Zion. On the Riverbank near the trail to Angels Landing

Zion On Thanksgiving Weekend: Enjoying The Park’s Stunning Fall Beauty

We spent Thanksgiving weekend of 2022 at Zion National Park.

Although it was extremely crowded, we still had a good time, and even found tranquil moments in some secluded spots.

The landscape, the trails, and the Lodge are still the same as the first time we visited the dramatic park, though the experience was different than I remembered…

We first visited the park in the early 2000s, when we shared it with few other visitors.

We stayed at the Lodge, since we didn’t have many other choices, and enjoyed a peaceful time in the gorgeous canyon.

Few people attempted to hike Angel’s Landing, and fewer still walked into the Narrows.

Since we live within driving distance from Utah’s iconic National Parks, we’ve revisited the canyon several times over the years, but we stopped going a few years ago. As it was getting too crowded, we avoided it, even when we spent time in Bryce Canyon.

Visiting Zion on Thanksgiving Weekend

However, we missed the towering rocks and nature in the canyon. So, in 2022, we decided to drive to Zion on Thanksgiving weekend.

We spent the night in Kanab, a sleepy little town close enough to get to the gate early in the morning. We wanted to be in the park as soon as it opened, to avoid the lines we knew we would have to deal with later in the day.

Indeed, the entrance was a lot less crowded than we expected. At least that early in the morning, shortly after opening.

However, when we asked the ranger how busy he thought they would get, his answer was: “We expect to be as busy as usual. We no longer have a slow season here.”

Driving Into The Canyon

The drive into Zion Canyon was as gorgeous as I remembered.

The surrounding rock formations, with their swirls and unusual colors were especially pretty during sunrise.

Driving through the long tunnel is always an adventure. Then, as you glimpse the view of the canyon as it opens up as you get out of the dark is something you always remember. It leaves you in awe, no matter how often you see it.

Descending through the switchbacks onto the canyon floor offered a new angle of the surrounding towering rocks from every angle.

But then, as soon as we got to the bottom, traffic dampened the experience.

Adding to the annoyance, we accidentally left the park, because of traffic flow through some construction on the road.

As we turned around to re-enter from the direction of Springdale, we ended up waiting in a long line, along with other cars who made the same mistake as we did. Finally, the rangers realized that we were all re-entering after accidentally leaving, so they let the traffic flow without stopping.

We couldn’t wait to leave our car behind.

As Zion became popular, the National Park System realized that letting too many cars drive through the narrow canyon would be polluting the area more than necessary. Besides, it would not offer a good experience to visitors, as they would be stuck in traffic for most of their time spent in the park.

So they introduced the shuttle system, th east one I’ve seen in National Park so far.

The Visitor Center And Shuttle System

Shuttle arriving back to the Visitor Center at sunset
Shuttle returning to the Visitor Center at sunset

Of all the National Parks I’ve visited over the years, I still feel Zion’s shuttle system is the best. Grand Canyon’s one is a close second, but it seems that being able to drive the shuttle route almost defeats its purpose.

In Zion, you need to leave your car behind if you want to visit the canyon. Shuttles are free and run often, you can hop on and off as often as you like.

The propane-fueled buses pollute less and they reduce noise pollution and stress from traffic jams that would be inevitable.

And they have an extra bonus: bus drivers also act as guides, telling you about the canyon, the areas around and hikes at each stop. They all add a little extra to the drive and to the visit. Just in one day I drove on several shuttle, with different drivers, each adding different personal experience stories to their narrative.

Since we’ve been in the Visitor Center before – and it hasn’t changed – we haven’t lingered much there, but if it’s your first time, it is the best place to start your visit. You’ll find exhibits about the Canyon, and rangers available to answer all your questions.

Experience Zion Canyon In One Day

Since this time we only had a day in Zion, we opted to take a few easy hikes along the shuttle route, while trying to avoid the crowds.

The shuttle has nine stops, and each offers something unique, from a short walk to an overlook to easy, moderate, or even strenuous hikes.

When we first got on the early morning shuttle, our idea was to ride it to the end, walk the River Trail, then make our way slowly back.

However, when I remembered the trails, I realized this was not the best idea for a late fall or winter trip.

The River Trail at the Temple of Sinawava is shaded all the way. Since we were cold even in the sun, I suggested we leave that trail for mid-day when it would be warmer, and start with the trails near the Lodge instead.

I remembered the trails to the Emerald Pools were sunny, which was perfect for a morning hike. I had no desire to hike Angels Landing, not only because I was worried about my bad knee, but I knew it was always busy.

Breakfast at the Zion Lodge

But before we would get on any trail, we needed good meal for breakfast. Since we were traveling on Thanksgiving weekend, we had no dinner the night before.

By the time we arrived to Kanab on Thanksgiving Day, every restaurant, including fast-food places, were closed.

So, if you were on the road, you were out of luck after 5pm. There was simply no place to get food there. The town looked deserted, nothing was open, not even a convenience store.

So, for our Thanksgiving dinner we had cliff bars, walnuts, apples, and pretzels, and other snacks we always carry when traveling. It might have been a healthier choice than a full turkey dinner, but it left us hungry by the time we got to the Lodge.

From past years of staying there, we knew that breakfast was all-you-can-eat buffet style, and it did not disappoint.

We had plenty of choices, from eggs and toast, hash browns, sausages and bacon, to yoghurt with several choices of toppings, fresh fruit, muffins, and even cake and cupcake varieties for dessert. I even found plenty of gluten-free choices, so none of us walked away hungry.

Shortly after opening, we only shared the dining hall with several other guests, which added to the pleasant experience.

The Grotto Trail: Turkeys in Zion on Thanksgiving

Wild turkey in Zion on Thanksgiving, along the Grotto Trail. Here, he's alive and well, not served on platter.
Wild turkey along the Grotto Trail

Once outside, instead of heading over to the Emerald Pools trail, we took the shorter, and more level Grotto Trail, remembering that we always used to see wild turkeys along it.

Besides enjoying them, it was a fun thing to say our turkey encounters in Zion on Thanksgiving were with live, and healthy wild turkeys.

They did not disappoint. There they were, once again, the wild turkeys of Zion, several of them right on the trail.

As we passed them, I was happy to feel that we left our Thanksgiving turkeys enjoying life in Zion, not served for dinner on platter. We lingered a bit to watch them, before moving on, and heading off to the next trailhead.

The Trail Towards Angel’s Landing

View from trail towards Angels Landing
View from trail towards Angels Landing

Next, we planned to start with the Lower Emerald Pool hike, and decide later if we would do the other Emerald Pool trails.

However, after crossing the bridge, we changed our mind. The trail towards the Emerald Pools was extremely busy. The trailhead was basically blocked by a large group, most likely extended family, with children, parents, grandparents. And farther up seemed no different.

Since we knew the trail was too narrow to enjoy it with crowds, we started off in the other direction, towards Angel’s Landing instead.

I had no desire to hike Angel’s Landing, but wanted to go in that direction at least for a while, especially since it didn’t seem as crowded as the other trail. And, at least at the beginning, it was wider and more level. A few feet onto the trail, two rangers were selling permits for the Angel’s Landing trail.

Since we didn’t plan to go all the way, they told us how far the trail we could go without a permit, and we continued on.

Soon the trail started ascending. The steeper and narrower it got, the more crowded it seemed to become, with traffic coming from both sides. We met hikers coming down, and were passed by others, going up.

I am in no rush on any trail, but especially on a steep one. Besides, the farther we went, the harder the climb was for me. However, the views were becoming more and more beautiful from above, so I kept going for a while, but soon I decided to turn around. My daughter didn’t argue, she was annoyed by navigating the crowds on the trail.

Time Along the Virgin River

On the Riverbank of the Virgin River near the trail to Angels Landing
On the Riverbank near the trail to Angels Landing

On the way up, we had noticed a small trail leading down towards the river; We even commented on how no one seemed to notice it.

So, on our way back, we looked for it. It was harder to notice from this direction, but we found it and followed it. Several small groups of people walked ahead of us, but it was still more peaceful than the busy trail we just left.

We stopped in a secluded spot along the river, where we sat and enjoyed the fall colors among the iconic rock formations, and followed deer footprints in the dried mud.

Small groups of hikers and a lone fisherman came to the river on the same trail. However, we each found secluded spots cut from the rest of the trail by low bushes. We barely noticed each other, everyone was quiet, speaking in low voices.

We felt miles away from the loud, busy main trail. Seemed we found the quietest spot in the canyon.

After returning to the main trail we felt we were in Grand Central Station of New York City. Too crowded, fast-paced, too loud.

So, we decided to skip the hike to the Lower Emerald Pools. We’ve done it before, and didn’t feel the need to deal with a crowded and noisy trail longer than we had to. Besides, we needed something from the car.

So, the next shuttle we took was back to the Visitor Center and parking lot.

The shuttle driver (my favorite on this trip) told us about several short trails near the Visitor Center few people take. One was leading to several petroglyphs, so we decided to try it.

Petroglyphs in Zion Canyon

Petroglyphs in Zion
Petroglyphs near the Visitor Center

It was indeed a short walk to the petroglyphs, on a trail where we were fully alone. Though we’ve seen much better petroglyphs, all over the Southwest, it was a nice walk away from crowds and noise. Besides, the autumn sun showed up the rocks and the surroundings in a soft, pleasant light.

Since it was mid-day, we stayed on the next shuttle we took to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava.

River Walk at the Temple of Sinawava

At the end of the River Walk in the Temple of Sinawava, near the entrance to the Narrows.
At the end of the River Walk in the Temple of Sinawava at sunset

I suspect no matter when you go, this trail is going to be busy.

Though it was even more crowded than the Lower Emerald Pool trail, we still wanted to do it. I was hoping we would find several quiet stops along the river, on some short side trails I remembered. No such luck. Though we did get on a few of these trails leading to the river’s edge, they were all swarming with people.

Still, the trail leads through some gorgeous scenery, worth the walk. The views are definitely worth it, though I have to admit, the constant chatter, yelling, and just general chaos caused by too many people on the trail did take away from the experience.

And this trail in Zion on Thanksgiving weekend is not even as busy as it would been the summer. Still, it’s understandable that everyone wants to see this natural beauty.

Stops Along the Way Back

Zion's Sentinel formations at dusk.
The Sentinel formations from the viewpoint

On the way back towards the Visitor Center, we got off the shuttle at each stop. We were the only people who got off at Big Bend, where we walked to the river on a barely used trail. With no other human nearby, we enjoyed the solitude in this gorgeous setting.

We took the next shuttle to the closest stop, Weeping Rock, where we walked the short trail to the river. Since the trail to the viewpoint, the reason people stop here, was closed, we were alone here, as well. We only stayed until the next shuttle showed up, which we took to the next stop, the Lodge.

Here, we thought we’d get a late lunch, but it was too busy, we had no patience to wait in mile-long lines. So, after a bathroom break, we ate cliff bars and luna bars, and got on the next shuttle.

The following stop was the Sentinels, where we walked up to the viewpoint to see the famous rocks in the sunset.

However, after the next stop, Canyon Junction, we decided to take the Pa’rus trail back to the Visitor Center and our car.

On the Pa’rus Trail at Sunset

Sunset on the Pa'rus Trail
Sunset on the Pa’rus Trail

A paved multi-use trail, the Pa’rus trail follows the river for about 1.8 miles from Canyon Junction to the Visitor Center.

Though we’ve been in Zion Canyon several times, we haven’t thought of trying it before. Wide, and paved all the way, even accessible to dogs (the only one in the park that is), we always assumed it would be the busiest.

It probably is in the summer, since it is close to and accessible from the campground.

But in late fall at sunset, it was quiet. We only met a few other visitors strolling on the trail, stopping often, just like us, taking sunset photos along the rock walls of the canyon.

Things To Know About Zion National Park

As fun as it is to just experience Zion, I feel you get much more out of a visit if you know a few facts about the park. Or, depending on what really interests you, about the geology, natural features, and history of Zion Canyon.

Geology – Formation of Zion Canyon

Zion sits at the edge of the Colorado Plateau, part of its Grand Staircase feature, a series of colorful cliffs stretching between Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon. Halfway in elevation between the two, Zion’s top layer of rock is the bottom layer at Bryce Canyon, while its bottom layer is the top layer at the Grand Canyon.

About 240 million years ago Zion was a flat basin near sea level. Streams carried sands, gravels, and muds into the basin from the surrounding mountains. Under this weight, the basin started to sink, with only its top layer remaining near sea level.

Over time, minerals from the water filtered through the sediments, and transformed them into stone. Specifically limestone, mudstones and sandstone. The different colors and thickness of the layers still offer a beautiful sight.

Then the uplift started in the area, pushing the surface higher, causing Zion’s elevation to rise. Still happening, this uplift causes occasional landslides in the park.

It also gave the streams a stronger force, which helped them cut through the rock layers.

Geology still in action

You’ll hear stories of geology in action from all the shuttle drivers along the scenic drive, especially about the lake that formed the wider valley near the Zion Lodge.

Millions of years ago, a landslide dammed the river, forming this lake. Over thousands of years, while the lake existed, sediments settled on its bottom. So, when the river eventually breached the dam and the lake drained, it left behind the flat valley.

The same slide has been active in the past decades, damaging the road in 1995, and stranding visitors at the lodge for weeks.

Everyone who lives in the desert knows about flash floods, but visitors to Zion need to be especially aware of them. Sudden, heavy thunderstorms cause flash floods as they dump water on exposed rocks that can not absorb it. With no soil to absorb it, water runs downhill, gathering volume, damaging the surrounding area. In 1998 a flash flood damaged the scenic drive at the Sentinel Slide.

Human History in Zion and How the Park Got its Name

People have lived in and around this canyon for thousands of years, long before it got its name of Zion. The area was home to several native people, including the Ancestral Puebloans, and Southern Paiutes. They built homes, raised families, and established communities on this land.

Much later, in the 1850s, Mormons started settling in the area. Three of them eventually started living inside the canyon, raising livestock and growing corn and tobacco. One of them called the canyon Little Zion, for the towering rocks he viewed as natural temples.

The park’s original name was Mukuntuweap, and it was a National Monument, established in 1909. This name came from John Wesley Powell, who surveyed the area in 1872. He used the name “Mukuntuweap” for the canyon to honor the Southern Paiute, who had lived there for centuries. The Paiute word “Mukuntuweap” is generally thought to mean “straight canyon” or “straight river,” though other translations included “the place where the Great Spirit dwells”.

In 1917, the National Park Service director, Albright, visited the park, he fell in love with it and decided to push for transforming it from a small National Monument into a National Park. He thought the name Mukuntuwaep was too hard to pronounce, and noticed that locals were referring to the canyon as Zion, so he also pushed for the name change.

The following year, President Woodrow Wilson renamed the park “Zion National Monument,” and in 1919 Congress redesignated it as “Zion National Park”.

Nature and Ecosystems in Zion

At the meeting points of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, Basin and Range, and Mojave Desert zones, the different heights of the park resulted in several microclimates and habitats. Because of this, animal life in Zion National Park is rich and varied. 78 species of mammals, 291 species of birds, 37 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 8 species of fish live in the park. Many of them are nocturnal though, and all of them avoid large crowds of humans, but you can still spot several species on quieter trails.

You can always see mule deer at dusk in the grassy area in front of the lodge at dusk. Sometimes, especially in fall, you can spot them even along the road.

The Grotto trail is a great place to spot wild turkeys, especially early in the day.

You’re most likely to see several different types of lizards and birds throughout the canyon.

You might not see them, but Zion has several rare and endangered species. The canyon is critical habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, classified as threatened, the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher, and a small population of Mojave desert tortoises.

Useful Tips for Visiting Zion National Park

Zion is one of the most visited National Parks in the US, no matter the season, so being prepared in advance goes a long way. Although “there’s no low season” to visit Zion, summer is the busiest. Be prepared to stay on long lines to enter, and full parking lots when you leave your car.

Zion on Thanksgiving weekend and generally in fall is still crowded, it is less so than in the summer months.

Slightly less crowded, but still perfect for a visit, Zion is one of the best National Parks to visit in the winter.

However, if you want to stay at the Zion Lodge, no matter the season, book well in advance. Springdale, the gateway town to Zion also gets extremely busy, which also means book in advance. We could not find a room in either place for our last-minute trip.

You can camp in Zion, from mid-March to mid-October in the Watchman and South Campground, both near the Visitor Center. However, you need to call for reservations, 14 days in advance. They are both near the Virgin river.

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace is a national program set up to protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy them responsibly. The program’s principles, dedicated to building awareness, appreciation, and most of all, respect for our public lands, promote responsible outdoor recreation. They are common sense, but the park asks visitors to help by following them.

This basically mean to stay on designated trails, camp only in designated areas, don’t litter, leave everything as you found it, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors.

With all this in mind, hope you enjoy Zion on Thanksgiving weekend or any time you visit.

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