Zion National Park is one of the most well known and famous of Utah’s “mighty five” and for many people (ourselves included!), the beautiful Zion National Park is a bucket list item. There are two really famous hikes here, but even if heights aren’t your thing, there’s plenty to see, do, eat and enjoy.
The park boundaries cover nearly 150,000 acres and there are two separate sections to the park about an hour apart – Kolob Canyon in the northwest and Zion Canyon in the south. With its towering canyon walls, the rushing Virgin river, and epic hiking, the numbers really do reflect its popularity. Since 2010, Zion has more than doubled its visitation, now averaging about 5 million guests per year, putting it into a small category of national parks that have ever hit that 5 million mark. In fact – given the park’s popularity, there’s usually a line to get in, so make sure you plan ahead and allow time in case you have a wait. When we visited in May, we only waited for about 15 minutes to get through.
BEST PLACES TO STAY AT ZION NATIONAL PARK
When looking for places to stay at Zion National Park, there are both campgrounds and hotels. We recommend staying inside the park at Watchman Campground. This campground is located right near the entrance and is quite popular thanks to being within walking distance to a lot of things including the shuttle system and the visitor center.
We were incredibly lucky to score five nights of camping here by using a service, Campnab, that watches for cancellations. On top of the great location and convenience, Watchman may be one of the most beautiful campgrounds we have stayed in – the views out our door were incredible!
Another option is the Zion Lodge, located midway up-canyon, and features cabins, hotel rooms or suites. Plus a great restaurant (which we’ll get to in a minute), beer garden, cafe and park store.
If you’re unable to get reservations at Watchman, or are not visiting via RV, the town of Springdale is a short drive outside the park and is home to great hotels and private campgrounds.
A tour around Zion Lodge
HOW TO GET AROUND ZION NATIONAL PARK (SHUTTLE SYSTEM)
People frequently ask, “Are the shuttles mandatory?” and the answer is, “If they’re running, yes.” Zion began its shuttle program in 2000 to help alleviate traffic and parking issues as well as improve the overall guest experience throughout the park. Zion’s shuttle system is extremely easy to navigate and hop on and off. There are areas of the park that you can access without taking the shuttle, but keep in mind, the most popular areas of the park such as the Emerald Pools, the Narrows, Angel’s Landing and Zion Lodge are all along the shuttle route.
When they’re not running, you are allowed to drive along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. There is no permit or reservation needed to ride Zion’s shuttles and it takes about 45 minutes to go from the visitor center to the furthest point. There are some stops that are “down canyon” only, meaning on the way back. For example, the shuttle stops at the Zion Human History Museum (Stop #2) only on the way back from the furthest stop, Temple of Sinawava. Make sure to check the schedule so you don’t miss the last shuttle back to the visitor center or you could be in for a long walk back to your car or campsite!
Some of our favorite stops along the Zion National Park Shuttle route were Big Bend, Weeping Rock and Court of the Patriarchs.
- Big Bend (stop #8) is down canyon only, and so incredibly beautiful. This is also where you can view several points of interest such as Angel’s Landing. The canyon walls are breathtaking and definitely live up to its name with the big sweeping bend along the Virgin River.
- Weeping Rock (stop #7) is a must do in our opinion. This is a short-but-steep walk uphill with spectacular views and leads you to a rock alcove that almost feels like being behind a waterfall. The water trickles down because the Navajo sandstone is so porous that the water just seeps out as if the rocks are always weeping.
- Court of the Patriarchs (stop #4) has spectacular views of the three peaks, or “patriarchs”: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The three peaks were given biblical names from the Old Testament in 1916.
HIKING OPTIONS IN ZION NATIONAL PARK
Zion National Park’s two most famous trails are Angels Landing and the Narrows. Angels Landing is probably the most famous trail in the entire park and because of its popularity, you now need a permit. The mandatory permit program for this trail began in 2022 to help alleviate crowds along the strenuous, and at times dangerous, trail.
When we visited, the Narrows was closed due to water levels. Typically, 150 cubic feet per second of water flow is considered safe. Unfortunately, during our visit, the levels were well over that at more than 600 cubic feet per second, making it totally unsafe for anyone to go in the Narrows. Definitely make sure to check the conditions ahead of your visit if this is on your must-do! There is currently no permit system in place for hiking the Narrows when it is open.
The Emerald Pools
Another top thing to do is visit the Emerald pools. There are three pools at different levels of the trail, and serve as an important water source for wildlife in the area. The pools get their name from the green algae. Normally when the sun hits the water, it illuminates the algae found in the shallow pools, but thanks to recent rains, the pools were a bit more brown than green.
You can get to the Emerald Pools by a bridge from the Zion Lodge, but during our visit the bridge was closed for repair. We didn’t mind though because our detour up the Kayenta Trail was absolutely beautiful. The trail has some incline in the beginning, but it is not too bad, and you get amazing views of all the canyon walls and the river below. This was one of my favorite parts of hiking to the Emerald Pools!
Once you get up to the Emerald Pools, you can relax, sit on the rocks, watch the waterfall and take it all in. We even stopped to have a little snack! Of the three pools, the upper and lower pools were definitely the more impressive. The middle pool is smaller and can be found on a ledge above the lower pool. Some of the best views of the lower pools are from a viewpoint near the upper pool, or by taking the trail down that leads you behind the waterfall. It can be slippery, and you will get sprayed by the water, so be prepared for that.
A word to the wise – there was a pretty strenuous uphill to reach the upper pool. The trail is covered in sand, which presents some extra challenges as well. But it is worth it!
THINGS TO DO AT ZION THAT DON’T REQUIRE HIKING
If you’re not up for a hike or the weather isn’t working in your favor, there are still lots of fun things to do in Zion!
We really enjoyed driving through Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The construction of the tunnel played a huge role in making Zion National Park more accessible to visitors and also created a direct route between this park, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon.
It took several years to complete, and at the time, it was the longest tunnel of its kind in the U.S. At times, it’s pitch black except for the light from a few windows blasted into the walls of the tunnel. It’s definitely worth the drive up the switchbacks to go through the tunnel and the east side of the park is just as beautiful as the canyon.
RV drivers beware – the tunnel is only 11 ft. 4 in. tall on the sides and 13 ft. 1 in. in the center, so if you have an oversized vehicle like a motorhome, travel trailer or fifth wheel, you must purchase a $15 permit that will allow you to drive through the center lane. These permits can be bought at the park entrance station, the visitor center or the campground entrance station.
The Human History Museum is another great stop and charts the path all the way from Native Americans to present at Zion National Park. Inside, you’ll find the official film which was produced by the Zion Forever Project and gives you a great overview of the park to learn about the place and people who live, visit and work there. The Zion Forever Project works alongside the National Park Service on important projects and initiatives here throughout Zion National Park.
PLACES TO EAT IN ZION NATIONAL PARK
Dining at Red Rock Grill located inside Zion Lodge
You’ll probably work up an appetite after all that exploring! One of our favorite places to grab a bite to eat was the Red Rock Grill in the Zion Lodge.
For park dining, this was definitely an elevated experience. The menu was absolutely incredible and had tons of house-made items like trout anasazi with a proprietary blend of spices and seasoning and a garlic rubbed sirloin with a house-made cranberry burgundy sauce. All of it was delicious! Views of Zion’s magnificent canyon walls follow you here whether dining on the outdoor patio or inside the dining room. Even if you’re staying off-site or you’re staying in an RV, Zion Lodge is a great place to kick off and return to throughout your trip and is located about halfway up the canyon. They have a beer garden, cafe, a dining room and a fantastic store.
Dining at Bit & Spur in Springdale, UT
Another great place to eat is in the adjacent town of Springdale. The Zion shuttle runs through town and is completely free. During our visit, we grabbed a bite at Bit and Spur, which was delicious and stopped by Zion Canyon Brew Pub for a beer. This brewery is literally steps from the footbridge entrance into the park, making it a very convenient location to walk from the campground.