Striped sandstone cliffs looming over a lush green value. Turquoise lagoons tucked between soaring red walls. Millions of stars twinkling overhead. Zion National Park, meaning “heavenly city”, is the oldest National Park in Utah and the most visited National Park in the American Southwest – for good reason. Millions of thrill-seekers find their stoke in Zion each year through hiking, climbing, backpacking, canyoneering, and, if they’re really courageous, at the top of the most famous hike in the park, Angels Landing!
This red-rock canyon, carved out by water millions of years ago, is 15-miles long, half a mile deep, and crosses three different ecosystems, with a history as unique as the rust-colored sandstone itself. When the area was first declared a National Monument back in 1909, it was actually called Mukuntuweap, which means ‘straight canyon’ in the Nuwuvi language, describing the narrow and cavernous lower part of the canyon. Today, Zion National Park not only protects the lands of Zion Canyon, but also preserves archaeological sites from 10,000 years ago.
Visitors to Zion National Park today can hike to aquamarine pools, float along the very same river that carved the Zion Canyon, canyoneer down steep cliffs, learn about the history of this sacred land, and gaze up at the Milky Way in the clear night sky.
With so many things to do in Zion National Park, it can be difficult to know where to begin. We are lucky enough to have fellow adventurer Aaren Prody give us the scoop about this fascinating, almost alien-looking landscape and national wonder. Take it away, Aaren!
Psst: Looking for more places to explore in Utah? …. check out some of our other posts on things to do in Utah!
Zion National Park FAQ’s
How to get to Zion National Park?
No matter which way you’re coming from, you’ll need to drive to Zion National Park. The roads in Zion are well-paved, so you don’t need any special vehicle to get in and around Zion, so whether you’re traveling in style with a fully decked out 4×4 Jeep or your mom’s minivan, you’ll get here just fine!
The Zion Visitor’s Center is dotted right along Highway 9. If you’re road-tripping from the West Coast, you’ll be entering via Springdale, a very hipster-y western town that my granola soul fell in love with! If you’re coming from the East instead, you’ll be arriving from a very scenic route that takes you all the way into the park.
The two closest airports to Zion National Park are in Las Vegas (170 miles away) and Salt Lake City (300 miles away). These are both ideal basecamps for road trips through Utah’s National Parks, named the Mighty Five, and many travelers base themselves in one of these two cities, then rent a car to drive to Zion.
How to get around Zion National Park?
Getting around Zion National Park is very simple, but there are a few guidelines you need to know depending on when you’re visiting.
If you’re visiting Zion between February and November, the only way to get around the park is by using the free shuttle service. You’ll need to park your car somewhere in Springdale and then board the shuttle into the park. The National Park Service does this to reduce emissions pollution, traffic, and parking issues, so it’s really a blessing in disguise!
The first shuttle leaves the Zion Visitor’s Center at 7 am and the last shuttle leaves the Temple of Sinawava at 6:15 pm. Look for a full schedule at one of the park’s shuttle stops when you arrive.
Since you’ll be traveling on the shuttle’s set schedule, you need to make sure you don’t miss one of the next to last shuttles out of the park. It’s very important that you do not wait for the very last shuttle because there is an almost guaranteed chance that that bad boy is going to be filled to the brim, causing you to be well up sh*t creek without a paddle once you have to walk back to where you’re staying. Totally not ideal, especially when you’ve spent all day walking only to have to walk all the way back to camp or your hotel!
If you’re visiting Zion in December or January, the only way to get around is by your own car because the shuttles do not run, so parking is a free-for-all. Winter is less busy, but it’s not desolate, so waking up early is highly recommended so you can grab a parking spot!
Tips for Using Zion’s Shuttle System
One of my biggest tips for traveling Zion efficiently is knowing how to navigate the shuttle system. There are two separate shuttles that maneuver in and around Zion National Park.
The first loop goes through Springdale and makes nine different stops. This is the shuttle for you if you’re staying at the hotels, Airbnbs, or the campgrounds around Springdale. Board this shuttle at any of these stops to get to the Zion National Park Visitor’s Center:
Once you’re inside the park, the second shuttle loop goes through eight popular stops throughout the park (listed below). You don’t have to worry about missing any stops since the bus driver will tell you when to get off for what you want to do.
- Zion Human History Museum
- Canyon Junction
- Court of the Patriarchs
- Zion Lodge
- The Grotto
- Weeping Rock
- Big Bend
- Temple of Sinawava
If you’re unsure of what to do, when you get to the shuttle stop look for a paper schedule for the shuttle and it’ll help you find your way. Trust me, it’s way less stressful than it seems!
Temporary Changes To Zion’s Shuttle Service
While the Zion Shuttle Service is normally free for visitors, as of this post (Feb 2021) new guidelines have been put in place temporarily. Now to ride the shuttle in Zion, you need to buy a shuttle ticket in advance. The tickets are only $1, but you still need to purchase a ticket even if you paid the entrance fee to the park.
These tickets are only good for one day, so if you plan on exploring the park for longer, you’ll need additional shuttle tickets for each day. There are tons of information and frequently asked questions on the NPS’s website if you have specific questions about the changes.
Tickets are released on a rolling basis and generally open up a month before your arrival. They do have one-day-in-advance tickets available that are released at 9 am MDT (e.g. July 1st for July 2nd, and so on). The maximum tickets you can have per day, per recreation.gov account is eight, and everyone in your party should have their own ticket. Read more of the ticket logistics here.
Oh, and one more thing: you’ll need to book your shuttle tickets WAY in advance. You almost want to be obnoxious about how early you book, like 6+ months out. I mean, consider the fact that the Zion Lodge is booked up a year in advance most of the time – plan WAY ahead!
Things To Know Before Visiting Zion National Park
Here’s everything you need to know when planning your Zion National Park itinerary.
- Arrive early to avoid long waits.
Zion is one of the most beloved and popular National Parks. So, no matter which way you’re coming from and which entrance you’ll be accessing, you want to enter the park WELL BEFORE 9 am, otherwise you’ll be waiting for ages to get inside the park!
- Make a plan for the heat.
When visiting Zion in the summer, the most unforgiving part – other than some of the more palm-sweat-inducing hikes – is the brutal heat, and I mean BRUTAL. Coming from Texas, I thought that handling a couple of extra degrees would be a cakewalk, but BOY was I seriously confused upon my arrival.
If you’re visiting in the summer months, avoiding the midday heat is crucial. Like the shuttle service, this is also a blessing in disguise since midday is the most popular time of day for travelers to explore the park. How they didn’t get the heat memo, I will never know, but aim to be up early, head back to the hotel by midday for a siesta, and then go out again later in the evening so that you can stay safe and hydrated – and avoid feeling like a sardine in a frying pan.
In any case, bring plenty of water in insulated steel bottles to stay cool. You’ll need it!
- The neighboring town of Springdale is full of amenities and supplies.
The desert is, well, deserted most of the time, but I was shocked at just how many of life’s small luxuries were in Springdale. It has quaint coffee shops, health food stores, restaurants galore, and anything you need during your trip.
A lot of people prepare for a road trip by buying all their food and supplies with the anticipation of not having access to them along the way, but you don’t need to! Springdale is rich with anything you’ll need to stock or re-stock on your trip.
However, with the exclusivity of Springdale being in the heart of the desert, prices tend to jump in this area since it is both touristy and one of the only established towns in the area. Try to pack most of the food, fire, or hiking items you need ahead of time, especially if you’re traveling on a budget.
- Plan your hikes ahead of time
While a lot of day hikes in Zion National Park are on the top of everyone’s list to conquer before they leave, rockfall and other natural disasters (like flash floods, which are no joke in the desert) can cause immediate closure of trails, so it’s important to stay updated on trail conditions! Check the National Park Service’s Hiking in Zion page for closures and conditions before you head out each morning.
Fantastic alternatives to more popular hiking trails that may be closed are the Narrows hike (one of my personal favorites), Observation Point via the East Mesa Trailhead, The Subway (permit required), Canyon Overlook, and if you’re really up for an adventure, the West Rim Trail is an EXCELLENT selection!
- Pack your own lunch or dine-in in Springdale.
There is only one place in the entire park to grab some grub and that is the Red Rock Grill inside the Zion Lodge. As you can imagine, the place is an absolute zoo during mealtimes. And while the food is great, people flock here and there are usually long lines, so I recommend packing your own lunch (you can’t go wrong with the top tier option, the classic PB&J), or hopping back on the shuttle for lunch in Springdale.
I have two suggestions for places to eat in Springdale. Cafe Soleil is a privately owned cafe that has off-the-chain oat milk lattes and a variety of brunch-type dishes. The savory tofu scramble topped with melty vegan cheese or their smoked ham and swiss panini are A+ selections on this menu *drools*. While you dine, you can view art pieces by local artists and consider a great souvenir to take home, all while supporting the local community in Springdale.
If you find yourself a bit west of Springdale in the city of Hurricane, be sure to check out Lonny Boy’s BBQ, which people have claimed is hands-down the best BBQ they’ve ever had! The sampler plate meal will give you the best of everything, including slow-smoked pulled pork, hickory-smoked Angus beef brisket, pulled chicken, and rack ribs … so basically, the ideal post-hike refuel spot. Yum!
If you’re planning to visit multiple parks during your trip – like more of Utah’s Mighty Five – we recommend picking up an America is Beautiful National Parks Pass. The pass is valid at over 2,000 National Parks and 10% of the sale proceeds are donated to the National Park Foundation, helping to keep our parks beautiful!
Where to Stay at Zion National Park
The great thing about staying in or near Zion is that no matter where you pick, the natural scenery is absolutely gorgeous. Staying inside Zion National Park will keep you closer to the action, while staying outside the park will give you a bit more space and some new areas of Utah to explore. I’ve included a few suggestions for both.
Staying in Zion National Park Proper
These spots have the massive plus of being inside the park and in close proximity to the shuttles, so you can be one of the first at the shuttle stops each morning and still have time for your morning cup o’ joe! That said, keep in mind the lodge and the campgrounds have gnarly competition to snag a reservation, especially if you are looking for dates in the summertime or around holidays.
For this reason, if you’re looking to stay centrally in any of these locations, I would start looking at reservations at least six months in advance.
- Zion Lodge: The Zion Lodge is the only lodge inside the national park, and it gives you all the advantages of staying in beautiful surroundings without having to rough it. It’s the best place to stay in Zion if your idea of a National Park retreat is a rustic but comfortable lodge nestled into stunning cliff-faces and trees, possibly with like, a stone fireplace crackling in your room. So you know. Heaven, etc.The lodge itself is rustic and not as grand as lodges in other National Parks; rather, it seems to blend in with the rust-colored sandstone mountains and let nature do the talking. This is also where the Red Rock Grill is located so you will always have a hot meal at your fingertips!
- Watchman Campground: The Watchman is nestled underneath the Watchman Rock Formation, an imposing 6,545-foot sandstone mountain, one of the most photographed features in Zion! Plus, the Virgin River flows nearby, so during the summer months you can slip your swimsuit on and cool off! You’ll be walking distance from the Visitor Center, making it easy to grab one of those first shuttles into the park. The Watchman is open year-round, has electric hooks ups, and is very savvy on utilizing space, so the campsites are laid out similar to a suburban neighborhood meaning your fellow campers are pretty close. The campground is dog friendly and has access to the Pa’rus Trail, a paved trail that runs alongside the river – and the only trail in the park that allows dogs. The only downside to this campsite is that there are no showers, so you’ll have to clean up somewhere in Springdale!
- South Campground: The South Campground is similar in layout and amenities to the Watchman, but with fewer frills – there’s no electricity here). But you will still have easy access to the Virgin River, Visitor’s Center, shuttle pick-up, and restrooms! The South Campground doesn’t take reservations, so snagging a site here can be much easier than trying for a reservation at the Watchman. Since this site doesn’t take reservations, it’s on a first-come first served basis, so make sure you get here really early to secure a spot!
Places to Stay Near Zion National Park
You don’t have to stay inside Zion National Park itself: there are many unique places to stay just outside the park in Springdale that are just as special! If you’re willing to get up a little earlier to venture into the park, these places to stay near Zion will reward you with space from the crowds and some good old-fashioned charm.
- Under The Eaves Inn: This historic, 1930s cottage home in Springdale is perfect if you love quaint spots away from crowds, but still like to be close to the action. All of the rooms in this home are unique since the home was for original settlers and wasn’t built to be an inn, so you experience a small slice of what life was like in the 30s and feel like you’re in a fairytale all at the same time! Plus, you’ll only be a mile away from the Zion Visitor’s Center.
- Canyon Vista B&B: This place looks like it belongs in the old mining town set at Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain. Located in Springdale, Zion NP surrounds the property on three sides and comes equipped with a hot tub, organic fruit trees, riverside patio, fire pit, and a free breakfast from Oscar’s Cafe or Porter’s Smoke House and Grill. There is also a kitchenette where you can whip up tasty snacks and picnic food for your day hikes!
- Angels Landing A-Frame Cabin: On the off chance that you don’t mind staying a small ways south of Springdale in Hilldale, Utah, the Angels Landing A-Frame Cabin is the perfect Pacific Northwestern getaway in the heart of the American Southwest. This adorable, tiny A-frame house has a seamless indoor-outdoor space and spectacular views of the sandstone mountains! If you want a romantic space to get away from crowds and don’t mind the extra driving distance to get to the park, this is the place to shack up.
Other accommodation options in Springdale range from camping and RV parks to high-end luxury lodge style accommodation. Other good, budget-friendly options include the Pioneer Lodge and the Bumbleberry Inn, which gets major bonus points for having the most adorable name ever.
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The Best Things To Do In Zion National Park
I remember experiencing my first sunset over Zion Canyon while hiking the Observation Point Trail. The only word I could formulate to say was “wow”. The desert ecosystem, filling the canyon turns into a kaleidoscope of colors for golden hour. The pines at the top of the canyon are illuminated by golden rays while the canyon floor melts into a painting of blue, purple, orange, and yellow hues.
This breathtaking view is still my favorite memory I have of exploring Zion National Park – despite a gnarly bloody nose that I got once I arrived at the top. There is nothing more epic than gazing at one of the most beautiful views in the American Southwest with tissues stuffed up your nostrils!
These nine adventurous Zion National Park activities will help you plan your trip to one of the USA’s most jaw-dropping natural spectacles – no tissues required (hopefully).
Hike Zion’s Best Trails
The absolute BEST thing to do in Zion National Park is to go on a hike! The trails in Zion are some of the best in the WORLD, no question, so you must get out and take a scenic hike. (Editor’s Note: we’ve got a guide to the best day hikes in Zion!)
One of the reasons why Zion is so universally loved is that you can get amazing views on multiple trails with varying levels of difficulty, so that everyone has access to the beauty of the park – not just those that sweat their way up to Angels Landing!
While the most popular trails require some serious grit and day hiking essentials to get to the best views, there are many alternative trails in the park that don’t require a serious sweat sesh to get to memorable views. This combination makes Zion an excellent place to visit no matter your activity level.
The East Mesa Trail to East Rim Trail is 4.4 miles out-and-back and is a very leisurely stroll to the lookout point. Observation Point encompasses all the amazing things about Angels Landing, but the hike is much easier and the view is higher in elevation and even more stunning!
While the popular route to Observation Point can be just as difficult as Angels Landing (and is not always open due to rockfall anyway), you can take what the locals call “the old man’s way” to get to this view. Once you get to Observation Point, you will be rewarded with a panoramic view of the canyon, including Angels Landing which is several thousand feet below.
This is probably the best way to get a bird’s eye view of the canyon without sending your heart rate spiking on Angels Landing Trail. This is also an excellent hike to do at sunset because you can experience dreamy, orange hues over Zion Canyon, and still get back to the trailhead safely.
The hike is a grueling 5.4 mile out-and-back trail and is considered to be one of the most dangerous hikes in the United States, but if you can stomach it the view at the top is both shocking and rewarding.
Angels Landing got its name back in 1916 when a Methodist preacher passing through the canyon commented that the giant sandstone cliff was so high that only an angel could land on top of it. It wasn’t, like, a challenge, but here we are a century later and bagging that peak is a coveted achievement on any hiker’s bucket list.
What makes this hike so intense? Well, in order to reach the expansive view over Zion Canyon, you must first scale a razor-thin rock ledge with a 1200-foot drop on both sides using only determination, grit, and the aid of some metal chains hammered into sandstone. Fun, right?
While Angels Landing isn’t for the faint of heart, overcoming this epic feat grants you “I conquered Angels Landing” bragging rights and you’ll arrive back at the trailhead of the hike with a double fist to the air!
Some say that if Angels Landing is the heart of Zion, then the Narrows is the soul. Aptly named, the Narrows hike goes through the ‘narrowest’ part of Zion Canyon.
The hike itself is down the Virgin River, and walking through the canyon carved out by thousands of years of water flow will guide you past iconic spots like Wall Street, where you can experience thousand-foot rock walls surrounding you on one of the most scenic hikes in the world!
The best part about this trail is that since it’s along the river, you can hike into the canyon as far as you’d like, then turn around when you’re ready to go back.
Although these three hikes listed below are considered to be the “Holy Trinity” in Zion National Park, there are plenty of other hiking trails with equally incredible views that aren’t so strenuous. Some Zion cult favorites are the West Rim Trail, Weeping Rock, The Subway, Upper Emerald Pools, and the Watchman Trail.
Take An EPIC Backpacking Trip
Quite possibly one of the most underrated things to do in Zion National Park is backcountry camping. ‘Backpacking’ or ‘backcountry camping’ means that you pack everything you need for camping and basic survival into a backpack and carry it into the wilderness for a day, few days, or weeks with no amenities; just you and mother nature!
- Safety Tips: this probably goes without saying, but please don’t attempt a backcountry trip in Zion National Park without first doing plenty of research and preparation. Doing so puts not only yourself at risk, but also the environment as well as the Rangers who will ultimately have to bail you out if you get in over your head.
That said, if you’re up for it, backpacking is one of the best ways to experience the stillness of Zion Canyon that is often masked by the masses of people that flock here.
- The Narrows (Top-to-Bottom Route): This 16-mile longer route through the Narrows begins at the top rather than at the bottom from the Temple of Sinawava, the massive red rock amphitheater that “unofficially” marks the entrance to the Zion Narrows. The top-to-bottom route is so favorable because you’ll have the entire trail to yourself until you get to the bottom quarter of the trail. This portion of the hike is one of the most secluded trails in Zion National Park! If you do choose to tackle this trail, you can complete it in a full day, 10-13 hours, or divide it between two using backpacking gear, 12-18 hours. My favorite feature of this trail is arriving at Wall Street, the narrowest part of Zion Canyon, and arguably the most beautiful! Walk between canyon walls that tower hundreds of feet and search for Veiled Falls, Floating Rock, Alcoves, Mystery Falls, and the Gateway to the Narrows! This overnight trail does require a small amount of in-advance planning since snatching a permit can get competitive.
- The West Rim Trail: This 17-mile trail can be done in either a day or a two day backpacking trip through the length of Zion National Park. The best to conquer this trail is going from the top down starting at Lava Point. The trail begins in the upper plateau of Zion canyon and transforms into an epic adventure into the main canyon. Most travelers that visit don’t get to see the juxtaposition of the upper canyon with its expansive views and lush tree line against the cozy, orange depths of the lower canyon, so this makes for scenic and remarkable adventure!
- La Verkin Creek Trail: If you want a shorter, more comfortable backpacking experience, the La Verkin Creek Trail is an optimal route for beginner backpackers. This 11-mile, two-day route has designated campsites and two main detours among golden grass, canyon views, juniper trees, pines, and the main creek that you can take to see the second-largest free-standing arch in the world, Kolob Arch, and a stunning red rock canyon carved by a river, Bear Trap Canyon. Bear Trap can be viewed as a mini Zion Narrows experience since you’ll be able to take a dip and see a small waterfall in this slot canyon.
Note that these types of trips require wilderness permits that are easily obtained online either through a reservation or a lottery system. Also, if you are making a backcountry camping trip, please abide by the Leave No Trace Principles to keep nature pristine for everyone. A few more important resources that will help: Backpacking Information, Water Sources, Backpacking Safety, and Trail Descriptions & Photos.
Bike the Pa’rus Trail
The Pa’rus Trail, which is Paiute for “bubbling river”, is a paved 1.7 mile path that follows the Virgin River, beginning at the South Campground and ending at Canyon Junction, just before the Zion Scenic Drive Road. Along this trail you’ll traverse many bridges, likely see many cute little mule deer grazing, and see the tunnel view of the canyon on the valley floor!
The paved trail is dog-friendly, wheelchair accessible, and a great place to go on a bike ride! Going for a bike ride is a great way to give your feet a break from hiking and to feel a nice breeze while flying past the towering red rock formations on both sides of Zion Canyon.
Avoid taking this trail midday since crowds will be plentiful and the heat will be in full bloom. The best time to go here is for sunset to see the last day’s glow hit the canyon walls, and you will certainly feel like you’re ‘summer-camping-trip-montage’ movie fantasy.
You can get a bike rental near Zion National Park at Zion Outfitter, only stone’s throw away from the South Campground and the trailhead for the Pa’rus Trail!
- Zion Travel Tip: Between March through November when shuttles are the only vehicles allowed on the 32-mile Zion Scenic Drive, renting a bike allows you to enjoy a secluded, peaceful biking experience down one of the most famous roads in all of the US National Parks! The shuttles will not pass bikers unless they have one foot on the road, so it’s very safe.
Visit The Zion Human History Museum
While you’re biking down the Pa’rus Trail, you’ll pass by the Zion Human History Museum where you can learn about Zion’s original, Indigenous settlers, as well as what life was like for the Euro-American colonizers that later established the park in 1919.
In the museum, you’ll learn about the Nuwuvi/Southern Paiute people, who first named the canyon and surrounding areas, have resided in this spot from about 1250 CE to the present day, and the canyon itself was considered sacred by many Native American cultures. The canyon was believed to be inhabited by gods, and the many Native American tribes would not enter it after dark.
But even before the Nuwuvi settled in the area in the 1250s, several ancient indigenous cultural groups inhabited the area around the park, including Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) and Fremont cultures from 300 BCE to 1225 CE. There are artifacts in the museum that serve as proof that the land in and around Zion has been settled since 7000 BCE.
The Anasazi, meaning “The Ancient Ones”, were centered in the four corners region of the United States, but they were spread out over hundreds of miles in the Southwest. Since they were a farming culture, they were able to sustain a large population and, in turn, there is evidence of their sprawling settlements all across this region of the US. From pottery to petroglyphs, flutes, shelters, and kilns, they are primarily known for their impossible-to-reach rock-built shelters, like the one in Mesa Verde, Colorado, and others that – by today’s standards – are only reachable with ladders or special equipment.
The museum also includes exhibits showcasing the everyday life of Mormon settlers, who arrived in the area in the mid-1800s. (Editor’s Note: we are high-key fascinated by LDS/Mormon history, particularly around the Brigham Young era, which was marked by murder, angry mobs, wars with both local Indigenous tribes and the United States government itself, and cons that led to the deaths of hundreds of settlers – all, amazingly, resulting in what we know today as Salt Lake City. We cover it in more depth in our Salt Lake City brewery guide.)
- Zion Travel Tip: If ancient petroglyphs are something you’re intrigued to see, inquire at the visitor’s center about visiting Petroglyph Canyon. It’s a very off-the-radar hike that will lead you to over 150 figures etched into the canyon wall! Petroglyphs are carvings and drawings on the surface of rocks in Zion National Park, with many of them dating back thousands of years. Archaeology fans can also easily visit the remains of an Anasazi food storage shelter (only recently found) along the Archeology Trail, a short 0.4 mile trail that starts directly behind the Zion Visitor Center.
Take a Scenic Drive
One of the best – and, frankly, easiest – ways to take in Zion’s stunning scenery is from the comfort of your very own, temperature-controlled vehicle. Roll down the window, put on your favorite music, and enjoy the views. Ahhh. Er, well, except for the bits where you feel like you’re 3 inches away from a sheer cliff and a plummet to certain doom. Ahhh!
There are three scenic drives in and out of the park, all of which give you a taste of the splendor of Zion Canyon. All of these roads are fully paved, so you don’t need any fancy cars to traverse them. Just your best tunes, tasty snacks, and lots of rubberneckin’!
Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway (25 miles)
You’ll likely drive the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway if you’re entering or exiting the park from the East (or if you’re visiting some of Utah’s other Mighty Five parks). This drive is best described as the previews before a movie: thrilling and action-packed – but just a precursor to the main event!
Take the Zion Scenic drive via shuttle during the summer season or drive it yourself in the winter for an up-close view in the middle of Zion Canyon. I enjoy using the shuttle for this route since the bus drivers will often explain stories and point out points of interest along the way. It’s almost like a free guided tour as they take you from stop to stop!
This road was completed in 1930, and was considered to be one of the greatest road-building accomplishments in history at that time! At first, the feat was considered impossible because they started drilling in the middle of a massive sandstone cliff. But 146 tons of dynamite later (yikes), the highway now includes the 1.1 mile Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel that weaves through Navajo Sandstone cliffs – then the longest non-urban road tunnel in the United States!
The Zion-Mt. Carmel highway begins with the famous “National Park” flagship sign situated in front of a stunning preview of inside the park. The first four miles winds you deeper and deeper into the canyon, and you’ll pass by the entrance to the Canyon Overlook Trail, an excellent dayhike trail option (more details in this post). Then, you’ll enter the massive, mile-long tunnel through Zion’s sandstone cliffs, which has windows on the side of the tunnel that let in tiny light streams of light.
Once you’ve left the tunnel, you’ll come to the heart of the canyon, and as you navigate the highway’s switchbacks, there are many peeks of the canyon walls jutting sky-high around every turn, giving you a true feel of the scale of the canyon.
Along these switchbacks there are also many spots to pull off the road, giving you the chance to take in the grand mix of the rust sandstone cliffs, green pine and cottonwood trees, all against a clear desert sky. These pullover spots are the perfect place to take a photo and try to spot mountain goats high up on the cliffs. This awe-inspiring drive really proves that the journey can be just as exciting as the destination itself!
- Zion Travel Tip: A lot of people head to the east entrance using this highway, so if you want to drive this route without a lot of traffic, be sure to get in the park in the early morning or in the late afternoon.
Zion Scenic Drive (54 miles)
The Zion Scenic Drive is the road winding through the main part of the park and leading to the most popular trails, and only allow shuttles are allowed to traverse this road during peak season for emission and traffic reasons. So while you cannot drive the Zion Scenic Drive from March To November, if you’re visiting Zion in the winter, you’ll have the opportunity to drive the full length of the Zion Scenic Drive! Since most people visit during the summer, most people that come to Zion don’t get to experience this – think of it as a special wintertime gift.
This road includes all the previous mileage on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway in addition to the 6-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from the Canyon Junction Bridge to the Temple of Sinawava inside the park.
You’ll get to have an inside look *wink wink* at Zion Canyon – and feel small within its walls. On the Floor of the Valley Road, you’ll be able to spot Zion’s well-known rock formations that stand as skyscrapers over the canyon floor: Johnson Mountain, The Watchman, The West Temple, Altar of Sacrifice, The East Temple, and the Mountain of Mystery. Keep your eyes peeled for exciting stops and views along the way beginning with the checkerboard mesa, a famous sandstone hill with cracks that resemble a grid on a checkerboard, and the Zion Tunnel, all the way down to the entrance of the Narrows, the thinnest part of Zion Canyon. You’ll even be able to spot tiny hikers climbing up Angels Landing along your route!
If you happen to stumble across some luck, you may be able to spot the infamous condors that nest on the cliffs just north of Angels Landing. This species was once on the brink of extinction and the park is playing a major role in helping it thrive again. This past summer, the first condor chick was born here in thirty years – and I was able to spot it on my shuttle ride to the Narrows!
- Zion Travel Tip: If you’re isiting during the summer, your only option is to take the Zion Scenic drive via shuttle. The shuttle is an enjoyable way to see the park because the bus drivers will often explain stories and point out points of interest along the way; it’s almost like a free guided tour. But during the winter, you’ll be able to drive this scenic route on your own!
Kolob Fingers Scenic Byway (10 miles)
Pack a picnic lunch and head up to Kolob Canyon! It’s likely you’ll see few fellow travelers during your drive through here, as this is the least popular of the three scenic drives in Zion National Park and a little more out of the way.
Kolob Terrace Road and Kolob Fingers Road features intense switchbacks over the course of ten miles with views overlooking the “red finger” Canyons in southern Utah, which, you guessed it, look like giant red fingers poking up from the earth, especially when the sun hits it the right way.
Along the drive, there are many scenic lookouts and places pullout if you’re on the market for a zesty lunch view. One of my favorite spots is across the street from the Taylor Creek Trailhead: there is a small pullout on the left here with a dazzling, tunnel view of the creek flowing through Horse Ranch and Buck Pasture Mountains.
At the top of the drive, you’ll reach the Kolob Canyon viewpoint, which is another great spot for lunch since there are plenty of parking spots and views to go around. Here you’ll see lush green forest dusted along the canyon floor with mountains jutting up in eight beautiful displays: Buck Pasture, Nagunt Mesa, Bullpen Mountain, Langston Canyon, Burnt Mountain, Timber Top Mountains, and Kolob Canyon!
- Zion Travel Tip: Driving the Kolob Fingers Scenic Byway is a great way to beat the midday heat and also the crowds, and the byway is open year-round. Compared to the main canyon in Zion, this area is practically desolate even during the busiest season. Since this drive is a bit out of the way to only drive ten miles, I recommend coming here if you’re already in the area to hike in Kolob Canyon, or if you’re passing by.
Float Down The Virgin River
A mini float trip down the Virgin River is the perfect way to cool down on hot summer afternoons in Zion National Park! The soundtrack of your two-hour long river cruise will be filled with birds singing from the trees overhead, water flowing over river rocks, and the roar of mini rapids as you make your way downstream.
As you float, you’ll be following the path of the very same water source that carved Zion Canyon itself almost twenty-million years ago. In the (very) distant past, Zion and the rest of the Colorado Plateau was a giant basin located almost at sea level, which gradually filled with layers of sediment from eroding mountains – that’s what makes up the distinct layers of many of Zion’s rock formations! About 13 million years ago, tectonic forces slowly lifted the Colorado Plateau from its position near sea level to almost 10,000 feet (!) above sea level. This uplift caused the once meandering Virgin River to transform into a fast-paced stream that eventually excavated a deep canyon through the vibrant layers of sedimentary rock, which it continues to do today.
The trees above will provide partial shade throughout your trip and you’ll be able to see the outskirts of Zion Canyon along the way. Among the cottonwood and willow trees along the river bank, keep your eyes out for some of Zion’s unique wildlife: mule deer, rock squirrels, foxes, and cottontail rabbits nesting in the shady oasis.
Sound like paradise? It gets even better: you don’t even need to bring your. own raft! You can rent one at the same place where you rented your bike for the Pa’rus trail, Zion Outfitter. Note that don’t accept any reservations, so all of the rafts are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Tube rentals run from 11 am to 4 pm during the floating season (May through July).
Once you’re near the end of your float, there will be two bridges with signs pointing to the exit to Springdale Park. You’ll notice a large gravel pit around and you can leave your tubes there, then take a short walk to board the next free shuttle stop back to the day activity on your itinerary for the day.
This is a relaxing activity in Zion that allows you to soak up the sunshine, cool down and let your feet breathe. It’s the perfect midday adventure to rebuild your stamina to hit the trails again for sunset!
- What to Bring Floating: Cover yourself with biodegradable sunscreen to protect both your skin and resident wildlife. You’ll want to wear closed-toed water shoes, as there are plenty of rock beds in the river, so you want to make sure you protect your feet and don’t lose your shoes! Also, bring a dry sack for your snacks and phone is also handy as the tubes are likely to flip. And pack a lightweight travel towel for when you get out!
Take A Rock Climbing or Canyoneering Tour
If you’re looking for more thrilling Zion National Park activities than a hike – or perhaps would prefer a little more guidance – then joining a canyoneering or climbing tour will be one of the most memorable experiences on your trip.
While hiking can take you to some of the most iconic areas of Zion National Park, climbing and canyoneering take you to exclusive, secluded parts of the park that many visitors don’t even know about!
You’ll also be able to experience routes and views of Zion Canyon that few others get a chance to see – with a fraction of the crowds of the more popular spots and hikes. The guided tours are typically small and more intimate than, let’s say, roughing it up Angels Landing with dozens of other people, and they’re the perfect way to explore new ways to enjoy the outdoors in a safe and encouraging environment.
If you’re up for a challenge and enjoy a variety of adventure sports, try canyoneering. Canyoneering is a melting pot of outdoor activities all squished together to explore a slot canyon, including hiking, rappelling, sliding, and scrambling up rock. The routes take you from point A to point B using a variety of outdoor adventure skills in a safe way. Essentially, you’ll make your way down into a canyon and then back out of it again!
If you prefer to focus on climbing and rappelling, climbing tours are exclusive to vertical terrain and use ropes and climbing techniques to navigate walls and canyons.
If you have never done either of these, I recommend beginning with canyoneering! It’s a lot less technical, from my own experience, and feels more like an explorative adventure than learning a new skill.
Personally, I highly recommend the half-day tours from All Ways Adventure! They have two start time options, AM or PM, so it gives you enough time to enjoy the park as well as take on a new adventure. This is especially handy if you’re only in Zion for a few days and are limited on time! I’ve also heard great things about Zion Guru – here’s what to expect on a Zion canyoneering tour with them.
Do Yoga… With A View
Zion Guru hosts a class that takes you on a trail on the outskirts of Zion overlooking Zion Canyon where you’ll be practicing yoga among the gray-toned sandstone and pines while looking out upon a vast rock wall of rusty, layered Navajo Sandstone.
This is an opportunity to center yourself and breathe while taking in the natural beauty of the canyon, and a nice juxtaposition to the more adventurous things you can do in the park. This is also an ideal way to avoid crowds in Zion since their maximum class is twelve people and it’s on a quieter trail, so you’ll likely not see any other hikers on the way up and back down.
The Zion Guru’s website says that, “The Zion area is an amazing place to practice Yoga because the raw energy of the land is so poignant that it quickly elevates our own energy levels. Even simple conscious movements are amplified in their effect.” Which means if you took on more of the strenuous hikes in Zion, this the perfect way to stretch out your legs, recharge, and start your day off right to take on more trails!
The class provides yoga mats, since a lot of people don’t travel with their own mats. You know, unless you’re a ride or die yogi *insert rock on hand gesture here*. Carve out 3-4 hours of your day for this activity!
I currently live in a suburb outside of Dallas, where the light pollution is, shall we say, astronomical (get it?). During the night, I only get to see a handful of stars “light” up the sky. So when I came here, I actually had to pick my jaw up off the floor. I didn’t even know the sky could LOOK the way it does in Zion, or many other parts of Utah for that matter.
While Zion National Park isn’t recognized as an International Dark Sky Park, like its very underrated next-door neighbor Bryce Canyon, it’s still excellent for viewing billions of stars, that classic strip of the milky way, constellations, meteor showers, and planets! Zion has made many changes and enhancements over the years that reduce the amount of light pollution in the park, which keeps the visibility of the stars in the sky at a maximum.
With that being said, MAKE SURE you get out and see the night sky. Although you can see the sky from anywhere in the park, the Zion Rangers recommend both the Human History Museum and the paved Pa’rus Trail (see above) as great options to stargaze. They discourage going on hikes to stargaze since a lot of them have severe drop-offs, steep cliffs, and the potential to run into a mountain lion or rattlesnake in the night – yikes!
My favorite spot for stargazing in Zion National Park is actually the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway by the East Entrance. The road is deserted at night, and there are many places to pull off and view the starry background behind many of Zion’s ionic features like The Watchmen, The East Temple, and Bridge Mountain.
Tips for stargazing in Zion National Park
- Don’t stop or stand in the road: All of the lights in Zion are shut off during the night, which means that the park is pitch black and oncoming cars won’t be able to see you.
- Bring a headlamp or a red flashlight: A headlamp is one of my personal favorite camping essentials, but it’s crucial if you’re stargazing away from your car. Headlamps are the best because they’re hands-free and you can point the light downward to avoid more light pollution, which also helps you avoid shining light in your eyes (it can take 20 minutes for your eyes to readapt to the dark – not ideal for stargazing!). A red flashlight also works extremely well, and will take less time for your eyes to re-adjust to the dark.
- Download a stargazing app or bring a chart: Bring a star chart or app to help you find constellations and maybe even planets! Apps like Sky Guide and Night Sky are super helpful in that you can face your phone towards a particular star or constellation and it will tell you what it is, and will also have tons of information built in about what you are looking at. Just make sure to turn your screen brightness way down.
Once you’ve contemplated the meaning of existence for a while, make your way back to your accommodation and drift to sleep dreaming of tomorrow’s adventures.
About our Contributor: Aaren is a coffee-loving, adventure-seeking traveler that shares in-depth guides to travel destinations all around the world, on and off the beaten path. She strives to share her unique perspective through her love for photography and sustainability. Where is she when she’s not traveling? Why, cooking a mean pad thai, practicing guitar, speaking Japanese, and writing for her travel blog, What Do You Sea, of course! You can follow her latest extravaganzas on Instagram & Pinterest!
Which part of Zion National Park are you excited to explore first? Let us know in the comments below!
Psst: Looking for more places to explore in Utah? …. check out some of our other posts on things to do in Utah!
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