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Travel the Best American Canyonlands: Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyon (North Rim)

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Springtime at the Grand Canyon North Rim.

Springtime at the Grand Canyon North Rim.

A Road Trip to Scenic National Parks and Historic Lodges

To see the spectacular canyon country of the great American Southwest presents a real time, dollar, and distance dilemma. The many wonderful canyons are so far flung across the wide open spaces of – mostly – Utah and Arizona, they are just not that easy or affordable to reach.

But there is a solution that can take as little as five days of precious vacation, minimize drive time, and give you an unforgettable experience.

The Trifecta of Great Canyons

The solution? Visit the trifecta of the great canyon national parks in the United States: Grand Canyon (North Rim), Bryce, and Zion. You will be awed by how spectacular – and yet how different – each one of these canyons is, in its own right. You may, as I did, declare "this one!" to be your favorite…until you see the next one and come away wondering how you could ever pick just one. Visit these three and you may have simply whetted your appetite to see more canyons, but you can be satisfied that you have seen the carefully chosen best representatives of American canyon country.

The Grand Canyon is, of course, the granddaddy of all canyons. But most people don’t know that, unless they have younger children who need more commercial offerings to be entertained, the North Rim is superior to the South Rim. Superior, that is, if you like more nature and less tourist traffic.

Only about 10% of the number of people who visit the traditional South Rim, take the out-of-the way road trip to the higher elevation (by close to a 1,000 feet) North Rim. They are rewarded, however, with fewer humans and more natural solitude, even more spectacular scenic beauty (three developed viewpoints showcase the canyon’s expansive vistas, rather than just the canyon depths), and a wonderful park lodge built in the 1920s and 30's.

Photo of hoodoos at sunset in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Photo of hoodoos at sunset in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

The delicate beauty of Zion is shown in this columbine growing in a small natural garden.

The delicate beauty of Zion is shown in this columbine growing in a small natural garden.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon is one of America’s best kept travel secrets for its knock-your-socks-off gorgeous vistas. Generating nowhere near the attention of Grand Canyon or Zion National Parks, Bryce will make you breathless with its mysterious, haunting beauty, and it may well win your heart as your favorite canyon.

At Bryce, it’s all about the “hoodoos” as they’re called. They almost seem like otherworldly beings – immigrants or warrior spirits, throngs or hoards of them. Best viewed from the scenic drive along the edge of the canyon rim, hoodoos are thousands and thousands of crowded spires – tall and thin, delicately-colored pinks and oranges – rising up to 3,000 feet from the canyon floor.

Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon is lovely, delicate, and intimate compared to the grandeur of the Grand Canyon and the stunning beauty of Bryce Canyon. Unlike those two, Zion is generally viewed from the floor of the canyon where the lodge is located. Walking along the Virgin River, you are surrounded by massive granite cliffs of red and white rock. Beautiful, accessible paths and trails lead you through delicate meadows to discover weeping rocks and hanging gardens around every corner.

Zion is popular, and here there will be people, lots of them, but no cars! at least during the summer. The use of shuttles, which leave frequently from the lodge and other stops, limits congestion (and fumes) and will take you to starting points for walks and hikes while you listen to drivers who really know the history, flora, and fauna of the canyon.

Grand Canyon Lodge (North Rim) main entrance.

Grand Canyon Lodge (North Rim) main entrance.

When to Go

To combine these three canyons, you must travel from mid-May to mid-October. Even though Bryce and Zion are open year-round, the road to the Grand Canyon North Rim is closed and the lodge is locked up in October or when the first big snow flies, and it doesn't open again until mid-May. Even so, when we stayed at the Lodge on May 22nd, it snowed about an inch the day we drove in, and the road was icy!

The other determinant to when you take this trip is getting those lodge reservations. The lodges are very popular and fill up quickly, so you may have to make reservations up to a year in advance.

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Grand Canyon Lodge view of the veranda, overlooking the canyon.

Grand Canyon Lodge view of the veranda, overlooking the canyon.

Priority One: Stay at the Lodges inside the National Parks!

Unless you're a die-hard hiker or camper (see Activity Level, below), this is where you want to be to fully experience the parks, of which the lodges are a key part. Make your reservations at the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, the Zion Canyon Lodge and the Bryce Canyon Lodge. Reservations can be made up to 13 months in advance, year round, and rooms and cabins sell out quickly in the summer months. Plan ahead to get the dates you want and to make your schedule work for all three parks! Rates must be approved by the National Park Service, which seems to give added assurance of a good value.

Bryce Canyon Lodge.

Bryce Canyon Lodge.

Zion Lodge is nestled in the meadow trees on the floor of the canyon.

Zion Lodge is nestled in the meadow trees on the floor of the canyon.

Caveat! Be sure to get the real deal - the genuine historic lodges. Grand Canyon is operated by Forever Resorts and Bryce and Zion are operated by Xanterra.

Get to Las Vegas. Then Rent a Car

OK. Now you've got your genuine lodge reservations. Start your trip by getting to Las Vegas. Las Vegas is the closest major destination to the three canyons and has many options for arriving by plane, train, or bus.

Once you're in Las Vegas, you will need to rent a car unless you choose to take an escorted tour instead. (Of course, if you're close enough to the canyons to drive, that's another story, just plot your way from where you are to the North Rim.)

The Route to Drive and How Long to Stay

From Las Vegas, drive on I-15 N to Highway 89, take 89 into Kanab, then on further south to Highway 67, which dead ends at the North Rim. This route to the Grand Canyon North Rim is a five to six hour drive that just gets lovelier and lovelier.

For the first few hours, you might be happier listening to books on tape until you get to the "good stuff." Yet, I found the strange Nevada and Utah landscapes compelling to watch. But although the views are fascinating in their own right, it is hard to call them beautiful compared to the sights you will soon be seeing at the canyons.

Eventually, you will be doubling back on the same road, so you still might want to bring books on tape, just in case, for that couple hour stretch each way, into and out of Las Vegas. For the rest of the time, you will want to concentrate on the gorgeous views around you.

Once you get to Kanab, you are just 80 miles from the North Rim of the Canyon, which sits at the end of Highway 67. The drive is spectacular. Keep your eyes on the rearview mirror. Those brilliant hills, a favorite for photographers, are called Vermillion Cliffs for a very good reason.

Stay at the Grand Canyon Lodge more than one night if you can. In fact, a week would be lovely. Of the three lodges, this one is the best. To my mind, it rates right up there with Yellowstone Inn, which is the queen of national park lodges.

Next, on to Bryce. Go back up to Kanab, then take Highway 89 to UT-12, and you'll be in Bryce in less than two hours. One night might be enough at Bryce if you're pressed for time.

Save more nights for Zion, one or two. It's just such a lovely place to plant yourself and relax and enjoy – or gear up if that's what you want. Much more social than the North Rim in my experience, it's an interesting place to meet friendly, new people.

To reach Zion from Bryce will take you about two hours. Retrace your route back down Highway 89. Take UT-9 for a scenic 25-mile drive that features the marvelous Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel.

To return to Las Vegas, continue west on UT-9 to reach I-15 South for a mere two-and-a-half hour drive.

A note about the order of the route: I put the hard driving at the beginning of the trip, from Las Vegas to the North Rim, when you're typically the most excited and have more energy. Then at the end, you'll have half the driving time to get back to Las Vegas.

The lobby at the Grand Canyon Lodge.  Just beyond the lobby are the light-filled lounges overlooking the canyon rim.

The lobby at the Grand Canyon Lodge. Just beyond the lobby are the light-filled lounges overlooking the canyon rim.

Mule ride guides dress in style!

Mule ride guides dress in style!

Grand Canyon North Rim

  1. Order your favorite beverage and spend an afternoon mingling with your fellow canyon lovers gazing through the giant viewing windows in the huge lobby lookout at the rear of the lodge. Wander out to the veranda from time to time for a completely unobstructed view. Enjoy your solitude or meet fellow travelers. (I almost hate to tell you, but your cell phone will work here.)
  2. Bright Angel Point - Like a sidewalk to heaven, this little half-mile trail (wheelchair accessible and with protective metal railings) takes you to a glorious view that may be the best on either side of the Grand Canyon.
  3. Ride a Mule. Sure, ride to the bottom if that's your desire, but at least ride a mule along the canyon rim. You're not likely to ever forget it, and this little journey is quite sufficient for a truly wonderful "I did it!"

Bryce Canyon

  1. Walk down off the canyon rim for a close encounter with the hoodoos. There are numerous trails running down off the main road. A short walk, and you'll be surrounded by magical hoodoos.
  2. Watch a sunrise or sunset at Bryce Amphitheater. Favorite spots are Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration, and Bryce Points.
  3. Drive (or take the shuttle) along the plateau rim the entire length of the 18-mile main road. Stop at all the turnouts. All the views are different and spectacular, but Bryce Amphitheater is a must-see.
Shuttle from Zion Lodge to the temple of Sinawava, the end of the road.

Shuttle from Zion Lodge to the temple of Sinawava, the end of the road.

Spotted Dog Cafe, located just outside the park, has Western-style gourmet food.

Spotted Dog Cafe, located just outside the park, has Western-style gourmet food.

Zion Canyon

  1. Ride the shuttles. Not only will they get you to the starting point of many trails and walks, they are an experience in themselves. For a general introduction to the park, the drivers are wonderfully knowledgeable and entertaining. We rode several times just to meet different drivers and hear their presentations.
  2. At the Temple of Sinawava, take the Riverside Walk. It's an easy two-mile, one-hour leisurely walk. If you're more ambitious, hike the The Narrows as well. Stop at Weeping Rock on the shuttle ride back.
  3. Eat at the Spotted Dog Cafe. OK, I know there are better things to do at Zion than eat, but we totally enjoyed the gourmet, Western-style cooking. I'm sure it had nothing to do with a celebrity sighting of fellow diner, Gunnar Nelson (son of Ricky) and his entourage, in full hog-riding regalia!

Activity Level

All three of the canyons can be enjoyed at a range of activity levels. The passive tourist as well as the wheelchair bound will do just fine at all three, enjoying the view from lodge, car, or shuttle with minimal effort. That said, serious hikers, campers, and rock climbers will find plenty to keep them challenged.

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