The weather in southern Utah can vary wildly from one park or town to the next, even from one day to the next, especially during the unpredictable shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Then there’s the summer heat, which routinely hovers above 90°F (32°C). Winter brings snowstorms. Altitude makes a difference in temperature year-round: hikers in Zion Canyon may be sweat-soaked at noon, but campers at Bryce Canyon will shiver in their sleeping bags later that night.
Dangers & Annoyances
Dehydration is the biggest danger. Brings lots of water (a gallon per person per day in summer) and protect yourself from the sun. Falling down is the other big danger. Bring good walking shoes, watch your step, avoid rockfall areas and don't get close to the rim (people fall off). Use proper safety precautions when out on the water. Wildlife can be both dangerous and annoying. In some areas, flies and mosquitoes are prevalent. In others, be cautious of bears and other big animals. On these wide open roads, try to keep your speed down and watch for crossing wildlife.
Crossing Rivers & Streams
On some backcountry trails, especially popular canyoneering routes, you may have to ford a river or stream swollen with snowmelt that is fast-flowing and cold enough to be a potential risk. Before stepping out from the bank, ease one arm out of the shoulder strap of your pack and unclip the belt buckle and chest compression straps. That way, if you lose your balance and are swept downstream, it will be easier to slip off your pack.
Don’t Horse Around!
Day hikers may encounter horses and mules, which always have the right of way. If you’re hiking when horseback riders or a mule train approaches, stand quietly on the inner side of the trail, turn your pack away from the animals (lest one bumps your pack and knocks you off balance) and listen for directions from the lead rider.
Falls & Jumping
- Nothing focuses one’s attention like the edge of a 2000ft-high crumbling sandstone cliff. The consequences of a fall are self-evident and keep most people from taking unnecessary risks. Yet people fall to their deaths every year in southern Utah. Cliff edges are sheer and trails along them very exposed. Rocks can be loose and slickrock, when wet, is indeed slick.
- There are no guardrails along the parks’ hiking trails; watch your children carefully at all times.
- The more pernicious danger is carelessness. Most park rescues involve young men who are canyoneering and have fractured their legs while bouldering, leaping off rocks, or jumping into shallow, murky pools.
- Flash floods are an ever-present danger in the desert, as flash floods that drowned seven hikers in Zion's Keyhole Canyon in September 2015 sadly demonstrated. No matter how dry a streambed looks, or how sunny it is overhead, a sudden rainstorm miles away can cause a stream or dry wash to ‘flash’ in minutes, sending down a huge surge of rock- and log-filled water that sweeps away everything in its path. Flash floods will kill hikers caught in creeks, dry riverbeds and narrow canyons, unless there is an escape route.
- Never park or camp in dry washes.
- Always check the flash flood warnings at park visitor centers or with the national weather service; this is especially crucial if you’re planning on hiking through any slot canyons.
- Flash floods are most common during the summer monsoon season (roughly July through mid-September), but they can happen anytime a storm drops heavy rain.
- Telltale signs of an impending flash flood include sudden changes in water clarity (eg the stream turns muddy), rising water levels and/or floating debris, and a rush of wind, the sound of thunder or a low, rumbling roar. If you notice any of these signs, immediately get to higher ground (go as high as you can) – the water level doesn't usually increase all at once with one large wave, so you should have a minute or two to escape. If that’s not possible, get behind a rock fin.
- Do not run down canyon – you can’t beat a flash flood. Instead, wait it out; water levels usually drop within six to 24 hours.
- Getting lost is always a danger. Always bring a map (preferably a topographical map) and a compass, and be familiar with prominent landmarks. Handheld GPS units can be helpful, but remember that batteries fail and sometimes it’s impossible to get a clear satellite signal when you’re inside a canyon.
- Always stay on the trail; don’t take shortcuts. Not only does this help avoid accidents and injuries from steep drop-offs and hidden hazards, but it makes it easier for potential rescuers to find you. If you do get lost, stay calm and stay put, making your location as visible as possible (eg spread out brightly colored clothing or gear in an exposed place). Use a signal mirror or whistle to alert other hikers that you need help.
- If a thunderstorm is brewing, avoid exposed ridges or summits. Never seek shelter under objects that are isolated or higher than their surroundings, such as a lone tree. In open areas where there’s no safe shelter, find a dry depression in the ground and take up a crouched-squatting position with your feet together; do not lie on the ground. Keep a layer of metal-free insulation, such as a camping pad, between you and the ground. Avoid contact with metallic objects, including backpack frames or hiking poles.
- If you’re hiking with a group, spread out, keeping at least 50ft between each person. If anyone is struck by lightning, immediately begin first-aid measures such as checking their airway, breathing and pulse, and treat any burns. Prolonged rescue breathing may be necessary, due to respiratory arrest. Evacuate and get medical help as quickly as possible.
Always be alert to the danger of rockfall, especially after heavy rains. If you accidentally let loose a rock on a trail, loudly warn other hikers below by yelling out 'Rock!' Bighorn sheep, deer and other large animals sometimes dislodge rocks, another reason to be especially vigilant while hiking.
While crime is not a particular problem in any of the national parks, you should still lock your car, and place any valuables you don’t carry with you in the trunk, especially when you park at less-visited trailheads.
Depending on if you are on a lake or moving water, safety protocols for water vary.
- In moving water (like rivers), don't stand up in water deeper than your knee. You can get your foot trapped.
- Wear a PFD (personal flotation device) if you are in moving water.
- Non-swimmers and young kids should wear PFDs around water, on docks and boats at all times.
- Don't drink too much if you are the captain of the boat (lives depend on your decision-making abilities).
- Don't tie things to your body, especially in moving water. Ropes can get caught.
- If you fall out of a raft, point your feet downriver and float on your back. The boat captain will tell you where to swim to.
- Southern Utah is awash in critters that, if bothered, can inflict a fair bit of pain, including rattlesnakes, scorpions, tarantulas, black widows, wasps and even centipedes. Spiders rarely bite unless harassed, which is also true of rattlesnakes, which like to warm themselves on trails or rock ledges, particularly in the late afternoon.
- Avoid shoving your hand beneath logs and rocks or into piles of wood, and never reach blindly over ledges or beneath boulders.
- Always shake out your hiking boots before putting them back on.
- If you encounter a mountain lion while hiking (extremely unlikely), maintain eye contact and do not look away. Wave your arms or hiking poles above your head to make yourself appear larger, and therefore possibly a threat. Gather young children to your side and stick together. Back away slowly, but resist the urge to run, which makes you look like prey. If the lion approaches you, yell loudly, throw rocks and sticks, and fight back by whatever means possible.
- Learn to identify poison ivy: serrated leaves that grow in clusters of three and waxy white berries. This toxic plant grows in thickets, preferring moisture-laden canyons. If you think you’ve been exposed, immediately wash the affected area with soap and water.
America the Beautiful Park Passes
The America the Beautiful annual pass (http://store.usgs.gov/pass; $80) is valid for free admission to all national parks and federal recreation lands for 12 months from when you buy it. Each pass admits four adults and all accompanying children under age 16. Buy the pass online or from any participating federal agency, including at national park entrance stations. Upon entry, be prepared to present your pass along with a photo ID (eg driver’s license).
With the America the Beautiful senior pass (lifetime fee $80), US citizens and permanent residents 62 or older receive free admission to all national parks and federal recreation lands, plus 50% off select activity fees (eg camping in national parks). The lifetime America the Beautiful access pass (free) is for US citizens or permanent residents with a permanent disability; bring documentation if your disability is not readily visible. These discount parks passes must be obtained in person.
Members of the American Automobile Association (www.aaa.com) and its foreign affiliates (eg Canada’s CAA) qualify for small discounts (usually 10%) on hotels and motels, Amtrak trains, car and RV rentals, chain restaurants and shops, tours and more.
People over the age of 65 (sometimes 55, 60 or 62) often qualify for the same discounts as students; any ID showing your birth date should suffice as proof of age.
Members of the American Association of Retired Persons, for those 50 years of age and older, often get discounts (usually 10%) on hotels, car rentals and more.
Student & Youth Cards
For international and US students, the Student Advantage Card (www.studentadvantage.com) offers 15% savings on Amtrak train and Greyhound bus fares, plus discounts of 10% to 20% at some motels, hotels, chain stores and airlines.
Emergency & Important Numbers
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Entry & Exit Formalities
All travelers should double-check current visa and passport requirements before coming to the USA. For the latest entry requirements and eligibility, consult the Visa section of the US Department of State website (http://travel.state.gov) and the Travel section of the US Customs & Border Protection website (www.cbp.gov). If you’re still in doubt, contact the nearest US embassy or consulate in your home country (visit www.usembassy.gov for a complete list). There are no documentation requirements to move from state to state in the US, and there are no agriculture controls on the Utah borders. You will need to follow local laws, including leaving your marijuana in Colorado and Nevada.
- Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travelers (including returning US citizens) must have a valid machine-readable passport (MRP) when entering the US by air, land or sea. An MRP has two lines of letters, numbers and <<< at the bottom of the data page.
- MRPs issued or renewed after October 26, 2006, must be e-passports (ie have a digital photo and integrated chip with biometric data). MRPs issued or renewed between October 26, 2005, and October 25, 2006, must have a digital photo or integrated chip on the data page.
- The only exceptions to these MRP requirements are for select US, Canadian and Mexican citizens who are able to present other WHTI-compliant documents (eg preapproved ‘trusted traveler’ cards).
- Under the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) registration program, US-VISIT (www.dhs.gov/us-visit), almost all visitors (excluding, for now, most Canadian and many Mexican citizens) will be digitally photographed and have their electronic (inkless) fingerprints scanned upon arrival; the process typically takes less than a minute.
- Currently, under the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), visas are not required for citizens of 36 countries for stays up to 90 days (no extensions) if you have an MRP. If you don’t have an MRP, you’ll need a visa to enter the USA.
- Citizens of VWP countries must register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) online (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov) at least 72 hours before their trip begins. Once approved, ESTA registration is valid for up to two years.
- Citizens from all other countries need to apply for a visa in their home country. The process costs a nonrefundable $131, involves a personal interview and can take several weeks, so apply as early as possible.
- Nature Good trail, river and campsite etiquette will help preserve Utah's wild open lands. Keep a clean campsite and leave no trace.
- Right of way On bikes, you should pass only in safe areas. Horses have the right of way, then people on foot, then bikes.
- Trail etiquette Be quiet on the trails and respect other people's solitude.
- Alcohol Mormon culture is strong in southern Utah. While rules around drinking sometimes affect the bar scene, it's really not much different than other parts of the US.
- Culture This is also an area steeped in the tradition of the West. Generally speaking, this means: I'll mind my business if you mind yours.
- Bargaining High-price items like bikes may be bargained down, but there's not much bargaining done in these here parts – aside from negotiating with fellow campers for a good campsite or beer swap.
This is a conservative state, but generally gay and lesbian travelers will feel welcomed. There aren't really any gay bars in remote southern Utah. You'll need to go to Salt Lake or Cedar City for that. PDA is OK.
- Getting travel insurance to cover any theft, loss or medical problems you may encounter is highly recommended. Some travel insurance policies do not cover ‘risky’ activities such as motorcycling, skiing or even trekking, so read the fine print. Make sure the policy covers hospital stays and an emergency flight home.
- Paying for your airline ticket or rental car with a credit card may provide limited travel accident insurance. If you already have private health insurance or a homeowners' or renters' policy, find out what they will cover and only get supplemental insurance. If you have prepaid a large portion of your vacation, trip cancellation insurance may be a worthwhile expense.
- Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel_services. You can buy, extend and claim online at anytime – even if you are already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
- Many hotels, motels and private RV campgrounds have either a public computer terminal or offer wi-fi (sometimes free, or costing $10 or more per day); ask when reserving.
- In the national parks, wi-fi hot spots are rare (look for unsecured networks near visitor centers and lodges). Pay-as-you-go self-service internet terminals are rarely available and can also be slow, unreliable and/or expensive.
- Nearby towns and cities usually have at least one copy center offering online terminals (typically $5 to $12 per hour) and wi-fi. Wi-fi abounds at restaurants and cafes.
- Public libraries usually offer internet terminals (though these may have time limits and require advance sign-up or waiting in line) and sometimes wi-fi. Out-of-state residents may be charged a small fee for internet terminal use.
Utah follows most major US national laws. The state's liquor laws are more stringent than most US states. This means beers sold at grocery stores are only of the 3.2% alcohol variety. State-run liquor stores are generally found in most cities, but you'll be hard-pressed finding any stores in really small towns. Alcohol can't be sold after 1am. Marijuana is illegal here.
If you are on a serious backcountry hike, you should use a topographic map, compass and/or GPS.
- DVDs Coded for region 1 (US and Canada only).
- Newspapers Include the Salt Lake Tribune (www.sltrib.com), Las Vegas Review-Journal (www.lvrj.com) and Moab Times-Independent (http://moabtimes.com).
- Radio National Public Radio (NPR) is at the lower end of the FM dial; in rural areas, country-and-western music, conservative talk shows and Christian and Spanish-language programming predominate.
- TV Broadcast stations include PBS (public broadcasting); and the major US broadcasters (NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX). CNN (news), ESPN (sports), HBO (movies), the Weather Channel, and other niche networks are available on cable for non-stop Kardashian spotting.
There are ATMs in Springdale and Zion Lodge (Zion); Panguitch; Bryce Canyon City (Bryce Canyon); Torrey (Capitol Reef); and Moab (Arches). It's always good to have some cash on hand for state park and camping fees.
ATMs are available 24 hours, seven days at many banks, shopping malls, gas stations and grocery and convenience stores. You may also find them at park bookstores, concessionaire shops and lodges. Expect a surcharge of at least $2 per transaction, on top of any fees applied by your home banking institution. Most ATMs are connected to international networks and offer fairly good exchange rates. Avoid ATMs inside Las Vegas casinos, which tack on exorbitant surcharges and fees of $5 or more per transaction.
Credit cards are almost universally accepted. In fact, you’ll find it next to impossible to rent a car, book a hotel room or order tickets over the phone without one. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are most common.
Most ATMs will dispense cash if you use your credit card, but that can be expensive because, in addition to steep service fees, you’ll be charged interest immediately. Ask your credit-card company for details and a four-digit PIN number.
If you’re arriving from abroad, exchange money at the airport or in the nearest city; for example, at a major bank or currency-exchange office such as American Express. In smaller park gateway towns, exchanging money may be impossible. There are currently no currency-exchange services inside the parks, so make sure you have plenty of US cash and a credit card.
Tipping is not optional. Only withhold tips in cases of outrageously bad service.
Airport & hotel porters Per bag $2, minimum per cart $5.
Bartenders Per round 10% to 15%.
Guides Not required, but recommended. A good start is $20 per day.
Hotel maids Per night $2 to $5.
Restaurant servers Tip 15% to 20%, unless a gratuity is already charged.
Taxi drivers Tip 10% to 15%.
Traveler’s checks have pretty much fallen out of use. National park concessionaire businesses (eg lodges, restaurants, shops) will often accept traveler’s checks (in US dollars only), but smaller businesses, markets and fast-food chains outside the parks may refuse them.
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
Regular business hours are from 9am until 5pm weekdays. In bigger towns, supermarkets may stay open until 8pm or later.
Banks 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday; some also open 9am to 1:30pm Saturday.
Bars Usually from 5pm to 1am daily.
Post offices 8:30am to 4:30pm, possibly Saturday morning (usually 9am to noon).
Restaurants Breakfast is usually served from 7am to 10am, lunch from 11:30am to 2:30pm and dinner from 5pm to 9pm.
Shop hours 10am to 5:30pm Monday to Saturday and noon to 5pm Sunday; malls stay open later.
In summer many businesses, especially in park gateway towns, keep longer hours. In winter most keep shorter hours and a few even close (depending on seasonal demand and the weather, but typically from November through March).
In Utah, many restaurants are closed on Sunday; if you find one open, snag a seat and be happy. Some restaurants stay open throughout the day, while others close between meals.
All of Utah's national parks are open year-round, 24 hours a day. In winter, some roads will be impassable and some services reduced or closed. Most campsites are open year-round.
The US Postal Service (www.usps.com) is inexpensive and reliable. You won’t find any post offices inside the parks, but visitor-center bookstores, concessionaire shops and lodges may sell stamps. Outside the parks, gateway towns usually have at least one post office, while cities have multiple branches.
On holiday weekends, especially Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day in summer, expect the parks to be ridiculously busy, with campgrounds full and all nearby accommodations booked out weeks, if not months, in advance.
On national holidays, banks, schools and government offices (including post offices) close, and transportation, museums and other services operate on a Sunday schedule. Holidays falling on a weekend are usually observed the following Monday.
New Year’s Day January 1
Martin Luther King Jr Day Third Monday in January
Presidents’ Day Third Monday in February
Memorial Day Last Monday in May
Independence Day July 4 (aka the Fourth of July)
Labor Day First Monday in September
Columbus Day Second Monday in October
Veterans’ Day November 11
Thanksgiving Day Fourth Thursday in November
Christmas Day December 25
Smoking is pretty much prohibited in all public buildings, restaurants and malls. Some hotels may still allow smoking – but it's becoming rare.
- Cell (mobile) phone and data reception is sketchy at best in southern Utah’s national parks and wilderness areas, and varies depending on your exact location and service provider. In most park gateway towns, cell-phone reception is usually decent, though again it depends on where you are.
- Please be considerate of other park visitors when using your cell phone. Being woken up by phones ringing in a neighboring campsite, or listening to someone conduct a loud conversation at a scenic viewpoint, can really tarnish the outdoor experience for everyone in the immediate vicinity.
- Public pay phones are found in southern Utah’s national parks at campgrounds, lodges and visitor centers. Local pay phone calls cost 50¢ minimum, the cost increasing with the distance and length of call. Increasingly, in-park pay phones are not coin-operated and will only accept credit cards or prepaid calling cards. You’re usually better off using a prepaid phonecard, typically sold at park bookstores, concessionaire shops and lodges. Be sure to read the fine print for hidden costs, such as activation fees or connection surcharges for making calls from pay phones.
Minimal to nonexistent cell-phone coverage throughout most parks.
- Utah is on Mountain Standard Time (GMT minus seven hours). When it’s noon in Salt Lake City, it’s 11am in Los Angeles, 3pm in New York, 8pm in London and 5am (the next day) in Sydney.
- Daylight Saving Time (DST) starts on the second Sunday in March, when clocks are set one hour ahead, and ends on the first Sunday in November.
- If you’re driving to Utah, beware that the state of Arizona (including Grand Canyon National Park) does not observe DST, but the Navajo Nation does. Confused yet? We thought so.
Expect western-style toilets throughout. In the backcountry, you can squat and pack out your human waste or use a groover (portable toilet). In the parks, outhouses are the norm.
National park visitor centers and regional public lands information offices are your best bets for parks travel information once you arrive in southern Utah.
The state’s official tourism agency, Utah Travel Council (www.utah.com), offers loads of free information to help plan a vacation, including downloadable travel e-guides and website sections dedicated to national and state parks, outdoor recreation, annual festivals and events, and more. You’ll find a Utah Welcome Center in St George.
County and other regional travel bureaus are also helpful:
- Capitol Reef Country Travel Council Covers Capitol Reef and Hwy 12.
- Cedar City & Brian Head Tourism & Convention Bureau Area-wide info and free internet use.
- Escalante Chamber of Commerce (www.escalanteut.com) Covers Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument and Boulder.
- Garfield County Office of Tourism Covers Bryce Canyon and Hwy 12.
- Kane County Office of Tourism The main source for area information; great old Western movie posters and artifacts on display.
- Moab Information Center Comprehensive online resource.
- Zion Canyon Visitors Bureau Offers comprehensive accommodations listings of family-friendly motels and hotels, as well as boutique inns and B&Bs, in the gateway town of Springdale, on UT 9 west of the park.
Travel with Children
Southern Utah’s national parks feature inconceivable landscapes that seem like one ginormous playground, with wild rock formations to clamber upon, canyons to squeeze into, creeks to splash in and a variable level of adventure that can be easily tailored to every family's needs.
Best Regions for Kids
Particularly good for families, with free shuttle buses, great ranger programs, river access and all levels of hikes and adrenaline-piqued activities.
Moab is awash in things to do: mountain biking, lazy river floats, white-water rafting and guided rock climbing. Arches is fabulous for families while Canyonlands appeals to adventure-loving teens.
Kids will love finding resemblances in the hoodoos; a free park shuttle makes navigation hassle-free. There are also astronomy programs, guided full-moon hikes and horseback rides.
- Grand Staircase–Escalante
Rugged Escalante is best for teens with outdoors experience, though adventurous youngsters will also enjoy squeezing through slots.
- Capitol Reef
Earn a junior geologist badge at the Ripple Rock Nature Center, then visit pick-your-own-fruit orchards.
- Public Lands
Beyond the national parks there's a huge array of adventures to be had on Utah's public lands, national forests and state parks. Generally, you will need fit kids with a strong sense of adventure in the more remote backcountry.
Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks for Kids
The desert can be a magical experience, though expect it to be relatively physical and hands-on. Make sure to budget for some special activities – canyoneering, horseback riding, rafting and the like – in order to break up the time spent driving, posing for family photos at scenic viewpoints and (not again!) hiking.
Parents will often find themselves trying to balance risk and reward: how much room should you be giving your children to climb around and explore this amazing place, and when should you be stepping in to ensure their safety? Planning a ranger-led walk or a guided activity early on in your trip can be a good opportunity for kids to learn responsible behavior from a local expert, rather than the in-one-ear-out-the-other warnings of Mom or Dad.
- Angels Landing, Zion The iconic hike will probably take the kids all day, but the views from the top are worth it.
- Navajo Loop–Queen’s Garden Combination Trail, Bryce Canyon Bryce's most traveled trail has tunnels through rock walls and plenty of named formations to explore.
- Delicate Arch, Arches OK, it's just breathtaking, and kids will love playing on the sandstone lunar landscape.
- Rafting Great throughout the state. For an easy family-friendly paddle, try the Sevier River.
- Mountain Biking Moab has plenty of trails that are easy enough for the whole family. Stick to trails rated as green.
- Canyoneering Whether you are doing a slightly technical slot or just visiting one of Zion's heavily trafficked canyons, kids just love the adventure.
Note that the minimum age for kids is usually seven or 10 years old. Trips range from one hour to full-day treks.
- Canyon Trail Rides, Zion Ride on the Sand Bench Trail along the Virgin River.
- Canyon Trail Rides, Bryce Canyon Short trips to the canyon floor or a half-day ride through dramatic hoodoos.
- Red Canyon Trail Rides, Bryce Canyon Ride on private and public lands outside Bryce, including Red Canyon.
- Scenic Rim Trail Rides, Red Canyon Head out to Thunder Mountain and other locations.
- Hell's Backbone Ranch & Trails, Boulder Perfect for starring in your own Western.
- Hondoo Rivers & Trails, Torrey Long-running guide service offering Capitol Reef–area rides.
- Red Cliffs Lodge, Moab Gorgeous scenery north of Moab in Castle Valley.
In the desert, kids will love cooling off and splashing around in the many rivers and reservoirs around Southern Utah. Never enter a creek or river if there is a chance of a flash flood. Storms can be miles away and completely out of sight; check the day's forecast and remain vigilant.
- Zion Wade in the Virgin River, hike part of the Narrows or float downstream on a tube when water levels are high enough.Great even for young swimmers, but bring a PFD (personal flotation device).
- Moab Canoe or raft down the Colorado or Green Rivers outside of town. Guides run both flatwater and white-water trips. Flatwater trips are good for all ages; white water is better for stronger swimmers.
- Capitol Reef Both Pleasant Creek and Sulphur Creek offer delightful spots for wading. Great for any age.
- Escalante Petrified Forest State Park Has a small reservoir for swimming; located off Hwy 12.
- Lake Powell Explore this massive reservoir by houseboat, kayak or canoe. Kids will love exploring lost canyons, wakeboarding and sliding down the slide of the houseboat.
- Little Hollywood Land, Kanab Western movie sets, costume shop and mock gunfights.
- Children's Museum, St George Fun, hands-on museum; best for ages two to 10.
- Dinosaur Discovery Site, St George Huge collection of fossilized tracks.
- Petroglyphs Native American sites abound in southern Utah, though locations are not always advertised – ask at park visitor centers for more information.
- Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab Animal lovers will adore this rescue center, one of the largest in the country: take a tour, spend the night or volunteer.
- Bryce Wildlife Adventure Displays dioramas of over 800 animals from around the world and live fallow deer, as well as Indian artifacts and butterfly and giant-bug exhibits.
Cycling & Mountain Biking
You can rent bikes and car racks in several park gateway towns.
- Zion Canyon Scenic Drive A fun bike ride in reverse; whenever you get tired, just hop on the park shuttle (maximum two bicycles per bus).
- Pa’rus Trail, Zion This is one of the few park trails open to bikes.
- Bryce Canyon A paved recreational cycling path running from the middle of Bryce to Red Canyon.
- Capitol Reef Head along the scenic drive for cool river views.
- Bar-M Loop, Arches If the older kids are itching to go off-road, try out this mountain-biking trail outside Moab.
- Snow Canyon State Park, St George You can bike down the main road or take a gravel 'mountain bike' trail through the desert.
- Zion Easy destinations include the hanging gardens of Emerald Pools and Riverside Walk. More challenging walks include plunging into the river on the Narrows, exploring Hidden Canyon and the famously exposed climb up to Angels Landing.
- Snow Canyon State Park Explore the desert landscape, with petrified sand dunes, real sand dunes and ancient lava tubes to climb down into.
- Bryce Canyon Descend into the canyon on Queen's Garden trail, enjoy cool Mossy Cave or give a 1600-year-old tree a hug on the Bristlecone Loop.
- Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument Better suited to older kids; hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls or try squeezing into the slot canyons on Willis Creek.
- Capitol Reef Spot petroglyphs along Capitol Gorge and pass giant domes and a towering arch at Hickman Bridge.
- Arches Most of the classic hikes here are family friendly, including Landscape Arch, Delicate Arch and Sand Dune & Broken Arches.
- Canyonlands Pass an abandoned cowboy camp at Cave Spring or watch for passing condors at Grand View Point.
- Goblin Valley State Park Melted rock formations turn into goblins before your eyes.
- Traveling with children, especially during summer in southern Utah, means taking it easy. The hot sun, dry climate and occasionally high altitude can quickly turn into sunburn, dehydration and fatigue.
- Break up long car journeys with frequent stops; be realistic and try not to jam too much activity into the day.
- Remember that the best times for outdoor activities in summer are early in the morning or late afternoon.
- Keep in mind that most of southern Utah’s park gateway towns do not have large supermarkets or chain stores. Plan ahead and stock up on supplies for babies and toddlers at the start of your trip in urban areas like St George, Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.
- For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
Hotels and motels typically offer rooms with two beds, which are ideal for families. Some have cribs and rollaway beds, sometimes for a minimal fee (usually portable cribs that may not work for all children). Ask about suites, adjoining rooms and appliances such as microwaves and refrigerators. Some hotels offer 'kids stay free' deals for children up to 12, and sometimes up to 18. Many B&Bs do not allow children, so ask before booking.
If it's late and you just need to crash, you should be able to find a national chain without a problem. Motel 6 and Super 8 are the least expensive, while Hilton is at the high end of the scale.
No trip to Utah's national parks would be complete without at least one night in a tent – most kids love it. Make sure you look for a campground that has designated fire rings so that you can have the obligatory campfire and trip-highlight s'mores. Seasonal fire restrictions in the West are very serious and not all campgrounds allow fires, so do some research ahead of time. If you do plan on camping, do note that you won't be alone. Campsites are much harder to find than hotel rooms, particularly in national parks. Reserve ahead of time to avoid spending hours fruitlessly searching for an open site. Most parks have at least one first-come, first-served campground, if you can marshal the troops to hit the road early enough, show up around 8am, wait for somebody to leave and cross your fingers you get there first. If you don't mind primitive sites, ask rangers about free dispersed camping on nearby BLM (Bureau of Land Management, i.e. public) land.
Games & Activities for the Car
- 52 Fun Things to Do in a Car by Lynn Gordon – a deck of cards, each with a different game or activity
- Best Travel Activity Book Ever – coloring and pencil games book, published by Rand McNally
- Kids’ Road Atlas – educational fun for older kids, also from Rand McNally
- Kids Travel: A Backseat Survival Kit – spiral-bound all-in-one activity guide, from the Klutz editors
- Mad Libs – classic fill-in-the-blank word game, now available as an iPhone app
- Regal Travel Auto Bingo Game Card – old-fashioned sliding-window bingo cards, just like when you were a kid
- TravelMates: Fun Games Kids Can Play in the Car or on the Go – No Materials Needed by Story Evans and Lise O’Haire – out of print, but worth tracking down, especially if you’ve got more than one child
Feature: Family-Friendly Hiking Tips
- Start the day with an educational ranger activity – you can then leverage the desire to show off newfound knowledge into a hike.
- Most younger children are not goal oriented when hiking, and trying to reach a destination can cause no end of frustration for everyone. Pack a picnic, find some shade and plan on letting the kids climb on rocks, run after lizards, scoop up sand or play in a stream indefinitely.
- Many of the most famous hikes are physically demanding, but not impossible for older children. If you plan on tackling a harder hike, make sure you start with a few easy warm-ups so you can first get used to the desert environment.
- Bring some kid gear: binoculars, an inexpensive digital camera, compass and an appropriately sized daypack will up the fun level.
- Older children might be interested in geocaching (www.geocaching.com), an outdoor 'treasure hunt' using a GPS device.
- Sandstone is notoriously brittle and flaky; watch for loose rocks on the trail, when scrambling over boulders and especially near cliff edges.
Feature: Healthy Hiking
One important thing to remember is that children are particularly vulnerable to the heat: they dehydrate faster, and symptoms can turn severe more quickly. Make sure they drink plenty of water at regular intervals. To keep salts from being flushed out of the body when it is particularly hot, add a pinch of sea salt or electrolyte powder to drinking water. A wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are absolutely essential.
Fun Stuff for Families
Online, check out the ‘For Kids’ section of each national park’s website. Southern Utah’s best outdoor opportunities range from hikes for the little ‘uns to canyoneering challenges for teens.
Many ranger-led programs and activities are appropriate for all ages and don’t usually require reservations. Otherwise, book well in advance for backcountry hiking and camping permits, guided activities and tours (especially canyoneering classes and river-rafting trips), as well as educational field trips and volunteer opportunities offered by the parks’ nonprofit natural history associations.
A final word of advice: try not to squeeze too much in. Endless hours in the car rushing from overlook to overlook, sight to sight, can result in grumpy, tired kids and frustrated parents. After a while, canyon views start to look alike, and the trip can become a blur. Stop often and stay flexible.
Indoor Family Fun
Let’s face it: sometimes summer in southern Utah is just too darn hot. But you don’t have to stay inside your hotel room just to keep cool. It’s the perfect excuse to try some of those indoor activities and attractions you otherwise might have missed.
Inside the parks, the Zion Nature Center and Capitol Reef’s Ripple Rock Nature Center offer great indoor activities for kids during summer, including special ranger-led programs. Or hide out for a while in the Zion Lodge or the Bryce Canyon Lodge, which have cozy common areas where kids can curl up with a good book or the whole family can play cards or board games. Zion’s Human History Museum has indoor exhibits and shows a short, family-friendly park orientation movie, as do most other national park visitor centers.
You’ll find much more to do on rainy days in gateway towns outside the parks. In St George, the Dinosaur Discovery Site is a cool place for kids to see real fossils, including dinosaur tracks. So is the Bryce Wildlife Adventure, with its stuffed wildlife dioramas. Moqui Cave near Kanab and Hole ‘n the Rock outside Moab are both shameless tourist traps, but fun nonetheless (not to mention cooler inside). You’ll find movie theaters in St George, Moab, Springdale, Kanab and the tiny town of Bicknell, northwest of Capitol Reef.
Junior Ranger Programs & Nature Centers
All of southern Utah’s national parks offer junior ranger programs (www.nps.gov/learn), which focus on do-it-yourself activity books that kids can complete to get a special certificate and the all-important junior ranger badge. Of course, there’s no age limit, and even adults can learn something and have fun doing the activities with their kids. For younger children, easier activity sheets may be available.
Most parks have free ranger-led educational activities and short walks during the peak season. Zion, for example, features such talks as Amazing Animals, Wild Waters, Eco Explorers, Gigantic Geology and even Music Makers. Evening family programs, scheduled after dinner, are usually a hit.
Also look for nature centers. In summer, Zion offers a drop-off junior ranger program at the Zion Nature Center, where children join instructor-led activities, hikes and games. Capitol Reef has its own Ripple Rock Nature Center, which hosts ranger-led programs for kids; borrow a free activity backpack for families here or at the park’s main visitor center. Canyonlands also lets families borrow activity-based ‘Explorer Packs.’
Winter Sports for Families
In winter, Bryce Canyon is a magical place for families to go snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, with more trails nearby in Red Canyon; rental equipment is available from Ruby’s Inn. The La Sal Mountains outside Moab are also popular for snow sports. The only downhill (alpine) skiing in southern Utah is at Brian Head, a family-friendly resort offering equipment rentals, lessons and a snow-tubing park.
Travellers with Disabilities
- The national parks exist for the enjoyment of all, offering opportunities for those in wheelchairs or with hearing, visual or other physical or mental disabilities to experience the wilderness. It may also be possible to obtain a free lifetime America the Beautiful access pass.
- Check individual park websites or ask at park visitor centers for up-to-date accessibility guides, details of which are often printed in the parks’ free newspaper guides.
- All of southern Utah’s national parks have wheelchair-accessible visitor centers, at least one accessible campsite in their main campground, and a few viewpoints and/or trails that are wheelchair-accessible. Some parks also offer ranger programs for the hearing impaired.
- Service animals (ie guide dogs) may accompany visitors on park shuttles, inside museums and visitor centers, and on hiking trails and in the backcountry (check current regulations to see if permits are required at visitor centers). Ensure your service animal wears its official vest at all times, to avoid any misunderstandings with park rangers or other visitors.
- In Zion and Bryce Canyon, park shuttles are wheelchair-accessible and lodges offer wheelchair-accessible rooms compliant with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act).
- Accommodations outside the parks are required to have at least one wheelchair-accessible room, though few are fully ADA-compliant. More often, these are ground-floor rooms with wider doorways, less furniture, and handles around the tub and toilet. Always ask exactly what ‘accessible’ means when making reservations.
- Some car-rental agencies offer hand-controlled vehicles and vans with wheelchair lifts at no extra charge, but you must reserve them well in advance.
- Access Utah Network is a state agency that provides accessibility information for all Utah parks and referrals to other helpful organizations. The nonprofit, Salt Lake City–based Splore specializes in providing outdoor activities (eg river rafting, canoeing, rock climbing) for those with special needs.
Accessible Travel Online Resources
- The National Park Service (www.nps.gov/accessibility.htm) publishes National Parks: Accessible to Everyone, a free online, downloadable and printable large-type guide with helpful info and details about facilities at specific parks.
- All Trails (www.alltrails.com) This popular website and mobile app has trail write-ups and maps for all the major hikes in Bryce and Zion.
- Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
There are many opportunities to volunteer in and around southern Utah’s parks, from one-day projects to longer-term endeavors. Volunteers can do trail maintenance, pull invasive plants, train to be an interpretive ranger or work with youth organizations.
- Bureau of Land Management (www.blm.gov/get-involved/volunteers) Apply online or contact the nearest BLM office.
- National Park Service (www.nps.gov/volunteer) Apply for the Volunteer in Parks (VIP) program and search for opportunities by park name or state online.
- Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org) Day or weekend service projects and volunteer vacations, including for families, focus on conservation (annual membership $25).
- Student Conservation Association (www.thesca.org) Nonprofit organization offers conservation internships that earn academic credit, as well as summer trail-crew work.
- Volunteer.gov (www.volunteer.gov) Online searchable database of volunteers for all public lands agencies, including NPS and tUSFS.
- Zion Canyon Field Institute Arranges day-long service projects, typically in the Narrows of the Virgin River during summer and fall.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Feet, yards and miles; weights are tallied in ounces, pounds and tons.
Nearly everyone who works inside the parks is employed by the NPS, the parks’ cooperating nonprofit organizations or by park concessionaire businesses. Most employment opportunities are low-paying seasonal jobs that are mostly filled by young people, teachers or retirees. Planning ahead is essential, whether you are applying with NPS or park concessionaires – applications for summer jobs are typically due around December. Getting work for non-US citizens without a work visa is nearly impossible, though under-the-table arrangements may be found.