Visiting Zion National Park in Utah is one of the most magical things to do in the United States.
The park is chock-full of showstopper hikes, amazing waterfalls, great infrastructure, and strong Land Before Time vibes. How do I know this? Because Zion was my first stop on my 3-week hiking trip through Utah with my brother Garrett!
I’m not alone in my favorable assessment either. According to the National Park Service, Zion was the third most visited National Park in the USA last year, trailing only the Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone National Park.
In this Zion National Park travel guide, we’ll cover:
- How to get to Zion
- Best time to visit Zion
- Where to stay
- What to eat
- The very best things to do
- And so much more
Ready? Let’s dive in!
The Essential Zion National Park Travel Guide
How to Get to Zion National Park
First of all, you’re gonna need to get to Utah. To do this, if you’re not from the area, you have three airport options — Las Vegas (LAS), Salt Lake City (SLC), or St. George Regional Airport. From Zion by car, Las Vegas is about 2.5 hours, Salt Lake City is 4.5 hours, and St. George is about 45 minutes.
Personally, I flew into Las Vegas and rented a car for my Utah road trip.
Once you get to Zion National Park, there is a paid parking lot in Zion, as well as plenty of paid parking in the nearby town of Springdale.
To snag a parking spot as close as possible, you’re going to need to get to the park very early in the morning. However, every day that I was at Zion we parked in Springdale and, given that there’s a shuttle that takes you to the Zion entrance, the system was very easy.
How to Get Around Zion National Park
Chances are, you’re visiting Zion for the hiking.
So, to get to all the best trailheads, there is a shuttle that will take you from the entrance all throughout the park.
When I was there the shuttle was free and ran steadily throughout the day. However, since my visit, I’ve read that there is a nominal fee to use the shuttle and that all rides are timed and must be booked ahead of time. I recommend looking up the situation before you head to Zion.
Note that cars are not allowed within the park itself, and so the shuttle (or bicycles) are your only real options. On that last point, there is a bike rental service in Springdale — they also do bike tours around Zion if you feel so inclined!
The Best Time to Visit Zion National Park
While Zion National Park is technically open for hiking year-round, the most common visitor months are Summer and Fall. My brother and I decided to visit in October and it was the perfect time of year. The temperature was moderate (but definitely on the warmer side), and the park wasn’t totally packed with other people.
Here’s a break down by season:
Spring in Zion National Park
While Spring is a beautiful time to visit Zion National Park, do keep in mind that some of your hikes will be more dependent on the weather conditions than they’d be later in the year.
For example, The Narrows hike is entirely controlled by water levels and any snow runoff that falls from the high country. Due to this, the water levels are generally higher in the Spring than in the Summer and Fall, and if it is too high, you won’t be allowed to the Narrows trailhead.
Summer in Zion National Park
Summer is an absolutely beautiful time to visit Zion National Park, with two caveats.
First, the temperature in Zion Canyon gets absolutely sweltering in the summertime — often reaching higher than 100°F / 38°C — leaving you at risk for heatstroke and dehydration. If you plan on visiting in the summer, plan your hikes carefully and bring plenty of water and icepacks (and indulge in ice cream whenever possible — that’s my professional opinion).
The second caveat to visiting Zion National Park in the summer is the crowds. In fact, it’s estimated that a half million people visit Zion National Park each month from May – September, and that number is only rising year after year.
Fall in Zion National Park
If you ask me, Fall is the perfect time to visit Zion National Park. The weather is perfect, and the crowds aren’t as intense as in the summer. The temperature generally hovers between 10-25°C/ 50-70°F, with chillier mornings and hotter afternoons.
As I said, my brother and I visited Zion in October, and while the mornings were a tad cooler (sweater weather), the afternoons were warm, the sun was bright, and it was perfectly comfortable.
Winter in Zion National Park
While winter in Zion National Park is the least popular time to visit the park, there are still plenty of great activities to enjoy during these months. Zion Canyon has a low elevation, so snow rarely touches the canyon floor, and activities as such hiking, biking, and sightseeing are still very much doable.
That said, Zion’s shuttle system closes down in winter, so you’ll have to drive your car into the park to get around (this is the one exception to the no-car rule I mentioned earlier).
The Best Activities in Zion National Park
Activity #1 – Hiking
My love of hiking is what led me to Zion National Park, and oh boy, if this is a passion of yours as well, then buckle up. There are so many incredible hikes to enjoy in Zion, including The Narrows, Angels Landing, Watchman Trail, Pa’Rus Trail, Lower and Upper Emerald Pools Trail, and so much more.
Scroll down for more info on the hikes in Zion!
Activity #2 – Canyoneering
If you’re a lover of technical rappelling, route-finding, hiking, and swimming, then Zion is the place to go. With dozens of locations to explore, Canyoneering in Zion is one of the premier activities, although you do need a permit in order to partake.
Activity #3 – Rock Climbing
There are four access points for Zion National Park rock climbing — Kolob Terrace, Kolob Canyons, the east entrance, and the south entrance. While you don’t need permits to go rock climbing in Zion, these climbs are recommended for experienced climbers only, as the rock tends to be soft and the terrain difficult.
That said, there are quite a few tour companies that will take you rock climbing in Zion.
Activity #4 – Kayaking
An activity that always requires a permit, I’d recommend kayaking in Zion National Park for experienced kayakers only. To kayak here, the river has to be flowing over 150 cubic feet per second, and your kayak has to be specifically designed for whitewater use. You’ll have to apply for your permit to kayak Zion the day before you intend to do so, and you can rent equipment at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.
If you plan to kayak The Narrows, then keep in mind that’s a different ballgame altogether. It’s recommended that only expert paddlers attempt this route, and the Zion website warns that you should be “prepared to survive without assistance for multiple days”.
So, like, you’ve been warned.
Activity #5 – Horseback Riding
For the equestrian types out there, Horseback riding in Zion National Park will be one of the most memorable activities you can do. There are a few different companies that you can book your excursion through, and some of the highlights on these tours include the Three Patriarchs, the Beehives, cactus gardens, and following the Virgin River.
Activity #6 – Biking
Feel like taking a bike ride through Zion? Then gear up!
Bringing a pedal or mountain bike is a great alternative to using the shuttle (and those pesky shuttle lines). At Zion, you can pedal along the designated roadways and take in the views from a new perspective.
I gotta say, there aren’t a ton of mountain biking routes in Zion National Park, and the Pa’rus trail is really the only trail you’ll be able to hit up. However, there are more options just outside of the park including Gooseberry Mesa Trail and Bunker Creek Trail.
Activity #7 – Swimming / Tubing
If you’re looking to get a respite from the hot Zion sun, then take a dip! Almost anywhere along the Virgin River is great for swimming, but there are some swimming holes as well. The Pine Creek Waterfall is off-the-beaten-trail and is perfect for getting refreshed. Getting there means a quarter-mile hike along the creek — beware of slippery rocks!
Alternatively, go tubing down the VIrgin river! Tubes are available for rent at Zion Outfitters.
Zion National Park Hikes
Time to get down and dirty, amiright? Hiking in Zion National Park is one of the best things to do in my opinion. I can close my eyes and take myself back to the hikes here like it was yesterday.
Here are some of the best Zion National Park hikes:
Hike #1 – Watchman Trail
A hike that begins just beyond the visitors center, Watchman Trail is a 3-mile round-trip hike that varies between easy to moderate difficulty. On this trek, you’ll experience a 92meter / 300-ft elevation gain that will take you to a cliff-like viewpoint. Trust me, the views here do NOT disappoint.
Contrary to its name, the trail won’t take you all the way up to Watchman mountain, but it will still give you amazing views of this side of the canyon.
Hike #2 – Angels Landing
Known primarily for its difficulty and incredible views, Angels Landing in Zion is a 5-mile round-trip hike that is rated as strenuous. While reviews note that anyone with average physicality will be able to make this hike, it is a bit of a mental game when you’re dealing with sheer drop-offs, switchbacks, and metal handles placed to keep you upright.
Quite frankly, due to a wee fear of heights, my brother and I decided to skip Angel’s Landing while we were in Zion. Maybe someday…
Hike #3 – The Narrows
A trail as long or short as you’d like it to be, The Narrows is a river trail along the narrowest part of Zion Canyon. If you hike The Narrows as a day hike, then the trail can be as long as 15km round trip or, if you plan to go further, then it’s best to bring overnight gear (you will need a permit to camp).
To prepare for your hike, you’ll need to head to the Zion National Park visitor’s center, where they’ll outfit you with water shoes, walking sticks, and information about water speed and height. That said, they’ll only give you gear if the conditions are right in the canyon. When I hiked The Narrows, the conditions were a little shaky and so I hiked it without proper shoes or sticks. Talk about an adventure.
If you’d like to know more, check out my article all about hiking The Narrows in Zion National Park!
Hike #4 – Lower and Middle Emerald Pools Trails
A trailhead with three level options — Lower, Middle, and Upper — the Emerald Pools is a relatively easy hike that can suit all levels of trekkers. Visiting the Lower Emerald Pools (1.2 miles round trip) is made simple with a paved walkway and a 70ft elevation change. Getting to the Middle Emerald Pools (2 miles round trip) involves a 150ft elevation change, and some more rugged terrain. Getting to the Upper Emerald Pools (3 miles round trip) means a 350 elevation change, difficult terrain, and some seriously beautiful views.
Unfortunately, during our trip, access to the Upper Emerald Pools was closed off, so my brother and I trekked to the Lower and Middle. They did not disappoint!
Hike #5 – Pa’rus Trail
One of the most accessible trails in Zion, Pa’rus is a 3.4-mile return trail whose name means “bubbling water” in Paiute. This trail is open to both pets and bicycles and is also wheelchair accessible.
To get to the trailhead, walk north of the Visitors Centre, cross the Virgin River bridge, and then find the South Campground. The trail ends at the Canyon Junction.
Hike #6 – Riverside Walk
Another wonderfully accessible hike, Riverside Walk begins at the Temple of SInawava (the last shuttle stop) and is great for kids and people in wheelchairs alike. The hike is mostly level and is 2 miles round trip.
Expect views of the Virgin River among canyon walls and tons of greenery.
Hike #7 – Observation Point
At 8 miles long (roundtrip) with over 2300 feet of elevation, hiking to Observation Point in Zion National Park can only be described as strenuous. It’s a steady uphill climb, and the trailhead can be found at shuttle stop #7 — Weeping Rock.
That said, prepare yourself for some seriously jaw-dropping views. The height means that when you finally find yourself up there, you’ll have the best seat in the house.
Zion National Park Hotels
Given that you’re going to want to get to Zion relatively early every morning you’re there, I recommend staying at nearby accommodations. The Zion National Park Lodge, SpringHill Suites by Marriot, and Desert Pearl Inn are all highly-rated options.
However, while it’s a little out of the way, you can also opt to stay in St. George. St. George is about an hour’s drive from Zion, but it will save you a few dollars. My brother and I stayed at the Days Inn by Wyndham in St. George and found it perfect.
The Best Restaurants Near Zion National Park
While I have to recommend bringing food with you on your day hikes, there are some great restaurants in the area to try as well. Whiptail Grill (Mexican), Spotted Dog Cafe, and Anthera are all great restaurants in Zion National Park.
Preserving Zion National Park
The overwhelming beauty of Zion National Park is not something to take for granted. The number of visitors that come to the park every year leave an impact, and it’s our job to do our best to leave the park the way we found it. Here are a few key tips to leaving as little trace as possible in the park:
- prepare well in advance for all camping, kayaking, and wilderness permits
- prepare for emergencies and bring enough supplies
- stay on the designated trails to preserve vegetation and fragile ecosystems
- leave your camp in spic and span condition
- when camping, stay at least 200 feet away from water and keep out of sight of the trails
- remember to use the bathroom before hitting the trails
- pack everything out. There are designated trash cans to use at the visitors center
- leave wildlife alone
What to Pack for Zion National Park
Water Supplies: I’d never start a hike in Zion without a reusable water bottle (or two!), and watershoes. I also recommend packing a bathing suit — there are a couple of places where you can take a dip or go tubing (including the Pine Creek Swimming Hole).
That’s it for my Zion National Park travel guide!
I hope this gave you a ton of inspiration for what to do, see, eat, and more in Zion. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments!