A Hiker’s Guide to Zion National Park

zion national park
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Zion National Park is the most visited and the oldest national park in Utah and attracts around 4.5 million visitors each year. Zion Canyon is the most popular attraction because of its mesmerizing rock monoliths. The Great White Throne is another popular attraction that stands 2,200-foot-tall and is recognized as one of the most loved landmarks in the national park.

History

Established in 1919 and considered to be a mid-sized park, Zion National Park was Utah’s first national park developed to protect sandstone cliffs around the Zion Canyon. The 229 sq-miles national park might not be the biggest, but it attracts huge crowds each year, thanks to its photogenic scenery and diverse hiking terrain. Whether you are a preschool hiker or an expert, the national park has something to offer to everyone.

The history of the national park dates back to almost 8,000 years ago and can be divided into three periods i.e. Archaic, Protohistoric and Historic. Around 8,000 years ago, family groups camped in the area that is currently in the national park to hunt or collect plants/seeds. Some of them started growing crops after which they built permanent villages.

Archeological evidence suggests that extended droughts made horticulture almost impossible in the 11th and 12th centuries, which refers to the protohistoric period. Newcomers to the region came here on a seasonal basis. In the historic period beginning from the late 18th century, padres from Europe passed by and explored southern Utah. The first people of the EU to settle in the region were Mormon farmers.

Travel to the remote areas of the nation park in the early 19th century was a rarity. In 1917, the first road to the Canyon was built, which led to Grotto. The highway connecting Springdale and the park’s east side was completed in 1930 after which the number of visitors increased exponentially. The key highlight of the highway is the 1.1 mile / 1.8Km tunnel with six large-sized windows cut right through the huge sandstone cliff.

Zion National Park Entrance Sign

Key facts

  • Size: 229 sq. miles, considered a mid-sized national park
  • Number of visitors: around 4.5 million in 2019 and 3.6 million in 2020
  • Established on: 19 November 1919
  • Number of hiking trails: 47 moderate trails ranging from 0.7-19 miles
  • Highest point: The West Temple 7,810 feet (2,380 m)
  • Lowest point: Coalpits Wash 3,666 ft (1,117 m)
  • The national park gains 5,060 feet elevation on Utah’s southwestern plateau (3,666 ft. to 8,726 ft)
  • It is famous for its sheer sandstone cliffs, photogenic scenery and reddish hue of its cliffs
  • Reliable access to the park attracts around 4.5 million visitors each year, which was around 2.7 million just a decade ago, making it the 4th most popular national park in the US
  • The park attracts almost 50 percent more visitors than Yellowstone each year
  • I-15 provides reliable access to the park from LA (3 hours) and Salt Lake City (4.5 hours)
  • The park is home to over 290 bird species, 69 mammals, 29 reptiles, 9 fish types and 6 amphibians
  • It is situated at the intersection of the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau and the Mojave Desert
  • The diverse terrain includes canyons, mountains, rivers, mesas, natural arches and monoliths
  • The area in the national park was home to an ancient civilization called Anasazi (1,500 B.C). Traces of their sandstone villages can still be found throughout the national park
  • The Virgin River took millions of years to carve the Zion Canyon, which is about 2,000 feet deep
  • Temperatures in the winter can fall below the freezing point at night
  • Kolob Arch (287 feet) is one of the largest freestanding arches in the world
  • The Virgin river that carved the Zion Canyon is still changing and shaping it. The river removes approximately 1 million tons of sediment during flash floods, making the canyon wider and deeper

Climate and Weather

The section around the Virgin River is the most visited section of the national park. Semi-desert like conditions and low-elevation translate into high summer temperatures reaching up to 115°F (46°C, highest recorded). The climate and steeper trails make it difficult for hikers to stay comfortable in summer. Temperature during at least four summer months usually stays above 90°F ( 32°C) during the day, but things cool down at night.

Although the afternoon breeze brings the temperature down a bit, it still remains relatively hot. Summer thunderstorms in the afternoon are also common (especially from July to August) and make exploring side-canyons a risky endeavor. That’s the reason some trails including the popular Narrows Trail remain closed during these months because of flash floods.

Hiking during the winter is pleasant with daytime temperature rarely falling below 50°F (10°C). The park remains open during the winter even after snowfall with high backcountry being an exception. The high-country trails can remain icy and muddy until May/June, while most narrow canyons also remain inaccessible due to snowmelt.

When to Visit Zion National Park?

As the data above suggests, fall is considered to be the best time to visit the park when the weather is mild, and cottonwoods and maples turn red. The winter can be hard in the region, while scorching summers are also not easy to deal with, making fall the ideal time to truly enjoy your visit. That’s why visitation is very high from February till late November.

A spike in the number of visitors is expected on special days such as Memorial Day and when Utah schools announce the fall break, usually in October. October (outside school break) till mid-November is considered to be the ideal time to visit the national park because of less crowds, lower lodging costs and milder temperature.

Hiker in Zion National Park, Utah

Recommended Gear and What to Bring?

Most people are not into winter trips to Zion National Park, so we’ll focus on non-winter gear here. We have already covered winter hiking in detail in a dedicated post and most of the information also applies to visiting Zion National Park in winter.

Visitors and hikers traveling in a commercial/guided trip should check with trip planners to know which items they provide and the ones you need to bring yourself. Most of the things we have already covered in our backpacking checklist also apply here, but depending on the season and activity, the items you should keep can vary.

If you are visiting the national park from June to September, it’s recommended to avoid cotton and jeans and wear lightweight hiking shorts, yoga pants, zip-off pants or board shorts. Also carry a light rain jacket, capris and light fleece to deal with cool mornings and light rain.

Track pants, yoga pants, hiking pants, zip-off pants, long underwear (non-cotton) are recommended in October-May. A wind/light rain jacket and a fleece jacket work well for cool mornings and light rain. You might also want to consider a beanie or a knitted hat and warm gloves during this season.

What to do in Zion NP?

There are a variety of activities and things to do in the national park, but make sure to do some homework about COVID-19 restrictions, permits and closure information. Some popular activities include:

Hiking

From short walks to strenuous hikes, Zion National Park provides ample hiking opportunities to everyone. It’s important to pick the right trail according to your experience and fitness level and keep a close eye on current conditions. Zion Wilderness is a great place if you are looking for long hikes (not looped), while day hikers can turn around any time. You can hike in a group of maximum 12 people on most trails.

Some of the most popular hiking trails in the national park are located in the Zion Canyon, including The Narrows and Angels Landing. Some other hiking options include Kolob Canyon trails, Kolob Terrace trails, East Rim Area trails and Southwest Desert trails. You need a Wilderness Permit for overnight/backpacking trips.

Best Hikes in Zion National Park

Angel’s Landing: Park’s most iconic trail that starts at shuttle stop number 6. For thrill seekers and adventurers. 5.2-miles round trip with an elevation gain of 1,500 feet.

Angels Landing Zion NP

Observation Point: Challenging, yet rewarding. Located at shuttle stop number 7. 8-miles round trip with an elevation gain of 2,000 feet

Canyon Overlook: As the name suggests, the family-friendly trail looks down on the Zion Canyon. It’s a short trail (one-mile round trip) that starts from Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel’s east side and only gains 100 feet elevation.

Emerald Pools: A great option for hikers seeking a short stroll or a strenuous short loop. The trail starts at shuttle stop number 5, but you can also start at shuttle stop number 6 if you want a longer loop.

West Rim Trail: The 16-miles trail is more suitable for a backpacking trip, starts in Kolob Canyons – Lava Point Trailhead and ends in Zion Canyon – West Rim Trailhead.

East Rim Trail: The 12-mile trail is another backpacking trip that begins near the East Entrance or the Observation Point. It gains 2,000 feet elevation and offers stunning views of Zion Canyon.

The Narrows: The 16-mile trail is one of the most popular trails in the national park that can be accessed from the Riverside Walk (bottom up) or Chamberlain Ranch (top down).

Pa’Rus Trail: The flat trail (3.5 miles) is another family-friendly trail that can be accessed from shuttle stop number 3 as well as the Visitor Center.

Watchman Overlook Trail: Very near to the Visitor Center. 30miles long, 500 feet elevation gain.

Taylor Creek Trail: The 5-mile round trip trail in Kolob Canyons is a great option for hikers who want to escape the crowds and want to gain a fresh perspective.

Cycling

The Zion Canyon Drive and Pa’rus Trail are accessible to cyclists, offering them a great substitute to shuttle buses. Cycling is only available on the Pa’rus Trail and park roadways and cyclists have to ride single file (right side) while wearing a helmet.

A group of up to 6 cyclists can travel together and a group larger than that has to split up and travel in smaller groups while maintaining a distance of at least a quarter mile. Cyclists can also lift their bikes on/off park shuttle buses if they don’t plan on riding a bicycle all the way. Class-1 pedal-assist E-bikes are also allowed where ‘normal’ bikes are permitted.

Climbing

The 2,000-foot sandstone cliffs in the national park are popular among adventure and big wall climbers. However, most routes are difficult and not recommended for new or inexperienced climbers. The bolted routes offer little protection, while the soft nature of the rocks make it even more difficult to climb the walls.

Climbing is not recommended in the summer months when temperatures soar over 100 degrees and monsoonal rain storms make the conditions even more difficult. The best time for climbing in the national park is from March till May and September till early-November. Dampness heavily weakens desert sandstone, so climbing after a rainstorm or in damp areas should be avoided. You might end up breaking critical holds when trying to climb before the rock is dry enough (usually takes at least two days), altering route and making it more difficult for future climbers.

Canyoneering

Zion National Park is a popular destination for canyoneering, which combines problem solving, route finding, hiking and swimming. There are dozens of canyons suitable for people ranging from beginners to experienced. You need a Wilderness Permit for technical trips that require advanced technical skills and have to strictly follow the rules. You are responsible for your own safety and should leave no trace in the national park (more on trial etiquettes here).

Bird Watching

Zion National Park is a safe haven for over 290 bird species including the Peregrine Falcon, Mexican spotted owl, California condor and the bald eagle. Bird lovers can celebrate preservation in the 232 sq-mile sanctuary, and a place of protection for a large variety of birds.

Horseback Riding

You can book a horseback ride online, which is the only ride you can get in the national parks and choose between different rides, including one hour and half-day rides. Rides are available for the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion Canyon.

River Trips

You can use watercraft in the national park after obtaining a wilderness permit, which can be obtained a day before the trip from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. The permits are only issued if the rivers are flowing at least 150 cubic-feet per second. The park does not allow use of inner tubes on any watercourse.

Creek in Zion National Park

Stock Use

You don’t need a permit for day-visits and can take animals for exploring the park. The animals you are allowed to ride on include horses, mules and burros, while dogs, llamas, goats, camels and others are not allowed. Stock use is not allowed during the wet periods, spring thaws or any other time when animals can damage the trail.

The animals must stay on the trail at all times and you need to avoid loose herding or free trailing. You can learn more about which trails are open for stock use here. Off trail use is only allowed in Lower Coalpits, Scoggins Wash and Huber Wash. Hop Valley Site A is the only overnight stock camp where you can stay for one night (permit needed).

Stargazing and Sunset

Many day hikers and visitors prefer staying in the national park to catch the sunset when the cliffs flow vivid orange. Visitors who stay overnight can explore the dark night sky filled with stars, providing them a rare chance to see the milky way. The park protects the dark sky by not lighting up after sunset. Just make sure not to shine light in someone’s eyes as it takes 20 minutes for our eyes to adapt to the dark again.

The most popular places for sunset viewing and stargazing are the Museum patio, the Pa’rus Trail, South Campground, Watchman campground and Kolob Canyons Viewpoint.

Where to Stay

The national park has dozens of designated camping areas and backpacking sites spread over 90 miles of serene trails (124,406 acres designated wilderness). It’s worth mentioning that campsites or trails can close at any time because of flash floods, rockfalls, wildfires etc., so always have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Keep topographic maps to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances.

Around 50% backpacking campsites can be reserved online, but you have to make an online reservation within a two-month window. Reservations for the next month open on the 5th of each month until 5.PM (mountain time) the day before your trip (if sites are available). However, most of the time, backpacking sites available for online reservation become fully booked just minutes after reservations start at 10AM (mountain time).

Although for many campsites you can use a single reservation to stay in the same area for multiple nights, thru hikers need separate reservations for all nights. Wilderness campsites cannot be used as an alternative to frontcountry camping to day hike in the national park. Hikers can make reservations for different designated and at-large backpacking sites including:

  • East Rim Camp Area (dispersed camping)
  • Wildcat Canyon Camp Area (dispersed camping)
  • Hop Valley
  • La Verkin Creek
  • Narrows
  • Southwest Desert
  • West Rim

You can learn more about availability of campsites (both online reservation and walk-in basis) by visiting the official link. You need to get Wilderness permits in-person at the Visitor Center Wilderness Desk. Wilderness permit fee is $15 for up to two people, $20 for 3-7 people and $25 for 8-12 people and the permit is non-transferable.

Hikers can choose between three campgrounds for which they can make a reservation from March till late November. Two campgrounds are in Zion Canyon (South and Watchman). The third campground, the Lava Point Campground, takes around an hour drive on the Kolob Terrace Road (from Zion Canyon). Camping is only allowed in campsites that have been designated.

The National Park Service recommends making a reservation in advance as campgrounds mostly remain full every night from mid-March till late-November. Campers who want their camping equipment delivered to the national park need to make sure the company has a permit to do business there otherwise, they will be left without accommodation.

Staying cool in the South and Watchman campgrounds is a challenge with only a few trees and temperatures regularly exceeding 95°F (35°C). Up to 6 people and two camps are allowed per campsite, so you need to plan accordingly if traveling in a large group.

How to Get There?

Zion National Park is located near Springdale, Utah’s southwest corner. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is the closest airport. The park is around 2.5 hours drive from Las Vegas, while it takes almost four hours from Salt Lake City and 6-7 from Los Angeles.

Two shuttle services are available for visitors. The park or the Zion Canyon Line shuttle runs between the visitor center to the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The second shuttle is the Springdale or town shuttle that stops at nine different locations in the town and picks/drops visitors at the pedestrian/bike entrance (Shuttle Map). Private vehicles are not allowed during the shuttle season (almost year around Mar-Nov) in the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

Depending on the season, The Zion Canyon shuttle service starts from 6AM and leaves every few minutes, while the Springdale shuttle is less frequent. Parking space is fairly limited inside the national park and fills up early, so you need to leave early or go for paid parking in Springdale and visit the park using the shuttle service.

After arriving at the park, you can get permits, information and learn about transportation schedules by visiting one of the two visitor centers i.e. the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center off the Interstate 15 (park’s west entrance) and Zion Canyon Visitor Center (park’s south entrance near Springdale). The visitor centers remain open from 8AM to 5PM in spring-summer and 8AM-4PM in fall-winter, and closed on 25th December.

Conclusion

Visitors can explore Zion national park for weeks and still not see everything. That’s why you need to plan ahead and pick the main sights if you plan on spending a day or two. Visitors can also combine their trip to visit the Grand Canyon and Bryce National park, which are all close together. Although large crowds might give you a sense of security, you still have to deal with remoteness, heat and cold.


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