Zion National Park: best things to do, directions and tips for the visit

November 20, 2020 /
How to visit Zion National Park

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

Zion National Park is a mountainous park that is as remarkable as it can be underrated, due to certain difficulties that can be encountered in planning the visit (more on that later). The main section of the park is a deep gorge carved out by the Virgin River, a wide and scenic canyon with soaring cliffs and mountains reaching 8530 ft above sea level.

The colors of the park are unique and the incredibly sculpted bright red and white rocks are surrounded by green woods and hanging valleys rich in fauna.

If this short and quick description inspired you to visit Zion, keep reading and you will discover the best things to do in the park and how to plan a trip.

Where is Zion National Park? How To Get There? Directions

How to get to Zion National Park

Zion National Park is located in southern Utah. In addition to St. George Airport, a small airport, Las Vegas International is the closest main airport to the two sections of the park (178 miles), even though Zion, like other U.S. national parks, is usually visited as part of much larger road trips that can also start from major cities in California.

The main section of the park, known as Zion Canyon, is located near Springdale, while a separate section of the park, called Kolob Canyons, is located near Kanarraville, on I-15, 40 miles away (50 minutes by car). The two sections are separate and you cannot drive from one section to the other inside the national park.

Zion National Park Utah

Below are directions for those traveling to the main section of the park coming from the west and east.

  • Coming from Las Vegas (southwest) you’ll have to drive 127 miles along I-15. You may consider also making a stop halfway at the Valley of Fire (I highly recommend it!). Then, after St. George, you’ll take Exit 16. From here you will take a short drive on UT-17 to La Verkin and then take the scenic UT-9 until you reach the west entrance to the park at Springdale‘s.
  • If you come from Salt Lake City (northwest), you will take Exit 27 (Anderson Junction) off of I-15 until you reach La Verkin. From there follow the same directions found in the previous point.
  • If you’re coming from Kanab, Page, Bryce, Moab... (East), you’ll need to take Route 89 and then turn onto Mount Carmel Junction. Then you’ll take  UT-9 and drive 25 miles to get to the park via the East Entrance. This stretch of road, especially the last 13 miles, is very nice to drive, as you will see.

Kolob Canyons, located along I-15, is easier to reach. Those coming from the south (St. George) and those coming from the north (Provo, Salt Lake City) will have to get off I-15 at Exit 40. This area is very beautiful and easily accessible, but it is not so vast and is less popular than the main section of Zion.

What time does zion national park open?

What time does zion national park openZion National Park is open 24 hours a day every day of the year. The Zion Canyon Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.

Zion National Park Entrance Fee

Since it is a national park, you can use the America the Beautiful Pass. If you don’t have it, the entrance fee is $35 per vehicle. If you did not enter the park by car, you will pay $20 per person at the Visitor Center entrance.

Best time to visit Zion National Park

Best time to visit Zion National ParkThe park is open year-round, but the ideal time to visit is from March to October when the weather is perfect for hiking. The very best times to go are autumn, with its warm colors and mild climate, as well as late spring.

Summer, being a vibrant and verdant season, draws visitors to Zion, but remember that temperatures are higher and as a result some hikes may be a little more tiring. You’re not in the desert, of course, but you’ll be hiking in the sun!

Winter also has its advantages. Not only is the park less crowded, but the colors of the canyon are even brighter and create a beautiful contrast with the white snow. Certainly the weather is much colder and can be challenging for less experienced hikers.

WARNING!

The dates vary from year to year, but approximately from April to the end of October the main road of the park (Zion Canyon Scenic Drive) is closed to car traffic, so you must park your car and use the free shuttle provided by the park. During the rest of the year, when Zion is less crowded, you can drive along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

How To Visit the Park

How to visit zion national parkBasically, you have two ways to visit a park. Either you make a quick stop at the national park or explore it in depth, spending as much time as possible there.

Let me try to explain. Zion National Park is not ideal for a short visit like Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley or Grand Canyon, places where you have the option of taking long hikes, but can be visited quite quickly because the best viewpoints are easily reached with short trails or are located directly on the road. Zion National Park is not that kind of park, because it takes time and energy to see the best views or go on the most adventurous hikes.

Not everyone takes this into account, so we often find ourselves answering the decisive question “can I visit Zion and Bryce on the same day, given the proximity?”. I answered no both here and here, stressing the fact that if you are heading to Bryce Canyon, you have limited time to visit Zion, driving along the stunning Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, which is an illustration of the beauty of Zion. It will not be an extended visit which, as you will see in the next point, takes at least half a day.

If you still want to visit Zion within a short time frame, there is another option, which is to visit Kolob Canyons, but that would change your itinerary completely. As it was mentioned earlier, Kolob Canyons cannot be reached by taking UT-9, but are is accessible from I-15, the fastest route between Las Vegas and Bryce. The views of Kolob Canyons are remarkable and easy to get to, so it’s a perfect solution. In this case, don’t take the UT-9 on your way to Bryce Canyon.

How many days to spend in zion national park?

How many days to spend in zion national parkLet’s be clear, it takes days, not hours, to visit Zion comprehensively and enjoy all its splendor (views and paths)! However, often on road trips you don’t have that much time. If that is the case, an adequate visit to the main section of the park (Zion Canyon) requires at least half a day.

In theory, you can manage to do it in 3 hours, but the more time you spend on the trails, the more you will enjoy the visit. You have to take into account that from April to the end of October you have to use the shuttle to move around the park, which limits your ability to move around independently and can extend the time even further.

Those who want to visit both Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyons will have to set aside the whole day or most of the day, depending on the next stop.

How To Get Around: Shuttles and Scenic Roads

As you may have gathered, there is a very important question: how can you get around the park?

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive

zion scenic drive
Scenic Drive

Let’s start with Zion Canyon. Running through this section is the 6-mile-long Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, along which all of the park’s main trails start. As mentioned above, during the low season you will be able to drive on this road independently with your rental car. To get there, simply drive to Canyon Junction, turn off of UT-9 at the junction (for the exact location, see here), a stone’s throw from the Virgin River Bridge.

From April to the end of October, however, you will not be able to drive on this road. Instead, you will have to use the free shuttle service departing from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. The shuttle has 9 stops along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, and each serves as a reference point for various trails.

Zion Canyon Shuttle

zion shuttleThe Zion Canyon Shuttles depart from the Visitor Center every 7-10 minutes during the high season and take about 40 minutes to cover the entire route and reach the last stop (Temple of Sinawava), where the Riverside Walk begins, leading to the famous The Narrows. Besides this, the main stops are Zion Lodge, The Grotto, Weeping Rock and Big Bend.

Shuttle frequency and start time vary from month to month, so check here for updates.

The bike scenic drive
Before entering the Visitor Center you can also rent a bike from Zion Outfitters or other Springdale bike rental shops to ride on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive – definitely an option for those who enjoy more athletic activities.

Where to park?

There is free parking near the Visitor Center, but it fills up very quickly in the morning: you can check the number of places available on the electronic billboards along the street, near the West Entrance (Springdale) tollbooth. What should do in the very likely event that you find the parking lot full? There are three options:

  • come back later, keep circling around until you find a spot.
  • leave the Visitor Center and look for a spot on the streets of Springdale, but most of the parking is not free.
  • if you are staying at a hotel in Springdale, ask the staff if you can leave your car in the hotel parking lot. Usually there are a few spaces available for guests who do not want to move their car (in my experience, at least at Zion Park Motel this is the way it works!).

Springdale Shuttle

Okay, let’s say you had to leave your car at the hotel parking lot or you found parking in Springdale. Either way, you might be a long way from the Visitor Center! Don’t worry: there is the Springdale Shuttle that makes 9 stops along the entire Springdale extension on UT-9 to the Visitor Center for free. The southern terminus is Majestic View Lodge: it takes about 10-15 minutes to get from here to the Visitor Center.

Again, the frequency of the shuttles is 7-10 minutes during the high season, but it varies month to month.

Take your ticket or card with you!

Normally, to enter a national park you just need to buy a ticket or present the American the Beautiful Pass at the tollgate, after it is no longer required to show your ticket or pass. Usually no one takes the ticket or pass with them while hiking; instead, most people leave it in the car.

Well, this does not apply to Zion because, as you may know, you can also get to the Visitor Center on foot or by the Springfield Shuttle. For this reason, since it’s hard to tell if you have already presented the entrance ticket, the rangers at the Visitor Center ask everyone for the entrance ticket.

Take it with you because even if you explain to them that you left it in your car (as we did), they might be strict and make you pay the entrance fee again. It didn’t happen to us, the ranger was understanding, but it’s good to come prepared.

Other Zion Scenic Roads

mount carmel highway
Zion-Mt. Carmel Junction Highway

The Zion-Mt. Carmel Junction Highway is another scenic road in Zion National Park. As such, visitors pay a fee to travel on UT-9 in both directions. Unless there is a sudden road closing, this road can be driven all year round. For more information, please refer to our in-depth guide.

kolob canyons
Kolob Canyons

Kolob Canyons Road can be driven all year round, but you are required to pass through the Visitor Center (directions are well marked after the highway exit at the junction with Kolob Canyon Road) to show your entry ticket before driving to the beautiful canyon viewpoint at the top.

Best things to do: Trails, Views and Must See Attractions

Here are the activities to be done in the three areas of Zion National Park.

Zion Canyon: what to do?

zion canyon what to doZion Canyon is the main section of the park. The scenic drive with the same name cuts through it and – along the 6-mile drive you can enjoy while comfortably seated on the shuttle or in your car – there are very beautiful views of the park’s mountains and, among other things, also a museum.

However, visitors – rather than visiting an exhibit – will definitely be more interested in seeing the natural beauty of the park with their own eyes. The majority of the most beautiful and famous trails can be found along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, so take note of the features of the hike and the corresponding shuttle stop.

Angels Landing

angels landing zion national parkThis is perhaps the most famous hike in Zion National Park, as well as one of the most difficult and tiring. It is a 5.4 mile (round trip) trail with a total elevation of 1631 ft. At the end of the trail there is an exceptional overlook over Zion Canyon, but never before have the words no pain no gain been so true. The last part of the trail is also known to be quite dangerous and definitely not recommended for those who are afraid of heights. We have an article dedicated to this hike to this excursion, so if you want to know more you can read our guide of Angels Landing.

  • Shuttle Stop: The Grotto

Riverside Walk

Zion National Park HikesThis is a hike that everyone can enjoy; in fact is recommended for those who have decided to visit the park with children. The most attractive feature of this easy paved trail is that it runs flat along the river, where the Zion Canyon gradually begins to narrow down to the entrance to The Narrows, a totally different hike which I will talk about shortly.

This trail is 2.2 miles long (round trip) and does not present any technical difficulties. At various points along the way, it is possible to move briefly away from the path to descend along the river and enjoy the surrounding panorama from a great location. When I did this hike in the fall we also met mule deer and squirrels that were calmly crossing the path, a sight enjoyed by everyone, young and old alike!

  • Shuttle stop: Temple of Sinawava

The Narrows

zion-narrows-01As I said, beyond the Temple of Sinawava the canyon gradually begins to narrow. The Riverside Walk just described leads in fact to the beginning of The Narrows, a famous hike walking through the river, inside the narrow gorges carved by the Virgin River, which can be done in two directions (Bottom Up and Top Down). Since this is one of the most beautiful and challenging activities to do in Zion Park, we have decided to devote a whole article to The Narrows. Enjoy!

  • Shuttle stop: Temple of Sinawava

Weeping Rock Trail

Weeping Rock TrailWeeping Rock Trail is another popular hike where you can enjoy a nice view with minimal effort. It goes all along a slightly sloping paved road (98 ft total elevation gain) that is well shaded. At the end of the trail there is a beautiful natural nook overlooking a section of the canyon. The total length of the trail is 0.3 miles, so you will get to the end in half an hour.

  • Shuttle stop: Weeping Rock
Attention!
At the moment (December 2019) the Weeping Rock shuttle stop has been suppressed and all corresponding trails (Weeping Rock Trail included), due to an avalanche.

Upper and Lower Emerald Pools

zion emerald poolsAlong with the Weeping Rock Trail and Riverside Walk, this is considered to be one of the park’s most popular easy treks. It takes less than an hour to walk the 1.2 miles (round trip) paved path to Lower Emerald Pools. The trail leads to a lovely natural swimming pool, near a small waterfall in the shade of a niche on which giant red peaks surround the canyon.

The elevation of this path is barely noticeable (115 ft), but those who want to climb further can continue towards the Upper Emerald Pools by following the connection between Lower Emerald Pools and Kayenta Trail. This last trail also takes you to The Grotto shuttle stop, as well as the connection to Angels Landing.

Attention! It is forbidden to swim in the pools.

  • Shuttle stop: Zion Lodge; The Grotto via Kayenta Trail

Zion Human History Museum

zion museumFor millions of years this park had been deserted. Almost 12,000 years ago it welcomed its first inhabitants, traces of which still remain today. This and many other reasons make it worth visiting the Zion Human History Museum, a museum that offers video contributions and interesting exhibits on the geological characteristics of the park, with insights into the various civilizations that inhabited it, from Native Americans to pioneers.

    • Shuttle stop: Museum

Zion Mount Carmel Highway best attractions

The Zion Mount Carmel Highway is part of Zion National Park, but technically it is not within the bounds of Zion Canyon. If you look at the picture below, you can see how this beautiful scenic road winds through a secondary canyon on the east side that meets Zion Canyon at Canyon Junction. This gorge was carved out of Pine Creek, which is actually a tributary of the Virgin River.

zion national park map

The best way to experience this side of the park is clearly to drive through it. You’ll pass a series of winding hairpin bends until you reach the majestic Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. You’ll then see impressive rock formations in a remarkable landscape, one of the most impressive sights in the Checkerboard Mesa. And there’s more. You can get a better picture by reading the article we dedicated to the UT-9.

However, this is not the only thing you can do in this canyon carved out by Pine Creek. There is in fact a trail that I personally recommend, and I’ll describe it here below.

Canyon Overlook Trail

vista zion mount carmel highwayThis trail takes you to a beautiful overlook over the winding Zion Mount Carmel Highway and the immense landscape of Canyon Junction, where Zion Canyon meets Pine Creek Canyon. You will love the pictures that you can take from here, so take note!

Coming from Springdale, as soon as you emerge from the tunnel, you will see a parking lot on the right and on the other side of the road you will see the trail connection. It is a very small parking lot, so it is good to arrive early in the morning to have a better chance of finding a parking space. You could also look for a place in the clearing a little further on the left, although in theory the sign says “right-turn-only”. In any case, the hike to Canyon Overlook is short and there is frequent turnaround for parking, so you can also wait a while until a spot becomes available.

The trail is short but quite steep. You will hike an elevation of 443 ft in just half a mile of walking and cross a short and safe wooden walkway. The final view from the top of the Canyon Overlook Trail and in the shadow of the East Temple will be the reward… you won’t regret it! Along the way you will also see the Pine Creek Gorge, a very narrow canyon that can be explored taking a demanding hike (requires professional equipment and canyoning skills) with long stretches of walking in water.

Zion Observation Point

Observation Point ZionLocated at an altitude of 6519 ft, the Zion Observation Point offers one of the most incredible views of Zion Canyon, probably the most spectacular, but it’s also one of the toughest to reach, perhaps even more so than the infamous Angels Landing. However, not many people know that it is possible to reach it in a less challenging way by following a mostly flat trail that starts on the east side of the park. The Zion Mt. Carmel Highway is the only way to reach this trail. Read more in our guide of Zion Observation Point.

Kolob Canyons best hikes and views

kolob canyonsLocated northwest of Zion Canyon, this section of Zion National Park is the least known, but it is also the one that can get the most out of in the shortest possible time. Basically, you’ll just need to walk the few miles of Kolob Canyon Road to get to Kolob Viewpoint, an exceptional overlook over the canyons and red rock mountains in the area. The scenic road is very beautiful, and you will make many stops before you get to the top to take pictures and observe the surrounding views. There are also a couple of trails that can be done in Kolob Canyons.

  • Timber Creek Overlook: A short trail (1-mile round trip) that starts at the Kolob Viewpoint parking lot and leads to an even more exposed viewpoint over the Timber Creek valley.
  • Taylor Canyon: This trail that descends from road level and into the heart of Taylor Canyon is much more challenging. The trail’s connection is here, at a point 2.1 miles from the Visitor Center. You will have to walk for 5 miles (round trip) at an elevation of just 449 ft.
Kolob Terrace Road and Smith Mesa Road
In our article on UT-9 we also talked about these two scenic roads that are virtually unknown to tourists. Kolob Terrace Road also runs through Zion (but it’s free) and offers incredible views of the western side of Zion Canyon. Smith Mesa Road is an adventurous dirt road where you can see both Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyons on the horizon. There’s no other place where you will see this view!

Where to stay in Zion National Park

Where to stay in Zion National Park
You see now that it is not simple to organize a visit to Zion. The same can apply to an overnight stay! Since many factors have to be taken into account, I would like to refer you to our article entirely dedicated to the theme “where to sleep in Zion”. You will find specific recommendations for accommodations near Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyons, as well as tips for those who need to choose a town according to the next stop.

Our tips for where to stay in Zion

Zion National Park guided tours

zion tourYou also have the possibility to visit Zion National Park with organized tours. Most leave from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City and some packages allow you to combine the Zion National Park tour with visits to other parks. In the list below you will find some of the most interesting ones:

Tours of all parks in Utah

beauties around Zion

The border between southern Utah and Arizona is really a wonderful area to explore, so if you have a few days to spare, perhaps you can use this area as a base (Kanab is the best choice, but Springdale itself will do) to visit all the nature parks and hidden treasures in the surrounding area. Here I will describe the most fascinating ones and their respective distance from Zion National Park:

  • Bryce Canyon: The Zion-Bryce combination is a great classic. Given the proximity, many travelers want to visit them on the same day (this is a very common mistake), but the best thing to do is to dedicate one day to one and one day to the other. The geological formation of Bryce is completely different from Zion. Bryce is not a canyon; rather it is a natural amphitheater where you can see an incredible masterpiece. The so-called Hoodoos are commonly found; they are tall pinnacles of red rock eroded by the elements and sculpted by water. The distance between Zion and Bryce is about 76 miles (via the panoramic UT-9) or 143 miles (via the faster I-15).
  • Grand Canyon North Rim: It’s the least known side of the world-famous Grand Canyon and the least visited. As a result, all those who want to see the incredible National Park in Arizona without the ever-present crowds of tourists who flock to the South Rim and the various viewpoints during the high season. The only thing limiting when you can visit is the seasonal closing. At first snowfall, the North Rim closes and reopens in late spring. Additionally, the distance between Zion National Park and the visitor center of the Grand Canyon North Rim is 121 miles.
  • Cedar Breaks National Monument: If you are heading north after Zion (Salt Lake City), or if you have decided to head to Bryce via UT-14, you can also visit the Cedar Breaks National Monument. But the view that awaits you is quite similar to Bryce Canyon. There is a series of elevated viewpoints overlooking an amphitheater of hoodoos, with the verdant forests and valleys of High Mountain in the distance. Here again, pay attention to the seasonal park closing. UT-148, a scenic road leading to Cedar Breaks, is closed from November to May. The distance between the two parks is about 80 miles.
  • Vermilion Cliffs National Monument: This rugged and remote natural park, accessible only by 4×4, is the forbidden dream of many on-the-road enthusiasts in the wildest USA. And what is the main reason? Concealed in this national monument is the mysterious The Wave, a sandstone rock formation that can only be visited after winning a lottery (Literally. This is not a figure of speech, read more here). The Wave is not the only reason why the Vermilion Cliffs is worth visiting. The important thing is to be aware that to visit this area you must be well-equipped, drive a suitable vehicle and have time at hand. The drive from Zion National Park to the north entrance of Vermillion Cliffs is about 87 miles.
  • Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park: This state park in Utah is smaller and closer than the national parks and monuments mentioned above. For those who choose to stay overnight in Kanab or Mount Carmel Junction, this is a recommended stop that is very easy to visit. The characteristic feature of Coral Pink Sand Dunes is the pinkish color of the sand dunes, created by the effect of erosion of the red rocks in the area (Navajo Sandstone). The distance between Zion and Coral Pink Sand Dunes is “just” 39 miles.
  • Sand Hollow State Park: Of the many natural attractions around St. George, this is the closest to Zion and can be easily visited by taking UT-9. If you’re eager to visit Lake Powell, you’ll find some similarities in this state park. There is a beautiful expanse of water in which Utah’s typical rock formations are calmly mirrored. Sand Hollow State Park is located 32 miles west of Zion National Park.
  • Page and the surrounding area: For convenience, I want to point out this town that is a strategic point of reference for the countless natural attractions in the area. In the article on Page, you will find information and advice on how to visit beautiful places such as Lake Powell, Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend. In fact, in many cases it is worth it to stay overnight in Page for logistical purposes. It is a short distance from Zion (from Zion to Page there is a distance of 115 miles) and deserves a mention in this paragraph.

Ready for adventure? Video of the park

 

lorenzo puliti
lorenzo puliti

I am fascinated by the wonders of the world I never tire of going in search of them.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.