Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park are two of Utah’s best National Parks…and that’s really saying something…because Utah has FIVE pretty stellar National Parks.
Zion is actually one of the most popular National Parks in the country right up there with the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite. Bryce Canyon flies a little more under the radar but it packs a punch.
I actually think of Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park as a set. Because of their proximity (about two hours apart), most people do both on the same trip. AND YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY DO BOTH.
But for the sake of hashing things out, well…let’s hash things out!
Zion National Park vs Bryce Canyon National Park
Scope & Size
Zion definitely feels like a bigger, beefier park. If you’re drafting US National Parks, Zion is for sure in the top 5. It’s a heavy hitter. Zion is so diverse with a much wider variety of terrain and things to do. You could come spend a week at Zion and stay busy. It’s on the level of Yellowstone and Yosemite.
Bryce Canyon is more of a little jewel. It’s a much smaller, more compact park. But it packs a punch. It’s not nearly as diverse and expansive as Zion. In some ways, it’s like a one trick pony…it does one thing…but it does it SO WELL.
Bryce Canyon is at a much higher elevation (there can be as much as a 20 degree temperature difference between Zion and Bryce). And if you’re visiting during the sweltering summer, that’s a big difference.
Scenery wise, they’re also a bit different. At Zion (and in the whole surrounding area), it always feels like you’re down in the bottom of the canyon looking up whereas at Bryce Canyon, you’re on top of the rim looking down.
Because of that, I think the whole Zion AREA feels much more magical. Everywhere you are (on the roads, in Springdale, on the trails, etc.) you look up and see the beautiful canyon walls.
Bryce feels a bit more “western.” Even though you’re at higher altitude, it feels more wide open and flat with more cowboy vibes.
Zion is DEFINITELY the more crowded park. It’s the third most visited National Park in the US (behind Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon) with over 4.6 million visitors a year. And the majority of them come through during the summer. In order to help mitigate crowds, the park has a mandatory shuttle system through the main part of the park in effect from March through November.
I’ve heard people compare it to going to Disney World. It’s not like that in the slightest (I’ve questioned whether the people making this comparison have actually been to Disney), but if you’re crowd adverse and you like to have trails all to yourself…you’re not going to like it ; )
Definitely plan to visit in the spring or fall if you’re trying to avoid the crowds.
Bryce Canyon is way less crowded, but it’s still really popular. They also have a shuttle system in place from April to October, but it’s not mandatory. You can still drive your own car and park at the trailheads and overlooks.
Zion is only about 2.5 hours from Las Vegas and since it sees so much traffic (and it’s a fantastic park!), there’s been a lot of infrastructure built up in the surrounding towns.
Springdale is the town just outside the main gates of Zion and it’s a BOOM TOWN. It has a small, resort town feel but there are a ton of hotels and lodging options. Plus plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, gear rentals places, etc. It’s very commercial, but it still manages to feel pretty quaint.
Bryce Canyon (the name of the town just outside the gates to the park) is a lot smaller with fewer options, but there are options. It’s not nearly as scenic as Springdale, but there are hotels, restaurants, and they even have a rodeo. It definitely has more “wild west” vibes than mountain town vibes.
Springdale and Virgin have better “destination” type places to stay and it’s where I would prefer to spend a few days to a week, but I’d be fine to stay in Bryce Canyon for a night or two.
Let’s talk about hiking…Zion probably has the most famous, legendary hikes in the entire National Park system. It’s a hiker’s paradise. A mecca. A world class destination.
Annnnnnnd…I enjoyed hiking at Bryce Canyon more! HAHA.
If you’re hung around here long enough you know by now…I will hike…especially in National Parks, but I’m not someone who just LOVES to hike. Like, it’s not part of my identity.
So let’s call me…a reluctant hiker.
Here’s my holy grail hiking situation: a two mile or less hike with a BIG pay off. I’m not talking about a two mile hike through a little forest. I mean a big huge bucket list hike that’s accessible.
And I think the Navajo Loop at Bryce Canyon is just that. It’s one of my top hikes EVER (up there with Hall of Mosses in Olympic National Park) and it was probably the highlight of the trip for me.
This is kind of what I meant when I said Bryce Canyon does one thing but it does it so well. The famous switchback trails down through the hoodoos into the canyon…it’s completely magical and otherworldly. But if you do one hike, you’ve pretty much seen it all. Yes, you could spend three days doing all the big hikes in Bryce Canyon, but they more or less are all taking you past the same scenery.
Zion is a lot more diverse. The two big hikes in the park (Angels Landing and the Narrows) couldn’t be more different. If you’re into hiking, you’ll definitely want at least three days in Zion National Park whereas most people are good with just one day at Bryce Canyon.
I kind of hinted at this in the beginning, but I don’t think Zion and Bryce Canyon is an either/or situation. If you’re in the area, you definitely need to visit both parks. Especially since they’re only about two hours apart from each other.
But I would definitely recommend planning to spend more time at Zion than Bryce.
With just one day at Zion, you might be a little overwhelmed and not have enough time to even get a good overview of the park. I’d recommend a minimum of two days at Zion and one day at Bryce and increase your time from there depending on how much hiking you want to do at either park.