The Ultimate Guide to Zion

February 17, 2021


Things to do in Zion National Park, Utah, from hiking to stargazing! Plus, things to know before you go, where to stay at Zion, and more.

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Striped sandstone cliffs looming over a lush green value. Turquoise lagoons tucked between soaring red walls. Millions of stars twinkling overhead. Zion National Park, meaning “heavenly city”, is the oldest National Park in Utah and the most visited National Park in the American Southwest – for good reason. Millions of thrill-seekers find their stoke in Zion each year through hiking, climbing, backpacking, canyoneering, and, if they’re really courageous, at the top of the most famous hike in the park, Angels Landing!

This red-rock canyon, carved out by water millions of years ago, is 15-miles long, half a mile deep, and crosses three different ecosystems, with a history as unique as the rust-colored sandstone itself. When the area was first declared a National Monument back in 1909, it was actually called Mukuntuweap, which means ‘straight canyon’ in the Nuwuvi language, describing the narrow and cavernous lower part of the canyon. Today, Zion National Park not only protects the lands of Zion Canyon, but also preserves archaeological sites from 10,000 years ago.

Visitors to Zion National Park today can hike to aquamarine pools, float along the very same river that carved the Zion Canyon, canyoneer down steep cliffs, learn about the history of this sacred land, and gaze up at the Milky Way in the clear night sky.

With so many things to do in Zion National Park, it can be difficult to know where to begin. We are lucky enough to have fellow adventurer Aaren Prody give us the scoop about this fascinating, almost alien-looking landscape and national wonder. Take it away, Aaren!

Psst: Looking for more places to explore in Utah? …. check out some of our other posts on things to do in Utah!

Zion National Park FAQ’s

The entrance sign at Zion National Park in Utah on a sunny summer day.
The entrance sign at Zion National Park that will greet you when you arrive. You’ve made it!

How to get to Zion National Park?

No matter which way you’re coming from, you’ll need to drive to Zion National Park. The roads in Zion are well-paved, so you don’t need any special vehicle to get in and around Zion, so whether you’re traveling in style with a fully decked out 4×4 Jeep or your mom’s minivan, you’ll get here just fine!

The Zion Visitor’s Center is dotted right along Highway 9. If you’re road-tripping from the West Coast, you’ll be entering via Springdale, a very hipster-y western town that my granola soul fell in love with! If you’re coming from the East instead, you’ll be arriving from a very scenic route that takes you all the way into the park. 

The two closest airports to Zion National Park are in Las Vegas (170 miles away) and Salt Lake City (300 miles away). These are both ideal basecamps for road trips through Utah’s National Parks, named the Mighty Five, and many travelers base themselves in one of these two cities, then rent a car to drive to Zion.

2021 Update: Heads up – storms in February washed out a big chunk of Highway One in Big Sur. Unfortunately this happens every few years – the precarious nature of the highway is part of what makes it such a landmark! But before your trip, you should be aware of any detours or road closures and plan accordingly. The chunk of highway that’s closed currently allows you to visit Big Sur – but not drive through it. You’ll have to take a detour on Highway 101 (connecting around Cambria) and Highway 68 (connecting around Monterey) if you’re driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Zion National Park Shuttle parked at a stop, with the looming cliffs of Zion in the background.
The Zion National Park shuttle is the best way to get around Zion National Park during the high season, complete with informative drivers and stunning views!

How to get around Zion National Park?

Getting around Zion National Park is very simple, but there are a few guidelines you need to know depending on when you’re visiting.

If you’re visiting Zion between February and November, the only way to get around the park is by using the free shuttle service. You’ll need to park your car somewhere in Springdale and then board the shuttle into the park. The National Park Service does this to reduce emissions pollution, traffic, and parking issues, so it’s really a blessing in disguise!

The first shuttle leaves the Zion Visitor’s Center at 7 am and the last shuttle leaves the Temple of Sinawava at 6:15 pm. Look for a full schedule at one of the park’s shuttle stops when you arrive.

Since you’ll be traveling on the shuttle’s set schedule, you need to make sure you don’t miss one of the next to last shuttles out of the park. It’s very important that you do not wait for the very last shuttle because there is an almost guaranteed chance that that bad boy is going to be filled to the brim, causing you to be well up sh*t creek without a paddle once you have to walk back to where you’re staying. Totally not ideal, especially when you’ve spent all day walking only to have to walk all the way back to camp or your hotel!

If you’re visiting Zion in December or January, the only way to get around is by your own car because the shuttles do not run, so parking is a free-for-all. Winter is less busy, but it’s not desolate, so waking up early is highly recommended so you can grab a parking spot!

Tips for Using Zion’s Shuttle System

One of my biggest tips for traveling Zion efficiently is knowing how to navigate the shuttle system. There are two separate shuttles that maneuver in and around Zion National Park.

The first loop goes through Springdale and makes nine different stops. This is the shuttle for you if you’re staying at the hotels, Airbnbs, or the campgrounds around Springdale. Board this shuttle at any of these stops to get to the Zion National Park Visitor’s Center:

Once you’re inside the park, the second shuttle loop goes through eight popular stops throughout the park (listed below). You don’t have to worry about missing any stops since the bus driver will tell you when to get off for what you want to do.

  • Zion Human History Museum
  • Canyon Junction
  • Court of the Patriarchs
  • Zion Lodge
  • The Grotto
  • Weeping Rock
  • Big Bend
  • Temple of Sinawava

If you’re unsure of what to do, when you get to the shuttle stop look for a paper schedule for the shuttle and it’ll help you find your way. Trust me, it’s way less stressful than it seems!

Temporary Changes To Zion’s Shuttle Service

While the Zion Shuttle Service is normally free for visitors, as of this post (Feb 2021) new guidelines have been put in place temporarily. Now to ride the shuttle in Zion, you need to buy a shuttle ticket in advance. The tickets are only $1, but you still need to purchase a ticket even if you paid the entrance fee to the park.

These tickets are only good for one day, so if you plan on exploring the park for longer, you’ll need additional shuttle tickets for each day. There are tons of information and frequently asked questions on the NPS’s website if you have specific questions about the changes.

Tickets are released on a rolling basis and generally open up a month before your arrival. They do have one-day-in-advance tickets available that are released at 9 am MDT (e.g. July 1st for July 2nd, and so on). The maximum tickets you can have per day, per recreation.gov account is eight, and everyone in your party should have their own ticket. Read more of the ticket logistics here

Oh, and one more thing: you’ll need to book your shuttle tickets WAY in advance. You almost want to be obnoxious about how early you book, like 6+ months out. I mean, consider the fact that the Zion Lodge is booked up a year in advance most of the time – plan WAY ahead!

View of the Virgin River snaking through Zion Canyon from above.
Does this picture of the Virgin River winding through Zion Canyon at sunset fill you with a deep, guttural longing? Or just me?

Things To Know Before Visiting Zion National Park

Here’s everything you need to know when planning your Zion National Park itinerary.

  • Arrive early to avoid long waits.

Zion is one of the most beloved and popular National Parks. So, no matter which way you’re coming from and which entrance you’ll be accessing, you want to enter the park WELL BEFORE 9 am, otherwise you’ll be waiting for ages to get inside the park!

  • Make a plan for the heat.

When visiting Zion in the summer, the most unforgiving part – other than some of the more palm-sweat-inducing hikes – is the brutal heat, and I mean BRUTAL. Coming from Texas, I thought that handling a couple of extra degrees would be a cakewalk, but BOY was I seriously confused upon my arrival.

If you’re visiting in the summer months, avoiding the midday heat is crucial. Like the shuttle service, this is also a blessing in disguise since midday is the most popular time of day for travelers to explore the park. How they didn’t get the heat memo, I will never know, but aim to be up early, head back to the hotel by midday for a siesta, and then go out again later in the evening so that you can stay safe and hydrated – and avoid feeling like a sardine in a frying pan.

In any case, bring plenty of water in insulated steel bottles to stay cool. You’ll need it!

  • The neighboring town of Springdale is full of amenities and supplies.

The desert is, well, deserted most of the time, but I was shocked at just how many of life’s small luxuries were in Springdale. It has quaint coffee shops, health food stores, restaurants galore, and anything you need during your trip. 

A lot of people prepare for a road trip by buying all their food and supplies with the anticipation of not having access to them along the way, but you don’t need to! Springdale is rich with anything you’ll need to stock or re-stock on your trip.

However, with the exclusivity of Springdale being in the heart of the desert, prices tend to jump in this area since it is both touristy and one of the only established towns in the area. Try to pack most of the food, fire, or hiking items you need ahead of time, especially if you’re traveling on a budget.

  • Plan your hikes ahead of time

While a lot of day hikes in Zion National Park are on the top of everyone’s list to conquer before they leave, rockfall and other natural disasters (like flash floods, which are no joke in the desert) can cause immediate closure of trails, so it’s important to stay updated on trail conditions! Check the National Park Service’s Hiking in Zion page for closures and conditions before you head out each morning.

Fantastic alternatives to more popular hiking trails that may be closed are the Narrows hike (one of my personal favorites), Observation Point via the East Mesa Trailhead, The Subway (permit required), Canyon Overlook, and if you’re really up for an adventure, the West Rim Trail is an EXCELLENT selection!

  • Pack your own lunch or dine-in in Springdale.

There is only one place in the entire park to grab some grub and that is the Red Rock Grill inside the Zion Lodge. As you can imagine, the place is an absolute zoo during mealtimes. And while the food is great, people flock here and there are usually long lines, so I recommend packing your own lunch (you can’t go wrong with the top tier option, the classic PB&J), or hopping back on the shuttle for lunch in Springdale.

I have two suggestions for places to eat in Springdale. Cafe Soleil is a privately owned cafe that has off-the-chain oat milk lattes and a variety of brunch-type dishes. The savory tofu scramble topped with melty vegan cheese or their smoked ham and swiss panini are A+ selections on this menu *drools*. While you dine, you can view art pieces by local artists and consider a great souvenir to take home, all while supporting the local community in Springdale.

If you find yourself a bit west of Springdale in the city of Hurricane, be sure to check out Lonny Boy’s BBQ, which people have claimed is hands-down the best BBQ they’ve ever had! The sampler plate meal will give you the best of everything, including slow-smoked pulled pork, hickory-smoked Angus beef brisket, pulled chicken, and rack ribs … so basically, the ideal post-hike refuel spot. Yum!

If you’re planning to visit multiple parks during your trip – like more of Utah’s Mighty Five – we recommend picking up an America is Beautiful National Parks Pass. The pass is valid at over 2,000 National Parks and 10% of the sale proceeds are donated to the National Park Foundation, helping to keep our parks beautiful!

Romantic chic glamping A-Frame AirBnb in Hildale, Utah. It comes with the most spectacular view and a unique convertible door that gives you the opportunity to connect with nature.
A romantic, chic glamping A-Frame Airbnb in Hildale, Utah. It comes with the most spectacular view and a unique convertible door that gives you the opportunity to connect with nature. Photo courtesy of Airbnb.

Where to Stay at Zion National Park

The great thing about staying in or near Zion is that no matter where you pick, the natural scenery is absolutely gorgeous. Staying inside Zion National Park will keep you closer to the action, while staying outside the park will give you a bit more space and some new areas of Utah to explore. I’ve included a few suggestions for both. 

Staying in Zion National Park Proper

These spots have the massive plus of being inside the park and in close proximity to the shuttles, so you can be one of the first at the shuttle stops each morning and still have time for your morning cup o’ joe! That said, keep in mind the lodge and the campgrounds have gnarly competition to snag a reservation, especially if you are looking for dates in the summertime or around holidays.

For this reason, if you’re looking to stay centrally in any of these locations, I would start looking at reservations at least six months in advance.

  • Zion Lodge: The Zion Lodge is the only lodge inside the national park, and it gives you all the advantages of staying in beautiful surroundings without having to rough it. The lodge itself is rustic and not as grand as lodges in other National Parks; rather, it seems to blend in with the rust-colored sandstone mountains and let nature do the talking. This is also where the Red Rock Grill is located so you will always have a hot meal at your fingertips!
  • Watchman Campground: The Watchman is nestled underneath the Watchman Rock Formation, an imposing 6,545-foot sandstone mountain, one of the most photographed features in Zion! Plus, the Virgin River flows nearby, so during the summer months you can slip your swimsuit on and cool off! You’ll be walking distance from the Visitor Center, making it easy to grab one of those first shuttles into the park. The Watchman is open year-round, has electric hooks ups, and is very savvy on utilizing space, so the campsites are laid out similar to a suburban neighborhood meaning your fellow campers are pretty close. The campground is dog friendly and has access to the Pa’rus Trail, a paved trail that runs alongside the river – and the only trail in the park that allows dogs. The only downside to this campsite is that there are no showers, so you’ll have to clean up somewhere in Springdale!
  • South Campground: The South Campground is similar in layout and amenities to the Watchman, but with fewer frills – there’s no electricity here). But you will still have easy access to the Virgin River, Visitor’s Center, shuttle pick-up, and restrooms! The South Campground doesn’t take reservations, so snagging a site here can be much easier than trying for a reservation at the Watchman. Since this site doesn’t take reservations, it’s on a first-come first served basis, so make sure you get here really early to secure a spot!

Places to Stay Near Zion National Park

You don’t have to stay inside Zion National Park itself: there are many unique places to stay just outside the park in Springdale that are just as special! If you’re willing to get up a little earlier to venture into the park, these places to stay near Zion will reward you with space from the crowds and some good old-fashioned charm. 

  • Under The Eaves Inn: This historic, 1930s cottage home in Springdale is perfect if you love quaint spots away from crowds, but still like to be close to the action. All of the rooms in this home are unique since the home was for original settlers and wasn’t built to be an inn, so you experience a small slice of what life was like in the 30s and feel like you’re in a fairytale all at the same time! Plus, you’ll only be a mile away from the Zion Visitor’s Center. 
  • Canyon Vista B&B: This place looks like it belongs in the old mining town set at Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain. Located in Springdale, Zion NP surrounds the property on three sides and comes equipped with a hot tub, organic fruit trees, riverside patio, fire pit, and a free breakfast from Oscar’s Cafe or Porter’s Smoke House and Grill. There is also a kitchenette where you can whip up tasty snacks and picnic food for your day hikes!
  • Angels Landing A-Frame Cabin: On the off chance that you don’t mind staying a small ways south of Springdale in Hilldale, Utah, the Angels Landing A-Frame Cabin is the perfect Pacific Northwestern getaway in the heart of the American Southwest. This adorable, tiny A-frame house has a seamless indoor-outdoor space and spectacular views of the sandstone mountains! If you want a romantic space to get away from crowds and don’t mind the extra driving distance to get to the park, this is the place to shack up.
Close up of man wearing mountain boots and landscape of mountains in Zion National Park.

The Best Things To Do In Zion National Park

I remember experiencing my first sunset over Zion Canyon while hiking the Observation Point Trail. The only word I could formulate to say was “wow”. The desert ecosystem, filling the canyon turns into a kaleidoscope of colors for golden hour. The pines at the top of the canyon are illuminated by golden rays while the canyon floor melts into a painting of blue, purple, orange, and yellow hues.

This breathtaking view is still my favorite memory I have of exploring Zion National Park – despite a gnarly bloody nose that I got once I arrived at the top. There is nothing more epic than gazing at one of the most beautiful views in the American Southwest with tissues stuffed up your nostrils!

These nine adventurous Zion National Park activities will help you plan your trip to one of the USA’s most jaw-dropping natural spectacles – no tissues required (hopefully).

Hike Zion’s Best Trails

The absolute BEST thing to do in Zion National Park is to go on a hike! The trails in Zion are some of the best in the WORLD, no question, so you must get out and take a scenic hike. (Editor’s Note: we’ve got a guide to the best day hikes in Zion!)

One of the reasons why Zion is so universally loved is that you can get amazing views on multiple trails with varying levels of difficulty, so that everyone has access to the beauty of the park – not just those that sweat their way up to Angels Landing!

While the most popular trails require some serious grit and day hiking essentials to get to the best views, there are many alternative trails in the park that don’t require a serious sweat sesh to get to memorable views. This combination makes Zion an excellent place to visit no matter your activity level. 

The East Mesa Trail to East Rim Trail is 4.4 miles out-and-back and is a very leisurely stroll to the lookout point. Observation Point encompasses all the amazing things about Angels Landing, but the hike is much easier and the view is higher in elevation and even more stunning!

While the popular route to Observation Point can be just as difficult as Angels Landing (and is not always open due to rockfall anyway), you can take what the local’s call “the old man’s way” to get to this view. Once you get to Observation Point, you will be rewarded with a panoramic view of the canyon, including Angels Landing which is several thousand feet below.

This is probably the best way to get a bird’s eye view of the canyon without sending your heart rate spiking on Angels Landing Trail. This is also an excellent hike to do at sunset because you can experience dreamy, orange hues over Zion Canyon, and still get back to the trailhead safely.

The hike is a grueling 5.4 mile out-and-back trail and is considered to be one of the most dangerous hikes in the United States, but if you can stomach it the view at the top is both shocking and rewarding.

Angels Landing got its name back in 1916 when a Methodist preacher passing through the canyon commented that the giant sandstone cliff was so high that only an angel could land on top of it. It wasn’t, like, a challenge, but here we are a century later and bagging that peak is a coveted achievement on any hiker’s bucket list.

What makes this hike so intense? Well, in order to reach the expansive view over Zion Canyon, you must first scale a razor-thin rock ledge with a 1200-foot drop on both sides using only determination, grit, and the aid of some metal chains hammered into sandstone. Fun, right?

While Angels Landing isn’t for the faint of heart, overcoming this epic feat grants you “I conquered Angels Landing” bragging rights and you’ll arrive back at the trailhead of the hike with a double fist to the air!

The Virgin River carving its way through The Narrows at Zion National Park, Utah.
The Virgin River carving its way through The Narrows at Zion National Park, Utah. You can hike The Narrows as a day hike or an overnight backpacking trip!

Some say that if Angels Landing is the heart of Zion, then the Narrows is the soul. Aptly named, the Narrows hike goes through the ‘narrowest’ part of Zion Canyon. The hike itself is down the Virgin River, and walking through the canyon carved out by thousands of years of water flow will guide you past iconic spots like Wall Street, where you can experience thousand-foot rock walls surrounding you on one of the most scenic hikes in the world!

The best part about this trail is that since it’s along the river, you can hike into the canyon as far as you’d like, then turn around when you’re ready to go back.

  • Very Important Tip: Before you head out, make sure you rent the proper Narrows hiking gear from Zion Guru. Since you will be walking down this shallow river you will need boots, neoprene socks, and a walking stick to help you navigate through the canyon with ease. 

Although these three hikes listed below are considered to be the “Holy Trinity” in Zion National Park, there are plenty of other hiking trails with equally incredible views that aren’t so strenuous. Some Zion cult favorites are the West Rim Trail, Weeping Rock, The Subway, Upper Emerald Pools, and the Watchman Trail

Bright blue pools and carved rock faces in the Subway Hike in Zion National Park.
The Subway hike is so named because at one point, you’ll be hiking through a circular tunnel that looks eerily like a subway tube. But take note: to do this popular Zion day hike, you’ll need to acquire a permit well in advance! Photo Credit

Take An EPIC Backpacking Trip

Quite possibly one of the most underrated things to do in Zion National Park is backcountry camping. ‘Backpacking’ or ‘backcountry camping’ means that you pack everything you need for camping and basic survival into a backpack and carry it into the wilderness for a day, few days, or weeks with no amenities; just you and mother nature! 

  • Safety Tips: this probably goes without saying, but please don’t attempt a backcountry trip in Zion National Park without first doing plenty of research and preparation. Doing so puts not only yourself at risk, but also the environment as well as the Rangers who will ultimately have to bail you out if you get in over your head.

That said, if you’re up for it, backpacking is one of the best ways to experience the stillness of Zion Canyon that is often masked by the masses of people that flock here.

  • The Narrows (Top-to-Bottom Route): This 16-mile longer route through the Narrows begins at the top rather than at the bottom from the Temple of Sinawava, the massive red rock amphitheater that “unofficially” marks the entrance to the Zion Narrows. The top-to-bottom route is so favorable because you’ll have the entire trail to yourself until you get to the bottom quarter of the trail. This portion of the hike is one of the most secluded trails in Zion National Park! If you do choose to tackle this trail, you can complete it in a full day, 10-13 hours, or divide it between two using backpacking gear, 12-18 hours. My favorite feature of this trail is arriving at Wall Street, the narrowest part of Zion Canyon, and arguably the most beautiful! Walk between canyon walls that tower hundreds of feet and search for Veiled Falls, Floating Rock, Alcoves, Mystery Falls, and the Gateway to the Narrows! This overnight trail does require a small amount of in-advance planning since snatching a permit can get competitive.
  • The West Rim Trail: This 17-mile trail can be done in either a day or a two day backpacking trip through the length of Zion National Park. The best to conquer this trail is going from the top down starting at Lava Point. The trail begins in the upper plateau of Zion canyon and transforms into an epic adventure into the main canyon. Most travelers that visit don’t get to see the juxtaposition of the upper canyon with its expansive views and lush tree line against the cozy, orange depths of the lower canyon, so this makes for scenic and remarkable adventure!
  • La Verkin Creek Trail: If you want a shorter, more comfortable backpacking experience, the La Verkin Creek Trail is an optimal route for beginner backpackers. This 11-mile, two-day route has designated campsites and two main detours among golden grass, canyon views, juniper trees, pines, and the main creek that you can take to see the second-largest free-standing arch in the world, Kolob Arch, and a stunning red rock canyon carved by a river, Bear Trap Canyon. Bear Trap can be viewed as a mini Zion Narrows experience since you’ll be able to take a dip and see a small waterfall in this slot canyon. 

Note that these types of trips require wilderness permits that are easily obtained online either through a reservation or a lottery system. Also, if you are making a backcountry camping trip, please abide by the Leave No Trace Principles to keep nature pristine for everyone. A few more important resources that will help: Backpacking Information, Water Sources, Backpacking Safety, and Trail Descriptions & Photos.

Bike the Pa’rus Trail

The Pa’rus Trail, which is Paiute for “bubbling river”, is a paved 1.7 mile path that follows the Virgin River, beginning at the South Campground and ending at Canyon Junction, just before the Zion Scenic Drive Road. Along this trail you’ll traverse many bridges, likely see many cute little mule deer grazing, and see the tunnel view of the canyon on the valley floor! 

The paved trail is dog-friendly, wheelchair accessible, and a great place to go on a bike ride! Going for a bike ride is a great way to give your feet a break from hiking and to feel a nice breeze while flying past the towering red rock formations on both sides of Zion Canyon.

Avoid taking this trail midday since crowds will be plentiful and the heat will be in full bloom. The best time to go here is for sunset to see the last day’s glow hit the canyon walls, and you will certainly feel like you’re ‘summer-camping-trip-montage’ movie fantasy.

You can get a bike rental near Zion National Park at Zion Outfitter, only stone’s throw away from the South Campground and the trailhead for the Pa’rus Trail!

  • Zion Travel Tip: Between March through November when shuttles are the only vehicles allowed on the 32-mile Zion Scenic Drive, renting a bike allows you to enjoy a secluded, peaceful biking experience down one of the most famous roads in all of the US National Parks! The shuttles will not pass bikers unless they have one foot on the road, so it’s very safe.





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