The jewel of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks, Zion National Park is home to some of the most iconic views and trails in the National Park Service. And everyone seems to know it. Overcrowding at this park is common. But if you know where to go, you can find an escape on even the busiest of summer weekends.
Explore Zion Utah With insider tips from real USA Explorers
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Zion National Park, located in Utah, is a true gem among the Mighty Five national parks. Its breathtaking views and renowned trails make it a must-visit destination for outdoor enthusiasts. However, popularity comes at a price, as overcrowding is a common issue at Zion National Park. Despite this, there are ways to find solace and tranquility even on busy summer weekends.
By exploring lesser-known areas and hidden gems within the park, visitors can escape the crowds and experience the beauty of Zion in a more intimate and personal way. So don’t let the crowds deter you from visiting Zion National Park – with a little insider knowledge, you can still have an unforgettable experience in this magnificent natural wonderland.
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Key Learnings and Mistakes from My Last Trip to Utah Zion Park
Hello again, it’s Cesar C., your trusted travel advisor from Blissful Travel Escapes. Reflecting on my last trip to Utah, I realized there were several lessons to take away from the experience. Traveling in a group of five, including myself, posed its challenges, especially when it came to decision-making. We struggled to agree on which activities to prioritize in the vast and varied landscape of Zion National Park.
One major mistake we made was underestimating the amount of time required for this adventure. We could have split our activities more effectively, particularly considering the transportation factors, as we had rented only one car. This led to some constraints in terms of timetable and mobility.
In light of this experience, I have committed to providing more detailed information to not only avoid these hitches but also to enhance your trip to this spectacular destination. Based on thorough research and personal experience, I will provide precise links for your Best Travel Destinations and comprehensive guidance. My goal is to help you navigate this incredible place with ease and truly immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring beauty of Zion National Park, irrespective of whether you plan to hike or drive through its stunning landscapes.
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Getting to Zion National Park
Zion National Park is an incredible destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers.
If you’re planning a trip to Zion, here are some key factors to consider:
Reaching Zion National Park primarily involves air and road travel. The nearest major airport is Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS), approximately a three-hour drive from Zion. An alternative is to fly into Salt Lake City (SLC) and then undertake a five-hour drive to the park. St. George (SGU) operates a smaller airport, just an hour from the park gates, with service from American (from Dallas and Phoenix), Delta (from Salt Lake City), and United (from Denver and Los Angeles). While conveniently located, flights to SGU tend to be pricier.
Due to high visitation numbers, Zion National Park has increased the service frequency of the free Zion Canyon Shuttle. The shuttle now operates daily from March to November, with additional service on some weekends in February. During these periods, shuttles arrive as frequently as every seven minutes. However, parking can be challenging, as most lots are full by 9 a.m. It may be worth considering paid parking in the gateway town of Springdale and then taking the free Springdale Shuttle to the visitor center.
Scenic Driving Through Zion National Park
Upon your arrival at Zion National Park, it’s crucial to be aware of certain restrictions and rules in place for driving. The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, a key route within the park, is off-limits for private vehicles when the Zion Canyon Shuttle service is operational. However, you can still drive your vehicle on Highway 9, which cuts through the southern part of Zion, stretching from Mount Carmel Junction to Springdale. No matter if you’re just passing through or planning an extended stay, you’ll need to pay the park entrance fee.
For larger vehicles: – those wider than 7’10” or taller than 11’4″ – an additional fee of $15 is required to obtain a tunnel permit. These larger vehicles must also be escorted through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, with escort hours varying throughout the year. It’s highly recommended to check the escort schedule online in advance to ensure a smooth passage. Lastly, certain types of vehicles are not allowed in the park, so do ensure to read the park’s driving rules before your visit to avoid any unexpected inconveniences.
When to Experience the Magic of Zion National Park!
Unlike many national parks, Zion is a year-round destination. Peak visitation spans nearly the entire year with large crowds possible from February through November. It’s important to note that regardless of when you decide to visit, the temperature can change dramatically throughout the day, sometimes by as much as 30°F.
Therefore, wearing layers is recommended to accommodate these temperature changes. Your comfort and safety during your visit to Zion National Park is paramount, so preparing for a wide range of weather conditions will enable you to enjoy all the park offers.
When planning a visit, it’s important to note that Utah schools have a fall break in mid-October, which may not be on your radar. Typically, October is an ideal time to explore most national parks due to pleasant weather and fewer crowds. However, at Zion National Park, the number of visitors during fall break can be comparable to the summer season.
Things to do in Zion National Park
There is no shortage of activities to enjoy in Zion. From breathtaking hikes to scenic drives, the park offers something for everyone. Explore the famous Zion Canyon, hike the iconic Angels Landing trail, or witness the stunning views from Observation Point. Don’t forget to visit the Zion Human History Museum to learn about the park’s rich cultural heritage.
The accessibility of Zion National Park, facilitated by its nearness to Springdale and the efficient shuttle service, makes it one of the most visitor-friendly national parks, despite the issue of crowding. The sheer beauty of the park’s diverse landscapes justifies any minor inconvenience faced by visitors.
Zion is primarily divided into two regions: the extremely popular Zion Canyon and the less frequented Kolob Canyons. While the awe-inspiring landmarks of Zion Canyon draw in the majority of visitors, Kolob provides equally stunning visuals through trails that are far less crowded, accounting for only 20% of the visitor traffic in comparison to Zion Canyon.
Zion National Park is Equipped with two visitor centers:
- The Zion Canyon Visitor Center is located near the south entrance in Springdale
- Kolob Canyons Visitor Center is situated in the park’s northwest corner.
Both centers are managed by park rangers ready to assist with any queries about your visit. Additionally, there’s a wide array of ranger-led activities for visitors to participate in throughout the park.
The Zion Human History Museum, close to the south entrance, screens a 22-minute film on the park, providing visitors with a comprehensive understanding of Zion’s natural and cultural history. Just north of the South Campground, you can also visit the Zion Nature Center.
If you’re exploring with little adventurers (ages 4-13), grab their Junior Ranger booklets at any visitor center. Or even better, skip the long lines at the information desk by downloading them [online before your visit. Let the exploration begin!
Nature’s Celestial Spectacle: Awe-Inspiring Sunrise, Sunset, and Star Viewing
For one of the most memorable moments of your Zion vacation, you’ll need to wake up early, really early.
Sunrise in Utah
The Canyon Overlook Trail viewpoint offers a breathtaking sight of the changing colors on the rocks as the sun slowly creeps up. To catch this spectacle, you need to take a pre-dawn drive to the Upper East Canyon and hike about a half-mile. However, be sure to arrive early enough to avoid missing this sight. For an equally great spot for sunrise photography, consider the Towers of the Virgin, located behind the Zion Nature Center.
Sunset In Zion National Park
When it comes to the sunset, the bridge over the Virgin River near the Canyon Junction shuttle stop or the viewpoint at the end of Kolob Canyons Road are the ideal locations. The late afternoon sun dramatically illuminates the sand formations along the Kolob Canyon Terrace, making it another perfect location for sunset viewing.
Star Viewing In Kolob Canyons Viewpoint
Lastly, the night skies over Zion are something to behold. The Kolob Canyons Viewpoint is a perfect spot to admire the mesmerizing celestial display. For the darkest skies, look eastward towards the cliffs. In Zion Canyon, you can enjoy this spectacle from the convenience of the museum patio or the paved Pa’rus Trail.
Biking in Zion National Park
Biking is another fantastic way to explore the breathtaking landscapes of Zion National Park. Permitted on all park roads, including the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, you can immerse yourself in the park’s stunning beauty at your own pace. The Pa’rus Trail, a 1.75-mile paved path, presents an exquisite cycling route.
Meandering alongside the Virgin River, it stretches from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center to Canyon Junction.
NOTE: However, note that biking is not permitted through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Always remember to respect the park’s regulations and the natural environment as you enjoy your cycling adventure.
Hiking in Zion National Park
Remember, it’s impossible to have a bad view in Zion. The park’s landscape is a stunning canvas of majestic peaks, deep valleys, and winding rivers, offering breathtaking vistas at every turn. On busy days, you may feel tempted to follow the crowd to the most frequented trails, such as Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.
But in reality, sharing the trails with a multitude of other hikers might detract from your overall enjoyment and experience. It’s essential to remember that Zion is not limited to these popular hikes alone. The park is woven with an intricate network of trails, many of which are less crowded but equally captivating. Each trail offers its unique perspective of Zion’s grandeur, enabling you to discover the park’s beauty in your unique way. So, step off the beaten path and venture into the lesser-known trails of Zion National Park for a more personal and intimate experience with nature.
Recommended Hikes in Zion National Park?
One of the best ways to truly experience the wonders of Zion National Park is by embarking on one of its many hiking trails, each offering a unique perspective of the park’s diverse landscapes.
Zion Canyon Emerald Pools
The Lower Emerald Pool Trail is an easy, family-friendly, 1.2-mile (round trip) paved path that takes you to the beautiful green waters of the Lower Emerald Pool and waterfalls. The entire hike takes about an hour. For a slightly more challenging hike, consider the Upper Emerald Pool Trail, which climbs to the pool at the base of a cliff. When added to the end of the Kayenta Trail, it turns into a 3-mile hike.
Google Maps: Emeral map Here
Weeping Rock Trail is short and steep, characterized by Zion’s hanging gardens. This unique spot allows you to catch water droplets that have been making their way through the canyon walls for 1,200 years.
The 5.4-mile (round trip) Angel’s Landing Trail (via the West Rim Trail) is not for those with a faint heart. The trail has steep drop-offs, with sections where only a chain provides support as visitors pass in both directions. The trail takes you to a central peak in the middle of Zion Canyon. The out-and-back trail includes 1,500 feet of elevation gain and takes roughly four hours to hike. It’s not advisable for those who are not confident in their footing, young children, or those with a fear of heights.
For an easier option, consider the 1-mile (round trip) Canyon Overlook Trail. Located on the east side of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, this trail is not on the shuttle route and requires you to drive your vehicle to the trailhead.
The Narrows presents an unforgettable gorge characterized by soaring walls, sandstone grottos, natural springs, and captivating hanging gardens in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon. Stretching for a length of 16 miles and reaching depths of up to 2,000 feet, the gorge at certain points narrows down to a mere 20 to 30 feet wide. Embarking on this hike is not a decision to be taken lightly.
The journey begins at the Temple of Sinawava and follows the paved Riverside Walk trail that traces the Virgin River. This trail is quite popular, attracting a large crowd of enthusiasts. However, as you reach the river crossing, the group starts to thin out. From this point forward, hiking The Narrows essentially translates to river hiking. At least 60% of the trail involves wading, walking, or even swimming in the river, making the use of appropriate footwear crucial for this adventure.
LINK: More Information About the Narrows Trek Here
Regardless of how HOT the day may be, the river remains refreshingly cold. Moreover, a significant portion of the hike is shaded, providing relief from the sun’s intense rays.
Located in the less-visited Kolob Canyons area, this 14-mile roundtrip hike leads to one of the world’s largest freestanding natural arches.
Google Map: How to get Colob Arch Here
This 8-mile roundtrip hike may be strenuous, but it’s well worth the effort. The trail rewards hikers with a panoramic view of Zion Canyon, higher even than Angels Landing.
NOTE: Always check the current trail conditions and closures on the Zion National Park website before embarking on a hike. Remember, safety should be your utmost priority.
Staying in and Around Zion
When planning your visit to Zion National Park, it’s crucial to consider where you’ll be staying. Two of the most popular campgrounds in Zion are South and Watchman near the south entrance. The South campground does not have RV hookups, while Watchman has some electric sites. It’s imperative to make reservations in advance as many of the sites are fully exposed to the sun. Therefore, expect hot conditions, especially during the summer. Among all the options, the riverside sites are the most desirable.
For a more rustic experience, Lava Point Campground, located about a one-hour drive from Zion Canyon on Kolob Terrace Road, offers six rudimentary campsites on a first-come, first-served basis. Note that RVs longer than 19 feet are not allowed on the road to the campground. Unfortunately, there are no campgrounds in the Kolob Canyons area.
In the heart of Zion Canyon, Zion Lodge offers year-round accommodations. They have historic cabins with two double beds, a gas-log fireplace, and a private porch, as well as hotel rooms with a private porch or balcony.
If you opt to stay outside of the park, Springdale is the nearest town. However, expect prices to be on the high side and ensure that you have reservations before arrival. Cliffrose Springdale is conveniently located just a 10-minute walk from the visitor center. Cable Mountain Lodge, the closest lodging to the park’s boundary, is another excellent choice, especially for larger groups. It offers larger units with multiple bedrooms and full kitchens.
Alternatively, the city of St. George, about an hour’s drive from the south entrance, offers a wide range of hotels to suit most budgets.
Hotels Near Zion National Park, Utah
Eating in and around Zion National Park
For your dining needs within the park, Zion Lodge is equipped with two notable options. The Castle Dome Cafe is a seasonal snack bar that offers patio seating, while the more upscale Red Rock Grill presents diners with impressive views. If you are willing to take a short walk from the visitor center into Springdale, you will find a variety of dining spots.
Zion Canyon Brew Pub is known for its outdoor seating which sits mere feet from the park boundary. While their full meals might be a bit on the pricier side, you should consider grabbing a drink and a plate of their loaded nachos.
Cafe Soleil is the ideal stop if you’re looking to pick up a picnic lunch. They offer a range of wraps, sandwiches, and paninis which are perfect for an on-the-go meal.
For an early start, head over to The Park House in the morning to fuel up before hitting the trails. This restaurant particularly caters to those seeking vegetarian or vegan options. From the hearty breakfast options to the savory lunch dishes, The Park House offers a variety of choices to accommodate all diets.
How Long to Stay and Itinerary Suggestions
Deciding how long to spend in Zion National Park can depend on a variety of factors, such as how many trails you plan to tackle or what level of immersion you seek in nature. While the park’s expansive backcountry trail system can provide an incredible extended stay for hiking enthusiasts, Zion’s unbridled beauty, accessible from virtually any spot in the park, also makes it an ideal destination for a one-day trip.
However, if it’s your first visit, it’s recommended to spend at least two to three nights. This will allow you enough time to explore both Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyons, each of which offers a unique perspective of the park’s natural splendor.
For those looking to embark on an extended road trip, Zion National Park pairs perfectly with several other national parks. Consider visiting Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in your travel itinerary. Each of these parks boasts its distinctive landscapes and experiences, creating a road trip brimming with diverse and unforgettable memories.
Add Natural Bridges National Monument to the list. It’s an undiscovered gem.
Remember to plan, be prepared, and respect the park’s rules and regulations to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip to Zion National Park. Happy exploring!
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