Zion National Park is probably my favorite national park. The reason is that there are so many unique things to see there that it feels different from any other national park. One thing that separates Zion from other parks like Yosemite is that you really have to “do” Zion to truly appreciate it. What I mean is you need to hike, go on a horseback ride, go canyoneering. Do something and exert yourself in the park if you can.
I was in Yosemite one time and I came across a photographer who told me that Zion “just didn’t do it” for him. I asked him if he did any kind of hikes and he said he didn’t. I told him that was probably why Zion didn’t do it for him. With so many unique landscapes and formations, you are really cheating yourself out of an amazing experience if you don’t at least try something within your physical capacity. To help you figure out things to do at Zion National Park, I’ve put together this list:
1. Drive (or ride) through Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
This drive is absolutely breathtaking. From November through March you’ll be able to use your own vehicle on this drive but at all other times during the year you’ll take the shuttle bus. Which brings me to my first tip: get going early. The parking lots will fill up quickly inside the park so if you make it there early in the morning you’ll have a spot to park. If there’s no parking inside the park you can always park in Springdale (somewhere along the street) and take a shuttle bus into the park.
2. Zion-Mt.Carmel Highway
Also, the Zion-Mt.Carmel highway is a spectacular road. It’s about 13 miles long of twisting and turning. You’ll have a number of photo opportunities to take advantage of along they way through. Also, there’s a tunnel you’ll drive through that’s about a mile long and feels like it is never going to end. So try to check that out.
3. Checkerboard Mesa
Checkerboard Mesa is a 900 foot hill full of orange, brown, and white slickrock that resembles a checkerboard. The hill can be seen almost immediately upon entering Zion form the east entrance. It makes an interesting stopping point for photographs. There are hiking opportunities on the hill, but honestly I’d much rather go for some of the other options discussed below.
4. Top Hikes in Zion National Park
You’ve got to get out and do at least one hike here! Like any good national park, there are tons of quality hikes to choose from. But to keep things simple I’m going to nominate my top three hikes to do at Zion.
1) Angel’s Landing
Although I’m a little afraid of heights, the view from atop Angel’s Landing is too good for me to let a fear of heights get in the way. Now, if you truly have a fear of heights then this is not the hike for you. The hike will probably take you 4-6 hours round trip (about 2.5 miles one way) and due to the switchbacks it’s definitely a “calve burner,” but if you can handle it then go for it.
2) The Narrows
I consider the Narrows to be the hike of Zion National Park. It’s a beautiful slot canyon with walls towering hundreds of feet above you and the beautiful Virgin River flowing around you. The hike is great because you can make it as easy or as strenuous as you like. The Bottom up hike is recommended for the more casual hiker as it offers the opportunity to see some of the most scenic parts of the canyon and head back whenever you are ready. But there are more strenuous routes for other hikers, including two-day routes. While not 100% necessary, I recommend canyoneering shoes for this hike (see below).
Like any hike out here involving slot canyons, it is extremely important to monitor water levels and to call the park stations to get assurance that it is safe to head out the day of your hike. Check here for current conditions at Zion National Park.
3) The Subway
I’m going to do a detailed write-up on this hike based on my personal experience with it later. But for now, just know that seeing the Subway is bucket-list worthy. You can do a loop route or go from “top to bottom” where you’ll do some canyoneering to see it. I recommend the top to bottom if you are skilled enough to do so but the bottom up route is likely more practical for most photographers with expensive photography equipment. Either way, you’ll see some spectacular scenery including multiple sets of cascades, dinosaur tracks, and stunning canyon scenery. You will need to apply for a wilderness permit for this hike, though.
Wilderness Permit Tip: After you reserve your wilderness permit online, you’ll head to one of the visitor centers to actually receive your permit. If you are planning on heading out before sunrise (highly recommended for summer hikes), then you need to look into arriving at the park the day before so that you don’t have to wait for the visitor center to open up the next morning.
There are a ton of unique hikes at Zion, so I encourage you to look into all of them. As always, I like to point you into the direction of other sites specializing in information on these places. My recommended additional source is: http://www.citrusmilo.com/zionguide/allhikes.cfm. There is a wealth of info and overviews of the park and for hikes in Zion, so definitely give them a look. It will walk you through all of the other hikes to do in the park as well as other important information.
5. Sunset at the Watchman
Every photographer needs to have this on their list. There’s a parking lot near the bridge that will likely be full in peak season so you’ll want to make sure you are able to get there at the right time. Also, photographers will flock to this bridge and they even have lines set up on the bridge so know you need to get to your spot early. If you’re not crazy about photography then there are a couple of trails around the Watchman that would make for a nice evening stroll on those cool nights in the area.
6. Other things to do in Zion
Aside from hiking, there are actually a number of things you can do in this park, such as horseback riding, tubing (though not inside the actual park), and bike riding. I also highly recommend checking out the town of Springdale and all it’s shops and restaurants (more below).
7. Best time of year to visit Zion
My recommendation for the best time of year for visiting Zion is fall, with spring being a close second. Zion’s color change in the fall is truly spectacular and so is the cooler weather. If you’re visiting in the summer then you have got to get an early start for your hikes to beat the heat. The good thing is that hikes like the Narrows will offer you shade and cool water throughout the entire hike so you won’t feel the heat as bad. But if you’re dong a hike in the open sun like Angel’s Landing or the Subway then you need to make sure you bring tons of extra water.
8. Star gazing/astrophotography
The Zion skies are very dark and are some of the best skies in the country for astrophotography as well as star gazing. I actually saw the Milky Way at Zion for the first time in my life and it was amazing. My attempt to capture it didn’t come out all that great, but I’ll never forget the feeling of saying, “there’s the Milky Way” for the first time.
9. Where to stay in Zion National Park
If you want to stay in the park or right near the entrance then there are several options for you to choose from. I recommend just searching hotels in Springdale and see what you can come up with. I stayed at the Terrace Brook Lodge, which I thought was a great place to stay on a budget. It’s not exactly Embassy Suites but it was good enough for me, plus you’re just a short walk from all of the great eating places nearby.
If you’re looking for a unique, rustic experience then my recommendation goes to Ziion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. It’s outside the park but it’s a pretty cool place where they offer zip-lining, miniature golf and other things so if you’re there with children you have options to keep them entertained. It also offers free wifi and even has laundry machines on-site. At Ponderosa, you’ll be near the Coral Pink Sand Dunes which is another destination worthy of a visit.
10. Camping at Zion
There are three different campgrounds at Zion and they are often full during the summer. The campground that seems to get the most love from true “tent campers” is the Watchman campground. If you are interested in camping at The Watchman campgrounds then make sure you look into making reservations. Keep in mind that if you are planning on camping during the summer, it is going to be in the mid to upper 90s and there is not much shade in these camping areas. Here’s more info from the NPS on camping at Zion. That link will also show you come private campgrounds in the nearby area as well.
11. Best Places to eat at Zion National Park
I really love national parks. I also really love to eat good meals. Sometimes my love for these two things don’t go together because some parks really lack options for good eatin’. So when I come across national parks like Zion who have tons of restaurants nearby, I get really excited. One of my favorite things about Zion is that there are a number of good restaurants just outside the park. I can personally vouch for a few of them.
- The Flying Monkey (Pizza)
- Cafe Oscar
- Blondies Diner (tiny place, big tasty burger)
- Springdale Candy Company (good ice cream)
But there are plenty more all around as well as nice little pubs and shops to check out as well. So definitely enjoy all Springdale has to offer when you are there!
12. Canyoneering/outdoors equipment
If you are going to be hitting up the Narrows or the Subway or any kind of similar hike then I recommend that you go through the Zion Adventure Company for your booking. I’m not affiliated with them but they offered great customer service and had exactly what I needed for my trip. I highly recommend them.
IMPORTANT: When you rent your canyoneering shoes, the folks at Zion Adventure Company will tell you to make sure you order a half-size to a full size larger than you normally wear. Listen to them. I tried on a pair of canyoneering shoes and they fit me so perfectly I decided not to go with a larger pair. The result? I ended up losing two toenails because the socks swelled up when they got wet and my feet got so cramped!! So make sure you leave room in those shoes and socks when you rent them! If the shoes fit perfectly snug when you try them on, go a size larger!
13. Nearby Destinations
Zion is near a number of other interesting places and parks:
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Colorado City, AZ (look it up)
- Page, Arizona and nearby Antelope Canyon
That’s all I have for the moment. If you have anything interesting you wanted to share about the park then let me know and I’ll see about adding it to my content. Thanks for reading!