Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Zion National Park - Day Trip Ideas

Description: The Virgin River has carved this beautiful canyon from red sandstone.  The canyon is full of lush vegetation.  The park has numerous hikes of varying degrees of difficulty.  Even non hikers will find something to do at either the Visitor Center, the interpretive center, or Zion Lodge. A free shuttle bus connects you to everything in the canyon for most of the year.  

Location: Southwestern Utah, less than an hour east of 1-15.  St. George is the nearest large city.  It is an hour away from the park.

Cost: Admission to the main part of Zion National Park is $25 per private vehicle.  Admission is valid for 7 days. If you want to hike into the Zion Wilderness you will need to obtain a Zion Wilderness Permit.  Those cost from $10 to $20 depending on the number of people in the group.

Operating Seasons and Hours: Open 24 hours every day of the year.  Some areas of the park may have reduced hours during holidays and less busy times of the year.

Official Website: http://www.nps.gov/zion/index.htm

Date of Visit: Friday, May 14, 2010 and Thursday May 16 - Saturday May 18, 2019.

In 2010 this was the third stop on the Southern Utah Road Trip Brandon and I went on. We left Cove Fort and drove 2 hours to the entrance to Zion National Park.  We passed some interesting scenery on our drive, but nothing prepared me for the beauty inside the park.

I can't believe I lived in Utah my whole life, and yet I didn't visit Zion National Park until I was 25 years old.  Somehow a visit to the park never made it onto the list of places that my parents took me while I was growing up.

Brandon had visited Zion National Park as an adult, but he hadn't been able to explore it as much as he would have liked.  Both of us were very excited to see what the park had to offer.

We easily could have spent several days enjoying all the amazing things that are available to do inside Zion National Park.  However, our goal for this vacation was to visit all five national parks in Southern Utah - not just one. Our schedule allowed us a little over 24 hours to get to know the park.  We arrived in the afternoon of Friday, May 14th and explored the park for the rest of the day.  Then we stayed overnight in the Watchman Campground.  The next morning we hiked to the summit of Angel's Landing.  After that we were on our way to our next stop on the road trip.

Nine years later I came back to Zion National Park for a Girls Weekend with my sisters.  We spent three days in the park. We went to a lot of the same places that my husband and I had visited in 2010, but we also explored some other places that were new to me.

Based on these two visits I feel that I got to know the main part of the park rather well.  I'm going to share the highlights of what we saw.  Hopefully I can convince you that you should plan a visit to this national park - even if you only have one day to spend in the park it will be worth it.

Let's start with something that sets Zion National Park apart from the other National Parks - it has a shuttle bus system.  In most State and National parks you drive your own car from landmark to landmark.  Traffic and parking can be a nightmare.  That's not the case with Zion National Park.
In the late 1990's park officials realized that the number of vehicles entering the park far exceeded the number of available parking spaces.  Since the main part of Zion National Park is located inside a canyon it's not like they could just add more parking lots.  In the year 2000 they instituted a shuttle bus system that runs from the end of March until the beginning of November.  During those months private vehicles aren't allowed in the main canyon area of the park.  Instead you park at the Visitor's Center and then catch one of the shuttles.  If you want to avoid trying to find a parking space at the Visitor's Center there is a shuttle that runs from the nearby city of Springdale to the Visitor's Center.  Make sure you pay the pedestrian entrance fee of $12 per person if you ride the Springdale shuttle into the park.

In addition to reducing traffic the shuttle has some other benefits.  My husband and I enjoyed that we could both gawk at the scenery while someone else drove us around.  It was so nice that neither of us had to worry about traffic or parking.  The ease of using the shuttle helped us spend more time enjoying the park. The park is also incredibly peaceful.  With only a few buses driving around there isn't any noise from lots of traffic.  You don't have to hike miles into the backwoods to experience the peace that comes from being in nature.
This is what the canyon looks like from the visitor's center.
We rode the shuttle at the way to the top of the canyon.  Then we got out and explored each stop on our way down.  Here is a list of what we enjoyed at each stop.

Temple of Sinawawa:  This stop is the beginning of the Riverside Walk.  This  is a mile long trail that is paved and fairly flat.  The trail guide rates it as an easy hike. The paved trail ends at the beginning of The Narrows section of the canyon.  During certain times of the year you can hike another 4 miles through The Narrows.  The Narrows trail is the riverbed of the Virgin River so river conditions dictate whether or hiking is possible.
Be prepared to spend a lot of time looking up.  I couldn't get over how beautiful and green everything was.  My visit was in May.  I hear the springtime is the best time to visit Zion National Park (and really all the national parks in Utah). As summertime progresses the park becomes dryer and therefore less green.
Big Bend:  There aren't any hiking trails accessible from this stop, but the scenery is worth getting off the shuttle to see. One of the most famous features of the park, Angel's Landing, towers over the Big Bend Shuttle Stop.  The Great White Throne peaks from behind the ridge that leads to the Angel's Landing Summit. 
The view down the canyon is also impressive.
Weeping Rock:  From this stop you can hike less than a fourth of a mile to Weeping Rock.  Weeping Rock hangs over the end of the trail.  Water that has been flowing for hundreds of years seeps out of the rock and drips onto the trail.   The trail is paved and rated as easy, but it is also very steep.
The water falls out of the rock in drips and small steady streams.  It's quite impressive.
The Grotto: This is where you get off to access the trail to Angel's Landing. Angel's Landing is one of the most popular hikes in the park.  It takes at least a solid 4 hours round trip and is very strenuous.  Cross the Virgin River using the bridge and follow the trail to your right.  If you go left you can take the long way to the Emerald Pools.
We hiked to the Summit of Angel's Landing the morning of our second day in the park. Read my description of the hike to the top in this post

Zion Lodge: This is the place to get off to reach the Emerald Pools.  The trail to the lower Emerald Pool is .6 of a mile long.  It is an easy, paved trail.  After you reach the Lower Pool you can continue another .5 of a mile to the Upper Emerald Pool.  That trail is rated as moderate.  It is not paved.  When we hiked to the Pools we only went to the Lower Emerald Pool.  We were running out of daylight, and we were saving our hiking strength for the next day's hike up to Angel's Landing.
Court of the Patriarchs:  A short, yet very steep hike gives you access to a breathtaking view of three large outcroppings known as Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.
Canyon Junction:  This is the first stop inside the restricted part of Zion National Park.  The road splits off from the Zion Mount Carmel Highway (Highway 9.)  From the end of November to the beginning of March you could drive your own car into this part of the park.  You have to take the shuttle the rest of the year.

Zion Human History Museum: The museum at this stop shows a 22 minute film about the geology and history of the canyon. We thought about stopping here, but we were pretty worn out by this point. 

I was able to stop here with my sisters in 2019. The museum is decent.  The best part is the view from the patio behind the museum. 
Pa'rus Trail: The Pa'rus Trail runs between the Canyon Junction stop, the Human History Museum, and the Visitor Center. This trail was honestly one of my favorite trails during my visit in 2019.  The park was busy, but when we were on the Pa'rus trail we only saw one other group of people. It felt like we had the whole park to ourselves. 

Zion Canyon Visitor's Center: Displays, gift shop, and most important of all WATER! Water is available at several of the stops, but this is one of the best places to fill up your water bottles.  
We camped overnight at the Watchman Campground which is within walking distance of the Visitor's Center. The campground is named after the mountain that towers over the campground and Visitor's Center.
There are two campgrounds within the park, South Campground and Watchman Campground. Campsites range in price from $16 to $20 per night.  (Technically there is a third campground, Lava Point campground. But it is only accessible to people willing to backpack 20 miles into the wilderness area.)  I highly recommend reserving a campsite several months in advance.  The campsites don't have showers and the bathrooms don't even have electrical outlets.  Other than that the campsite was great.  There was running water in the bathrooms so that made up for the lack of electrical outlets. 
The next morning we hiked up to Angel's Landing.  When we got down from there we took the shuttle back down to where we had parked our Jeep at the Visitor's Center.  Then we drove east on the Zion Mount Carmel Highway.  The highway follows the shuttle route for a few miles and then branches off.  The road starts climbing the canyon wall.  We got a great view of the flat topped mountain The Sentinel.
Before we left the park we went through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel.   The tunnel is 1.1 mile long and was completed in 1930.  I love engineering feats like this.  I think it is so interesting that people could build things like this long before all of our "modern technology" was invented.  The tunnel is narrow so if you are planning on driving a large vehicle like an RV through the tunnel you will need to pay $15 and have an official escort.  The escort will close the tunnel to oncoming traffic and allow you to drive through.  This can affect the travel time for people who aren't driving large vehicles so plan accordingly.  We were able to drive through the tunnel without any holdups.    

In 2019 my sister in law told us about the Canyon Overlook Trail located on the east side of the tunnel.  This trail took us to a great view of the Canyon. 
The trail is a little rugged, but the view is worth it. 

Also on the 2019 visit my sisters and I went to Kolob Canyon.
The entrance to that area is located along I-15 about 40 minutes to the north of the Virgin River area of the park.  That area has some pretty features and hardly any other tourists.

I know that my visits to Zion National Park barely scratched the surface of what is available to do in that park.  I would love to go back and hike into the Zion Wilderness Area.  I've heard great reviews about the Subway Hike.  And I haven't even mentioned all the touristy things to do in Springdale.  If you want to plan an extended trip to Zion National Park then you should check out the visitor's guide here http://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/upload/ZionSummerMG2014.pdf

Even though there are still some things that I wish we had more time to see and do in the park, I am very satisfied with what I experienced during my two visits to Zion National Park. The scenery was breathtaking.  This is the type of place that I never will forget.

Recommendation: If you live anywhere near the park, or will even just be travelling near the park, you should definitely plan to stop by and see this beautiful place for yourself.

Directions: Zion National Park is located about an hour east of I-15.  The exact travel time will depend on what direction you are travelling.  If you are travelling from the north you will get off onto Highway 17 and then get onto Highway 9 after a few miles.  If you are travelling from the south you will just get off onto Highway 9. The town of Springdale is located right next to the  main part of the park.  You'll travel down main street in Springdale before arriving at the park entrance.

Additional Information:  I grew up referring to the park as "Zion's Canyon."  Most people in Utah will often call it Zion's.  The slight misnomer makes sense because the Utah area was considered Zion (the promised land of peace and refuge) to the Mormon Pioneers who settled it.  This is a canyon in Zion and therefore Zion's Canyon.  For a detailed explanation of how the park was settled and named check out this interesting story:  http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2008/07/would-you-love-zion-national-park-much-if-it-were-called-mukuntuweap-national-park.

Places nearby: Coral Pink Sand Dune State Park is an hour and fifteen minutes away from Zion National Park.  It was originally on our list of places to stop during our road trip, but got cut due to time.

Next Stop: Red Canyon


  1. Growing up in Cedar City, I've been to Zion National Park several times and it's one of my favorite places in the world. There's really so much to see for all levels of ability and time available. Several years ago, before kids, Audrey and I did an overnight backpacking trip from the top to the bottom of the Narrows in October. There are a few moments in my life that I can remember with vivid clarity of wonder and awe at the marvels of nature. One of those times is standing in the bottom of the Narrows, yellow leaves raining down on us from the rim 1000 feet above. It was cold and wet, and our feet sure got beat up, but it was a magical experience. I wish I had a better camera at the time but you can see some of the pictures on our blog from way back then.

    Also, Kolob Canyons is really cool as well. One of these days I want to hike the west rim trail from there to the main canyon. One day.

  2. Totally worth more than a day's visit. I highly recommend visiting during the fall when the leaves change color. As Noel mentioned, our backpacking trip in the Narrows in October was absolutely stunning!


I would love to hear what you think. Did I get it right, or was I dead wrong? What was your experience like?


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