Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Everything You Need to Visit Zion National Park

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The United States has 59 state parks, and I bet most of us—yours truly, included—don’t take enough advantage of that. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to up my outdoors game by visiting as many state and national parks as I can, including Zion, which is one of my favorite of all.

Snow Canyon State Park: St. George, Utah's Best-Kept Secret

Fun fact: In 1909, President William Howard Taft designated the area a national monument but it wasn’t made a national park until a decade later.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park
Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Visiting Zion National Park

My first brush with Zion was at the end of my freshman year of college when I led 60-something kids ranging from ages 8 to 18 through the wilds of the Arizona and Utah parks through a program we called Caravan while I was working at Orme. I loved every moment of that multi-week road trip.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

I won’t claim to remember much beyond the panting (and OK, mild anxiety) that ensued as we climbed to the top of Angel’s Landing and the way that first glance at the soaring rocks that marked Zion’s entrance robbed me of words and took my breath away.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park
Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park
Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Are you planning a similar trip hoping to leave feeling inspired, with memory cards brimming with Ansel Adams-esque images? While I won’t claim to be a Southwest expert, here are a few things I learned on my subsequent visit more than a decade later.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Closest Town

Springdale. There are several motels and modest lodges around the base of Zion, the entrance of which can be accessed directly from Springdale. You could stay there, or you could venture into a nearby town like Hurricane that’s likely cheaper. The pros: Springdale has a lot of great restaurants that you can walk to and you’re right by the shuttle stops that take you into the park.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Know Before You Go

Parking is a bitch. There is limited parking inside Zion’s own boundaries, but with the help of the regular shuttle service, traversing the park doesn’t have to be difficult. Learn from our mistakes and don’t try to drive in the park and hop on the shuttle from one of the first stops—you’ll likely be passed over time and time again by drivers because the bus will already be full, and maybe even wind up walking (not that I speak from experience or anything…).

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Instead, you’re best off leaving your car at the entrance to Zion and catching a ride from one of the stops in Springdale. Note: From mid-March through October, and weekends following that, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is only accessible by shuttle.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Fuel Up

MeMe’s Café. Coffee, crepes, coffee, crepes. Need I say more?

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Park You Shouldn’t Pass Up

Snow Canyon. This otherworldly state park was every bit as striking as Zion, only much smaller and with only a fraction of the tourists. My advice? Spend a couple days in Zion, but save a day or two to explore the St. George surrounds, as well.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Best Hike We Didn’t Go On

Red Mountain Trail. Again, I only had a very quick 48 hours in St. George this time around, so we really only hit the highlights, but I heard from a very credible local source that the Red Mountain Trail is not to be missed.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park
Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Easiest Spot for a Quickie

Emerald Pools. Let’s be honest: You need multiple days to really get a feel for the breadth of Zion—she’s simply too large and too magnificent to experience in 24 hours—but if you just have a mere afternoon in the park as I did, make for Zion Lodge then mosey on out to the Emerald Pools, which is a sloping three miles round-trip to the furthest point on a paved trail and takes less than an hour by foot. Be sure and visit the Lower, Middle and Upper Pools for different vantage points of the falls, and do so during the afternoon when you’ve still got daylight trickling in; we didn’t arrive until just before dusk, and the colors were very drab and muted.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Spot You Positively CAN’T Miss

Angel’s Landing. Again, we didn’t have time to do it on this trip, but I have in the past, and if you’re in good physical condition (and not scared of heights)—you’re on a very narrow path marked with a flimsy chain—it offers incomparable views and a pretty darn good workout, too.

Escape the Crowds

The Kolob Canyons aren’t quick to reach if you’re already inside the main area of Zion, but that’s precisely why this section of the park is a great option if you want to get out of the thick of the tourists that hover around the lodge. Lingering on the northwestern side of Zion, these 2,000-foot cliff walls are only accessible via the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center entrance—and it took us nearly an hour to reach them from Springdale, too.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park
Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

There are scenic drives as well as unpaved trails that lead to natural rock arches, abandoned cabins and other panoramic lookout points—and the best part of all is that you’ll likely have them all to yourself.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

For a Drivable Sunset Vista

Tourists love crowing around the Canyon Junction Bridge in Zion for hours before the sun sets to catch its reflection off the face of the Watchman rock. Personally, I think there are better views with far less people.

Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

If you’re staying down in St. George and not near the park entrance, head up Dixie Rock to see the rocks come alive at sunset rather than go into Zion when the surrounding buttes will block all semblance of a sunset.

Find Your Park: Exploring Sand Hollow in St. George, Utah

For the Adrenaline Junkie

The Narrows. Sadly, it was still closed when we were there in May, which devastated me to no end, but I’ve seen the iconic shots of people wading in water through a slot canyon enough to know this is a MUST—not to mention, canyoneering is one of Zion’s biggest draws among the adventure set. Check out this cool video my pals Fresh Off the Grid made of their experience going deep into the canyon:

Rehydrate Here

When is a post-hike beer not called for?!

While I stocked up on plenty of craft brews at the local gas station for our condo, our whole crew headed to the Zion Canyon Brew Pub for some beers and meatloaf burgers after an exhausting day, and it was just what the hiking doctors ordered.
Utah from A to Z: Visiting Zion National Park

Lay Your Head

As I mentioned up top, there are a number of hotels at the base of Zion in Springdale, but personally I loved staying in Hurricane, midway between St. George and the park entrance itself. Coral Springs Resort not only offered well-appointed suites at a very reasonable price, but it was located very close to a number of the state parks. Another friend also stayed at Red Mountain Resort while there, and I’ve heard many fellow travelers sing its praises, as well. Zion Lodge right smack in the middle of the park is meant to be spectacular, but you need to plan your trip a good six months in advance (or sometimes, more) in order to nab a room there.

Snow Canyon State Park: St. George, Utah's Best-Kept Secret

I’ve only been to Zion three times, so tell me, what can I not miss in the St. George area next time I’m there?

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Looking for more St. George travel tips? Try these:

COMMENTS
  • August 25, 2016

    Ahhhh I love Zion so much! My boyfriend and I did the Angels Landing hike back in April. It was the HARDEST hike I’ve ever done, but also so incredibly worth it. I can see why so many people name Zion as their favorite national park!

    As for tips for next time, I would actually suggest staying IN Springdale! That way you can beat the crowds into the park in the morning. Plus, it’s just a super cute town! And we loved both Oscar’s Cafe and Zion Pizza & Noodle Co. for post-hike eats.

    • September 5, 2016

      So true! I actually woke up before sunrise and walked from my hotel to the park entrance and caught the very first shuttle of the day to beat the crowds on Angel’s Landing. (My first attempt I turned around due to crowds, so I wasn’t about to let that happen again!)

  • August 25, 2016

    Jealousy takes control of me a little bit when I see a beautiful National Park with hiking trails running through canyons. Then I realise it’s a good reason to travel, the Netherlands has gorgeous National Parks too, but for mountains I really have to go somewhere else 😉

  • August 26, 2016

    I’ve actually never been to a National Park and it’s a sin! I got to travel a lot before college in Europe while my aunt lived in Switzerland I have hardly seen any of my own country. I guess it’s the way to do it though, because with a starter job in country is a little more doable.

  • September 1, 2016

    Thank you for proving you can have fun with little ones when you go to incredible places like Zion National Park. Spectacular photos too!

  • September 5, 2016

    Zion is definitely my favorite park, too. I’ve been twice in September, and considering a return this Thanksgiving. I love Flanigan’s Inn – it’s the last hotel on the Springdale town shuttle, and walking distance to the entrance of the park. Good restaurant and excellent spa, too!

    Red Mountain Resort is on my dream list for a week detox vacation. Not sure if I’ll ever make the splurge, but I regularly drool over their Facebook posts!

  • September 14, 2016

    It is a good idea to save a few days to explore the surrounding areas. That way, you can get a feel for the whole place, not just a fraction of it. That applies to all types of places when travelling. Then you can enjoy the whole thing.

  • October 4, 2016

    ZION is my One of the most favorite place.last year i along with my family visited Zion .there are really amazine .all of my family enjoyed.in this post some of main place publish in the great point view.thats nice.and i loved it. great job. thanks to share.

  • January 8, 2017
    dom

    these amazing journey pics makes you jealous even more when you have to go to your job everyday and don’t have time for spending on a vacation like that … but anyways the pics are just amazing

    • January 10, 2017

      Thank you, Dom! The great thing about national parks is that if you camp, it’s actually a very affordable vacation to plan =)

  • January 9, 2017
    Chelsea

    We stayed in Kanab, which was a great home base for a lot of parks– grand staircase, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Zion, Cedar Breaks, the Wave, etc. I’d highly recommend staying in the area!

    • January 10, 2017

      Ahh, that sounds dreamy, Chelsea! There are so many hikes I want to do in Utah—the Wave is very high on that list—and I’m hoping the next couple years have some Southwest national parks travel in store for me =) A stay in Kanab would be awesome!

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