The Complete Guide to Zion National Park and Its Many Natural Wonders
Re-designated from a national monument into a national park in 1919, Zion National Park is Utah’s first national park. It's also one of the most spectacular, thanks to the convergence of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert whipping up a layer cake of geography that includes mountains, canyons, buttes, rivers, slots, arches, and more.
On a week-long spin through south central Utah this spring, we decided to hit four of the country's most spectacular national parks in one shot. Given that Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef national parks and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are all within about 200 miles of each other, why not? (And it’s not like the drive between them is shabby, either.) From the towering gates of the Zion Narrows to the hoodoos of Bryce, slots of Escalante, and canyons of Capitol Reef, here's our first installment of a park-by-park primer on how to visit all four of these geological wonderlands in one resplendent roll. Part one: Zion National Park.
Where Is Zion National Park
Located in southwest Utah and distinguished by its massive red cliffs and waterfalls, the park’s crown jewel is 2,640-foot-deep Zion Canyon, whose Navajo sandstone has been whittled away by the Virgin River. Winding along the canyon floor is one of the prettiest hidden roads in the country (served by a free shuttle bus April to October), leading to trails, cascades, and spectacular spires.
Zion National Park Weather: Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Zion National Park is typically between April and November. This is when the park's free shuttles run and the weather isn't too hot. Its rainy season is March through May, with March being the month with the greatest chance of flash floods and precipitation. Expect the weather to be tumultuous during this time of year. July, as you'd imagine, is hottest in Zion with typical desert-like weather: cool in the mornings and evenings and temps climbing up to 100 degrees in the peak of the day.
Want to visit Zion or any of our other national parks for free? Hit them on any one of the following days: Aug. 4 (second anniversary of Great American Outdoors Act); Sept. 23 (National Public Lands Day); Nov. 11 (Veterans Day).
What to Do in Zion National Park
Whether you seek solitude in the park's northwestern Kolob Canyons sector or adventure in the heart of Zion Canyon, there’s a reason why over five million people make the annual pilgrimage to this remote pocket of southern Utah.
A land of contrasts, where a seemingly desolate gorge hides hanging gardens, soaring waterfalls, lush valleys, and prismatic grottos ripe for exploration, "Zion is surprisingly abundant in water for a desert, making it an oasis for plants and animals," says veteran park ranger Alyssa Baltrus. Indeed, this 229-square-mile patch of high-desert tablelands, red walls, and tree-clad river valleys is home to 68 species of mammals and an astounding 207 species of birds, including soaring peregrine falcons and critically endangered California condors.
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Best Zion National Park Hikes
Favorite hikes in the park include Emerald Pools, where waterfalls cascade into shimmering desert ponds; the aptly named Zion Narrows, where a wade-hike through a massive gorge thins into almost nothing at times; and Angel’s Landing, where relentless steeps and sheer drop-offs aren’t for the squeamish.
Other features to behold include The Subway slot canyon, Great White Throne, Court of the Patriarchs, Sentinel, West Temple, and many more. On the park’s remote east side, check out Checkerboard Mesa and East Temple. One visit is all it takes to comprehend the reason behind the park's name, which connotes paradise on Earth.
Our pick for the best hike in Zion National Park is Angel’s Landing, named nearly a century ago by Methodist minister Frederick Vining Fisher, who said, “Only an angel could land there.” A challenging one, it starts from Shuttle Stop 6 (the Grotto Trailhead) and leads 2.7 miles one-way through a series of switchbacks along the much longer West Rim Trail through the eternally chilly Refrigerator Canyon to Scout Lookout.
From there, you’ll branch off to the hike's payoff at Angels Landing. Perched 1,500 feet above the canyon floor, a spectacular 360-degree panorama of the park awaits hikers on an exposed spine jutting right out into the center of Zion Canyon. Yes, it'll absolutely take your breath away (in more ways than one, with that nearly 1,500-foot elevation gain). Be prepared for some extreme exposure, and even a chain to hold onto, as you navigate the final steps to the summit.
Head back along the same route for a 5.4-mile roundtrip hike, or extend the journey into a multi-day backcountry adventure by continuing along the 16-mile West Rim Trail from Scout Lookout, registering in advance for one of nine secluded campsites along the way.
The Angel's Landing hike has one downfall: It’s so popular now that you’ll need to secure a permit reservation before setting foot on it. Check the seasonal shuttle schedule so you don’t miss the last one home.
Canyoneering in Zion National Park
Zion has become a Mecca for adventure enthusiasts who want to try their hand at canyoneering, a high-octane sport that combines route finding and problem solving with hiking, rappelling, and swimming. A short trip into the lower end of The Narrows near the natural amphitheater known as the Temple of Sinawava—named for the Paiute Indians' coyote god—makes a great introduction to the park’s slot canyons.
Take the shuttle up to its last stop at the Temple of Sinawava and continue hiking to the mouth of The Narrows. Zion Canyon’s thinnest slot, flanked by 2,000-foot-high walls, constricts to just 20 feet wide at times. Bring shoes that can get wet as you’ll be wading in water.
Those with more canyoneering experience can opt for a trip through The Subway, a tight stretch of the Left Fork of North Creek that’s like a fairytale version of a metro tunnel with emerald pools instead of sludge piles. Permits for the latter are distributed via a lottery system several months in advance due to its popularity.
How to Get to Zion National Park
Zion National Park is located 160 miles (2.5-hour drive) northeast of Las Vegas, NV, and 300 miles south of Salt Lake City, UT. Take I-15 north from Las Vegas or south from Salt Lake City to Exit 16 onto State Hwy 9, which leads 30 miles to the park entrance through the towns of Hurricane and Springdale.
From early spring until late fall, riding the free shuttle is the only way to visit Zion Canyon. Catch it (and leave your car) in the towns of Springdale or Zion Canyon to avoid hunting for parking at the often packed park visitor center.
Zion is a rare bike-friendly park that not only has a mountain biking trail but also has shuttles equipped with bike racks. The bike-friendly Pa’rus Trail follows the Virgin River from the South Entrance to Canyon Junction. From there, you can take the shuttle (in operation from early April to late October) to the end of the road at Temple of Sinawava and ride the car-free Zion Canyon Scenic Drive eight miles back to where you started, checking out the park’s rock stars—Weeping Rock and Court of the Patriarchs—along the way.
For a roadie climb from near the visitor center, turn right at Canyon Junction and ride up-and-back to the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which will leave you guessing how they ever built such a road. Pets are only allowed on the 3.5-mile Pa'rus Trail, which offers great views of Watchman.
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Where to Stay in Zion National Park
If you have the foresight for a reservation, Zion Lodge is conveniently located in the heart of the park with rooms starting at about $250 per night. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the lodge offers 76 guest rooms, six suites, and 40 historic cabins, originally designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood in the 1920s.
Tucked in the park's eastern mountains, Zion Mountain Ranch offers a variety of cabin options and quality dining in the lodging's restaurant, where much of the food is grown on the property's organic gardens and aquaponic greenhouses.
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Just outside the park, neighboring Springdale has a corner on the Zion lodging market, with great options on any budget. If you want to range farther afield, there are excellent lodging options in Mount Carmel, Kanab, and St. George. Popular out-of-park lodging options nearby include the Desert Pearl Inn, Zion Ponderosa, and Zion Mountain Ranch.
Zion National Park has three campgrounds, one of which (South Campground) is currently closed for rehabilitation. Watchman Campground is centrally located (next to the visitor center), open year-round, and reservations can be made up to six months in advance. About an hour's drive from Zion Canyon on Kolob Terrace Road, Lava Point Campground is open from spring through fall and closed during the winter.
Best Guide Services in Zion National Park
If you want to go with an expert, guides abound in Zion for everything from canyoneering to gazing down upon its maze of canyons from the sky. For hiking or backpacking tours, including all-inclusive trips, try Wildland Trekking.
Want a dose of adrenaline? From first-timers to big walls, Zion Mountaineering School is the only guide service offering climbing and canyoneering instruction in the park. Never been canyoneering before? Zion Rock & Mountain Guides offers full-day guided tours in the park at popular sites like The Narrows.
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To see the park from a 4WD Jeep, try East Zion Adventures. Or, for a peregrine’s eye-view from the air, strap in with Zion Helicopters. If you decide you want to bike (or float) the canyon and need a vehicle to do it, Zion Outfitter near the entrance is your go-to outdoor rental and retail shop, stocked with everything from hiking and camping gear to bikes and even tubes for low water floating.