If you’re one of the thousands of Americans looking for something to do during the Covid-19 pandemic, then I’ve got some good news for you. The U. S. National Parks are open and ready for visitors! But there are a few restrictions and limitations you should be aware of so make sure to check the National Parks Service page for the most up to date information before you pack your bags and load up the car. And keep in mind, each park will have its own restrictions and the information I share here today may be different by the time you visit so it’s best to check the NPS page regularly. This information below is current as of August 11, 2020.
For those of us on the west coast and mountain region, a road trip to Zion National Park/Bryce Canyon is super easy and the sheer beauty and majesty of the parks will be worth the 95 degree + temperatures. I just got back from a recent trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon (August 3, 2020, to August 7, 2020) and I wanted to share some thoughts with you guys. For the most part, the parks are operating normally but services and amenities have been scaled down and there are entry limitations to be aware of.
In this post, I’ll share some of the new Covid-19 restrictions and provide some insight for the “first-time visitor.” If you are a seasoned park visitor, you can skip ahead to the important updates. I’ll highlight them in bold to catch your attention.
First-Time Visitor’s Guide to Zion National Park
Zion National Park is located in Springdale, Utah and the nearest airport is Las Vegas McCarran. From Las Vegas, it’s about a 2.5-hour drive to Zion National Park. The drive is dry and boring but easy along the I-15 freeway. There’s really not much to see or do along the route but you can make a detour through the Valley of Fire State Park for a change of scenery if you’re not in a rush. Otherwise, it’s a straight shot all the way from Vegas to the cities of St. George and Springdale, Utah.
Inside the park itself, the only accommodations are several campgrounds and one hotel, the Zion National Park Lodge. The South Campground and the Lava Point Campgrounds are closed until further notice and the Watchman Campground is open by reservations only. The Zion National Park Lodge is open for business during Covid-19 but it’s pricey ($220/per night) and the amenities are limited so many visitors will opt to stay in St. George or Springdale instead.
Between the two cities, St. George is larger with many more restaurants, shops and reasonably priced accommodations but it’s also about an hour away from the park entrance. Because of that, my recommendation is to stay in Springdale even though it’s smaller with slightly more expensive accommodations. On this trip, I opted to stay at the Hampton Inn and Suites. It’s a cute hotel located about a mile outside of the park entrance. I’ll have a full review of the hotel up in a few days.
To get into Zion National Park, you need to either drive or take the free Springdale City shuttle (operated by St. George Shuttle) to the park entrance. The town of Springdale is not very large and there’s only one major street (Zion Park Blvd.). The shuttle goes up and down Zion Park Blvd. with various stops along the way.
There is a huge parking lot located next to the Zion National Park Visitor Center. Parking inside the park is included in the price of admission. If that lot is full, there are private parking lots located just outside the park entrance. I don’t know the prices but I don’t think they are too expensive. During off-peak season, you can drive your own vehicle up to all the various trailheads but during the peak summer months, Zion implements a shuttle system to transport visitors from the park entrance (visitor center) to the various trailheads. You can also walk or bike from the visitor center to the various trailheads but I don’t really recommend that as it’s kind of far. If you’re an incredibly fit person or have an E-bike, it’s doable.
Zion National Park Passes
Zion National Park passes cost $20 per person or $35 per vehicle of 15 persons or less. These passes are valid for seven days. If you intend on visiting Zion more than once or want to visit multiple parks, it’s worth it to purchase an annual pass for $80. The “America the Beautiful” annual pass is valid for one year and grants admission for you and 3 others in your vehicle to any federal recreation site, including all the U.S. National Parks.
Zion National Park Shuttles
Now, in order to ride the shuttle within Zion, you must purchase a ticket ahead of time from recreation.gov. Due to Covid-19, shuttle service from the visitor center to the various trailheads is limited and you must have a ticket in order to ride the shuttles. More specifically, the shuttle tickets are timed hourly from 6:00 AM to 4:00 PM so you must board the shuttle from the visitor center during your one-hour block.
However, once you take the shuttle from the visitor center to the trailheads (Visitor Center Route), you can hop on/hop off any of the Circulator Route shuttles for the remainder of the day. The Circulator Route shuttles just go back and forth between the different trailheads and does not go back to the visitor center. If you board the Visitor Center route shuttle to go back to the visitor center, your ticket will not allow you to go back to the trailheads.
Shuttle tickets are cheap. They are only $1 each, per person, per day and they are really intended to limit the number of visitors to the park at any given hour. You must buy your shuttle tickets ahead of time via the recreation.gov website and you must create an account to purchase. You cannot purchase shuttle tickets as a guest. Shuttle tickets do sell out quickly so you need to check when they are released for your intended dates. Shuttle tickets are released in two batches. For example, the first batch of tickets for August 1, 2020 – August 31, 2020, was released on July 16, 2020, at 9:00 AM Mountain Time. I bought tickets right at 9:01 AM and they went pretty fast.
If you didn’t get tickets ahead of time, don’t worry. Recreation.gov will release the second batch of tickets the day prior at 9:00 AM Mountain Time. For example, tickets for August 20, 2020, will be released on August 19, 2020, at 9:00 AM mountain time. But like I said, you really need to buy the tickets right at 9:00 AM or close to it to secure your preferred entry time.
And lastly, if you can’t get a ticket for whatever reason, there are private shuttles that will transport you from Springdale into the park and to the various trailheads. I didn’t use them so I don’t know all the details but I heard they were going for (up to) $60 per person. Yikes!
Zion National Park Closures and Restrictions
Because of Covid-19, one of Zion’s most popular and scenic trails, Angles Landing Trail, is partially closed. The trail is closed from Scout Lookout to the end of the trail. In other words, you can do this strenuous hike but know there’s no reward at the end for you because you won’t be able to enjoy the views from the top. However, the West Rim Trail will remain open.
Hidden Canyon, Observation Point (via the East Rim Trail from Weeping Rock) and the Weeping Rock Trails are all closed due to a large rockfall.
Kolob Canyons Road and the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center are all closed due to Covid-19.
And lastly, as if 2020 hasn’t done enough, there’s some sort of toxic bacterial algae growing in the Virgin River and streams of the Zion National Park. Visitors are advised to avoid contact with the Virgin River and La Verkin Creek until further notice. Apparently, pets can die within 15 minutes of being exposed to the bacteria so please be careful. Visitors are still allowed to hike the Narrows but are advised to not submerge your head in the waters. Click here for more info.
But in some good news, the Upper Emerald Pools Trail is now open from the Lower Emerald Pools via the Kayenta Trail.
Zion National Park First Time Visitor Recommended Trails
Even with the closures and restrictions, Zion is still an amazing place to visit and there are plenty of trails that are still open. For the first time visitor, I would recommend you do (at the very least) the Emerald Pools, Narrows and Canyon Overlook Trails.
The Emerald Pools Trail is an easy 2-mile hike consisting of three sections (Lower, Middle and Upper Emerald Pools) with a 200-ft elevation gain from the Lower to Middle Emerald Pools and another 200-ft elevation gain to the Upper Emerald Pools. The trail is open year-round and should take you around 2 – 4 hours to complete roundtrip. The entrance to the Lower Emerald Pools Trail is located across the street from the Zion Lodge.
The Narrows is a more strenuous hike but the views are worth the effort. To best put it, you’re hiking in a river full of slippery rocks and pebbles so it’s not easy by any means. Access to The Narrows starts at the Temple of Sinawava stop. From here, take the Riverside Walk Trail to the start of The Narrows. The total length of the hike is 4-miles but most people don’t do the whole trail. You can go as far as you want but just know, the further in you go, the longer it will take you to come back.
There’s a slight elevation change as you’re hiking up-river but it’s not bad. The hard part is really the footing so I would recommend a good pair of water shoes (not those cheap Speedo water shoes) and a pair of walking sticks. You can rent both from the store located at the entrance to Zion. Depending on the time of year you visit, the water level ranges from ankle deep to chest deep so come prepared and keep in mind that summer storms do occasionally occur. The Narrows will be closed if there are flash flood warnings.
The Canyon Overlook Trail is an easy 1-mile hike located on the “other” side of Zion National Park. To get to the trailhead, you have to drive along Mount Carmel Hwy through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The small parking lot for the trailhead is located just outside of the tunnel on your right-hand side. The hike should take you only about an hour or so but the landscape of the Upper East Canyon is much prettier (I think) than the main canyon.
Day Trip from Zion National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park
If you’re gonna visit Zion National Park, then you really should save a day to visit Bryce Canyon National Park. You can easily do a day trip from Zion, if you leave early in the morning, and be back by dinner time. The hour-long drive is easy and pretty, taking you through Zion National Park, Red Canyon and other scenic parts of Utah.
For the most part, Bryce Canyon National Park is open with no Covid-19 restrictions. If you buy the “America the Beautiful” annual pass, you won’t have to pay any additional fees to visit Bryce Canyon. Otherwise, it’s $20/per person or $35/vehicle for a seven-day pass.
The most popular hike at Bryce Canyon National Park is the Queen’s Garden/Navajo Trail Loop. The total length of the hike is just under 3 miles with an elevation gain of about 600 feet. This moderate hike is beautiful and will show you some of Bryce’s most notable views including Wall Street, Two Bridges, Queen Victoria and Thor’s Hammer. Just be warned that the hike starts at the top of the canyon and you hike down into the canyon. That means that the elevation gain is all at the end of the trail. The start of the Queen’s Garden Trail starts at Sunrise Point and the trail ends at Sunset Point, which means that you do have to walk back along a paved road to your car where you started.
Overall, a visit to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon is a fantastic idea for anyone looking to get outdoors and I would highly recommend it. I actually think now is a better time to visit Zion National Park with the Covid-19 restrictions than before. Normally, the park would be crazy busy and overrun with visitors but with the limited number of shuttle tickets, the park is now manageable and enjoyable. There are fewer people along the trails and you don’t have to wait in long lines for the shuttles. Hotel prices are cheaper and it almost feels like a visit during off-peak season.
And that’s my guide to visiting Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks during Covid-19. If you have any questions or comments regarding this post, feel free to post them in the comments section below. I hope you found this guide handy and I wish you a great rest of the summer. Happy trails!