A beginner’s guide to visiting Zion National Park: Everything you need to know, see and do

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 Editor’s note: This is a guide that is updated over time as information changes and evolves.

Zion was the first national park in Utah, established in 1919 to protect the sheer sandstone cliffs centered around Zion Canyon. At 229 square miles, it’s a considered a midsized national park, but one that draws outsized crowds attracted by its unmistakable, awe-inspiring, photogenic scenery. It helps that the park also offers very diverse hiking terrain that ranges from expert-level to preschool-friendly.

High on the plateau of Southwestern Utah, the park rises from 3,666 to 8,726 feet in elevation. Famous for the reddish hues of the cliffs, Zion embodies the image of the canyonlands of the High West, rugged and spectacularly beautiful.

Further boosting the park’s popularity is its proximity to I-15, the highway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City: The park’s southern entrance is a comfortable 3-hour drive from Las Vegas McCarran Airport (LAS) and 4.5 hours from downtown Salt Lake City.

In 2019, almost 4.5 million people visited the park, up from 2.7 million just a decade earlier. That makes Zion the fourth most popular in the entire national park system, with 50% more yearly visitors than Yellowstone.

But don’t be too fooled by its easy accessibility and beginner-friendly trails: Zion can get wild pretty quick. Along with the tame hikes, sure, there are some serious scrambles like the trail to the top of Angels Landing — a rocky outcrop that’s probably the park’s most famous feature — and even full-on adventures in the wilderness.

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SPRINGDALE, UT - MAY 14: A sign hangs at the entrance to Zion National Park on May 14, 2020 in Springdale, Utah. Zion National Park had a limited reopening yesterday as part of its reopening plan after it was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

When to visit Zion

Zion may be at its absolute best in the fall, when the maples and cottonwoods abundant on the canyon floor turn red and the weather is at its mildest. In those fall months, you can avoid the scorching summer and get in before the hard winter of the high desert. But avoiding the summer has the added benefit of avoiding the peak crowds, too.

“From early February through late November, visitation at Zion is extremely high,” the park’s site warns. Besides the obvious dates when you can expect a surge of visitors like Labor Day or Memorial Day, keep in mind there’s also a fall break for Utah schools that typically happens in October and results in additional visitors. Check the Utah school calendar for dates.

But outside of those fall school breaks, October through at least the first half of November, is the optimal time to experience Zion. You’ll catch fall foliage, lower crowds, a usually temperate climate and lower prices on lodging in the surrounding areas.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

How much does it cost to visit Zion?

Entrance to the national park is $35 per vehicle (up to 15 passengers) for seven days.

We recommend getting an $80 annual national park pass if you plan to visit more than one national park a year. A pass is an especially good idea if you’re traveling to Zion, since a visit there can be easily combined with multiple nearby Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon National Park; the former is 75 miles away and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 100, both relatively short distances in the vast American West.

Drive for about five hours, and you’ll be at Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, the latter of which is now a certified International Dark Sky Park.

Those with a fourth grader (or for 2020 to 2021 also a fifth grader) in the family, can also get in free to Zion by using the free national park access awarded to those students. Seniors aged 62 and up can also purchase a lifetime national park pass for just $80.

As we will get into shortly, you’ll often need to also need to either plan to book the national park shuttles in advance or book a private third-party company to shuttle you into the park. While the official National Park Service shuttle is just $1 per person, the private companies are significantly more expensive at around $40 per person.

Related: How to visit the national parks for less

What to see and do in Zion

When visiting with kids

Zion is one of the friendliest parks for children, making it an ideal family destination. The park usually offers family programs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and occasionally in March and April. Children ages 6 to 12 can also participate in Zion’s Junior Ranger Program. Ranger-led activities may also be of interest to adults, too.

Some of the most kid-friendly hikes and trails in Zion include Pa’rus Trail, Lower Emerald Pools Trail, Weeping Rock Trail, and Riverside Walk Trail.

Easily accessible hikes exist within Zion (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Speaking from experience, the Lower Emerald Pools Trail gains just enough elevation to feel like a real hike, but even if you take breaks and move at a 5-year-old’s pace, it won’t take more than 90-minutes in total to complete the hike and take some cool pictures in the process.

On the Lower Emerald Pools trail (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Harder hikes, including Angels Landing

Trails in the park offer a variety of challenges for all skill levels. You can stick to relatively flat terrain and paved trails, and even combine an easy hike with a swim in the Virgin River along the Pa’rus Trail — just expect the water to be cold!

Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy
Angels Landing above the Virgin River (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

Moderate-level hikes climb higher with elevation changes up to 500 feet, and there are more strenuous hikes, such as the famed Angels Landing, which culminates in a steep, exposed section with fixed chains for support. It’s not for people afraid of heights, but the view from the top is one of the great prizes of a visit to the park.

You’ll have a bird’s-eye view of Zion Canyon south of you.

The Narrows

The other classic Zion hike is up The Narrows.

This hike begins where the main road through the park ends, and stretches nearly 10 miles through a greatly narrowed Zion Canyon, which becomes a gorge of spectacular beauty.

Even if you don’t go the entire length of the hike, you will get your feet wet; there is no trail, and the flash floods that can follow a summer rainstorm are a very real danger. The Narrows are also ideal for canyoneering, a method of exploring canyons that involves rappelling, hiking, scrambling up rocks and even swimming. Rock climbing on Zion’s big sandstone walls is another draw.

If the Narrows is on your Zion to-do list, you can rent packages from multiple companies outside the park that include river-specific shoes, neoprene socks, a walking pole and dry pants or bibs from $25 to $50 per day, depending on your package.

Hiking in The Narrows upstream as far as Big Spring does not require a permit, however, if you want to do a one- or two-day hike from top down, that does require both a permit and transportation for the one and a half hour ride to start the hike outside the park at Chamberlain’s Ranch.

The Narrows in Zion National Park (Photo by David Epperson/Getty Images)
The Narrows in Zion National Park (Photo by David Epperson/Getty Images)

Backpacking in the wilderness — the park has by its own count “over 90 miles of trails, dozens of designated backpacking sites, multiple at-large camping areas and 124,406 acres of designated wilderness” — requires a permit and may reward adventurous visitors with a rare sighting of the largest flying bird in North America, the California condor. Birders can spot golden eagles here as well.

There are no bears in the park, but predators include cougars and coyotes. However, you’re far more likely to encounter the desert bighorn sheep that often make appearances on the rocks along the main road.

Related: 11 mistakes travelers make on their first camping trip 

Horseback rides

From March to October, you can book a horseback ride within Zion National Park through an authorized third-party company. This company offers two different rides: a $45 one-hour ride that follows the Virgin River and is open to those aged 7 years and up, or a $90 three-hour ride that ascends 500 feet on the southern end of the park for visitors ages 10 and up.

If that doesn’t meet your needs, or you are visiting during a time of year when the in-park equine options aren’t available, you can book  rides just outside the park. The Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, located at the East entrance to the park, offers a wide variety of horseback rides throughout the year, starting at $49 for a one-hour ride for those aged 8 and up.

Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

How to get to Zion National Park

Zion is easily reached by car. The main population centers near the park are St. George, Cedar City and Springdale in Utah; Cedar City is just 18 miles from the Kolob Canyon entrance at the north end of the park, St. George is more convenient for access to the southern entrance and the small town of Springdale sits at the literal entrance to the park.

The park has a third entrance, too — the East Entrance on Utah Route 9, which passes through the park.

Zion Entrance (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Route 9 within the park includes the 1.1-mile long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, connecting to Bryce Canyon National Park. Vehicles wider than 7 feet 10 inches or higher than 11 feet 4 inches must have a tunnel permit, which costs $15 in addition to the park entrance fee. Traffic through the narrow tunnel is regulated by park rangers and keep in mind, if you don’t like narrow, winding, mountain roads, this may not be your favorite stretch of pavement.

Where to stay in or near Zion National Park

The easiest option is to stay in Springdale, steps from the park’s main entrance, where moderately priced, points-friendly chain hotels abound:

The SpringHill Suites by Marriott Springdale Zion National Park is an excellent choice — bookable from around $200 per night or between 40,000 and 60,000 Marriott points as a Marriott Category 6 property.

Additional hotel options in Springdale include:

  • Hampton Inn and Suites Springdale/Zion National Park — from $114 or 33,000 Hilton Honors points per night
  • Cliffrose Springdale, Curio Collection by Hilton — from $319 or 80,000 Hilton Honors points per night
  • Best Western Plus Zion Canyon Inn and Suites — from $117 or 36,000 Best Western Rewards points per night
  • La Quinta Inn and Suites by Wyndham at Zion Park/Springdale — from $159 or 30,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night

Lodging inside the park is limited to the Zion Lodge. If you stay here, you don’t have to mess with a shuttle to get into the park, as you can drive your car right to the lodge on a road that is normally otherwise closed to passenger vehicles.

The Lodge offers both cabins and standard rooms at prices starting around $229 per night for peak season dates, but rates drop as low as $142 in late fall and winter. There’s also has a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner plus a snack bar.

There are also three campgrounds in the park as well, two in Zion Canyon itself  — South and Watchman — and one called Lava Point in the Kolob Canyons section of the park, to the north of the main canyon. Kolob Canyons is currently closed due to COVID-19, but there you’ll find the remoteness that Zion Canyon, with its many visitors, can’t offer.

Starting in March 2021, the glamping company, Under Canvas, will offer a variety of tented options for those looking to stay in nature (while still in luxury) near Zion National Park.

Related: Exploring national parks in 2020: Where to stay using points

Getting in and around Zion National Park

There’s really only one way to get to the park: driving. Zion’s rising popularity poses a challenge to drivers if they come unprepared, but a simple rule is to either get there very early or use the shuttle routes.

The park service advises that in the busy season, parking lots fill by early- to mid-morning and that your best course of action is to park in Springdale and take the shuttle bus to the park. This is one of two shuttle routes.

The shuttle from Springdale to Zion is free and doesn’t require advance reservations. It drops you off at the pedestrian/bike entrance to the park, but for most casual visitors, getting into the actual gate is only part of the transportation issue. There’s still miles to go before you are in the heart of Zion.

To fill that need, there are also in-park shuttle buses that run from the visitor center up the Scenic Drive to destinations like the Zion Lodge and trailheads, including Emerald Pools, West Rim Trail, and Temple of Sinawava where hikers depart for the Narrows. This shuttle is no longer entirely free — and must be reserved in advance online, for a nonrefundable $1 fee.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

The shuttle is also a great way to get around in the park; it stops at nine locations, and you can get on and off any of the buses on any of the routes, though you can only depart from the visitor center once. Buses run as frequently as every seven minutes and are wheelchair accessible. There are also private shuttles run by tour operators from Springdale, but you’ll pay significantly more for these to the tune of around $40 per person.

Note that in our experience, the private third-party company shuttles are not participating in any social distancing, though masks are required.

Biking in the park can be wonderful (e-bikes are allowed, too) but presents challenges on the steep, twisting roads, especially in the heat of summer. The fee to enter with a bike is $20 per person and is good for seven days. You can rent bikes and book guided bike tours in Springdale.

Factor into your plans that you most likely will not get phone service in most of the park. People have reported spotty connections at either end of the park, but do not count on being able to communicate with your phone, or use it for navigation. You will have free Wi-Fi at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. (You can, however, download Google Maps of the park to use offline.)

Restrooms are located at the visitor centers, where you’ll find well-kept facilities, and at the shuttle stop serving the Zion Lodge. The campgrounds in Zion Canyon and some trailheads have flush toilets; other trailheads have vault toilets, without water or sinks. Water stations for refilling your bottles are found at several shuttle stops.

During the non-shuttle season, usually January to mid-February, private vehicles are allowed on Scenic Drive.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

How many days should you plan for Zion?

You can explore Zion for weeks and not see it all.

There are plenty of multinight backcountry hikes within Zion and you could probably stay entertained and entranced within the park for as long as you wish. However, the southern Utah area has plenty to see and do, so if you are on a schedule, two days in Zion isn’t a bad starting point.

That would allow you to do complete of the hikes, explore a couple different parts of the park and even add in horse or jeep tour, if you wished before continuing on to the Grand Canyon, Arches, Moab, Bryce Canyon or wherever your heart and the open road may take you.

Route 9 and the tunnel in Zion National Park (Photo by Ed Freeman/Getty Images)

Bottom line

There’s a reason Zion National Park has boomed in popularity: It’s relatively easy to reach and it offers spectacular scenery in a compact area.

Most people can see the main sights of the park in a day or two. For those who want to dig deeper, Zion can provide a wilderness experience to rival far more famous parks.

It’s also easy to combine with a visit to Bryce Canyon National Park, also in Utah, and the Grand Canyon to the south; all three are close together, and you could devote a day or so to each for a concentrated shot of the unparalleled, almost otherworldly beauty of this region. Even Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are close enough to add on to your trip just a few hours away in Moab.

Just bear in mind that, while the crowds may give you a sense of security, you’re still in a remote area high in the desert, where danger from heat or cold is always present and where your phone likely won’t work. Bring plenty of water, dress in layers, respect the wilderness and enjoy a national park with stunning scenery that will be one of your most treasured memories.

Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy

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