Photo: Dan Holz/ Tandemstock

Zion National Park Essentials

Discover adventures for everyone in this southern Utah gem.

Zion National Park in southern Utah is known for its cream, pink, and red cliffs, otherworldly slot canyons, and the dramatic gorge carved by the Virgin River. Simply wading upstream a bit or taking on the epic canyoneering adventure on a route known as The Narrows is an unforgettable venture. Other activities in Zion include hiking to the famously steep Angels Landing, with its 1,000-foot drop-offs, rock climbing on the massive cliffs, road cycling, and backpacking. 

People come from all over to enjoy the park’s 90 miles of trails, explore its canyons, stay at one of two car-camping sites (or one of multiple at-large backcountry campsites), or overnight at the Zion Lodge. And with 124,406 acres of designated wilderness to play in, Zion has something for adventurers of every skill level.

The History of Zion National Park

Zion has become the third-most visited national park behind Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Grand Canyon, but it wasn’t always so popular. The area was originally named Mukuntuweap National Monument by surveyor John Wesley Powell in 1872 for the Southern Paiute people who lived there. “Mukuntuweap” is believed to mean, “straight canyon,” “straight river,” or “the place where great spirits dwell.”

When people started calling it “Zion” because of its regal towers, the area’s Mormon settlers, as well as Brigham Young himself, opposed such a label for an earthly landscape, with locals opting to call the area “Not Zion” for a number of years. Under the name of Mukuntuweap National Monument, however, the park was rarely visited. It wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson renamed it to Zion, and Congress designated the area Zion National Park in 1919, that the park started attracting attention.  

These days, the park sees about 4.5 million visitors a year, with the Park Service aiming to launch a reservation system to better limit crowding. For starters, a pilot reservation system kicks off April 1, 2022, requiring reservations to hike Angels Landing. 

Visiting the National Park  

Accessing Zion by car is simple from a few major hubs. It’s a three-hour drive northeast from Las Vegas, a four-hour drive south from Salt Lake City, and a one-hour drive east from St. George, Utah. Springdale is the park’s most popular gateway town, with multiple lodging options and plenty of outfitting and provisioning services. A free shuttle from Springdale into the park makes access easy.

The park’s main road, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, runs from the South Entrance in Springdale, on State Route 9, to its northern terminus dead-ending in the Temple of Sinawava area. The majority of the Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles for most of the year, with a free shuttle transporting visitors to various points of interest and trailheads (along with their bikes, backpacks, and climbing gear).

An East Entrance connects midway up the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive at what’s known as Canyon Junction. The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway winds into the park from the east, and part of the road goes through the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel, completed in 1930 to make Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park closer in driving distance. The drive between the parks now takes just under two hours, and many people visit both parks during one trip.

The northwest corner of the park, 40 miles from the South Entrance along Interstate 15, features Kolob Canyons, noted for their red sandstone cliffs and box canyons. The canyons’ area is accessed along the 5-mile Kolob Canyons Road out-and-back.

Seasons

Situated between 4,000 and 8,000 feet in elevation, temperatures and weather conditions in Zion vary considerably from season to season.

Spring

Spring is warm and sunny, for the most part, but it can be rainy. The temperature can swing up to 30 degrees in a day, with cold mornings and evenings and balmy midday sun. Some trails will be snow-covered until May, and the river will likely be roaring due to snowmelt. 

Summer

Summer in Zion is desert hot, with 100-degree-plus temperatures daily. Monsoon season starts in mid-July and runs through September, which increases the danger of flash flooding in slot canyons. Despite the heat and the monsoons, Zion’s busiest months are March to October, so be prepared for long shuttle lines and full parking lots.   

Fall

Fall is lovely in southern Utah. The park’s aspen, maple, and oak trees change colors, and temperatures cool off. Fall is generally dry, but rain does occur and can bring the threat of flash flooding.   

Winter

Winter months can be cold and snowy, rainy, or sunny and cool. Nights will dip below freezing, and the Virgin River is frigid (though a lot less crowded than in the warmer months).

Photo: Brian Swanson

Things To Do

Zion is popular for its canyoneering, hiking, and rock climbing, but recreational users also enjoy road cycling and backpacking. Here’s a peek at the highlights.

Hiking

Twenty miles of trails in the Kolob Canyons area, along with 70 miles of trails in the main park, provide seemingly endless expanses of high-desert beauty.

 The Narrows: Hike a little or a lot of the narrows and you’ll see what all the fuss is about. Here, the narrow canyon walls frame the Virgin River, creating poster-worthy scenes between colorful canyon walls. For an accessible adventure, try the out-and-back to Big Spring via Riverside Walk at Temple of Sinawava for a 9.4-mile hike. For this hike, no reservations are needed (as far as Big Spring) and you simply head upstream and turn around, so you can make it shorter if desired. Thru-hiking the entire Narrows route and ending at the Temple of Sinawava starts at Chamberlain’s Ranch. A reservation and wilderness permit are required for the 16-mile, one-way hike. You can also camp along the way, making for a life-list backpacking journey. Just keep in mind that you’ll get wet in the Narrows, and it can be surprisingly cold in the inner canyon even during warmer weather. Pack layers, use a waterproof pack or liner, wear protective shoes or sandals that drain well, and bring trekking poles to test the bottom ahead of you. Always check water levels before hiking the Narrows and know that the route closes during flash-flood warnings. 

Angels Landing via West Rim Trail: This hike is not for the faint of heart. Starting across the street from The Grotto shuttle stop, you’ll ascend 1,500 feet in just over 2 miles and over 21 switchbacks. This hike provides more than a physical challenge. Exposure is real, with sheer drop-offs and only a bolted chain to hold on to. The trail is not technical but the steep terrain is dangerous—stay focused. The reward? Incredible views as the red rock formation juts out over the park.

 Emerald Pools. Use this hike to access three stunning pools—a lower, middle, and upper. You’ll start across the street from the Zion Lodge, and hike along a gentle trail to the lower pool. Turning around here makes for an easy, 1.2-mile jaunt. Continuing to the middle pool adds a bit of elevation, equating to a moderate (but short) 2-mile hike. Reaching the upper pool brings you to a waterfall for a 3-mile round-trip. These pools are a good choice for family hikes.

Backpacking

You can experience the Narrows by backpacking the 16-mile route, or explore other parts of the wilderness, from Kolob Canyon to the 15-mile West Rim Trail, a popular route that drops down into the canyon. Half of the backcountry campsites in Zion are available by reservation, the other half are first-come, first-served. A wilderness permit is required for all and must be obtained in-person at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center Wilderness Desk. 

Canyoneering

Zion is one of the most popular places in the country to canyoneer due to its numerous slot canyons and colorful rock. Aside from the Narrows, other canyons offer adventures combining route-finding, rappelling, swimming, and hiking. It’s imperative to be prepared, aware, and ready to change plans—plus you may also need a wilderness permit to access some canyons. Always check the rain forecast and water levels before entering a slot canyon (see Flash Floods below). 

Rock Climbing

Zion’s rock walls are popular among rock climbers, but due to their sedimentary nature, they can be crumbly. For this reason, only very experienced climbers should climb in Zion. Most of the climbing here is multi-pitch with big-wall exposure on the massive rock faces. Popular climbing areas include Angels Landing, South Face Diagonal, the Sentinel, and Tricks of the Trade on Mount Isaac.  

Cycling

Road cycling is permitted on all park roads. (Just remember that on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, park shuttle buses won’t pass cyclists unless they pull off the road and stop.) You can also ride the multi-use Pa’rus Trail (3.5 miles round-trip). Bikes are not allowed in the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel or on other trails (though cycling is allowed on the Zion-Mount Carmel Road to the tunnel). 

Car Camping

There are three car-camping campgrounds in the park: the Watchman Campground (open year-round), the South Campground (closed in the winter), and the Lava Point Campground (closed in the winter). The Watchman Campground is the biggest, with 176 sites, and is just a quarter-mile from the Zion Visitor Center. Sites at the Watchman Campground are reservable six months ahead of time. The South Campground sits a half-mile from the Visitor Center, has 113 individual sites and four group sites, and is reservable two weeks ahead of time. Make reservations for both campgrounds at Recreation.gov. And the Lava Point Campground, the most remote of the three at an hour and twenty-minute drive from the South Entrance of the park off the Kolob Terrace Road, has six primitive campsites that are first-come, first-served.

Hazards

Millions of people safely visit Zion every year, but the park does have some threats that every visitor should be aware of.

Flash Flooding

Flash flooding is a hazard in Zion year-round, though it occurs most frequently during the monsoon rainy season. Be aware of water levels and weather conditions when planning any adventure in the park. Don’t enter canyons when flooding is a threat, and remember that even distant rain can cause flooding if it affects the drainage you’re in. Note: The bucket-list Narrows hike closes when the Virgin River rises above 150 cubic feet per second.

Water-borne Toxins

The National Park Service advises Zion visitors to be aware that toxic cyanobacteria has been found in the park’s river system. Recreational water filters don’t remove the toxin to safe levels, so officials recommend getting backcountry water from springs, not from the river directly. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.