With 4.5 million visitors last year, Zion National Park clocked in as the 4th most visited national park. Step foot for 1 second in the valley and you can see why, the park is stunning. There is a huge variety of activities to do and some very unique hiking opportunities. You could spend weeks exploring every trail and the back-country, however we found 3.5 days to be the perfect amount of time to hit the highlights. Of note, we visited in November and were able to do The Subway and The Narrows. If you are planning your trip between March and May, know that these trails will likely be closed due to spring snow melt. Additionally, these trails can close unexpectedly due to flash flood warnings. Fall is the best time to visit to increase your chances of being able to do these hikes.
Where to stay:
- BLM Land- If you have a camper or plan on boon docking, there are great options for Bureau of Land Management spots nearby in the town of Virgin. The spots require no reservation and are first come first served. It is about a 30 minute drive to Zion but you can’t beat the price of free! We have included a map here, there are spots further up Kolob Terrace Rd. as well. We love the app iOverlander to find free campsites. As always with BLM spots, leave it cleaner than you found it so we can keep these spaces available for everyone!
- National Park Campground– Zion National Park has 3 campgrounds, the South Campground and Watchman campground are located at the south entrance while the Lava Point campground is located 60 mins away from the canyon on Kolob Terrace Rd. You can make reservations 6 months in advance and they are highly recommended to ensure a spot.
- Lodging in Springdale- The town of Springdale is located right across the river from Zion National Park. It is basically a resort town and has TONS of lodging options. There is also a shuttle that runs through Springdale to the park making commuting easier.
- Zion Lodge– While this is a pricy option, you do get the added advantage of being located at shuttle stop 5 meaning you get a bit of a jump on traveling into the park in the morning.
Things you should know about Zion National Park
- Zion operates on a shuttle system most of the year. Research the current shuttle schedule before you go- the schedule changes throughout the year. December through March you are able to drive into the valley on your own. If you rent a bike or bring your own, you are able to bike into the valley year round. During busy times, the visitor center parking lot fills up early. You can park in the city of Springdale and take the shuttle in from there.
- This park is WILDLY popular in the summer. We went in November and found it to be a great time to visit. The temperatures were more mild for hiking and we didn’t have to contend with as many crowds. If you have control over when you are visiting, we would recommend early to late fall. Spring will bring less crowds as well, however if you are planning to do The Narrows or The Subway, you have a greater chance of those trails being closed due to flash flood warnings.
- It cost $30 to enter and your admission is good for 7 days. We saved a ton of money by getting the America the Beautiful Pass at $80, this pass is good for 2 people for 1 year and is valid for virtually every place that has National in front of it (forests, lakeshores, monuments, etc.)
Day 1– Arrive in the park and visit the ranger station. This is our favorite way to start out our trip to a National Park. Ranger’s have invaluable information, they can tell you about trail conditions, give in detail weather reports, and recommend hikes that suit your interest and skill level. We also always pick up a pin at the visitor center. This is a fun tradition we have, do you have a tradition to remember your park visits? We had originally planned to hike Angel’s Landing right when we got to Zion. The ranger told us however that there was a prescribed burn north of the park that was blowing smoke into the valley so visibility was poor. We opted to do some smaller hikes and get a feel for the valley instead. If you didn’t arrive from the east, take some time to drive the Mount Carmel-Zion highway scenic drive. Constructed in 1930, the tunnel that connects this drive was constructed to make travel between The Grand Canyon/Zion National Park and Bryce National Park possible. The drive takes about 90 minutes and has some truly stunning views. On this side, you can hike The Canyon Overlook Trail which is a short 1 mile hike with a view of the valley. Also check out the unique Checkboard Mesa- the rocks literally look like a checker-board. After the scenic drive, we started with a hike to the Emerald Pools. You can opt to hike to Lower Pool, Upper Pool, or link the two together. Lower Pool is an easy hike with little elevation change while Upper Pool is more strenuous. Upper Pool was dry when we visited in November but the hike there was still exceptionally beautiful. We finished off the day with The Watchman Trail. This hike begins right by the visitor center and offers some of the most unique views of the valley. It is a 3.5 mile hike and it is exposed so bring plenty of water. It is a great spot to catch sunset!
Day 2 – The Narrows– Whether you hike 2 miles or 16, The Narrows is a unique experience you won’t find many other places. It is also one of the most packed areas of the park. We were shocked when we were hiking in November how many people were out there hiking in dry pants in the 45 degree water! You hike directly in The Virgin River through steep walls of the canyon. There are two options for this hike- Top Down or Bottom Up. The Top Down route is 16 miles and is generally done as a 2 day backpacking trip starting at Chamberlain Ranch, a permit is required. We opted for the Bottom Up route which is 8 miles out and back. This hike begins at the last shuttle stop at the Temple of Sinawava, it takes about 6-8 hours to get to the Elephant Temple and back. You can certainly hike further than this in a day hike but this is where most people turn around. There is a point where the river branches off to the right before the Elephant Temple. We highly recommend exploring this branch. You can hike about 30 mins in before it gets sketchy. Not many people explore this branch so you will get a little bit more solitude.
After warming up with a coffee in Springdale, we recommend driving up to Kolob Canyon for sunset. This is an area of the park that is little visited but has just as spectacular of views. There are over 20 miles of wilderness trails to explore here (a great option for a day if you are unable to do The Subway or The Narrows). If you are pressed for time like we were, do the 5 mile scenic drive to see the canyon. The Timber Creek Overlook trail is a short 0.5 mile hike and is the best spot to catch sunset.
Day 3– The Subway– We had our permit for The Subway on the third day of our trip. Depending on when you score a permit, you can change around your itinerary. The Subway is located outside of the canyon on Kolob Terrace Rd. If you are staying near the canyon, you will want to give yourself about 45 minutes to get to the Left Fork Trailhead. Read our post on The Subway for more details of the hike. You will want to give yourself 7-9 hours to do this hike so it is definitely a full day venture. We recommend getting to the trail head early so you can have the best chance of having the place to yourself.
Day 4- Angel’s Landing- You will want to be on the first bus for this one- as long as you don’t have a fear of heights! Angel’s Landing is on the bucket list of most serious hikers. It is a 5 mile out and back hike, with the first 2 miles being paved switchbacks and the last .5 miles hiking up the spine of a ridge with chains. The trail has 1500 feet of elevation gain. Leave yourself 2-4 hours to complete the hike. We clocked in at 2.5 hours though we spent a fair bit of time at the top admiring the view.
We had 3.5 days to explore so we hit the road after Angel’s Landing. We felt like we were able to pack in most of what we wanted to see during this time. The only thing we were bummed to miss was Observation Point. While the traditional and strenuous trail is closed indefinitely due to a rockfall, you can still get to Observation Point to see the lookout via the East Mesa Trail. If you are averse to the chains of Angel’s Landing or want an even higher view, this is definitely a great option. It is a 6.7 mile out and back trail with only 695 feet of elevation change.
However you decide to spend your time, you are sure to be amazed by Zion National Park. Now get out there and Create Your Own Roadshow!