Updated: Aug 3, 2019
Zion is a place where beauty begins and ends. A place where words don't do enough justice to describe the immense grandeur and picturesque surroundings that are Zion. Entering Zion, your jaw drops and you realize America has a lot of beauty you didn't know was there. Leaving it, you feel complete. With Zion being the 3rd National Park on our trip, we thought we hit the epiphany of National Parks. We're still convinced this is the case but there are many more to see. I believe others have their own unique special place in our heart, but Zion demonstrated a beauty that we didn't know existed. It set the benchmark on Parks and made us realize why National Parks were made.
The park can be overwhelming with the number of things to see while figuring out how to navigate bus options up and down the narrow park. This guide will help make the visit easy and comfortable for those visiting. This is a highly visited park, one of the largest in the nation, so it will be busy most days but with some advanced planning your visit will be more than enjoyable.
Getting to Zion:
Heading in from St. George, Utah or Las Vegas, NV along I-15 heading East gets you to La Verkin, Utah where you’ll head the one direction, past Virgin and on to Springdale, which is inside the park. On the drive heading into Springdale, you’ll see huge cliffs that will have you gasping. This is just a teaser of the greater things to come.
Heading into the park entrance, which is narrow and can be quite the traffic line if you get their late, gets you to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at the South Entrance. This is the beginning of the journey.
Remember to pick up the America The Beautiful Pass if you’re planning on visiting more than one park. At $80, you get into all National Parks and Monuments for one year. With Zion being situated around several National Parks and Monuments, it’s a must for those spending time in Utah.
Parking is difficult at Zion. If you get to the park right when it opens, you should be able to park in the Visitor Center. The town is full of paid parking lots or paid parking along the street. The town makes a lot of money from parking alone. The bus system is fantastic and if you’re staying at one of the hotels, this is the best option.
Park in the Zion Canyon Visitor Center early (6 am or 7am at the latest) or later if you’re lucky
Park in the Zion Human History Museum if all spots are filled in the bottom center. The museum is located at the next stop passed the Visitor Center and offers around 30 or so slots for parking. Many people forget about this option and must go back to town and pay for parking if the Visitor Center is full.
Pay for parking in the various lots, hotels, or Zion Outdoor places.
Take a bus if you’re staying at one of the Springdale hotels. They have a fantastic bus system in this small town.
If staying at one of the campgrounds inside the park, you can walk.
There are various hotels within Springdale that have great views of the mountains
If you want to really enjoy the park, stay at the Zion Lodge located in the heart of the park. It’s a beautiful hotel with great food.
Watchman Campground - RV, Van, or Tent camping at $20 per night ($30 for electric)
South Campground - RV, Van, or Tent camping at $20 per night
If RV camping, make reservations because they are sometimes full 6 months to a year in advance.
Watchman Campground (Reserve up to six months in advance)
South Campground (Reserve up to 14 days in advance)
Boondocking or Dry Camping near Virgin or La Verkin. The amount of open land that you can camp on for free is immense. You’ll see people in RVs and Tents all near the mountain ranges along the way. The campsites are only 14 miles from Zion, making them an ideal, cheap version. We boondocked around here for 14 days.
Kolob Terrace Road is a great boondocking road, which also places you near the Kolob Canyon side of Zion
Reminder: The boondocking sites are all on red clay. This red dust is a fine powder that gets into everything during the windy days, which there are a lot of in Utah. It’s still worth it.
Bus Touring the Park:
The interesting thing about Zion National Park is that it is a massive canyon. One that you can only go through on bus or the congestion would be overwhelming. One exception to the bus rule is that you can drive to Canyon Junction, which takes you on a terrifying Mount Caramel route to the East side of the park and out toward Bryce Canyon National Park. The other exception being if you are staying at the Zion Lodge. The rest of the areas are accessed via the bus system, which ends at dusk so be on it.
Take the Bus from Zion Canyon Visitor Center to Zion Human History Museum. This is a short stop, something like less than a mile. You can also walk a nature trail along the river up to the Museum, which is even more fun. Stopping here is a great way to run through the Museum, listen to a Ranger talk, and make sure you filled up your water bottles at the fill stations.
After the 2nd stop, head up to the top, which is the Temple of Sinawava, the very last stop on the route. We found it best to start from the top and work our way down. Get out and enjoy the scenery or hike the narrows.
Hop on to the next stop, Weeping Rock and Angels Landing. For those lacking a fear of heights, enjoy Angels Landing. For the rest, take the short hike up to Weeping Rock to enjoy a unique experience of water dripping down an alcove and views like the one on the cover above.
Get back on to the next stop, The Grotto. Here you can take a great trail, about 1 mile, back down to Zion Lodge. In the evening, deer can be seen on the trail.
If you don’t hike from The Grotto to Zion Lodge, get back on the bus and head down to Zion Lodge to enjoy the large open grassy area where deer hang out often, people sit in the grass enjoying the large trees and massive cliffs, or dine on the balcony of the Zion Lodge.
From here, your next bus stop is Court of the Patriarchs, a beautiful area for pictures.
The last stop is Canyon Junction, which is a drop off for the Pa’rus Trail (1.25 miles) that goes back down to the Museum and Visitor Center. You can skip this stop and head down to the Museum stop if you skipped it on the way up or head back to the Visitor Center. Bus trip done.
If doing hikes at each stop, you might be doing one bus stop per day for the biggest hikes.
Pa’rus Trail: 3.5 miles roundtrip – Paved trail following the Virgin River from the Visitor Center to the Canyon Junction bus stop. Very fun and easy. If getting off the Canyon Junction bus stop to hike the trail down to the Visitor Center, then 1.25 miles.
Archeology Trail: Steep, short trail just outside the parking lot of the visitor center. You get great views and there are signs describing the outlines of several ancient Native American structures (0.4 miles).
Lower Emerald Pool Trail: Paved trail to waterfalls (1.2 miles)
The Grotto Trail: 1-mile trail from The Grotto to the Zion Lodge. Easy trail with deer often on the trail
Weeping Rock Trail: Short, but very steep (0.5 miles). Rock alcove with dripping springs and amazing views. The topmost picture was taken inside of weeping rock.
Riverside Walk: 2.2-mile roundtrip walk at the Temple of Sinawava that leads to The Narrows. The hike is paved and loaded with some of the best scenery in the park. This is the hike that demonstrates the grandiosity of these cliffs and canyons.
Watchman Trail: This is one of the best hikes. It’s 3.3 miles roundtrip, with half of that uphill, but the views are worth it.
Upper Emerald Pool and Kayenta Trail: Closed Temporarily – Going on a year closed
Strenuous Hikes (For those not fearful of heights):
(If you see this sign…run. People might be falling all over the place!)
Angels Landing via West Rim Trail: This 5.4-mile hike is only for those not fearful of heights. We watched a lot of people do this one and it wasn’t for us. We’re both fearful of heights and Watchman Trail was already pushing the limits on that fear. People have died on the Angels Landing Trail due to the last section being a rock bridge with 300-foot drop-offs on each side. The views must be amazing, and I hope to gather the courage to do it next time. For those able to, I highly recommend it.
Hidden Canyon Trail: At Weeping Rock, you can turn and go to the Hidden Canyon Trail. There are long drop-offs and again, it’s not for those fearful of heights.
The Narrows via Riverside Walk: The Narrows starts after the paved Riverside Walk ends. For those doing the narrows, it’s dependent on weather as the area is prone to floods. Regardless of the time, you’ll want to rent or bring a high chest dry suit, booties, and a dry bag as the hike is wading up the river to the narrowest parts of the canyon. The mileage ranges up to 14 miles, so the hike depends on your endurance. This is the most photographed part of the park and worth renting gear for.
Zion Mount Carmel Highway:
This route has restrictions on vehicle height and length, so be aware of that. It’s best to drive a vehicle to this eastern portion of the park. It’s a windy old road that links Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park and the Grand Canyon via a shorter junction, cutting the mileage it would normally take in half. There are some beautiful mountain structures to see on this route and worth taking a day trip to Bryce Canyon if you’re already staying around Zion.
If you’re staying near Zion in Springdale, La Verkin, or Hurricane, you’ll need to see the less known sides of Zion. If you’re boondocking on Kolob Terrace Road, you’re right on the road that will take you to this side of the park, which is just as unique as Zion. If you backtrack to La Verkin and follow interstate 15 up, you’ll hit the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center and more trails and sites.
Trailheads are all over Kolob Terrace Road. Most of them are several miles. These trailheads are long beautiful paths that go through arches and canyons. Many are multiple day hikes.
Viewpoints are all over, so pull off and snap some pictures. One of them is the view of the top of the Zion cliffs, with added cliffs and mountains above them. When you’re hiking the cliffs, it seems like the tops would be the end, that nothing would be beyond. Kolob Canyon demonstrates that it keeps going, with more land and mountains above the initial cliffs.
You can’t talk about Zion and not mention Canyoneering. This is one of the most popular activities at the park. There are a lot of adventure places in Springdale that offer all the rental equipment needed, plus they have guided services for those thinking about trying it out.
Visiting Other Parks from Zion:
If you’re staying at Zion, it makes much more sense to go see other parks and monuments. They are all close by and can be visited and viewed within a day. You can even get a few hikes in.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park – 50 Minutes Away
Red Cliffs Recreation Area – 50 Minutes Away
Pipe Spring National Monument – 1 Hour Away
Snow Canyon State Park – 1 Hour Away
Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument – 1.5 Hours Away
Bryce Canyon National Park - 1.5 Hours Away. If you have paid to be at Zion, you must go to Bryce Canyon National Park. If you try to go to Bryce from Zion, without going through Zion, the mileage is around 147 to 161 miles. Access to Zion, gives you the Mount Carmel Highway, which cuts the mileage to 72 miles! This makes it an easy day trip to drive through Bryce and see everything within a day, even with a few hikes thrown in.
As you can see, there are a lot of things to do at Zion and even more places to explore outside of it. Zion makes a fantastic starting point to explore other areas after marveling in its own beauty. This guide is designed to make the process as easy as possible and get more people to our National Parks. I hope you find Zion National Park as awe inspiring as we did.