A few months ago, I had the great opportunity to visit the Mighty Five National Parks of Utah, which includes Zion National Park. The trip was part of an ongoing project with Marriott International, The Americas, to highlight some incredible places around the country, including our national parks. Few would disagree that there is something almost magical about America’s National Parks. Often called America’s Best Idea, each park is the result of years of tireless work on behalf of concerned citizens who wanted lands they felt to be unique and undeniably special to be protected forever. The National Park System represents the North American model of conservation, which itself was a hard concept to introduce to the general public more than a century ago but today is the standard by which similar parks around the world are judged. Reserving lands for posterity was not a popular idea at the time, but thanks to a handful of forward-thinking individuals, we as a country have now saved some of the planet’s most incredible natural and cultural wonders, including Zion. To help inspire you to visit or just better plan your own trip, here are a few things you should know about Zion National Park.
Zion National Park & Getting There
Exploring the Park in a Day
One of the many reasons why I love visiting the National Parks is how accessible they are even if you don’t have a lot of time to visit. Sure, you could spend many days exploring Zion but that’s not a luxury everyone can afford. Just because you don’t have a lot of time doesn’t mean you can’t see the best of the parks. Decades ago a concerted effort was made to create driving loops in almost every National Park to allow visitors to easily and quickly see the best or most popular features of each park. So, if you just have two or three hours yes, you can still experience the best of Zion with ease. One thing to keep in mind about the National Parks of the West though is just how big they are. Even though driving loops exist, the vast size of the parks themselves means you still have a lot of driving to do even if only to see the highlights. Before the trip I purchased a National Parks Annual Pass, which is honestly a smart thing to do if you plan on visiting two or more parks in a year. Not only did it save me money, but it made getting in and out of the parks easier as well. Before exploring the park though, I stopped off at the visitor’s center to learn more about Zion and which stops along the route I thought made the most sense for me to see.
Zion is the most popular of the Mighty Five parks, and its location is a key reason why. Just about two-hours from Las Vegas, Zion can be visited on a day trip; although that’s certainly not recommended. It’s also close to St. George, Utah, which is a popular outdoor recreation hub, and still other visitors include it on their circuit of the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Since it is so popular – about 4.5 million people journey there every year – the process of visiting is a little different from the other Mighty Five National Parks, but the majesty of the scenery is no less impressive.
Like most of the Parks in this part of the country, Zion is massive but is set up in such a way that makes it very easy to explore even if you’re light on time. Zion National Park is unlike any place I’ve ever been, a feeling that has been common among visitors since the time of the Native Americans. Zion first became popularized in the early 20th century when paintings and magazine articles about this natural wonder began to circulate around the country. In 1909 it was named a National Monument and in 1919 it became Utah’s first National Park. What makes it so special has to be felt in order to be properly understood, but at the heart of the experience is Zion Canyon. Here you’ll find a sandstone canyon etched by the Virgin River, creating not only a number of natural formations along the way, but different life zones that have in turn created a sort of Eden through the millennia.
There’s a lot to love about exploring Zion National Park, but some of my favorite activities include:
The Shuttle System
Over the decades, the small town of Springdale has grown up around Zion as the park’s popularity grew. There you’ll find everything you need to spend a few days or longer including hotels, restaurants, shops, cafes and associated services. There’s also a free shuttle system connecting the hotels with the National Park, so you don’t have to worry about finding a spot in the park itself. If you’re not staying in Springdale, you’ll need to arrive at the park early in the day as the free parking at Zion tends to fill up fast and early. Signs are posted throughout Springdale with the current parking status. Another byproduct of the park’s popularity is the fact that visitors can’t self-drive around the scenic driving route. Instead they must use the complimentary shuttle system that starts at the Visitor’s Center and continues through the Canyon, featuring many stops along the way. This is actually a great way to get around Zion and the shuttles run with such regularity that I never waited for longer than a few minutes. If you’re like me, then you’ll want to stop at almost every spot to admire the beauty of the park, including some of my favorite features:
Zion Human History Museum – This is an interesting stop to learn more about the park’s history but it’s also a good spot to find restrooms and has access to the Pa’rus Trail.
Weeping Rock – This is an easy walk up to dripping springs that have created hanging gardens over the years. You also have views of Angels Landing and Big Bend, as well as access to the Hidden Canyon and Observation Point Trails.
Canyon Junction – Most people stop here to access the Pa’rus Trail, but you can also enjoy sweeping views of the Virgin River and Zion Canyon.
Court of the Patriarchs – This may be a minor stop, but the rock formations known as the Patriarchs have been important to visitors since the beginning of human history here. At this stop you can make the short walk up to enjoy views of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob Peaks, Mount Moroni and The Sentinel.
The Grotto – If you’re one of the many intrepid souls looking to tackle the infamous Angels Landing Trail, this is your starting point. There are also views of the Virgin River and Angels Landing itself. There’s a shaded picnic area here, making it a nice spot for a leisurely break.
Big Bend – This is a sweeping bend in the Virgin River with massive cliffs towering above. You can enjoy views of the river along with Angels Landing and The Great White Throne rock formation.
Temple of Sinawava – This is the last stop on the shuttle system and also where hikers can access The Narrows. It’s a well-maintained paved walk down to the Narrows, which makes this a popular and incredibly scenic short hike.
Zion Canyon is the most visited part of Zion National Park and a big reason for that are the many day hikes available to all skill levels. Just because they’re popular though doesn’t mean they’re not without risk or effort. Be sure to check with the Visitor’s Center before embarking on any hike to see what the current conditions are like and any obstacles that may have been reported. Some favorite hikes include these notable walks through the park.
Pa’rus Trail – This is an easy hike and was one of my favorites from my time in Zion. It starts at either shuttle stop 1 or 3 and is 3.5 miles round trip, although I just did it one way from the Human History Museum back to the Visitor’s Center. It’s a paved trail that follows the Virgin River and is the only trail in the park that allows bikes and leashed dogs. It also features some incredible views, especially of The Watchman, and I strongly recommend adding this one to your to-do list.
Lower Emerald Pool Trail – This is a popular trail, but was partly closed when I visited due to rockfall. This really emphasizes the importance of checking trail conditions before setting out for the day – you just never know what will happen. The trail itself is paved and has minor drop-offs as it leads to the Lower Emerald Pool and waterfalls. It also connects to the Kayenta and Upper Emerald Pools Trails.
Grotto Trail – This is a short half-mile trail that starts at Zion Lodge and ends at the Grotto trailhead. Rather than take the shuttle between stops, I hiked this completely level trail as it followed the canyon floor through a beautiful meadow. It’s a nice stroll and a great introduction to the park.
Riverside Walk – This is one of the most popular hikes in Zion, and with good reason – it’s amazing. It starts at the Temple of Sinawava stop and is a 2.2-mile round trip paved hike along the Virgin River. Along the way you’ll see the best of Zion as you follow the path of river, ending at the entrance to the more strenuous (and wet) Narrows hike.
Angels Landing via West Rim Trail – Although this is a very popular hike, it’s also one of the most strenuous in the park. Zion defines strenuous not only in terms of length (it’s 5.4 miles round trip) or climbing, but mentally difficult as well. A trail like this one requires planning and ensuring you have everything you need, like water, before starting. Angels Landing though is so popular thanks to the incredible views at the end. The trail follows the narrow spine to the final viewpoint roughly 1500 feet above the canyon floor. Given the long drops, this is not recommended for kids or anyone with a fear of heights, which is one reason of many why I didn’t even try this one.
The Narrows via Riverside Walk – Another strenuous hike, this one does interest me but when I visited the high water levels meant no one was allowed to even attempt it. Starting at the Temple of Sinawava, you follow the Riverside Walk and then continue up through the river itself to see the best narrows sections of the river. You must be prepared though. It’s 9.4 miles round trip and much of it is spent wading, walking and sometimes even swimming in the river. Getting through it is rough and conditions are cold and slippery. You must do your research in advance and spend some time chatting with rangers before attempting it.
A travel editor once told me to never use the word “cute” when writing, and yet that’s all that comes to mind when I think about Springdale. It was originally founded in the 19th century by Mormon farmers, but today it exists for one reason – to cater to the millions who visit Zion National Park every year. Just 500 people call this their permanent home, meaning it’s a strange place to spend time, but a fun one. As I mentioned, there are any number of places to eat, sleep and relax, but there are other experiences to enjoy aside from the restaurants, art galleries and National Park.
There are a number of local adventure outfitters who can set you up for hikes or even tubing on the Virgin River. There’s also the ghost town of Grafton, which shares a different side to the region’s history. If you use Springdale as a home base, you can also visit other impressive natural wonders like Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Red Cliffs Recreation Area, Snow Canyon State Park and Grand Canyon Parashant National Monument.
Where to Stay
Springdale, and even neighboring towns, are chock full of places to stay but from my experience, these are some notable properties to patronize when you visit Zion National Park.
Designed to blend in with the red rocks of the area, the SpringHill Suites in Springdale is the ideal home for your visit to Zion. It’s in the heart of Springdale, which means almost everything is walkable and there’s even a shuttle stop for Zion right in front. Add in the spacious rooms and incredible service for which SpringHill Suites are so well known, and this is a hotel that’s hard to beat.
When visiting Zion, I actually stayed in nearby Virgin, Utah at a very brand new Fairfield Inn & Suites. When I say brand new, I mean it – you can practically still smell the paint and I loved it. Since it was just opened, this property has all of the modern conveniences in a setting that is peaceful and breathtaking. The common areas are large and comfortable and there’s even a pool area so you can relax after a long day of adventuring. This was a welcome haven for me and I loved every second of staying there.
Zion National Park is one of the country’s great natural treasures and it should be a place everyone has on their travel bucket list. No matter how you choose to experience the park, just make sure you take the time to experience its grandeur in person for a trip you’ll never forget.
To learn more about Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks, please be sure to listen to the episode of the Explore the World Travel Podcast I devoted to them.