Planning a trip to Zion National Park? With over 4.5 million visitors a year and as the most popular National Park in Utah, Zion National Park is a breath-taking place to visit and offers endless sights and activities to choose from when planning a trip. The dramatic scenery of the colorful canyons carved by the Virgin River, stunning red cliffs, abundance of wildlife and stunning vistas in every direction makes Zion National Park truly a Utah gem. Whether you are an avid hiker or prefer to stick to the easier trails, Zion National Park offers endless trails to choose from for every experience level. We were able to experience a handful of Zion's stunning trails over our four day visit and it's easy to see why Zion National Park is Utah's most popular national park!
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ZION NATIONAL PARK EAST ENTRANCE
Leaving from Bryce Canyon National Park where we spent the previous few days, we arrived to Zion National Park via the East Entrance. Often referred to as the quieter side of Zion, the east side was a wonderful place to start our exploration of Zion National Park. As you enter the park you will follow the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway which was a stunning drive that provided us with our first glimpses into this stunning park. This highway cuts thru the east side of the park before connecting up with the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive which is the main road in Zion that cuts from north to south. As you drive along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and enjoy the scenic views there are a couple key stops to keep an eye out for including the Checkboard Mesa Overlook, Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and the Canyon Overlook Trail.
CHECKERBOARD MESA OVERLOOK
Shortly after passing thru the East Entrance station you will come across the stop to view Checkerboard Mesa. From the viewing area you can see the nearby rock formation that is covered in a unique criss-cross pattern - almost resembling a checkerboard. Stop to take a look and read the informational exhibits here. For those that want a closer look, the Checkerboard Mesa Trail offers a 2 mile hike, with an elevation gain of 900 feet to the top of the Mesa.
CANYON OVERLOOK TRAIL
Our first hike in Zion National Park was the stunning Canyon Overlook Trail. This short, easy one mile roundtrip hike is perfect for almost anyone and provides absolutely stunning views. Along the trail, there are plenty of fun rock formations for kids to have some fun and scramble around and there is even a cave along the way to stop and pause if you need a spot to cool off and rest - remember temperatures can get quite hot in Zion so be prepared. We hiked Canyon Overlook Trail in the morning in early September and temperatures were already pushing 90+ degrees by 10am in the morning! Reaching the main viewpoint of the Canyon Overlook Trail is something that will make your jaw -drop! Standing on the rim of Pine Creek Canyon you are rewarded with a stunning vista showcasing the rugged landscape of Zion and it's massive sandstone bluffs. What an introduction to Zion National Park! This was a wonderful first hike during our time in Zion and is one that should be on everyone's must do list when visiting Zion National Park!
ZION-MOUNT CARMEL TUNNEL
Literally right past the parking area for Canyon Overlook Trail is the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Built in the 1920s, the historic Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel is quite an impressive structure. The tunnel is over 5,000 feet long and is extremely narrow, in fact, for awhile Rangers were posted on each side of the tunnel to help direct traffic for larger vehicles needing to pass thru the tunnel. Today, the park now requires you to get a permit if you are wanting to drive a large vehicle thru the tunnel and you are restricted to certain hours of the day. For more information, check on Zion's official website regarding size restrictions and permits needed.
ZION CANYON VISITOR CENTER
Continuing our drive from the east, Zion Mount Carmel Highway eventually meets up with the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive at Canyon Junction. From Canyon Junction there is only one option with a private passenger car and that is to head south as private vehicles are not allowed north past this point during the busier months of the year. Our next stop was to head to the Visitor Center. Located just inside the South Entrance to Zion National Park, this Visitor Center was recently built in 2000 to help accommodate the large amount of visitors that Zion National Park now receives. We really enjoyed all the outdoor exhibits that were located around the Visitor Center as well as numerous Ranger led talks that took place at their outside seating area - make sure and grab your National Park passport stamp here and a Junior Ranger's booklet if you are traveling with kids! Our 3 year old son loved being able to earn his Junior Ranger badge while visiting Zion!
ZION CANYON CAMPGROUND
By now, it was late afternoon and the temperatures were well into the 100s. In fact, we were there during record setting temperatures that were pushing past 110+ each day! Yikes! Due to the extreme heat, we decided it was time to head to our campground, get checked in and hit the pool! We spent four nights at the Zion Canyon Campground located about 1/2 a mile outside of the park in Springdale. While there is a wonderful campground located just inside the south entrance to Zion - The Watchman Campground, we choose to stay at the Zion Canyon Campground for it's pool. Traveling with a three year old and knowing that temperatures could be quite hot during our visit, we opted for the pool option - and boy was it worth it! The pool was so refreshing and we loved our campsite right along the Virgin River where we could sit and enjoy the view and watch the roadrunners and other birds along the river. In addition, the shower and laundry facilities were wonderful and much needed after some hot sweaty days of hiking!
With the sun going down and temperatures starting to drop, we headed back into Zion National Park for an evening hike (more like a leisurely stroll) along the Pa'rus Trail. As one of the easiest and most accessible trail in Zion, this paved trail follows along the Virgin River thru Lower Zion Canyon and ends at Canyon Junction for a 3.4 mile roundtrip hike. Strolling along at dusk was wonderful for wildlife viewing as we were able to watch Mule Deer along the river and Darkling Beetles along the paved trail. Now if you've never seen a Darkling Beetle, you are in for a treat - these beetles were a kick to watch as they stand on their head with their butts in the air - basically as a defense mechanism - our son loved watching these little guys! With limited time, due to our daylight ebbing away, we didn't end up walking the entire length of the trail, probably half of the trail but it was a great way to end our first day in Zion National Park.
COURT OF THE PATRIARCHS
After having explored areas the previous day that did not require a shuttle - for our second day in Zion National Park, it was now time to head further up the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive where private vehicles are not allowed. Up bright and early and ready to beat the heat, we started off our day by heading to the Visitor Center to catch a shuttle. Stops #4 to #9 along the shuttle route are located in part of the park where you can only reach these areas by shuttle, taking a bike or walking. Normally our first stop would have been at Shuttle Stop #4 - Court of the Patriarchs which offers a viewpoint and access to the Sandbench Loop Trail. Unfortunately, during our visit to Zion National Park this shuttle stop was closed and access to the Court of the Patriarchs viewing area was under renovation.
EMERALD POOLS TRAIL
So for our first stop of the day, we headed to Shuttle Stop #5 - Zion Lodge. At this stop you have access to historic Zion Lodge and across the street is access to the popular Emerald Pools Trail. The 2.5 mile roundtrip Emerald Pools Trail is a wonderful family friendly hike that passes thru Lower, Middle and Upper Emerald Pools. Following a small stream along the trail will lead you to each of the 'pool's that cascade thru a small side canyon in Zion. Lower Emerald Pool is of course the easiest to reach with Middle and Upper Pools requiring a bit more effort - but the reward is worth it! This oasis in the desert is a must do when visiting Zion National Park!
After completing our hike along the Emerald Pools Trail, we crossed the street to check out the historic Zion Lodge. As the only lodge within Zion National Park, this is a popular place to stay. First built in 1924, the historic lodge burned down in 1966 and was quickly rebuilt although losing it's historic rustic appearance. In 1990, when the last remodel took place, Zion Lodge was restored back to it's historic appearance. Today, this is a great place to stop and enjoy one of the restaurants in the lodge or simply take a break along the giant green lawns outside the Lodge while enjoying the views.
The next stop along the Shuttle Route is Shuttle Stop #6 - The Grotto. At one point, this area was used as a campground and where the original Visitor Center once stood. Today, this shuttle stop is a now used as the main stop for those wanting to hike the iconic Angel's Landing hike. This 4.8 mile roundtrip hike is one of the most popular hikes in Zion National Park. With 1,500 feet in elevation gain and not recommended for small children or those scared of heights - this was not a trail we were able to attempt with a three year old. Someday when our son is a bit older we hope to return to hike enjoy this amazing trail. For those who do want to hike Angel's Landing - this trail now requires a permit via a lottery system - Click Here to read more. So instead of the popular Angel's Landing Trail, we headed a short distance down the Kayenta Trail which follows along the Virgin River. The Kayenta Trail is actually a trail connecting back to the Emerald Pools Trail, so we didn't walk the entire route but we did walk a small portion of it and enjoyed the views along the Virgin River before turning back.
Sadly Shuttle Stop #7 - Weeping Rock is closed indefinitely due to a rockslide back in 2019.
For our last stop of the day along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, we headed to Shuttle Stop #8 - Big Bend. No actual trails leave from this Shuttle Stop, but the views here are fantastic. In fact, you can actually look towards Angel's Landing and spot hikers along the trail. In addition, if you want access to the Virgin River, this is a great place to spend some time! Sadly for us, playing and swimming in the Virgin River was not an option as the bacteria level's in the Virgin River were quite high and the park was advising people to not get in the river.
GRAFTON GHOST TOWN
Returning on the shuttle back to our car at the Visitor Center, we decided to head out of Zion National Park to the nearby Grafton Ghost Town. Located off Hwy 9, at the small town of Rockville turn onto Bridge Road, from there follow the signs - the last portion of the drive will take you down an unpaved road until you reach Grafton Ghost Town. Initially settled in 1859 by a group of Mormon settlers, the town suffered numerous hardships from major floods to conflicts with the local native peoples leading to a decline in population. By 1944, the last inhabitants had left Grafton. Today only a handful of the original structures remain of Grafton including a couple of the original homes, the church/schoolhouse and the cemetery - all of which have been restored. With a small claim to fame, Grafton has actually been used for filming in several movies including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. If you have the time - make the effort to come visit this small slice of Utah history - we really enjoyed wandering thru the small town and our son thought it was really cool to be able to say we visited a 'ghost town'.
Probably the most fun hike we have ever completed - hiking the Narrows was absolutely amazing! Ranked as one of the top hikes in the world - this is something that should be included on everyone's list when visiting Zion National Park. In preparation for this hike - the night before we stopped by Zion Outfitters in Springdale to pick up our rental gear which included a hiking stick, neoprene socks and special canyoneering boots. If you stop by after 4pm, you are allowed to pick up gear for the following day - and yes it's totally worth it! We were completely shocked how well the boots worked in preventing you from slipping while hiking thru the water!
Starting our morning off bright and early, we got to the Visitor Center by 6:30am and caught an early shuttle out to the last stop - Shuttle Stop #9 - Temple of Sinawawa. Getting an early start was well worth it as we experienced relative calm as we began our hike by beating the crowds. Following the Riverside Trail, anyone can walk this portion of paved trail that follows the Virgin River to the start of the Narrows. From here, you will leave the pavement behind and spend the rest of your hike walking in the Virgin River thru the Narrows.
The Narrows is actually the narrowest section of Zion Canyon where you will walk ankle to waist deep thru the river as the steep cliff walls tower on each side of you, in some areas the walls tower 1,500 above creating an amazing experience you won't soon forget! The great thing about the Narrows is that you can hike as much or little as you want and still are rewarded with an amazing experience. We ended up hiking into the beginning portion of what is known as Wall Street before turning around, which ended up being about a 7 mile roundtrip hike - not bad considering my husband had a kid on his back! Someday, we can't wait to come back when our son is older so that he can hike the Narrows himself! This was definitely the highlight of our time in Zion National Park - something we will never forget!
Do remember though - the water levels can fluctuate along the Virgin River. The park monitors the water levels and will shut down access to the Narrows when water levels are over 150 CFS (cubic feet per second) or if a Flash Flood Warning is issued. It's advised to check in at the Visitor Center to find out current conditions before starting your hike.
KOLOB TERRACE ROAD
After finishing our epic hike thru the Narrows - we choose to spend the rest of our afternoon taking a Scenic Drive along the less traveled Kolob Terrace Road that cuts thru Zion National Park's boundaries. To reach this road, head out towards the town of Virgin which is about a 30 minute drive, and then turn north onto Kolob Terrace Road which will wind in and out of the park before reaching the Kolob Reservoir. Providing access to some longer more strenuous hiking options and primitive camping near Lava Point, most people don't venture out into this portion of Zion. For those that do - you will be rewarded with wonderful views and solitude. Stopping at Lava Point Overlook which is the highest elevation in Zion at 7,890 feet will provide a great view over the entire expanse of Zion National Park. Continuing on, the Kolob Terrace Road will end at Kolob Reservoir which can be a fun spot to do some fishing.
To kick off our last day in Zion National Park, we headed to the three mile roundtrip Watchman Trail. Starting from near the Visitor Center, the trail climbs up 300 feet to provide great views of Springdale, the Watchman Mountain, Zion Canyon Visitor Center and out over the lower section of Zion Canyon. Often overlooked, this was actually a great family hike that provided wonderful views and a fun path for our son to explore and climb upon the rocks throughout the hike. For those looking for a quick hike or just wanting to enjoy an area without having to deal with taking a shuttle, the Watchman Trail is a great choice!
From Zion National Park's southern entrance at Springdale, a 45 minute drive north along Hwy 15 towards Cedar City will take you to the Kolob Canyon district of Zion National Park. Here in the northwest corner of the park you will find a 5 mile scenic drive where you can drive along and view the red sandstone cliffs, canyon walls and stunning vistas that few people take the time to visit. The remote region does not offer any developed campgrounds, but rather offers backcountry camping and almost a dozen trails for those wanting to really get out and explore this stunning area. For us, we just drove the road and enjoyed the views along the drive - but this area is definitely on our list to return to someday for some hiking! At the end of the road you are greeted to the stunning vistas from Kolob Canyon Viewpoint.
Driving back towards our campsite at Zion Canyon Campground in Springdale, we made a pit stop at Fort Zion located in Virgin, Utah. This was an awesome family stop and we'd highly recommend this to anyone visiting Zion National Park! Fort Zion is actually a gift shop that includes a restaurant, ice cream shop, petting zoo and an old western style village. Our son absolutely loved visiting the petting zoo where we were able to purchase some carrots and he got to feed the goats, llamas, donkeys and sheep. We then spent some time playing around in the small western themed village where we got to 'put mommy in jail' and took some fun pictures. To top of our time visiting Fort Zion, we headed inside for some ice cream and enjoyed some 'Prickly Pear' ice cream which was a new flavor to us and yes - it was really good!
Interested in planning your own trip to Zion National Park? Below is our summarized itinerary for you to follow or adjust to your own preferences. ENJOY!
Day 1: Zion National Park - Arrive to the East entrance of Zion National Park, Drive the Zion Mt. Carmel Highway (Checkerboard Mesa Overlook, Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel), Zion Canyon Visitor Center - Pick up Junior Ranger Booklet, then go set up at campground. After dinner - hike the Pa’rus Trail (1.7 miles to Shuttle Stop #3 and then shuttle back to Visitor Center - or turn around at any point.
Day 2: Zion National Park - From the Visitor Center, catch Shuttle to Stop #4 - Court of the Patriarchs (Closed while we were there), Shuttle Stop #5 - Zion Lodge (Zion Lodge, Emerald Pools Trail 2.4 miles), Shuttle Stop #6 - The Grotto (walk part of the Kayenta Trail), Shuttle Stop #7 - Weeping Rock (Closed Indefinitely) , Shuttle Stop #8 - Big Bend (hop off to see the view, access to the Virgin River). Then ride Shuttle back to the Visitor Center and drive out to Grafton Ghost Town.
*Rent shoes from Zion Outfitters for Narrows hike (after 4pm, open until 8pm).
Day 3: Zion National Park - From the Visitor Center, catch 6-7am Shuttle to Stop #9 - Sinawawa (Hike the Narrows - hike only a portion of 9 mile route.) Then drive (30 mins) to Kolob Terrace Rd: (Lava Point Overlook, Kolob Reservoir)
Day 4: Zion National Park - Start at 7am, hike the Watchman Trail (3.3 miles - starts at Visitor Center) then back to car and drive (45 mins) to Kolob Canyon Area (Kolob Visitor Center, Kolob Canyon Overlook, if time hike the Timber Creek Overlook Trail - 1 mile).