One of five national parks in Utah, Zion National Park is a stunning destination with a wide range of activities to enjoy for visitors of all ages. Whether you are an experienced hiker or a casual sightseer, Zion National Park has something for everyone. From exploring the trails to experiencing the scenic beauty, there’s never a dull moment at Zion. In this post, I’ll highlight the best activities to indulge in when visiting Zion National Park.
- How to Get Around the Park
- Most Popular Trails and Viewpoints
- Where to Stay
- Plan Your Trip Today
How to Get Around the Park
First, let me say that we drove to the visitor’s center on the day of our arrival mid-week in October and the large parking lot was full. We drove around for about ten minutes before getting a spot, so on subsequent days we either walked or rode bikes in and every time we noticed that the parking lot was full even as early as 7 AM.
Our trip began in Las Vegas, so we stayed in Springdale, Utah, and entered the South Entrance of Zion National Park on Zion Park Boulevard (Utah State Route 9). This entrance is closest to the intersection of Zion Park Boulevard and Zion Canyon Road.
Zion Canyon Road
This 7-mile-long scenic route is where most of the destinations you’ve seen photos of or heard about are located. However, from March to November and December 22 – December 31, you cannot drive personal vehicles on it. Instead, you have to use the shuttle bus (described below) or bike (also described below), which is what we did.
Zion Park Boulevard (Utah State Route 9)
This route is open for private vehicles year-round. From the south, it is a 9-mile scenic drive to the East Ranger Station that takes you through gorgeous sandstone cliffs. There are several pull-outs on the scenic drive to stop and take in the sights. There are also trailhead parking areas, but they are very small so if you’re planning to hike, I recommend arriving early. Please note that the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel has a height restriction of 13 feet, but any vehicle over 11 feet will require a tunnel escort.
Kolob Canyon Road
A third scenic drive in the northwest corner of Zion National Park, this is an overlooked part of the park. The Kolob Canyons district is located at Exit 40 on Interstate 15, 40 miles north of Zion Canyon. The scenic drive is 5 miles long and provides spectacular views of the area’s crimson canyons.
Zion Shuttle Bus System
Zion National Park is one of the busiest national parks regardless of the time of year. We visited for three days in the middle of the week in early October and were surprised at the crowds. For this reason, most people elect to use the free Zion National Park Shuttle Bus System that operates from March to November and December 22 – 31.
- Springdale Shuttle – For visitors entering the Southern Entrance from Springdale, the park has a shuttle with several stops throughout the town. The shuttle takes you to and from the Zion National Park Visitor Center complex.
- Zion Canyon Shuttle – As previously mentioned, most of the year personal vehicles aren’t allowed on the Zion Canyon Road where the most prominent hiking trails and sights are located. The Zion Canyon Shuttle runs the full length of this 7-mile-long scenic route and has 9 stops to allow you to access overlooks and hiking trailheads, as well as the Zion Lodge restaurant and cafe.
We decided to rent e-bikes for the whole family and found it to be a wonderful way to experience Zion Canyon on our own schedule. Everyone in the family loved the experience! That includes our 2-year-old grandson who rode in a seat on his mom’s rental bike. The bikes from Zion E-Bike Adventures came with helmets, locks, a hiking pole holder, and additional storage. They have options of full or half day. We chose the full day so we wouldn’t be stressed about return time and were very happy with that decision.
The best part of the e-bikes was that we could go at our own pace and not have to wait for the park shuttle. This was especially helpful with a toddler. Every shuttle stop and major hiking trailhead had bike racks so we could lock our bikes when we wanted to explore on foot.
Most Popular Trails and Viewpoints
Whether you are looking for some of the country’s most challenging hikes or simply a beautiful nature walk with stunning views, Zion National Park has got you covered. We were there with a toddler, so we kept it simple, but here is an overview of the best trails Zion Canyon has to offer. They are listed in geographical order beginning with closest to the visitor’s center. Please note that periodic trail closures can occur at any time due to things like rockslides and bridge repairs. Always check the official Zion National Park website prior to your visit.
3.2 miles out and back with 134 feet of elevation gain
This is one of two trails you can access from the Visitor’s Center and the only trail in Zion National Park that allows pets. This paved, multi-use trail (the only one that is fully accessible and allows bikes) follows the Virgin River and has some of the most beautiful scenery we witnessed at Zion.
3.1 miles out and back with 636 feet of elevation gain
This is the second trail that you can access from the Visitor’s Center. It follows the Virgin River for the first 1/4 mile, then turns east to climb up to the Watchman Overlook where you can see the Temples and Towers, lower Zion Canyon, and the Town of Springdale. Please note: the overlook is NOT at the top of Watchman Mountain. Also, the entire trail is in the full sun, so plan according for the weather.
Court of the Patriarchs Viewpoint Trail
1/4 mile out and back with 29 feet of elevation
Located at the first shuttle stop, this paved trail takes you above the roadway to an overlook where you can view the Court of the Patriarchs, a series of three sandstone peaks.
Zion Grottos Trail
1.2 miles out and back with 78 feet of elevation
This was our grandson’s favorite trail. It is mostly flat with a few rocky areas to climb on. We started at the Grottos Picnic Area and walked to the Zion Lodge Cafe for coffee before heading back to our bikes. Along the way, we saw some gorgeous Mule Deer and turkeys.
Emerald Pools Trails
2.8 miles out and back with 629 feet of elevation gain
One of the most popular hikes from the Zion Lodge was Lower Emerald Pools at just 1.4 miles round trip. However, the bridge is out and now to access Emerald Pools, you have to start your hike at the Grotto (Shuttle Stop #6), which increases the distance slightly. From the Grotto, you can hike the Kayenta Trail to both Lower and Upper Emerald Pools in just under 3 miles.
Angels Landing and West Rim Trails
4.6 miles and 1,812 feet of elevation gain
Angels Landing is one of the most famous hikes in the world. Most people see this photo of the chained section, which is on the last 1/2 mile of the hike. To reach Angels Landing, you take the West Rim Trail from the Grotto to the Scout Overlook. Just before the overlook, you’ll ascend Walters Wiggles, a set of 21 steep switchbacks. At this point, if you have a permit you can continue on the Angels Landing Trail where you’ll end up on a sliver of rock that is as narrow as 28” in places!
Note: You need a permit to hike Angels Landing, but you don’t need one to hike the West Rim Trail to Scout Overlook. The total mileage from the Grotto to Scout Overlook and back is 3.6 miles with 1,115 feet of elevation gain.
Zion Riverside Trail and The Narrows
At the end of Zion Canyon Road is the beautiful, but very crowded (most crowded of all trails we visited) Zion Riverside Trail. It is a hard-packed trail that follows the river through a sandstone canyon. There are several points to leave the trail and stop for a picnic or rest on the banks of the river. At the end of the trail, you can continue IN THE RIVER through to what is known as the Narrows (the narrowest point in the park). We turned around at that point, but most people we saw who continued had rented gear from town that included neoprene socks, waterproof boots and waders, as well as a sturdy hiking stick. We chatted with some folks in the hot tub of our hotel that night who did not rent the gear and they said the water was so cold, they would recommend the gear rentals to anyone interested in hiking the Narrows.
Where to Stay
There are numerous options for lodging both within the park and in Springdale, just outside the park entrance.
Zion National Park Lodge
The lodge is located about halfway up Zion Canyon Road and is surrounded by stunning peaks. We had coffee at the cafe in the morning and a picnic lunch on the expansive lawn in front of the lodge. It was so beautiful that I vowed to stay at the lodge on our next visit!
The lodge offers cabins with fireplaces, standard hotel rooms, and suites with a sitting room, wet bar, and separate bedroom with a king-size bed.
Zion National Park Campgrounds
Spending a night under the stars in Zion National Park is an experience that you cannot miss. The park features two campgrounds with some of the most scenic campsites in the country. Whether you’re camping in a tent or an RV, you’ll enjoy the peace and tranquility of the park while being surrounded by nature.
- Watchman Campground is the most popular and is great for both tent and RV camping. It’s closest to the the Visitor Center complex and the walking gate to Springdale. Best of all, it’s open year-round.
- South Campground is for tents only and is located along the Pa’rus trail with access to amazing river views.
There are several hotels within walking distance of Zion National Park. We are Hilton Honors members and had enough rewards points for two free rooms so we stayed at the Hampton Inn. However, next time I’d like to try the the Cliffrose Springdale, part of Hilton’s Curio line if we can’t get in the Zion Lodge. Our only complaint with the Hampton Inn is that the pool was not heated. Our visit was in October and it was too cold to use the pool without any heating. They also had a hot tub, but it was small for the size of the hotel. I think max occupancy was eight, but we were in it with just six total and it felt crowded.
Our friends stayed at the Zion Canyon Campground and recommended it for its location to the park.
Plan Your Trip Today
Zion National Park is a must-visit destination that offers activities to suit every visitor’s preferences. From hiking the Narrows to enjoying a peaceful campfire under the stars, the park offers something for everyone. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned pro, Zion National Park will exceed your expectations with its stunning beauty and limitless activities. So, pack your bags, lace up your hiking boots, and embark on the journey of a lifetime to Zion National Park.