Zion National Park has been described as a spiritual experience, an orange tinted wonderland of adventure and freedom. Deep gorges and soaring red and white rock formations litter the landscape, resulting in some of the most impressive and photogenic scenery in the US. Rising out of the flat Utah desert, this extremely popular national park was formed from the Virgin River. From the heights of Angels Landing, to the depths of the Narrows, we have put together the ultimate travel guide on how to explore this unique and iconic national park. Enjoy the Zion National Park Travel Guide.
History & Geography
Zion National Park is situated in southwestern Utah, in the United States. The closest major city is Las Vegas, and a drive will take about two and a half hours, crossing the border from Nevada into Utah. There is a north and south entrance, however we recommend arriving at the south entrance, as it has many more facilities including a small town, visitor centre and many of the hikes start and end there. This is also where the shuttle buses that take you into the park depart from.
When you arrive at the entrance to the park, you will need to pay an entrance fee. This ensures the protection of the park, and enables vital facilities such as water, restrooms, shuttle buses and a visitor centre rich in information and assistance. A vehicle is $25, a pedestrian (if you enter by foot from the Springdale shuttle bus – see section ‘Springdale accommodation’ below) is $15 per person. You can also choose to buy an annual pass, which is valid for a year and can serve a whole family. Annual passes to enter the park and other national parks are as follows:
Originally home to many Native American Indian tribes, the national park was first given its current name when the Mormons settled in the area in the 1860s. The word Zion occurs over 150 times in the Bible, and it essentially means “fortification”. They named Zion Canyon first, a deep canyon 24kms long and 800m deep, and the surrounding area was announced a national park in 1909.
The brilliantly high rock formations in the park have been carved out of the landscape by the Virgin River, as it weaves and curves its way through the desert. One gorge is so narrow, that light rarely reaches the floor. Geologists have discovered that millions of years of flowing water in the river has resulted in the deep gorges and sheer walls of Zion National Park. Combined with strong winds in the region, cutting through the Navajo sandstone, the park has produced some of the most beautiful and unique landscapes in America. The park marks the intersection of three separate ecosystems, boasting more than 900 different plant species. It holds one of the world’s largest freestanding natural arches and visitor numbers are growing yearly, with 4.3 million visitors in 2016.
Once you arrive at the Zion National Park Visitor Centre (get here early – it gets super busy and is usually full by 10am), allot some time to have a read over the various hikes, and talk to some park rangers about conditions in the park. Some hikes may be closed due to bad weather, flooding and unpredictable weather patterns. The rangers will be able to inform you about the length of the hikes and departure points, as well as wildlife in the area. There are plenty of ranger-led hikes and talks, and these will be displayed in the visitor centre. Ensure that you have enough water to take into the park, and also that you are wearing appropriate outdoor clothing. The visitor centre is also where all the shuttle buses depart from. This is a fantastic service that’s provided to visitors, and is by far the easiest and most effective way to get around the park. The bus departs from the welcome centre and does a 40-minute route through the park. The shuttle bus, that runs purely on gas, makes 8 stops, and each stop marks the departure point for a myriad of hikes through that section. Ensure that you know which stop is the departure point for your hike before you go! The bus also has a pre-recorded commentary, filling you in on useful and intriguing information about the park; from park specialists, Native Americans, photographers and artists. Buses depart every few minutes in the Spring and Summer months, and you’ll never wait more than five minutes for a shuttle bus, both from the visitor centre and from your stop on the return journey. Each stop has restrooms, water facilities, and in some cases, restaurants and cafes. One of the best stops is the Zion Lodge stop, which offers restaurants, cafes and a gloriously majestic cotton tree to sit under after you’ve explored the park.
In the park
There are two options for accommodation within Zion National Park. You can camp in one of the two official campgrounds, or you can stay in the Zion Lodge, which offers rooms and cabins.
The two campsites are the Watchman and South Campgrounds. Both of these can be accessed by the south entrance to the park. Both campgrounds a right next to the visitor centre, so they’re the perfect spot to jump onto the shuttle and hike all over the park. The Watchman is reservation only from March to November, and you must book at least 6 months in advance – we can’t stress this enough! This is an extremely popular national park and people are eager to visit from all over the world.
The South campground however is ‘first come first serve’ – and it fills up fast. Be prepared, leave early, and you should be fine. Both sites have excellent facilities, and are very close to the town of Springdale if you need any supplies.
Accommodation at the Zion Lodge is fantastic, it’s in the middle of the park, and you have your own shuttle bus stop to take you all over the park. It has a restaurant and café and attracts a plethora of people to the cottonwood tree on the grassed area right outside. It is however very expensive, and you will pay at least $200 per night for one room, in the shoulder season.
Springdale is a small town just outside the south entrance of Zion National Park. There is a plethora of hotels, motels, lodges and campgrounds in the town. They can be quite expensive in the Spring and Summer, so be prepared to pay at least $40 per night for a campsite. You can book any of these in advance, and we highly recommend this. All of these high quality facilities.
If you’re staying in Springdale, you can catch the free Springdale Shuttle bus. This bus goes from the small town and drops you at the Zion National Park visitor centre. Each bus stop in the town is clearly marked, is usually outside a hotel, motel or campground and the journey will not take more than 15 minutes from anywhere in town.
There is a myriad of hikes to explore in the National Park. A visit to the welcome centre will provide all the information you need, regarding hike lengths, duration and where to start the hike. Two of the most popular, and two of the most challenging and adventurous, is the Narrows and Angels Landing.
This is a 7.5km round trip hike that takes you high above Zion National Park, producing breathtaking views over the entire park. The start of the trek is fairly easy, taking a well maintained path on the West Rim Trail. However, the trek then climbs a series of 21 switchbacks known as Walters Wiggles, that are steep and gain elevation rapidly. This will take you to Scout Lookout, where you can take some time to gaze out over the ridge to the south. The final kilometre is challenging and you will rely heavily on the chain attached and bolted into the ground below you. The red rocks will guide you up the mountain, dropping on either side of you, revealing stunning views at the top. It will change you – a truly defining moment. Jump off the shuttle bus at The Grotto, and start your epic journey. The trailhead is just over the bridge, past the picnic area.
The Narrows is a 12-hour adventure hike through one of the deepest and most epically proportioned gorges in the Zion National Park. The Narrows has it all; soaring walls, sandstone grottos, hanging gardens and some stunning orange tinted rock formations. As this hike follows the Virgin River through the sandstone pillars, you will spend most the hike wading, walking and swimming through the water. This one is not for the inexperienced. There is no maintained trail, as the route is the river, therefore the hike condition relies solely on nature’s decisions. The visitor centre will provide daily information about the condition of The Narrows, and it can be closest due to rising waters that make it dangerous to explore. Many people choose to bring, or hire, specialised clothing and equipment to wear into The Narrows, and the rangers strongly recommend this. Gear can be hired from Zion Outfitters, just outside the pedestrian entrance to the park, outside the visitor centre. This will include waterproof shoes, overalls, and a large wooden stick to assist with balance on some of the slippery rocks in the river. A waterproof bag and fleece jacket will also make your journey easier. You will get off the shuttle at the last stop, The Temple of Sinawava, and walk the River Walk down to the end, which is where The Narrows start.
What to pack
When you enter the park, and especially when you go on a hike, ensure that you have the following things:
- sufficient food
- layered and breathable clothing
- first aid kit
- sturdy hiking shoes
- compass/maps/navigation device
- sun protection
- gas stove (with extra propane gas)
- eating and drinking utensils
- camping chairs
- camping table
- camping hammock
- extra tarp
- flashlight/camping light
- personal items/clothing/towel
- sleeping bags (it gets cold at night! Even in the desert!)
- travel pillow
- extra batteries for all devices
- solar powered battery charger (particularly useful for charging phone and navigation devices)
- dish washing liquid and cloths
Zion National Park is full of incredible views, challenging hikes, and vivid colours. Ensure that you’re prepared for the adventure and you’ll have a life changing experience. If there’s anything on the camping list that we’ve forgotten, let us know! Stay safe, enjoy your experience, listen to the park rangers advice, and have a brilliant time.