Zion is so popular that visitors may someday need reservations

Zion Canyon’s massive sandstone cliffs and slot canyons have inspired people for millennia, long before the area became Utah’s first national park in the early 1900s. Native American cultures inhabited and farmed the remote canyonlands dating from about 7,000 B.C., archaeologists say. Mormon pioneers arrived in the 1860s and gave the area the biblical name for sanctuary it bears today.

So many visitors want to witness its beauty that it is nearly impossible to mention Zion these days without using the word “overcrowded.” The park recorded more than 4.3 million visits in 2018, according to the National Park Service, making it the fourth-most-visited national park, behind Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain. A seasonal shuttle bus system, in place since 2000, has helped alleviate congestion along the park’s scenic byways and at its entrance stations, but even stricter measures are under consideration, such as caps on visitor numbers and a reservations system to enter the park.

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Park rangers suggest timing a trip during the shoulder months of October, November, March and April, or rising early to beat the crowds that flock to popular hiking trails such as Angels Landing and the Narrows. Bryce Canyon National Park, about 80 miles northeast of Zion, is a smaller and less crowded alternative, although its visitor numbers also have increased markedly in recent years. Home to the world’s largest concentration of the weathered rock formations known as hoodoos, Bryce received nearly 2.7 million visits last year.

Location: Zion National Park is near Springdale, Utah, about 300 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

Under-the-radar Capitol Reef is spectacular but not congested

Capitol Reef National Park gets less attention than Utah’s other national parks, in part because of its remote south-central locale and its relatively new stature as a park (Congress reclassified it from monument to national park in 1971). Like Zion, Capitol Reef offers spectacular ribbon-colored rock formations, jagged monoliths and gorge hikes that should be on any adventure traveler’s bucket list. Unlike Zion, however, it also provides plenty of solitude, especially for those willing to navigate its unpaved roads and twisting canyons. Capitol Reef logged 1.2 million visits in 2018 — nearly a quarter of Zion’s visitation numbers — and at 245,000 acres, it’s nearly 60 percent bigger than Zion.

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The park gets its unusual name from the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long ridge in the earth’s crust where sheer cliffs and white sandstone domes (which reminded early settlers of the U.S. Capitol building) formed a “reef,” or barrier to travel.

Capitol Reef was also once home to Native American tribes, who left their mark in petroglyphs, and Mormon pioneers, who established orchards that continue to produce fruits such as apples, peaches, pears and apricots today. Between June and October, visitors may stroll through and sample the fruit or fill a bag for a fee. (Hand-pickers and ladders are provided; a fruit-picking hotline provides up-to-date information on harvests: 435-425-3791.)

Another reason to add Capitol Reef to any Utah itinerary: its proximity to Scenic Byway 12, one of the most photogenic and geographically diverse roads in the world. Pick it up near Bryce Canyon and follow it north as it winds across a stunning swath of red-rock desert, green valleys, alpine forests and endless multihued plateaus. The road ends in Torrey, a pleasant town of motels and cafes known as the gateway to Capitol Reef, where more magnificent scenery awaits.

Location: Capitol Reef is near Torrey, Utah, about 220 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Randall is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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