Zion National Park has a relatively small area compared to the rest of the national parks in the Southwest. But it has a lot of natural wonders you must see to believe. Here is a list of our favorite things to do and see in Zion National Park. For more detail, download our free DetourOn Roadbook!
Wondering where to stay? Check out this list of places to camp in Zion National Park.
Four Sections of Zion National Park
The very first thing you need to know about Zion National Park is that it is divided into four sections:
Zion Canyon. If this is your first trip to Zion, you'll be spending most of your time in Zion Canyon. After all, that's the location of most of the Zion classics, such as Angels Landing. Most visitors approach Zion Canyon from the park's South Entrance in the town of Springdale. This area is open year-round.
The East Side. As soon as you enter Zion from the East Entrance, you'll feel like you've entered a different universe. The topography changes completely instantaneously. A winding scenic highway and the Zion Tunnel connect this side of the park to the South Entrance. This area is open year-round.
Kolob Canyons. On the west side of Zion National Park lies another section of red rock canyons known as the Kolob Canyons. This section of the park has its own entrance and scenic drive off Interstate 15. Only wilderness hiking trails connect this side of the park with the Zion Canyon. Stop here only if you're passing through on the highway between St George and Cedar City. Otherwise the hour-long detour between Springdale and the Kolob Canyons isn't worth it in my opinion. This area is closed in winter due to snow.
Kolob Terrace Road. This isn't really an official section of Zion National Park, but I'm including it here because (a) it is different from the Kolob Canyons, (b) it's becoming a popular camping destination, and (c) it is the location of numerous wilderness trailheads in the park. This long, winding scenic road connects the town of Virgin with the Kolob Reservoir and Cedar City. This area is closed in winter due to snow.
Important Zion Canyon Shuttle Information
Most of the classic hikes of Zion National Park depart from the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. During the busy season, which is most of the year, you must take a shuttle to get there. You should familiarize yourself with all the shuttle stops and info before heading out. Here are the most important things to know about the Zion Canyon Shuttle:
There are TWO shuttle systems. Don't get confused between them! The Zion Canyon Shuttle is mandatory most of the year if you want to visit anything along the Scenic Drive. You need to familiarize yourself with this shuttle! The Springdale Town Shuttle is optional. It connects the Main St hotels and restaurants with the pedestrian entrance of Zion National Park. From the entry booth, it's a 2-minute walk to the Visitor Center. If staying in Springdale, you should use the shuttle to alleviate congestion and avoid parking issues.
Both shuttles are free
The Zion Canyon Shuttle departs from the Visitor Center and makes 9 stops along its way up and down the Zion Scenic Drive. You can get on and off the shuttle at each stop up and down the canyon.
It takes about 45 minutes to ride the shuttle one-way from the Visitor Center (Stop 1) to the Temple of Sinawava (Stop 9). Take this time into account when planning your day.
You cannot drive the Scenic Drive while the shuttle is in operation, but you can ride a bike. Rent an e-bike or road bike from Zion Cycles.
Check out the park website for more details about the Zion Canyon Shuttle.
Important Zion Tunnel Information
Highway 9, the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway, connects Zion's South and East Entrances. It's all possible thanks to a 1.1-mile long tunnel carved into the cliff face. It's a beautiful drive that you must take if you continue east to Bryce Canyon National Park, Lake Powell, or the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Here are the most important things to know about the Zion Tunnel:
The Zion Tunnel is narrow and dark. Turn on your headlights and drive slow.
The Zion Tunnel is open 24/7, unless you're driving an oversized vehicle.
This is a two-way tunnel with exceptions! Oversized vehicles require one-way traffic control through the tunnel. This includes nearly all RVs, buses, trailers, fifth wheels, dual-wheel trucks, campers, and boats (minimum dimensions 11’4” tall and/or 7’10” wide, including mirrors, awnings, and jacks)
Expect up to 20-minute delays. Rangers stationed at both ends of the tunnel stop oncoming traffic so that oversized vehicles may drive down the center of the road in the tunnel.
Important notes for oversized vehicles: You must pay a $15 fee at the park entrance gate and you may only pass through the tunnel during specified hours.
Check out the park website for more details about the Zion Tunnel.
Best day hikes in Zion
These hikes can all be visited year-round. In summer, hike early in the morning or late in the evening. If hiking during mid-day, skip from shade to shade and remember to stay hydrated. In winter, watch your footing due to snow and ice here and there. But don't be deterred. Winter has less crowds. Although the days are shorter, the hikes are just as beautiful as in other seasons.
Here are our favorite day hikes in order of easiest and shortest to hardest and longest:
The Riverside Walk is a 1.1-mile paved trail that follows the Virgin River along the bottom of a narrowing canyon. Although it's filled with people and aggressive squirrels, it is absolutely mind-blowing and definitely worth your time! The trail ends where the river blocks the path. For an extra challenge, continue walking in the water (this is known as The Narrows bottom-up route)
As the name implies, the Canyon Overlook trail leads to a viewpoint of Pine Creek Canyon and lower Zion Canyon. Don't be fooled by the short distance! Although it is only 1/2 mile to the overlook, this is not an easy hike. The trail is rocky and uneven, along high drop-offs. Parking is extremely limited. You may have to try multiple times. I highly recommend this viewpoint at sunrise.
Kayenta Trail to Emerald Pools
The less-known 1-mile Kayenta Trail is the hidden gem of Zion Canyon. It connects the Grotto (Shuttle Stop #6) with the Emerald Pools, combining a pleasant walk with stunning views. At the Emerald Pools intersection, follow signs to the Middle Pool, from which you have yet another fantastic view. Another mile from the Middle Emerald Pool leads to the Zion Lodge. If lots of water is flowing, take the slightly more challenging spur trail to the Upper Emerald Pool.
The mythical climb. Angels Landing is on everyone's bucket list. 2.5 miles of grueling uphill switchbacks lead to a steep narrow ridgeline to the summit. This hike not for the faint of heart! The final section of this climb has gotten so crowded and so dangerous that you now need a permit to hike Angels Landing!
The classic 4-mile trail to Observation Point is closed until further notice due to rockfall! It would normally lead you up unrelenting switchbacks, through a slot canyon, more switchbacks, and finally to a beautiful viewpoint of Zion Canyon. From here you can observe climbers trying to reach the summit of Angel's Landing (bring binoculars) and the Virgin River disappearing into the Narrows. Although the classic trailhead is closed, you can approach Observation Point from the backside on a much more leisurely 3-mile walk.
Prepare for a long long day. The Subway (aka Left Fork of North Creek Bottom-Up) is a strenuous 9-mile round-trip hike through the Left Fork of North Creek. The hike requires route finding, hiking in ankle to knee deep water, and scrambling over large boulders. This route begins and ends at the Left Fork Trailhead on the Kolob Terrace Road. You must obtain a wilderness permit for this hike!
Overnight Hikes in Zion
As with most anything in Zion National Park, you need permits to undertake any overnight adventure in the park's wilderness areas. The following two suggestions are no exception.
This is the most mythical overnight hike of the Southwest! The 16 miles one-way require you to hike in the river for a long chunk of your journey, between sheer red sandstone cliffs. It's a wonderful experience but it takes a lot of planning and a lot of good luck.
Since this adventure beckons many people, the park has instated a permit lottery system to alleviate the crowds. If you're fortunate enough to win permits to overnight at the Narrows, you then need to hope that the weather stays in good condition before and during your trip. A rainstorm may bring flash floods during your trip, but it may also increase the river water flow prior to your trip. High flows means increased danger and the park will force cancel your trip.
As the name implies, this is a traverse on foot of Zion National Park. This is actually a combination of backcountry trails from east to west (or vice versa). You need A LOT of planning to undertake this entire hike. The good thing is that you can choose the length of your hike from just 2 days (using shortcuts) to over 6 days (and nearly 50 miles). It all depends on how many trails you want to hike and how fast you want to walk.
Keep in mind that water is scarce. The trails cross the Kolob Terrace Road and the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, so you can plan for food and water drops at these locations.
Other Things To Do in Zion
The best way to experience Zion National Park is by walking. That's why this post is made up of our favorite hiking trails in the park. Of course, you could also simply ride the Zion Canyon Shuttle and get off at such viewpoints as The Court of the Patriarchs, take some pictures, and call it a day. You could visit the Human History Museum (when it's open) and the Visitor Center Gift Shop. If you're short on time, you could drive through the Zion-Mt Carmel Hwy and stop along the road to take more photographs.
If you're a bit more adventurous and have time and money to spare, check out the following activities:
Hire a guide for half-day, full-day, multi-day canyoneering, rock climbing, and/or mountain biking trips.
Rent tubes and float down the Virgin River in Springdale
Zion National Park is a year-round destination with many great hikes to offer. Check out this list of places to camp in the park and don't forget to reserve your camping and/or backpacking gear rental with us.