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Ultimate Guide to Zion National Park

This blog was updated in February 2023 for accuracy and additional information on visiting Zion National Park.

Zion is one of our favorite National Parks in America (runner up to our #1 favorite, Glacier NP)! Zion is deserving of its popularity! It caters to both first-time national park visitors and experienced adventurers. In this blog, we’ll cover a first-timers guide to Zion National Park, the best hikes for beginners as well as adrenaline addicts, and 2022 updates on shuttles and visitor centers.

Zion National Park is truly magical! There’s an energy force here that will completely mesmerize you and fills my soul with gratitude every time I enter the narrow Zion valley and become immersed in the towering red rock faces.

Even if you don’t have time to explore the many trails in Zion National Park, just driving to the Temple of Sinawava is worth the hour’s detour.

Zion is also an easy place to visit. The main canyon 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 National Park has something for everyone!

Zion beginners will love just exploring the valley floor. Hikers can’t miss the best hike in Zion, Angel’s Landing, and adventurers will love The Subway!

Zion sits adjacent to the town of Springdale, which means you are never far from food, drinks, and a 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. There’s a free shuttle service in Springdale that can get you all around the town and drop 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.

Update: As of Fall 2021, you do not need a reservation to use the shuttle! You do still have to wear a mask on the shuttle though. Click here to jump to an update on current shuttle info.

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.

Related: Ultimate Guide to Bryce Canyon NP

Beginners Tips for Visiting Zion National Park

Cost to Visit Zion

Zion costs $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 or a senior, 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 vehicle’s 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 are 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 the river.

Winter is simply stunning! It’s not likely you will encounter snow but it is a possibility if you time it with a storm. Snow is what makes it so spectacular and there are also many other pros of visiting in winter like fewer crowds!

If you’re prepared to wait out the weather, winter might be the best time to visit!

Related: Reasons to Visit Zion in the Winter

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

From mid-March to November, plus a few weekends in the winter, there are free shuttles to get around. Two lines run: The Springdale Line and the Zion Canyon Line. Most of Zion is only accessible through the shuttle system.

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

Fortunately, quite a few shuttles are running so you typically you wouldn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes at any one stop.

Pro tip: If you’re in Zion on a crowded day, it’s 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.

Do I Need Shuttle Reservations?

You no longer need a reservation to ride the shuttle. The shuttle operates on a first-come first-serve basis.

When Do Shuttles Run?

Note that the shuttles are only seasonal, typically running from March to November. Generally, they also run the last weekend of December plus weekends in February and March. Check here for exact dates & winter hours 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 Sinawava).

How Do I Ride the Zion Shuttle?

The Zion Canyon Line starts at Zion Canyon Visitor Center and hits 7 other stops on the way to the Temple of Sinawava. At the Temple, the bus drops off & picks up passengers then returns via the same route. For planning purposes, it takes 45 minutes to ride from the Visitor Center to Sinwava.

Every Zion Canyon shuttle stops at every location. One exception is buses only stop at Big Bend when heading south (out of the canyon).

The Springdale shuttle is almost identical with 9 stops and buses that pick up every 10-15 min. This bus only stops where passengers are waiting to help the bus move promptly. You’ll need to request a stop with the driver if you want to get out before the visitors center.

Important note: Between 9 AM and 1:30 PM, the Springdale Line will only pick up southbound passengers at the Visitor Center. This doesn’t apply to northbound travelers.

Shuttle stops are marked in green.
Spring, Summer, Fall Shuttle Hours:
  • The Town of Springdale shuttle runs every day between 8 AM and 8 PM.
  • First bus (on the Zion Canyon Line) leaves the Zion Visitor Center every day at 7 AM
  • Last bus (on the Zion Canyon Line) departs from the Temple of Sinawava every day at 7:15 PM
Winter Shuttle Hours:

In the winter, only the Zion Canyon Line runs.

  • The first bus departs from the visitor center at 8:00 AM
  • The last bus leaves the Temple of Sinawava at 5:45 PM.

You mustn’t miss the last shuttle out of the canyon. If you miss the last bus, the only option is to walk the entire 8-mile road in the dark back to the Visitor Center. About 2 miles back, you’ll reach the Zion Lodge where you can call for a paid shuttle if need be.

Where Can I Park to Ride the Shuttle?

Finding parking is the biggest challenge when riding the shuttle. It’s easiest when you can get parking at the Visitor Center. During the busy season of July and August, aim to arrive before 8 am to get parking here.

If parking is full at the visitor center, there are plenty of parking lots in Springdale, however many of them are paid so look for street signs. Keep in mind that the Springdale Line doesn’t start running until 8 am while the Zion Line starts at 7 am.

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

Zion Visitor Center

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 on the park. You might want to pop into the visitor center and grab a junior ranger book or hiking map if you didn’t get one when entering the pay station.

It’s not necessarily a must to stop in for information, though. This blog covers everything beginners need to know 😉

Related blog: Best Must-Visit Campgrounds in Utah

Hiking Inside Zion National Park

We’ve done nearly all the hikes in Zion Canyon as well as in nearby Kolob Canyon. Here’s a quick breakdown of the top hikes. You can also click here and read our full blog on the top 12 hikes in Zion.

If you’re visiting Zion, we highly recommend you also check out these 12 awesome hikes nearby in St George.

Most Epic Hikes in Zion

Angel’s Landing

Views from the best hike in Zion, Angels Landing
Views from the summit of the best hike in Zion National Park

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

If you only have time for one hike, you have to do Angels Landing…unless you are terrified of heights and even still, you can make it to the first viewpoint and turn around there.

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 mile of the hike, but it’s really only scary if you have a fear of heights.

We’ve hiked Angel’s Landing in the winter and in the summer and my conclusion is to push yourself and go for it.

It’s not as bad as it seems and it’s only scary when you look down. Truly, it would be VERY VERY difficult to fall off the cliff edge.

Important! Just updated for 2023. You are now required to obtain a permit through to hike Angel’s Landing.

For younger kids, it might be too challenging, but for outdoorsy families with experience, it’s manageable.

For children aged five and above, it varies based on their listening skills; consider using a climbing harness and sling for added safety.

Starting Angel’s Landing early is advantageous (aim for first light), yet starting later (around noon) in winter resulted in fewer crowds during our experience.

During peak times, delays occur due to people being nervous about the chains, causing slower movement and longer waits for passage.

Observation Point

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

Currently, as of March 2021, this trail is closed. There is an alternative way to hike this which you can read about on our Best Hikes in Zion blog .

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.

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.

Hidden Canyon Overlook Trail

Distance: 1 mile roundtrip
Elevation Change: 400 feet
Access Trailhead: Canyon Overlook Trailhead (accessed by car only)
Difficulty: Easy

The Canyon Overlook trail in Zion is the most bang-for-your-buck hiking trail in Zion for beginners! I didn’t even know this trail existed for the first 3 visits to Zion but it turned out to be one of the most stunning.

Due to how easy it is, it can become crowded in the summer. It is a great choice to do during the wintertime.

The Subway

Related Blog: How to Hike The Subway Top Down.

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.

While the traditional out-and-back hike to the Subway is fantastic, the point-to-point option involving rappelling and canyoneering creates a far more unforgettable experience.

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 worried about my kids getting hurt, us getting lost, or flash floods drowning us but if you go prepared, you don’t have to worry.

The Narrows

Zion Narrows Hike
Hikers wading through the Virgin River in the Zion Narrows with drysuits in March

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 that 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 the 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 Outfitters in town.

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

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

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

Kolob Canyon

There’s a whole other side of Zion National Park that most people don’t know about Kolob Canyon. Kolob Canyon is the western border of Zion’s park boundary and it’s accessed off of Highway 15, a half hour north of Hurricane, Utah.

Kolob Canyon isn’t quite as spectacular as the main canyon but it’s far more secluded and less crowded. For info on all the best hikes in Kolob Canyon, check out this blog.

Related: Best Sport Climbing in St George

A One Day Itinerary

On a one-day itinerary, you have 2 options.

You could take your 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 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

Camping in Zion is such a magical experience, it’s no surprise that Watchman Campground made our list of the Top Campgrounds in Utah.

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 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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Saturday 4th of May 2019

Great, detailed post. I hope to visit one day!

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