Named by early pioneers, Zion National Park, means a place of refuge and peace. Indeed.
It’s a great place to take a break from ordinary life for a few days and find sanctuary in its massive sandstone canyons and cliffs full of beauty, truly a hiker’s paradise!
Here’s our Ultimate Guide to the glorious, must-see Zion National Park…
Want a detailed itinerary of an 8-day trip to see Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks? Join the Families Fly Free membership to not only learn Lyn’s process for how to fly your entire family free but to get access to lots of videos about National Parks and detailed itineraries for some of the most popular National Parks.
Do “The Mighty 5”
One thing to consider if visiting Zion is to visit five of Utah’s other nearby National Parks: Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches.
These are called “The Mighty 5.”
While five national parks in five days might seem ambitious, it’s remarkably doable.
Team member John C. saw The Mighty 5 in less than five days over the holidays.
And the sites and vistas? Wow! Well worth it. Watch this video from Visit Utah for a sampling. Goosebumps… 🙂
Getting to Zion National Park
Southwest Airlines flies into Zion’s nearest airport, McCarran Las Vegas, though it is still a two-and-a-half-hour drive away; however, how fun is it to hang out in Vegas for a few days before or after?!
When you use your Southwest points and Southwest Companion Pass to fly there, you’ll beat the odds indeed 😊, saving a boatload on your trip.
Lyn and her family spent a few days in Vegas, showing it to her kids for the first time, wandering through all the amazing hotels and swimming in Mandalay Bay’s epic water park!
Tip: If time permits while you’re in Las Vegas, drive over and check out Hoover Dam. Read more about that in our above “Things to do in Las Vegas” post.
The next nearest airport accessible by Southwest would be Salt Lake City at four-and-a-half hours away.
Driving in Zion National Park
When you drive into Zion National Park, you’ll be struck by its majesty.
Soaring rocks and mesas with unusual patterns and varying shades of red make you feel as though you’ve arrived on another planet.
Who knew the U.S. had landscapes like this?
Soon after driving into Zion, Lyn and her family came upon big-horned sheep battling in the road. It caused a back-up, of course, but the sighting was well worth it.
One of the best parts of driving into Zion are the tunnels.
If you plan on driving an RV, which is 11’4″ tall or taller or 7’10” wide or wider, including mirrors, awnings and jacks, you will need a tunnel permit to drive through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel.
Check the link, as there are restricted hours for this as well.
Parking is limited at Zion, and usually fills before 9 a.m. every morning.
If you don’t get a spot, or arrive well after this time, head to nearby Springdale, where you can catch a Zion Shuttle Bus (more information below).
The park entrance fee is $35 per car and $30 per motorcycle for a seven-day pass.
You can also purchase an annual pass for $80 that allows you to visit as many National Parks and federal lands as you want for one full year.
Senior citizens can purchase a lifetime senior pass that covers ALL national parks for $80 or instead choose a $20 annual pass.
The best part? Everyone in your car ALSO gets in with your senior pass. Nifty… 😉.
Are you an active military member? Grab a FREE annual pass.
It’s good for your whole family to visit as many National Parks as you can squeeze into the year. Thank you for your service!
Your whole family can also get into National Parks free if you have a fourth grader, both during their school year and the following summer, as part of the Every Kid in a Park Program.
You can also access Zion National Park FREE in 2022 on the below days, but keep in mind these days will be even MORE BUSY than usual:
|January 17||Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.|
|April 16||First day of National Park Week|
|August 4||Great American Outdoors Act Anniversary|
|September 24||National Public Lands Day|
|November 11||Veterans Day|
Zion National Park Weather
This National Park is far enough south that the months of June, July and August have no snow, but in return, the temperatures range from a low of 60 to a high of 100! Wow. You might not want to go then 😉.
For milder temps, try the shoulder seasons, which include April, May, September or October. Cami just returned from an October trip where one day it was 70 and that evening it snowed on the mountain tops.
Lyn’s family visited in April and found cool mornings but afternoons that warmed up quickly into the low 80s. Layers are key!
It’s the wettest in March, which means snow melt through May can make the rivers dangerous, meaning The Narrows (more below) may be off limits.
You’ll find lots of wildflowers in bloom April through June.
Because of the broad range of temperatures, this park has a longer season than most, which, hopefully, means that it’s a lot less crowded too!
Getting Around Zion
The best, and sometimes only, way to get around Zion (when the shuttle is running, no private vehicles are allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive) is by shuttle bus.
Free shuttles leave frequently from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.
Shuttle buses run from early spring through late fall and allow you to hop on and hop off at any of the stops, which is especially helpful if you’re hiking.
Depending on the time of year, the wait time can be as short as seven minutes and as long as 15 minutes. Shuttles also have room for two bicycles.
The system has two loops:
- The nine-stop loop in Springdale takes you to the pedestrian entrance at the park where you can get your park guide and map and then hop on
- The second loop which runs from the visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava in the canyon with 9 stops total and is an 80- to 90-minute round-trip ride.
Some tips when taking these shuttles:
- Don’t forget to bring your park pass or receipt to get into the park if you came from outside the park in Springdale!
- Make sure you know the time of departure of the last shuttle of the day, and don’t miss it!
Where to Stay
Zion National Park Lodge
The ONLY in-park lodge, Zion National Park Lodge, built in 1924, is close to the Lower Emerald Pool Trail.
Their accommodations include hotel or suite rooms in the lodge, as well as 28 cabins within walking distance.
The rates for 2021 start at $199/night for a room.
The main lodge features a grill which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s a seasonal cafe and a gift shop as well.
Even if you aren’t able to book a room here, it’s a great place to recuperate with a meal or snack before continuing your outdoor activities!
Because parking is limited and lots are usually full by mid morning, the National Park Service suggests Springdale, Utah as a convenient place to stay.
Major hotel sites list around 30 hotels in that town alone, and that doesn’t include other options such as B&Bs, private rooms, cabins and glamping.
Join our Families Fly Free membership to access our webinar on the best hotels to book FREE using points around National Parks, including Zion.
The advantages to staying in Springdale?
Proximity to Zion (mere minutes) and the ability to get into the park using free public transportation.
One great option is the Best Western Plus Zion Canyon Inn and Suites. Within 15 minutes of the park by foot and on shuttle stop #4, this hotel has oversized rooms in the latest decor with microwaves, mini frigs and coffee makers in the “kitchen” area and a balcony with mountain views.
Fill up on their hearty free breakfast buffet so you’ll be ready for a full day in Zion.
After hiking in the park, take advantage of their outdoor fire pit to relax by or soak your weary bones in the hot tub. Kids will enjoy the sparkling pool and moms will like the onsite laundry if its needed.
Kanab is a bit further away, but is a town filled with character!
Fans of Westerns will love Kanab, where more than 100 movies and TV shows have been filmed.
Check out the Little Hollywood Movie Museum on West Center Street to see some movie sets.
You’ll also find Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, which offers free tours and opportunities to volunteer.
And in case you didn’t get enough hiking in Zion, Kanab has its own Trails System accessible from town or check out the local-favorite Peek-a-Boo slot canyon, which you can do without the hoards you’re more likely to find in Zion.
You’ll need to hire a tour company if you don’t have a 4×4. Cami recently opted for the 8 am tour with Coral Cliffs Tours where her group was one of the first to the site making for great photos.
Kanab is also conveniently located close to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, which you should definitely check out when in the area. You can “sand surf,” which is SO cool! Go to the highest dune and then walk the ridge back up. It takes a bit but is much easier on the system.
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Lyn’s family stayed at this Holiday Inn Express, and since it was so cheap, upgraded to a suite with two bedrooms.
The property is very nice, has laundry for washing your dirty hiking clothes, and offers an excellent hot filling breakfast to fuel you for a day of hikes!
Or check out the Best Western Red Hills Kanab where Cami’s group recently stayed.
With an outdoor pool and hot tub, free breakfast buffet, game room and fitness room, there’s something for everyone to enjoy here. They even have an outdoor gas grill and picnic area for guests to use.
Mt. Carmel, Utah
Also close to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park and east of Zion is Mt. Carmel.
You’ll find plenty of outfitters here, even more slot canyons to hike, as well as Maynard Dixon Gallery, highlighting this famous artist’s work.
When you stay in Mt. Carmel, you enter Zion from its beautiful east side along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway through the historic tunnel. Your jaw will drop, we promise!
Zion Mountain Ranch
Also east of Zion National Park is Zion Mountain Ranch, which gives you the opportunity to stay on the same property as a herd of buffalo!
Choose from private cabins or large lodges for your overnight stay that will feel truly “western.”
Even if you choose not to stay here, Lyn recommends heading over to the restaurant for dinner one evening.
Things to Do in Zion National Park
Zion National Park Hikes
Here are some hikes to consider on your visit to Zion…
Upper Emerald Pools Trail (shuttle stop #5)
This is an easy hike, taking you a little over a mile on a paved trail that should take only about one hour. Hike to the back of the pool even further for some seclusion when it is crowded.
It’s perfect for all ages with a great payoff: pools of water and a 30-foot waterfall.
Plus, if you have kids that like rocks, like Lyn’s son above, they can hop rocks to their heart’s content!
You can combine this with the Lower and Middle pools to make ~3 mile round-trip hike.
Angels Landing via West Rim Trail (shuttle stop #6)
This is a strenuous and — scary! — 5.5 mile trek with an elevation gain of almost 1,500 feet, the second-highest of Zion’s 18 listed hikes.
If you do this trail to completion, you go along a portion with steep drop-offs on either side with only chains to cling to for dear life.
Not for the faint of heart or kids or anyone with a fear of heights!
There’s also a section of many switch-backs famously called “Walter’s Wiggles.”
So, why list this as a best hike?
It’s the most often talked about hike in Zion, and if you make it to the summit, you’ll be rewarded with outstanding views. Plus, you’ll be pretty impressed with your courage 😃 .
If you want to skip the scariest parts, you just go to the chains and stop. You’ll be well rewarded even here.
Ask a ranger if you’re unsure if you should do this hike. Or just go on YouTube. Watching a video of the Angels Landing hike will help you make a prudent decision.
Lyn’s family did the Hidden Canyons hike (see below), which has drop-offs only on one side, again with chains to hang on to.
She saw many people of all ages, pregnant and even with kids on their shoulders navigating this hike, and her family lived to tell the tale. You can see portions of it in the video above.
The Narrows (shuttle stop #9)
The Narrows is the other most popular hike in Zion, as this one literally takes you through a river inside a slot canyon, considered the “grandfather of all slot canyons” for its magnificence and grandeur.
While often closed during the spring due to the height of the water, those who get to hike the Narrows will wade through the knee-deep Virgin River with 2,000-foot high rock walls to either side of you.
If you thought hiking was hard, try hiking through a river!! It’s described as feeling like “walking on slippery bowling balls.”
There are two versions of this hike one going from the bottom of the river up, or you can do the full 16-mile overnight version if you dare.
Cami’s group recently did this on a 70-degree October day from the bottom to Wall Street and the Orderville Canyon area, which has a little waterfall. It took about 7 hours.
Hidden Canyons Trail (currently closed due to rock fall but normally shuttle stop #7)
Lyn’s family opted for this hike as their main hike for the day.
This is a 2.5-mile hike that takes about three hours and has a mix of the best of Zion from a steep incline to start to the sheer drop-offs as you navigate along rock cliffs to a super fun portion at the top where there’s lots of rocks to climb through, over and under (Lyn’s kids’ favorite part!).
Again, if you’re afraid of heights, this one probably isn’t for you.
Lyn is, but she managed the hike, though she says she was fearful the whole time that her younger, less-cautious son would fall off. He didn’t 😉.
A great activity in Zion is what’s called rock “scrambling.”
This just means climbing over, under, through and around rocks; it’s not actually rock “climbing,” as in scaling a rock.
It can be quite challenging at times and test your brain power to figure out the best way through.
Lyn’s boys absolutely loved the rock scrambling (see video at the top of the post), which you can also find in abundance at Joshua Tree National Park in California.
Zion is home to abundant wildlife, and Lyn and her family were welcomed into the park shortly after driving in with desert bighorn sheep butting heads in the road. So cool!
These are most frequently seen on the east side of the park.
Other animals include mule deer, lizards, the desert tortoise and lots of birds.
Zion offers horseback riding tours starting at the corral near the Emerald Pools Trailhead.
Cami’s husband has a star-gazing app on his phone, which they like to use when visiting National Parks.
When outside city limits, you’ll be among some of the darkest skies you’ve never seen.
Once your eyes adjust, star formations will soon appear overhead and you’ll be able to identify, wherever you are in the world (even Australia), what you are seeing just by pointing your phone at them.
How cool is that?!
And with the latest phones, you can even set your phone on top of the car and fix the settings to capture a picture of the Milky Way as seen in the picture above.
Where to Eat in and Around Zion
Here are some options for dining in Zion National Park and in the surrounding towns.
- National Park Lodge
- Bit and Spur, Springdale
- Camp Outpost, Springdale
- Oscar’s Cafe, Springdale (double yummy!)
- Cordwood, Zion Mountain Ranch
- Iron Horse, Kanab (so fun!)
- Rocking V Cafe, Kanab
- Sego Restaurant, Kanab
- Escobars Mexican, Kanab
What to Bring
Because there’s a lot of water in Zion, you may want to bring waterproof shoes for hiking or even waders if you’re going to be hiking The Narrows, which literally takes you through a river. Or you can rent gear from Zion Guru.
Do you recall the mention above of temps soaring up to 100 degrees?
You’ll need to pack sunscreen, a hat and some sunglasses to ward off those damaging rays.
But because it can be cool in the morning, be sure to bring layers.
When Lyn visited, they started off wearing jackets (shown above) and were sweating to death by the afternoon when it reached the low 80s.
If you decide to participate in evening ranger talks, bring along a flashlight or headlamp.
The new LED flashlights are incredibly bright and very useful.
Like to stop at picnic tables or creekside for an impromptu picnic?
Bring a small throw blanket or tablecloth to ensure that only it will get dirty and not you and your food.
Remember all the rock scrambling?
You’re definitely going to want a first-aid kit for those inevitable scrapes and cuts that result as you climb over and through rocks 😉. A little Neosporin wouldn’t hurt either!
Want more National Park tips?
Check out our post on 7 Top Tips for Visiting Our National Parks.
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