Utah’s Zion National Park Itinerary: Step One? Lace Up Your Hiking Boots!

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Zion National Park valley view
Breathtaking views at Zion National Park. Photo credit: Kim Orlando

With five national parks, Utah’s beauty is undeniable. A substantial part of Utah’s grandeur awaits at Zion National Park. Located in the state’s southwest corner, Zion is one of the country’s most popular national parks. Visit to check off a bucket-list hike at Angels Landing and other popular hikes. Or add Zion NP to your southwest road trip. Whatever your park style, this red rock mecca never fails to impress.

Utah’s First National Park

Grab your America the Beautiful national park pass and make your way to the stunningly gorgeous Zion National Park. Each of Utah’s National Parks presents a unique experience and Zion National Park is no exception. As the first National Park in Utah, this gem’s eye candy includes massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky.

Established on November 19, 1919, Zion National Park contains epic summits, slot canyons and stunning vistas. Located 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas and 300-plus miles south of Salt Lake City, Zion National Park provides an ideal getaway from city lights. Check out the park’s scenic roads, challenging hiking trails and jaw-dropping vistas at every viewpoint and you’ll soon understand why millions flock to Utah’s First National Park.

Read More: Where to Stay in Zion National Park for an Epic Outdoor Getaway

First Stop: Zion National Park Visitors Center

Get an early start on your explorations with a stop at the Zion National Park Visitors Centers. Here you’ll learn about the park shuttle system, learn about the history of Zion National Park and get all the information you need to know to make your visit to Zion National Park incredible.

The park has two visitor centers open year-round. Located just inside the South Entrance to the park, the Zion Canyon Visitor Center houses a museum with permanent and temporary exhibits displaying the park’s history.

Located off Exit 40, the west entrance to Zion National Park features the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center. All visitor centers offer clean restrooms, information about the best hiking trails and tips for exploring, whatever time of year you visit. You’ll also find information on the park’s shuttle system.

To prevent traffic overload, you’ll leave your vehicle in the parking lot and use the park shuttles to venture to hiking trails. Be sure to inquire about hiking trail closures to avoid disappointments. To know before you go, always check the Zion National Park website for current conditions.

A Drive through Zion National Park

As road trips go, a drive along the Mount Carmel Highway is hard to beat. The distinctive red asphalt road passes the Pine Creek Waterfall trail with views of the Great Arch before continuing up the winding road.

This stunning road ultimately leads to the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. Constructed in the 1920s, the 1.1-mile tunnel is credited with changing Zion National Park from a rarely-visited park to one of the most popular national parks in America.

Emerging from the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel the road winds through Checkerboard Mesa. Here an unusual crack appeared in the sandstone hills resembling a grid on a checkerboard — hence the name!

Hiking Angels Landing

On the Zion National Park itinerary for many visitors, Angels Landing is nothing short of epic. Not for the faint of heart, an Angels Landing summit experience requires grit, determination and nerves of steel. Those with a fear of heights find this adventure terrifying. But it is possible to go almost to the summit and turn back. Here’s what you need to know about this bucket list-worthy hike.

If you’re up for the iconic and somewhat terrifying 5.4-mile round trip, strap on your best hiking boots and get ready. The Angels Landing trail climbs about 1,500 ft. in elevation. The average hiker takes 3 to 5 hours to summit Angels Landing and return.

To access the trail, take the park shuttle to shuttle stop #6 – The Grotto. The hike begins with a slow but steady elevation gain along the Virgin River until you reach Refrigerator Canyon. At the back of Refrigerator Canyon, 21 switchbacks emerge. Named for Zion’s first superintendent, the switchbacks are affectionately known as Walther’s Wiggles.

At the top of the wiggles, you will reach Scouts Lookout. For those who fear heights, this is the place to take in the current views, turn around and make your way safely back down. If you choose to go on, Angels Landing is 0.5 miles from Scouts Lookout as the trail weaves its way along a narrow rock fin with 500-800 ft drops on both sides.

A two-way trail, you may need to wait in places so other hikers can proceed. When you reach the Angels Landing summit, stop, take a deep breath and soak up the spectacular view. You’ve earned it!

Hiking and Wading through The Narrows

The most narrow section of Zion Canyon is known as one of the best hikes in one of America’s most popular national parks. The gorge in The Narrows reaches a thousand feet into the air whereas the Virgin River spans just twenty to thirty feet wide. The Narrows are visible by hiking along the paved wheelchair-accessible Riverside Walk.

The trail extends one mile from the Temple of Sinawava, the park’s amphitheater. Cottonwood trees cover most of the path creating a comfortable shady landscape. Along the sloped walls of the Riverside Walk are hanging gardens fed by trickling water and home to many of Zion’s exotic forms of wildlife.

If you want to see more of The Narrows, hiking or wading in the Virgin River is necessary. Make The Narrows experience your own by wading upstream into the Virgin River for a few minutes or tackling the full hiking trail on an all-day hike.

No matter which Narrows hike you choose, you’ll need a good pair of hiking boots because the trail is actually in the Virgin River. If you don’t have proper hiking boots, visit one of the outfitters in the town of Springdale just outside the park.

Most hikers choose to start from the Temple of Sinawava via the Riverside Walk. From here, hikers wade upstream. Hiking in The Narrows upstream as far as Big Spring doesn’t require a permit. Going in this direction unveils some of the most incredible and narrowest parts of the canyon.

Some choose to hike in the Virgin River before turning back. Others go as far as Big Spring on a strenuous ten-mile round trip, all-day expedition. Be sure to bring sunscreen for protection.

Explorations on Zion Grotto Trail and The Watchman Trail

Not all viewpoints in Zion National Park require daredevil hiking. Zion Grotto Trail connects the Grotto picnic area to Zion Lodge via a short .6-mile hiking trail. This easy, level hike yields insight into the spectacular canyon walls throughout the park. The trail begins at the Grotto picnic area accessible via the park shuttle.

If you only have a one-day itinerary, consider a hike along the Watchman Trail. Located just inside the sanctuary of the park, this great little hiking trail is often overlooked by parkgoers fixated on the more famous attractions of Zion National Park including Angels Landing and The Narrows.

The Watchman overlooks the entire Springdale area and the trailhead to the mountain’s overlook is only one-half mile from the south entrance to the park. The hike is three miles roundtrip and chock full of scenic viewpoints. Heading east into the drainage between the Bridge Mountain and the Watchman Spire, the trail climbs into the foothills swinging south and ultimately leads to the Watchman overlook.

Explore Emerald Pools

Located on the opposite side of Zion Canyon from Zion Lodge, the Emerald Pools trailhead offers two hiking options. An easy hike leads to Lower Emerald Pools. The 1.4-mile trail has a small elevation gain of about 130 ft. To reach the Upper Emerald Pools, take the moderate 2.9-mile hike which has about 600 ft of elevation gain.

The Upper and Lower Emerald Pools trails follow the same path. The trail is paved and mostly shaded until it reaches the Lower Emerald Pools. If you make the trek up to Upper Emerald Pools, remember there is limited shade on this hiking trail, but there is a nice size waterfall at the end.

Weeping Rock: A Must-See

If you only have a one-day itinerary, be sure you take a few minutes to hike the Weeping Rock trail. A paved route, the .4-mile round trip leads hikers past wildflowers and lush vegetation to the Weeping Wall. Here groundwater has seeped 2,000 feet through the Navajo sandstone from Echo Canyon emerging as a dripping wall that has become one of Zion National Park’s most famous landmarks.

The weeping rock in the alcove created Instagram-worthy hanging gardens and a small stream. Imagine all of this in a .4-mile round-trip hike. The trailhead can be reached via the Zion Canyon park shuttle.

Off the Beaten Path: Zion’s West Rim Trail

For an adventure getaway, backpackers enjoy the West Rim Trail. The Zion West Rim Trail stretches 16 miles. It’s a point-to-point trail and explores some of Zion National Park’s most expansive views. The landscape is dotted with Ponderosas, sagebrush and yucca as the hiking trail begins.

While you proceed, the terrain varies, eventually bringing you to Zion NP’s iconic red rock canyon. As one of the most remote trails in Zion National Park, you’ll cross paths with very few hikers until you reach the junction for Angels Landing.

Biking in Zion National Park

While biking isn’t permitted on most hiking trails, biking is allowed on all paved roads in Zion National Park. With considerable elevation gain throughout the park, electric bike rentals provide a feasible option. Electric bikes are allowed on all paved roads in Zion National Park and they are also allowed on the Pa’rus Trail.

The Pa’rus Trail is a 3.4-mile out-and-back trail that runs along the Virgin River between the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and the Canyon Junction. One of the most popular biking trails in the park, pedestrians and leashed pets share this paved trail so be sure to be courteous.

On the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, you’ll share the roadway with park shuttle buses and possibly some cars belonging to people staying at the Zion Lodge. But the trail takes you to some of the top hiking trails in the park including the Virgin Narrows for some Zion canyoneering and the trailhead for Angels Landing.

An ideal way to experience Zion National Park by bike is on a guided tour where you’ll have someone familiar with the rules, keeping you in line.

The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway presents an epic yet challenging ride as it rises almost 1,000 feet in elevation gain in less than three miles. Road biking techniques and etiquette are necessary as you’ll be sharing the road with cars.

Unfortunately, bikes aren’t allowed to bike through the tunnel, so you’ll need to hitch a ride to complete that portion of the ride. If you can work through that, you’ll experience incredible vistas of Zion National Park at every turn.

Sleeping in Zion National Park

The only in-park lodging at Zion National Park, the Zion Lodge exists as a sanctuary with over 146,000 acres of cliffs, canyons and diverse plant and animal life. Located in the Zion Lodge, the Red Rock Grill serves up a delicious array of entrees with a side of spectacular views. For a more casual laid-back dining experience, Zion Lodge offers the Castle Dome Cafe.

If you’d rather sleep under the stars, South Campground and Watchman Campground are near the south entrance of Zion National Park at Springdale. All campsites are drive-up. Comfort stations provide flush toilets, cold running drinkable water and trash containers, but no showers or electrical outlets. Each campsite has a picnic table and fire pit with an attached grill. Call 877-444-6777 or visit www.recreation.gov for reservations.

Based in New York City, Terri Marshall is an award-winning writer covering cultural travel, multi-generational travel, road trips, soft-adventure, camping, cars and characters. From hanging out with penguins in Antarctica to fishing for piranhas in Peru to road-tripping through the jungles of Belize, Terri’s always up for an adventure. Drop her into a landscape filled with mountains, towering evergreens, waterfalls and a glacier or two and she’ll be in heaven. But what thrills her most of all is traveling with her teenage grandkids. Terri serves on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee for the North American Travel Journalist Association (NATJA). She also serves as the First Vice-Chair of the Eastern Chapter for the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). In addition to writing for SheBuysTravel, Terri’s publication credits include AARP, Island Soul, Girl Camper Magazine, A Girls Guide to Cars, CHILLED, World Footprints, North Hills Monthly, Alaska Business Monthly, Alaska Contractor and more. Follow her on Instagram at TrippingWithTerri.
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