A Common Interest
A friend contacted us for suggestions when planning a driving trip to explore the red rock areas of Utah starting from Las Vegas, NV. They had 4 days budgeted for this part of their trip and wanted to include Zion National Park. Our suggestions to them might be a useful starting point for anyone traveling to SW Utah that is interested in doing some hiking.

Walking among the hoodoos is an amazing experience.
Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
Bryce Canyon is our top pick for a short trip through the Colorado Plateau area. Neither of us had been there before our visit in 2012 and we went to Bryce after a long stay in the Grand Canyon. We recommend that people with limited time in the area make a brief tour of the Grand Canyon if they haven't seen it to check it off their list (or skip it altogether) and budget more time for Bryce than the Grand Canyon. The hoodoos in Bryce are awesome, walking among them is stunning, and they shouldn't be missed.

Check the weather before finalizing your plans because Bryce is at 8,000-9,000' and snow will be a game changer. We were there in May and it was sizzling hot on some days and bone-chilling cold on others. The park is open year round.

Once at Bryce, pick up the park service map of the hikes among the hoodoos and inquire about closed trails. You can easily select walks or hikes that fit the amount of effort you like to expend (remember that you are at altitude). We linked several shorter walks to craft outings to suit our needs and selected some of the longer trails too. It becomes pretty obvious when looking at the map where you should go based on the distances you like to walk.

Doing the Narrows at Zion.
Ruby's Inn, a motel/campground complex right at the entrance gate to Bryce, is the place to stay. Plan at least 2 nights and 1 full day at Bryce. Inquire upon your arrival about the shuttle bus service into the park from the gate. It's optional and very convenient but you need to understand the details. I believe the shuttle is free with a National Park pass. Avoid the temptation to do Bryce as a drive-through--some walking among the hoodoos is a must.

Zion National Park, UT
If you are pressed for time, you can get a reasonable experience of Zion by driving through with a detour up the dead end Zion Canyon road. Zion is dramatic and lovely and worth slowing down to see. If you want to devote a day to hiking in Zion, I wouldn't do the Narrows canyon wading event because of the overhead time in getting the gear, getting it back on time, and only seeing 1 aspect of Zion (and it's for sturdy hikers only). Instead, I'd hike a trail.

Our favorite 2 trails in Zion are the ones going towards Angel's Landing via the West Rim Trail and the route to Observation Point via the East Rim Trail. If you are pressed for time and it's cool, I'd go towards Angel's Landing because it is the warmer of the 2. We don't actually do the Angel's Landing portion of the hike from the top because it's too little glory for the risk by our standards.

We do hike the steep trail up to the plateau and when the trail splits to the right for the Angel's Landing out-and-back, we go left and up into the endless back country. If you are short on time, just go to the plateau where the trail splits, take in the stunning views, and head back down. You'll get a huge workout and be rewarded with exhilarating views. You can add on as many minutes or hours as you like from the plateau. Even 15 minutes of walking towards the backcountry gets you onto some dramatic slick rock with new view.

The Observation Point route doesn't deliver as many "wow's" and it is a more deeply shaded route than the West Rim Trail. We've been in Zion in January when all of the north facing Observation Point route was buried in ice whereas the Angel's Landing approach only had patches of ice. About midway, the trail to Observation Point does go through a dramatically carved narrow gorge, which is unique in our experience of Zion. At the major junction most of the way up to the plateau, you can go right instead of up to Observation Point to get into an area of slick rock, which we've done once. But going all the way to Observation Point delivers the best panorama on this route.

Bill in the backcountry south from the Angel's Landing route.
If strolling on a flat, paved trail along the river is more your style, Zion has just the amble for you: the Pa’rus Trail from the Visitor Center to the junction with Zion Canyon. Keep to the right and pay attention when you point because you will be sharing the path with cyclists. There is also a paved trail with some grades along the river in Zion Canyon. There is little to no shade on the Pa'rus Trail whereas Zion Canyon tends to be deeply shaded, so plan your layers accordingly whatever the time of year. Even doing short portions of both of these 2 easy walks will give you dramatically different experiences of Zion and would be good "leg stretchers" if you are short on time and need to blast through the park (rest rooms are available at the parking lots for both walks).

During the busy times, some of Zion's roads can only be accessed by free shuttle bus though through traffic is still allowed. There is lodging within Zion itself and many lodging establishments in the immediately adjacent village of Springdale. There is also a food market in the village, though we haven't used it.

Snow Canyon State Park, UT
Snow Canyon State Park south of Zion and 8 miles out of St George delivers a quick fix for those in need of red rocks. We love this park and stay in its campground before and after every visit to Zion. Zion is a deep canyon with layers of red rock; Snow Canyon has huge mounds of red rock in the form of 'lithified dunes' in a more exposed setting. Pretty, dramatic, and grand fun for barefooting.

The lithified sand dunes at Snow Canyon are glorious to look at & feel amazing under bare feet.
There is a fee to enter this State Park and the free map shows the trails. Don't do the road at the base of the mountains on the west side but pick trails between it and the main road for an immersion in the gorgeous geology. Drive along the road looking for a heap of red rocks that beckon you and pick a trail near them. You could make it a quick visit if needed. Driving through with even 20 minutes to walk would be worth the detour. Amazingly, there seem to be no signs in St George pointing you to Snow Canyon, so use your map app. St George is overflowing with lodging.

Red Rocks Conservational Area, NV
The Red Rocks Conservational Area can definitely be seen as a short day trip from Las Vegas and is well worth the time. It's a one way loop, about 13 miles I believe. We've tried to find great hikes from within it and have come up short. If you have time, do get out at some of the viewpoints to explore a bit. As I recall, the best ones to walk are early in the loop and none of them take much time.

Valley of Fire State Park, NV
We love the Valley of Fire State Park east of Las Vegas. A bit isolated, it's a big driving time commitment unless you can stop by on your way in or out of Vegas. We camp there often as even the campground is stunning: the campsites are tucked in red rock formations. The campground is a bit out of the way but is a fun drive through if you are in the park and have time to kill. Do the Park's prescribed scenic route if you get there and get out of your car at the viewpoints and walk the short trails and read the signs for a satisfying, if brief, visit.

A Link
Here's a link to a site I've looked at but we haven't used in trip planning. It is almost too much information http://www.utah.com/hike/red_rock.htm. I looked at the hike lists for a couple of places we've been, like Zion, and it is indeed a laundry list of everything. We think of Zion as having 2-3 great hikes with some options en route.