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 trip to Zion National Park. Our national parks road trip had us hitting all the best national parks in the region. We’d just come from the Grand Canyon and Coyote Buttes. We had a trip to Bryce and a backpacking trip through Canyonlands ahead. Would Zion live up to the hype?
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 less than impressed with a viewpoint. When “the best things to do in Zion” weren’t the best things at all, 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. Some of the top-rated things to do in Zion National Park are worth skipping entirely. There are also a handful of alternatives places and or sneaky access points where you can avoid the crowds.
Ready to decide if it’s really Zion? Here’s an outlandish guide to escaping the crowds in Zion National Park.
At a Glance
Zion National Park sprawls 590 km2 across southwest Utah. It’s distinguished by 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.
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.
Reasons to Dig Zion National Park
Zion is a massive park with four separate entrances. There’s no denying that some of the popular things to do in Zion are worth doing, but there are plenty of hidden places in Zion that are just as worthwhile. Do those too.
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; there you can see the Big Bend in the Virgin River from 454 m above. The view from Angel’s Landing is really great, but there are so many hikers that you won’t get to admire it for long.
Other solid views are available 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.
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 visitor’s in favor of easy day hikes, but if you want to go backcountry, this is definitely the best place to hike in Zion.
Hiking 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. They can be hiked in a day on the 16km bottom-up route, but I definitely recommend the 25km overnight, top-down route where the crowds are restricted by backcountry permits (more info on this hike in the backpacking section below).
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. 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.
Backpacking in Zion
There is a huge variety of hikes in Zion, ranging from easy day hikes to serious backpacking trips. You can get information on popular day hikes like Pa’rus and Lower Emerald Pool Trails on the NPS website, but I’ve outlined some of the best backpacking in Zion National Park below.
The Narrows Top-Down
The Narrows can be hiked top-down (25km) or bottom-up (16km). While the top-up route from Temple of Sinawa to Big Springs (and back again) doesn’t require a permit, it also means you’ll be joining the hoards of daytrippers. The bottom-up route, on the other hand, is the Zion backcountry hike from Chamberlains Ranch finishing at the Temple of Sinawa.
The NPS issues just 40 permits a day, and only six of the twelve sites are bookable online. They’re released on the 5th of the month three months in advance, and they book up almost immediately. That said, if you’re one of the lucky ones to snag one, you’re in for an adventure (apply for a permit).
Day 1: The hike starts at Chamberlain’s Ranch and you’ll travel 5km on land before getting to the river. Once you reach the river, expect to wade for about 3km before coming to the First Narrows. The scenery gets increasingly more beautiful and the canyon walls continue to narrow until you reach Deep Creek around 6km later. Here, the rivers come to a confluence and the water deepens and picks up. Another 5km downstream, are the Narrows campsites located on sandy banks at Kolob Creek.
Day 2: It’s about 4km from Kolob Creek to Big Springs – a cluster of small waterfalls and hanging gardens. From there, more obstacles appear in the river and you’ll have to navigate past large boulders. It’s another 3km or so to Wall Street, the deepest part of the Narrows. This is also where the backcountry route starts to bump into day hikers doing the Narrows top down. From Orderville Canyon, the trail starts to open up and it’s only another 2km until you exit the river. Once you come to crowded Riverside Walk, it’s just a short hike out to the Temple of Sinawa where you can catch the shuttle back to the Visitor Center.
The Zion Traverse or the Trans-Zion
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? The Zion Traverse takes 3-5 days to complete depending on where you camp and where you decide to start and finish. The best part of this backpacking trip is that you’ll get to experience the quiet of the Kolob Canyon area, the strange grassy planes of La Verkin, the slickrock on your way to Wildcat Canyon, and the views from the West Rim on one easy backpacking trip.
The day-by-day itinerary is customizable, so be sure to research your route carefully and book your campsites early (apply for a permit). Here’s a rough outline of the Zion Traverse or you can read the full post here.
Day 1: Arrange transport to the Lee Pass trailhead. It’s a relatively flat hike in along Timber Creek, passing forested areas, wildflowers, and Nagunt Mesa, Timber Top Mountain, and Shavanti Butte. After about 5 km, you’ll come to the junction with La Verkin Creek. Continue to walk along La Verkin Creek for 4-6 km until you get to your reserved site.
Day 2: Day 2 starts off crossing La Verkin Creek. It’s a slow, rocky incline which eventually dips down again to the wide-open, sometimes-sandy-very-grassy Hop Valley Trail. After 11.5km of hiking, you’ll come to the Hop Valley Trailhead. Turn left on the Connector Trail and walk along the road until you come to the meadow. The Connector Trail is mostly through a forested area and you’ll stay on it for about 6km until you hit the Wildcat Canyon Trail. You’ll need a permit, but there are no designated sites in Wildcat Canyon.
Day 3: Finish whatever you have left of the Wildcat Canyon Trail. This area is usually stunning with green meadows and rushing streams. Climb out of the meadow, then dip down to the junction with Lava Point.
From there, turn right onto the West Rim Trail. The trail starts out without any views, but eventually, the right side opens up. Continue along the ridge, then descend into Potato Hollow – the eerily green tree graveyard. Climb out of the Hollow and you get to the part where the trail finally opens up to the Zion views you’ve been waiting for.
It’s all beautiful from there, and you can wander along the rim of Zion enjoying sheer drops and flat terrain. The trail dips down again and makes a final steep climb to where the campsites are located.
Day 4: Wake up before sunrise to get to Angel’s Landing before everyone else does. The terrain and views are some of the most interesting, and you’ll be hiking both on slick rock and concrete. About 4km into the trail, you’ll come upon Scout’s Lookout where the backcountry trail meets the daytripper trail to Angel’s Landing. Get your ascent in, and do your best to get down before the shuttle’s start coming.
It’s then just a steep hike out, first down Walter’s Wiggles and then along a paved path overlooking The Grotto.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you’re traveling with one car, you’ll want to park your car at the Zion Visitor’s Center and book a transfer to the trailhead.
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.
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.
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.