In southwest Utah, on the edge of the Colorado Plateau, Zion National Park’s soaring cliffs and colossal sandstone monoliths await adventure. Here, the magnificent Zion Canyon was carved out by the Virgin River, a process that took more than 13 million years. Explore what it looks like today with this practical guide of things to do in Zion National Park.
10 Things to Do in Zion National Park
When to Visit Zion
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.
Visiting During Busy Season
The park’s busiest season spans from mid-March through October, offering travelers warmer and more reliable weather. Travelers can enjoy summer’s sunny skies, but spring and fall are equally good, if not better, times to explore. That’s partially because temperatures during these two seasons are milder than the summer time highs that can exceed 100 degrees.
During its peak tourist season, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles and accessible only via the Zion Canyon Shuttle. Free shuttles run as frequently as every seven minutes and make nine stops from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center to the Temple of Sinawava. During summer, when daylight hours are the longest, the first bus departs the visitor center at 6 a.m., and the last bus leaves the Temple of Sinawava after 9 p.m. Check the shuttle schedule to find out when the first and last buses will run before heading out for the day.
Visiting During the Off-Season
From December through February, when the weather can be cold and wet (or snowy at higher elevations), private vehicles are permitted on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. If you relish the thought of light crowds and the freedom of driving your own vehicle, the off-season is the time to visit. However, travelers should also be aware some attractions, such as the Zion Nature Center, are not open during this season. Additionally, the National Park Service may need to bring back its shuttle service to alleviate traffic should the park’s visitation increase during specific times, like over the winter holidays. Check nps.gov/zion for the most up-to-date information before your trip.
Discover three Zion National Park Activities in November for fall vacation inspiration.
10 Things to Do in Zion National Park
Narrow down which Zion National Park attractions your family most wants to see with the following list.
1. Check out Zion Canyon Visitor Center for information and permits
Open year-round, the visitor center is where travelers can explore outdoor exhibits that explain the natural and cultural history of the area. It’s also home to 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 slot canyon’s popularity, check Zion National Park’s website at 10 a.m. MST on the fifth day of each month, up to three months before your desired travel date to make a permit reservation.
2. Enjoy hands-on activities at the Zion Nature Center
Less than a mile northeast of the visitor center, the kid-friendly Zion Nature Center offers hands-on activities such as games, crafts and scavenger hunts. Ranger-led youth programs are held daily in the center, which operates seasonally beginning in May. Before you travel, check the park service website for Zion National Park hours and seasonal operating dates at attractions across the park.
3. Get a dose of culture at the Zion Human History Museum
Drive about ¾-mile northeast of the nature center to the Zion Human History Museum, which offers exhibits on American culture and pioneer history as well as a 22-minute video overview of what to see in Zion National Park.
4. Embark on an outdoor adventure
Based in neighboring Springdale, Utah, the well-regarded Zion Adventure Company offers guided canyoneering, rock climbing, four-wheel-drive, backpacking and photography trips in and around Zion. For a fun family activity, Zion Outfitter rents inner tubes for floating down the Virgin River, which is best in early summer and only permitted outside the national park boundary.
5. Go horseback riding
For families who 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 the park’s ragged rock formations, greenery and wildlife, like deer and turkeys.
6. Hike on the Lower Emerald Pool Trail
Exploring Zion’s rugged beauty on foot is a must-do. The Zion Canyon Shuttle will take you to many trailheads, including the start of this popular 1.2-mile round-trip hike, which suits all ages and fitness levels. The Lower Emerald Pool Trail 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.
7. Amble along Gateway to the Narrows
Venture along this gorgeous mile-long paved path, also known as Riverside Walk, skirting the Virgin River. For families with young kids, rest assured: Riverside Walk is easy for kids of all ages and suitable for strollers too. 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. Tip: Wear closed-toed shoes and carry a hiking stick to keep from slipping on the slick rocks.
8. Wade your way up Zion Narrows to Wall Street
Best hiked from late spring through summer when the river water is warmer, the extremely popular Zion Narrows hike treats you to soaring, 2,000-foot-high canyon walls in a gorge that’s sometimes a mere 20 feet wide. If you continue upstream for about two hours from the end of Riverside Walk to the junction with Orderville Canyon, you’ll marvel at an especially narrow section of Zion Canyon nicknamed “Wall Street” for the sheer size of the vertical walls surrounding you. Though kids can hike this route, parents should be mindful that hiking upstream and against the current is more challenging.
9. Challenge yourself at Angels Landing
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 Angels Landing’s tight switchbacks and enjoy the thrill of climbing the knife-edge rock ridge to the summit. Upon reaching the top, discover hard-to-beat photo ops of the park’s rock layers, which date back 270 million years.
10. Go for a drive on Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
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 half-mile to a lofty, majestic vista of southern Zion Canyon.
Where to Sleep and Eat in Zion National Park
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 October to early March.
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. The Desert Pearl Inn sits near the leafy banks of the Virgin River and offers an outdoor swimming pool with a view. Surrounded by canyons, the kids can splash while parents opt for a soak in the nearby hot tub. 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 in a casual setting. Order a dish like the sweet potato tamales off the local favorites section of the menu. For breakfast, try the fantastic French toast at Oscar’s Cafe.
Use this National Parks Toolkit to start planning what to do in Zion National Park.