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Visiting Zion National Park: The Expert Travel Guide

Zion's Watchman Tower at sunset

So, you’re planning a trip to Zion National Park? It can be pretty challenging, I know. There’s a lot to consider: the time of year, the crowds, the plethora of trails… the list goes on and on. Don’t worry – your favorite park enthusiast is here to answer all of these questions and more. One thing is for sure: visiting Zion National Park is an incredible experience, and you will absolutely love this amazing national park. Read on for where to stay, how much time to spend, and more.

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Land Acknowledgment: This post promotes travel to native lands for the following nations: Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) and Pueblos. We honor all Indigenous caretakers of these lands and waters, the elders who lived here before, the Indigenous today, and the generations to come.

Zion National Park Map

A map of Zion National Park

One thing you will definitely need when visiting Zion National Park is a map. The park’s official website has a ton of maps available. This includes hiking maps, a map of Zion Canyon, a map of the surrounding area, a wilderness map, and more. There’s also a very handy interactive map you can use to help plan your trip. You can click on the map above to download and enlarge a map of Zion National Park in its entirety.

An image of the Watchman and nearby rock formations. The text on the image is encouraging you to download a checklist of what to do when visiting Zion National Park by signing up for e-mail notifications.

Fun Facts About Zion National Park

  • Zion National Park was established as Mukuntuweap National Monument on July 31, 1909, by President Taft. On November 19, 1919, its name was officially changed to Zion National Park by an act of Congress. Zion National Monument, now known as Kolob Canyons, was established on January 22, 1937, before becoming part of Zion National Park on July 11, 1956.
  • An estimated 4.3 million people visited Zion National Park in 2018, making it one of the most popular national parks in America.
  • Mormon pioneers in the 1860s named the canyon Zion, a Mormon term meaning a place of safety or refuge.
  • Zion National Park protects 148,732 acres (232 square miles) of land. Of that area, roughly 84% is congressionally designated Wilderness.

Why is Zion a National Park?

According to Zion National Park’s foundation document, “the purpose of Zion National Park is to preserve the dramatic geology including Zion Canyon and a labyrinth of deep and brilliantly colored Navajo sandstone canyons formed by extraordinary processes of erosion at the margin of the Colorado Plateau; to safeguard the park’s wilderness character and its wild and scenic river values; to protect evidence of human history; and to provide for scientific research and the enjoyment and enlightenment of the public.”

When to Visit Zion National Park

A chart describing the weather and climate of Zion National Park

Zion National Park Weather

Zion National Park is located in Utah’s desert. That means that winters are relatively mild, but the higher elevation does bring snow and ice. Furthermore, the summers can be dangerously hot. It’s very important to drink lots of water when visiting Zion National Park. The chart above depicts temperatures and precipitation from 2017.

Visiting Zion in Winter

A snow-covered rock formation

I visited Zion in February 2019, marking my first winter visit. In my opinion, winter is the best time to visit. The best thing about visiting Zion National Park in the winter is you are able to drive the Zion Canyon Scenic Road. In the busier months, this is only accessible by bus. Furthermore, the crowds are much smaller. Trust me, they exist, but it’s nothing compared to what you’ll experience in the summer months. Plus, you won’t have to worry about exorbitant temperatures.

Visiting Zion in Summer, Spring, or Fall

A view of Zion Canyon from the Emerald Pools

The most important difference you need to know about visiting Zion National Park any time other than winter is the Zion Shuttle system. During the busiest times of the year, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to personal vehicles. In 2019, the shuttle began on March 9. 

Furthermore, it gets hot. Like, really hot. It’s quite dangerous to visit Zion without being properly hydrated, so be absolutely sure you are prepared. Bring sunscreen, multiple bottles of water, and a hat to protect yourself. We’ll dive deeper into what you should pack for your trip later on.

Lastly, expect crowds. More and more people are visiting Zion National Park every year. It’s very important to use the shuttle system to avoid overcrowding, traffic jams, and full parking lots. Doing activities earlier in the day will help avoid crowds and the desert heat.

Getting There and Getting Around

A natural arch in a yellow rock formation above a snowy landscape with sporadic trees

The closest airport to Zion National Park is in Las Vegas. I recommend using Skyscanner for purchasing the least expensive tickets and getting the best deals. From there, you can rent a car or join a tour.

Again, March through October is the busiest time for visiting Zion National Park. This is when the park has a free shuttle you can ride in order to avoid traffic jams and congested parking areas. If you want to travel the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, you’ll be required to do so via this shuttle.

Just as the park becomes crowded, so does the nearby town of Springdale. The city has also started its own shuttle system to bring visitors from their lodging into the park. This helps eliminate more traffic problems and leaves essential parking spaces available to others. While the shuttle itself is free, it will cost you to park. Various rates for the parking areas in Springdale can be found here.

How Much Does Zion National Park Cost?

A small Big-horn sheep with a collar standing on a rock

Zion is one of America’s National Parks that charges a fee to enter. These fees go directly back to the National Park Service in order to continue visitor operations and general maintenance. Zion National Park charges $35 per vehicle for one week; this includes private vehicles with no more than 15 passengers. Furthermore, motorcycles are $30 and individuals without a vehicle are $20 each (all valid for seven days). More information about these fees can be found here.

America the Beautiful Passes

If you’re visiting other national parks in the area, the smartest thing to do is purchase an America the Beautiful Pass. Annual passes cost $80 and will admit everyone in the vehicle at most national parks around the country. If you’re currently serving in the United States military, have volunteered for a national park, are in fourth grade, or have a permanent disability, you may be eligible for one of the free passes issued by the National Park Service. Lastly, there is an annual pass for seniors 62 and older for $20. Seniors are also able to purchase a lifetime pass for $80.

How Much Time in Zion National Park Do I Need?

Red rocks form a wall

One Day in Zion National Park

If you’re visiting Zion National Park in only one day, you won’t have the chance to hike some of Zion National Park’s best trails. The more challenging trails here reward you with the greatest views and experiences. With one day, I would recommend driving the park’s two roads, stopping by the visitor center or one of the museums, and hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail.

Multiple Days in Zion National Park

Honestly, the more time you have to spend here, the better. That’s probably true for every destination on the planet, but in Zion it’s critical. If you’re an avid hiker like myself, you probably have things like Angels Landing and The Narrows on your list. Each of these will require its own day to complete, especially The Narrows. If you’re hoping to do more hiking, maybe to the popular Subway area, I’d recommend at least three days to squeeze everything in.

Places to Stay Near Zion National Park

A view of a creek rushing toward the Watchman, a popular attraction for anyone visiting Zion National Park
Unsplash Photo

I’ll be completely honest: on my most recent visit to Zion, I stayed with a park ranger friend. Therefore, my recommendations on Zion National Park hotels are admittedly lacking personal experience. However, there are some pretty cool places to stay that I look forward to trying someday.

That being said, I did stay at a pretty neat place back in 2014! This was the first time I visited, and I found some pretty sweet Zion National Park lodging if I do say so myself. At Ponderosa Ranch Resort, Allison and I got to stay in a pioneer wagon at this point on our epic road trip. Since we entered Zion from Bryce Canyon, it was a pretty great location as well. One of my favorite travel bloggers also recommends the La Quinta Inn in Springdale. For more lodging options, I recommend reviewing listings on Booking.com. Airbnb is another great option, and you can get up to $55 off your first stay with this link!

Generally, I would recommend staying in Springdale rather than St. George. Lodging in Springdale can be pricey, but you’ll be much closer to the park and save money on gas. While St. George has cheaper accommodations, the distance is a huge factor when considering the limited time and high gas prices.

If you’d like to stay within Zion National Park, I would look into campgrounds and the Zion Lodge. If you stay at the lodge, you’ll actually be able to drive your car on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in order to park at the lodge (make sure you grab your red permit!). The downside is the expense – staying here costs a pretty penny, to say the least.

Zion National Park Camping

As for Zion campgrounds, there are two in Zion’s frontcountry (Watchman and South Campgrounds) and the primitive Lava Point Campground. Watchman is the only campground open year-round. It’s also the largest with 164 sites while South and Lava Point have 117 and 6, respectively. Reservations can be made at reservation.gov. Reservations are strongly encouraged, especially from March to November when sites fill up more quickly.

What to Pack for Zion National Park

Packing for a trip to the desert can be tricky. Depending on the time of year, temperatures can range from over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day to 50 degrees once the sunsets. If you’re visiting in the winter, it may even snow. Here’s a list of things you may need, with some items varying based on the season you decide to visit. For more ideas on what to pack for Zion, check out my post on the best backpacking and hiking gear.

A collection of items you should pack for a trip to any national park, especially if you plan on hiking.
  • Reusable Water Bottle: Literally the most important thing to have in the desert.
  • Moisture-wicking Layers: You’ll want short- and long-sleeve shirts to wear underneath your jacket. In the summer, you may also want a tank top. Choose polyester over cotton.
  • Jacket: I always have a packable down with me on trips. I also love this new jacket I got a few months ago, as it’s very light yet warm. Synthetic is a good alternative to down if you’re worried about rain or snow.
  • Hiking Pants or Shorts: My favorite hiking pants can be found here. As a taller woman, I also love Columbia’s pants because they offer long sizes.
  • Hat: Depending on the season, you’ll need a winter hat or summer hat.
  • Gloves or Mittens: Gloves are critical if you’re visiting in the winter.
  • Wool Socks: Smartwool is my favorite brand for wool socks. Make sure to get wool so your feet stay warm and dry.
  • Grippers, Spikes, or Crampons: If you plan to hike in the winter, I strongly recommend grippers for Zion National Park’s potentially icy trails. In February, some of Zion’s trails were closed due to ice. Come prepared and avoid the fall!
  • Camera: I had my trusty Canon Rebel T5i, my Canon Powershot SX620, and a GoPro with me on my most recent trip to Zion.
  • Tripod: If you’re hoping to take decent photos of the slot canyons, sunsets, or wildlife, I’d strongly recommend carrying a tripod with you.
  • Boots: I love my Keens, and will never choose another brand for my everyday boots. In winter, I choose a much warmer pair of Solomon boots.
  • Backpack: I brought my North Face pack, but a friend of mine had a water-resistant Patagonia pack I was extremely jealous of.

Zion National Park Hikes

There are so many trails in Zion National Park that I could never describe them all here. I’ll discuss some of the more popular ones and some I have done before. If you’re interested in learning more, check out Zion’s official website for additional trails and descriptions.

The Narrows

A woman stands below a frozen waterfall in The Narrows in Zion
A tunnel with water in a slot canyon

Hiking The Narrows was one of my favorite things we did when visiting Zion National Park. We conquered this trail in the winter, and it was incredible. I had such a great time, I wrote a full post on hiking The Narrows in winter. In summary, here’s what you can expect.

The Narrows is a series of slot canyons in Zion National Park formed by the North Fork of the Virgin River and a few additional streams. In winter, it requires a dry suit to keep you warm and dry. Despite the cold temperatures, it’s very enjoyable. However, you have to watch out for falling ice, which can be pretty terrifying when you hear it echoing through the canyon. How far you go on is up to you. Generally, people try to make it to the Wall Street section in one day and begin at the Riverside Walk Trail. You can also plan a backpacking trip and camp along the way.

Most importantly, check the weather before you go. If it is supposed to rain or snow, I do not recommend this trail. Flash floods are common here, and extremely dangerous. Depending on the direction you travel, you may require a permit for this hike.

The Narrows via Riverside Walk

Difficulty: Strenuous

Start: Temple of Sinawava (Shuttle Stop #9)

Distance (roundtrip): 9.4 miles / 15.1 km

Elevation Change: 344 feet / 102 m

Estimated Hiking Time: 8 hours

Angels Landing

Switchbacks winding up a red canyon wall to Angels Landing in Zion National Park
Unsplash Photo

Admittedly, I’ve never done this trail myself. For first-hand expertise, I would check out my friend Allison’s Angels Landing guide.

Arguably, this is the most famous trail in Zion National Park. It requires ascending multiple switchbacks, hiking with minimal shade, and scaling the spine of a fin using metal ladders in the rock. I like to think there are two kinds of people in this world: those who read that last sentence and thought, “that sounds epic” and those who thought, “absolutely not”.

If hiking the full trail makes you nervous, try stopping at Scouts Overlook or hiking the alternative Observation Point for a similar view without as much adrenaline. Observation Point is still a strenuous trail, but the drops aren’t as steep and it’s actually higher than Angels Landing.

Use extreme caution – many people have died on this trail.

Angels Landing via West Rim Trail

Difficulty: Strenuous

Start: The Grotto (Shuttle Stop #6)

Distance (roundtrip): 5.4 miles / 8.7 km

Elevation Change: 1,488 feet / 453 m

Estimated Hiking Time: 4 hours

Observation Point via East Rim Trail

Difficulty: Strenuous

Start: Weeping Rock (Shuttle Stop #7)

Distance (roundtrip): 8 miles / 12.9 km

Elevation Change: 2,148 feet / 655 m

Estimated Hiking Time: 6 hours

Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock

Middle Emerald Pools

These trails are popular in summer due to the beautiful, small waterfalls that cascade down the rocks.

They’re also popular in the winter when this water forms massive icicles that drip down over the side of the rock wall. These trails can close in the winter due to dangerous falling ice, so make sure to check trail conditions before starting your hike. Always listen to park rangers and obey trail closures for your safety.

Lower Emerald Pool Trail

Difficulty: Easy

Start: Zion Lodge (Shuttle Stop #5)

Distance (roundtrip): 1.2 miles / 1.9 km

Elevation Change: 69 feet / 21 m

Estimated Hiking Time: 1 hour

Weeping Rock Trail

Difficulty: Easy

Start: Weeping Rock (Shuttle Stop #7)

Distance (roundtrip): .4 miles / .6 km

Elevation Change: 98 feet / 30 m

Estimated Hiking Time: 30 minutes

Upper Emerald Pool Trail

Difficulty: Moderate

Start: Zion Lodge (Shuttle Stop #5)

Distance (roundtrip): 1 mile / 1.6 km

Elevation Change: 200 feet / 61 m

Estimated Hiking Time: 1 hour

Canyon Overlook Trail

A view over Zion Canyon from the Canyon Overlook Trail

This is one of the easier trails in Zion National Park. You’ll begin near the east entrance of the park at the small parking area near the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. From here, ascend a few switchbacks (nothing major; the elevation change is only 163 feet) and follow the trail to a stunning view of Zion Canyon. This is also one of the shorter hikes in Zion National Park, coming in at one-mile round-trip. I would allow at least one hour for this trail.

This is another excellent alternative to Angels Landing if you want a great view without the strenuous hiking. This trail is also great if you have limited time when visiting Zion National Park.

Canyon Overlook Trail

Difficulty: Moderate

Start: Near the East Entrance of Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel

Distance (roundtrip): 1 mile / 1.6 km

Elevation Change: 163 feet / 50 m

Estimated Hiking Time: 1 hour

The Subway

Subway, Zion National Park

Another popular hike I have not done in the park, The Subway requires a backcountry permit. Visitors without extensive route-finding skills are discouraged from hiking this route. No matter which direction you choose to travel, you can expect to hike at least nine miles over strenuous terrain. You may also need rappelling skills depending on your route.

The Subway from the Bottom Up

Difficulty: Strenuous

Start: Left Fork Trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road

Distance (roundtrip): 9 miles / 8.7 km

The Subway from the Top Down

Difficulty: Strenuous

Start: Wildcat Canyon Trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road

Distance (roundtrip): 9.5 miles / 8.7 km

Zion National Park Scenic Drives

A paved road making its way toward giant red rocks
Unsplash Photo

US Highway 9

This is the only road that accesses the park. You can enter from the south (in Springdale) or east (coming from Bryce Canyon). This road remains open year-round for private vehicles. This is also the road that features the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The tunnel has windows you can look out to view the canyon from. Remember, no stopping in the tunnel! This causes traffic jams.

Furthermore, on this road, you can see the famous Checkboard Mesa rock formation and access the park’s visitor center.

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive

This is the road that remains closed to private vehicles for the majority of the year. But have no fear – there’s a free shuttle you can take to access the beautiful Zion Canyon. The shuttle also stops at various parking areas in order to allow visitors access to popular trailheads, such as The Grotto for Angels Landing and Temple of Sinawava for The Narrows.

Kolob Canyons

A hiker smiles next to bright red rocks in a canyon

Kolob Canyons is probably Zion National Park’s best-kept secret. Despite being one of the busiest national parks in the country, I would venture to say that very few are aware of this area. To get here, you’ll have to travel north of St. George and Hurricane on I-15. The drive north is worth it to enjoy the views without the crowds. When I visited in May, this was also one of my favorite places in the park (probably because there were so few people). If you’re hoping to avoid the crowds when visiting Zion National Park, head straight here.

More Things to Do in Zion National Park

A panoramic photo of Zion Canyon with its famous red rocks coated in snow

Visit the Human History Museum

Zion’s Human History Museum is located near the south entrance of the park. Here, exhibits display the human history of Zion National Park. This includes the American Indian culture, early Mormon pioneer settlement, and the establishment of Zion National Park. Temporary exhibits may also showcase other elements of Zion’s unique history.

Biking

Bicycling is permitted on Zion’s roads and the Pa’rus Trail. Bikes are not allowed off-trail, on other trails, or in the tunnel.

Sunset and Stargazing

Zion Stars

Many people like to stand on a bridge near the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to watch the sunset shine a beautiful light on Watchman (a prominent rock formation). While it is definitely a beautiful scene, please use caution and do not stand in the roadway. This is very dangerous and can cause traffic jams. Instead, take a short walk on the Pa’rus Trail for a better, safer view. The museum patio is another great option.

Stargazing is also a popular activity at Zion National Park. For more information, head here.

Climbing and Canyoneering

Other common recreational activities in Zion National Park and the surrounding area include canyoneering and rock climbing. There are many regulations for both, and most areas require a permit. For more information, visit the park’s website.

Attend a Ranger Program

Did you know that Park Rangers at each national park deliver interpretive programs to visitors? These explain various elements of the parks and why they’re so special to the people of America and the world. Park Rangers at Zion National Park lead a variety of programs. Topics include geology, plants, wildlife, and more. Walks are also a popular option and occur daily on the Watchman Trail. For more ranger-led activities, visit this webpage.

Where to Stamp Your National Parks Passport Book

National Parks Passport books
Source: Eastern National

Don’t have a national parks passport book? Purchase one here and start collecting your stamps! Or, buy your own notebook or stamp some postcards – the stamps are free for you to use on whatever you please.

NOTE: Do not stamp your country-issued passport with these! This could render them invalidated.

A collection of yellow National Park passport stamps collected in Zion National Park

Zion Canyon Visitor Center and Bookstore

The main visitor center includes Zion National Park’s main bookstore. Here, you can collect a few different stamps. This includes one that says Springdale, UT, another with an image of the Watchman, and one for the Zion National Park Forever Project.

Kolob Canyons Visitor Center

Here, you can find a stamp for Kolob Canyons and another Zion National Park Forever Project stamp.

Zion Human History Museum

The Human History Museum has its own stamp in addition to those with Springdale, UT, and the Zion National Park Forever Project as in the main visitor center.

Pin Visiting Zion National Park Guide from The Parks Expert

As one of the most popular attractions in America, visiting Zion National Park stands as one of the best. Download a free checklist so you don't miss a thing. | Visiting Zion National Park | Zion National Park Guide | #zion #zionnationalpark #utah #nationalparks
As one of the most popular attractions in America, visiting Zion National Park stands as one of the best. Download a free checklist so you don't miss a thing. | Visiting Zion National Park | Zion National Park Guide | #zion #zionnationalpark #utah #nationalparks
As one of the most popular attractions in America, visiting Zion National Park stands as one of the best. Download a free checklist so you don't miss a thing. | Visiting Zion National Park | Zion National Park Guide | #zion #zionnationalpark #utah #nationalparks
As one of the most popular attractions in America, visiting Zion National Park stands as one of the best. Download a free checklist so you don't miss a thing. | Visiting Zion National Park | Zion National Park Guide | #zion #zionnationalpark #utah #nationalparks

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