Utah’s first national park and undoubtedly the best, Zion National Park is made up of nothing but love. From the moment you enter the park, you are sure to fall in love with it. Made up of colossal red sandstone cliffs, evergreen trees, all brought together by the mighty Virgin River cutting through the towering rocks to create one magical and unforgettable landscape.
Zion has so much to offer, something to fit all ages and physical abilities. Even if you’re here only for a few hours or have several days to explore, this park will leave you awestruck with its never-ending panoramic vistas and brilliant blue skies.
Whether it’s your first time in the park or are returning to explore more of this beauty, these are the 10 highlights you absolutely shouldn’t miss.
But first, there are some important things you need to know before visiting the park.
What You Need To Know?
- Driving through the Zion Canyon is restricted from mid-March to late-November. To travel through the canyon, where most trails are located, you will have to use the free shuttle service provided by the park. There are two shuttles, one that takes you from Springdale to the Visitor Center, and second that takes you inside the park. The shuttle service is extremely good, one of the best I’ve experienced at a national park, with shuttles running every 5-10 minutes.
- If you want to stay inside the park, the options are quite limited. The park has only one lodge – The Zion Lodge, and two camping sites. So make sure to make your bookings at least 6 months in advance!
- Another popular area to stay is Springdale, which is only minutes away from the park entrance and offers many lodging and camping options. The park provides a separate shuttle to travel from Springdale to the Visitor Center, which makes it an even more convenient place to stay.
- If you plan to do hikes in the park, then be sure to carry hiking shoes with good traction, since you’ll be hiking on the sandstones which tend to get slippery. Also, carry plenty of water as the sun can get extreme at a higher altitude.
- Be sure to start your day early, since there can be huge lines for the shuttle at the Visitor Center and long wait times to start the trails during the peak season.
- Be sure to check daily for trail closures as many major hikes close down due to rockfall and snowmelt.
Best Time to Visit
According to us, the best time to visit Zion National Park is from May to October, when the park’s free shuttle is running and the average temperature is around 80-90 F. Just make sure to avoid holiday weekends, since the park tends to get really busy then and it might get difficult to enjoy the beautiful trails and the serene areas this park has to offer.
How to Get There?
The closest airport to Zion National Park is the Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, which is about a 2.5-hour drive from the park. You can rent a car from any of the multiple rental car companies located near the airport. The airport offers 24/7 shuttle service from the airport that takes you to the Rental Car Center.
Where to Stay?
Staying Inside the Park
If you plan to stay inside the park then you have 3 options.
- Zion National Park Lodge: Located quite centrally inside the park (at shuttle stop #5) and starting point for many hikes such as the Emerald Pools Trail, Grotto Picnic Area Trail, and Canyon Trail Rides, it is definitely one of the best places to stay.
However, since it is the only lodge in the park, it tends to sell out really fast. Getting a room is very difficult, but if you plan at least 6 months in advance you might be able to grab yourself a room!
- Watchman Campgrounds: If camping is your thing then these campgrounds are a really good option. Located extremely close to the Visitor Center, you’ll be the first ones to ride the park’s shuttle, hence no waiting in line!
- South Campgrounds: These campgrounds are another option if you’re a camping lover. They’re also fairly close to the Visitor Center, about a 7-10 minute walk.
Staying Outside the Park
- Springdale: If you’re going to stay outside the park, then you should be staying in Springdale! This area not only has many lodging options lined up on Zion Park Boulevard, but also has the park shuttle stopping along the route through town.
There are plenty of food options here, from Thai, Chinese to Italian and American, you will have a lot to choose from.
We stayed at the Quality Inn Springdale, which is perfectly located; with the shuttle stop right next to the hotel and the visitor center only a 10 minute walk away, it always gave us a choice to walk whenever the shuttles came fully packed.
There’s also a general store, Hoodoos General Store, located right across the road to help you stock up on trail mixes, energy bars and energy drinks for your hikes.
How Long Should You Stay?
The number of days needed to explore this park totally depends on what you plan to do. If you plan to tackle most of the popular hikes then plan for around 4 days at the park. If you don’t plan to do any long hikes and just want to cover the viewpoints then 1 to 2 days should be enough.
Ideally, 4 complete days at the park is sufficient. It gives you time to enjoy all your hikes and viewpoints as well as rest and re-energize for the next day’s adventures.
Now that you have all the information you need about this park, let’s go into this magical journey of Zion National Park!
1. Drive the Zion-Mt. Carmel Scenic Highway
One of the most spectacular drives of my life, driving the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway is an absolute must! Every inch and every turn on this highway will leave you wide-eyed and floored with amusement. With massive red, pink and yellow sandstone cliffs all around, forming incredible portraits, you’d want to stop after every 5 minutes (if not after every minute).
Even though driving through the Zion Canyon isn’t allowed for most part of the year, you are allowed to drive through this road. If you’re traveling from Springdale, you’d want to turn right from Canyon Junction to continue on this highway.
As you drive through the twists and turns around the cliffs, be sure to have your cameras ready because the moment you exit the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, you will be placed in front of some ethereal views! Drive as long as you like or throughout the 12-mile highway, the area around Checkerboard Mesa is a good stopping point offering some great photographic sceneries.
2. Hike the Canyon Overlook Trail
The Canyon Overlook Trail is located on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and can be combined with the scenic highway drive. If you’re driving from Springdale to this trail, then the moment you exit the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel, you will find parking for this trail located on the right side. Note that this is a very small parking lot, with only 8-10 parking spaces, so make sure you arrive very early to find yourself a spot. In case you don’t find a spot, then there are a couple more spaces available a few feet away on the left side.
You will get the best views from the overlook, if you are up there during sunrise. So, plan to start the trail before sunrise. As the sun’s rays fall perfectly on the gigantic rocks, they will create a glistening effect making for some incredible postcard shots.
Even though the trail may only be 1-mile roundtrip in length, it should be done with caution as it is slippery at places and has some exposed areas only a couple of feet in width. You will need some balancing to reach the top.
3. Hike the Angel’s Landing
After you finish this trail, it will be one achievement that you can brag about for the rest of your life. One of the top 15 hikes in United States (as per localadventurer.com) and one of the top 12 most deadly hikes in North America (as per ranker.com), Angel’s Landing Summit offers some otherworldly views of the Zion Canyon like no where else, but at the same time this hike is also not fit for everyone to attempt.
Take on this hike only if you’re an adventurer and have some hiking experience. People with fear of heights or those who face difficulty in balancing their bodies should definitely not attempt this hike as you will be scrambling, crawling, climbing on exposed edges with 1500 feet drop-offs on both sides. Even though chains are installed at most sections, there are many areas with no chains at all and yet are only few inches wide, through which you will have to crawl.
But for people who don’t have much experience hiking, don’t worry you can still hike up to Scout’s Lookout. The hike up till Scout’s Lookout is 4-miles roundtrip in length and has an elevation gain of around a 1000 feet, but is relatively easy with paved paths throughout. You will, however, come across 21 switchbacks through which you gain most of the elevation. This can be tiring for many people, so be sure to take a break to rest and have water whenever you need! After hiking 2 miles, you will reach Scout’s Lookout which also offers some great panoramic views of the Canyon.
Most people tend to return from this point, but for people attempting the Angel’s Landing hike, this is a good place to use the restrooms and re-energize your body with some food because you have some adventure coming your way!
From Scout’s Lookout, Angel’s Landing Summit is another 1.1 mile roundtrip (which might seem like 10 miles) with an elevation gain of around 500 feet. Since this mind-blowing hike deserves a detailed explanation, I will be dedicating an entire blog post to it.
After precariously crawling and climbing for the next 0.5 miles, you will reach the top of the summit and the views will just be surreal!
After enjoying the views for as long as you want, get ready to hike back down, which is the most difficult part.
NOTE: The trailhead is located at the Grotto shuttle stop (stop #6).
4. Hike the Narrows
Clearly one of the most iconic things Zion National Park is known for – The Narrows is the narrowest section of the canyon through which the Virgin River flows. It is a one-of-a-kind hike where you’ll be wading through the river for the entire trail.
For tourists and occasional hikers, who want to see the best of the Narrows, begin your hike from the Temple of Sinawava (the last stop of the shuttle); the end of the Riverwalk trail forms the beginning of this premier hike. Hike up as far as you want and then turn around to walk back to where you started. Here you will see some of the best Narrows section of the Virgin River.
If you’re a seasoned hiker, then Narrows can also be hiked top down, starting at the Chamberlain’s Ranch, making it a strenuous 16-mile hike. However, it is a two day hike and requires a wilderness permit.
You will need to rent some gear like wading boots and walking poles to hike the Narrows and the best location to get that is from the Canyon Outfitters, located at the Visitor Center complex.
Remember to check Zion’s website before planning to take on this hike as flash floods due to heavy snowmelt can be a real danger, and the hike usually gets closed whenever this happens. This happened to us as well and we can’t wait to take on this hike head first in our next Zion adventure!
5. Hike the Observation Point Trail
Another classic Zion National Park hike, it is a strenuous 8-mile roundtrip trail and the views at the end of the hike will just leave your mouth agape. The Weeping Rock Trailhead (shuttle stop #7) continues on to the Observation Point trail on the right side. It is mostly a paved uphill trail but with steep inclines and switchbacks.
While this hike isn’t as exposed or dangerous as Angel’s Landing, with an elevation gain of over 2,100 feet, it is definitely a more strenuous hike. At the final viewpoint, you will be over 700 feet higher than Angel’s Landing looking down at it and the beautiful main canyon.
6. Enjoy a Stroll on the Riverwalk Trail
The trailhead for this trail is located near the Temple of Sinawava, which is also the last stop of the shuttle. It is wheelchair accessible for most part and is a predominantly flat hike.
You will be walking alongside the Virgin River throughout and will have some great photo opportunities with red rocks on both sides. There are multiple places for river access and you can even choose to move off the paved path and walk closer to the water for an even more pleasant experience.
It is 2-mile roundtrip in length and takes around 1-2 hours. The end of this trail is also the starting point of one of the most popular hikes of Zion – The Narrows.
This trail isn’t jazzy like all other trails at Zion, it is mainly a build up to the iconic Narrows hike, but it will definitely give you some time to relax and enjoy nature.
7. Weeping Rock
Zion National Park’s shuttle service is so convenient that it has a stop for each of its attractions. Get down at the Weeping Rock shuttle stop (stop #7), and walk for about 10 minutes on the slightly steep trail to reach the Weeping Rock.
The rock has a constant stream of water flowing from above it, which, depending on the season, can be few drips or an entire waterfall. Because of the consistent moisture, you will find many hanging gardens clung to its wall making it quite a sight to behold.
The base of the rock also offers some great views of the Canyon.
8. Court of the Patriarchs
The viewpoint for the Court of the Patriarchs is located at shuttle stop #4. The short walk till the viewpoint takes about a minute and the spot is just high enough to give you a perfect view of the three towering rocks and the canyon above the surrounding trees.
The Partriarchs are three sandstone peaks named after biblical fathers – Abraham Peak, Isaac Peak and Jacob Peak.
9. Hike the Pa’rus Trail
An easy leisurely stroll providing some incredible views of The Watchman and the rest of the canyon, Pa’rus Trail is a 1.7 mile one way trail that begins near the Visitor Center (shuttle stop #1) and ends at the Canyon Junction (shuttle stop #3), from where you could take the shuttle to your next spot. Since it’s more of a walk than a hike really, you could even begin it midway from shuttle stop #2.
It is wheelchair accessible and is the only trail in the park where you could take your pets or even ride your bikes. Throughout the trail you will get some beautiful views of the sandstone peaks and will come across many bridges, making for great photo spots!
10. Catch Sunset at the Canyon Junction Bridge
Sunsets at Zion National Park are extremely beautiful and you should definitely experience it at least once during your trip. As the sun begins to set, it will light up the tips of the peaks making it a spectacular sight to behold.
As goes with most coveted things, this sight is also difficult to catch, because weather and timing play a very important role here. Make sure the weather is clear and sunny on the day you plan to watch the sunset. According to us, the best spot to watch the perfect sunset at the park is from the Canyon Junction Bridge.
The setting sun lights up the tip of The Watchman as the Virgin River flows at the bottom, making it a perfect sight for some postcard worthy photos.
Make sure to reach the bridge at least 20 minutes before the sunset to find a spot as you will find many photographers lined up waiting for that perfect moment.
The park definitely has so much more to offer than just these 10 highlights, and we’d surely be going back to take on more adventures, but these are the top 10 things that make Zion National Park nothing less than heaven on Earth!
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