Travel Bug: Zion National Park

The last park we visited on our Southwestern National Parks roadtrip this summer was Zion National Park – this has been a bucket list park for us since we caught the parks bug several years ago!

Zion National Park is the #4 most visited National Park in the United States as of 2018, and is located in Southwestern Utah at the epicenter of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin and Mojave Desert. Its drastic elevation changes and climates make for a highly diverse park and visitor experience depending on where in the park you are.

Some of the key features that make Zion famous: it was Utah’s first National Park (of the five it has now) designated in 1919, it is largely managed as wilderness – with over 80% of the park left to its natural state and not disrupted for human use, and it is well known for its diverse hiking trails – including some very challenging bucket list hikes for many, like The Narrows and Angel’s Landing.

Tips for Visiting Zion National Park

  • Where to Stay: We stayed in nearby LaVerkin (about 30 minutes West of the park) which was quite affordable, but not very convenient. There are ample lodging opportunities right outside of Zion National Park and on the shuttle line into the park.
  • The community of Springdale is located immediately outside of Zion National Park’s main (Southern) entrance and operates a free shuttle that stops at many of the area lodges and takes you to the park. Unlike at Bryce Canyon, you do have to pay to enter the park, even if you enter on foot. The municipal shuttle drops you off at the pedestrian entrance to Zion National Park where you can pay the concessionaires.
  • Parking in Springdale can be difficult if you do not arrive early. The park has VERY limited parking and signage will alert you when you enter municipal limits of Springdale whether or not it is already full. You may end up needing to park in one of the many paid parking lots, as much as $20 per day.
  • How to Get There: Zion National Park is about 3 hours by car from Las Vegas, Nevada and 4.5 hours from Salt Lake City. How you decide to get to Zion National Park largely depends on what else you’d like to visit while in Utah. We flew into Las Vegas, Nevada and this was one of our stops along our roadtrip loop. We plan to return to Utah in a few years to visit the other three National Parks we did not get to and will likely fly into Salt Lake City next time.
  • How to Get Around: Like at many popular National Parks, there is a complimentary park shuttle at Zion National Park. UNLIKE many other National Parks, you cannot bring your vehicle throughout the entire park – beyond the Zion Lodge, no vehicles are permitted during peak season, visitors must use the park shuttle. This was a decision made as a response to overwhelming numbers of visitors and a hindered guest experience due to traffic. The park shuttle runs like a well oiled machine – we never, even in very crowded conditions, had to wait more than 5 minutes for a shuttle. As I mentioned before, parking fills up early in the park and can hinder the visitor experience. We drove into the park initially via the lesser used Eastern entrance (a more scenic drive with tunnels). After taking the scenic drive, we exited the park, parked in town and took the shuttle from there back into the park.
Zion Canyon Brew Pub, immediately outside the park entrance
  • What to Eat: There are fewer restaurants in this park than in many others that we have been to, but there are ample options immediately outside the park in Springdale. One of our favorite spots (we actually went both days that we were in Zion) was Zion Canyon Brew Pub, located immediately outside of the park entrance.
  • Liquor laws are really, really weird in Utah. Because of that, if you are in the pub portion of the brewery – you can only order alcohol with food. They do have a number of options of side dishes which qualify, but you must be eating to order an alcoholic beverage.
  • If you head into the taproom part of the brewery, you can order from a more limited selection of beers without ordering food, but you cannot bring your beer into the pub area. Beer is only made to a high of a 4% ABV (which is honestly, really low, for craft beers). We actually really liked this feature though because some of the darker beers we are drawn to were more drinkable with a lower ABV.
  • Where to Hike: We were in Zion National Park for two days and had the chance to hike a few different trails. On the first day, we hiked Canyon Overlook Trail off of the Eastern entrance road into Zion. This out and back trail offers a stunning vista of the Canyon and the winding entrance road that you drive into the park (full of hairpin turns!). Canyon Overlook does require some light rock scrambling, but it is short (1 mile roundtrip and rated easy).
  • We then exited the park, parked in town and took the shuttle back into the park. We hiked the Watchman Trail next. This hike is a bit more exposed and it was quite warm, so I might have in retrospect hiked this one earlier in the day. This 3 mile roundtrip trail is rated easy and features a slight incline up to a beautiful viewpoint and is an out and back trail.
  • We had hoped to hike Hidden Canyon Trail or Observation Point Trail, but unfortunately a major rock slide occurred about a month before we were at the park which has closed these trails and one of the park shuttle stops indefinitely. These things happen – it is nature after all.
  • We rounded out the afternoon with the Lower Emerald Pools Trail, which was quite crowded as it’s a very easy hike (mostly paved). It is a little over 1.2 miles round trip on this out and back trail and the elevation change is a moderate 70′.

The Narrows – Zion National Park’s Defining Feature

  • The next morning we arrived early in the park (by 7:00 AM) and arrived by shuttle to the northernmost shuttle stop (Temple of Sinawava) by 7:30 AM to hike The Narrows. We were not alone at that time getting to the river! This is one of Zion National Park’s most famous trails and views is the virgin river and the towering canyon walls. There isn’t really a trail, you are hiking an active riverbed.
  • We prepared for the hike by wearing non-cotton, quick drying clothing. Some people who hike The Narrows rent neoprene socks, wetsuit bottoms and waterproof boots. We decided based on some internet research and the fact that it was our last hiking day that we’d just wear our regular boots. I talked to some people who rented the neoprene socks and waterproof boots and they let me know that you still get wet down to your feet in those socks and boots, you just don’t get as cold because the material is better insulated. The river temperature that day was a brisk 67 degrees F, and The Narrows do not get much sunlight, so it was quite chilly.
  • If you hike The Narrows “bottom up” (from the southern trailhead to northern end), as most do, you are hiking against the current on your way up. You can hike The Narrows “top down”, but it requires being dropped off by a wilderness guide and wilderness permit and an overnight stay.
  • The Narrows was incredibly beautiful and I intended to hike further, but I only made it about 1.6-1.75 miles in and then turned back because I was starting to feel my feet going numb and was losing my footing more easily in the river. It is challenging walking on slippery stones in several feet of water when you are warm and can fully feel your feet, much more challenging when you add the cold factor!
  • The rest of our group hiked a bit further (maybe 10 minutes further up) and then a couple returning down the river let them know that at a point not far ahead you would have to swim around a rock and they all turned back at that point, too.
  • The water was at most that day, waist deep. That gets pretty cold though! All in all, the hike was beautiful and well wroth experiencing. I could not believe how CROWDED the river was by the time we walked back around 11:00 AM. I would absolutely advise that you arrive to the river as early as possible to avoid crowds – it really does hinder the experience.
Zion National Park Visitor Center

What Else to See and Do

  • What Else to See and Do: The Zion National Park shuttle system has recorded talking points (that are quite interesting) that play on the northbound shuttles. Southbound shuttles offer commentary from the drivers. You’ll learn a great deal about the park and take in the scenery just from riding the bus!
  • The Museum of Human History offers a view of what life was like for indigenous people in the area throughout the ages and offers a short informational video about the park.
  • The Zion National Park Visitor Center has some outdoor informational kiosks about the park, its geology, history and wildlife. It’s also a great place to pick up souvenirs and to talk with a Park Ranger while planning your hikes.
  • Downtown Springdale has a huge variety of shops and restaurants. As per usual (from my experience in National Park towns), you can always find a mix of healthy and vegetarian foods close by.

If you’re looking to plan a trip to Zion National Park or the nearby community of Springdale, be sure to use the resources from Visit Utah. I also love using hard copy travel guides for my National Parks adventures. I checked out a copy of Moon Travel Guide for Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park and brought it with me for trip planning. Happy travels!

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