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National Parks Visit, Western U.S. September-November

My wife and I usually take a two week Europe trip and one week trip somewhere else every year.

We are considering a fall visit to Glacier or Zion and Bryce Canyon. I have researched this quite a bit in the past week. Glacier would be best visited in September, as temperatures get lot cooler after that. The area is well appointed with lodging outside the park; on such short notice of course in-park lodging is at best available a day or so here and there. Zion and Bryce have very different temperature profiles. Zion is still in the 90s in September, Bryce cools off sooner than ion Zion as it's at higher altitude, so doing both on the same trip could be tricky. October might be the sweet spot for these two.

The thing I am worried about, Zion is way over-touristed. They even have a video to prepare you for what a disaster it will be with the crowds. They have shuttles from nearby Springdale, but after our Grand Canyon experience I fear the sardine experience. Parking fills up by 9 a.m. during the time we would visit. Decent accommodations within reach of the park are $225 or more per night. Bryce Canyon is much more reasonable on the lodging, but I don't know that I would build a whole trip around that.

So, based upon your experience what is the optimal way to do this? I'll go $200 average for a hotel, but would prefer somewhat less. Would Glacier yield a less less crazily over-touristed experience? Is there any way to go to Zion earlier than December that's not a total disaster with the crowds? I hate to sink $3000 into a trip and have a miserable experience, any advice appreciated. Right now I am leaning toward Glacier, or opting out for a return visit to Kauai or Maui. Package deals for Glacier on Expedia actually look pretty reasonable.

I realize that if you want to have a great visit to U.S. national parks, it's highly advisable to plan a year in advance. We have trouble with that approach, because my work demands make it really hard to plan that far in advance.

Posted by
4507 posts

I have been to all three of those parks. Have you called and talked to staff? I have been surprised how accessible the staff is. The best time to call is probably earlier in the morning. We visited all three of the parks in July or August. I recall we got the last campsite in Glacier. Glacier is huge, though. Plenty of room for people to roam around. However, its good to get to the summit on the "Going to the Sun Road" earlier in the day before the parking lots get full. And you are right, it is probably already starting to get cool there mid to late September. While we typically like to camp, we had a park lodge hotel room at Zion. This allowed us to get started earlier in the morning before others arrived. We found the shuttles easy and convenient to use. I recall the Bryce campgrounds were also full or close to full, yet I don't recall feeling that the park was particularly busy. I also wonder how busy those parks really are once schools are in session. That would be a good question for park personnel. They do pick up a lot of international travelers in the fall, but I bet fall is not as busy as summer. Park personnel would also be able to provide some strategies. Perhaps something like getting to really popular hikes/overlooks earlier in the day or after 5. I also think that there is a difference between parks close to a major metropolitan area and those that are not. There is not a really large city near those parks. Our family has been to most of the National Parks in the country but have not yet made it to Yosemite. Its just too crowded at the times of year we can go. I think its proximity to the Bay area contributes to the numbers of people they get. There can be a lot of people at a park, but depending on how the park manages the people and how you manage your visit and day, it can still be a pleasant experience. And I dislike crowds quite a bit.

Posted by
10241 posts

RS regular Bruce from Whitefish can speak to the Glacier area but in general just no for Nov or Dec there. I’d not plan for much later than 3rd week of Sept.

I did Zion and Bryce the end of Feb 2 years ago and even that time of year Zion was crowded after 10A. It was before the shuttle started back up for the season so we drove into the canyon. We got a good parking spot at the end at Temple of Sinawava because we were early but trying to work back out and see the other sights was tough. At that time Bryce trails were still covered with snow and ice so all we did were some rim walks. Nope...not going to don heavy chain crampons to pull myself thru mud and ice.

If you decide on Zion, I think you need to raise your budget. Really, trying to stay further away than Springdale is a time-waster. Lodging prices in and around many National Parks is sky-rocketing. It’s pathetic to pay more in old park lodging with no amenities than I pay at my favorite places in London or Paris.

Posted by
4507 posts

I just noticed that you live in the Bay area. Have you been to some of the parks closer to you? Our family absolutely LOVES Olympic in Washington. Olympic has just about everything, mountains, rain forest, coastline, its quite amazing. Last summer we went to Oregon, we visited the Columbia River Valley and the coast but also Crater Lake and Redwoods in CA. This summer we are going to Lassen which looks amazing and then a stop for a few days by Lake Tahoe and Great Basin. Good Luck! Its a great country we live in!

Posted by
4507 posts

@Pam, even more pathetic is when I'm paying more for sterile chain hotels in small towns in Iowa than I pay in Europe, and getting much less!

Posted by
10241 posts

Jules!! So true. Visiting a nephew this weekend and stayed in a small N Idaho town at $189 a night!! (Plus tax!) The place is in a good location but is SO run down. Dirty carpets, dark hallways. At least this time reception staff weren’t surly and acting like they were doing us a favor to rent us rooms!

Posted by
1878 posts

We traveled to Yellowstone in early June 2009, it was a great visit though it rains a lot at that time in Yellowstone as it did on our trip. We actually booked just two months in advance due to lots of cancellations I suppose, since this was in the wake of the financial crash. We stayed at Yellowstone Lodge, at Mammoth Hot Springs, also had a couple of nights at Grand Teton which was awesome as well.

We have visited Joshua Tree a couple of times (most recently last December), and Yosemite lots of times. Also, Pinnacles is now a NP and we've been there multiple times (day trips). When I was a kid my family traveled to the redwood parks along 101 in Humbolt Country and northward from there. Last June my wife and I visited Tahoe for the first time in many years. Even in early June, the parking areas filled up early in the day.

Olympic might have potential for us, we enjoyed Seattle a lot a couple of years ago as the start and end point of an Alaska cruise.

Posted by
162 posts

Zion is great, but there are so many other parks in that general area that are just as good with less than half of the people. Capitol Reef and Grand Canyon North Rim are both near Zion, yet attract a fraction of the crowds.

There is also Arches and Canyonlands in the eastern side of Utah, near Moab. Arches is nearly as popular as Zion, but Canyonlands is not, and just as breathtaking.

I went to Zion in October a few years ago and the major hikes (Angel's Landing and Narrows) were still extremely crowded. It's very beautiful, but not remotely serene.

Bryce Canyon is probably worth at least 2 days. There is the iconic amphitheater that can take a full day to really explore, but there are also other hikes in the southern part of the park that are just as incredible. They are a bit of a drive to get to (I think at least an hour or so), but the scenery is unforgettable.

Posted by
2338 posts

Per the previous poster, there's a lot more to Utah than Zion or Bryce. The other National Parks mentioned are all worth a couple of days, and connecting Bryce and Capitol Reef is the beautiful scenic byway of Utah Rte. 12 - one of the most picturesque scenic drives you'll ever see. Kodachrome State Park is located just off rte. 12 and is also worth a stop.
While Glacier is truly spectacular, unless you're a particularly avid hiker and want to explore every trail I'd suggest bringing your passport and heading up to Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper Provincial Parks in Canada. Adding any or all of them to a several day stop in Glacier would provide a terrific overview of the charms of the US and Canadian Rockies.
And the best way to beat the crowds (and the heat) is to get an early start. We usually had the trails in both Zion and Bryce all to ourselves after hitting the trailheads about a half hour after sunrise.

Posted by
336 posts

We have stayed in Glacier, Bryce and Zion and I loved them all, but Glacier would be my choice (of those three) for a one week trip. We are thinking of going to Banff in early September and maybe stopping at Glacier along the way.

Posted by
4507 posts

Cedar Breaks is fairly close to Bryce. Less visited and quite similar to Bryce.

Posted by
2309 posts

All three parks are spectacular, but I would choose Glacier.

Posted by
13299 posts

We have been to all the parks mentioned multiple times, but have not been to Zion at high season since the overcrowding became such a problem. That is a fairly recent development, I believe. We go mainly to hike, and all three parks under consideration offer great hiking if you go at the right time.

Some random thoughts;

Booking a year in advance will get you the best choices in lodging, but won't help you avoid the crowds if you come at high season. You are right to pick September for Glacier and October for Bryce. Glacier will actually be winding down after Labor Day as it cools off pretty quickly. Bryce can have snow anytime (we saw some in early October on one visit) but generally is nice through October. There are still tour buses showing up; the tours stay at Ruby's and the wIt for dinner can be two hours (they did not take reservations when we were last there). The dining room at the pRk lodge was fine. And the rooms are a short walk from the Rim for sunrise and sunset. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. Keep checking for cancellations.

The recommended drive on Highway 12 is truly spectacular. And Capitol Reef NP flies under the radar as far as crowding. The lodging there is mixed; we have always gone with the cheapest cabins so we could have a kitchen and cook for ourselves.

A fun thing to do in Capitol Reef in October is to visit the pioneer orchards and pick apples and pears ( or other fruits earlier in the summer). It is on the honor system: pick what you want, weigh it, and leVe payment in the box. Ladders are provided. You may have to chase away some deer from your chosen tree.

If you are leaning toward that Expedia package for Glacier, check the hotels they use carefully. I believe they put lots of tours and packages up at Glacier Park Lodge, at East Glacier, but I would never stay there. Not that there is anything wrong with the lodge; it is a fine old historic hotel. But the location is all wrong, with no glorious views like the ones from Manyglacier (our favorite), Lake McDonald, or Apgar.

Posted by
2526 posts

Glacier National Park is my backyard and it's wonderful. Like any scenic bit of nature these days, it's very popular with folks around the world. My preference is early or late season trips into the park. So, just after Labor Day would be a great time and a bit less crowded. Hiking the various trails and driving the Going to the Sun Road (video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkMXSqkxI4g) are spectacular. You'll likely see many animals and I always pack bear spray. You could book accommodations in the park if available, but don't discount staying in Whitefish. There's much to enjoy here such as hiking/biking on numerous trails, cultural activities, great restaurants, watering holes, Big Mountain (lift operates Friday-Monday during of September), etc. It's an easy drive from here into the park.

Posted by
167 posts

We’ve also been to Glacier twice. First time was September 5, I think 2006. We were on the east side of the park with our camper and planned to camp but it had snowed and a tree had fallen over the Going to the Sun Road and it was closed. We packed up and headed south. Second time we returned mid-summer and had a great visit.

Posted by
381 posts

Please consider going to Arches National Park and perhaps also Canyonlands instead of Zion and Bryce. These are less well-known but extremely spectacular. I've been to Arches twice and would gladly go again.

Note that every visit we've made to that area had NO advance reservations whatsoever and we had absolutely no problems either visiting the parks or finding places to stay last minute.

And budgeting $225 or even $200 a night is wildly excessive, unless you require a high level of luxury. We never paid more than $90 a night for a motel even in the areas near the parks.

Posted by
380 posts

If you decide to go to Zion, I highly recommend Desert Pearl Hotel. It is one of the most beautiful hotels we've ever stayed at.
I noticed the prices are a little bit over $200. But it has a kitchen, so you can save on restaurants. There is a shuttle bus stop in front of the hotel.

https://www.desertpearl.com/en/homepage

You never know when Bryce will have snow. In its history, there has been snow every month of the year. We were there in early September. A couple of the night-early mornings were below freezing. Try to stay in the cabins inside the park. That way, you can walk right up to the rocks.

A popular route is Arches, Hwy 12 to Bryce, stopping at Capital Reef, and Zion. Optional to go by Canyonland.
If the park reservation has free cancellation, you can still make your reservation a year in advance and go from there.

Posted by
6888 posts

Do you have a strict one week limit on this vacation? One thing to consider is that the drive time from an airport (Las Vegas) to the most crowded parks, such as Zion and Bryce, is obviously much less than trying to get to parks that are much further out but also less crowded (Canyonlands). One week may be worthwhile for two parks that are more accessible, but it seems too short for others that require hours and hours of driving to get to (of course the more remote the park, like Lassen, the less crowded it often is). I went on a 12 full day Utah parks trip from Salt Lake City and would highly recommend the (relatively) less well-known parks like Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Dead Horse State Point Park - all of which were stunning and not crowded (at the beginning of May at least). Even Arches was very doable in early May, but you do have to hit the trails early. I think Capitol Reef and Canyonlands are very underrated. Lodging close to Capitol Reef in Torrey was not really expensive at all, and the little town was delightful. I realize everyone has to visit Zion and Bryce one day (including me, and I've been skipping it for the same reasons as you), but don't overlook the less popular parks. They can definitely be more satisfying if you want some solitude. If I knew then what I know now, I would have allocated more time for Capitol Reef - but it really depends what kind of trip you're looking for (casual hiking vs hard core hiking vs. drive-by and stop at the overlooks).

I haven't been to Glacier so I cannot compare this park to others.

Also, have you considered going in November, if you do choose Zion and Bryce? Winters are much more quiet.

Posted by
13875 posts

Coming in late here...

We've not yet been to Glacier but have been to the Utah National parks multiple times +some state parks. It's unclear what you plan to DO in the parks? If planning on hiking, you can usually lose the worst of the daytripper and bus-tour masses who don't wander far from rims or overlooks. Zion and Arches are the most overrun of the 5 but get up and out early and you can find some solitude/sanity.

I'll second the votes for scenic Hwy 12 (that drive is killer) and Capitol Reef: an undervalued park, that one, and has some really nice hiking. Also Kodachrome Basin (near Zion), Goblin Valley (nearest Hanksville, between Moab and Capitol Reef), and Dead Horse Point (nearest Moab, on the way to the Island In The Sky unit of Canyonlands). The slot canyons of Little Wild Horse and Bell canyons, near Goblin Valley, are great fun as well but do involve some scrambling and wading through some pools. Anyway, lots to recommend...

All of our trips have been in the fall (Sept) and Zion/Arches were plenty busy but we had some trails all to ourselves or nearly so in the early mornings, and some which were reasonably uncrowded in the afternoons. I might opt for early October as Zion, Moab and some other locations were brutally hot in mid Sept last time although not as punishing on trips before.

Anyway, it would help to know how you want to spend your time? About those $200 hotel rooms? Our last return trip (3 weeks: Black Canyon, Mesa Verde, Antelope Canyon, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Wire Pass, G.C. South Rim, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches, Goblin Valley, Dead Horse Point, IITS and Needles units of Canyonlands) was a couple of years ago and we didn't spend that much per night but only stayed in a park lodge at the South Rim (Bright Angel). The lodge at Zion has gotten really pricey so we stayed in Springdale.