Tell anyone you are going to southern Utah and if they've been there, they'll immediately say, "Oh, it's so beautiful!" With its five incredible national parks (Arches, Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands), southern Utah has some of the most unusual and breathtaking geography in the country, outstanding outdoor recreation (including hiking, canyoneering, and mountain biking), and numerous nice places to camp. Soon after your arrival, you'll be gushing, too: with pink and orange sandstone cylindrical rocks that look like castle spires, sheer vertical cliffs that rise hundreds of feet above you, and rocks in colors you never knew existed, southern Utah is among the most beautiful places in America.
"We enjoy anybody any time," says one ranger with a smile, which exemplifies the friendly, welcoming attitude you'll encounter when you visit the area. The national parks are open seven days a week, 24 hours a day year round, with unique opportunities for outdoor adventure that change with the seasons. Summer is by far the most popular time to tour the area -- if you visit between June and August you'll be marveling at the majestic peaks and colorful valleys alongside hundreds of other visitors. Fall is a splendid time to visit because the crowds disappear and the weather is cooler (although September is a prime time to visit for travelers over 50, who don't have kids in school). If your family likes to cross-country ski and you want to see snow-covered hoodoos (cylinders or pinnacles of rock formed by millions of years of erosion that are so striking you just might think you're on Mars), go in the winter. In spring the area comes alive as the snow melts, bringing warmer temperatures and longer days.
The weather in southern Utah varies depending on where you are, how much shade you're under, and the presence or absence of clouds. Despite being only 75 miles apart by road, Bryce Canyon is one of the coolest parts of the state while Zion is one of the hottest. Bryce's high altitude makes it comfortably cool in the summer (70s-80s) and very snowy and cold in the winter, when temperatures creep down below zero. Zion is in the high desert and only gets a touch of snowfall during its mild winters, but daily average temperatures hover around 100 degrees during the summer.
It's somewhat ironic that to visit heavily Mormon and highly beautiful southern Utah you start the trip in Las Vegas, Nevada (www.mccarran.com), which is the closest major airport to Zion at just under three hours away by car. Salt Lake City's airport is nearly a five hour drive away. A municipal airport in St. George, Utah, offers commuter flights from Salt Lake City and direct service from a few cities, and is only an hour from Zion.
A car is a necessity for transportation between national parks and to visit other places in southern Utah. However, free shuttles within Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park allow visitors to leave cars behind and enjoy the sights. Buses run every 10 to 15 minutes and cover each major attraction; check the schedule posted at each stop or ask for a schedule at the visitors center.
The St. George Visitor's Bureau maintains an extensive website about St. George and Zion, with area maps, activity lists, business listings, and information about nearby cities. The National Parks Service offers detailed information on their websites about Bryce National Park and Zion National Park, which include government regulations on camping in the area. Go Utah is another helpful site, packed with information about travel in Utah. Two additional sites provide valuable information about the national parks -- Utah National Parks is focused solely on the five Utah parks, and Oh! Ranger bills itself as a complete guide to all of the U.S. national parks.
Because of its popularity, discounts in southern Utah are hard to come by, especially during the busy summer season. However, MountainResortCoupons.com sometimes offers discounts on activities and lodging in the area.
The geographic splendor of southern Utah was formed over millions of years. The majestic rocks in Zion National Park date to the Mesozoic era (60 to 180 million years ago), which overlaps with when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Paleontologists often find magnificent dinosaur bones in the national parks in this area.
Shy of humans and rarely seen, mountain lions (also called cougars) help keep the mule deer population in check in Zion, where more than 250 species of birds have been spotted (including the American dipper, white-throated swift, and peregrine falcon).
July is the only month of the year when no snow falls in Bryce canyon, which formed around the end of the Cretaceous Period and after the extinction of dinosaurs. Southern Paiute Indians hunted and fished on the plateau top of the canyon, though it is thought they never lived in it (preferring warmer valleys). The park is named for Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer from Scotland who lived below the canyon in 1870 (but only stayed for five years).
Camping is available all over southern Utah, and it's a popular and economical way for families to experience the area. The national park campgrounds tend to be cleaner, quieter, and better maintained than the commercial ones. Adventurous families can enjoy backcountry camping in all of the national parks (weather permitting) after obtaining a necessary permit for a nominal fee.