National Parks – Zion National Park

Zion National Park might be the biggest adventure park of all of the national parks in the continental United States.  The park is absolutely filled with big adventures of all kinds.  The park has some of the most extreme hikes, and extreme views, of any park in the lower 48 states.  This is what attracts millions of visitors a year to Zion Canyon and its what keeps them coming back again-and-again.

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Zion Canyon in Zion National Park taken from the West Rim Trail.

Zion National Park hosts two of the American Southwest’s, if not the continental United State’s, most epic hikes.  The Angel’s Landing hike is considered to be one of the most difficult hikes in the US national park system and has some of the park system’s prettiest vistas as well.  People from all over the world come to Zion to conquer the Angel’s Landing hike and explore the slot canyons of Zion on the Narrows hike.

The Narrows hike is one of the most unique and gorgeous hikes in the entire park system.  Hiking up the North Fork of the Virgin River, the Narrows hike takes you in between the narrow slots carved by the river and thru some of the most beautiful scenery in the American Southwest. It is truly a one-of-a-kind hike.

In addition to these infamous hikes, Zion National Park offers a lot for outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds.  It has some of the best rock-climbing spots in the world, plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities, some absolutely breathtaking vistas, and miles-and-miles of amazing hiking paths.

How to Get There

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Zion National Park is located in the far Southwest corner of the state of Utah, near the cities St. George and Cedar City.  If you are in the Las Vegas area, Zion National Park is only a 2 hour and 45 minute drive North from Las Vegas, which makes it a very attractive side excursion for any Las Vegas vacation.

Southern Utah Parks Map

Utah national parks and public lands map.

Zion National Park rests within Zion Canyon, which was carved out by the Virgin River over millions of years.  There are two ways into the canyon, via the South Entrance near Springdale, Utah or via the Zion-Mount Carmel highway and tunnel.

Because of the limited roadways inside Zion National Park, and the large numbers of annual visitors, cars are not generally allowed within the park during the busy months of April thru October.  Instead, shuttles take you from the visitor center at the South Entrance all the way to the end of the park and back.  I cover these shuttles in more detail later in this guide.

One way that you can arrange to bring your car into the park is to either stay at the Zion Lodge, which lies within the park, or make a reservation at the lodge’s restaurant, the Red Rock Grill.  In either case you will be given a pass at the entrance gate to bring your car into the park.

That said, the shuttle service is extremely efficient and significantly reduces the congestion within the park, so I would strongly recommend that you make use of it.  The shuttles run very frequently and take you to all of the important launching spots for the park’s many hikes and other activities.

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Zion National Park map.

When to Visit

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Near the Virgin River in Zion National Park.

Zion National Park is open year-round, but depending on what you are planning to do when you visit, some months of the year may be better than others.  For instance, the summer months are much warmer, yet much more crowded, then the spring, fall, or winter months are.  If you don’t like hot days, then you might want to avoid visiting during the summer.

If you are planning on doing some hiking, I would recommend the months of April and October.  These months aren’t as hot or as crowded as the summer months, but are also much drier than the winter and early spring months.

You are going to want to make sure you avoid the big crowds if you are going to do the Angel’s Landing hike as it is much safer when it is less crowded.  If you are planning on doing the Narrows hike, then you are absolutely going to want to avoid the cold months and the rainy months as the water can be pretty cold and flash floods can be dangerous.

Average Temperature (°F)

As you can see in the chart below, the summer months can be quite hot in Zion National Park, while the low temperatures in the winter months can get below freezing.  Make sure you prepare and dress appropriately when you visit.

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Average Precipitation (Inches)

Zion National Park can be quite dangerous when it rains (even rain up to 25 miles away can lead to flash flooding within the park), so planning your trip for the drier months is always a good strategy.  The chart below lists the average amount of precipitation per month that the park gets throughout the year.

Zion Average Precipitation.png

Average Visitors (1000 visitors Per Day)

Zion National Park is the 5th most visited National Park in the United States, with over 3 million visitors a year going thru its gates.  You are going to want to make sure you strategically plan to miss the largest crowds as the most popular trails can get quite congested during peak season.  The chart below can assist you by giving you a look at the average number of visitors per day that visit the park throughout the year.

Zion Average Visitors.png

Resources

The key to any great trip is great preparation.  In order to assist you in preparing for your trip to Zion National Park, I have included some key resources for you to review below.  Everything from maps, to food and lodging, to gear rental is covered in these resources.

Zion Shuttle Service

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Zion National Park shuttle Service.

Between the months of April and October, Zion Canyon is only accessible via shuttle.  The shuttle service was implemented in the year 2000 to try and alleviate some of the over-crowding within Zion Canyon.  So far, the shuttle service has been a huge success.

If you plan on visiting Zion National Park, I would strongly suggest you plan on arriving early in the morning.  Parking at the visitor center tends to fill up by mid morning, so you will want to make sure you are there to grab a parking space.  I suggest monitoring the Twitter account for Zion National Park to keep tabs on the parking situation.  They do a great job of letting the public know when parking is full.

Zion Twitter.png

If parking at the visitor center does fill up on the day you visit, all is not lost.  There is additional parking in the town of Springdale, with regular buses that bring you to the park.  From there, you can catch a shuttle that will take you into the park.  Please review the 2018 Shuttle and Bus Service schedule for more information.

The shuttle service starts at the visitor center and makes eight stops within the park.  The last stop on the route is the Temple of Sinawava, which is where you get off to do the Narrows hike.  The whole route takes roughly 40 minutes from visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava, so make sure you plan your time accordingly.

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Zion National Park shuttle map.

Shuttle Schedule for March 10 – May 12

7:00am First shuttle into canyon
7:00am – 8:00am Shuttle every 15 minutes
8:00am – 7:30pm Shuttle every 5-6 minutes
7:30pm Last shuttle into canyon

Shuttle Schedule for May 13 – September 30

6:00am First shuttle into canyon
6:00am – 8:00am Shuttle every 15 minutes
8:00am – 8:30am Shuttle every 10 minutes
8:30am – 7:00pm Shuttle every 4-5 minutes
7:00pm – 8:30pm Shuttle every 6-7 minutes
8:30pm Last shuttle into canyon

Shuttle Schedule for October

7:00am First shuttle into canyon
7:00am – 8:00am Shuttle every 15 minutes
8:00am – 6:30pm Shuttle every 5-6 minutes
6:30pm Last shuttle into canyon

Top Things to See and Do

There is a wealth of things to do in Zion National Park, which is why it is one of the most popular parks in the United States.  It is home to some of the most challenging, and beautiful, hikes in North America, as well as some of the best rock climbing spots in the entire world.

Whether you are interested in challenging yourself on the park’s hiking trails, or just looking to gaze at the stunningly beautiful landscape, Zion National Park has something for everyone.  Below is a list of some of my favorite things to do within the park.

Angel’s Landing Hike

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A view of the Angel’s Landing trail from Scouts Lookout.

Difficulty: Very Difficult
Distance: 5 miles round-trip (4-5 hours)
Elevation Change: 1,488 feet
Shuttle Stop:  The Grotto

If you have read our list of the Top Hikes in the National Parks System, then you are probably already familiar with Angel’s Landing, as it was the number one ranked hike on our list.  This is, without a doubt, one of the most challenging hikes in the entire park system.  It is classified as strenuous, and can be extremely dangerous if you aren’t prepared and know what you are doing.  In other words, this hike is not for everyone.

The Angel’s Landing hike is only a half-mile out and back (you do need to hike the West Rim Trail for 2 miles to get to the Angel’s Landing trail head), but it is mostly a rock scramble over a knife ridge that is over 1,500 feet above the canyon floor.  There are certain spots on this trail where there is no room for error.  One slip, and you are dead.  The park service has installed some chains along the trail to make it safer, but the chains are mainly intended to guide you along the trail.  The Angel’s Landing hike still averages around one death per year, which makes it one of the most dangerous hikes in the National Parks System.

I completed this hike back in 2009, and have not attempted it again in the two times I have visited the park since.  It is definitely a hike that you need to be 100% comfortable with before undertaking, and the few times I have been back to Zion since 2009 have been very crowded and I did not feel like the trail was safe with so many people on it.

Be Safe and Considerate

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Angel’s Landing trail can be extremely dangerous.

As I mentioned above, the Angel’s Landing hike is not for everyone.  It is a very difficult hike that is almost more of a climb than it is a hike.  Even though the National Park Service has installed safety chains along the trail, the trail is still incredibly difficult.  If you are interested in hiking Angel’s Landing, please be aware of the following when accessing how safe it is to complete the hike.

  • Trail Conditions – This hike is difficult enough in the best of conditions.  Do not attempt to complete this hike if the trail has ice on it or the trail is still wet from recent rain.  The rock can be incredibly slippery when wet or icy.
  • Wind Conditions – Do not attempt to complete this hike if it is especially windy out.  There is no room for error on this trail and windy conditions can make this hike even more difficult.
  • Crowds – Do not attempt to hike Angel’s Landing if there is a long line queued up at the beginning of the hike.  The start of the Angel’s Landing trail isn’t that difficult, but these crowds will make the hike more treacherous during the more difficult scrambles that come later on down the trail.  The trail has traffic going both ways and it is really easy to get bumped accidentally.  If you do decide to hike, make sure you ALWAYS practice proper trail etiquette.  Do NOT be in a hurry or you will endanger yourself or others.
  • Gear – Do not attempt this hike if you do not have proper hiking boots (tennis shoes do not count as proper hiking boots).  The rock along the trail can be extremely slippery and one slip could mean death.
  • Fear of Heights – Do not attempt to complete the Angel’s Landing hike if you have a fear of heights.  There are 1,500 foot drops along this trail, and sometimes they are on both sides at once.  In some spots the trail you are scrambling on is only 5 feet wide with thousand foot drops on both sides.  This hike is not for those who have a fear of heights.

Accessing the Trail

To access the Angel’s Landing trail, you will want to take the Zion Shuttle to the Grotto stop.  From the Grotto stop, you are going to want to take the West Rim trail head, which is located on the opposite side of the street as the shuttle stop.  The West Rim Trail will take you up to Scouts Lookout, which is where the Angel’s Landing trail head is located.

Angel's Landing Trail Map

Map of the Angel’s Landing hike.  You get off the shuttle at the Grotto stop and take the West Rim Trail on the other side of the road up to Scouts Lookout.  From Scouts Lookout the Angel’s Landing hike is a half mile out-and-back.

The Narrows Hike

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A view of the Narrows hike in Zion National Park.

Difficulty: Easy to Strenuous (depending on river conditions)
Distance: Up to 4.5 miles for bottom-up and 16 miles for top-down
Elevation Change: 0 feet
Shuttle Stop:  Temple of Sinawava

The Narrows hike is one of the most famous hikes in the national parks system because of how unique of a hike it is.  The Narrows hike features walking up (or down) the Virgin River in between the most spectacular slot canyon.  As you can see from the photograph above, it really is an absolutely beautiful hike.

Bottom-up or Top-down

There are two different ways that you can approach the Narrows hike at Zion National Park.  The bottom-up approach is the most popular way to do the hike, and requires no permit from the Park Service to complete.

With the bottom-up hike, you can hike up the Virgin River as far as as Big Springs before you have to turn around.  This is the mandatory turn-around point for all bottom-up hikers.  Most hikers will hike until they get to the “Wallstreet” section of the trail, which features some of the most spectacular segments of the narrow slot canyon.  On average, it will take roughly 3-4 hours to hike up to Wallstreet, and then roughly 2-3 hours to get back to the trail head.

The Top-down approach to the Narrows hike involves starting at Chamberlain’s Ranch and hiking the full 16 miles down river to the trail head.  The hike typically takes between 10 and 14 hours to complete and is usually done over multiple days.  There are a number of spots to camp out along the river on your way down.  This hike requires a permit from the National Park Service to complete, so plan ahead if you would like to do this hike.

The Narrows Map

Map of the Narrows hike.

Be Safe (especially with children)

The Narrows hike might sound fun (and it really is), but it can also be extremely dangerous.  Please be aware that on this hike you are hiking in the Virgin River and in most spots there is no way out.  You are hiking in between the slot canyon, so there is no respite should you get tired, hurt, or if there is a flash flood.  Please be mindful if you decide to bring small children on this hike.  The hike can get quite tiring as you are walking against the current on slippery rocks below the water surface.  I have seen people with young children on their shoulders, which is quite dangerous.  Please, use good judgement.

If you plan on doing the Narrows hike, please make sure you monitor the current river conditions for the North Fork of the Virgin River.  To help you interpret the data, 50 cfs is fairly easy hiking and is acceptable conditions for children, whereas 100 cfs is extremely difficult conditions for even adults.  If the current exceeds 120 cfs, the National Park Service will not issue any permits for top-down hikes.  If the current exceeds 150 cfs, the Narrows trail will be closed in both directions.

Keep in mind, when the Narrows hike opens each year is largely dependent upon the river current.  In some of the years with the highest winter snowfall, the Narrows hike hasn’t opened until mid July.  So make sure you monitor the river conditions and snow fall before planning your trip if the Narrows hike is high on your list.

The Narrows Limits

River flow of over 50 cfs will be extremely difficult for children, and river flows of over 90 cfs will be very difficult for adults.  The Park Service will stop handing out permits for the top-down hike when the river flow exceeds 120 cfs and will close the Narrows hike completely when the river flow exceeds 150 cfs.

Accessing the Trail

To access the Narrows hike, take the Zion Park Shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava stop, which is the last stop on the shuttle route.  From the shuttle stop, take the Riverside Walk trail for 1 mile alongside the Virgin River until you reach the stairs that take you down into the river.  This is the trail head (or starting spot) for the bottom-up hike and the termination spot for top-down hikers.

Gear Rental

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Zion Adventure Company is a great place to rent gear to use in your explorations of Zion National Park.

If you are planning on doing the Narrows hike, I would strongly recommend that you rent the proper gear to do the hike.  There are a number of different outfitters in Springdale that can set you up with the proper gear.  This gear will keep you warm, keep you safe, and make the hike much more enjoyable.  The proper gear you will want to look into renting includes the following:

  • Canyon Shoes (extra grip for the slippery rocks and allows water to flow in and out of the shoes).
  • Neoprene Socks
  • Dry pants or dry suit
  • Hiking Pole

My favorite place to rent from is the Zion Adventure Company in Springdale.  They are really good people who really take care of you.  They have some great packages of gear for the Narrows hike that you can rent.

Emerald Pools Hike

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A view of a waterfall from one of the Emerald Pools on the Emerald Pools trail hike.

Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (depending on how far you go)
Distance (round trip): Lower: 1.5 miles, Middle: 2 miles, Upper: 3 miles
Elevation Change: Middle: 200 feet, Upper: 400 feet
Shuttle Stop:  The Zion Lodge

If you are up for taking a beautiful hike, but don’t want to take on something as difficult as Angel’s Landing or as time consuming as the Narrows hike, then the Emerald Pools hiking trails are just what you are looking for.  The Emerald Pools hiking trails are a series of trails that connect three pools of water inside Zion National Park.

The Lower Emerald Pool is a short three-quarter mile hike and is classified as an “Easy” trail.  This is one of the most frequented hikes in Zion National Park because of how easy it is to access and how pretty the trail is.  From the lower pool, the hike gets a bit more difficult as there is a 200 foot elevation change on the way to the Middle Emerald Pool.  This pool is on top of the waterfall that you can see at the lower pool.  The waterfall is actually the run-off from the middle pool.

For those who want a bit of a challenge, there is another 200 feet of elevation change on the way to the Upper Emerald Pool.  The views from the Upper Pool are pretty spectacular and are worth the effort to get up there.

Accessing the Trail

To access the Emerald Pools trails, take the Zion shuttle service to the Zion Lodge stop.  From the shuttle stop, cross over the the other side of the road to access the Lower Emerald Pool trail.  The hike is a loop hike, so the starting and end spots are at the same trail head.

Emerald Pools Map
Map of the Emerald Pools trails.

Court of the Patriarchs

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A view of the Court of the Patriarchs.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance (round trip): Less than a quarter mile
Elevation Change: 40 feet
Shuttle Stop:  Court of the Patriarchs

The Court of the Patriarchs is pretty difficult to miss.  These three prominent sandstone peaks are some of the largest within Zion Canyon.  They are named after the biblical figures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The Court of the Patriarchs trail is a trail that can be accessed from the Court of the Patriarchs shuttle stop, but it isn’t really much of a trail.  In fact, you will likely walk further to get to the trail head then you will on the actual trail.  It is worth checking out though as the viewpoint at the end of the trail has some spectacular views.

Weeping Rock Trail

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A view of Weeping Rock on the Weeping Rock trail.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance (round trip): Half mile
Elevation Change: 100 feet
Shuttle Stop:  Weeping Rock

Another very easy hike that is worth exploring when you visit Zion National Park is the Weeping Rock trail.  This very short hike does have some decent elevation change, but the trail isn’t very steep.  It is classified as an easy hike for this reason.  The trail takes you to a sandstone wall that is weeping water from it.  Its a neat feature that is popular with kids.

Human History Museum

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The Human History Museum in Zion National Park.

If you like museums, then you will love the Human History museum in Zion National Park.  This museum has some absolutely fabulous displays on American Indian history, prehistoric artifacts, and the evolution of Zion National Park.   The museum is definitely worth checking out.

Photo Gallery

There are so many fantastic photo opportunities in Zion National Park.  Below is a gallery of some of the photographs I have been able to take in my many visits to the park over the years.

 

About Josh Hewitt

Avid traveler and photographer who loves to see new places, meet new people, and experience new things. There is so much this world can teach us, we just need to explore!
This entry was posted in Canyoneering, Hiking, National Parks, North America, Rock Climbing, Travel Advice, United States, Utah and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to National Parks – Zion National Park

  1. Is the name Zion related to Mount Zion which is referenced in the Bible? By the way your photos are stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Hoover Dam Visitor’s Guide | Wanderlust Travel & Photos Blog

  3. Pingback: 7-Day American Southwest Adventure Itinerary | Wanderlust Travel & Photos Blog

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