Zion National Park: The Complete Guide

The red sandstone walls of Zion Canyon stretch into the distance

Martin Klima / EyeEm / Getty Images

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Zion National Park

Address
Utah, USA
Phone +1 435-772-3256

Situated in the southwest corner of Utah, Zion National Park is one of the most unique and breathtaking settings on the planet. At the heart of the park lies Zion Canyon, a 15-mile long, 2,600-foot deep gorge that is awe-inspiring both for its size and beauty. But the colorful sandstone walls sit at the nexus of desert, forest, and river biospheres which are rarely found in such close proximity. This makes the park a truly magical environment that never ceases to amaze and delight.

While it was officially declared a national park by Woodrow Wilson in 1919, Zion's history stretches back much further than that. Native Americans inhabited the region for at least 8,000 years, with various tribes calling the area home over the centuries. Europeans arrived in the 1850s and '60s, ultimately displacing the Native Americans living there. Many of those early Europeans were members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which derives a great deal of meaning from the park's name.

Today, Zion is known for its excellent hiking, spectacular landscapes, and diversity of wildlife.

Things to Do

As is typical with any national park, there is plenty to see and do in Zion. For example, visitors simply looking for a scenic drive should point their car towards the Kolob Canyons where they'll find an epic 5-mile route that has to be seen to be believed. Birdwatchers will find a lot to love here as well, with more than 280 avian species to spot throughout the park. That includes the rare—but increasing in numbers—California Condor, which has appeared more frequently in recent years. If you linger in Zion after dark, you'll be treated to a celestial light show unlike any other, with the night sky aglow with a billion stars overhead.

Travelers looking for an adrenaline rush can take to the Virgin River, which has carved out Zion's unique landscape over the years. The water can run fast and furious at times, presenting challenging rapids meant for expert paddlers. The sandstone walls of the canyon make for excellent climbing and canyoneering—particularly in the famous Zion Narrows—is also a popular way to explore the area.

If you get hungry, options for finding food inside Zion National Park are somewhat limited. The visitor center does offer a limited number of drinks and snacks, while both the Castle Dome Café and Red Rock Grill at Zion Lodge offer a full menu for any time of the day.

A lone hiker walks through a gorge as a river flows through the Zion Narrows

Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

The Best Hikes & Trails

Zion features numerous hiking trails throughout its 146,000 acres. Many of those trails are remote and rugged, so plan accordingly before setting out. That includes wearing appropriate footwear and bringing plenty of drinking water. Be prepared to be self-sufficient in the backcountry, particularly if you wander into the Zion Wilderness. Backpackers planning to spend the night are also required to have a permit before venturing out. It is also important to note that the National Park Service limits the size of groups traveling together to 12 people. Zion's top trails are legendary amongst hikers, many of which come simply to knock a few off their adventure bucket list.

The Narrows is a challenging walk that takes trekkers 9.4 miles into the canyon, following the Virgin River along the way. Meanwhile, the moderately difficult Watchman Trail runs just 3.3 miles, along rocky cliff faces, rewarding visitors with some of the best views in the park along the way. The Overlook Trail is just 1 mile in length, but ends at a lookout point that is also breathtaking in its scope.

The park's signature hike, without a doubt, is Angels Landing—a demanding 5.5-mile walk that features over 1,500 feet of elevation gain along the way. This trek is not for the faint of heart or inexperienced, as there are certain sections where chains have been installed to provide handholds while crossing through the more difficult portions. Those who do complete the journey are treated to a truly spectacular view at the end that provides an amazing sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Those looking for easier, more accessible routes should give the Lower Emerald Pool Trail a go. This paved path runs for 1.2 miles and takes visitors to a beautiful waterfall and its namesake body of water, where hikers can even take a dip. Other options include the 1-mile-long Grotto Trail, which often provides opportunities to spot wildlife, and the paved Riverside Walk, which offers a 2.2-mile mini-Narrows experience.

A backpacker cooks a meal beside a small tent with sandstone cliffs in the background.

Lee Cohen / Getty Images

Where to Camp

Of course, visitors to the park can also elect to camp inside its borders during their stay. There are three campgrounds found within Zion itself, each with differing amenities. Lava Point Campground is the most remote and is usually only open between May and September. It is located at 7,890 feet along the Kolob Terrace, where weather conditions can fluctuate rapidly. The South Campground and Watchman Campground are a little more accessible and have a few modern features, including RV hookups and dump stations. Campsites start at $20 per night and reservations should be made through Recreation.gov.

As with most national parks and forests, backcountry camping is permitted in Zion, although backpackers are urged to take caution when pitching their tent. Hikers should make camp a safe distance from water sources and out of the way of potential rockfalls. Backcountry camping is free, but a permit is required at all times.

Where to Stay Nearby

Travelers looking to spend a few days in and around Zion have several options when it comes to where they want to stay for the night. The famous Zion Lodge allows visitors to spend the night inside the park's boundaries, while still offering a comfortable setting. The Lodge offers standard rooms, cabins, and suites at varying price points and is open year-round.

Additionally, other overnight options can be found in the small towns that border the national park, with Springdale and Rockville being the closest and most convenient. Those towns also offer a variety of restaurants for grabbing both a quick and easy meal, as well as a more upscale sit-down experience.

A woman with a blue backpack hikes a trail into Zion Canyon

Jordan Siemens/Getty

Getting There

While Zion National Park is located in a remote area of southwest Utah, there are multiple ways of getting there. Those who are flying in will most likely pass through McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, which is located approximately 170 miles from the park. Others may choose to fly into Salt Lake City International, but it is more than 300 miles away, making the journey by car a longer one. Additionally, there are regional airports located in nearby Saint George and Cedar City, although they may not be cost-effective options.

When driving to the park, head towards Springdale, Utah. Zion's main entrance can be found on State Route 9. When heading north from Las Vega, take Interstate 15 to Exit 16, then head east on SR 9. If you're traveling from Salt Lake City, stay on Interstate 15 South to Exit 27, then head east on State Route 17 until it intersects with SR 9. From there, continue heading east until you arrive at the park.

Of particular note, if you're traveling in a large vehicle—such as an RV or truck—you'll want to be aware of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The 1.1-mile-long tunnel is found on State Route 9 and is the longest of its kind in the U.S. Because it is quite narrow, vehicles that are taller than 11 feet, 4 inches in height or wider than 7 feet, 10 inches in width are required to have an escort, or traffic control when passing through. There is a $15 fee for this service, which is good for two trips. Vehicles that are 13 feet tall are prohibited from passing through the tunnel, as are semi-trucks, vehicles longer than 40 feet, or those carrying hazardous materials.

A man with a red backpack sets on a rock overlooking the massive Zion Canyon

Jordan Siemens/Getty

Accessibility

In accordance with the American Disabilities Act, Zion's visitor center, museum, restrooms, parking lots, and picnic areas are all wheelchair accessible. Zion Lodge is also wheelchair friendly, as are the shuttle buses that carry visitors around the park. Service dogs are allowed throughout the park but must remain on a leash at all times.

Various trails—including Pa’rus Trail, Lower Emerald Pools Trail, and Riverside Walk—are paved, allowing visitors with accessibility challenges access to the Zion wilderness experience. Many of the other trails quickly become difficult and demanding, however, so proceed with caution when venturing off pavement.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Avoid the Crowds: More than 4 million visitors flock to Zion in a given year. Most of them come between February and November, with much smaller crowds in January and December. Those months may be colder and have less predictable weather, so bring appropriate gear to stay warm and dry. At all times of the year, Zion Canyon is the busiest area of the park, so head to Kolob Canyons or Kolob Terrace Road for more solitude.
  • Backcountry Permits: Backcountry permits can be obtained at the Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. Be prepared to wait an average of 20 minutes while completing that process.
  • Fees and Passes: The entrance fee for Zion National Park is $35 for a private vehicle, $30 for a motorcycle, and $20 per person on foot. These fees provided a pass that is good for seven days. A Zion annual pass can be obtained for $70 and a lifetime pass can be purchased by seniors over the age of 62 for $80. The America the Beautiful Annual Pass is a great value at $80, particularly if you plan on visiting any of Utah's other national parks, such as Bryce Canyon or Canyonlands.
  • Bring Binoculars: As mentioned, Zion is a virtual paradise for birdwatchers, but there are plenty of other creatures to see as well. The park is home to bighorn sheep, mule deer, bobcats, mountain lions, porcupines, foxes, and the elusive ringtail cat. Carrying a pair of binoculars will make it easier to spot these creatures throughout your stay.
  • Check Trail Closures: Before planning a specific hike in Zion, be sure to check the park's website or at the visitor center for closures. Rockslides and high water are common at times, both of which can temporarily close a trail down. Additionally, the Angel's Landing trail might also get closed down due to overcrowding, so come with alternative plans should this be the case.
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The Complete Visitor's Guide to Zion National Park