Last updated on December 30, 2022 by Wandering our World
If you’re looking to getaway into the great wide open, then you can’t do much better than heading to one of the great national parks in the US. With countless hiking trails, stunning viewpoints, and breath-taking scenery, the great outdoors doesn’t get much better than this.
That’s exactly why we’re going to take a look at two of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks – Zion and Bryce Canyon – to help you decide which is before for your next hiking adventure.
They’re pretty different too. But if you’re looking for peace and tranquility on the trails, especially if your available dates are limited, the less visited Bryce Canyon may be better for you. It’s also a great stargazing destination as we explain more on later. However for serious hikers, Zion will likely be the better option.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the differences and similarities between Zion and Bryce.
Luckily we dive into the specifics below to help find which park is best to you. We’ll have a look at the hiking in both parks, as well as the camping, photography opportunities, wildlife on view, the quality of stargazing in each location and much more. Let’s get started!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Has The Best Hiking?
- Which Is Better For Camping?
- Which Is Better For Wildlife?
- Which Is Best For Photography?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Better In Winter?
- Which Is Better For Stargazing?
- What Time Of Year Is Best?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview
Bryce Canyon National Park is located in the south of Utah and is the twelfth-most visited national park in the US.
Its nearest town is Bryce Canyon City, and it was originally designated as a national monument in 1923 before being redesignated as a national park by Congress in 1928.
Bryce Canyon’s main feature is that it has an abundance of thin rock spires, known as hoodoos.
Zion National Park is also located in southern Utah, near the town of Springdale, and is about a ninety-minute drive from Bryce Canyon.
Zion is actually the fourth-most visited park in the US and was designated as a national park in November 1919.
This National Park is the larger of the two parks, and it sits at a lower elevation than Bryce Canyon too.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
Both Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are relatively easy to get to. The two parks are around 120 kilometers (75 miles) apart, and it would take around an hour and a half to drive between the two. To the south of these two parks, the nearest international airport is Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas.
Reaching Zion National Park from the international airport in Las Vegas would take around three hours by road. Bryce Canyon National Park is a little farther away from the airport in Las Vegas, and the journey would take a little over four hours.
Alternatively, to get to Bryce Canyon National Park, you could also secure a flight into Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC).
The journey time from Salt Lake City’s airport to Bryce Canyon would take a similar amount of time as the journey from Las Vegas.
Which Has The Best Hiking?
While both parks can boast of being home to some epic hiking trails, the distinct topography of each park means you can enjoy different experiences in the two different locations.
Both parks also offer a range of trails to suit all levels, and you can find easy, short hikes as well as longer, more strenuous hikes in both locations.
Zion National Park is the more visited of the two parks, and it boasts more than 100 trails to explore. There are trails to suit all levels, and you can also choose a trail to fit in with your time schedule, with trails ranging from thirty minutes (the Weeping Rock Trail) to full-day, eight-hour hikes, such as the trail to view Kolob Arch.
Serious hikers can even take on the trail to the Narrows from Chamberlain’s Ranch. The Narrows is the narrowest stretch of the Zion Canyon, and this challenging 16-mile hike can take around 12 hours to complete.
Bryce Canyon National Park also boasts some spectacular trails, with the main draw being the trails that take in the hoodoos and the natural amphitheaters.
Bryce Canyon has eight main hiking trails that can be hiked in less than a day, and these trails are marked and well-maintained. There are a few easy hikes, ranging from one hour up to five or six hours; a couple of moderate trails, which take two or three hours to complete; and a couple of more challenging trails, Fairyland Loop and Peekaboo Loop, which take around five hours to complete.
Bryce Canyon also has two trails designated for overnight hiking: the 9-mile (14-kilometer) Riggs Spring Loop Trail and the 23-mile (37-kilometer) Under-the-Rim Trail. Both of these longer trails require an additional backcountry camping permit.
But in our opinion the much bigger Zion National Park is probably going to be the better choice for the more serious hiker, due to the sheer number of different trails on offer.
Which Is Better For Camping?
Both parks have campgrounds within their boundaries, and there are also alternative accommodation options available in both parks.
Zion National Park has three campgrounds inside the park, and there is also the option of staying at the Zion Lodge. The historic lodge is surrounded by red-rock cliffs on all sides and is worth a visit even if you choose different accommodation options.
If stargazing in Zion is on your agenda, consider booking a stay in the South or Watchman campgrounds, as they also offer great sunset and sky views.
The town of Springdale sits just beyond the park’s gates, and there are a few hotel options here too.
Bryce Canyon National Park has two campgrounds within its limits, and there is also the option of staying in a lodge: the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge.
Outside the park’s limits, the town of Bryce Canyon City has a few accommodation options for those less keen on camping.
Nothing really separates these two when it comes to camping – which one is best for you will depend on other factors regarding each park.
Which Is Better For Wildlife?
Both of these spectacular national parks are filled with an impressive array of flora and fauna. But i terms of sheer diversity, the larger Zion National Park can boast of being home to a few more species than its smaller neighbor Bryce.
Within its 146,597 acres, Zion National Park has 291 bird species and 78 species of mammals, while Bryce Canyon is home to 170 bird species and 59 different species of mammals within its 35,835 acres. There are also a number of reptile and amphibian species to be found in each park.
Of Zion’s impressive birdlife, the Mexican spotted owl, the peregrine falcon, and the California condor top the list of potential sightings amongst avid birders and twitchers.
Other notable wildlife encounters that you may have in Zion National Park include mule deer and wild turkeys, while you should also keep your eyes and ears open for western rattlesnakes. As night falls, you may be lucky to encounter gray foxes and mountain lions.
Not to be outdone, Bryce Canyon National Park is also home to some impressive birds of prey, with golden eagles and peregrine falcons being the most impressive.
Herpetologists will be keen to spot the world’s largest land-based salamander in Bryce, the tiger salamander, whilst you should also keep an eye open for the Great Basin rattlesnake.
Rocky Mountain elk, Utah prairie dogs, and pronghorn may wander across your path, while you should also be on the lookout for mountain lions and desert bighorn sheep.
Which Is Best For Photography?
We’re sure you already know that these national parks are extremely photogenic. Both parks boast a collection of stunning viewpoints from which to capture the parks’ beauty.
But be aware that, especially during the summer months, these viewpoints can get busy with nature photographers vying for the best spots.
Bryce Canyon’s most iconic spot for landscape photography is Inspiration Point, which overlooks the main amphitheater. While you can capture stunning shots at any time of day, this location is especially popular at dawn and sunset, as the natural reds and oranges of the park’s landscape are complemented by the shifting colors in the sky.
Also popular for photography in Bryce Canyon is Sunrise Point, which is the most northern spot in the park and, rather ironically, the ideal place for sunset photography.
And to keep the irony flowing, Sunset Point is great for photos at dawn, as the sun rises. Sunset Point is spectacular throughout the day too, and is a great place to take a picture of the park’s most iconic hoodoo, Thor’s Hammer.
For the most iconic view of Zion National Park, head to Canyon Junction Bridge and snap away at Watchman Mountain with the Virgin River flowing below. This spot can get quite busy as Golden Hour approaches, so arrive early to secure a good vantage point.
Also popular in Zion is Canyon Overlook, which is stunning throughout the day and also very popular around dawn and dusk.
Zion’s most inspiring landmark to photograph is known as the Court of the Patriarchs, which is a group of sandstone cliffs named after the biblical figures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You can reach the Court of the Patriarchs via the shuttle bus, alighting at shuttle stop #4 or #5.
Which Is Best For Families?
Both Zion and Bryce Canyon are excellent national parks to visit with children in tow. Both have a range of available trails to hike, and both have a few that are categorized as easy to moderate that all can enjoy.
And while both parks are stunning, perhaps the children may especially appreciate the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, especially, thanks to the recent proliferation of Marvel Comics’ movies, Thor’s Hammer.
In addition to the family-friendly trails in Zion National Park—such as the Upper Emerald Pools and the Riverside Walk—the children will also enjoy exploring nearby Grafton Ghost Town.
This abandoned pioneer town is said to be the most photographed ghost town in the West and has been graced with the presence of Robert Redford and Paul Newman when it was featured in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
One aspect to consider when planning a family vacation is that outside of the parks, the area surrounding Bryce Canyon has a few more activities to enjoy than the area around Zion. So that being the case, Bryce may suit families more as there’s plenty to keep kids busy in the surrounding region.
One of the most popular activities is horseback riding, but if you plan a summer visit, you may need to book in advance as places fill up quickly.
Which Is Better In Winter?
Zion and Bryce Canyon are the two southernmost parks in Utah’s Mighty 5, and thus the warmest. While the elevation means there can still be plenty of snow, these two parks remain largely accessible during the winter months.
One of the most appealing aspects of a winter visit is the lack of crowds on the trails, but the compromise is that there may be one or two trails that are closed or inaccessible due to the weather.
Bryce Canyon In Winter
Bryce Canyon sits at a much higher elevation than its nearby neighbor, Zion National Park, and as such, may be more prone to trail closures.
In winter, it’s a very good idea to have a chat with the rangers to see how the conditions are on each of the trails and to find out which ones are most suitable at that time of the year.
But if you are planning a winter getaway to Bryce Canyon, try to coincide your trip with the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival, which typically takes place over President’s Day Weekend.
When hitting the trails in Bryce Canyon during the winter, be sure to have suitable apparel. To hike any of the main trails that go down into the main amphitheater, you should wear waterproof hiking boots or snow boots, layers of clothing, gloves, and hats, and stock up on water and snacks.
The roads that lead to the most popular viewpoints, like Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Sunset Point, and Sunrise Point, are usually plowed to keep access open.
Outside of Bryce Canyon, there are other opportunities to have some fun during the winter months. One such activity is snowmobiling in the nearby town of Brian Head.
Inside the park, you can also participate in cross-country skiing along the Rim Trail. You can also speak to the rangers about guided snowshoe hikes, with snowshoes and poles included in the price.
Zion In Winter
Visiting Zion in November, December, January, and February means quieter trails, beautiful winter scenery, and significantly lower accommodation prices than in the summer.
Bear in mind that winter in Zion can be wet and cold, and you will need to dress appropriately. Temperatures may reach as high as 60 °F during the day but will drop below freezing during the night. Most roads are kept open by plowing, but some trails may close if the weather makes them more hazardous.
The winters in Zion National Park are mild compared to those in Bryce Canyon because Zion sits at a lower altitude; however, you should expect some harsh winter conditions at times in the area between November and March.
And, especially if you plan to hike the Narrows, make sure you have dry suits, neoprene socks, canyon shoes, and walking sticks, as you will be getting wet.
Although there will be fewer businesses open in Springdale during the winter, there are still places where you can hire the appropriate clothing and equipment if you don’t already have them.
Which Is Better For Stargazing?
While both parks will offer great stargazing away from the light pollution of big cities, Bryce Canyon is the clear winner in this category.
Bryce Canyon was recently designated an International Dark Sky Park. International Dark Sky Parks have to go through a rigorous selection process to evaluate the level of darkness of the night sky, as well as what steps have been taken to install “night-sky friendly” lighting that is environmentally sustainable and emits very little glare.
Bryce Canyon runs astronomy-related educational programs throughout the year and occasional talks, with speakers coming from organizations such as the Salt Lake Astronomical Society.
The park also runs ranger-led hikes when the moon is full, but the best stargazing is arguably when the moon is at its blackest.
In June or July each year, there is also the Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival, which will fall during a new moon, and this time of the year is when you will have the clearest views of the Milky Way.
Although Bryce Canyon is a bit more geared up towards astronomy, you can still gaze at an impressive night sky from Zion National Park too. The rangers here also make an effort to keep the nights nice and dark with minimal lighting around the campgrounds, and you can experience impressive views of the Milky Way here too.
The Pa’rus Trail in Zion is also great for a night hike, but be sure to have the necessary equipment, including flashlights and a backup. Many of the other trails are off-limits during the night, as there are some steep cliffs that are easier to fall off in the dark!
What Time Of Year Is Best?
Summer is the most popular time to visit Bryce Canyon or Zion, but spring and fall will have smaller crowds, and the winter offers the chance of snowfall and winter activities. The best time of the year to visit will depend on what you want to do during your trip.
That said, hiking is perhaps the main reason for visiting these two national parks, and as such, the summer will be best. To avoid the busiest times, you should aim to visit just before the schools break for summer.
During the summer, the weekends can get particularly busy, as can public holidays such as Memorial Day weekend, Easter week, and Labor Day weekend. If you do plan on visiting during the peak times of the year, you should book well in advance as things fill up quickly, including the shuttle buses.
While winter has the advantage of the parks and their trails being quieter, there is the downside that you will need to bring more equipment and winter clothing with you.
Yet while there are fewer businesses, like restaurants and hotels, open during the winter months, those that remain open will also be quieter than during the summer.
Bryce Canyon vs Zion: Which Is Better?
Both Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks are filled with natural beauty, an array of flora and fauna, and excellent hiking trails.
While which one is best for you will ultimately depend on you, the visitor numbers suggest that Zion National Park is the better of the two.
Zion National Park was the fourth-most-visited national park in the United States in 2019, with a whopping 4.5 million visitors! That’s not to say nobody goes to Bryce Canyon though—it has an estimated 2.7 million visitors each year.
But if you’re looking for peace and tranquility on the trails, especially if your available dates are limited, Bryce Canyon may be better for you.
Bryce Canyon may also be the better choice for keen astronomers and stargazers, and with a few more activities in the local area, Bryce Canyon probably just edges it for families too.
That said, the much bigger Zion National Park is probably going to edge it for the more serious hiker, due to the sheer number of different trails on offer.
One thing to bear in mind, though, is that it doesn’t necessarily need to be an either/or situation; Bryce Canyon and Zion are close enough to each other that you can easily visit both during the same vacation.
You could easily divide your vacation time between the two, as the drive between the two parks is only about 90 minutes.
If you’re still undecided and are looking for more information, we recommend the Lonely Planet guidebook that is devoted to these two excellent national parks…