Zion national park: The Ultimate Guide to Visiting

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. But 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. For part of the year 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.

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. 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.

Zion National Park, Southwest Canyons Family Adventure Road Trip
Observation Point, Zion National Park

Driving Restrictions For Large Vehicles

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

Luckily, Zion is open every day of the year. The best times though to visit would be Spring and Fall when the temperatures are more pleasant and the crowds thinner. If you visit in the winter there’s a good chance you will encounter snow and if you visit in the summer, be ready for temperatures in the 90’s and possibly over 100. From mid-July into September is monsoon season so you’ll want to use a bit more caution if you do any canyon hikes like the Narrows or the Subway, two hikes Zion is famous for.

For the best experience

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 which allows tents and RVs and has electricity in site. If you want to be right in the vortex of energy, stay at the Zion lodge.

Shuttles

Like I mentioned before, there are free shuttles to get you around Springdale and once you get inside the park there is a separate free shuttle service that gets you to all the spots in Zion. In fact, most of Zion is only accessible through the shuttle system. If you happen to be there on a crowded delay, 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.

The shuttles are only seasonal though, mainly spring and summer. Check here for exact dates and here for the shuttle map. When the shuttle is running no private vehicles are allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. There are quite a few shuttles running so you rarely have to wait more than 10 minutes at any one stop.

Visitor Center

The visitor center is right when you enter Zion and also adjacent to both campgrounds. It’s the central hub and a good place to start when getting your bearings. 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. I’ve done most of the hikes there so I’ll give you a breakdown of which ones you’ll want to do depending on how much time you have and your fitness level.

Hiking Inside Zion National Park

Angel’s Landing

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

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.

If you only have time for one hike, you have to do Angels Landing. It’s made it in 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 brave for adventure. Now if you’re hiking with toddlers, skip it. It’s too much for little kids although I know some people do it. 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.

It really pays to do angels landing early, like be on the trail by first light. 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

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

My second favorite hike was to Observation Point. This one 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. 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

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

If you want a little shorter hike do Hidden Canyon. This was a great hike for my then 6 and 8 year old. 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 views looking across Zion valley are breathtaking.

A One Day Itinerary

It would be a lot to hike all three of the above hikes in one day. That’s not to say I wouldn’t try. You could easily finish Angel’s Landing by noon and combine Observation Point with Hidden Canyon and be done by dinnertime.

If you have more time or just want the easier tour of Zion here’s the hikes I’d recommend.

You could easily squeeze all four of these into one day, 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 do these starting with Riverside Walk and finishing with Watchman in order to avoid some of the crowds. However, if you are worried about getting too tired to be able to do Watchman Trail, then start with that before heading to Temple of Sinawava to hike the Riverside Walk.

Riverside Walk– A flat 2 mile roundtrip hike on a paved trail.

Weeping Rock– A very steep but short .4 mile roundtrip hike

The Grotto Trail– This flat 1 mile hike connects the Grotto 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 really gorgeous views and is rarely crowded!

Southwest National Parks Road Trip: Zion
Watchmen Trail

Best Hikes in Zion

Now I didn’t cover the two most epic hikes here: The Subway and The Narrows. It’s crazy but I still haven’t made time to go hike the Narrows yet. Honestly, I’m afraid it won’t wow me enough but I’m hoping I’m wrong.

The Narrows

The narrows is a canyon hike requiring you to hike in the stream bed so you’ll want good shoes that you don’t mind soaking and you want to time it right so the water isn’t ice cold or not get caught in a flash flood. You don’t need a permit to hike the narrows if you hike it upstream from Temple of Sinawava. From here you can hike just part of the canyon or as far as Big Spring, which 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.

The Subway

As for the subway, if you can grab a permit, do it. This hike is so so so incredible. One of the best hikes of my life. I was a bit nervous to do it and 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.

Best Hikes in the World- The Subway

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 visior center or even just riding the shuttle won’t do it justice.

Accommodations

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

If camping isn’t your thing, the absolute best place to stay in the heart of Zion NP at the Zion Lodge. However, this is one national park that I’d say is still nice to stay just outside the park because Springdale is so close to the entrance and the shuttle system makes it easy to get in and out of the park quickly. It’s 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.

Booking.com

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. 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!

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

Where To Eat + Drink in Springdale

After a fun day of adventuring, we love to head over to Zion Pizza & Noodle Co. Remember though, you’re in Utah, so if you want a good beer (meaning one over 4% ABV) you’ll want to order it by the bottle and not on draft.

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