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 on real adventure hike without 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 National Park is famous for it’s 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.
Elevation: none Length: 2-6 miles out and back
Time needed: 4-8 hours Difficulty: easy to moderate
Trail head: The Temple of Sinawava, last stop on the Zion Canyon Shuttle
The Narrows is arguably the most famous hike in Zion, or at least in the top 3 with The Subway and Angels landing. The appeal is that you get to hike through a river between the 2,000 foot canyon walls where it gets 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, and 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. We made a video that completely explains everything you need to know to do this hike successfully called What We Learned Hiking the Narrows. Check it out and you’ll be prepared.
Elevation: 1630 Length: 5 miles out and back
Time needed: 3-4 hours Difficulty: strenuous
Trail head: The Grotto- 5th stop on the Zion Shuttle
Do you crave adventure and are feeling a little brave? If you said yes, this hike is for you. Angel’s 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 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 the notorious Walter’s Wiggles, 21 short but steep switchbacks where you’ll gain 250 feet of elevation. You’ve got this!
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 you physically and mentally.
The Hogs 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 them self to keep going. It’s awesome! You feel a real sense of community when you all reach the top.
Words don’t do it justice so check out this video which will give you an idea of what it looks like and some helpful tips for making the hike a success.
Elevation: 100 feet Length: 1 mile out and back
Time needed: 1 hour Difficulty: easy to moderate
Trail head: right after/before the tunnel Mt. Carmel Tunnel on Highway 9
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 trail head if you get there at a crowded time. It’s still one of my favorite hikes in the park.
Elevation: 200 feet Length: 2 miles out and back
Time needed: 2-4 hours Difficulty: easy
Trail head: Zion Lodge- stop 4 on the Zion shuttle
This 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 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 wanted 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. Check out this video if you want to know more.
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.
The geography of Zion is always changing. At this time, the trail to Weeping Rock and Observation Point/ Hidden Canyon are closed to due to a rock slide.
What to pack
- Good water bottle
- Backpack or Camelbak
- Work out clothes- not jeans!
- Running shoes with good traction
- Moisture wicking socks
- Sunscreen, moisturizer, chapstick
- Water enhancer and or salty snacks
- Gum/ breath mints
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.
|Biking||Rent bikes from |
Zion Adventure Company
|$25-35||Although you can ride a bike through Zion Canyon, there isn’t much a 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|
|From the Zion Shuttle||Free||Honestly, 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|
|Free||You need to ride the shuttle for 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.
|Animals||East entrance||Free||Big 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|
*Museum of Human History
|Free||My very favorite are the night time ranger talks where they cover a variety of topics from the geography of the park to the animals that live there. Check out the newspaper they give you when you when you enter the park for details.|
Zion Lodge often has activities for kids outside by the big tree.
The junior ranger program is also really cool- even for adults. Just don’t expect a badge like your kids get when they complete it.
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 here to see what is available. Many people actually plan their entire vacation around this place and volunteer to help for a few days.
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.
- Dehydration– 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.
- Cliffs and ledges– use good judgement when hiking around, especially with small children. Things may look safe on the trail but a dangerous drop off could be around the corner.
- 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.
- Falling rocks– sandstone is a soft stone and rocks fall from the canyon walls frequently.
- 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.
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 this post or watch this YouTube video.
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 Zion||Average price per room||Amenities|
|Zion Lodge||In the park||0||$220-$284||Counter service and sit down restaurant|
|Springdale||Immediately outside the south entrance of the park||less than 5 minutes||$200-$500||Restaurants, shopping, gas stations, rentals|
|LaVerkin||20 miles||27 minutes||$100-$200||Grocery, gas, stores, restaurants|
|Hurricane||23 miles||31 minutes||$100-$200||Grocery, gas, stores, restaurants|
|St. George||41 miles||53 minutes||$30 and up||Everything!|
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.
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 back drop 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.
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 dessert. 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.
If you want a more in-depth breakdown of lodging, read this article.
Zion National Park has 3 campgrounds but only two 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 dessert camping with not alot of shade and 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 here . You can plan on regular sites being $20 a night or more for group sites and electric hook-ups.
Lava Point is the 3rd campground and is an hour and 20 minutes from the South Entrance, only has 6 sites, and is a first come first serve, 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.
There are 9 clearly marked stops along the main street in Springdale. Shuttles run 7:00 am-9:00 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 to 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 $10-$25 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. At this time, it is required that you reserve a ticket. Tickets cost $1.00 per person per day and can be booked at recreation.gov
Zion Canyon Shuttle Tips
- Tickets are available in 3 windows of time
- The first are released at 9:00 a.m. mountain time the beginning and middle of the previous month (for example tickets for November 1-15 are released on October 16th, tickets for November 16-29 are released October 31st) via recreation.gov
- The second are released the day before at 9:00 a.m. mountain time via recreation.gov
- The third is Zion Visitor Center gives out 500 walk-up shuttle passes at 3:00 p.m. daily. Get there right on time or a little before.
- Reserve your tickets right when your window opens. 9:00 a.m. SHARP. There is a good chance they will be gone at 9:02 a.m.
- Ages 4 + need a ticket
- You are given an hour window to use your ticket. Example 8:00 a.m.-9:00 a.m
- You are only allowed to use your ticket once at the visitor center. Make sure you are prepared for however long you will be in the canyon.
- You must have your ticket with you each time you board the shuttle
- Cell service is almost non-existent in the canyon so make sure you either print your ticket off or take a picture of it with your phone
- No food, pets, or drinks besides water on the shuttle (you can have food in your pack- just don’t eat it on the shuttle)
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
|Hours||Price||Reservations Required||Menu items|
|Castle Dome Cafe||*Open seasonally|
*7:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
|Under $10.00||No||Cinnamon rolls, coffee, burgers, hot dogs, salad|
|Red Rock Grill||*Open year round|
*6:30 a.m-10:00 p.m.
|$9.00-$29.00||Yes for dinner||Alaskan 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.
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 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 on 460 N. State street, LaVerkin. Open 24 hours a day.
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.
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 on 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 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 is enough to do Angel’s Landing and The Narrows, plus another couple of hikes and drive the scenic Highway 9 through the Mt. Caramel Tunnel. It’s a packed schedule but doable. If you are wanting to check out Kolob Canyon or not hike too many miles a 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.
Matt and I have been to Zion National Park many times and have spent hours going over different scenarios and exploring the best time and ways to experience Zion.
In our itineraries, 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 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 our purchase one of our itineraries, we hope that this guide has been helpful and that you leave Zion loving it as much as we do. Happy travels.