fewer people should try to visit at other times.
Zion's quietest months are December, January, and February. Of course, even at relatively warm Zion, it's chilly then, and there is the possibility that you may have to contend with some snow and ice (although it rarely lasts). If your schedule permits, many consider it a good compromise to visit in March, April, October, and November, when the weather is usually good but the park is far less crowded. We also like May and September.
Although Bryce Canyon National Park receives only two-thirds the number of annual visitors that pour into nearby Zion National Park, Bryce can still be crowded, especially during its peak season from mid-June to August. A better time to visit, if your schedule allows, is spring or fall. If you don't mind a bit of cold and snow, the park is practically deserted in the winter -- a typical January sees some 22,000 to 25,000 visitors, while in August there are well over 10 times that number -- and the sight of bright red stone formations (hoodoos), capped with fresh white snow, is something you won't soon forget.
At both parks, there are two other ways to avoid crowds at almost any time of year. First, get started on your explorations as early as possible in the day -- preferably just after sunrise. Not only is the light best then and the chance of seeing wildlife much better than later in the day, but you'll practically have the park to yourself, as the majority of visitors don't usually get going until about 10am.
The second way to avoid crowds is simply to walk away from them; most visitors never venture far from the major viewpoints. You can have a wonderful solitary experience, if you're willing to expend a little energy. Among the lesser-used day hikes at Bryce Canyon are Fairyland Loop and Peekaboo Loop; at Zion, try the Hop Valley and Observation Point trails. At Zion you can also avoid crowds by spending time in Kolob Canyons, in the far northwest section of the park; this area is spectacular and receives surprisingly little use, at least in comparison to Zion Canyon. To really get away from humanity at Bryce Canyon, head out on one of the park's two backcountry trails.
Most of the ranger-led activities, such as campfire and amphitheater programs and guided hikes and walks, occur during the summer, although a few are scheduled year-round, such as the once-a-month star-watching program presented at Bryce Canyon. Check the bulletin boards at park visitor centers for current information.
In the Bryce Canyon area, Ruby's Inn (tel. 866/866-6616 or 435/834-5341; www.rubysinn.com) sponsors several events throughout the year (call for the current schedule); and just outside Zion National Park, the Zion Canyon Visitors Bureau (tel. 888/518-7070; www.zionpark.com), in Springdale, can provide information on upcoming events.
A British Invasion -- Summer visitors to Zion National Park who want a change of pace can step back to Elizabethan England. It's a much shorter trip than you might think, only 60 miles north to the community of Cedar City for Utah's premier theater event -- the highly acclaimed Utah Shakespearean Festival, which has been presenting professionally staged works by Shakespeare and others since 1962.
The summer season, which runs from late June through August, includes six plays -- usually three by Shakespeare and three others -- in which top actors perform in true Elizabethan style in an open-air replica of the original Globe Theatre and in a modern enclosed theater. Then there are usually three productions during the fall season, which runs from mid-September to late October. Productions scheduled for 2010 include Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Merchant of Venice, Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Greater Tuna.
You can also take a backstage tour for $8 per person in the summer and $6 per person in the fall. A variety of other programs and special events are scheduled.
The festival is held on the Southern Utah University campus, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City, UT 84720. Ticket prices range from $21 to $68. There is a $10 per order handling fee for tickets ordered by phone, mail, or online. For tickets and information, call tel. 800/752-9849 or 435/586-7878; or check out the festival's website, www.bard.org.
What Should I Take
In packing for your trip, keep in mind that this is a land of extremes, with an often-unforgiving climate and terrain. Those planning to hike or bike should take more drinking water containers than they think they'll need -- experts recommend at least 1 gallon of water per person per day on the trail -- as well as good-quality sun block, hats and other protective clothing, and sunglasses with ultraviolet protection.
Summer visitors will want to carry rain gear for the typical afternoon thunderstorms, and jackets or sweaters for cool evenings. Winter visitors will not only want warm parkas and hats, but lighter clothing as well -- the bright sun at midday can make it feel like June.
Take a first-aid kit, of course, and make sure it contains tweezers -- very useful for removing cactus spines from your flesh if you should make the mistake of getting too close. Hikers, especially those planning to go into the Narrows at Zion National Park, will appreciate having a walking stick to brace themselves against the sometimes strong currents on the "trail," which is actually more wading than hiking.
If You Visit In The Winter
Winter can be especially beautiful in both parks, and is definitely less crowded than other times of the year. Because there are fewer park visitors, rangers will have more time to answer questions and discuss the park's resources. In addition, you're likely to see more of the bigger animals, such as deer and elk, although some of the squirrels and reptiles will be hibernating, and many of the birds will have flown south.
There are disadvantages, of course. For one, far fewer ranger-led programs and activities are scheduled in winter. Also, sudden winter storms can keep you indoors and may leave hiking trails at both parks icy and treacherous. Those going to the parks in winter should carry a variety of clothing that can be worn in layers, to be added or subtracted as conditions change, and make sure to have warm boots with good traction soles. Because the roads getting to and from the parks are mountainous, cars should be equipped with snow tires and should have engine coolant that protects down to 20°F below zero (-29°C), just in case one of those rare cold fronts moves through.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.