Zion National Park’s soaring cliffs and colossal sandstone monoliths never fail to dazzle the eye and delight the nature lover in all of us. In southwest Utah, on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, it has taken more than 13 million years for the Virgin River to carve magnificent Zion Canyon. From seeking out the best hikes and hotels to navigating the canyon’s transportation system, make the most of your visit with this practical guide.
Discover Zion National Park: What to See and Do
Getting to Zion National Park
Travelers can fly in and drive to the park from these three airports.
- Distance from Zion: 45 miles and approximately 1 hour via State Route 7 to eastbound State Route 9.
- Travel Tip: This tiny airport is closest to Zion. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines offer connecting flights from major cities.
- Distance from Zion: 170 miles and less than 3 hours north via U.S. Interstate Highway 15 to St. George, Utah, then east on State Route 9.
- Distance from Zion: 312 miles and approximately 4 hours, 15 minutes south on I-15 to St. George, Utah, then east on State Route 9.
When to Visit
Zion is one of the nation’s most visited national parks, which means it’s important to plan ahead and consider which season you’d like to visit the popular park.
Visiting During Busy Season
The park’s busiest season spans from mid-March through October, offering travelers warmer and more reliable weather. Travelers will enjoy summer’s dependable sunny skies, but spring and fall — when temperatures are milder than the summertime highs that often exceed 100 degrees — are equally good, if not better, times to explore.
During its peak tourist season, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles and accessible only by shuttle bus. Free shuttles run as frequently as every seven minutes from the visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava, making nine stops along the way. During summer, when daylight hours are the longest, the first bus departs at 6 a.m. and the last bus runs at 9:45 p.m. Check the shuttle schedule to find out when the first and last buses are scheduled before heading out for the day.
Visiting During Off-Season
From November to mid-March, when the weather can be cold and wet (or snowy at higher elevations), private vehicles are permitted on the Scenic Drive. If you relish the thought of light crowds and the freedom your own wheels provide, this is the time to visit. However, be aware some attractions, such as the Zion Nature Center, are not open during this season.
What to See and Do
Before boarding the canyon shuttle or hitting the road, check out the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, which is open year-round. Travelers will find outdoor exhibits that explain the natural and cultural history of the area, a bookstore and a Wilderness Desk offering information and permits for backcountry backpacking trips, technical climbing and hiking in the famed Subway slot canyon. Due to the popularity of the slot canyon, permits are required and limited. Though reservations can be made at the Wilderness Desk, reserving online in advance through the park’s lottery system is recommended.
One mile northeast of the visitor center, the Zion Human History Museum offers exhibits on American Indian culture and pioneer history, as well as a 22-minute film that provides an overview of the park. Down the road a half-mile, the kid-friendly Zion Nature Center offers hands-on activities such as games, crafts and scavenger hunts.
Based in neighboring Springdale, the well-regarded Zion Adventure Company offers guided canyoneering, rock climbing, four-wheel-drive, backpacking and photography trips in and around Zion. A fun family activity, Zion Outfitter rents inner tubes for floating down the Virgin River, best in early summer and only permitted outside the national park boundary.
Prefer to stay dry? Saddle up for a horseback ride along the Virgin River. Canyon Trail Rides offers a one-hour trip around the massive stone monoliths comprising the Court of the Patriarchs. The stable’s three-hour option ventures up the Sand Bench Trail, ascending 500 feet and giving riders a breathtaking view of the south end of Zion National Park.
Take a Hike
The rugged beauty of Zion begs to be explored on foot. The following trailheads are located at Zion Canyon shuttle stops.
Lower Emerald Pool Trail
The popular 1.2-mile round-trip suits all ages and fitness levels. It gently climbs through a forest to a huge red-rock alcove with cascades of water spilling over the top ledge. The trail hugs the alcove wall, making it a cool, misty spot on a hot day.
Gateway to the Narrows & Zion Narrows
Amble along this gorgeous 2-mile paved path, also known as Riverside Walk, skirting the Virgin River. The deep-red canyon walls converge ever closer as you approach the famed Zion Narrows. If you choose to go farther, you’ll hike in the river, splashing through ankle- to knee-deep water. Closed-toed shoes and a hiking stick are suggested to keep from slipping on the slick rocks.
Best hiked from late spring through summer when the river water is warmer, the extremely popular Narrows hike treats you to soaring, 1,000-foot-high canyon walls in a gorge that's sometimes a mere 20-feet wide. Most hikers choose to turn back after 30 minutes or so, but if you chose continue upstream for another 90 minutes to the junction with Orderville Canyon you'll marvel at an especially narrow section of Zion Canyon nicknamed "Wall Street."
Got nerves of steel? This challenging, 5-mile round-trip hike is your path to phenomenal canyon views from atop a nearly 1,500-foot sandstone mountain. Though not recommended for small children, adventuresome families with older teens can tackle the trail’s tight switchbacks and enjoy the thrill of climbing the knife-edge rock ridge to the summit, where you’ll find hard-to-beat photo ops.
Go for a Drive
You don’t have to sweat an arduous hike to see Zion’s splendor. Heading east from Springdale, State Route 9, also known as the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, climbs and winds its way to Zion’s lovely high country. The highway has an incredible 1.1-mile-long rock tunnel built in the 1920s. Just after exiting the tunnel, park in the Canyon Overlook Trail lot and hike a moderate mile to a lofty, majestic vista of southern Zion Canyon.
Where to Sleep & Eat
Zion Lodge, the only hotel in the park, boasts a spectacular setting midway up Zion Canyon. On grassy, cottonwood-shaded grounds surrounded by soaring cliffs, the mix of hotel rooms, suites and wooden cabins can book up quickly, especially in summer. Plan ahead and reserve up to 13 months in advance. As an additional perk, Zion Lodge gives its guests driving passes, permitting them to drive to and from the canyon entrance instead of taking the shuttle.
To roast marshmallows and snooze under the stars, camp at either the Watchman or South campgrounds, both located near the park’s entrance. Note: The South Campground is closed from late November to late February.
The adjacent town of Springdale boasts dozens of lodgings — from budget motels to cozy bed-and-breakfasts — lining a 3-mile stretch of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (State Route 9) known as Zion Park Boulevard. A nice choice, the Desert Pearl Inn sits near the leafy banks of the Virgin River and offers stylish, comfy rooms.
Springdale also satisfies hungry hikers with a slew of eateries. A solid supper pick, the Bit & Spur Restaurant & Saloon serves tasty Mexican and Southwestern grub and craft beers in a casual setting. For breakfast, try the fantastic French toast at local favorite Oscar’s Cafe.