Make Zion National Park Your Next Southwest Hiking Destination
Learn About Zion National Park and Why You Should Visit
The idea of hiking in the American Southwest conjures up images of stone archways, deep canyons, and desert sunsets for most people. And the best place to find it all is tucked away in the southwest corner of the state of Utah in Zion National Park.
The nearest international airport is 160 miles southwest in Las Vegas, Nevada, followed by Salt Lake City, Utah, over 300 miles to the north. Yet, despite its remote location, Zion National Park receives over 4 million visitors annually. It has actually surpassed Yosemite in popularity, which speaks to both the grandeur and the crowds that you may find here.
The Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert all come together here in this little corner of the world. Together, they fill the park with mountains, mesas, monoliths, arches, canyons, and rivers. At its lowest, Zion National Park is 3,666 feet above sea level, and reaches heights of 8,726 feet. Altogether, the park covers more than 145,000 acres divided between two canyon areas: Zion Canyon along the Virgin River and the Kolob Canyons to the northwest.
Getting Into the Park
There are entrances to the park from the west, south, and east, but you’ll find the main attractions at the south entrance by the small town of Springdale, Utah. Check out the National Park Service website for information on park passes, annual passes, and discounts. You can pick up your park passes at either the Zion Canyon Visitor Center or the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center. If you are planning on any special activities or backcountry camping, be sure you get the right permits too.
Parts of the park do close down during the winter. Rock slides, flash floods, and even pandemics can close down sections of the park, so be sure you check the National Park Service Alerts ahead of time to see if that one trail you’re gunning for is going to be open.
Camping in Zion National Park
If you want to stay in the park for the duration of your visit, then your best bet is to reserve a spot in one of the three campgrounds. Two campgrounds, South and Watchman, are located in the main Zion Canyon by the south entrance, while Lava Point Campground is on Kolob Terrace Road on the west side of the park.
South Campground offers 117 camp sites half a mile from the south entrance. Watchman Campground offers another 190 camp sites and is only a quarter-mile from the south entrance. There are restrictions on length of vehicles and where you can park an RV, so plan ahead with a reservation. Lava Point Campground is usually open May through September. It offers six primitive sites that are first come, first served. There is a self-pay station at the entrance to the campground. Pit toilets and trash cans are available, but no water, and vehicles longer than 19 feet are not allowed.
Other Lodging Options
If camping isn’t your thing, you can rent a room or cabin at the Zion Lodge, located right on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive across from the Emerald Pools trailhead. The lodge offers casual dining at their Castle Dome Café as well as fine dining at the Red Rock Grill.
Outside the park, Springdale is your first choice for lodging. Naturally, there is a plethora of hotels, inns, lodges, and private rentals available. Rockville, just a little further southwest on State Route 9, also has some Airbnb’s worth checking out.
Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, on the east mesa, is a great option if Zion National Park is a family vacation getaway for you. They offer all kinds of camping including tents, RV, cabins, vacation rentals, and you can even stay in a covered wagon! The Ranch also partners with East Zion Adventures to help you explore the canyons in fun and unique ways. Take a Jeep tour, go for a guided hike or horseback ride, or delve into canyoneering.
Hit the Trails
Driving personal vehicles is not allowed beyond the Zion Lodge, so to access the rest of Zion Canyon, you’ll need to purchase a shuttle ticket or walk. Shuttle tickets must be purchased ahead of time on recreation.gov. The shuttle runs the length of the Zion Canyon Scenic Road as a loop, taking you to all the most popular trailheads, including the following:
The Watchman Overlook is famous for its sunrises and sunsets; perhaps this is in part due to the fact that it’s so close to the south entrance. The trailhead is located between the Visitor Center and South Campground, making this a good first hike or last hike. It’s a 3-mile trail that takes you up 300 feet to the Watchman Overlook with a sweeping view of the park.
Perhaps the number one attraction at Zion National Park, Angel’s Landing is one of the most challenging and exciting climbs in the park. At the top, the trail follows a narrow ridge with 1,000-foot drops to either side and naught but a chain rail to hold onto. Suffice it to say, this hike is not for the faint of heart (or those with a fear of heights), but the rewarding views are worth it.
The trailhead to the Emerald Pools is across from the Zion Lodge. The trail up to the Lower Pools is an easy hike that’s great for the whole family. It follows a stream flowing down into several pools. The Upper Pools are more challenging to reach and end at a large pool surrounded by cliffs.
Normally accessed by climbing up past Weeping Rock and through Echo Canyon, Observation Point is a challenging 8-mile hike to an amazing lookout with panoramic views of the park. An alternate approach is to come in from the East Mesa Trail.
You can hop off the shuttle at the end of the Scenic Drive and continue following the Virgin River along the Riverside Walk trail. This is a leisurely out-and-back walk that takes you deeper into the canyon, ending at the Narrows.
These stunning slot canyons are as much of a draw to Zion National Park as Angel’s Landing. Their narrow sandstone walls reaching heights of 2,000 feet have become iconic for hiking in the southwest. The Narrows are usually approached as a day hike from the bottom-up by starting at the end of Riverside Walk. Enjoy as much of the trail as you want, then turn around and head back whenever you’re ready. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes that can be wet because you will be hiking in the river much of the way.
To hike the Narrows from the top-down, start at the Zion Narrows Upper Trailhead just past Chamberlain’s Ranch off North Fork County Road. The 16-mile trek will take you through the Narrows along the North Fork Virgin River down to the Temple of Sinawava at the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Make it an over-night backpacking trip, or power through it as a long day hike.
A Worthy Adventure
These trails are just the beginning of all that Zion National Park has to offer. Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path and explore the less popular trails too. You may discover the serenity that drew you to this southwest desert canyon in the first place.