Located just two and a half hours from Las Vegas, Zion National Park is now one of the most popular national parks in the United States. It has surpassed Yellowstone, with over 4.3 million visitors in 2016. It’s a looming crisis as the narrow canyon’s infrastructure and staff are becoming overwhelmed by the rapid increase in visitation.
Overcrowding is now a permanent fact of life in Zion, but there are still ways to escape. Tourists are fairly predictable–the majority of visitors to any national park are looking to do the same thing, at the same time, and fit it all in between regular meals. With a spirit of adventure and a little grit, it’s possible to avoid the throngs of people and find the best time to visit Zion.
Our guides have a saying–”an hour earlier, a mile farther”. Or sometimes two hours. Maybe three. To enjoy an ultra-popular destination like Angel’s Landing without traffic jams, aim to hit the trail before sunrise. You won’t be alone, but in the early morning hush the hikers are fewer and quieter, the temperature is much cooler, and you’ll be treated to incredible colors as the sun enters the canyon.
Kolob Canyons is a section of Zion on the west side of the park with its own entrance and visitors center. The colors are, if anything, even more vivid than in the main canyon–and it sees far, far fewer visitors. A stunning scenic drive, beautiful views out across the Colorado Plateau, and wilderness hikes into box canyons are just some of the attractions Kolob has to offer without the overwhelming crush of the main canyon.
It’s taller than Angel’s Landing. The views are better. Yet there’s far less people–because the hike to Observation Point is also longer, harder, and higher–not a negative in our book!
This alternate to Angel’s is a perennial favorite of guides. The trail snakes up the canyon wall, through the surreal Echo Canyon, climbs past wild mesas to the highest point in Zion. Observation Point attracts more hikers than tourists, and it’s absolutely possible to feel immersed in the wilderness on the long trail. While it lacks the double-sided exposure and chain system of Angel’s, there’s plenty of sheer drops on the canyon side of the trail to get your heartrate up.
For those who really wanted to be alone, visiting the national parks in the dead winter used to be the easy answer.
While Zion in winter sees far fewer visitors–84,000 in January, compared to 600,000 in June–the reality is a bit more complicated. Much of the park infrastructure, such as shuttle buses, shuts down in winter. But the park is still seeing record winter crowds. This has lead to traffic jams and other logistical problems as what was once the “quiet” season is now plenty busy. A winter trip will still mean far smaller crowds on the trails, but requires more patience and logistical planning to deal with difficult conditions, reduced park services, and trail hazards from snow, ice, and inclimate weather.
No matter how hard you try, any visit to Zion will mean hiking with thousands of your new closest friends. Embrace the chance to observe some colorful wildlife far outside their natural habitat and enjoy the best people watching in the world.
Avoiding overcrowded trails (and bathrooms, and buses, and lodges) isn’t easy, and isn’t guaranteed even following the above advice. We choose to visit places like Zion for the same reason everyone else does: because we’re enchanted by a landscape not found anywhere else on Earth. But when you seek out alternate approaches to the top-trending hikes–no matter how many people you encounter–your visit will come with a sense of discovery, a spirit of adventure, and the satisfaction of unknown challenges conquered. We can also all do our part to reduce strain on our national parks by coming prepared, leaving no trace, and having a positive impact on the environment. And never leave home without your best tool for the crowds–patience!