Zion National Park had over 4.5 million visitors in 2017, making it the most visited of the Utah national parks, and the third-most-visited national park in the US. behind Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon National Parks. At 229 square miles, the most prominent feature of the park is its 15-mile-long Zion Canyon, where the reddish-brown walls rise over 2,000 feet in places above the valley floor. Carved by the north fork of the Virgin River, the canyon is the starting point for some of the most spectacular hikes in Southern Utah.
Where it is
Zion is in the southwestern corner of Utah, 40 miles east of St. George. From the visitor center in Zion Canyon, Las Vegas is about 170 miles to the southwest, and Salt Lake City is about 300 miles to the north.
The town of Springdale, Utah is adjacent to the south boundary of the park and within walking distance of the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. Springdale has a good selection of hotels and restaurants (our favorite is Zion Pizza & Noodle Co.), outfitters and guides, rocks shops, a grocery store, and at least one laundromat.
Bryce Canyon National Park is a popular add-on destination for many Zion visitors. Bryce is about 75 miles to the northeast of the park. Another area attraction is Cedar Breaks National Monument. While it’s only about 35 miles away as the crow flies, Cedar Breaks is a 70-to-90-mile drive, depending on the route you take. The highway to Cedar Breaks is usually closed in the winter, but when open, the park is worth a visit to view its magnificent canyon and hoodoos; it’s the only place we know of that looks like a miniature Bryce Canyon.
Layout of the park
Zion has several sections, each with unique attractions: Zion Canyon (main canyon), Upper East Canyon, Kolob Canyons, and Kolob Terrace.
The most-visited section of Zion is the main canyon area just north of Springdale along Highway 9. There you’ll find the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, a scenic drive through the valley, and trailheads for many popular hikes.
Mount Carmel Highway (part of Highway 9) runs east from the main canyon, climbing up the canyon walls and through a tunnel that leads to the upper east canyon section of the park. The views of the valley (looking west from the top of the road) are spectacular. A couple of hikes to consider in this part of the park are the Canyon Overlook and the East Rim Trail. Continuing east on this road will take you to the eastern park entrance and toward Bryce Canyon National Park.
To get to the Kolob Canyons district, in the northwest corner of the park, you’ll have to enter from Interstate 15 about 20 miles north of La Verkin, Utah. This area of the park has a scenic drive and several trails worth checking out including a hike to Kolob Arch.
The Kolob Terrace area sits between Kolob Canyons and Zion Canyon and is where you’ll find The Subway trail. To get to that section of the park, you’ll take the Kolob Terrace Road north from the town of Virgin, Utah, driving about seven miles before entering the park along its western boundary.
Getting around in the park
In the main canyon, the park closes the scenic drive through the valley to private vehicles from March through November. The only exception is for visitors with reservations at Zion Lodge, which is several miles north of the ranger kiosk at the start of the scenic drive.
The park provides visitors with a shuttle service that runs the length of the scenic park road (from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center in the south to the Temple of Sinawava at the far north end). In addition to the park’s shuttle buses, Springdale has a bus service that runs through town and makes a stop at the park’s southern entrance. It’s an easy walk from where the Springdale bus makes its last stop to the visitor center where you can pick up the park shuttle. We’ve stayed in Springdale and hiked in the valley without ever having to drive; the bus/shuttle system is more convenient than it sounds, even in the busy season.
Follow this link for more information about the park shuttle.
For transportation to wilderness areas of the park, or for shuttles at the end of long, one-way hikes, follow this link to the park’s website for more information.
The best time to go
The park is open year-round, but the most popular times to go are spring and fall. Summers can be hot with average daily high temperatures above 90 degrees from June through September. August is the wettest month with an average of about an inch and a half of rain. Keep in mind, especially while hiking on exposed trails, that July and August each experience about 15 thunderstorms per year.
Places to stay
If you can get a reservation, we recommend staying at the historic Zion Lodge inside the park. Originally built in the 1920s, the lodge is an example of National Park Service Rustic architecture style. Spending the night in one of the lodge’s cabins is like taking a trip back in time, except with modern conveniences. While the rooms are hard to get, we’ve had success either booking very far in advance or catching a same-day cancellation. According to the lodge’s website, each of Zion Lodge’s historic cabins features two double beds or one queen bed, full bath, air-conditioning, gas log fireplace, and private porch. Hotel rooms are also available. The lodge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, open year-round, and offers two dining options: Red Rock Grill, full-service dining in the lodge boasting spectacular views; and Castle Dome Café, a relaxed, casual, outdoor dining experience that is opened seasonally.
Lodging in Springdale
There are over a dozen places to stay in close by Springdale ranging from B&Bs to most of the major hotel brands. We can only vouch for one: The Driftwood Inn, which was delightful both times we stayed there.
From the park’s website: Zion National Park has three campgrounds. South and Watchman Campgrounds are in Zion Canyon. The Lava Point Campground is about a 1-hour drive from Zion Canyon on the Kolob Terrace Road. There are no campgrounds in Kolob Canyons. Camping is permitted in designated campsites, but not in pullouts or parking lots. Camping is popular; all campgrounds are often full by mid-morning. From mid-March through late November the campgrounds are full almost every night. Reservations at South Campground and Watchman Campground (Call 877-444-6777 or visit www.recreation.gov) are recommended if you would like to guarantee a camping spot.
Regarding South and Watchman Campgrounds: This part of the park is desert. There are few trees to provide relief from the heat. Some campsites get shade for part of the day, but many get no shade at all. Summer temperatures exceed 95°F (35°C) and lows rarely dip below 65°F (18°C); staying cool is a challenge. Remember these temperatures and the possibility of a sunny campsite when planning. The Virgin River runs along the edge of each campground; there are a few riverside campsites.
Things to do
Next to standing breathless in the center of the park and looking up at the surrounding canyon walls, hiking is our favorite activity in Zion. Each section of the park has trails worth considering. Follow this link to the park’s website where you can find a listing of trails along with descriptions, distances, and difficulty ratings. We encourage you to check the park’s website while planning your trip or finalizing your daily itinerary as there are often trail closures due to storm damage, rockfalls, and maintenance.
Some of our favorites hikes in Zion include The Narrows, West Rim Trail, East Rim Trail, Hidden Valley, and Emerald Pools. Other popular hikes still on our to-do list include Angel’s Landing, The Subway, and Observation Point.
In our Dear Bob and Sue series of books, we wrote about our experiences with a couple of the iconic hikes in Zion: The Narrows and Angel’s Landing. We’ve included excerpts below from our books about each of these hikes. (If you’re not familiar with the Dear Bob and Sue series, they are our travel memoirs about visiting U.S. public lands, written in the form of emails to our friends Bob and Sue.)
Excerpt from Dear Bob and Sue
From: Matt Smith
Subject: #22 – Zion National Park
Date: September 17, 2010
Dear Bob and Sue,
…Tomorrow we plan on hiking The Narrows, which is a section of the Virgin River that is a slot canyon, an especially narrow canyon where the opposing walls can be as close as 25 to 30 feet from each other. Much of the hike is in the river, which requires more preparation than usual. We need to plan on everything getting wet: clothes, camera, backpack – and everything in the backpack.
The Narrows can only be hiked when the river is low enough to be safe, which usually begins late summer. Since it’s a slot canyon, there’s no place to climb if the water rises quickly. Even if it isn’t raining in the canyon, a thunderstorm 20 miles away can cause the river to rise dangerously. The forecast for southwestern Utah tomorrow is for clear weather. We should be okay.
There are several outfitters in Springdale whose main business is renting gear for this specific hike: water shoes, water socks, and walking sticks. We’ve spoken with several park rangers about the best footwear for hiking in the river, and they all said that water shoes don’t provide enough support for a long hike. They recommended that we wear our hiking boots or thick-tread tennis shoes in the water. We’re going to wear the hiking boots we brought with us.
I bought a waterproof Pelican case for my camera at one of the outfitters. I already have a large dry bag to carry our lunch and other stuff that we don’t want to get wet. Trekking poles are a must on this hike; we brought our own from home. I think we’re ready for The Narrows.
From: Matt Smith
Subject: Zion day two – The Narrows hike
Date: September 18, 2010
Dear Bob and Sue,
This morning we didn’t get the early start I wanted, but we were early enough to beat the weekend crowd. We took the bus to the farthest stop north in the park, the Temple of Sinawava. Running north from the bus stop is a one-mile paved trail called the Riverside Walk. At the end of that trail, we started our hike in the river. It was 9:30am and the temperature in the canyon was in the 70s.
Even though all the trail descriptions say that the river is the trail, we kept looking for a path. We stood there, at the river’s edge, not sure exactly where to go. Pretty soon it dawned on us that there were no choices, the canyon walls at that point were a couple of hundred feet apart. If there was a trail, we would have seen it. The only direction we could go was up river.
For the first 50 yards, we walked on the bank, trying not to get our feet wet. A couple of times we had no choice, so we tiptoed through shallow sections of the river that were a few inches deep. I tried to step past a deep spot and my foot slipped. The water came over the top of my ankle high hiking boots. Wow! The water was cold, even at the end of summer.
I looked up the canyon and saw it was narrower where we were headed. There were places with no riverbank at all. Karen and I looked at each other, and it finally sank in, the river is the trail.
There was no use putting it off. I intentionally stepped my other foot into the ankle deep water, and started walking down the center of the stream. Soon, I was knee-deep and struggling to keep my balance. We couldn’t have done this hike without our trekking poles.
Looking back at Karen, I could see that she was still negotiating with the river. She was standing in ankle deep water, and looking at the options in front of her. Finally, she followed my lead and waded into the middle of the stream.
Once our shoes were thoroughly soaked, and we were wet up to our knees, we felt a sense of release. We forgot about trying to stay dry, and started enjoying the hike. When we stopped looking down at the river and began looking up at where we were going, we noticed the incredible views.
The light in the canyon was amazing. There was no direct sunlight where we were because of the time of day and because we were at the bottom of a narrow canyon. Light reached the river by reflecting off the 2,000-foot high canyon walls. The sky reflected off the river; the river reflected light back onto the walls of the canyon. There were infinite shades of color, subtle and dramatic at the same time. The scene in front of us changed from moment to moment. Every bend in the river revealed another stunning view.
My waterproof case was clipped to my backpack at chest level. I was glad I had it. Without it, my camera would have gotten soaked. I was also glad that I brought a dry bag on the hike. Before the hike, I’d taken everything out of my backpack, put our essentials in the dry bag, and then placed the dry bag in my backpack. Even if I went under, our lunch and extra clothes would stay dry.
We kept making our way up river. There were places where it was too deep and swift to walk through. Fortunately, in these spots there was just enough riverbank for us to climb around the deep sections. There were a few spots, though, where we weren’t sure we would be able to make it any farther up river.
At one of these spots I was ahead of Karen. I was trying to find a way forward that didn’t involve the river going above my waist. The water was swift and smooth; it tugged at my legs. I couldn’t see the river bottom. With my trekking pole, I tested the depth around me. In every direction it seemed deeper than where I stood, including from where I just came. How could that be? The next step brought the river to my waist. I took a deep breath instantly; I hoped to keep the boys dry for the entire hike. So much for that idea. I took another step, and another deep breath. Easing my hiking boots over what felt like slippery bowling balls, I secured each foot before lifting a trekking pole off the riverbed. One foot then one pole. I remembered the ranger telling us yesterday, “Keep at least three points firmly planted at all times.”
I continued easing my way up the river. Karen was somewhere behind me. I didn’t hear a yelp or scream, so I assumed she was still mostly above water. I began to think that maybe I would make it to a shallow spot without going under. A few more steps and I was dry, standing on a boulder in the middle of the river. I turned toward Karen. She was moving through the waist-deep section I just came through. She almost went down, caught herself, then another near fall. Between wobbles, she looked up at me with a smile and mouthed the words, “I love this.”
We hiked about 4.5 miles up the river from where we first entered the water. There was never a point where we were forced to turn back because the river was impassable, only places where it was challenging to keep from going in over our heads. Neither of us got dunked. We won a small victory over the river.
While we were still hiking up river, a solo hiker caught up with us. He was soaked and carrying a wooden hiking pole about six feet tall. His backpack was running like a faucet. When he got to within 30 feet of us, he slipped and went completely under the water. Before I could think about helping him, his head came up. His mouth was wide-open taking in a big breath. He walked another ten feet and went under again. He’d gotten comfortable with letting the river win; it looked like he’d been going under all morning. As he walked passed us, he smiled and said, “How’s it going,” as if we were passing each other coming out of a Starbucks. He was having a great hike.
The sun was at its highest point about the time we stopped to rest and eat lunch. It was one of the few times on the hike we were in direct sunlight. It felt good after being in the cool water. After lunch, we turned around and started back toward home.
We saw very few people during the hike until we got to within a mile of the Riverside Walk on our return. Being a weekend and a hot sunny day, the river attracted a crowd. What was a peaceful, secluded hike turned into a crowded noisy scene. This didn’t bother us; we had a great hike and were tired and satisfied. All we could think about was plowing through the crowd to get to the bus and back to our hotel room, so we could collapse.
The last quarter mile of the hike was crazy. There were people in the river unprepared to be there. We had sturdy shoes and trekking poles, and we almost went under a hundred times. How did these people think they were going to make it up river? Karen almost had a heart attack when we passed a man carrying a baby who looked to be about six-months old. He was holding the baby close to his chest and straining to look over the baby’s head to see where to put his foot next to keep from falling. We had to look away and just keep moving. Many, many people were in the river with expensive cameras around their necks. We’re sure that at least a few of those cameras went under today.
The prize for the strangest sight went to the old guy in the middle of the river, water halfway up his legs and with no shoes on, with a walker! Yep, I saw my future right there. Just because you need a walker doesn’t mean you can’t hike in the river. Good for him.
We rode the bus back to town soaked and sitting butt to butt with people who were dry and wondering where we had been. It felt good to get back to our hotel and into dry clothes. The temperature on my keychain thermometer read 100 degrees. I took our socks and hiking boots and laid them in the sun on the sidewalk outside our room. I pulled the insoles out so they would dry faster. As hot as it was, I thought they would dry enough to be wearable by tomorrow. Forty-five minutes later, they were bone dry, inside and out.
Excerpt from Dear Bob and Sue: Season 2
From: Matt Smith
Subject: Angels Landing, Not
Date: November 28, 2017
Dear Bob and Sue,
I’ve lost count of the number of times Karen and I’ve been to Zion. Being hikers, you’d think we’d have hiked to Angels Landing by now, but we haven’t. After hearing descriptions of the trail—steep drop-offs, chains to hold onto, crowds of tourists—we had zero interest. Maybe we’ve reached a point where we don’t feel pressure to do something because it’s popular. Either that or we’re chickens.
Even though she doesn’t want to go all the way up to Angels Landing, Karen said she’d like to at least hike up to the point along the trail where the chains start, so she could get a better look at it. From our cabin this morning, we walked north along the road for about half a mile and then crossed it and joined the West Rim Trail, which starts at the Grotto Trailhead.
At that point there’s a trail sign with a picture of Angels Landing and a drawing of a man falling. The sign warns that since 2004, six people have died falling from the cliffs on this route. I’m not sure how often they update this sign, but I’d guess that number is even higher by now. The sign only reinforced our decision to pass on this hike.
The first part of the trail is relatively flat and runs next to the Virgin River before it turns into a series of uphill switchbacks. They weren’t very steep or difficult, but it was still a relief when the trail flattened again and we reached the shade of Refrigerator Canyon. When we got to the end of the canyon, we ascended twenty-one short, steep switchbacks, called Walter’s Wiggles.
A mile and a half after starting the hike, we’d climbed 1,000 feet and were ready for a break. We stopped at Scout Lookout where we could see the Virgin River and the park road directly below us to the east. It was a straight down vertical drop.
It’s at this overlook that the trail splits. If you turn to the right (south), the trail up to Angels Landing is a half a mile hike onto a narrow, exposed fin. On either side of the landing, the drop-offs are as much as 1,400 feet. To the left of Scout Lookout, the West Rim Trail continues to the north end of the park.
As we were marveling at the view, a man approached us and asked if we were looking for the condors. He said he was a volunteer who gives interpretive talks at the overlook. “If you stick around for another ten minutes you can hear my talk about condors.”
“I didn’t know condors live in Zion,” Karen said.
“Yeah, around seventy live in Utah and Arizona,” he replied. “This is a great place to spot them.”
“California Condors, right?”
He nodded his head. “They were almost extinct in 1982; only twenty-two were left in the world. The remaining condors were captured and a captive breeding program was set up to save them. Now there are over four hundred.”
“We’ll keep our eyes out for them,” I said. “We’re hiking farther up the West Rim Trail.”
“Good plan,” he said. “Everyone wants to go up to Angels Landing, but there are better views if you keep hiking along the West Rim Trail. Nobody hikes in that direction, you’ll feel like you’re in the wilderness by yourself.”
We thanked him and continued on. About a mile farther up, we stopped for lunch at a rock outcropping that was in full sun. Sitting there looking in the direction of Angels Landing we understood what the condor guy had told us; from our perch, we had unobstructed views of the park to the southeast. We could see the top of Angels Landing and the valley beyond. It was spectacular in the mid-morning sun, and we were the only ones there.
The West Rim trail runs for seventeen miles, but we weren’t prepared for a long hike, and certainly not for a backpacking overnight. If it were summer, I would have loved to continue along the trail to the end, Lava Point, at the northern boundary of the park. It sits at almost 8,000 feet elevation, so it’s probably covered in snow this time of year. Maybe we’ll come back and do that someday.
For more about the Dear Bob and Sue series, visit www.dearbobandsue.com.
Other Things to do
Biking is a great way to experience the scenic road in Zion Canyon. The road is relatively flat for the entire 6 miles. While biking the scenic road, it’s easy to get lulled into thinking you have it all to yourself because there’s not much car traffic. However, lodge guests, park rangers and maintenance workers use the road as well as the park shuttles. At one time the park required bicyclists to stop and get off their bikes when a park shuttle approached. The park may or may not still enforce this policy, so check with the visitor center or the ranger kiosk to learn about the current rules if you plan to bike on the scenic road.
According to the park’s website: Canyoneering is an outdoor activity that combines route finding, rappelling, problem solving, swimming, and hiking. Zion National Park has become one of the premier places in the country to participate in this exciting activity.
While we’ve never attempted canyoneering in Zion, it’s moving up on our bucket list. Based on accounts from friends and canyoneering guides we’ve met, Zion is a good place to learn. Also, for some hikes, rappelling may be required depending on the route you take. Always check with the visitor center for rules, route information, and current conditions. You can also follow this link to the park’s website for more information.