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Zion National Park has gorgeous canyons, steep and imposing cliffs and amazing trails for everyone

About Zion National Park

There are not too many places that we have gone out of our way to visit multiple times, but Zion National Park is one of those exceptions! We have had the good fortune to visit Zion National Park three times, twice during the summer months and the third over the Christmas break. Each time we have really enjoyed exploring the varied trails that run throughout the Park, which range from very easy to the most challenging (which we declined to do – more on that later!) I am sure we’ll be going back again before too long.

Zion is known for a wide range of weather conditions. Temperatures vary with changes in elevation and day/night temperatures may differ by over 30°F. In summer, temperatures in Zion National Park often exceed 100°F/38°C. Zion experiences monsoons from mid-July into September that result in an increased risk of flash floods. Always be aware of the threat of storms and lightning and be prepared for a wide range of weather conditions. Winters are generally mild. Download the climate chart for Zion.

Zion is one of Utah’s five iconic National Parks. Named by early settler Isaac Behunin in 1863, Zion remains true to its name—the Promised Land and a place of refuge. The landscape is filled with rainbow-coloured rock layers chiselled into sharp peaks, high mesas, and deep, twisting canyons. The scenery is spectacular and even at its busiest, it is easy to find relative seclusion to enjoy the haunting beauty of the Park.

Zion has someone for everyone, from a scenic ride through the canyon to amazing hikes to the more adventurous pursuits such as canyoneering and climbing on some of the tallest sandstone walls in the world.

Things to do in Zion National Park

1. TAKE A SCENIC DRIVE THROUGH ZION NATIONAL PARK

The Park is open all year round, and the weather is not usually an issue. Even in the winter months of December and January the temperatures are often in the mid-50s (around 13C), and there is little if any snow in the lower canyon. Late Spring, early Fall, and all Summer long are wonderful times to visit Zion National Park. The weather is warm, if not hot. The sun is often shining, making the park’s red rock canyons and cliffs pop against a brilliant blue sky.

There is very limited parking along Zion’s lower canyon road, do during the busy season it is almost impossible to find somewhere to park. There is parking outside the Zion and you can catch a shuttle which is a great tool for experiencing the park when it’s busy. When the shuttle closes for the season after Thanksgiving, guests can drive their own vehicles through the canyon for a truly unique and breathtaking experience. The shuttle does start up again in late December to help ferry holiday visitors, before closing again from January to President’s Day weekend.

If you don’t get the opportunity to drive through the lower canyon itself you can always take Highway 9 from St George out to Mount Carmel junction, through the town of Springdale. This route will take you through the 1.1-mile Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, the construction of which began in the late 1920s and was completed in 1930. At the time it was the longest tunnel of its type in the United States. The Highway winds its way out of the valley from the entrance to the lower canyon to Zion’s east entrance and from there to Mount Carmel, where you can take Highway 89 north to Bryce Canyon National Park.

The vermillion sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park, Utah

2. TAKE A STOP AT THE CHECKERBOARD MESA

Leaving Zion on Highway 9 it is worth stopping to take a look at Checkboard Mesa. This  6,520 ft elevation Navajo Sandstone summit located immediately southwest of the park’s east entrance, towering 900-feet above the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.

The Checkerboard Mesa at the east entrance of Zion
Weathering creates patterns in the realtively soft sandstone

3. GOING ON A HIKE OR TWO

Zion offers a plethora of hiking options for all abilities. The Grotto trail is a 1-mile easy trail that parallels the road and connects Zion Lodge to the Grotto, another stop along the roadway. This is a good trail to see some wildlife.

The view from Zion Lodge
The Grotto Trial
The sun hits the top of the cliffs
The view from the Grotto Trail
A deer on the side of the Grotto Trail

Across the road from the Grotto picnic area is a bridge that takes you across the Virgin River that runs through the lower Canyon at Zion.

 

After crossing the bridge the trail splits. Go left and you follow the Kayenta Trail and go right takes you up towards Angel’s Landing. Very different experiences!

The trail leading to Angel’s Landing is about 5.4-miles long with an elevation gain of 1500ft. It is listed as ‘strenuous’ which is the least of the issues if you suffer from vertigo. It is not for the faint-hearted like myself. I could not see myself ever taking this trail! I gather most of the trail is okay but the last half-mile section, called the ‘chains section,” is dramatic and narrow. Along this section, the path is only a few feet wide, and in some sections has drop-offs of hundreds of feet on either side! There is a series of chain link handrails drilled into the rock to aid the climb and act as a bit of a safety measure. That said 14 people have fallen and died from the trail since 1987 – which has landed this the title as possibly the scariest hike in America. Not for me, thank you.

As you might gather I have not personally attempted to reach Angel’s Landing but below is a YouTube video of someone who did. You will notice there are children on the summit – personally, I would call this child endangerment!

We opted for the more genteel Kayenta Trail, which is about 2-miles long and only has a 150ft elevation gain. The Kayenta Trail links with the Emerald Pool Trails. The path itself is good, although a bit rocky in places.

The beginning of the Kayenta Trail
On the Kayenta Trail
The view from the Kayenta Trail
A cactus growing on the side of the Kayenta Trail
A dead tree on the Kayenta Trail

The end of the Kayenta Trail joins up with the trails to the Emerald Pools, which are short trails with minimal elevation gain. In places, these trails are a bit rocky so you need to keep an eye on where you are placing your feet. The drops off from the sides of the trails are minimal – which was good news for me! The Emerald Pools are disappointing themselves but the hike is fun and you end up at the end of a canyon with steep walls hundreds of feet high surrounding you, and there are some beautiful views down Zion’s lower Canyon.

The trail leading to the Emerald Pools.
The middle Emerald Pool
The impressive sandstone cliffs rising high above the Emerald Pool trails
Climbing up to the Upper Emerald Falls
Climbing up to the Upper Emerald Falls
The views from the Emerald Pools trail are spectacular in the early morning sun
A narrowing of the trail
Enjoying the sun and taking a breather along the Emerald Pools Trail
A view from where the Kayenta and Emerald Pools trails meet

Another easy trail is the Riverside Walk, which is located at the very end of the road through the lower Canyon. The shuttle bus stop is the Temple of Sinawava. This a 2.2-mile flat walk that follows the Virgin River into a narrowing canyon. The first 0.4 miles is wheelchair accessible.

As you walk down this trail you will feel the canyon walls close in around you as the river continues to narrow. This is the access trail to the iconic Narrows walk … more on that in a bit.

The Virgin River has carved out the lower canyon valley at Zion
The Riverwalk trail is flat and easy
The River Walk Trail
A small set of falls along the Virgin River
Enjoying the sunny but brisk winter weather
The start of The Narrows

The Narrows is a 16-miles in-and-out trail that starts at the end of the River Walk trail. It is perhaps the most challenging Zion National Park hike, this route meanders through a network of spectacular canyons carved by the Virgin River. The scenery is outstanding, but expect to get wet. More than half of the trail involves wading, walking, and sometimes swimming in the stream. In the dryer months, it is more about wading than swimming. We last went in December and despite the cold, there were plenty of people taking to the water. Specialized footwear, dry gear and walking sticks are required for this adventure and are available from outfitters such as Zion Guru in Springdale, which is located just outside the park entrance.

We haven’t personally done The Narrows but below is a video from Zion Guru that gives you a feel as to what to expect.

In summary …

  • One of the “big five” National Parks in Southern Utah
  • Fabulous and varied hiking for the meek and adventurous
  • A day trip from Las Vegas
  • A must for rock climbers and canyoneering

Planning your visit

Getting there

Zion National Park is just 2.5 hours from Las Vegas, 4 hours from Salt Lake City and 6 to 7 hours from Los Angeles. You can drive to the park, but during the park’s busy season (from April to November), the main canyon is accessible only by shuttle.

The main population centres near the park are St. George, Cedar City and Springdale in Utah; Cedar City is just 18 miles from the Kolob Canyon entrance at the north end of the park, St. George is more convenient for access to the southern entrance and the small town of Springdale sits at the literal entrance to the park.

Best time to visit Zion National Park

The best time to visit Zion National Park is between the months of April and November when the park’s free shuttles are running and the weather is comfortable. December through February constitutes the park’s low season, but although there will be fewer crowds, some attractions, such as the Narrows and Angels Landing, might be too cold to fully enjoy. The park is open to the public 24 hours a day, every day of the year. It’s important to know that because of Zion’s immense popularity, crowds are common year-round.

Where to stay?

1. ZION LODGE (IN THE PARK)

The beautiful Zion Lodge lies in the middle of a hiker’s paradise. With the lodge open year-round and offering special winter rates and packages, our guests can easily experience Zion National Park. Accommodations include historic cabins with two double beds, a full bath, a gas log fireplace and a private porch and hotel rooms with a private porch or balcony. All rooms feature air conditioning, phones, radio alarm clocks and hairdryers

2. ZION CAMPGROUNDS (IN THE PARK)

Zion National Park has three campgrounds. South and Watchman Campgrounds are in Zion Canyon. The Lava Point Campground is about a 1-hour drive from Zion Canyon on the Kolob Terrace Road. There are no campgrounds in Kolob Canyons. Camping is permitted in designated campsites, but not in pullouts or parking lots. From mid-March through late November the campgrounds are full almost every night.

3. ZION VILLA (SPRINGDALE, UT)

Set in Springdale, within 0.7 miles of Zion National Park, Zion Villa offers accommodation with free WiFi, air conditioning and a garden. Boasting free private parking, the villa is in an area where guests can engage in activities such as skiing, cycling and fishing.

This villa is fitted with 5 bedrooms, a kitchen with a fridge and an oven, a flat-screen TV, a seating area and 1 bathroom fitted with a hot tub. Towels and bed linen are offered in the villa.

4. SPRINGHILL SUITES (SPRINGDALE)

The award-winning SpringHill Suites Springdale Zion Natl Park offers a comfortable, elegant setting for travellers seeking inspiration, family adventure and relaxation. This is the only Marriott in Springdale. Located only 1 mile from Zion Natl Park South Entrance and a short day trip from Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon North Rim, Lake Powell and Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

5. HARVEST HOUSE BED & BREAKFAST (SPRINGDALE)

Set in Springdale in the Utah region, Harvest House Bed and Breakfast offers accommodation with free WiFi and free private parking, as well as access to a hot tub.

All units are air conditioned and include a seating and/or dining area.

An American breakfast is available every morning at the bed and breakfast.

Guests can also relax in the garden.

Zion National Park is within easy reach, only minutes away

6. RED MOUNTAIN RESORT (ST GEORGE, UT)

LUXURY ACCOMMODATION

Offering a seasonal outdoor pool, Red Mountain Resort is located at the base of Snow Canyon State Park. Free WiFi is provided. A full-service health spa and salon is available.

Canyon Breeze Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily at Ivins Red Mountain Resort. Fitness classes and health classes are available weekly. Guided hiking and biking tours are also offered.

7. INN ON THE CLIFF (ST GEORGE, UT)

MID-RANGE ACCOMMODATION

Serving a free continental breakfast to each guest room, the Inn on the Cliff is 20 minutes drive from Snow Canyon State Park. Guests can relax in a seasonal outdoor pool and a hot tub. Free Wi-Fi is provided.

Offering a private balcony, each room also includes a 50-inch flat-screen cable TV, a small refrigerator and coffee-making facilities at St George Inn on the Cliff. A private bathroom is included.

8. MY PLACE (ST GEORGE, UT)

ECONOMY ACCOMMODATION

Located in St. George, My Place Hotel – St. George, UT provides accommodations with an outdoor swimming pool, free private parking, a shared lounge and barbecue facilities. Attractions in the area include Daughters of Utah Pioneer Museum, 2.5 mi away, or Pioneer Center for the Arts, set 2.5 mi from the property.

My Place Hotel – St. George, UT offers 2-star accommodations with a hot tub and sun terrace. Guests at the accommodations will be able to enjoy activities in and around St. George, like hiking and cycling.

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