Guide to Zion National Park
Zion, according to ancient religions, is the spiritual point from which reality emerges. Honestly after visiting Zion National Park for the first time I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment.
An enormous canyon carved out of the desert by flowing water, Zion’s beauty and abundance has attracted people for thousands of years. Stone age hunters tracked game through the canyons, followed by native peoples who adapted to the desert landscape. Later Mormon settlers came to the region and gave the canyons and peaks their biblical and religious sounding names they keep today.
Zion National Park
While Zion is simply a beautiful place to visit, it is also fun to learn about the geological forces that have shaped the landscape. The sandstone of the region was formed by ancient volcanoes, streams, lakes and rivers that deposited layers of ash, mud and sand which became compressed into rock. Plate tectonics created an uplift and then rainwater slowly eroded the rocks into the canyons we see today.
The Virgin River flows through Zion National Park and continues to change the shape of the landscape. It also attracts wildlife and helps plants to thrive in the dry desert climate.
In the park you’ll find campsites, hiking trails, bike paths and even a historic lodge. Zion is an extremely popular park, attracting over 4.5 million visitors in 2017. If you plan to stay in or near the park you should definitely make reservations in advance.
Due to the popularity of this special place, the National Park Service has implemented some rules and services so that everyone can enjoy their visit and the park can remain protected. You are not allowed to drive all the roads of the park from the spring through fall, instead you’ll find a free shuttle bus service that will take you to trailheads and interesting areas. Personally I prefer this to driving my own vehicle. You can leave your car at the visitor center, outside the park in Springdale, or at the campground.
You can also enter and leave the park from the East Entrance, which is more convenient if you are coming from or headed to Bryce National Park, Grand Canyon, Kanab, Utah or Page, Arizona. This entry road is curving and scenic and goes through a long tunnel. Waits can be lengthy as often it is restricted to one way traffic.
Entrance to the park is currently $35 per vehicle but if you have an America the Beautiful annual pass it is free. If you will visit more than one National Park in a year I highly recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful pass which gives you free access to the parks. You can purchase the pass here.
Hiking in Zion National Park
Zion actually has two sections, the main Zion Canyon and more isolated Kolob Canyon. It is possible to visit both but not in one day. Kolob Canyon also does not have any developed campsites although you can backpack in the area.
There are two especially popular and famous hikes in Zion National Park. The first is Angel’s Landing. This trail leads to a spectacular scenic outlook but is not for the faint of heart or those who suffer from a fear of heights. The trail is narrow and has a sheer drop off. It is also often busy. If you’d like views with less traffic, check out some of the wilderness trails or hike to Observation Point.
The other popular and unusual hike in Zion is up the Narrows through the Virgin River starting at the Temple of Sinawava. Don your waterproof footwear and walk in the water up the canyon. It’s one of the most fun hikes I have ever done! You’ll want to wear waders or waterproof shoes and you will get wet up to your hips or higher. The water can be cold and swiftly moving. Bring a buddy and a walking stick. You can also go with a guide.
In addition to these popular hikes there are many other interesting trails and sights in the park. Catch the sunrise behind the Zion Human History Museum or watch the sunset from the bridge over the Virgin River at the canyon junction. Hike to the Grotto to see dripping ferns clinging to the sides of the cliff, or visit the Emerald Pools.
An easy walk or bike ride is up the paved Pa’rus Trail.
Camping in Zion National Park
Zion has two developed campgrounds near the visitor center: South Campground and Watchman Campground. Both are lovely places to stay, but can get very crowded. I wouldn’t expect quiet and solitude in these busy places, even so I enjoyed camping there with easy access to the trails.
You can make advance reservations for camping at both campgrounds, and they also operate on a first-come, first-served basis if there are spaces available. If you don’t have a reservation you can try to show up and look for a vacant spot. I’d recommend arriving mid-morning, and look for spaces where people are leaving. On the weekends you may need to wait in line in your vehicle to secure a spot as people leave. If you can plan ahead it is best to make a reservation, especially in the high season. However when I was there in November the campgrounds were completely full with the aforementioned lines on a Friday morning.
You’ll find a third campground in the park at the end of Kolob Terrace Road. There are also private campgrounds outside of the park although these are mostly for RVs.
If you plan to backpack and camp in the park you will need a backcountry permit from the visitor center.
Places to Stay Near Zion National Park
If you’d prefer not to camp, there are plenty of hotel options near the park in Springdale. You could also stay in the park at the historic Zion Lodge, a wonderful option. Again, it is important to plan ahead as the lodge tends to book up a year in advance. However there might be a cancellation so you can always try last minute bookings.
Springdale is just outside the South Entrance to the park. Some of the hotels are even within walking distance to the entrance. In the high season the shuttle bus picks visitors up in Springdale for entry into the park. Keep in mind you will still need to pay the entrance fees of $20 per person. I highly recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful pass.
Here are a few accommodation options near Zion National Park:
- Flanigan’s Inn: great location and friendly, helpful staff
- Marriott Springdale: beautiful views, convenient location for the park
- Cable Mountain Lodge: just steps from the entrance to the park
- Red Rock Inn Cottages: friendly staff, spacious rooms and great views of Zion
- Best Western Plus Zion Suites: comfortable rooms and free breakfast
- Watchman Villas: great for families or long stays with full kitchen in each apartment
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