Updated: Feb 19
If you are traveling out to the South West area of the US, Utah is at your fingertips, waiting to be discovered. Zion National Park lives in the southern part of the state, not far from Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and many other amazing bucket list stops. So why would you plan a trip to Zion? Let me tell you!
The Virgin River begins at the Navajo Nation and flows through Zion, all the way down to Lake Mead just 40 miles from Vegas. Southwestern Utah is located at the intersection of three diverse regions: the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert. This southwestern moving river is home to many endangered species unique to the area, including, woundfin, Virgin River chub, Virgin spinedace, flannelmouth sucker, desert sucker, speckled dace, and Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. While these wild life spotting’s are rare, what is immediately viewable are the dramatic scenic landscapes created by the red cliffs and the powerful river contrasting dry red dessert with rushing water. The beauty created by the merging of red steep rock and green vegetation growing because of this river can not be captured by photos.
Zion Canyon is 15 miles long and almost 3000 feet deep. There are over 800 native plant species and much of the park is wilderness. More flowers are found here than anywhere else in Utah. Angels Landing, a famous 2.5 mile hike features a drastic plateau 1500 feet above the rim. It is so named because the settlers who first discovered Zion stated, “surely this is where the angels would land”. While Zion has many hikes through varying topography and levels from ease to extremely difficult, there is truly something for everyone here.
Zion was so named by Mormon pioneers that were so enamored with the parks majesty they called it after the Old Testament name for the City of Jerusalem. Now there are typically over 4.5 million visitors a year. The entrance fee is $30 per car. Of course if you have an America the beautiful pass purchased for $80 a year you can hit multiple parks and save money over time.
The shuttle - rules changed on July 1, 2020
There are two shuttle lines. One that makes nine stops through the town of Springdale and brings visitors to the inside the park to the visitor center. This is still free. It begins running daily at 7 AM and the last bus into town is at 7:15 PM. Shuttles run every 15 minutes. It is difficult to find parking in the Springdale area, and as a gateway village there is much to see and do just outside of Zion.
The second shuttle inside of Zion now requires a $1.00 ticket purchased in advance to ride. Go to: https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/300016 To purchase.
Tickets are limited and go on sale twice a month. On the 16th, you can purchase for the remainder of the same month. On the last day of the month, you can purchase for the the first half of the next month. Some tickets are set aside for last minute purchase. They are available at 5pm MST the day before. Tickets do sell out very quickly. They are not guaranteed. Each recreation.gov user can purchase up to eight shuttle tickets per day. A printed or digital copy of the ticket must be presented when entering the shuttle line. The ticket purchaser must be president with a photo ID. Tickets are non-transferable. Please plan ahead to ensure you are able to board and ride. The park is very big and the shuttle serves as a tour guide, narrating the different stops within the park. They highlight park history and also give up to date weather/info you may find necessary. This shuttle stops at 9 spots including: Zion Lodge, the Grotto, (which is the beginning of the Angels Landing hike), weeping rock, and the Temple of Sinawava, which is the last and farthest point of the shuttle (this is the beginning of the Hanging Gardens trail leading to the Narrows hike).
Shuttles run regularly and you may use your ticket to hop on and off at will.
Because of the reserve system, it is harder to show up unprepared. Plan ahead for which hikes you want too see, and where you want to focus your time in the park.
Another option is to rent an electric bike. This is becoming more popular with people who can't get on the shuttle. It is apx. $95/ day for an adult and $55/ day for a child to rent the ebikes. This is an option if you want to explore! In some places you also pay for parking the bikes. Get all your info at the link below:
The Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel – taking the scenic route to ensure you live your best life!
Driving up route 9 will give you access to an engineering marvel. The Mount Carmel highway cuts through a 1.1 mile tunnel through the middle of a sandstone cliff. The road features zigzag switchbacks creating huge monumental views. Once inside of the tunnel there are window arches carved into the rock allowing more viewing. They were carved during building for ventilation and easier access of supplies, and now they create picturesque window arches overlooking the cliffs. No bikes or pedestrians are allowed to go through this tunnel and cars travel very slowly at 20 miles an hour or less. Any vehicle over 7‘10” must have a permit to enter, and larger vehicles are not permitted at all. Many refer to this as the most scenic drive, and there are several places along the road to pull over for pictures and nature appreciation. If you are driving out to Bryce this is the perfect route. This road is a part of the National Park and you do have to pay entry even if you are just passing through. However, I again encourage the America the beautiful pass as it is unlimited use for one year.
**Also if you happen to have a 5th grader, your whole family gets free entry into National Parks!
Inside Zion a whole world awaits. When we entered, I immediately said “I feel like we are on a different planet”. I later learned parts of Star Wars were filmed there! The entire trip, my family of five was mesmerized by the colors and the swirling sandstone spires. Having just come from Bryce, we expected something similar – and found something entirely unique. The places we were able to whole heartedly explore and enjoy are listed and described here.
No matter where you go in Zion, you will be surrounded by beauty. There is not a bad hike.
We're here... What do we want to do first?
The Hanging Gardens: (GREAT TRAIOL FOR KIDS) This trail is a paved hike following alongside the Virgin River. If you are a water lover this is the view you’ve been waiting for. Take the shuttle to stop 9, get off and take this walk where there are deep green pools you can stop and sit by. My sons skipped rocks into the middle of the river and even played in the cold water, of course this was a warm summer day. Wonderfully lush hanging gardens and trees bordered by tall weeping walls line your walkway offering shade. Flowers grow right out of the rocks. The natural arches in the rock walls and boulders along the walk create an experience unlike any other. At the end of the just over a mile walk is the beginning of the hike into the river itself: The Narrows.
The Narrows: This famous hike listed in many explorer bucket lists, goes 12 miles through the river into the canyon where the steep narrowing walls make a hallway for the hiker to navigate through. You may turn around at any point, many travel in 3 miles. If the water is too cold or rocky for your comfort, there is an outfitter that provides water hiking gear. You can hike the Narrows from the bottom up or the top down, bottom up being the most popular (and easier) which begins at the end of the Hanging Gardens riverside trail. On our day here, the water was considered too rough for this option to be open. It was hard to be disappointed when surrounded by natures intense beauty.
Emerald Pools: While this trail starts off the beaten track, it is a fairly easy hike and has wonderful ending points.
Lower Emerald Pools: In less than half a mile, the vegetation becomes more lush and the trail makes its way along a tall alcove under two tall waterfalls and the pools below. If you are fortunate enough to have the Middle and Upper Pools open when you visit, the hike gets harder as you climb up. The middle "pools" are the streams that form the waterfalls.
Upper Emerald Pools: The final stretch is hot and sandy for a quarter mile, but worth the effort to get to the top pool at the base of the 300-foot cliffs above. The upper pool area offers shaded boulders to relax and have a picnic lunch, or sit and drink your water enjoying your view. Most of the time, you can see a faint waterfall coming from the mouth of Heaps Canyon far above. For the return trip, you can either retrace your path back down or take the optional loop back to the Lodge. For a longer hike, include the Kayenta Trail and the Grotto Trail to make a loop that starts and ends at the Zion Lodge.
When you get there, just be there!
There are also the Weeping Rock, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Trail to explore. These are ALL an experience highly recommended by my family who have been on a mission to see the most beautiful sites across this country, and visit National Parks. Depending on how long you are there you can really take in the magnificence found here.
Angel's Landing is a big draw, it is also known for being a challenge. This is not the hike for your average person who wants to come in and check out all there is to see as it takes hours to complete. This hike begins at shuttle stop 6, The Grotto. It takes you climbing 1,488 feet in elevation, up steep switchbacks, and while it's "only" 5 miles up and back it's a serious climb!
On and after April 1, 2022, everyone who hikes Angels Landing needs to have a permit. You can chose a from entering the seasonal lottery, day before lottery, or changing your permit options here: https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/angels-landing-hiking-permits.htm
The biggest factor for what to do, will be time, followed by your transportation.
After January 1 the shuttle stops running. If you have your own vehicle you are more able to move from place to place, but parking can be a challenge. If the park reaches capacity (which it sometimes does) they do close until there's more room).
For this reason I recommend when you first get in, go to the Hanging Gardens Trail, walk along the river down to the Narrow's (hiking the Narrows or not, at least walk down to the entry).
My next recommendation is the emerald pools trails. Go up to the highest pool if they are all open. These are not strenuous but there is lots to see along the way.
While there is no wrong way to spend you time, I'd suggest then driving around to Observation Point which outside of the park. Go to the Zion Ponderosa Ranch from the highway east of the park then catch their shuttle to the East Mesa Trail trailhead. Parking can be virtually impossible if your vehicle can't get to the trailhead. From the ranch it is $5/person. The trail has gradual ups and downs (mostly flat) for 3 miles until you get to the junction with the Observation Point Trail. There are no great views until you get to the end of this trail, but there are a couple of points where you can make your way through the trees to catch glimpses of the beauty surrounding. From 2100 feet yo will see for yourself the post card view of Zion, that simply can't be captured by a lens. The best views in the park for sure, and a great place to eat lunch or a snack.
I do hope that if you are in the area you are able to take advantage of Zion regardless if your visit is a few hours, or a few days. You will be awakened to the beauty of the land in an inspiriting way hard to describe. Our trip originated from the Grand Canyon, and grew as people made recommendations and I researched the area. I will link to our itinerary here:
And our entire 18 day/ 300 mile trip here: Vegas/ Grand Canyon north and south rims/ Zion/ Bryce/ Monument Valley and more...
Hard working favorites:
Angel's Landing - This is for the hiking enthusiast, and those NOT afraid of heights or hard work! 3 - 5 hours/ 5.4 miles
Observation Point Trail - Strenuous Hike with a view that pays off, you'd be looking down at Angel's Landing once you arrive! 4 - 6 hours/ 8 miles.
**Canyon Overlook Trail - This is a great option for those wanting an amazing higher view point you can travel to with your whole family. 1 hour/ 1 mile
Zion With Kids:
Traveling with Children I always think of paved easy walk ways with cool scenery.
You're blessed here that these are plenty!
First - stop at the Visitor's Center for free Junior Ranger booklets. Activities in the book are broken down by age group and offer a reward badge! Yes this is possible to do with in one day long visit.
Second, head down by the gorgeous Virgin River. Kids will love the rocky river's edge and we saw many children there playing in/ by the shallow waters. They were building rock towers and even sliding down some of the larger boulders. The Hanging Garden's Trail begins here as well. This is a wonderful paved hike that is just over a mile long, but if you go slowly and enjoy the terrain can be a child's nature play ground!
Pa’rus Trail - This 1.9 mile trail is ideal for walking, running, strollers, and bike riding.
At dusk when the sunlight makes the red rock glow it is especially awesome. Wildlife such as wild turkeys, mule deer, chipmunks, and various birds hang out and can be fun to watch.
Shuttle stops at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, the Zion Human History Museum, and at Canyon Junction can be found along this trail. This makes it easy to hike the trail one-way and then ride the shuttle back.
I wish you well in ALL of your travels where ever the road leads.
Enjoy the people in all the places and Live present in the beauty!
Please share your experiences below of Zion, and share any memories you have made.
Every trip has it's own vibe about it and the best thing about Zion is the expansive opportunity to explore endless trails, rocks, and canyons. Have fun!!
Until next time, travel safely and in peace :-)
Enjoy all your travels, and home in between
Thank you for joining our journey, and I'd love to be a part of yours. Please share your trip tips and favorites. ❤
Bryce Canyon is a two hour drive from Zion, and can easily be looped in to your day/ trip.