A beginner’s guide to visiting Zion National Park: Everything you need to see and do
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This story has been updated with new information about getting around the park, in light of restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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 midsized national park, but draws huge crowds attracted by its unmistakable and photogenic scenery. 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.
It’s also very, very popular, thanks to its relative proximity to I-15, the highway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City: The park’s southern entrance is a comfortable three-hour drive from Las Vegas McCarran airport (LAS) and four and a half from downtown Salt Lake. 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 fooled by its easy accessibility: Zion can get wild pretty quick. You’ll find plenty of tame hikes, sure, but you can graduate quickly to more 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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The park may be at its best in the fall, when the maples and cottonwoods abundant on the canyon floor turn red and the weather is at its mildest, between the scorching summer and hard winter of the high desert. But avoiding the summer may mean you’re sharing the experience with strangers.
“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.
Note that Zion National Park is, as of mid-June 2020, open only partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, offering a reduced program of activities. Many areas remain closed. Consult our guide to the reopening of national parks and the park’s own official homepage for the most up-to-date information.
Entrance to the 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 park a year. A pass is an especially good idea if you’re traveling to Zion, since it can be easily combined with 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.
What to see and do in Zion
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.
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! Moderate-level hikes climb higher with elevation changes up to 500 feet, and there ar 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 perspective of Zion Canyon south of you.
Related: How to visit National Parks for less
The other classic Zion hike is up The Narrows, which 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.
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.
How to get to Zion National Park
Zion is easily reached by car. The main population centers near the park are St. George and Cedar City in Utah; Cedar City is just 18 miles from the Kolob Canyon entrance at the north end of the park, while St. George is more convenient for access to the southern entrance.
The park has a third entrance too – the East Entrance on Utah Route 9, which passes through the park. Route 9 in 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.
Screen capture from Google Maps.
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 chain hotels abound:
- 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
- SpringHill Suites by Marriott Springdale Zion National Park — from $208 or between 40,000 and 60,000 Marriott points (Category 6) 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 in the park is limited to the Zion Lodge, reachable by car. The Lodge offers both cabins and standard rooms at prices of $229 per night for peak season dates, but rates drop as low as $142 in late fall and winter when we checked in June. There’s also has a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner plus a snack bar.
There are 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 the coronavirus, but when it reopens you can expect to find there the remoteness that Zion Canyon, with its many visitors, can’t offer.
Getting around Zion National Park
There’s really only one way to get to and around 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 early or use the shuttle.
The park service advises that in the busy season, parking lots fill by midmorning and that your best course of action is to park in Springdale and take the shuttle bus, which runs from March to November. (According to reports from TPG readers, parking lots have been filling up very early in the warm season in 2020 — as early as 6 a.m.) Shuttle buses were restarted on July 1, and are no longer entirely free — they must be reserved in advance, for a nonrefundable $1 fee. This reservation system will be in effect until December 2020, because of COVID-19, according to the park’s site.
The shuttle is also a great way to get around in the park; it stops at nine locations inside it, and you can get on and off any of the buses on any of the routes as often as you want. 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.
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 good news is that shuttles have bike racks, if you get tired. 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.
For all the crowding, though, you most likely will not get phone service. 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
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. 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 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 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, respect the wilderness and enjoy a national park whose stunning scenery will be one of your most treasured memories.
Featured image by Doug Lemke/Getty Images
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