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Zion National Park • In Springdale, the sun is high, the parking spaces are full, and the porta-potties are lined up like soldiers. So grab your shuttle maps and brass knuckles. Busy season has begun at Zion National Park.
My family braved Zion Canyon during the opening weekend of its mandatory shuttle, which runs many times a day from March through October and on weekends in November. Spring-breakers were pouring in by early March and although I didn't struggle with crowds at the entry gate or parking, I can easily imagine summer getting a bit crowded.
Park administrators are considering measures such as limiting visitor entries to the park or at certain areas or campgrounds, but those wouldn't be implemented right away.
In the meantime, here are some tips to negotiate or avoid the crowds in Zion.
1. Don't take your car into the park if you're planning to visit Zion Canyon during the high season.
Even on Day One of bus service, parking for the Zion Canyon shuttle appeared to be an issue. The visitor center lot was full when I arrived about 11 a.m. on a Saturday, with several drivers wheeling around the rows of cars, hoping to grab any space that might become free. The lot near the museum about a mile to the north also was full.
There were some empty spaces near the South Campground, a short walk from the visitor center, and I parked there. But when I left that afternoon, parked cars were lined along State Road 9 approaching Springdale, so I suspect the campground lot filled up not long after my arrival.
Previously, I have parked or gotten lodging in the town and taken the bus into the park. Rangers say that remains a more reliable option.
2. If you visit during the "off-season" (a generous term as winter visitation escalates), save Zion Canyon for weekdays or late in the day.
From December to March, shuttles don't run the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, and visitors are left to drive themselves to trailheads for the most popular hikes: Riverside Walk to the Narrows, Weeping Rock, Angels Landing and Emerald Pools, for example.
On the last Friday before shuttle service reopened this month, my family drove into the canyon. By 3 p.m. or so, there were empty parking spaces in most of the lots. But many cars were parked roadside, suggesting that the lots were full for much of the day. Try to plan those hikes when traffic is at its lowest.
3. Explore the 200 square miles of Zion National Park.
I feel conflicted saying, "Just don't go to Zion Canyon!" Once I was in there, I found the crowds to not be a problem. My husband and I hiked the Riverside Walk and Kayenta Trail to the Emerald Pools with our young daughter. There were occasional traffic jams around larger groups of hikers on Kayenta, but I found the trails to be fun and safe.
With or without crowds, Zion Canyon is an irreplaceable destination; if you're not expecting solitude, you should be able to have fun and be amazed. But there really is a lot of pressure on the area, and getting there may be a bit of a crapshoot depending on when you go. If you've already seen it, consider giving other visitors their chance and bypassing the goat rodeo.
There is so much else in the park to see.
Here are some of my favorite spots away from the crowds.
• Many Pools, near the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. My family and I did this fun, kid-friendly hike for the first time earlier this month, and we ran into only three other families in the 2 ½ hours we were there. Water runs down the drainage, carving out pools in the swirling sandstone and showing slot canyons in their earliest stages, offering children a chance to see how Zion was formed. Soon tadpoles and frogs will abound, rangers told me. For more information, see today's Hike of the Week.
• The Subway, where permits restrict entry and keep traffic reasonable though occasionally you may encounter large groups. Be prepared for technical climbing if you hike it top-down. To walk from the bottom, up 4 difficult miles to the famed tubelike passage and waterfalls, start at the Left Fork Trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road. You will need a permit to hike from either direction, and those are hard to come by; for details, visit nps.gov/zion/.
• Taylor Creek, Middle Fork. The Kolob Canyons area of Zion is very different from the rest of the park. There is more water, greener scenery and abundant wildlife. The trail at the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek runs about 2.6 miles through woodlands and mountain scrub to a massive alcove, known as Double Arch Alcove. The trailhead is 2 miles northeast of the Kolob Canyons Visitors Center.