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