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Andy Murdock

Visiting Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in Fall

Posted by Andy Murdock on November 24, 2017
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  • The Watchman towers above Zion National Park, picture
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    Pa'Rus Trail and the Watchman, Zion National Park

    A walk on the Pa'Rus trail, from Canyon Junction following the Virgin River toward the visitor center, winds you through vast golden patches of rabbitbrush, an autumn treat and one of the latest blooming wildflowers in the park. The main draw is the Watchman, the towering peak that stands vigil at the entrance to the canyon. Come at sunset, and you'll have the trail to yourself.
  • fall colors along the Emerald Pools Trial at Zion National Park, picture
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    Emerald Pools Trail, Zion National Park

    The Emerald Pools Trail is a light hike from the park's lodge, featuring a palette of fall colors just as enchanting as the three pools the trail is named for. To help deal with crowds and limited parking, Zion National Park steers visitors to the convenient shuttle system. The handful of popular trails served by the shuttle can get downright packed during high season, but coming in fall means lighter crowds, especially if you hit the trail early on a weekday.
  • bright red leaves adorn the trees at Zion National Park, picture
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    Fall Colors at Zion National Park

    Fall colors in the desert? Yes, indeed. Zion’s creeks, seeps, and washes glow with surprising dabs of red, pink, gold, and everything in between as maples, box elders, cottonwoods, aspens, ashes, and oaks show off their autumn finest.
  • buildings in the town of Sprindale, Utah, against the backdrop of Zion National Park, picture
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    Springdale, Utah

    Zion's charming gateway town Springdale has experienced a surge thanks to recent interest in Zion, with new hotels and restaurants springing up to host park visitors. For most of Zion's main attractions, you can leave the car behind: Take the Springdale shuttle to the park entrance, or walk in from town, an easy 20-minute stroll. The views from Springdale are good enough that you might even decide to stay there for the day, enjoying coffee and homemade scones on the roof deck at Deep Creek Coffee Company or browsing the galleries and rock shops.
  • the Virgin Bridge crossing over the Virgin River in Zion National Park, picture
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    Bridge over the Virgin River, Zion National Park

    The Virgin River might seem small compared to the mighty rivers of the West, but it's the force responsible for carving the sheer-walled canyons of Zion. On the Narrows, one of Zion’s most famous trails, the Virgin River itself is the path forward—with knee-high waters and waist-deep pools, there’s no avoiding getting wet. Late in the season, the river gets too cold for most hikers to brave the Narrows, but you can still enjoy the view of the river and the changing colors along its banks.
  • Slickrock country in East Zion National Park, picture
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    Exploring the slickrock of Zion National Park

    The slickrock country of East Zion is where to head if you really want some breathing room. Leave the shuttle behind, and drive through the Mt. Carmel Tunnel to trails like Canyon Overlook and Many Pools (pictured), good alternatives to the busier trails from Zion Canyon. Bring plenty of water and some grippy shoes, and there’s endless country to explore.
  • a pink tunnel at the start of the Many Pools trail in Zion National Park, picture
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    A tunnel to adventure in East Zion

    Late in the season, when the weather is dry but cool, washes become trails. In East Zion, several trails that head north start with pink stone tunnels under the road. If you want to get your kids excited about a hike in the desert, start with a mysterious pink tunnel like this one that leads to the Many Pools trail.
  • an historical building in Grafton, Utah, picture
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    Grafton Ghost Town

    Grafton, a ghost town a short drive west of Zion proper, has several original buildings, a few of which you can explore on your own, plus a well-preserved graveyard. Dealing with frigid winters, troubles with local American Indian tribes, crop failures, and bouts of disease, life wasn’t easy for early Mormon settlers. But the backdrop was always beautiful and remains so: Even here, the landscape is national park–worthy. (For movie buffs, this is where they filmed the "Raindrops Are Falling on My Head" scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)
  • hoodoo rock formations at Bryce Canyon National Park, pictures
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    Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park

    If crowds are smaller at Zion in fall, they nearly disappear at Bryce Canyon. By November, much of Bryce Canyon's amenities have closed for the season, but the trails are still open and temperatures are cool—helpful, as there's little shade to be had. Bryce's trails take you right down among (and sometimes through) the famous hoodoo rock formations.
  • pines stretch up to the sky in Bryce Canyon, picture
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    Queen’s Garden Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park

    The pines of Bryce Canyon can be just as compelling as the rocks. Fragrant ponderosa pines extend up to the rim of the canyon, while limber pines and bristlecone pines, among the longest living organisms on Earth, take on fascinating shapes due to the harsh environment and ever-shifting soils of Bryce Canyon, creating a forest of bonsai among the hoodoos.
  • Bryce Point in Bryce Canyon National Park offers incredible views, picture
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    Bryce Point, Bryce Canyon National Park

    Photographers are always chasing the best light at Bryce Canyon, and at Bryce Canyon, everyone is a photographer. At Bryce Point you can't lose. Perched on the point's long fin of rock with views on three sides, the light is perfect in one direction or another no matter when you arrive.
  • the badlands of Bryce Canyon National Park, picture
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    Badlands of Bryce Canyon National Park

    Bryce Canyon, at a much higher elevation, doesn't boast the shades of fall like you'll find in Zion, but it's certainly not lacking for colors. The low light of morning can make the hoodoos appear to glow. In the outer reaches of the canyon, the hoodoos and fins erode into gentle badlands with soft gradients of earth tones.

In the mood for a desert escape? It’s the perfect time to fall in love with Zion and Bryce Canyon. These two iconic national parks in southern Utah have never been more popular, but in fall, the summer crowds (and heat) vanish. Find yourself alone among the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. At Zion, surprising bursts of colors await around every bend.

Click through the gallery above for top hiking opportunities and more inspiration.