The Budget Guide to Zion National Park
With majestic canyons, sandstone walls, and breathtaking hikes, it’s no wonder this jewel of the National Park Service was named for the promised land.
Zion National Park in Southwest Utah is one of the most extraordinary places in the United States (and on earth). It offers adventure surrounded by towering canyons, immense sandstone walls, and amazing hikes that every American must see at least once in their lifetime.
McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is the largest airport near Zion National Park. The St. George Regional Airport is a bit closer at just 50 miles away, but prices are usually between $100 and $200 more for a round-trip ticket. Keep an eye on ticket prices leading up to your purchase, and snag some for St. George if you find a comparable deal.
If you’re coming from Las Vegas, rent a car for the 160-mile drive to the park. Then take off toward the mountains on I-15 for desert panoramas that will just begin to prepare you for the jaw-dropping Utah landscape you’re headed for. We recommend completing this drive during daylight. Not only will you want to take in the desert scenery, but there are also some winding roads.
For the best gas prices, be sure to fuel up in St. George or Hurricane, UT. It’s also advisable to buy several gallons of water before entering the park in case of emergency.
Entering And Navigating The Park
At the park entrance, you’ll pay $35 per car, which gives you access to the park for seven days. For $80, you can get the America The Beautiful pass, which grants you access to all national parks in the US. If you plan to go on from Zion to other nearby parks such as Bryce Canyon or Arches, we absolutely recommend this option.
During most of the pandemic, Zion has been implementing a shuttle ticket system. At the end of May 2021, the park eliminated this system. The shuttle is now open for anyone to ride. The only requirement is that you wear a mask! As of June 2021, the only places the buses are stopping include the visitor center, the lodge, the Grotto, Big Bend, and the Temple of Sinawava.
There is often a line to get on a shuttle, and on busy days, you may feel as though you’re standing in line at Walt Disney World. The line is typically worse in the morning as everyone is arriving to the park, but extra-early birds can beat the crowds. Shuttle buses begin running at 6 AM, so get in line around 5:00 AM if you’d like to be one of the first up canyon.
The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel
The Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel runs between Zion Canyon and the east side of the park. Due to height limitations, this 1.1-mile tunnel cannot accommodate large vehicles in both lanes. Rangers must control the traffic flow so that oversized vehicles can drive down the center of the tunnel.
Therefore, vehicles larger than either 11’4” tall or 7’10” wide must pay a $15 tunnel permit fee at the park entrance station. Vehicles larger than 13’1” are completely prohibited. Also note that pedestrians and bicyclists are not allowed in the tunnel at any time.
See below for the 2021 tunnel hours of operation (MDT) for large vehicles.
- August 29 to September 25: 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM
- September 26 to November 6: 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM
- Winter hours of operation starting November 7: 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM
Camping: The Ultimate Bargain
Tent camping is one way you can cut expenses while visiting Zion National Park. You can make camp on most BLM (public) land without a fee; however, this option should only be used by those who are experienced campers.
If you want to camp for free, make sure you have a map and give yourself plenty of daylight to find a campsite. The tradeoff with this option is that you’ll have to devote a little more time traveling to and from the park.
If you’d prefer a campsite inside the park with more amenities, plan to book your spot early. The Watchman Campground is right by the visitor center and is the busiest campground, often selling out months in advance.
Additionally, the South Campground is just a bit further up the road and allows reservations up to 14 days before your trip. For a little more privacy, you can stay at the first come, first served Lava Point Campground, about an hour and twenty minutes from the south entrance of the park.
Hotels Are A Short, Beautiful Drive Away
Affordable hotels can be found in Hurricane, UT, about a 30-minute drive from the park. Prices can be as low as $60 in the off season, and $70 in the high season. The drive is beautiful; just be sure to budget time to get through the park’s gates.
Springdale is the closest town to Zion’s south entrance, but it tends to be a bit pricier. Keep your eyes on hotel prices as you prepare for your trip, and again, snag something if you find a comparable deal. There’s a shuttle that runs between Springdale and the park, so parking doesn’t have to be such a pain if you stay in town.
Stock up on food in advance
To stay on budget, you’ll want to stock up on food and water at a grocery store (pick up a cooler and ice if you’re packing perishables of course). Stop in either Las Vegas or St. George for these items. There are also several restaurants and small markets just outside the park in Springdale, but these will be more expensive.
Hiking: Zion’s Main Attraction
Zion is world-renowned for its hiking. Whether you spend the day wading through a river canyon or scaling the side of a mountain, there is no more rewarding way to soak up Zion’s unreal landscape. Plus, hiking is free! Here are our top recommendations in the park.
- Section: South side (of the canyon)
- Level of difficulty: Easy
The 3.5-mile Pa’rus Trail is great for bicyclists and for those who want a fairly flat trail that will still give them plenty of stunning views. Additionally, there is only one trail in Zion that pet owners can take their animals, and this is it!
- Section: South side (of the canyon)
- Level of difficulty: Moderate
If you’re wanting to do something a little more difficult than the Pa’rus Trail without having to enter the canyon via shuttle, try this trail. In 3.3 miles, it rewards you with great views of the Watchman, the lower canyon, and Springdale.
Canyon Overlook Trail
- Section: East side
- Level of difficulty: Moderate
The Canyon Overlook Trail is a beautiful one to watch either sunrise or sunset from. It’s a short jaunt that clocks in at just one mile round-trip, and it leads you up to spectacular views of lower Zion Canyon.
Just be sure to head there a little earlier than your intended hike start time as you may have to park down the road. Parking at the trailhead is very limited.
Taylor Creek Trail
- Section: Kolob Canyons
- Level of difficulty: Moderate
If you’re interested in getting away from the crowds Zion is known for, take an hour drive to the Kolab Canyons section of the park and try the 5-mile Taylor Creek Trail.
Emerald Pools + The Kayenta Trail
- Section: Zion Canyon
- Level of difficulty: Moderate
Connect the Emerald Pools Trails with the Kayenta Trail for one of the easier hikes up canyon. This route is perfect for families or for those who are a little tired from hiking in the morning. There are a few different ways to do this combination depending on which Emerald Pools Trails you take, but the longest way clocks in at just about three miles.
- Section: Zion Canyon
- Level of difficulty: Strenuous
You can hike the Virgin River up to Big Spring (3.6 miles one-way), wading through the water as you stare up at the high walls enclosing you. The trail is listed as strenuous because it involves climbing over some rocks, but there’s little elevation gain.
Some choose to rent gear such as walking sticks and water shoes from outfitters in town. If you want to save some money, however, just bring along the trekking poles you’re using to hike with anyways.
Note that there’s always a risk of flash floods on this trail. Keep your eye on the flood forecast posted around the park and turn around if you see the following:
- Deteriorating weather conditions
- Thunder or a buildup of clouds
- Sudden changes in water clarity (from clear to muddy)
- Section: Zion Canyon
- Level of difficulty: Strenuous
This is Zion’s most famous hike, which ends with a crawl across the spine of a mountain to a view meant for angels. If you’re afraid of heights, stop on the trail at Scout Lookout, which provides views almost as good as those farther on.
This trail is often very crowded – by the end of the effort, you’ll be best friends with the people climbing the trail around you. Bring extra water as the set of steep switchbacks on the trail will have you needing more than you might think.
Other Things You Need To Know
Due to rockfall in 2019, a few hikes are closed: Weeping Rock, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point via the canyon floor. These trails are bound to be closed for another decade or so (if they ever reopen).
The Virgin River (and any water sources coming from the river) is currently experiencing a toxic cyanobacteria bloom. Even though the park is monitoring it regularly, much is unknown regarding its effects. If you choose to go into the water, avoid getting it in your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, or in any open wounds.
Additionally, do not let dogs drink from or get into the river as the algae has been found to be fatal to our furry friends. The United States’ national parks are some of our favorite road trip destinations, and we were thrilled to create this budget guide for Zion. For more details about the park, head to the NPS website. If you go to the park and post any photos on social media, be sure to use the hashtag #MyBudgetTravel for a chance to be featured on our page!
There’s no denying the allure of this country’s majestic national parks. But there's plenty of natural beauty to go around, and many state parks offer outdoor experiences that shouldn't be overlooked. State parks tend to have lower entrance fees and more manageable crowds than the marquee-name national parks, plus there’s the added bonus of not being affected by pesky government shutdowns. Here are 10 fabulous state parks to get you started. 1. Custer State Park: Custer, South Dakota (Courtesy South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks) A free-roaming herd of 1,500 bison is the main attraction at this park in the scenic Black Hills, but there’s plenty more wildlife to be spotted along its 18-mile loop road, including pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and even feral burros. Needles Highway, a popular 14-mile scenic drive through the park, is dotted with needle-shaped rock formations, two tunnels, and sweeping views of evergreen forests and lush meadows. Weekly park license, $20 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle; gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park 2. Kartchner Caverns State Park: Benson, Arizona Home to a 21-foot stalactite that ranks as the third-longest in the world, this multi-room cave located 45 miles southwest of Tucson has only been open to the public since 1999. Kartchner Caverns is a living cave, meaning that its formations are still growing, and the park offers two guided tours that explore several different areas. The park is also a designated International Dark Sky Park, so it’s great for stargazing. Tours, from $23 for adults and $13 for youth ages 7-13 (reservations recommended); azstateparks.com/kartchner 3. Petit Jean State Park: Morrilton, Arkansas (Courtesy Petit Jean State Park) Central Arkansas probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind for a mountaintop adventure, but that’s just what Petit Jean State Park offers. Perched atop the 1200ft Petit John Mountain, this park has 20 miles of hiking trails that feature captivating geological formations such as giant sandstone boulders, stone arches, rock shelters, and box canyons. The park’s historic Mather Lodge, a rustic, cozy accommodation built of logs and stone, is a great option if you’re staying a few days. Free entry; arkansasstateparks.com/parks/petit-jean-state-park 4. Anza-Borrego State Park: San Diego County, California A remote and rugged landscape located in southeast California’s Colorado desert, Anza-Borrego State Park has 600,000 acres of varied terrain including badlands and slot canyons. The popular Borrego Palm Canyon trail takes hikers on a rocky stroll to an almost surreal oasis filled with California palms. When you’re visiting, save time to check out the collection of more than 130 giant metal creatures built by sculptor Ricardo Breceda in the nearby town of Borrego Springs. Day fee, $10 per vehicle; parks.ca.gov/ansaborrego 5. Dead Horse Point State Park: Moab, Utah It’s not the Grand Canyon, but it was a suitable stand-in for filming the final scene of the classic film Thelma & Louise. In other words, the views from Dead Horse State Park are fantastic. Just 25 miles from Moab, this park sits 2,000 feet above a gooseneck in the Colorado River and looks out over Canyonlands National Park. Visitors can pick their favorite view from one of eight different lookout points along the seven-mile rim trail. Entry fee, $20 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle; stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse 6. Watkins Glen State Park: Watkins Glen, New York With steep, plant-covered cliffs, small caves, and misty waterfalls, this state park in New York’s Finger Lakes region feels a little like stepping into a fairy tale. Visit in spring, summer, or fall, when you can hike the Gorge Trail, a two-mile journey that descends 400 feet, past 19 waterfalls into an idyllic narrow valley. Visitors can also enjoy the beauty from above on one of the dog-friendly rim trails. Season runs mid-may to early November. Day fee, $8 per vehicle; parks.ny.gov/parks/142 7. Tettegouche State Park: Silver Bay, Minnesota Eight great state parks dot the 150-mile stretch of Highway 61 along the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, but Tettegouche stands out for its scenic hiking opportunities through forests, past waterfalls, and along the shoreline. The easy Shovel Point trail takes hikers along jagged, lakeside cliffs to a dramatic lookout over Lake Superior. There are also three loop trails featuring waterfalls. One-day park permit fee, $7; dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks/park.html 8. Valley of Fire State Park: Overton, Nevada Drive just 50 miles northeast of the bustling Las Vegas strip, and you’ll find a peaceful valley filled with dramatic red-sandstone formations that take on the appearance of flames on sunny days. The popular Atlatl Rock trail features a giant boulder balanced on a sandstone outcrop 50 feet above the ground. Climb its metal staircase to see the prominent ancient petroglyphs.Entrance fee, $10 per vehicle; parks.nv.gov/parks/valley-of-fire 9. Montana de Oro State Park: San Luis Obispo County, California (Courtesy California State Parks) Spanish for “mountain of gold,” Montana de Oro gets its name from the golden wildflowers that cover the area each spring, but you can find colorful views year-round on the seven miles of rocky, undeveloped coastline that comprise the western edge of this state park in California’s central coast region. The 4.6-mile Bluff Trail is a great way to see a large swath of the beaches, tide pools, and natural bridges in the park, or you can hike the Hazard and Valencia Peak trails for summit views. Pebbly Spooner’s Cove Beach serves as the park’s central hub.Entry fee, $20 per vehicle; parks.ca.gov 10. Baxter State Park: Piscataquis County, Maine With no electricity, running water, or paved roads within its boundaries, this 200,000-acre park in North Central Maine offers mountain, lake, and forest adventures for those who like their wilderness truly wild. The park’s 5,200-foot Mt. Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, but there are more than 40 other peaks and ridges to explore, and five pond-side campgrounds that offer canoe rentals. Entry fee, $15 per vehicle; baxterstatepark.org
The best US national parks for stargazing, according to star map makers
"Nature is soothing, and gazing at the night sky with friends and family is the perfect way to spend a relaxing break with all the hustle and bustle of the real world that's currently taking over," says Zoltan Toth-Czifra from Under Lucky Stars. "We determined the best spots for stargazing to give US citizens inspiration for their next trip to get away and experience the true beauty of the night sky above us. We took into consideration the darkest skies for people to stargaze from, whilst factoring the park's accessibility and busyness, to ensure the ultimate stargazing experience." Here are the top five parks selected, and the full list is available here. 1. Great Basin National Park, Nevada Great Basin National Park was deemed to be the best stargazing hot spot in the US. Spanning Nevada, much of Oregon and Utah, and sections of California, Idaho, and Wyoming, the Great Basin is the largest area of contiguous endorheic watersheds in North America. With only 131,802 yearly visitors, this park is one of the best to stargaze from without being disturbed by other visitors. Great Basin National Park is the best stargazing hot spot in the US © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash 2. Big Bend National Park, Texas Big Bend National Park is located in southwest Texas and borders Mexico. It holds national significance as the largest protected area of Chihuahuan Desert topography and ecology in the US. This park also includes the entire Chisos mountain range. Thanks to its vast surface area, it is one of the best parks to stargaze from as there is very little light pollution. Big Bend National Park has very little light pollution © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash 3. Redwood National Park, California Redwood National and State Parks lie along the coast of northern California. They consist of Redwood National Park, California's Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks. The combined parks span 139,000 acres and feature old-growth temperate rainforests. Redwood National Park scored highly with easy accessibility, very low light pollution and a yearly footfall of 504,722 visitors – a great combination to see the stars. Redwood National Park scored highly with easy accessibility © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash 4. North Cascades National Park, Washington The North Cascades located in Washington State is a vast terrain of wilderness. Filled with a varied species of animals and birds, the remote park is an outdoor dream. With just 38,208 yearly visitors to the vast land combined with low light pollution, the park is the perfect peaceful destination to enjoy the stars in the sky. North Cascades National Park is filled with a varied species of animals and birds © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash 5. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota Close to the Canadian border, Voyageurs National Park is the perfect canvas to sit and enjoy the stars. Located in northern Minnesota, the park is known for its stunning forestry and lakes, but mostly for its overall peaceful surroundings. The park welcomes 232,974 visitors annually, which combined with low light pollution lands it in the top five. Voyageurs National Park is known for its stunning forestry and lakes © Under Lucky Stars/ Unsplash
Yellowstone, America’s first national park is big — 2.2 million-acres big. In addition to its size, Yellowstone divides into distinctly different regions and habitats that include geysers, fumaroles, and other geothermal features plus a canyon, a lake, and a series of limestone terraces as well as an abundance of roaming wildlife. With such vastness and variety, the park can be overwhelming. To make the most of your Yellowstone visit, follow these insider tips. 1. See Old Faithful in the early morning or in the evening. Almost everyone who enters the park heads to Old Faithful. For a more intimate experience, explore the Upper Geyser Basin in the early morning before the day visitors arrive or in the late afternoon after they leave. 2. Visit Yellowstone Lake in the afternoon. While the day visitors view Old Faithful and the surrounding area, head to 136-square-mile Yellowstone Lake, the largest in the park. Consider signing up for a guided boat tour or rent a boat on your own. 3. Take a hike. Don’t just see Yellowstone’s wonders through your car window. Walking even a ½ mile on a boardwalk or trail offers you a more complete sense of Yellowstone’s features and landscape. 4. Look for wildlife at the right times. Your best chance of spotting the park’s legendary bison as well as other critters is in the early morning or evening. 5. Explore Lamar Valley. Often less-visited than other areas, Lamar Valley’s habitat draws wildlife and the open vistas create optimum viewing conditions. You may see elk, bear, coyote, bighorn sheep, and eagles, especially if you arrive early. Consider booking the park’s early-morning Wake Up to Wildlife Tour. 6. Stop at the Visitor Centers. Each facility presents educational exhibits that focus on their region of the park. While at the centers, check for the ranger programs. 7. Look at the stars. Go outside after dark. Walk 100 yards from your lodge or drive a short distance to a turnout, then park, scan the lot for wildlife and if none is present, exit your car to look up at the dazzling display of stars. With little light pollution, the night sky is a wonder. 8. Carry a flashlight at night. Since the park keeps the outdoor lighting soft, bring a flashlight for comfort, especially when traveling with young children. 9. Bring binoculars. Stay a safe distance from the wildlife. If you want to see what a bison or elk looks like up close, view them through your binoculars. 10. Pack for multiple seasons. Even in summer low temperatures at night can hover near freezing and daytime highs shoot into the 80s. Pack layers. For more information and reservations, visit yellowstonenationalparklodges.com or call 307-344-7311. For more travel experiences available from Xanterra Parks & Resorts and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.
Welcome to America's newest National Park: New River Gorge!
America's Best Idea is welcoming a new park to the National Park system. New River Gorge National Park was designated as the United State's 63rd National Park. New River Gorge is the first National Park in the great state of West Virginia. It sits on the southeast corner of the state. Despite its name, the New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world. It has carved beautiful canyons out of the Appalachian Mountains, and is a prime spot for adventure travelers. It boasts some of the best whitewater rafting in the USA, and offers some prime climbing and hiking trails. New River Gorge also offers plenty of wildlife, as it offers some of the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world. The nearest major cities to New River Gorge are Roanoke Va, Knoxville Tn, and Cincinnati Ohio. For more information, visit the NPS site.