Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks are some of the most popular in the country with good reason. From stunning red-rock canyons to inspiring orange and pink hoodoos, this state has some seriously gorgeous scenery. But with popularity comes increased human impact on the parks’ land, air and waters. We want to help you lessen that impact on your next vacation, so we’ve put together a three-day eco-friendly vacation itinerary, including Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to help you become a more sustainable traveler. From volunteer opportunities playing with homeless pets to organic coffee spots to tips on reducing your impact on the trails, we’ve got you covered.
Day 1: Explore Grand Staircase-Escalante
Support Locally Owned Business in Escalante, Utah
Start your morning at Utah Canyon Outdoors (www.utahcanyonoutdoors.com) at 325 W Main St. in Escalante. This remote town is one of the gateways to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and is located just over three hours from St. George or just under five hours from Salt Lake City. Since this part of Utah is fairly remote, you may want to stay in nearby Boulder the night before to spend more time exploring and less time on the road. See our notes on where to stay in Boulder below.
This locally owned outdoor store is your one-stop shop for coffee, gear and guided tours. Enjoy an organic espresso drink or brewed coffee with beans from artisan Rimini Coffee, a Utah company. Then, peruse the store for whatever outdoor items you might need for your adventure. If you don’t have a reusable water bottle, now’s the time to purchase one. With more than 4 million visitors every year, nearby Zion National Park aims to keep plastic bottles out of landfills and doesn’t sell single use water bottles. Instead, both Zion and Bryce Canyon offer free water bottle filling stations throughout the park. Do you part and bring a reusable bottle.
See Grand Staircase-Escalante
You can also book a guided hike to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument while you’re in the store. Having a local guide not only helps ensure you get the most out of your vacation, but your guide will also help you better understand the area you’re exploring. In southwestern Utah, this includes things like flash flood safety and avoiding cryptobiotic soil.
If you’d rather explore on your own, drive 12 miles down Hole in the Rock Road from Escalante to Devil’s Garden where you’ll see beautiful rock formations, including Metate Arch. The famous Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons are also along this road. (Note: don’t be confused by a different Peekaboo Canyon in Red Canyon near Kanab.)
Don’t know what cryptobiotic soil is? One of the best ways to protect the desert is to learn how to recognize living soil. Cyanobacteria, lichen, mosses, microfungi and others small living organisms make up a crust that protects the fragile desert landscape. This crust is erosion resistant, keeping the landscape from turning into miles of sand dunes, and stores water for desert plants to tap into when conditions are dry. This crust can take thousands of years to form and one footstep or tire track can kill it. Learn how to identify cryptobiotic soil to protect the desert of the Colorado Plateau. Stay on roads and trails and if you must walk off-road, stick to sandy or rocky areas (www.nps.gov/articles/seug-soil-crust.htm).
Experience Sustainable Dining in one of Utah’s Most Remote Towns
At the end of the day exploring the national monument, head to Boulder, 40 minutes north of Escalante to dine at Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm (hellsbackbonegrill.com) owned by James Beard Foundation finalist chefs Jen Castle and Blake Spalding. Much of the produce served at this stunning restaurant is grown on the two women’s’ six-acre farm with fruit coming from the town’s heirloom orchards and meat coming from local ranchers. Hell’s Backbone is deeply committed to sustainability, environmental ethics and community responsibility and you’ll taste it in every bite of their dishes. Their menu shifts with the season and features dishes like handmade pappardelle pasta with cilantro pecan pesto and enchiladas made with calabacitas or chicken and jack cheese, in spicy habanero corn cream sauce. Don’t miss perusing their farm stand.
Sleep Near a Bird Sanctuary
You don’t have far to go when it’s time for bed. Boulder Mountain Lodge (boulder-utah.com) is located on the same property as Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm and offers Tesla chargers if you came in your electric vehicle. The lodge overlooks an 11-acre bird sanctuary.
Day 2: Bryce Canyon and Kanab Area
Explore Bryce Canyon National Park by Electric Bike
Head west from Escalante to explore the stunning hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. Leave your gas-burning car in the parking lot and explore electrically via an eBike rental from Bryce Canyon EZ Riders. Easier on the body than a regular bike, you’ll be able to cover more distance with the help of an electric motor. Bike from the Bryce Canyon Airport into the park to see the stunning views at Sunrise, Sunset and Inspiration points. You can lock up your bike and hike into the canyon on foot from there. Then, if you still have energy, take a scenic pedal on the 18-mile bike path from Bryce Canyon to Red Canyon.
Spend the Afternoon Volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary
A great way to make sure your trip has a positive impact? Volunteer. The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (bestfriends.org/sanctuary) located 72 miles south of Bryce Canyon on the outskirts of the town of Kanab, is the country’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary. Sign up in advance to volunteer in areas like the Bunny House, Cat World, Horse Haven or Dogtown. You’ll assist with things like cleaning living areas, playing with or walking animals and feedings. Children as young as eight can volunteer with an adult in certain areas. When you arrive, make sure to take a free sanctuary tour. If you haven’t had lunch yet, stop by the Angel Village Café for a $5 vegan lunch.
Dine at a Plant-Based Restaurant
Head to Peekaboo Canyon Wood Fired Kitchen (peekabookitchen.com) in Kanab for some seriously amazing food that also happens to be vegetarian when it’s time for dinner. Enjoy fresh salads, plant-based burgers, pastas and of course the star of the show: woodfired pizzas. With pies featuring house-made pesto, wild mushrooms, a dizzying array of cheeses and more delicious ingredients, you won’t even miss the meat. And, eating plant-based food is an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint.
Sleep Here to Support Rescued Pets
When it’s time for bed, check into the Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile (www.bestfriendsroadhouse.org) in Kanab. This beautiful property is a favorite of pets and owners alike and helps support the work of the Best Friends Animal Society. Modern rooms are designed with both humans and pets in mind and feature sleeping nooks or beds for dogs and cats as well as a doggy splash pad and washing station on-site. Humans can enjoy complimentary vegan breakfast and coffee in the on-site Mercantile each morning.
Day 3: Zion National Park
Morning: Ride the Shuttle to Zion’s Trails
Zion National Park is one of the country’s busiest, but you’re well positioned to explore via the less-traveled East Entrance from Kanab. You can be there in half an hour. On this side of the park, check out the 8-mile Checkerboard Mesa Canyon Trail.
If you want to visit some of the park’s most famous sites like The Narrows, Angels Landing and the Weeping Rock, you’ll want to leave your car at the Zion National Park Visitor Center on the other side of the park and explore by shuttle bus. If the parking at the visitor center is full, park in the town of Springdale outside of Zion and ride the shuttle from town into the park. The free shuttle system is currently powered by low-emissions propane-fueled buses but will be gradually introducing electric buses starting in 2021. You can hop on a shuttle to explore trails on Zion’s Scenic Drive, which is only accessible by shuttle. Buses leave every 6-10 minutes from the visitor center and hours are season dependent.
Be sure to stop into the visitor center, which is award-winning for its sustainable architecture. It features natural daylighting, innovative cooling towers and solar electricity.
Now it’s time to choose your hike. Check out our guide to the best hikes in the park to help you decide. While you’re out on the trails, a great way to leave a smaller impact is by practicing Leave No Trace. These seven principles help protect the park’s flora and fauna as well as the enjoyment of other visitors. One important principle is to pack out what you pack in. While a stray corner of a granola bar wrapper might not seem like a big deal, when you add up the trash of 4 million-plus visitors each year, it creates big problems.
Planning ahead for weather is also essential in the desert. Summer temperatures can be extreme, flash floods can occur without hardly any notice and the arid climate makes hydrating essential. Always be sure to check the weather before you set out and bring plenty of water, even in cooler temperatures.
Sleep in Zion’s LEED-Certified Lodge
Located up the stunning Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, the Zion Lodge near Springdale (www.zionlodge.com) is the ultimate destination on a sustainable road trip. With a reservation, you can drive your private vehicle up to the lodge’s parking area where you’ll check into the LEED-certified hotel. LEED certification is a rating system for sustainable buildings. The lodge uses 100% wind-powered electricity, has water-conserving plumbing, created a pollinator sanctuary to help protect bees, birds, bats and grows their own herbs in a garden in Springdale. If you’re road tripping in your electric vehicle, Zion Lodge has chargers for you.
More Ways to Have a Sustainable Vacation
Looking to extend your vacation? Join the Zion National Park Forever Project on an event or experience to help support their work preserving Zion (zionpark.org/events/). Naturalist-led excursions range from counting pikas at nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument, to learning about wildflowers, to experiencing the park’s stunning geology.
Want another way to lower your carbon footprint on your next trip to southwestern Utah? Visit in an electric vehicle! Check out our guide to all the charging stations in and around the park.
Another great way to help reduce your carbon footprint on your road trip is by purchasing carbon offsets. These offsets help sequester or avoid carbon through various projects. Our favorite is the Protect Our Winters carbon calculator and offset purchase tool (protectourwinters.org/cost-of-carbon/). It makes it easy to calculate the footprint of your vacation and you can choose which programs you want to support with your offset purchase from forest management to emissions reduction to methane recovery.