First Timer's Guide to Zion National Park

Are you thinking about a road trip to Zion National Park? Good choice! Zion is a bucket list trip for any adventure junkie. Known for Angel's Landing, one of North America's most renowned (and dangerous!) hikes, Zion has plenty of thrilling trails to keep you on your toes.


Plus - everything you need to know regarding visiting Zion during COVID.


Contents


I. Zion Overview

II. Know Before You Go

III. When to Visit

IV. Where to Eat & Stay

V. Top Trails & Things to Do

VI. 2 Days in Zion

I. Zion National Park Overview


With 4.5 million visitors, Zion was the 4th most visited National Park in 2019 - up almost 1 million since 2015 (and for good reason)! Zion is located in Southwestern Utah near the town of Springdale, with the closest International airport about 2.5-3 hours away in Las Vegas. Whether you're able to drive from your home or need to fly, Zion makes for the perfect road trip destination, as there are 4 other National Parks in Utah as well (all are known as the Mighty 5).


Tip: If you can get a flight to St. George Regional Airport, you'll only have about an hour's drive to Zion.


Zion is home to many mountains and canyons, most notably Zion Canyon, whose reddish tints of Navajo Sandstone were carved from erosion of the Virgin River that flows through the Park and continues to shape the Canyon.


Zion lays at the intersection of three different ecosystems - Colorado Plateau, Great Basin and Mojave Desert, allowing for a wide range of plants and wildlife.

On top of Angel's Landing

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is where you'll find most of your bucket-list hikes and things on your to-do list, but if you have time, check out some of the few trails near Kolob Canyons located in the Northern part of the Park.


Please note: All access to Kolob Canyons is currently closed for 2020 due to COVID.


What's nice about Zion is that while it's a huge park, it doesn't require too much driving between different trailheads since most are located along the 8 mile scenic drive.

Image via NPS

II. Know Before You Go


There are a few things you should know before your first visit, and most of them have to do with parking and trail closures. Keep reading for an overview of COVID related closures and changes.


Parking


You're able to drive your own car into the Park to the visitor center, but you won't be able to drive to most of the trailheads that are located off of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive


The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (which provides access to many trailheads) is closed to all private vehicles from March to November. The Shuttle System is the most popular way to access the trails along the Scenic Drive. The Scenic Drive begins after the Canyon Junction stop, so your car is allowed up until that point.


So what does that mean?


You can drive into Zion, park at the Visitor Center, then simply use the shuttle system located at the Visitor Center to get around. However, since Zion is so popular, the Visitor Center parking lot fills up every day by 8-9am (earlier on holiday weekends)! If you're not an early riser, the NPS highly recommends you use the free shuttle from Springdale into Zion! It's an easy and convenient option.


Shuttle System


Once inside that park, whether that be by car or the free shuttle from the town of Springdale, you'll use the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive Shuttle to access trails.


Here's a brief overview of the top sights each Shuttle Stop has to offer.


Operations during COVID


Until at least November 1st and potentially through the end of 2020, the National Park service has required that ALL visitors must reserve shuttle tickets prior visiting, to help limit the amount of people entering the park and using the shuttle service during COVID. This applies for the Shuttle through the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, not the free shuttle from Springdale into Zion.


You are able to walk, hike, or bike to each trailhead, but many prefer to reserve a shuttle pass. Tickets are issued from recreation.gov. They are in time blocks of 6am to 6pm. I've heard it's difficult to secure tickets, so always have a back up plan. Bikes have been popular!


Closures during COVID

  • Shuttles will not be stopping at the Museum, Canyon Junction, Court of the Patriarchs, or Weeping Rock

  • The "chains" portion of Angel's Landing is closed - you are still able to hike up until Scout's Lookout, but you won't be able to reach the end of the trail

  • Kolob Canyons is closed


Other Trail Closures due to Rockfall

  • Hidden Canyon

  • Observation Point

  • Weeping Rock Trail

For in-depth answers on your Shuttle questions, check out the National Park Service website here.


III. When to Visit


Autumn in Zion is absolutely perfect for avid hikers and anyone who appreciates cooler temps and a bit of foliage.


In mid September, the hot Summer temperatures begin to drop, the Cottonwoods turn a bright yellow, and visitation begins to slowly decrease.

Beginning of Angel's Landing Trail

By Early October, the mornings can be frigid, but it warms up as soon as the sun comes out.


Spring and Summer are fine options too! However, Spring weather can be unpredictable as Winter has sometimes lasted into May. For that reason, one of the most popular hikes, The Narrows, is more likely to be closed in the Spring. Summer is the most popular time to visit, but temperatures often reach around 100°.


For these reasons, I recommend visiting in the Fall.

Sunrise at Canyon Junction Bridge

IV. Where to Stay & Eat


The only lodging inside the National Park is at the Zion Lodge. If you're able to get a reservation, staying inside the Park would be a great choice because you're close to all of the trails and scenery.


The most common place to stay when visiting Zion is in the town of Springdale, Utah. Springdale is just minutes from the Zion entrance, and it's full of shops, restaurants, and places to stay. Bonus - it's surrounded by mountains so you'll have great views wherever you decide to stay!


Springdale is small, quaint, and walkable. I genuinely enjoyed being in the town after a long day of hiking. A lot of National Parks tend to feel a bit isolated, so it was a pleasant change to have a charming, small-town feel just a few miles from the Park.


Lodging


I stayed at the La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham, and I would 100% stay there again. The rooms were clean, the free breakfast was delicious, and most importantly, they had an outdoor hot tub. Any hotel in Springdale will do the trick as they're all close to each other, but after hiking all day, an outdoor hot tub to relax and stargaze will make for a perfect evening.

Above, views near MeMe's Cafe in Springdale, Utah

Dining


I'll be honest, there were SO many great looking restaurants in Springdale to choose from, but Zach and I found one we loved and ate their every night. Oops! Why mess with a good thing, right? You can't go wrong with wherever you go, but definitely check out MeMe's Cafe - the burgers are so so good, and we loved the outdoor seating!


If you're in the Park and you don't want to head back to your hotel in Springdale for a bite to eat, check out the dining options at Zion Lodge (Shuttle Stop #5). They have a few restaurants offering takeout during COVID, and there's a large, shaded lawn that is perfect for a picnic (or a nap)!


V. Top Trails & Things to Do


*All hikes show round trip mileages


Angel's Landing


This popular hike is what draws many people to Zion National Park. With narrow ridges, steep switchbacks, and sheer drop-offs of hundreds of feet, this trail is not for the faint of heart.

View from Scout's Lookout

I didn't find this as ~dangerous~ or scary as I thought it would be, but I'm also not afraid of heights. It was an incredible experience, but it can get extremely crowded along the chains since some people are super nervous and move slowly. Just remember to be patient, safe, and enjoy the views!


COVID Update: The last part of the trail that requires chains to hold on to along the trail (arguably the best and scariest part) is currently closed due to Covid. You are still able to hike up until that point with rewarding views!


Mileage: 5.4 miles

Location: Shuttle Stop #6 - The Grotto

Difficulty: Strenuous

Best Time of Day: Early Morning or Sunset

Photo Tip: If you want to photograph views of the Canyon from the top of Angel's Landing, I would try to avoid mid-day on a sunny day. My photos were washed out from bad lighting - I had to use some serious "dehaze" effects in Lightroom. I would love to try this hike again and stay for the sunset and hike back with headlamps. An early morning start would work too!


The Narrows


The Narrows is the most unique hike I've ever done, as you must hike up through the Virgin River in waist-deep water through a beautiful slot canyon.

I highly recommend renting a wooden walking stick from Springdale for this hike. I wouldn't have been able to do this without one! You can rent them for around $10 the day before you plan to hike The Narrows. I rented mine from Zion Guru, right next to my hotel! You can also rent dry pants and water boots.


Zach and I hiked this in early October, and let me tell you, the water was COLD. The morning was around 50° outside, and the water was in the 40s.. It seemed like we were the only ones who did not rent the full dry pant gear. We opted for quick-drying shorts and our hiking boots. It was hard to take the plunge, but we got used to the water very quickly. It wasn't so bad! I think next time I'd consider renting the full gear, though, depending on the water temp.

Mileage: Max 5 miles in and out without a permit (10 mi RT) However, you can hike in as far or short of a distance as you'd like

Location: Shuttle Stop #9 - Temple of Sinawava

Difficulty: Moderate-Strenuous, due to navigation through slippery rocks

Best Time of Day: To avoid crowds, start as early as possible

COVID Update: The NPS announced that the Virgin River is currently exposed to Cyanobacteria, specifically near the North Fork. Read more about it here. Many people still decide to hike the Narrows at this time, just make sure you do not submerge your head or drink any of the water.


The Watchman


This trail is conveniently located by the Visitor Center, so if you are unable to retrieve a Shuttle Pass one day, you could definitely still get to this trailhead. I enjoyed this because it was a lot less crowded, but still offered great views without being too strenuous.


Mileage: 3.3 miles

Location: Visitor Center

Difficulty: Moderate

Best Time of Day: Any


Upper Emerald Pools from Kayenta Trail


You can access the Upper Emerald Pools from Kayenta Trail at Shuttle Stop #6. This trail was a nice add-on, with a shady summit at the top, perfect for resting.


Mileage: 3 miles

Location: Shuttle Stop #6 - The Grotto

Difficulty: Moderate

Best Time of Day: Any

Lower Emerald Pools Trail


The Lower Emerald Pools trail is easy, paved, and perfect for children. It does not currently connect with Upper Emerald Pools due to trail maintenance.


Mileage: 1.2 miles

Location: Shuttle Stop #5 - Zion Lodge

Difficulty: Easy

Best Time of Day: Early to avoid crowds - this is a highly trafficked trail


Riverside Walk


The Riverside Walk is the paved path that leads to the beginning of the Narrows, so if you plan on hiking the Narrows, you'll cross this off your list! This paved trail is perfect for all ages and skill levels. You'll walk along the Virgin River at the bottom of the Canyon.


Mileage: 2.2 miles

Location: Shuttle Stop #9 - Temple of Sinawava

Difficulty: Easy

Best Time of Day: Any


Pa'rus Trail


This is a pleasant walk up-canyon along the Virgin River. Many use this trail to walk to the Canyon Junction Bridge, which offers views of The Watchman. Fun fact: this is the only trail in Zion that allows pets and bicycles!


Mileage: 3.5 miles

Location: Visitor Center

Difficulty: Easy

Best Time of Day: Sunrise or Sunset - avoid mid day during the hot, summer months


Canyon Overlook Trail


This easy trail offers some of the best views in Zion National Park. To access this trail, you'll have to drive through the tunnel - the parking area is right after the tunnel, and it is extremely limited. There are only a handful of spots, so be prepared to continue after the tunnel to find parking in the overflow section, along the side of the road.


Mileage: 1 mile

Location: Near the Zion - Mount Carmel Tunnel

Difficulty: Easy

Best Time of Day: Morning or sunset


Canyon Junction Bridge


This bridge offers my all-time favorite view in Zion of the mighty Watchman (the tall mountain in the back)! This viewpoint is most popular at sunset, but I went at Sunrise to avoid crowds, and I was not disappointed.

Since the shuttle stop to this bridge is closed, you can try driving to the bridge and parking as there is a very small area for a few cars to fit. I had no trouble finding a spot before sunrise, but if you're coming later in the day or at sunset, I suggest walking from the Visitor Center along the Pa'rus Trail.


Mileage: From Visitor Center and back, 3.5 miles

Location: Shuttle Stop #3 - Canyon Junction (Currently Closed) Use small parking area next to the bridge or walk along Pa'rus Trail

Difficulty: Easy

Best Time of Day: Sunset, but it will be crowded. Try coming at sunrise, too!


Court of the Patriarchs


You won't need to spend much time here as it's just a short walk up to the viewpoint from the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

Since this shuttle stop is closed, you'd have to walk from the Zion Lodge.


Mileage: 1.3 miles from Zion Lodge

Location: Shuttle Stop #4 - Court of the Patriarchs

Difficulty: Easy

Best Time of Day: Any/Sunrise


Zion Mount Carmel Highway


Chances are you'll have to drive on this road at some point to get to your next destination, but make sure you stop at as many overlooks as you can. This is one of the most picturesque drives in the Southwest!


When I last visited, they had to shut it down for half a day because a car commercial was being filmed on the road. Haha! That's how you know it's worth it.


Additional Trails


These great trails are currently closed, but check back on the NPS website before your trip to see if anything changes!

  • Hidden Canyon

  • Observation Point

  • Weeping Rock Trail

  • Timber Creek Overlook Trail (Kolob Canyons)


VI. 2-Day Zion Itinerary


Only have 2 days to spare? Check out my detailed 2-Day Zion Itinerary, which includes all of Zion's must-do hikes and sights!


For a quick overview, feel free to save or screenshot the below.


Thanks for reading!

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