Zion National Park is considered one of the gems of the US National Parks system. Also another little known fact, Zion is the only national park that begins with a Z. Exciting stuff, I know right?! Zion National Park, which is located in southern Utah, was actually the first national park established in Utah. According to Zion National Park's ancient history, it was originally home to Native Americans around 12,000 years ago.
Zion National Park was not always referred to as Zion either. Originally, it was called Mukuntuweap National Monument, which was established by President William Howard Taft in 1909. Mukuntuweap was the name this region was referred to at the time by the local Palute Native American tribe. It was in 1918 that this park was renamed to Zion National Park, which was that the Mormon's living in the area referred to it as.
Mukuntuweap was renamed to Zion due to the belief that the name of the monument was scaring off potential visitors to the park.
Zion National Park is home to a very diverse wildlife population and plant life. It also has a wide range of geological formations including the canyons, mesas, buttes, rivers, mountains, and more! The canyons formed in Zion took a very long time of wind and water erosion. The power of nature is truly incredible when you begin to think about how it carved out Zion National Park to be what it is today.
I have always wanted to go to Zion, but it had never really been a major place for me to reach immediately. It wasn't until my American Southwest road trip that the idea to visit this famous national park took hold. After doing a little bit of research, I was sold on visiting the park. I'm glad I made the decision to visit here.
Zion was towards the end of my road trip, but I definitely was looking forward to it, plus it would involve seeing a couple of friends from back home. It would be nice to see some familiar faces after being on the road by myself for the past 5-6 days.
The first thing that I will mention about when traveling into Zion National Park is plan for slow moving lines of traffic. Traffic into the park wasn't as bad as entering Sedona in Arizona on a Saturday night (word to the wise, don't try it) but still it took a decent amount of time. It's a very popular park, especially during the spring and summer. The earlier you get there, the better. This goes for parking, hiking, and accommodations.
Once you begin the descent into Zion Canyon from the east side you will begin to notice the otherworldly smooth almost rolling mountain sides. I have been to a lot of mountain ranges, and have not seen formations quite like this before. It was odd and spectacular sight. I can only imagine those mountain sides were smoothed over by hundreds of thousands of years of wind and water erosion. There are some places to get out and park, but they are limited, and likely full if its in the afternoon. I did not get to hike in this area, but it looks like it there was plenty of cool areas to explore just off the road entering Zion National Park.
As you are making this drive, you will begin to notice how packed this park gets. The closer you get to the bottom of the canyon, the more and more cars will be appearing on the sides of the road, and you will likely wind up in a line of cars, or even bumper to bumper. This place really gets packed!
Eventually you will make it to the park entrance which is right before the epic tunnel system that leads to the bottom of the canyon in Zion. The entrance fee is $30 for 1 private vehicle for 7 days. It's a pretty good value in my opinion. 80% of this fee goes back to maintaining this spectacular park. For more information on fees click this link to directly visit the Zion National Park website.
Where to stay?
One of the nice aspects of Zion National Park is that right outside of the park boundaries, there is the small tourist town of Springdale. This is a benefit due to the many lodges, hotels, and campgrounds in the immediate area outside of Zion National Park. This is not to mention the three campgrounds that are within Zion National Park. (Basically on the fringes of Springdale right by the entrance to the Zion on the west side. One campground is about an hour away from Springdale/Zion Canyon.
The two campgrounds (the best way to stay in Zion National Park, in my opinion) are The Watchman and the South campground. During my time in Zion, I stayed at The Watchman campground. It is a really elaborate and well put together campground. From what it looked like, the South campground looked just as good as far as conditions go. The South campground is a first come, first serve style unlike The Watchman which can be reserved in advance. If you want to get in at the South campground, go early in the morning!
The third campground (Lava Point Campground) is located over an hour away from this main region of Zion National Park.
Make sure to make reservations well in advance if you want to stay at either of these two campgrounds, or anywhere in Zion for the most part. Things book up fast. It can be difficult to find accommodations if you wait until last minute like I did. I lucked out though with a overflow campsite, and a couple friends who reserved a spot for the other night I was in Zion.
If camping is not your thing, there are plenty of other choices for lodges and hotels. Book in advance, or you may be staying somewhere up to a hour outside of the park. Obviously, staying near the park will be a bit more expensive than being outside of the park region.
As long as you plan in advance, you should not have an issue with getting somewhere to stay in the park, or nearby. This also depends on what time of year you want to go. The summer months (Late May through early September are the busiest time of year in this park)
What is there to do in Zion National Park?
What is there to not do in Zion?! This park is awesome and its well developed for visitors to access lots of different aspects and areas of the park. If you are into the history and geological history of the area, there is a place to learn all about that(Visitors Center). If you are into hiking and adventuring, well then your in one of the greatest spots in the United States to do that too!
If you are like me, then adventure and hiking is your thing. There are a ton of different trails to hike here. They range from easy to difficult. So beginners and expert hikers should all find their cup of tea so to say.
I did not have a lot of time to do every hike here, but my favorite hike I did here was the Angels Landing hike. It is one of the most popular hikes in Zion, and is famous world-wide too. This hike has incredible views, and may give some people an adrenaline rush! Many parts of this hike include being dangerously close to cliff drop offs of deadly heights.
Angels landing is a unique type of hiking trial. It is a via ferrata style hiking trail. Which is Italian for iron road. Much of the trail consists of chains to grab onto to prevent yourself and other hikers from falling over the steep cliff sides. Via ferrata originated in World War 1 in the Italian Dolomites/Alps. Check back later this year for my articles on this area after I visit in October!
The Angels Landing hike would not be the greatest hike for you to do if you have any fear of heights, or are rather clumsy. It gets very crowded on this trail, and often times you do need to wait while a group of hikers is heading the opposite direction of you. This is even more likely if you are doing this hike from 10am-5pm. If you don't think you can safely navigate this trail, don't do it. It can be very unsafe for yourself and other hikers. It also can frustrate other hikers who are held up behind a group of 50 because the front person is going at a snail pace due to their fear of heights. This could lead to people trying to hop around to pass up that person, which then they may fall off the ledges to their death.
Wear shoes with good traction for Angels Landing! You don't want to slip and fall nearly 1,500 feet. The odds of successfully surviving a fall from that height are approximately 3,720 to 1. Just kidding, it's probably way higher than that. I just saw a great moment to make a Star Wars reference. Never tell me the odds! On a more serious note, deaths have occurred on this hike due to falls.
If you have a passionate hate of switch backs on hiking trails, be prepared for plenty of them on this hike too :). I really hate switchbacks, just an FYI.
Aside from this hike, there are plenty more. Some of the other major popular hikes are The Narrows, and Observation Point. Fear not, there are many more if these ones are too lengthy of hikes for you. The hikes in Zion range from under a mile, all the way up to 10 miles or more. There's something for everyone, and for most physical conditions.
Perhaps after a lengthy day of hiking, or sometime early in the morning or evening, consider taking the shuttle on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. This is the same shuttle that brings you to all of your hiking trail heads. Or if you would rather sit down and relax inside, check out the Visitor Center and learn about the history of this impressive and inspiring park.
There are also locations around Zion that provide white water rafting, kayaking, horseback riding, and Jeep tour opportunities. Reservations are required for pretty much all of these due to how busy this park is. Towards the end of the day, you have the option of heading into Springdale to check out the many shops and restaurants.
I almost forgot to mention that there are some epic cliffs and mountain sides to do some pretty awesome rock climbing adventures on. Zion is a very popular destination for rock climbers. I think this adventure to Zion fueled my growing interest in learning to rock climb.
There are some pretty cool looking restaurants to eat at. I wish I could provide some tips on places to check out, but the one place I had gone to eat wasn't really that great, and the prices were high. I will say it was better than the campfire dinner that two of my friends made for me. This consisted of spaghetti sauce, noodles, and sliced vegan hot dogs. They called it "doggy dish" and I can still taste the unheated gluten free, rubbery vegan hot dogs to this day.... I would not wish that upon my worst enemies....Well actually I probably would to be honest.
If you are a beer drinker, there was a interesting brew pub near the entrance of the park on the edge of Springdale.
I can tell you one thing specifically about Zion, which is what I frequently say in all of my posts about travel destinations. I did not have enough time to fully explore this wonderful park. Instead of the 2.5 days I spent here, I would recommend at least 5, especially if you are an avid outdoors person who enjoys lots of hiking. Even just one day is better than none though!
How to get around?
Once you have made it to Zion National Park, and have parked your car, that's pretty much the last time you'll need to drive around for the most part. One part about Zion that I really remembered and was completely new to me was the concept of shuttle buses bringing visitors throughout the park. The National Park Service did a great job of developing this system to explore the park and cut down on the amount of cars driving around. I could only imagine how hellish this place would be if it was filled with hundreds and thousands of cars throughout all of the major trail heads within the park boundaries.
I am really a big fan of this shuttle system Zion had going on. I know there are other parks that have this too, but this was the first one I've ever been to with this great and FREE service set up in this way.
These shuttles run very frequently, and pretty much throughout the day. It will bring you to all eight stops within the Zion Canyon area. This shuttle ride in and of itself is quite scenic too. The shuttles can get very crowded and a bit stinky with sweaty hikers, so beware! You won't be able to drive your own personal vehicle down this route without a special permit which I don't think is issued very frequently. This road does open to the public to drive in their own vehicles during the winter months FYI. For more information on the shuttle service, check out this link to the direct park website page providing information about the shuttle system.
One of the shuttle routes will also bring you into Springdale for whatever you may need. Maybe you need to get dropped off or picked up at your hotel, or maybe you need to get groceries for the nights campfire at your campground. Just make sure to do it before the shuttles close for the evening.
Opting to avoid driving in this park really eliminates the congestion that this park already sees. On a annual basis, this park sees over 4 million visitors. That's a lot of people trampling through the park boundaries.
If you want to avoid crowded shuttles, or long shuttle lines. Get there early in the morning. On top of that, you will get to the hiking trails sooner, which also means less people! These trails get ridiculous as the morning progresses into the afternoon.
What do I need to bring to Zion National Park?
This is a tough question to ask without knowing what type of trip you are making. Though I can provide some general items you are going to need if you have any sort of inclination towards hiking and adventuring.
The first area I would concentrate on is clothes and shoes. Good hiking clothes is important. Some aspects that clothes address are sun exposure, keeping you dry (either rain, sweat, or quick drying clothes if you wander into a water source), keeping you warm and more. Zion is one of those places with extreme temperature and weather variations depending on the season, time of day, and incoming weather. It is good to have preparations for all types of weather. Research what weather patterns to expect during the time of year you plan visit and go from there. Every season will have some slight variances in what you may face.
As far as shoes go, I would bring good quality hiking shoes of some sort. Traction is important on some of the trails in Zion, so make sure they aren't extremely worn out or easy to slip around in. If you are looking for recommendations on what to buy, check out my article on hiking boots and trail runner shoes by clicking here.
A good backpack is important too, especially on longer hikes. The backpack doesn't need to be massive, but large enough to bring a day's provisions such as snacks, water, camera, sunscreen, or whatever else you may need.
Water and refillable water containers are also required. Odds are, its going to be hot whenever you are visiting Zion National Park. It's easy to get dehydrated quick here. I was sweating a lot whenever I was hiking. Invest in a Camelbak or something similiar, they are life savers for carrying water! Another great thing about Zion is at every shuttle stop or trail head, there is a place to fill up on essential H20. You will also find bathrooms at every stop too.
First aid kits and sunscreen could prove important for obvious reasons. The altitude here makes it easier to obtain a nasty sun burn, so prepare ahead. I know my skin would have been fried if I didn't bring any with!
If you are camping, bring the essential camping gear. I think this is the best way to experience the park, but to each their own if camping isn't your thing. They do allow for campfires in the campgrounds if its not super dry out, so don't forget to buy wood from town or a local firewood seller!
When to go?
This all depends on what time works for you, and what types of weather you are most comfortable with. Zion National Park is busiest during the Spring and Summer months, this is also the warmest time of year. Temperatures can reach 100 or more during a given day. If you go in the cooler months, you may risk closures to trails and sections of the park due to varying weather conditions. Water levels are generally high in the spring time. This may completely close down some trails, such as the famous Narrows hike.
I would recommend going in April/May or September/October. Crowds aren't quite as bad, and weather is still quite favorable. I was there in April and it was perfect!
When you go, make sure to arrive early in the day (like before 8am), unless you already have a reservation somewhere where you can park your car. The visitor lot for Zion fills up pretty quickly, and stays that way for most of the day. Parking in Zion seems to be extremely limited.
Wrapping up on Zion National Park