Vacation in Zion National Park

One of the things I love most about Las Vegas isn’t even the casinos, it is its proximity to so many National Parks. In 2016 I took a road trip and visited some of these awesome parks. By far my most favorite during this trip would have to be Zion National Park.

There is something about the park that is so captivating that makes me want to go back again and again. Gorgeous trails, narrow slot canyons, red and white sandstone formations, 3,000 foot vertical walls, and the Virgin River make Zion Canyon a spectacular place to explore.

When planning your first trip to Zion, it is easy to get overwhelmed with all the information regarding transportation in the park, permits, the best hikes, and where to camp. What I have here is a handy Zion Travel Guide where I break down everything you need to know. If you still have questions after reading this, just comment below, and I promise to help you out!

ZION TRAVEL GUIDE

LAY OF THE LAND

Zion National Park has two main regions. The first region is Zion Canyon which is most easily accessed via SR-9 which connects to the I-15 just north of St. George, Utah. The SR-9 runs directly into the Park’s South Entrance which is immediately past the small adorable town of Springdale. As soon as you enter the Park through the South Entrance, the Visitors Center will be on your right. The Visitors Center is worth a quick stop to pick up a map and get your bearings. The Park employees at the Visitors Center can also inform you of water availability on the trails, which is important to know before if you are heading out on any overnight hikes.
The other region of the Park is the Kolob Canyon area. It is located at the northern end of the Park and is accessed directly from I-15 (Exit 40 near Cedar City, Utah). The Kolob region offers a little more solitude, soaring peaks, and the second largest natural arch in the world.

WHERE TO STAY

The two car campgrounds in the Canyon are less than 1/2 a mile from the Visitors Center. Sites are $16 or $18 for a site with an electric hookup. All sites have picnic tables, a fire pit, and access to potable water, bathrooms, and trash containers. No showers are available at the campsites.

Watchman Campground is directly behind the Visitors Center and has a total of 183 tent and electric sites that are available year round.

South Campground

The South Campground is just north of the Visitors Center on the main road and has a total of 126 non-electric sites. The campground is open from March through November. No reservations are accepted and sites are only available as first come, first serve.

Other lodging options

Or if camping isn’t your thing or it’s simply too hot, there are several hotels in Springdale including a few with swimming pools. For a higher budget ($150-200/night), check out the Desert Pearl Inn, Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens, or the Hampton Inn. For lower budgets ($100-$150), try the Canyon Ranch Motel or the Zion Park Motel. I stayed at a cute little Airbnb a short drive away.

WHEN TO VISIT

While Zion Canyon can be visited year-round, it is most pleasant in the months of April, May, October, and November. Summer time is blazing hot, and in the winter there is the possibility of snow, especially at the canyon rim’s higher elevations.

PERMITS AND FEES

All visitors are required to pay an entrance fee of $25 per vehicle. The entrance pass is good for 7 days. If you are planning to stay longer or visiting other National Parks in the next year and you would like to save money on park admission, then you might consider purchasing an Interagency Annual Pass. This pass costs $80 and waives for one year all entrance fees to all lands owned by the National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service. You can purchase the Annual Pass at the entrance to Zion or online.

GETTING AROUND

If you are visiting the Canyon between the months of November and March, you are allowed to drive in the Canyon and can park in any of the parking lots for free.

From April to October, cars are not permitted to drive through Zion Canyon. Luckily, the Zion Canyon shuttle operated by the Park Service is free, fast, and easy. Also, the windows in the bus are huge so you can enjoy the scenery while listening to the audio narrator who tells you all about the geology and history of sites that you pass in the Canyon. The Park shuttle departs from the Visitors Center every 15 minutes or less and makes stops throughout the park. Just jump off wherever you feel like exploring. When you are ready to move on, just wait at a stop and catch a shuttle going in the direction of your next stop. There are stops at all of the major hiking trails, and all of the stops are clearly marked on the Park map provided at the Visitors Center.

If you are staying in Springdale or there is no available parking at the Visitors Center, there is also a shuttle from the town into the park. A map of the stops in Springdale can be found here.

Hours of shuttle operation vary by season. If you are an early riser or think you’ll be on the trail late in the day, check out the complete shuttle schedule to make sure you don’t miss the last one.

Zion MUST DO’S

Climb Angel’s Landing
Shuttle Stop: The Grotto
Length: 5.4 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet
Difficulty: Strenuous

This is the most famous trail in the Park, and it isn’t for the faint of heart. That said, anyone who is in decent physical shape can do it (although not recommended for those with a fear of heights). The first 2 miles of the hike is paved and well traveled. We saw families even with small children on this section of the trail. The ascent is fairly steep but there are plenty of places to rest along the way where you can take in the views of the Canyon and the Virgin River below. After hiking up a series of steep and short switchbacks called Walter’s Wiggles, you reach Scout’s Lookout. At Scout’s lookout, you get a really nice view of the summit and can see down the length of the Canyon. This is a good point to decide whether you are in a condition to continue. Past this point, the trail becomes very exposed as you climb up the spine of the mountain that is less than 5 feet wide in some places. Hiking this section is a thrilling and dizzying experience that requires slow, deliberate steps while making use of the chains and guard rails that have been installed by the Park Service. After scrambling up 500 vertical feet, you reach the summit where you are rewarded with spectacular 360 degree views of the Canyon.

Tips for Angel’s Landing:
1. This trail can get very crowded and the chains can get backed up during the middle of the day. To avoid the crowds, do this hike very early in the morning or the late afternoon which also happen to be the best times of day for photography due to the position of the sun.
2. If at any point you become uncomfortable, stop, take a deep breath, and turn around. It is nothing to be embarrassed about.
3. You need two free hands. Make sure you have a backpack for your camera, water bottle, and other belongings.

Hike to Observation Point
Shuttle Stop: Weeping Rock
Length: 8 miles roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 2,150 feet
Rating: Moderate to Strenuous

While longer with greater elevation gain, you may find that Observation Point is a less strenuous hike then Angel’s Landing. It is also way less crowded and was my favorite day hike we did in the Canyon. The trail starts with a series of switchbacks leading up from the Canyon floor. At the top of these switchbacks, the trail turns east into a steep slot canyon providing relief from the sun. Once you exit the slot canyon, the trail continues to climb around the backside of the mountain overlooking an expansive area called Echo Canyon. This section of the trail provides new topography and different vegetation than what is experienced in the main Canyon and the drop-offs begin to get steeper. You keep ascending and with one mile to go, the trail wraps back around providing sweeping views of Zion Canyon. During this section, you are on the edge of a vertical drop off with nothing between you and the Canyon floor. Luckily the trail is wide and solid rock, so as long as you watch your footing, there is nothing to worry about. Eventually, as you reach the Canyon rim, the trail evens off, and the plateau jets out to Observation Point. From here, you tower above Angel’s Landing and have wide open views of the Valley floor and both the East and West Canyon rims. For more photos, see my recent blog post: The Epic Hike to Observation Point.

Riverside Walk / The Narrows
Shuttle Stop: Temple of Sinawava
Length: 2.2 miles +
Elevation Gain: 60 feet
Difficulty: Easy

The hike to the Narrows begins with an easy paved walkway called the Riverside Walk at the very end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Due to its accessibility, you will encounter lots of families, so don’t expect solitude. However, it’s a nice stroll along the Virgin River if you have some time to kill. Beyond the end of the paved trail is the mouth of the Narrows, which is a 16 mile slot canyon with soaring walls, springs, and sandstone grottos. Hiking the entire Narrows requires a fair amount of logistical planning, but if you are feeling adventurous and have some tennis shoes, you can keep walking upriver as far as you like to do some exploring. Just keep an eye on the time and check the weather before heading upstream. If rain is in the forecast do not proceed.

Weeping Rock
Shuttle Stop: Weeping Rock
Length: .5 miles
Elevation Gain: 173 feet
Difficulty: Easy but steep

During the main season, you can ride the shuttle to various points of interest.  One of the best is Weeping Rock where the water seeps down from the upper plateau, through the sandstone, and exits in a rock alcove. In the spring or during a rain storm you’ll also see a waterfall here.

Emerald Pools
Shuttle Stop: The Zion Lodge or The Grotto
Length: 2 miles +
Elevation Gain: 200 feet
Difficulty: Easy

The most likely starting point for this hike is at the Zion Lodge. Cross the footbridge and follow the trail that goes north along the Virgin River. (You can also get to Emerald Pools from the Grotto bus stop, hiking southeast on a little connector trail, recently named the “Kayenta Trail.”) Total time for this hike: 2-4 hours (depending on how leisurely your stroll).

  • LOWER EMERALD POOLS: In less than half a mile, the vegetation becomes lusher and the trail makes its way along a tall alcove under two tall waterfalls and the pools below. Getting to this point is quite easy even for the elderly and baby-strollers.
  • MIDDLE EMERALD POOLS: Beyond the alcove, the trail gets more difficult and steps up and around to bring you on top of the cliff that you just walked under. The middle “pools” are the streams that form the waterfalls. This section is quite beautiful.
  • UPPER EMERALD POOL: The final stretch is a hot and sandy quarter mile, but it is well worth the effort to get to the final pool at the base of the 300-foot cliffs above. The upper pool area is a great area to find a shaded boulder to relax and have lunch. Most of the time, you can see a faint waterfall coming from the mouth of Heaps Canyon far above. For the return trip, you can either retrace your path or take the optional loop back to the Lodge.

I hope you guys enjoy Zion as much as I did and I hope to see lots of pictures! Comment below your favorite national park!

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