Red, orange, yellow, gray striated layers of windswept sandstone spike and drop dramatically through Utah’s Zion National Park. Less famous than its near neighbour the Grand Canyon, but no less spectacular in its raw desert beauty, Zion National Park is a mere 2 ½ hour’s drive from the center of Las Vegas, Nevada.
This national park features hikes and walks for all ability levels and holds two of the most spectacular (potentially dangerous) hikes in all of the National Park system.
How to get Zion National Park
Located in the south of Utah, Zion is within driving distance of the majority of the Southwest. Only 7 hour’s drive from Los Angeles and 2 ½ hours from Las Vegas. The drive to the park features several tourist stops, including roadside natural history museums, the Valley of Fire state park, dinosaur tracks and the Native American Moapa Reservation.
Classic to the iconic American Road trip, these unexpected detours present limitless opportunities for exploration. Getting around the Park itself depends on the time of year of your visit. In the busy summer months, the park runs two free shuttle services.
One runs from the bottom of the town of Springdale to the park entrance with several stops at local hotels, campgrounds and restaurants, allowing visitors to park and ride to the main gate of Zion.
The second shuttle service runs through the center of the park with stops at the most popular trailheads. In the summer, vehicles are no longer allowed inside of this part of the park, so the shuttle is the best option of transport to the trailheads.
The shuttle operators offer guided tours on the ride up the valley, providing the passengers the history of the park as well as information on hikes, trail conditions and locations of restaurants, restrooms and water fill stations.
Accommodations and Dining at Zion National Park
As with most National Parks, there are a variety of options when it comes to accommodations. Hotels, motels and cabins abound in the neighbouring towns with Zion Lodge being the only hotel located inside of the park.
Zion has two campgrounds of its own, which offer car-style camping but no showers. Backcountry camping is also allowed, but permits must be obtained from the park rangers at the information station.
For those who wish to bring their pets, be warned that Zion National Park only allows dogs on one of its trails, and they are forbidden from the rest of the park. Because of this, many accommodations also do not allow pets. Make sure to check the current policies before you pack up your furry friend.
Located directly outside of the gate of Zion is an RV and tent camping site which offers free showers and is central to an in-town shuttle stop.
I highly recommend this location. My husband and I tent camped, and our site was private, near the river, came equipped with a picnic table, grill and fire pit and was conveniently located across the street from several fabulous restaurants (most notably the Spotted Dog) for the nights we decided to skip dinner over the fire.
For the nights we did decide to cook, the general store located at the entrance of the park contained easy grill food, a surprisingly abundant choice of gourmet cheeses and even replacement camping gear as our camp stove failed to make it into the car and our tent was missing a pole. We appreciated its convenient location and reasonable prices.
The most popular hikes at Zion National Park
While there are many great hikes off the beaten track at Zion, my husband and I focused on the most popular hikes of the park for our first visit. The following four hikes can be accessed via trailheads which are all stops along the free in-park shuttle.
Consisting of a 5 mile round trip up 21 switchbacks, through a narrow canyon and topped with a .5 mile hand-over-hand boulder and chain crawl along a ridge which is at times 3 feet wide and 1,200 feet to the canyon floor, Angel’s Landing is Zion’s most popular hike as well as its most thrilling.
Not for the faint of heart or for those with a fear of heights, but for all others in search of a challenge and iconic view down the canyon, make it part of your must do list. It is listed as strenuous, and in the heat of summer, temperatures can reach to over 100 degrees, so remember to bring water. Rangers advise at least 2 liters per person per hike to combat the desert heat.
Debated as one of the best trails in all of the National Park System, the Narrows offers an unusual hike for nature enthusiasts. The term trail is misleading, as it is actually a walk up and down a canyon, in the river.
Depending on the time of year, hikers will spend 60-70% of the hike ankle, knee, waist or shoulder deep in water.
The canyon soars hundreds of feet above you and is at times 30 feet from wall to wall. There is a danger of flash floods and sections of the trail with no high ground, so it is best to be prepared and check with the rangers regarding weather conditions for the day.
There are two ways to hike the Narrows, either as an up and back day hike or a through hike. Up and back hikers can travel 6 miles up and back without obtaining a backcountry permit.
For those wishing to hike the entire 16 miles of the trail, obtain a permit from the information center, and consider making it a two day camping adventure.
The Zion Adventure Company offers rental equipment for this hike, including canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, walking sticks, dry bags and dry suits for cooler weather. They also offer maps and tips for the hike.
Located near the middle of the park, the Emerald Pools is actually made up of three trails, the lower pool, middle pool and upper pool, with the lower pool being the easiest and the upper pool being the most challenging.
All three trails are connected and it is easy to incorporate them all into one long hike if you wish, the entirety which should only take a couple of hours. Those hikers interested in only the challenging trails should not skip the lower pools however, as they offer a walk behind a 100 foot waterfall.
Not advertised on the shuttle service (as its trailhead is located behind the visitor’s center) this little jewel was recommended to me by a regular Zion hiker. Barely used, this trail is a contrast to the highly popular Angel’s Landing, Narrows and Emerald Pools, and walkers get to feel that they are discovering Zion as its first visitors.
This hike is moderately difficult in its climb (450 foot gain), and can be hot, so remember to bring water. Because of its light usage, we encountered much more wildlife on this trail, and were often tripping victims of scurrying lizards.
The top of the trail opens up on a plateau with a circular hike allowing views of different parts of the valley with every turn a photographic opportunity.
Hiking is not for everyone, and Zion National Park offers trails which are wheelchair accessible and lookout points which are only a hundred feet from the shuttle stops. The park also offers trail rides from their stables located at the trailhead for the Emerald Pools, and an air conditioned IMAX theater.
The Zion Adventure Company rents tubes and coordinates rides for the adventurer who would rather float than climb.