Among its 232 square miles of mesas, canyons, and terraces lies the highlight of Zion National Park: the 16-mile-long, 2,500-foot-deep Zion Canyon, where the north fork of the Virgin River has been sluicing its way through red-and-ochre sandstone of Utah’s plateau for more than a million years.
In contrast to the Grand Canyon, where the views are best from the rim, Zion Canyon is at its most beautiful from the bottom, inside the canyon walls—where copses of box elder, willow, and cottonwood line the river, eventually giving way to cactus and juniper at higher elevations and, finally, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine at the top.
Zion’s impressive slot canyons are a huge draw for climbers and canyoneers. Hiking is one of the major activities in the park, thanks to more than 100 miles of backcountry trails and 15 miles of paved trails. And though a ranger isn’t likely to acknowledge its existence, due to vandalism concerns, the park is also home to Petroglyph Canyon, where ancient inhabitants carved more than 150 images into the soft stone. Today more than 3.5 million people visit Zion National Park annually, making it the country’s sixth most-visited national park
Why November Is the Perfect Time to Go
By autumn, the high summer heat has cooled and the monsoon rains have departed, making late fall one of the best times to visit, especially since the park can still be crowded as late as October. This is perfect weather for hiking or canyoneering in the park (water levels are lower, which makes some of the hikes easier), but dressing in layers is recommended. Note that in November, the Zion Canyon Shuttle runs daily only through mid-month, and then on the weekends through the end of the month. Even in November the park can be crowded, so if you’re planning to drive the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive yourself, get there early—the road close to additional traffic once all of the parking spaces are full.
Why It’s Great Other Times of Year
There’s no getting around that fact that many visitors, especially those with school-age children, will need to visit the park in summer, when temperatures routinely climb above the century mark and thunderstorms are common. On the other hand, summer is the season when most family activities are offered; just get as early of a start as possible, and carry plenty of water.
If you want to beat the crowds in Zion Canyon, winter is your best bet; you also have a better shot at seeing bigger game like elk and deer. In the higher northern elevations, Kolob Canyons remains open, but deep snow will make Kolob Terraces and Lava Point inaccessible by car.
Once the snow begins to melt in spring, usually in April, you can expect to see seasonal waterfalls tumbling from cracks in the main canyon, and the trees beginning to leaf again. April also sees the wildflowers starting to emerge, peaking in May.
If You Go Don’t Miss
Some 40 miles north of Zion Canyon in the northwest corner of the park lie the Kolob Canyons, a series of five narrow, parallel finger canyons with towering canyon walls carved out of the red Navajo sandstone. This much-less frequented corner of the park is a gorgeous alternative to the crowds in Zion Canyon. A curvy, five-mile scenic drive features 14 designated stops along the way—pick up a brochure at the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center that explains what you’re seeing. There are a number of trailheads that depart from the road for those seeking solitude in a designated wilderness area; experienced hikers can plan a daylong 14-mile round-trip hike to the 287-foot-long Kolob Arch, one of the longest free-standing arches in the world.
November Bonus Pick: Congaree National Park
Fall (and spring) are the best times to visit this 26,000-acre park in central South Carolina, home to the largest expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Southeast.
Early November is peak time for fall color, and the water levels are usually perfect for paddling a canoe or kayak down the 15-mile Cedar Creek Canoe Trail. Though it’s not technically a swamp because there isn’t permanent standing water, Congaree is in a floodplain and flooding is frequent, especially in the winter; you should always check conditions before arriving. From March through November, the park offers a free three-hour naturalist-guided hike (about 4.5 miles round trip) to view some of the park’s 15 champion trees—the tallest known specimens of its species.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Yosemite: Our October National Park of the Month
- Grand Canyon National Park: Our September National Park of the Month
- Glacier National Park: Our August National Park of the Month
- Wrangell-St. Elias: Our July National Park of the Month
- Yellowstone National Park: Our June National Park of the Month
- Olympic National Park: Our May National Park of the Month
- Great Smoky Mountains: Our April National Park of the Month
- Hot Springs: Our March National Park of the Month
- Death Valley: Our February National Park of the Month
- Everglades: Our January National Park of the Month
Deb Hopewell is a longtime journalist and the former editor of Yahoo Travel. She writes for Outside, Fodor’s, Architectural Digest, Travel+Leisure, and others. Follow her on Instagram @debhopewell and Twitter @dhopewell.