Zion national park: The Ultimate Guide to Visiting

This blog was updated in December 2019 for accuracy and additional information on visiting Zion National Park.

I don’t like to pick favorites but if I had to pick my favorite National Park, Zion would be it. It truly is magical here and the energy I feel from the red rock mountains as I drive up into Zion valley fills my soul with gratitude to be alive and get to experience such a magical place.

…Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic.

Zion is a pretty rad (and easy) place to visit. The main part is relatively small, which means you can see most of Zion in just a day. However, the backcountry of Zion is quite large and you could easily spend weeks here hiking all the trails.

Zion sits adjacent to the town of Springdale, which means you are never far from food, drinks, and comfy bed. Besides a plethora of options when it comes to hotels in Springdale, the town also has a full service campground and right inside the entrance to Zion are two campgrounds with some pretty gorgeous views of the red-striated mountains that make Zion so unique.

Compared to many of the national parks, Zion is very easy to get around. Normally, there’s a free shuttle service in Springdale that can get you all around the town and drops you right at the entrance to Zion. You walk a hundred feet or so and you are inside the park where there is another free shuttle that gets you around the park. However, due to COVID, the shuttle isn’t running yet for summer of 2020, which means parking is going to be extremely limited in Zion.

One option, other than get up before sunrise to snag a parking spot early in the morning, is to bike to the trailheads. The Zion Scenic Drive opens at 6 am MDT and typically fills up within an hour. If you choose to bike, please ride single file on the right side of the road.

Where is Zion?

Zion is in the southwest corner of Utah, just an hour from St George and two and a half hours from Las Vegas.

Being surrounded by desert it’s hard to imagine that Zion could really be that gorgeous and I was skeptical the first time I arrived here. Even when I was in the town of Hurricane, a mere half hour from Zion, I remember thinking What is all the fuss about? It’s kinda dry and plain. I’m not really a big fan of the desert ecosystem but even if I was, I’d still be a bit disappointed.

It’s not really until you are in Springdale that you begin to see the towering red faced rocks that make Zion so spectacular and in my opinion, it’s not until you are standing on top of them say from Angels Landing or Observation Point that you know why Zion is so popular.

The Watchman, Zion National Park

It’s the contrast of the green valley broken up with the blue curvy lines of the Virgin River’s blue waters backed with the striations of white, pink, and orange hues on the rocks that create this picture perfect scenery, Zion.

Tips for Visiting Zion National Park

Cost to Visit Zion

Zion cost $20 per person or only $35 for everyone in your vehicle and that price covers your entrance to Zion for 7 consecutive days.

We always buy a National Parks Pass (officially called the Interagency Pass) which cost $80 per year.

It’s an incredible value because it gets you and your family into all the national parks for an entire year. You can purchase yours at the entrance or online. And if you are active military, you can get a free pass!

Driving Through Zion National Park

If you happen to be coming from or going to Zion from Bryce Canyon National Park or The Grand Canyon, your fastest route is through the Zion-Mount Carmel highway. This is a stunning drive, but requires driving through the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel which has size restrictions so if you are traveling by RV, you’ll want to know your vehicles dimensions.

Vehicles over 13 feet 1 inch tall, single vehicles over 40 feet long, or combined vehicles over 50 feet long. Note: bicycles and pedestrians are also not allowed through the tunnel.

If your vehicle is under these restrictions but larger than 7 feet 10 inches wide and/or 11 feet 4 inches tall or larger is required to have a tunnel permit. You can get a permit at the pay entrance. They are $15 and good for two trips through the tunnel within a week. Click here for more details.

Best Time To Go

Zion is open every day of the year!

The best time to visit is anytime outside of summer. Summer is terribly hot and the crowds are insane.

For maximum hiking and adventure, Spring and Fall are the best times to visit. The temperatures are more pleasant and the crowds thinner this time of year. September is specifically the best time for hiking especially those hikes like the Subway and the Narrows which involve hiking through river.

Winter is simply stunning but be warned that if you visit in the winter there’s a good chance you will encounter snow. This is what makes it so spectacularly beautiful however if you’re coming to hike, then winter is not the best time.

If you visit in the summer, be ready for temperatures in the 90’s and possibly over 100. From mid-July into September it’s monsoon season so you’ll want to use a bit more caution if you do any canyon hikes like the Narrows or the Subway.

Using the Shuttle System

Like I mentioned before, currently the shuttles are not running. Normally, there are free shuttles to get around both the town of Springdale and The National Park, each with their own shuttle system. In fact, most of Zion is only accessible through the shuttle system.

When the National Park shuttles are running, no private vehicles are allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

Fortunately, there are quite a few shuttles running so you rarely have to wait more than 10 minutes at any one stop.

If you happen to be in Zion on a crowded day, it’s definitely faster to park at the south end of Springdale early in the morning and just use the shuttles to get you everywhere you want to go.

Note that the shuttles are only seasonal, running mainly in the spring and summer. Check here for exact dates and here for the shuttle map.

Outside of these time contains, you can drive your vehicle on the entire Zion Canyon Scenic drive (all the way to the Temple of Sinawa).

Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava, Zion
Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava

Zion Visitor Center

Currently, all national park visitor centers are closed for 2020.

The visitor center is located right when you enter Zion National Park from the south entrance. It is also adjacent to both main campgrounds.

The Visitor Center is a central hub and a good place to start when getting your bearings of the park. You might want to pop into the visitor center and grab a junior ranger book or maps of the hikes if you didn’t get one when entering the pay station.

It’s not necessarily a must to stop in for information, though. I’ve done nearly all the the hikes in Zion so I hope to give you the best possible info on the Zion and its hikes.

Hiking Inside Zion National Park

Like I mentioned, we’ve done nearly all the hikes in Zion Canyon so we’ve tried our best to make this section as thorough as possible.

We’ve include a quick breakdown of the top hikes to help you know which ones you’ll want to do depending on the amount of time you have and your fitness level.

Most Epic Hikes in Zion

Angel’s Landing

Distance: 5.4 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 1,488 feet
Access Trailhead: Shuttle Stop #6 The Grotto
Difficulty: Strenuous

If you only have time for one hike, you have to do Angels Landing.

This hike has made it into so many “best hikes in the world” lists that you really should see for yourself how fabulous it is. It’s a steep climb and yes, you do have to hold chains for the final stretch of the hike, but I don’t think it’s that scary if you’re an adult.

Use common sense, don’t look down, and #braveforadventure.

Angel's Landing best day hikes in the world
Angel’s Landing is a must do hike in Zion but go early to avoid crowds.

Now if you’re hiking with toddlers, skip it. For most little kids, this is too much however for the experienced outdoor family, although it’s doable.

As for kids five and up, I really think it depends on how well your child listens to you, but if you’re worried, put them in a climbing harness and attach a sling from them to you.

Most important on this hike, It pays to do Angels Landing early. Like, be on the trail by first light kind of early. When it’s crowded you have to wait a long time for all the people who are freaking out holding the chains and it can take forever to shuffle past one another.

Observation Point

Distance: 8.0 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 2,148 ft feet
Access Trailhead: Shuttle Stop #7 Weeping Rock
Difficulty: Moderate/Strenuous

My second favorite hike in all of Zion is Observation Point.

The hike is 8 miles round trip and has even better views of Zion in my opinion than Angel’s Landing does.

observation point, living adventurous life
Views looking down on Zion National Park from Observation Point

It doesn’t require holding chains although there are a few sections with some exposure. It’s a very steep climb up so you’ll want to have plenty of water and wear layers.

Last time I hiked this it was springtime and it snowed on us.

Hidden Canyon

Distance: 2.5 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: 850 feet
Access Trailhead: Shuttle Stop #7 Weeping Rock
Difficulty: Easy/Moderate

If you want a shorter hike, try Hidden Canyon. This is highly recommended for families or for those short on time.

Zion National Park, Southwest Canyons Family Adventure Road Trip
Slot Canyons

You still have to hike up the steep switchbacks and it requires a few sections of chain holding, but the canyon is very unique and the initial views looking across Big Bend are breathtaking.

Hidden Canyon starts on the same trail as that of Observation Point however instead of continuing on a long uphill, the trail turns right and enters a condensed slot canyon filled with fun scrambling over boulders and trees.

The Subway

Distance: 9.5 miles for top-down (6.5 miles for bottom-up)
Elevation Change: 1,000 feet rappelled, 400 feet on foot
Access Trailhead: Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and/or Left Fork Trailhead
Difficulty: Strenuous to Very Strenuous

The Subway is without a doubt one of the greatest day hikes in the world…from the top-down that is.

There are 2 different variations to hiking the Subway and while the traditional lout and back hiking version is great, the point to point version with rappelling and canyoneering is far more memorable.

Words cannot explain how incredible this adventure is. The real challenge is snagging a permit to fo this one

I was a bit nervous to do the top-down Subway hike at first and was definitely worried about my kids getting hurt, us getting lost, or flash floods drowning us but if you go prepared, you really don’t have to worry. Click here to get the beta on how to hike The Subway and here for permit info.

The Narrows

Distance: 10 miles roundtrip
Elevation Change: Little to no change
Access Trailhead: Shuttle Stop #10 Temple of Sinawava
Difficulty: Strenuous

The Narrows is, like it sounds, a narrow slot canyon which involves hiking in the stream bed of the Virgin River.

There are a few key logistics involved in this hike.

First is that since you’re hiking in water, you’ll want good water shoes/sandals, at least in the spring and summer. In the winter and spring, the water is so cold that you’ll want neoprene socks, booties, and a drysuit, all of which can be rented from Zion Adventure Co in town.

Second, this trek can be done in summer, fall, and the best, winter but you do need to check to see how fast the river is flowing on the national park websit to make sure it’s safe.

Three, you don’t actually need a permit for this hike. If you hike it upstream from Temple of Sinawava, you can go as far as Big Spring without a permit. Going all the way to Big Spring is 10 miles round trip.

Click here for details on hiking The Narrows. There are guiding services also for hiking the Narrows and outfitters that can get you set up with waterproof gear so you stay warmer while you hike.

Other Noteworthy Hikes in Zion

Riverside Walk– A flat 2 mile roundtrip hike on a paved trail AKA the first mile of the Narrows Hike.

Weeping Rock– A very steep but short .4 mile roundtrip hike. Located at the start of Observation Point and Hidden Canyon.

The Grotto Trail– This flat 1 mile hike connects The Grotto picnic area with Zion Lodge.

Emerald Pools– A pretty flat 1.2 mile hike to the Lower Pools that you can add another mile and a little more elevation gain to if you want to go the Upper Pools.

Southwest National Parks Road Trip: Zion
Watchmen Trail

Watchman Trail– This hike is underrated. It’s a 3.3 mile hike to some really gorgeous views and is rarely crowded! Starts from Zion Visitor Center.

A One Day Itinerary

On a one day itinerary, you have 2 options.

You could take you time and do all of the little hikes, stopping halfway to have lunch or a picnic at the Zion Lodge. If you are visiting in the busy months of summer, get an early start and head north to south along the canyon, starting with Riverside Walk and finishing with Watchman in order to avoid some of the crowds.

If you’ve got your eye on the epic hikes, I hate to burst your bubble but you’ll have to pick and choose which 1-2 hikes you want to hit. The Subway and The Narrows are all day adventures.

If you’re not doing the Subway or the Narrows, you could easily finish Angel’s Landing by noon and combine Observation Point with Hidden Canyon and be done by dinnertime.

Where to Stay in Zion N.P.

Camping in Zion

Personally, I think staying inside any of the national parks is the absolute best way to experience them. If you feel up to being outdoorsy, there are two campgrounds inside the park.

South Campground, which allows tents and RVs but doesn’t have hook ups or Watchman Campground which allows tents and RVs and has electricity in site.

If you want to camp inside Zion at Watchman or South Campground, you can reserve your campsite here.

Hotels + Lodges

If camping isn’t your thing, the absolute best place to stay in the heart of Zion NP at Zion Lodge.

However, this is one of the few national parks that is equally as beautiful to stay just outside the park. Like I mentioned earlier, Springdale is super close to the entrance and the shuttle system makes it easy to get in and out of the park quickly. Zion is also one of the few national parks where you still feel connected to the beauty of the area while in town.

I’d still choose a hotel that is closest to the entrance like Cable Mountain Lodge or Flanigan’s Inn so you don’t waste too much time riding the shuttle.

Or search booking.com below for hotels in Springdale.


Where To Eat + Drink in Springdale

After a fun day of adventuring, we love to head over to Zion Pizza & Noodle Co for pizza and a pint.

For a good cup of joe and a nice atmosphere, we love Deep Creek Coffee Co or for more of a sit-down brunch kind of place, head to MeMe’s Cafe.

I hope I’ve inspired you to check out Zion. I don’t know how anyone could visit here and not fall in love with this place.

Remember, you have to get into the valley and hike some trails. Just going to the Visitor Center or even just riding the shuttle won’t do it justice.

We’d love to hear what you think of Zion, tell us what you love about Zion in the comments.

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