Travel Tips

Family-Friendly Outdoor Travel: Autumn in Bryce & Zion National Parks

Locations in this article:  Las Vegas, NV

Zion National Park - photo courtesy US Parks serviceIt seems to me that every person who’s had the good luck and great joy to explore America’s national parks has one special place that’s woven its magic through their heart and calls them back again and again.

For me that place is southern Utah’s Zion National Park and there is no time I love it more than in fall.

The crowds have left. The heat has abated. But the fall colors are as startling and exquisite as any you’d find in Maine, Vermont or New Hampshire.

Better yet, it’s just a mere 2.5-hour car-drive north of Las Vegas, making it exceptionally easy to get to.

Road in Zion To see the very best that this season has to offer, head for the town of Springdale at Zion’s southern entrance, just off of Highway 9. If you are staying at Zion Lodge or any of the campgrounds, you can drive into the park.

For travelers who love to combine hiking amidst gorgeous scenery, good food and comfort, a good bet is to stay in Springdale and take advantage of the shuttle system that runs along its main street. It takes you from one end of town right to the visitor center in the park.

Personal favorites for lodging in Springdale? Flanigan’s Inn and Restaurant, Best Western’s surprisingly upscale Zion Park Inn and the brand-new Cable Mountain Lodge. It features suites so luxurious and complete that they feel more like a home than a hotel.

In the morning, treat yourself to breakfast at the Mean Bean (I swear this tiny coffee bar has the best coffee I’ve tasted anywhere at any time).

Get more travel tips in our Adventure Travel: Hiking & Biking section

Zion shuttle - photo courtesy National Park ServiceThen hop on the Springdale shuttle, take it to the park gate, walk through the visitor’s center and grab another shuttle to view the park.

Both the town shuttle and the park shuttle are free and stop at every major point of interest.

Added bonus? You can concentrate on the beauty while someone else does the driving and—if you are the outgoing type—it’s a great way to meet and exchange tales with travelers from around the world.

Once in the park, take the shuttle to the very end of the line to the Riverside hike (really just a walk that’s so user-friendly wheelchairs can navigate it with ease) at the Temple of Sinawava.

Running parallel to the Virgin River, the trail is ideal for families with kids—easy to do, plenty to see and it’s virtually impossible to get lost. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for some romance, do this same hike at night sans children, preferably during a full moon.

To learn more about Accessible Travel, click here.

Zion in the fall - courtesy National Park ServiceFor the peak of fall color, my favorite hike is the Emerald Pools trail. There you will find the reds, oranges, greens, and golds usually associated with the eastern United States. But this time, the backdrop is the towering red rock walls of Zion and the meandering Virgin River below.

Back in town, you might want to check out the Zion Pizza and Noodle Company (cash only) which serves up tasty dishes in a family friendly atmosphere or, for a romantic (and more indulgent) meal, try the Switchback Grille at the Zion Park Inn.

In either case, stop in at The Bumbleberry for, you got it, a piece of bumbleberry pie. It’s a local specialty and deserves to be one.

Check out some Unusual Places for Fall Foliage on The Early Show.

Zion National Park roadI could spend a lifetime in Zion and never tire of its beauty but, if time and deadlines are pushing you on, head out of the park on Highway 89 and set your sights for Bryce National Park—only 1.5 hours away, just off Scenic Byway 12.

If you really want to do yourself a favor, set aside some time one year and travel this Byway from start to finish.

Chockablock with national and state parks, the Federal Highway Administration has named it one of the most beautiful roads in America.

In the off season, the park’s Bryce Canyon Lodge closes and the most popular place to stay is at Ruby’s Inn. After a big breakfast, bundle up—Bryce is at 9,000 feet—and head into the park.

For more, check out The “Grand Dame” Hotels of Our National Parks

Hiking Bryce - Photo courtesy National Park ServiceHikers, or even walkers, shouldn’t miss the opportunity to take the Navajo Trail down into the canyon. Wandering through the canyon’s hoodoos—a fairyland of stunning sculptural forms created by ice and water—puts you up close and personal with one of nature’s most extraordinary wonders. Later in the season when snow is on the ground, the visitor’s center offers free snowshoes.

Tired after hiking? Perk up with some homemade soup and a piece of pie at the Bryce Canyon Pines (or “The Pines” as locals call it) just down the road from Ruby’s on Route 63. My favorite choice is the lemon cream but it’s nearly impossible to make a bad choice.

In a place as spectacular as southern Utah, it is hard to claim you saved the best for last, but, in terms of fall color, here it comes: After leaving Bryce, head back toward Zion by way of Cedar Breaks National Monument. Along route 143, there are entire forests of quaking aspens turning golden in the sunlight—a sight that is truly breathtaking.

They stand as a colorful invitation to the fall traveler to come enjoy the splendor of autumn, no, not in New England, but amidst the red rock mesas and pinnacles of southern Utah, in a place that I believe will weave its magic and call you back again and again.

Learn more about America’s National Parks:

By Jamie Simons for PeterGreenberg.comPhotos courtesy of the National Park Service.