Zion National Park is packed with awe-inspiring views and adventures for every level of thrill seeker. Enjoy the auburn sandstone canyons from the canyon floor, or choose one of the several popular hiking trails that provide breathtaking vistas on the bird’s eye view from the top.
My husband and I have been traveling to Zion for the past 15 years, as it’s one of our favorite National Parks in the US. The views are comparable to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, though more accessible to get to with an easy drive up from Las Vegas.
Having hiked through many parks worldwide, we continue to head back to Zion for unique landscapes and trails – where else can you hike a vertical, narrow strip to the top of a canyon and wade through rushing river water in the middle of a slot canyon in the same day?
Zion is considered a bucket-list destination for a reason. Whether you have traveled to Zion several times or are planning your first trip, these are the top things to do in Zion National Park that I’d recommend to all travelers.
When is The Best Time to Visit Zion National Park
Zion National Park, a jewel in the crown of America’s national parks, welcomed 4,692,417 in 2022 alone. A staggering 60% of these visits occurred between May and September, highlighting the park’s summer allure. But is summer truly the best time to experience Zion’s grandeur?
Spring in Zion is a symphony of colors and sounds. Wildflowers bloom in a riot of colors, and the fauna emerge from their winter slumber. It’s a season that offers moderate temperatures, ranging from 60 to 70°F, making it ideal for hiking and outdoor activities.
Summer is undeniably the most popular season, but it comes with its challenges—temperatures can soar up to 100°F. However, the park offers nocturnal hikes and moonlit experiences that are nothing short of magical.
Autumn is perhaps the most underrated season to visit Zion. The park transforms into a canvas of gold, orange, and red, with daytime temperatures hovering around a comfortable 70°F.
Winter offers a tranquil, almost meditative experience. Snow-capped peaks and frozen waterfalls create a landscape of quiet elegance. However, be prepared for temperatures that can dip below freezing.
No trip to Zion is complete without passage through the narrows, a hiking trail unlike any other. Instead of traversing up the canyon, like other popular hikes in Zion, this trail is the Virgin River. As the name implies, the Narrows is the narrowest part of Zion Canyon, and hikers will walk up the river through the slot canyon, with towering sandstone walls on either side.
For a successful (and enjoyable) hike, you’ll need the right gear– waders, waterproof boots, a large walking stick, and possibly spikes if you plan on hiking during the winter and spring months. Several outposts outside the park offer these rentals and plan on spending about $125 a person for all required gear.
The Narrows trail is 16 miles long, though most hikers choose to do only a portion of it before turning around. How difficult the track is depends on the water flow; in the late summer and early fall, when water flow is at its lowest, this hike is considered easy for most individuals and children.
As the surrounding snowpack melts and the river depth climbs, the trail is significantly more challenging in spring and early summer and should only be done by experienced hikers. If the water flow rises above 150 cubic feet per second (CFS), the Narrows trail will be closed for safety.
Take a Canyon Drive
See the canyon by bus or bike! The canyon’s interior is closed to cars most of the year, and visitors must ride the free park shuttle bus. You can also rent a bike (or bring your own) and head in on two wheels.
While riding a shuttle bus through a national park might sound boring, the shuttle system is a well-oiled machine and very enjoyable. You must take this shuttle bus to get to your trailhead if you plan on hiking:
- Angel’s Landing
- Emerald Pools
- The Narrows
Visitors who plan on something other than hiking can grab a bus at either the entrance to the park or the history museum, then ride up and down to see the beauty from the ground floor.
You can also hop out at the Zion Lodge (stop #5) to eat lunch, grab a coffee, and take in your surroundings without stepping on any trails. Several small paved trails near the Lodge are great options for those in wheelchairs or who want to experience Zion without hiking.
As with the Narrows, Angel’s Landing is considered one of the best hikes in Zion National Park, if not one of the best in the country. If you’ve ever hiked Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, Angel’s Landing is similar but much shorter. It’s also the park’s most deadly hike, with 13 people falling from the trail since 2000.
The trail to Angel’s Landing is short and steep, roughly 2 miles of quick ascent through the infamous Walter Wiggles, a series of 21 steep switchbacks that propel you to the top. Once you are there, you can continue to Angel’s Landing or enjoy the incredible views that are well worth the hike, even if you don’t continue on to the very top.
The last half-mile of the trail, from Scout’s Lookout to Angel’s Landing, is dramatic and narrow. The path is only a few feet wide in many sections and exposed to high cliff drop-offs, sometimes on both sides. There are chain link handrails that can (and should) be used, but it’s still an adventure-lovers-only experience.
Note that as of 2022, you’ll need a permit to ascend Angel’s Landing and cannot apply for a permit the same day you want to use it. Plan ahead, even if you are not sure you want to hike this part of the trail, as you can’t change your mind without a permit once you get up to Scout’s Lookout.
Once you’ve reached the top, you’ve reached the apex of Angel’s Landing, named for a cliff so high that “only angels might land on it.” Safely climb down, enjoy the quick descent back to the trailhead, and congratulate yourself on a well-earned strenuous trek.
Grab a Post-Hike Meal in Springdale
The town of Springdale is located right outside the main entrance to the park, so close that you can park in Springdale and either walk into the Visitor’s Center or grab one of the many free shuttles.
Springdale is an idyllic town that many people choose to stay when visiting. While outdoor activities are a must, enjoying a great meal afterward is a rewarding thing to do in Zion National Park.
Southwest Utah is known for its mash-up of Southwestern and Mexican cuisine. Before heading out for the day, grab a plate-sized breakfast burrito smothered in salsa verde at Oscar’s Cafe.
Dinner options range from casual to steakhouse classic, though the empanadas and vegan tacos at the popular Bit and Spur cafe are not to be missed.
See the Sunrise
Start your day off by witnessing the sun rise over the canyon. While there are several places to take in the sunrise (and sunset), one of the most popular is the Canyon Overlook Trail. Located on the east side of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, this trail is a quick ½ mile in, making it the perfect length for an early morning trek.
Unlike watching the sunrise over a beach, the best views are away from the sun coming up. Instead of watching the sun peak over the mountain, you’ll face down into Zion Canyon and watch the sun illuminate the amber walls as it rises in the sky. Bring your cameras– this is one view you’ll never forget.
Walk along the River
If you’re looking for more leisurely things to do in Zion National Park, the scenic 1-mile river trail tops that list. Leading to the entrance of the Narrows, this paved trail is great for kids of all ages as well as individuals on scooters or wheelchairs.
The trail is at the end of the shuttle bus route (stop #9), making for a nice combo. Grab the shuttle at the Visitors Center and enjoy the wildlife commentary and the views until you reach the end. Get out, walk the flat path along the Virgin River, then head back.
However you choose to experience Zion, it offers several activities and natural attractions for nature enthusiasts, adventure seekers, and serenity seekers. From the awe-inspiring beauty to the thrilling hikes and canyoning adventures, Zion is an unforgettable experience.
Hike the Emerald Pools
The Emerald Pool trails are directly across from the Historic Zion Lodge, which means easy access for most visitors. The trail follows a small stream that collects in “pools.”
There are 3 Emerald Pools:
The Lower is the easiest at 1.2 miles roundtrip and 100 ft elevation gain. Upper is most strenuous at 3 miles roundtrip and 400 ft elevation gain. The Lower Emerald Pool has a sandy beach area and is a popular spot for swimming during warm months.
Choose one or hike to all the pools. Either way, this is a classic trail for Zion visitors.
Zion is considered one of the best places for climbing and canyoneering. You can book guided trips to explore technical slot canyons like Keyhole Canyon; no experience is required.
As with the Narrows, Keyhole Canyon is considered one of the quintessential things to do in Zion National Park. The canyon is relatively short, taking most groups only 1-2 hours to complete. The rappels are straightforward, and the navigation is more accessible than other slot canyons.
If you’ve ever wanted to try canyoneering, the Keyhole Canyon is a great place to start.
Take a Dip at Pine Creek Swimming Hole
If you’re looking for a spot to cool off without the crowds, check out Pine Creek Swimming Hole, a lesser-known, off-the-beaten-path secret.
It’s a great place to take a break and enjoy the cool water on hot summer days. The trailhead is the Pine Creek Bridge near Canyon Junction. From there, you’ll take a short quarter-mile hike to the creek.
Cruise down the River
River tubing is a popular way to cool off during the hot summers in Zion National Park. The tubing season generally runs from late May through September. Water levels are usually highest in July and August, making them the best months to tube.
The most common stretch is the Virgin River between the South and Watchman Campgrounds. This 2-3 hour float is great for first-timers and, depending on the water depth, can be a mostly relaxing experience for families.
Note that if you want to tube, advance reservations are highly recommended, as there are usage limits each day. Many of the outposts in town offer guided trips.
Whether you seek thrilling adventures or want to simply marvel at the diverse beauty of Zion’s vistas, Zion National Mark is a must for any outdoor lover. Its magnificent geology and various recreation opportunities make it a National Park not to miss.
This article originally appeared on Savoteur.
Featured image credit: Kristina Wagner
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