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Zion National Park: How to Plan Your Perfect Trip!

View of tree and red rock cliffs in Zion

The gorgeous contrast between the red sandstone and green trees, the majesty of the 2,000-foot canyon walls, or the opportunity to go on a real adventure hike without having to be an adventure hiker. Zion National Park has all this to offer and more- you just need to know how to make it happen for yourself.

No fear, no worries. In this Ultimate Trip Planner for Zion, you’ll learn all about…

  • The best hikes
  • What to pack
  • Other things to do
  • How to get there
  • Where to stay
  • How to get around using the shuttle system
  • Best time to visit
  • How long you should go for
Zion Trip Planner 2021 | Watch before visiting Zion!

Best Hikes

Zion National Park is famous for its incredible hikes, and rightly so. There is nowhere else on the planet quite like Zion and the park is designed to make the sights accessible on foot.

All the trails in the main canyon are paved, fairly wide, and clearly marked. If you are visiting April-October, you’ll also see plenty of people going to the same places you are so no need to worry about getting lost. In no particular order, here are the most popular hikes.

The Narrows

Elevation: none Length: 2-6 miles out and back

Time needed: 4-8 hours Difficulty: easy to moderate

Trailhead: The Temple of Sinawava, the last stop on the Zion Canyon Shuttle

People hiking in river in canyon in Zion

The Narrows is arguably the most famous hike in Zion.

The appeal is that you get to hike through a river between the 2,000-foot canyon walls which get as narrow as 30 feet at some points (hence the name “the Narrows”). Words don’t do it justice, but it’s spectacular.

Around every corner is a new, beautiful sight.

There are two ways to hike The Narrows. From the top to bottom is a 16-mile, one-way, possible overnight adventure hike that requires a permit.

The one most people do is from the bottom up. You catch the shuttle at the Zion Visitor Center and ride it all the way up to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava. From there you will take an easy, paved, one-mile River Walk trail with a total of 193 ft elevation gain.

When you get to the end of the paved trail, that is where the Narrows begins. Put on your river shoes, grab your trekking poles, step into the Virgin River, and start your adventure upstream.

My favorite part of hiking this, besides the beautiful scenery, is people-watching. I love the smiles and playful nature of everyone around me. It’s like they are kids again using a hiking stick and splashing in the water.

Most people consider the hike complete when you get to Wall Street, 2 miles upstream, but you can turn around anytime you feel like it.

What we learned hiking the Narrows: Tips for First-Timers

Confused about How to Ride the Zion Shuttles?
Download our FREE pdf

Guide includes the Springville Shuttle, Zion Canyon Shuttle, What to Do at Each Stop, Handy Tips + Maps

Angel’s Landing

Elevation: 1630 Length: 5 miles out and back

Time needed: 3-4 hours Difficulty: Strenuous

Trailhead: The Grotto-6th stop on the Zion Shuttle

Woman standing on edge of cliff with mountains behind

Do you crave adventure and are feeling a little brave? If you said yes, this hike is for you. Angels Landing allows you to climb to the top of Zion Canyon where you get views you won’t see anywhere else.

However, the best part of this hike is the journey you’ll go on to get to the top.

The trail is easy enough at first but then you get to your first set of switchbacks. They hug the wall of the canyon and can get pretty hot the first half of the day. In my opinion, the first mile of the hike is the most strenuous. The good news is, half a mile into the hike, you already get some pretty views.

At the one-mile mark, you head into Refrigerator Canyon where the trail levels off for a short time. It’s shaded and a great time to catch your breath.

You’ll next head into the notorious Walter’s Wiggles, 21 short but steep switchbacks where you’ll gain 250 feet of elevation.

After owning Walter’s Wiggles, you will immediately reach Scout Lookout which offers incredible views (and porta-potties). Many people choose to end their hike here because the next half mile will test them physically and mentally.

The Hog’s Back is the famous chain section of the hike. Here you’ll complete the last half mile of Angel’s Landing. You will literally be hanging on to chains bolted into the mountain wall on a surface not more than a few feet wide at some places.

This is also a great place to people watch or listen. Everyone is scared and you can hear people encouraging themselves to keep going. It’s awesome! You feel a real sense of community when you all reach the top.

Due to the crowding of the trail, and especially, the dangerous chains section, Angel’s Landing now requires a reservation through the National Park Service.

How to hike Angels Landing [Lottery, Hike Overview, Tips]

Overlook

Elevation: 100 feet Length: 1 mile out and back

Time needed: 1 hour Difficulty: easy to moderate

Trailhead: right after/before the tunnel Mt. Carmel Tunnel on Highway 9

View of canyon in Zion National Park

We call this hike Angel’s Landing Junior because you are going to see some spectacular, bird’s eye views of the canyon without having to climb 1600 feet!

Plus, it’s not part of the shuttle system so you have the convenience of driving your car and going when you want and…… you get to drive through a cool tunnel to get there to boot!

One tricky thing about this hike is the parking. There is a very small parking lot to the right immediately after exiting the tunnel. There is also parking along the road but you could be signing up for a bonus hike from your car to the trailhead if you get there at a crowded time. It’s still one of my favorite hikes in the park.

Emerald Pools

Elevation: 200 feet Length: 2 miles out and back

Time needed: 2-4 hours Difficulty: easy

Trailhead: The Grotto-6th stop on the Zion Shuttle (the trailhead used to be at Zion Lodge, but is closed at this time due to an unstable bridge.)

How to hike Emerald Pools in Zion National Park

The Emerald Pools is one of the best hikes to take kids on. You can hike to 3 separate pools: the lower, middle, and upper.

You get to the lower pool first and can turn around after that if you want. The middle pool isn’t that impressive, but the upper pool has some cool boulders you can scramble on to get a better view of the pool.

The water in the pools varies by the time of year but I want to make it clear: there is nothing emerald about them. They are a murky green.

You do this hike because it’s really pretty and cool. There are nice views along the way with the canyon walls surrounding you. You can see Angel’s Landing and Great White Throne. Navigating this hike is a bit of a challenge.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the hikes the park has to offer but a few you may want to check into. There are also many cool, back-country hikes, including The Subway – my favorite hike of all time, that you need a permit for.

Trail Closures

The geography of Zion is always changing. At this time, the trail to Observation Point and Hidden Canyon is closed due to a rock slide. There is also a closure of a trail bridge at the Zion Lodge (shuttle stop #5) because it is unstable.

What to Pack

  • Good water bottle
  • Backpack or Camelbak
  • Camera
  • Workout clothes- not jeans!
  • hat
  • Running shoes with good traction
  • Moisture wicking socks
  • Sunscreen, moisturizer, ChapStick
  • Water enhancers and or salty snacks
  • Gum/ breath mints

Check out this article from our website or this video from your YouTube channel for more details.

Zion for Non-Hikers

If you are looking for a break from hiking or hiking isn’t your thing, there are tons of things to do in the area. Check out the table below for a few ideas.

ActivityWhereCostDetails
BikingRent bikes or ebikes from
Zion Outfitter,
Zion Guru,
Zion Adventures
~$29-99Although you can ride a bike through Zion Canyon, there isn’t much of a shoulder. Many people enjoy the mostly paved Pa’rus trail. It starts at the Zion Visitor Center and is 3.5 miles out and back. Very little shade-be prepared
Watch
Rock Climbing
From the Zion ShuttleFreeHonestly, just riding the shuttle through Zion Canyon is pretty cool and will take 90 minutes round trip. Along the way, look closely at the canyon walls for rock climbers. It’s pretty incredible to watch
Drives*Mt Carmel Tunnel
*East entrance
FreeYou need to ride the shuttle to the main canyon but you can drive yourself to the east entrance of the park. Along that route, you’ll drive through the 1.1-mile Mt Carmel Tunnel. It’s so cool.
Keep driving to the East entrance and you’ll see breathtaking scenery. You’ll pass checkerboard mesa along the way where there are spots to get out and scramble around on the sandstone.
AnimalsEast entranceFreeBig horn sheep tend to hang out near the East entrance. You’ll also see mule deer throughout the park. You may even see a wild turkey or two.
Ranger Programs*Zion Lodge
*Watchman Campground
*Visitor Center
*Museum of Human History
FreeThe Ranger Programs are always very educational and can be fun for kids as well.

If you are willing to leave the park, you can head an hour to St. George. It is a big city with lots of tourist attractions like museums, parks, sports complexes, plays, fun centers, boating, paddle boarding, and ATV rentals.

Kanab is a smaller city and one hour away in the other direction (less if you are staying at the East entrance). The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is located here. This 3,700-acre preserve is home to over 1600 homeless dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, horses, pigs, and more. These animals need some extra love and the goal is to get them ready to be adopted. If that’s not possible, the sanctuary will care for them.

There are multiple tours available that you need to reserve online prior to visiting. Visit their website to see what is available. Many people actually plan their entire vacation around this place and volunteer to help for a few days.

Safety

Although there is no need to worry about being attacked by a bear at this national park, there are other types of dangers visitors need to be aware of. On average, search and rescue is called over 250 times a year. Here is how to keep yourself safe.

  1. Dehydration-this is the biggest danger in Zion. There are water stations at every shuttle stop so make sure to bring a big enough water container and fill it up before you hike. Temperatures get over 90 degrees daily June-September so you will probably want 2 liters of water for the longer hikes.
  2. Cliffs and ledges-use good judgment when hiking around, especially with small children. Things may look safe on the trail but a dangerous drop-off could be around the corner.
  3. Flash floods-storms can come and go quickly creating dangerous conditions in the narrow canyons. Zion Visitor Center does a great job posting the flash flood probability daily.
  4. Falling rocks-sandstone is a soft stone and rocks fall from the canyon walls frequently.
  5. Squirrels-yep, those adorable little creatures bite!! They aren’t afraid of people and will get very close and beg for food. Resist and don’t get bit.

Check out our article on hiking in the desert for more tips.

Confused about How to Ride the Zion Shuttles?
Download our FREE pdf

Guide includes the Springville Shuttle, Zion Canyon Shuttle, What to Do at Each Stop, Handy Tips + Maps

How to Get There

Zion is often included as part of a road trip. One popular option is flying into Las Vegas, renting a car, and driving 3 hours (165) miles to Zion on I-15. Others choose to start their adventure in Salt Lake City and hit the Mighty 5 national parks of Utah. They are all within a couple of hours of each other. Some see Zion while also seeing the Grand Canyon. It’s 5 hours away. For some really good information on getting there, including a cost breakdown, see our article or watch our YouTube video.

Map showing how to get to Zion National Park from different cities

Where to Stay

If you are staying in a hotel, there are more places to stay in or near Zion than meets the eye. Let’s break it down.

Distance from Zion Driving time to ZionAverage price per roomAmenities
Zion LodgeIn the park0~$237-$333Counter service and sit-down restaurant
SpringdaleImmediately outside the south entrance of the parkless than 5 minutes~$200-$500Restaurants, shopping, gas stations, rentals
LaVerkin20 miles27 minutes~$100-$200Grocery, gas, stores, restaurants
Hurricane23 miles31 minutes~$100-$200Grocery, gas, stores, restaurants
St. George41 miles53 minutes~$49 and upEverything!
Places to stay when visiting Zion

Zion Lodge– Built in 1924, this is the only lodging inside Zion National Park. Choices include rooms, suites, and cabins. Although you can drive your car through the main canyon to get to the lodge, you aren’t allowed to drive your car any further up the canyon and you still need to reserve a ticket if you want to utilize the shuttle.

Visitor Center at Zion National Park

Springdale– this could very possibly be the cutest town you will ever see; charming little houses with white picket fences and horse pastures with the backdrop of the red Zion sandstone. Every time I drive through Springdale to Zion, I smile. Even though this town looks like “any town USA”, it’s also touristy with lots of hotels, restaurants, and shopping.

If you are staying in Springdale, you can get by without having a car because the town has a free shuttle system that is easily accessible from anywhere in the town.

Hurricane/LaVerkin

These two towns are listed together because they are right by each other and offer similar lodging and amenities. Because they are over 20 miles from the park, you would need a vehicle or a shuttle to get there but you will pay half of what you would for lodging in Springdale. Plus, you have access to grocery stores like Davis Grocery in LaVerkin and Walmart, and Lins in Hurricane. I’ve never minded the drive to and from the park- it’s really pretty. Plus, if you need a break from hiking, you can rent an ATV from Southern Utah ATV and cruise around the Sand Mountain Mesa. We did that last year and the kids loved it!

St George- this place is a gem in the middle of a desert. It’s a big city with resorts, hotels, outlets, restaurants, parks, theaters, fun centers, sports complexes……. you get the point. This is where my family almost always stays. Besides the lodging being cheaper, there are many things to do near there including Snow Canyon, Glitter Mountain, and Gunlock Falls to name a few. Check out our article on The Best Unique Hotels & Resorts in St. George, Utah for more ideas of where to stay.

If you want a more in-depth breakdown of lodging, read this article.

Campgrounds

Zion National Park has three campgrounds but only two are worth mentioning. Watchman and South Campground are located less than half a mile from the South Entrance and are right next to each other. This is desert camping with not much shade or trees. Campfires aren’t allowed most of the time due to the dry climate. Both campgrounds have water spigots, flushing toilets, and dump stations. The best benefit to camping in the park is the accessibility to the shuttles. You don’t need to worry about parking your car because you can walk right to the visitor center.

Watchman has 189 sites with 90 electric (no water) RV hook-ups. South has 117 sites with no RV hookups. Both are currently on the reservation system. You will want to book 6 months in advance (that is the furthest out Zion will allow) or the soonest you know you are going. You can book a reservation at recreation.gov for both Watchman and South. You can plan on regular sites being ~$20 a night or more for group sites and electric hookups.

Lava Point is the 3rd campground and is an hour and 20 minutes from the South Entrance. It only has 6 sites with primitive camping.

Zion Shuttle System

The Zion shuttle system is genius. It has helped preserve the beauty of the park and made it easier for tourists to get around. Many travelers are intimidated by it but there is no need, it’s easy to use and I’ll walk you through it.

The first thing you need to know is that there are actually 2 shuttle systems: one to take you through Zion Canyon once you are in the park and one in Springdale to get you to the park visitor center.

shuttle bus at Zion National Park

Springdale Shuttle

There are 9 clearly marked stops along the main street in Springdale. Shuttles run from 7:00 am-8:00 pm and stop every 15 minutes. No ticket is required and they all drop off at the Zion National Park entrance.

Although I prefer to be at the park by 7:00 a.m. and park at the visitor center, the Springdale shuttle isn’t a bad alternative and is most likely what you will need to do if you start your day later. Parking in Springdale costs between ~$12-$20 a day depending on which lot you choose.

Zion Canyon Shuttle

Using the Zion Canyon Shuttle system is easy. You catch it at the visitor center and just get on and off at one of the 9 stops throughout the canyon. We made a comprehensive article and video all about the shuttle system; we highly recommend you read it, so you are prepared.

Where to Eat

In the Park

There are only 2 dining options inside Zion National Park and both are at Zion Lodge: Castle Dome Cafe and Red Rock Grill.

HoursPrice Reservations RequiredMenu items
Castle Dome Cafe*Open seasonally
*7:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Under $10.00NoCinnamon rolls, coffee, burgers, hot dogs, salad
Red Rock Grill*Open year round
*6:30 a.m-9:00 p.m.
~$9.00-$25.00Yes for dinnerAlaskan salmon, steak, vegetarian dishes

Outside the Park

There is no shortage of places to eat outside the park in Springdale, Hurricane, or LaVerkin but here are a couple of my favorites.

Breakfast

Maverik Yep, it’s a gas station. Don’t snub me, foodies- there are a few good reasons I recommend this place. First, you want to get to Zion EARLY. You don’t have time to wait for a restaurant to open. Save that sit-down, dining experience for dinner. Second, Maverik is not a typical gas station. It is huge and has a great variety of breakfast choices- baked goods, breakfast sandwiches and burritos, fruit cups- there is something for everyone. You could even grab supplies for a picnic lunch because they make great sandwiches. Third, it’s part of the Utah experience. We all love the Mav and you will too. Located at 460 N. State Street, LaVerkin. Open 24 hours a day.

Lunch

You will want to pack a picnic lunch unless you plan on eating at Zion Lodge in the park. There are Subway restaurants at both entrances of the park. Open 8:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m. You could pick up a sandwich there or if you are staying in Hurricane or LaVerkin, there are grocery stores and you can grab food there.

Dinner

This is where you reward yourself. Hikes are done and it’s time to chill and relax. Springdale has a variety of restaurants and it’s fun to just drive along the main road and see all the people out and about going to dinner. I’m no expert on all the restaurants but I’ve heard great things about Oscar’s Cafe which has burgers, ribs, salads, pulled pork as well as a full breakfast menu. You can plan on spending ~$15 or more for dinner.

Lupitas, located at 460 State Street in Hurricane, is another recommendation. Serving all kinds of Mexican food with entree prices between ~$10-$15. This is my sister-in-law’s favorite restaurant, plus something about Zion makes me want some chips and salsa at the end of the day. Try it out.

Best Time to Go

One of the best things about Zion is that it has a long tourist season so you aren’t limited to a 3-4 month window like many other national parks. The best time to go is April or October. Here is why. The tourist season is at the beginning or just winding down so the crowds are less and the temperatures are not getting into the 90s or 100s but it’s still comfortably warm at night.

That being said, Zion is a crowded park, especially if you are doing things in the main canyon. In 2019, 5 million people visited Zion National Park, that’s 1 million more than visited Yellowstone (which is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined!) If you go in April, avoid Easter weekend. Same with the 3rd weekend in October- it’s fall break for Utah schools and the whole state loves to vacation there.

How Many Days to Stay

Two days are enough to do Angel’s Landing and The Narrows, plus another couple of hikes and driving the scenic Highway 9 through the Mt. Caramel Tunnel. It’s a packed schedule but doable. If you want to check out Kolob Canyon or not hike too many miles daily, you may want to give yourself an extra day. If you are a complete BEAST, you can do The Narrows and Angels landing in one day if you are short on time. No matter how long you are staying, you need a plan. The good news is we have one for you.

Travel Itinerary

Matt and I have been to Zion National Park many times and have spent hours going over different scenarios and exploring the best times and ways to experience Zion.

In our itinerary, we hold your hand by giving step-by-step instructions to experience this amazing park. Each itinerary includes easy-to-read maps, a list of gear you need and where to get it, a daily plan, the time you will need to complete each hike/ activity as well as the mileage you’ll do that day, and the most efficient order to do the best hikes and sights. You’ll be able to avoid crowds, the heat, wasting your time on a sight that isn’t that great, and needless driving around. You can go to Zion with confidence knowing that you’ll be able to relax and enjoy this spectacular park without missing a thing.

Our 1-day itinerary actually has 4 options so that you can pick what you are most interested in. One of them is even geared toward people who don’t want to hike. Our 2-day itinerary will leave you feeling like you have done Zion National Park properly because we’ll take you to all the iconic Zion hikes and sights you’ve heard about.

You’ve already done plenty of work arranging travel, let us plan the rest. It will cost less than it does to park your car in Springdale.

Whether you choose to plan your own trip or purchase our itinerary, we hope that this article has been helpful and that you leave Zion loving it as much as we do. Happy travels.

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO
ZION

ZION TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Zion National Park, check out our  Zion Homepage

THINGS TO DO: Don’t miss all that Zion has to offer including Emerald Pools, Angel’s Landing, The Narrows, and Kolob Canyons

WHERE TO EAT: Check out the best places to eat in and near Zion National Park

GREAT CITIES TO STAY OR CHECK OUT: Learn where to stay or camp when visiting Zion and explore some amazing cities nearby including St. George, Kanab, and Cedar City

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out if you need a reservation and how to use the shuttle system as well as if you can drive in Zion, which entrance to use, and how to avoid crowds

WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Zion National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Zion YouTube Playlist

LEGAL INFORMATION

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