I have made two trips to Zion, the first as part of a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon in late April. I visited the Zion Canyon on my way to Bryce and then the Kolob Canyon area on the way back. Total mileage starting and ending in St George of around 320 miles. Not a bad drive, especially spread over seven days. This loop over state routes 9, 89, 20 and I-15 allowed for a stop by Red Canyon, near the entrance to Bryce and Snow Canyon in St George, in addition to my primary destinations. For more about Bryce Canyon, please check out my Bryce Canyon field report
I stayed at Zion Lodge in the canyon itself. It’s a dramatic location with towering mountains on all sides, but it doesn’t buy much from a photographic light perspective - the valley itself has very few good sunrise and sunset locations. Assuming I make another visit, I will likely look at the less expensive accommodation in Hurricane just outside the park entrance.
Virgin river near Zion lodge, late afternoon
From the spring through the fall, cars are not allowed on the scenic road in the park and you need to use the shuttle bus. The service appeared to run every 5 to 10 minutes, so using the bus was not any great hardship. Aside from the trail to the Narrows, the it was fairly easy to shoot without too many people wandering into the field of view.
My second trip was in early October as part of a trip to Zion and the North rim of the Grand Canyon. It's about 120 miles from Zion to the North rim, an easy drive on the fairly empty roads at that time of year. The route takes you out on the Mt Carmel highway, past the vermillion cliffs and trough the Kaibab national forest - quite a scenic drive. I stayed in Springdale at Flanigan's Inn. There is a shuttle bus that takes visitors from Springdale to the park visitor center, where you can pick up the park shuttle bus. One unexpected benefit I found at Flanigan's is that they have built an observation platform in the Hillside behind the Inn. This is accessible to guests and provides a excellent view of the northwest face of the Watchman and superb views into Zion valley itself. The shot below from taken from the platform.
Zion Valley at Sunrise
This was a little early for fall and the main Zion canyon still had many late summer flowers in bloom. There were a few cottonwoods starting to change color especially in Kolob canyon in the north of the park. I have read that early early November is the best time for foliage in the park and this would be consistent with my experience on this trip.
Within Zion valley, there are a wide range of hikes, many of which provide spectacular views back into the valley. Some of these, such as Angels Landing are very steep with long drop offs - best not attempted by those with a fear of heights! The Emerald Pools trail to the lower and upper pools provides some great views and nice shooting at the pools themselves with the mist of water seeping from the rocks. Opposite Zion lodge there is bridge over the Virgin river and some nice views up and down the river.
Lower Emerald Pools, early afternoon
The Court of the Patriarchs provides easy access to the river and works well for a mid-morning shoot when the sun is lighting up the court. The Pa’rus trail works well in the late afternoon or early evening for shots with the river and/or tree in the foreground and mountains such as the Watchman in the background. Driving out about of the canyon 30 minutes on route 9 to the Checkerboard Mesa will get you on the Zion Plateau and some great eroded sandstone landscapes.
The Zion canyon is aligned roughly north to south, so there isn’t much in the way of sunrise or sunset opportunities. Best light was early morning or late afternoon when the sun is high enough to light one side of the canyon or the other. I struck out with a cloudy morning when I was there, but the Towers of the Virgin behind the museum are reputed to be a good sunrise locations. I had my best shooting experience near the Checkerboard Mesa. I didn’t find any direct views of the horizon, but the golden hour light on the yellows and pinks of the sandstone was excellent. There are a good number of cutouts at the side of the road where you can park and explore.
On the Zion plateau, after sunrise
The Kolob Canyon section of Zion has a very scenic drive with some great mountain views. The light was fairly flat in the middle of the day when I was there, but judging from the orientation of the landscape, it might work as a good sunset location. On my second visit I did hike the Taylor creek trail. This is a relatively easy five mile round trip with an elevation gain of around 450 feet. The trail follows the path of the creek, which you need to cross multiple time. There wasn't much water in the creek when I visited, so crossing the creek without getting your feet wet was fairly easy. I did see some cottons that had changed color here. I hiked in the middle of the day and there was some great reflected light gave the sandstone cliff faces a rosy glow. The hike goes past to abandoned log cabins, but the main attraction is a huge double sandstone alcove at the end of the hike.
Alcove on the Taylor Creek hike
The final bus stop on the scenic drive in Zion canyon is the Temple of Siniwava. There is a an easy paved walkway that follows the course of the virgin river up the canyon. There are plenty of good shooting locations along the way and access to the river in a number of places. The walk is about 2 miles round trip. If you are feeling more adventurous you can continue the hike up the Narrows. The paved trail ends and you hike in the Virgin river itself. The water was ankle to knee deep when I was there. I didn't do the full hike, but going around the first three or four bends in the river gave some excellent shooting opportunities.
Hiking the Narrows