Zion National Park Travel Guide

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Zion National Park Travel Guide

Perennially popular Zion National Park – in the southwest corner of Utah – has seen record-breaking numbers of visitors in the past several years. It’s with good reason, as you’ll see during your own Zion adventure. From Zion Canyon to the Virgin River to Angels Landing, the park is astounding in all its natural glory. Read on for answers to all your questions about Zion National Park.
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Where Is Zion National Park?
Zion National Park is in southwestern Utah near the city of Springdale. It is 160 miles from Las Vegas, 308 miles from Salt Lake City, 72 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park and 41 miles from St. George. If you’re flying to Zion, you have four options for airports, depending on how far you want to drive. These include McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas (three-hour drive to park), the St. George Regional Airport (one-hour drive to park), Salt Lake City International Airport (four-hour drive to park) or Cedar City Regional Airport (one-hour drive to park).
Where Do I Stay When Visiting Zion National Park?
The best option for lodging for your Zion National Park vacation is Springdale. It’s close to the park and offers something for every budget. If you don’t mind driving a bit farther, consider accommodations in Mount Carmel, Kanab and St. George. Or, stay in the park itself at the Zion Lodge.
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When Is the Best Time to Visit Zion National Park and How Can I Avoid the Crowds?
The high season (read: crowded) in Zion is March to October. There will be long lines to get into the parking lots, so you’ll want to plan for early-morning departures if you have a particular destination or hike in mind. (There is free shuttle service from Springdale that helps you avoid the parking issue.) Consider biking to the park as another option to driving. For a quieter visit to Zion National Park, consider visiting between November and February. It’s colder, so you’ll want to pack accordingly, but it’s still just as beautiful.
 
If you want to get specific, let’s break it down by the seasons in Zion National Park. Springtime – March, April and May – is gorgeous, but you’ll experience both warm, sunny weather and sudden rainstorms. The temperature swings can be up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit between noon and midnight. Summer time is hot, regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Expect monsoon weather between July and September, including thunderstorms and heavy rain. Fall is gorgeous – if you can, time your trip for October and November, the best months to visit Zion National Park. Monsoon season is over and the temperatures are falling. Winter in Zion is cold and wet – but beautiful. This all being said, whenever you visit, pack clothing for a variety of weather conditions and plan on layering.
How to Visit Zion National Park
Start off any trip to Zion National Park with a stop at the visitor center. Get your bearings, talk to park rangers, check out the bookstore, grab some maps and then head farther into the park to explore. Don’t miss the Zion park museum, a half-mile north of the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at the South Entrance. There are interesting displays and a video that educate visitors on the history of the park.
 
So, how many days do you need in Zion National Park? Plan on at least two or three days. This will give you time to hike the most popular trails, like Angels Landing and the Narrows, and tack on some shorter, easier ones as well, such as Riverside Walk and Canyon Overlook.
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What’s the Best Way to See Zion National Park?
By car. However, remember that with the park’s rising popularity, parking becomes increasingly scarce, so consider arriving very early in the day or taking the shuttle. The Springdale-Zion shuttle is free and drops you at the pedestrian/bike park entrance. However, you still have farther to go to get into the heart of Zion. This is where the in-park shuttle buses come into play. The Zion shuttle buses run from the visitors center up Zion Scenic Drive to Zion Lodge, many of the trailheads (including Emerald Pools, West Rim Trail and Temple of Sinawava, the departure point for the Narrows). Reserve spots on this shuttle bus network in advance online.
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How Long Is Zion Scenic Drive?
Highway 9 from I-15 to Mt. Carmel Junction is considered the “Zion Scenic Drive.” It’s 54 miles long and you’ll want to plan on 1.5 hours to cover the entire distance. Drive it yourself or catch the free shuttle bus for the portion that runs through the park. This major access road winds its way past the park visitor center, the museum, through Zion Canyon, through the park’s mile-long tunnel, through the Checkerboard Mesa and on to Mt. Carmel Junction. Along the way, you’ll parallel the Virgin River in spots and cut through Hurricane, Virgin, Rockville and Springdale (before entering the park). Look out for bighorn ship along the way. Be sure to stop at Grafton ghost town, near the town of Rockville – there’s a famous site here that you may recognize from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
What to Do in Zion National Park
Before we launch into all the amazing activities that could entertain you for a week, let’s review what you can do in one day in Zion National Park. Start your day with the sunrise at Canyon Overlook, followed by a stop at the visitor center. Hop on the shuttle bus for a ride to Zion Canyon and take a short hike. In the afternoon, drive to Kolob Canyon and hike some more! At day’s end, take in a gorgeous sunset and gaze at the stars above, so brilliant thanks to the lack of light pollution.
 
Hopefully, you have carved out more than one day for your vacation in Zion National Park. Here’s what not to miss:
Hiking in Zion National Park
If you’re a trekker, you’re asking, “What are the best hikes in Zion National Park?” And, we have the answers. Favorites include:
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Angels Landing: Not for the faint of heart, the Angels Landing trail takes you up 1,488 feet over the 5-mile roundtrip hike. There are sheer cliffs, steep switchbacks, eye-popping drop-offs that will make for a challenging excursion for anyone averse to heights. Consider hiking it midweek to avoid crowds. And start early if it’s summertime to avoid oppressive heat.
 
Observation Point: Your reward for this 8-mile (roundtrip) hike is a 6,521-foot perch on the top of Mount Baldy. From here, you’ll get a staggering view of most of Zion National Park’s top attractions, including Angels Landing and Echo Canyon.
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Canyon Overlook Trail: This is a Zion National Park hike for everyone – and we mean everyone, so get there early. It’s one mile roundtrip and takes you 100 feet to an overlook with expansive views of Zion Canyon.
 
Watchman Trail: You won’t climb the Watchman Spire (which stands 6,545 feet tall), but instead get a great view of it from this 3-mile (roundtrip) hiking trail. The trail itself only gains 400 feet in elevation, making it a favorite of beginner hikers. The trailhead is conveniently close to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.
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Emerald Pools: All trails lead to beautiful waterfalls and, well, emerald pools in this desert oasis. Choose from a 1.2-mile hike to the lower pool, 2 miles to the middle pool and 3 miles to the upper pool. Depending on your route, you’ll be able to see Lady Mountain, the Great White Throne and Red Arch Mountain. The trail to the lower pool is ideal for young children, those with strollers and people in wheelchairs.
 
The Narrows: Plan to get wet on the Narrows hike, during which you’ll wade through a cold river up to your ankles (and sometimes your waist). One of the world’s best slot canyon hikes and the most popular hike in Zion National Park, it is tons of fun and accessible to all hiking abilities. Instead of a dirt trail, your route is the Virgin River itself.
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The Subway: More intense than the Narrows, the Subway hike requires you to climb down waters, scramble over boulders and possibly rappel over cliffs. Couple of items to square away before you go: a shuttle is required and you must obtain a permit from the park visitor center. This is one for experiences canyoneers.
What Can I Do Besides Hiking in Zion National Park?
So much! Before, after or in between the great hiking you’ll do in Zion National Park, try to fit in some of these other outdoor adventures.
 
ATV Adventures: While ATVs are not allowed within the boundaries of Zion National Park, you can ride on trails on private and public land right outside the park. Favorite 4×4 areas include Sand Hollow and Coral Pink Sand Dunes.
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Biking: One great way to avoid the car congestion and skip the shuttle bus is to cycle your way through Zion Natonal Park. Try the 3.5-mile-long Pa’rus Trail, which is also the park’s easiest hike. It’s wide and paved and perfect for bicycles. Pedal along the Zion Scenic Drive to the Temple of Sinawava where the Virgin River makes it way through the Narrows. Just outside the park, you’ll find several single-track and double-track mountain bike trails, including Gooseberry Mesa Trail south of Rockville and the Bunker Creek Trail.
 
Horseback Riding: Saddle up for a trail ride by horseback and get up close and personal to the natural wonders of Zion National Park. Look out for wildlife along the varied terrain – you’ll have a better chance of seeing it this way as opposed to by car or shuttle bus. During the high season, you can take a horseback riding tour in Zion Canyon, while you can go year-round right outside the park.
What Else Should I See Near Zion National Park?
Don’t stop at Zion National Park. From here, it’s easy to take on these rewarding destinations.
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Kolob Canyon: Worth a day on its own, the Kolob Canyon area of Zion National Park features fantastic finger canyons, secret pocket canyons and red Navajo sandstone cliffs. The wildflowers are beautiful come summer, as is the yellow-gold foliage of the scrub oaks in the fall. Favorite hikes include the Timber Creek Trail to the Kolob Terrace, the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek to the Double Arch Alcove and the Kolob Arch trail from Lee’s Pass along LaVerkin Creek into the Kolob wilderness.
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Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park: Just like its name suggests, this state park is a vison of warm, pink sand. It’s a popular spot to ride ATVs and offers fantastic view of the entire Zion area. Play and hike the massive slopes of sand, which shift up to 50 feet in a year due to the strong winds.
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Snow Canyon State Park: Seen “The Martian”? You’ll feel like Matt Damon abandoned on Mars when you visit this otherworldly landscape. Pink and white cliffs, slickrock and black lava rock can be seen from the 15 hiking trails, bike path or horseback riding trails. Explore as you wish and consider staying in the year-round campground so you can view the sandstone cliffs as the sun sets.

Finally, Should I Visit Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon National Park?

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Why settle on one when you can see both Zion National park and Bryce Canyon National Park in one trip? The parks are just 70 miles apart, so if you have the time, combine them. What’s the difference between Zion and Bryce? Well, Zion sits at 4,000 feet in elevation and is all about its namesake canyon, which cuts through sheer sandstone cliffs of varying pastel colors. Bryce Canyon, on the other hand, despite its name, is a park brimming with eroded cliffs and hoodoos (these tall, thin rock spires are also known as tent rocks or fairy chimneys). Zion is considered to be a desert climate (warmer), whereas Bryce Canyon is high-desert (slightly cooler). Perhaps the most recognizable difference between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park is the vegetation. At Zion, you’ll see cottonwoods, Pinyon pines, juniper and cacti, and in Bryce Canyon, you’ll see much more forest, consisting of Ponderosa pines, sagebrush, Manzanita bushes and blue spruce pines.
 
As for what you can do in Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, the activities are fairly similar. If you want to spend time canyoneering and rappelling, spend more time in Zion. Both parks offer limitless hiking. Outside the parks, you’ll find mountain biking, rock climbing, fishing, ATVing and more – even skiing and snowboarding in the winter outside Bryce Canyon. So the answer to “Should I spend more time in Zion or Bryce” is strictly personal. We say, do both! Even if you’re really short on time, it is possible to visit Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks in one day – they’re just a 1.5-hour drive apart from each other.

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