Kolob Canyon

The American Field Trip Guide to Zion National Park

Where it’s located:

Southwestern Utah

Best for:

  • Jaw-dropping scenery
  • Canyoneering
  • Hiking

Where to stay:

  • Inside the park, the South campground is first come, first served, while the Watchman campground takes reservations. There’s backcountry camping too, if you secure a permit.
  • The little town of Springdale is located just outside Zion’s South Entrance and has plenty of options for lodging and camping (book ahead if you can—Zion is very busy from early spring through late fall and on winter weekends, too.)
  • East of the park, the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort is a great option, especially for families and large groups, as it has lots of activities on-site (horseback riding, zip-lining, a rock climbing wall, pools, etc.)

How long to stay:

The longer you can stay, the better. But if you’re pinched for time, we’d say to give Zion at least 2-3 days to give yourself time to see the sites and do a few hikes.

The shuttle:

  • From early- to mid-March through October, cars are not allowed to drive through Zion Canyon.
  • Instead, you can take the park’s excellent shuttle, which leaves from the visitor’s center every 15 minutes or less, gives a guided narration while driving, and stops at all the major hiking trails and points of interest.
  • If you’re entering the park after about 10 a.m. during the high season, consider parking in Springdale and taking the shuttle from there, as the Visitor’s Center parking can fill up fast.

When to go:

  • There’s no bad time of year in Zion, but temperatures are most mild in spring and fall.
  • In summer, the temps and crowds soar, but it’s a good time to hike the Narrows. If you’ll be in the Narrows or any narrow or slot canyon, be aware of the potential for flash floods, especially in the late summer—talk to a ranger and get the forecast before you go.

Pair with:

  • Zion is near tons of treasures in southern Utah, Arizona and the Las Vegas area.
  • Bryce Canyon National Park is only about an hour and a half away (and at a much higher elevation, it’ll help you beat the heat during the warmer months.)
  • You could also easily hit any of Utah’s other National Parks, the Grand Canyon, or the terrific state parks in the area, such as Snow Canyon, Kodachrome Basin, or Coral Pink Sand Dunes.


  • Zion boasts some of America’s top-rated day hikes, Angel’s Landing being the best known. A visit here isn’t complete without a hike, even if it’s just the short Riverside Walk or Weeping Rock trails.
  • If you have previous experience, Zion is a treasure-trove of canyoneering options (get a permit before you go!); if you’re a beginner, one of the guide companies based in Springdale can take you (though they don’t operate inside the actual park, you’ll get a similar flavor in a spot nearby.)


Despite its small size, Zion has loads of hiking: more than 100 miles in the Virgin River Canyon section alone.

A few standout trails:

Angel’s Landing:

Often named as one of the best day hikes in the world, this 5.4 mile round-trip trail is super popular and boasts epic views of Zion Canyon. It’s very steep and very exposed; go if you have strong quads and no fear of heights. 

Observation Point:

A tough 8-miler, but much less exposed than Angel’s Landing, this is a great option if you want killer views without the scariness of Angel’s Landing.

Canyon Overlook:

Want an incredible canyon view without a tough hike? Head to the east side of the park through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and stop right on the other side for the easy, one-mile RT Canyon Overlook trail. This is a fantastic hike, with views down into the slot canyon below and an amazing pay-off. Great for families (just keep a hand on your kids during the few short exposed sections.)

Watchman Trail:

For great views of the stunning watchman peak, take this 3-mile RT trail to an overlook above the canyon floor. There’s little to no shade here, so if you’re hiking in the heat, take lots and lots of water!

Emerald Pools:

An easy trail that leads to several little pools carved in the rock, this is a great family hike.

Riverside Walk:

At the end of the road into Zion Canyon, hop out of the shuttle (or you car, during the off-season) for the easy, paved one-mile Riverside Walk. You’ll end at the Virgin River (and if you were hiking the Narrows, this is where you’d begin), and it’s a pleasant, shady spot to splash in the river or play in the sand.

Zion Narrows:

This is the section of canyon upstream from the Temple of Sinawava and it’s a popular and justifiably famous slot-canyon hike, with gorgeously sculpted narrow walls shooting up from the Virgin River. As a day hike, you can take follow the Riverside Walk to its end and continue up the river as far as you want to go before turning around and retracing your route. Outside of peak summer months, definitely wear a wet- or dry-suit (you can rent them outside the park)—the Virgin River is COLD. For a more rigorous backcountry experience, look into getting a permit to hike the Narrows Top-Down Route. 

Bringing Kids?

Zion is a great park for families, with a range of trails for all abilities, great ranger programs, and a handy shuttle system. A few trails that are particularly great for kids include the Riverside Walk, Emerald Pools, Canyon Overlook and Weeping Rock.

Beating the crowds:

Zion is one of America’s most-visited National Parks and is extremely crowded during the summer months especially. But if you want to escape the fray, there are plenty of ways to do it!

  • The Upper East Canyon on the eastern side of the park has dozens of drainages and slots to explore and driving its road is incredibly scenic. While the road can still be busy, you’ll likely find some solitude once you’re out hiking. There are few marked trails in this section of the park, so please check with a ranger on where you can go, and stay on rock or in sandy washes to avoid crushing any plants or cryptobiotic soil.
  • The Kolob Canyon section of Zion (40 miles north of Zion Canyon) isn’t nearly as popular as Zion’s more southerly end, but it has beautiful cliffs, tall mountains, the second-longest free-standing arch in the world, and some great hiking.
  • Cable Mountain and Deertrap Mountain are both strenuous hikes, but the trails are very quiet and the views are spectacular.
  • Hidden Canyon and Observation Point are less popular than Angel’s Landing and would both make for great long hikes to escape the fray.
  • If you want to see the scenery of Zion Canyon without worrying about parking or taking the shuttle, bring your bike along! From mid-March through October, when personal vehicles aren’t allowed into the canyon, you can skip the shuttle and bike the road instead. The only traffic will be the shuttles, and you’ll be able to move around at your own pace and take in the breaktaking scenery in the open air.

Final Tips:

As with all the national parks, the more you know about what you’re seeing, the more you’ll appreciate it! Be sure to check out the exhibits in the visitor’s center, talk with a ranger, watch the introductory park movie, and try to hit a ranger program or two. You won’t regret taking the time to learn more—we promise you’ll get more out of your experience!

  1. Thank you for all the tips on Zion. A little story for you: I was on a big roadtrip in 1983 with two friends and we spent a few days in Zion. This was 8n June, and before the shuttle system existed. We hiked Angel’s Landing trail and, no lie, we encountered maybe 5 other people on the trail that day! So, 34 years later (2017) I finally got a chance to return to Zion in December, and I’m thinking “this will be great, off-season and hardly any visitors”. Well, duh, what was I thinking. My mind was absolutely blown by the numbers of people crowding into that tiny park!! So much for an intimate nature experience. The Angel’s Landing trail looked like the Chilkoot Trail during the Alaska gold rush! I am just so glad I got to see so many Nat’l Parks back in ’83. I didn’t realize how good I had it at the time! Glad for your tips, though. I will seek out the quieter places next time I go.

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