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An Outlandish Guide to Zion National Park | USA

View of Zion Canyon from Canyon Overlook

When early Mormon settlers arrived in the place now known as Zion National Park, they called it “Zion”– the heavenly city – because of its exceptional beauty and the massive stone towers that lumbered over the park. The Bible calls Zion a place of safety and refuge. But as the story goes, when Brigham Young first laid eyes upon Zion National Park some years later, he was offended by their use of the word. He declared “This is not Zion!” and the park subsequently was nicknamed “Not Zion”.

Whether it’s folklore or truth, it kind of became the theme of our roadtrip through Zion National Park. On the good days, the name “Zion” fit just fine. But there were other days when we were stuck in traffic on a scenic drive or at a crowded viewpoint that we found “the best things to do in Zion” weren’t the best things at all. Those were the days when we called it “Not Zion” instead.

There’s a lot to love about Zion National Park. It has one-of-a-kind hikes like the Narrows and Angel’s Landing. The scenic drives are some of the best in the Southwest. But as the fourth most visited national park in the US, there are places you’ll want to avoid, too. There are things you can skip and also a handful of alternatives places and or sneaky access points to avoid the crowds. If you’re ready to experience the best of Zion, here are some of the more outlandish things to do in Zion National Park. More info on park entrance fees, campsites, and how to get to Zion below.


AT A GLANCE

Zion National Park sprawls 590 km2 across southwest Utah. You’ll know it for steep sandstone cliffs and slot canyons. The most known thing to do in Zion National Park is hiking the Narrows, a narrow stretch of canyon with the Virgin River running through it.

The park is also famous for the hike up Angel’s Landing with its scary-as-hell dropoffs into the canyon below. That said, there are 4.5 million visitors each year. To enjoy the park without getting grumpy, you should mix in a few backpacking trips and drives (you’ll find the best ones below!) to have more space for yourself.

Looking out from Angel's Landing

Entrance to Zion National Park costs $25 per vehicle or $12 per individual. If you’re planning to visit 3+ National Parks, you should consider buying the America the Beautiful National Parks Pass ($79) which includes access to all US National Parks and Federal Lands.

Plan ahead! Campsites at Zion National Park are bookable six months out. Backcountry permits are available three months in advance.


9 Things to do in Zion National Park

Hike up high for some of the best canyon views.

Since Zion is a canyon, some of the best things to do in Zion are hikes up to viewpoints. The most iconic view is from the famously terrifying Angel’s Landing (more on that below!) , but there are so many hikers that you won’t get to admire it for long.  Luckily, there are some alternative viewpoints that are just as good.

You can get great views from Observation Point or on the West Rim Trail. Observation Point is one of the highest viewpoints in the park at 1983m. From Mt. Baldy, you’ll get a birdseye view of Angel’s Landing. It’s a strenuous 12km hike from the Weeping Rock shuttle stop, but if you just want the views, there’s a cheater’s hike to Observation Point from the East Mesa trail.

Views from Observation Point

The West Rim Trail is also way to get some of the best views in the park all to yourself. It’s overlooked by most visitors in favor of easy day hikes, but if you want to explore the backcountry, this is definitely the best place to hike in Zion and the nicest section of the Zion Traverse.

Read more: 5 Epic Hikes in Zion (that aren’t Angel’s Landing)

Wake up early for Angel’s Landing at sunrise.

Coming up on Angel's Landing on Day 4 of the Zion Traverse

Angel’s Landing is definitely not a hidden gem. The famous hike requires you cross over a narrow saddle to a flattened summit 454m over the Big Bend in the Virgin River. It’s not technical, nor particularly challenging. But it’s popularity is the thing that makes it scary and a lot less magical. But there’s one way (and one way only) around the crowds at Angel’s Landing. GET THERE EARLY. Like before the shuttles start, before the sunrise early. Cars aren’t allowed during high season, so the shuttles depart regularly and are packed. The first Zion Canyon Loop Shuttle doesn’t leave the Visitor Center until 7:00 am. With elevation gain, the 3.8km hike from The Grotto to Angel’s landing is only 3.8km means you won’t get you there until after 10:00am. What I’m getting at is once the shuttles start to arrive, your tranquil ideal of Angel’s Landing will get knocked into the canyon by a sea of tourists.

You have three options for getting to Angel’s Landing before sunrise.

Walk: It’s an 8km walk along the road from the Visitor’s Center or 1km if you’re staying at the Zion National Park Lodge. That said, it’s not particularly scenic and you’ll be walking in the dark.

Bike: Traveling with a bike? You can also bike in the 8km along the Floor of the Valley Rd/Zion Canyon Scenic Dr, then hike in from The Grotto.

Camp: The best option of all for getting to Angel’s Landing before sunrise is to hike in from the West Rim. There are backcountry campgrounds on the West Rim that you can access on a quick backpacking trip or on the Zion Traverse. From there, it’s an easy and scenic 4km hike along the West Rim Trail to Scout’s Lookout (or the base of Angel’s Landing). You can ditch your bag in the bushes and make the final hike to the viewpoint.

Hiking Down from Angel's Landing

It’s a deceptively short hike from Scout’s Lookout at 1.6 km, but climbing across a narrow saddle to a flattened summit leering 454 m high isn’t for the faint of heart. Do yourself a favor and get the hell out before the shuttles roll in. Once it gets crowded, it can be genuinely scary to descend. 

Venture into the backcountry on the Zion Traverse

The Zion Traverse is a 77km backcountry trip from the Lee Pass Trailhead on the northwest side to the southeast entrance of the park. It’s trans-Zion, get it? On the Zion Traverse, you’ll get to experience the best parts of Zion – the quiet of the Kolob Canyon area, the strange grassy planes of La Verkin, the slickrock on your way to Wildcat Canyon, the views from the West Rim – all on one easy backpacking trip. 

A Guide to Backpacking the Zion Traverse

Backcountry permits are pretty tough to get, so plan any backcountry trips early. But all hope is not lost if you’re planning late. Stop by the Wilderness Desk when you get to Zion, and they often have select backcountry campsites available. 

Read More: A Get Outside Guide: The Zion Traverse

Get your feet wet in The Narrows

If you haven’t visited the Narrows, you haven’t really visited Zion. I’ll disclaim this by saying we did NOT get to go. Since the Narrows are super sensitive to flash flooding, this part of the park is often closed until late summer. BUMMER.

Anyway, The Narrows refers to the narrowest stretch of canyon in the park with thousand-foot cliffs towering above. Hiking the Narrows often requires hikers to wade through chest-deep water or swim in the Virgin River, which depending on water flow, can be precarious. But those who brave the Narrows are in for some of the prettiest, most unusual backcountry hiking in Utah.

Dirty Shoes from Hiking the Narrows in Zion

They can be hiked in a day on the 16km bottom-up route, but I definitely recommend the 25km overnight, top-down route because it’s so much less crowded. The NPS issues just 40 permits a day, and only six of the twelve sites are bookable online. They’re hard to get. But if you’re one of the lucky ones to snag one, you’re in for an adventure (apply for a permit).

Venture into the Kolob Canyon

Zion Canyon is the most popular hiking area in the park with hikes for all skill levels. Easy hikes like the Pa’rus Trail and Lower Emerald Pool Trail depart from shuttle stops, but you’ll be surprised how many people don’t get any further than the overlook. 

But for a real adventure, head 64km north of Zion Canyon to Kolob Canyon. While harder to get to, Kolob Canyon is a more off-the-beaten place for hiking in Zion with trails like the Taylor Creek Trail and the one to Kolob Arch via La Verkin Creek. The environment is more primitive but no less impressive with incredible box canyons and massive cliff walls.

La Verkin Campsite in Zion Backcountry

Wilderness permits are required for any travel in Zion above Big Spring, and this includes Kolob Canyon. You can build Kolob Canyon into your Zion Traverse itinerary, or if you’re short on time, you can apply for a backpacking permits here.

Or explore the quieter Southwestern Desert

The Southwestern Desert is a section of Zion that most travelers miss. It is (perhaps obviously) on the southwestern side of Zion, but rather than cutting through the park, you’ll need to drive south from Springdale and west on Hwy 9. It’s because of this geographic isolation that the Southwestern Desert stays so quiet.

The Chinle Trail is the only real hike here. It’s about 24km on relatively flat terrain through desert landscape. There are some washes and a few views further into the trail. But the real highlights here are petrified wood samples and spring wildflowers! And of course the sense of quiet. We went on a trail run here and only saw two other hikers the whole day.

Roll down your window for some very cool scenic drives

Approaching Zion along paved road leaves you wondering what it must have been like to arrive as an early settler before the park had been developed. Even on asphalt with a trail of cars behind you, the scenic drives in Zion National Park are seriously impressive.

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive meanders 10km beneath the towering cliffs of Zion Canyon. There are popular stops like Checkerboard Mesa or The Canyon Overlook trail, but you’ll find several pull-offs where you can walk onto the slickrock and discover the things that catch your eye.

View out the window on a scenic drive in Zion National Park

And the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (Highway 9), snaking between the South and East park entrances, offers tons of pull-offs where you can clamber over slickrock or park for short hikes to overlooks.

Go canyoneering

Besides hiking, canyoneering is one of the most popular thing to do in Zion National Park. But what is canyoneering? Put simply, it’s exploring a canyon by some combination of hiking, swimming, climbing, and rappelling. 

It sounds pretty extreme (ie. it can be pretty extreme), but Zion is a popular place to learn canyoneering because there are so many types of canyons. Some take just a couple of hours to navigate while others can be part of multi-day excursions.

For experienced canyoneers, some of the best places for canyoneering in Zion are the Subway Top-Down Route and Mystery Canyon. But before setting out, you need to apply for a permit. Due to high demand, these are given out in a lottery 3 months ahead of time but there are also last-minute drawings 2-7 days in advance if you miss out. More info on Canyoneering Permits here.

And if you’re new to canyoneering, Zion Rock & Mountain Guides is one of the best operators in town. They equip first-timers the gear, techniques, and guidance to safely experience canyoneering. Read reviews or check out their tours here

Spend the night camping in the desert

Desert camping is a completely unique experience. Sweat dries on the back of your neck. Your body is always covered in a film of red dirt. Sweltering days melt into surprisingly cold nights. But it’s actually really incredible, too. 

La Verkin Campsite on the Zion Traverse

As it turns to night at Watchman Campground, you’ll see the Watchman silhouetted against a starry sky. In the backcountry, you can sleep beside a stream. Wake up to the color of the rocks changing with the movement of the sun. There’s a certain stillness, quietness, vastness that you rarely feel in other places. 

You’ll find information on the best Campsites and Lodges in Zion National Park below.


ACCOMMODATION

Camping in Zion

The three campgrounds in Zion are South, Watchman, and Lava Point. While South and Watchman Campgrounds are in Zion Canyon, Lava Point is about an hour drive away.

Camping in Watchman

Watchman Campground | Watchman is arguably the best campsite in Zion, conveniently located near the South entrance. Sites are spacious and facilities include a picnic table, fire pit, and access to bathrooms with flush toilets. Sites from $20-$130 per night.

South Campground | South is a large 117 site camp that’s suited for the non-planners; reservations only open 2 weeks out! South is also a short walk from the Visitors Center and facilities are the same as those at Watchman. Sites from $20-$50.

Lava Point Campground | Lava Point offers six primitive campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. You’ll have to drive over an hour on the Kolob Terrace Road to get there, and because the site is high altitude, it’s only open during summer. All that said, this is definitely one of the more adventurous and remote campsites in Zion. Check conditions with Zion Visitors’ Center upon arrival. 

Lodges in Zion

Zion National Park Lodge | Zion National Park Lodge is the only in-park accommodation in Zion. The lodge features a mix of historical cabins, hotel rooms, and suites, all outfitted with rustic decor. Cabins from $216.

Hotels in Springdale | Just 2 km from the Zion Visitors’ Center is the very well-equipped town of Springdale. There’s a park shuttle that runs all summer between Zion and the town meaning easy access. And if you’re not so inclined to roughing it, Springdale has bars, restaurants, and day spas where you can hang out when you’re not in the park. Doubles from $129.


GETTING AROUND

HOW TO GET TO ZION

You’ll want to fly into McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC).  It’s also possible to fly into Saint George Regional Airport (SGU) or Cedar City (CDC) but flights will be significantly more expensive.

From the airport, the best way to get to Zion National Park is by private vehicle, but there are a couple of other options. Greyhound and Salt Lake Express run regular buses from Las Vegas or Salt Lake to St. George. From there, you can catch the STG Shuttle to Springdale or the Salt Lake Express bus to Zion National Park. Both options take about an hour and cost $47-$55. Your other option is to book a tour that includes transport from a major city.

GETTING AROUND THE PARK

From March through November, much of Zion is accessible to park shuttles only. There are two shuttle loops: the Zion Canyon Shuttle and the Springdale Shuttle. Zion Canyon Shuttle takes you to stops within the park while Springdale Shuttle takes you to and from the park. If you travel outside of the busy summer season, check the shuttle schedule to ensure shuttles are running. If you travel when the shuttle isn’t running, you’ll need a private vehicle or bicycle to get around Zion.


Got any other questions about Zion? And if you’re traveling in Utah…

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