There is no shortage of incredible things to see at Zion National Park. It would be easy to spend weeks wandering the area with no fear of running out of amazing sites. If for some reason you’re on the fence about visiting Zion, do yourself a favor and just go. Of the 20+ National Parks I’ve been to in the last two years, this is without a doubt my favorite.
Zion National Park sits near the southwest corner of Utah just a two hour drive from Las Vegas. With it’s stunning scenery, ideal weather, and efficient shuttle system it’s an increasingly popular destination for many. The park is easy to get around and explore, but it should be noted that as of 2020, it is required you reserve all shuttle tickets in advance of your trip. You can do this online at the Recreation.gov website. While the shuttles are running (usually from mid-March through late-October) it is not possible to drive your private vehicle on Scenic Drive, the park’s main road.
Whether you have a couple days or a couple weeks to explore, read on to learn about the can’t miss spots at Zion National Park!
The Emerald Pools are a popular destination in Zion. This short hike consists of three parts; Lower Pools, Middle Pools, and Upper Pool. All of the pools are worth a visit, but if you’re able to make your way to the last stop at the Upper Pool, you will not be disappointed. The hike to the Lower Pool is very pleasant and has little elevation gain. Depending on the time of year, the falls at this spot might be minimal (as seen in the above picture), but the alcove here is worthy of a visit regardless. The Middle Pools can be found at the top of this alcove after a short steep climb. These glistening pools form the waterfalls that you walk under in the alcove. The Upper Pool is only a quarter mile farther and offers some shady spots to sit and enjoy the scenery. No matter how far you’re able to travel on this trail, you’ll be rewarded with majestic views all around. Because this is such a popular area, the trail and pools can become quite crowded. If you want to avoid the crowds try visiting in the early morning.
Canyon Overlook has one of the best views anywhere in Zion. It’s a short trail that takes you to an incredible viewpoint in under half a mile. To get here you’ll need your own vehicle as the shuttles do not drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. The parking for this area is just past the tunnel (if coming from Zion) and fills up quickly in the mornings. It’s a beautiful place to see any time of day, but the sunrise here is really stunning. Though much of the trail has a railing, there are some steep drop-offs and once at the viewpoint there is little to protect you from the edge of the cliffs. Be extremely careful if you decide to explore the area around the viewpoint.
Many Pools quickly became one of my favorite hikes during my trip to Zion. The trail is not well marked, but it’s easy to get to and explore if you know where you’re going. This was the only time I had an entire trail to myself during my Zion trip. I strongly suggest you use an offline map (AllTrails Pro has a great one) to get here and to find your way around the area. The parking for this trail is east past Canyon Overlook along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. After parking you’ll need to make your way to the nearby drainage and up to the open wash. Once here, it’s a relatively easy hike through the sandstone hills to get to the potholes that form the many pools. This hike has little shade, so it’s best to avoid the middle of the day.
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
I’ve already mentioned two of the scenic hikes you can find along this picturesque highway, but there are countless other noteworthy sites. To get here you’ll take the Scenic Drive to the last point that private vehicles are allowed and then head east from there through the tunnel. There are dozens of pull-outs to stop at along the way for short hikes or to take in the views. Checkerboard Mesa, Zion’s East Rim Trail, Echo Canyon, Canyon Overlook, and Many Pools can all be found on this stunning 25 mile drive.
This relatively easy 3 mile trail is often overlooked by visitors to Zion. The trail begins at Watchman Campground and climbs less than 400 feet to an incredible vista of the valley below. The trail is surrounded by greenery, but has very little shade, so it is not recommended to hike here during the heat of the day. I found this to be one of the best sunset spots in the Zion area.
No Zion list is complete without a mention of the Narrows. The Narrows is considered one of the top ten hikes in all the world, and for very good reason. This hike will take you through the narrowest section of Zion Canyon via the North Fork of the Virgin River. You will need good water shoes, walking poles/sticks, a dry bag, and depending on the time of year you might want a dry suit. All of these can be rented at nearby outfitters for a reasonable price. Most people will hike from the bottom up, but for a longer more strenuous hike, you can look into getting a permit to hike from the top down. For the bottom up hikers you can venture as far in as Big Springs before having to turn around.
Since you are walking in the river for most of the hike it can be very strenuous, especially if the flow rates are high and temperatures are low. It’s a good idea to allow yourself more time than you think you’ll need to complete this hike. I did this hike in late September and found myself navigating slippery rocks in very cold water sometimes up to my chest. The canyon walls keep the sun at bay for most of the day, so it can feel much cooler in the canyon than in other areas of the park. Because you’re walking against the current for the first half of your hike, it can be quite tiring.
All of that being said, this was one of the most rewarding hikes I’ve ever done, and I recommend it to anyone so long as you are willing to come prepared. The towering walls, waterfalls, and foliage that surround you on this hike are truly spectacular and worth even just a short walk in the river. If you aren’t up for the more strenuous water hike, the short Riverside Walk to the entrance of the Narrows is absolutely beautiful as well.
Above all else, pay very close attention to the weather forecasts for the area and listen to all instructions given by park rangers. If the flow rate of the river is too high or rains are forecasted in the area, it is important to schedule your hike for another time. There is often no place nearby to take shelter during a flash flood once inside the canyon. Cyanobacteria levels have also been an issue lately, so it’s important to heed any posted warnings and avoid submerging your head under the water.
Kanarra Falls isn’t actually in Zion National Park, but I think it deserves a spot on the list. If The Narrows hike is too crowded or outside of your comfort level, the Kanarra Falls hike is a great alternative. Just east of Kanarraville, Utah is the Kanarra Creek Trail. This is a water hike similar to the Narrows, but with shallower waters and a shorter distance. The path narrows quickly and winds through a scenic canyon that leads to a set of unique waterfalls. If you feel comfortable continuing past the falls via the tree ladder and rope you’ll be rewarded with a small swimming hole. Regardless of where you decide to turn back, this is a really fun hike to add to your list. A permit and $12 fee are required for this hike and can be purchased online or at the kiosk at the trailhead.
There are so many places in Zion National Park that are worth visiting it would be impossible to list them all. The places I’ve mentioned are just the starting point to what I believe should not be missed. Angel’s Landing is one of the most famous hikes in the world, and though it is breathtaking, I’ve left it off of my list because I don’t enjoy hikes with extreme heights and sheer drops on all sides. If you are an experienced hiker who does not have a fear of heights, this will no doubt be at the top of your list. Other places and trails to consider are the South Gate Petroglyphs, Weeping Rock, West Rim, Observation Point, Pa’rus, the Subway (this one requires a permit), and the many trails on the Kolob Canyon side of Zion National Park. If you have some extra time, Grafton Ghost Town, 7 miles outside of the national park, is another unique option nearby.
I stayed at Watchman Campground in one of the F-loop walk-in tent-only sites. To this day, this is my favorite campsite I’ve ever stayed in. The campground is just a quarter mile from the south entrance and a perfect starting point to hop on the shuttle and explore the park. Watchman is surrounded by towering cliffs and the sparkling Virgin River and is far enough from the main road that peace and quiet are almost a guarantee. If Watchman is unavailable there are two other campgrounds inside the park; South Campground just past the visitor center and Lava Point Campground off of Kolob Terrace Road, but I strongly recommend trying to get a spot at Watchman. If you’re not into camping, Zion Lodge is the only other accommodation inside the park. The lodge is in a prime location in the middle of the park and the rooms here are beautiful, so it can book up quickly in the busy season. If you’re unable to find an available room, the town of Springdale just outside the park has several nice options.
Zion National Park is an incredible place to visit year round, but during the summer months it can become very hot in the middle of the day. If you intend to spend time hiking or wandering around outdoors I recommend going earlier or later in the day in order to avoid the intense midday heat. During the winter months much of the park will see some snowfall. Hiking on snow covered trails should only be done by experienced winter hikers. No matter when you visit be sure to have good maps with you, follow trails, and always carry extra food and water.
As with all travel and planning during this pandemic, it would be wise to double and triple check the park website and campground and accommodation websites for closure information and safety protocols in effect before traveling. Be sure to stay flexible with your plans and have a back up or two in place before you leave, but above all else HAVE FUN and TRAVEL SAFE!