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Traveler's Checklist: Zion National Park


Zion is an incredible display of geology, and a great place to enjoy. Photos top to bottom: Court of the Patriarchs at sunrise, Kolob Arch, canyoneering in Zion, Zion Narrows. Top and bottom photos courtesy of QT Luong,, used with permission. Second photo by Kurt Repanshek, third photo NPS.

It's easy to be overwhelmed once you pass through the Springdale entrance into Zion National Park. Towering sandstone ramparts soar overhead, and the walls seem to squeeze in on you as you enter Zion Canyon.

With the Watchman, a 6,545-foot sentinel over your right shoulder and the 7,810-foot West Temple off to your left, it can almost feel as if you're about to be swallowed by the shimmering red-rock canyon. Venture into the canyon, though, and you'll be amply rewarded with gorgeous scenery, great hikes, and if you're staying at the lodge, a wonderful place to end the night.

But Zion National Park is more than just its namesake canyon with the Virgin River running through its heart. There's the Kolob Canyons area in the northwestern tip of the park with its great hiking and stupendous rock arch, the Checkerboard Mesa that pinches the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway as it heads east out of the park, and, of course, the sweeping backcountry ready to be explored.

To help you plan your trip to Zion, here's a quick checklist to point out some of the highlights:

* Reserve a bed. If you're not comfortable sleeping on the ground, be sure to land a room at the Zion Lodge. Better yet, reserve a cabin. Built in 1927 by the Union Pacific Railroad, the cabins are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Just about a year ago the cabins got a much-needed makeover. Changes included the removal of carpeting and refinishing the original fir flooring, addition of custom-designed replica furniture by Old Hickory Furniture Company based upon an original dresser using oak and wicker, and the placement of cabin draperies and custom-made blankets to replicate the original Indian designs.

Lighting was fabricated to either match original fixtures or complement them. For example, a scroll design was replicated and used with a candle base to create new double sconces over each bed. The sconces were finished with black powder coating similar to original
lighting fixtures and drapery hardware.

On the comfort side, the cabins feature ceiling fans, air-conditioning, water heaters, desks with built-in power outlets, and beds with triple-sheeted, 300-count cotton.

* Study the history. Plan to stop at the park's Human History Museum, which lies just one-half mile inside the canyon from the Springdale entrance and is a regular stop on the park's shuttle system. While the museum has a rotating series of temporary exhibits, among the permanent ones are exhibits that trace the Native American history in the landscape, as well as the arrival of white pioneers and the evolution into a national park. Understandably, in light of the surrounding landscape, there are exhibits that explain how water has carved Zion Canyon.

There's no specific way to tour the canyon's attractions. You can go south to north, north to south, or skip around depending on your whim. But here are some of the attractions you definitely should consider seeing and or experiencing:

* Temple of Sinawava. This is at the head of Zion Canyon and serves as the gateway to Zion's famous "Narrows," a slot canyon whose walls soar in places to 2,000 feet while embracing the Virgin River. The Riverside Walk follows the Virgin River deeper into the canyon, and where it stops, if the water is low, you can easily step right in and continue to explore this towering slot canyon with its hanging gardens decorating the walls.

* Emerald Pools. This is a series of three pools, linked by a nice loop trail, that get their name from the color cast off by the algae that grow in them. The trailhead is across from Zion Lodge, on the west side of the canyon, and is reached by crossing a footbridge over the Virgin River. The lower pool, which always features a waterfall of varying size, is located a bit more than a half-mile from the trailhead. Middle Pool is 1 mile from the starting point, while the Upper Pool is another three-tenths of a mile farther.

* Weeping Rock. Kids, and most adults, love this in the summer when the canyon can feel like an oven. Located about halfway between Zion Lodge and the Temple of Sinawava, this feature is fueled by a spring coming out of the sandstone cliffside. The trail is but a half-mile, roundtrip, and leads to an alcove in the sandstone that in summer is lush with hanging gardens. You ascend nearly 100 feet in elevation from trailhead to alcove, and there are steep sections to pay attention to, but when it's 90 degrees and the sun bearing down, the walk to this moist garden is well worth the payoff.

* Angel's Landing. For some, this is the ultimate payoff of a visit to Zion. For others, the hike to the top is too dangerous and should be restricted to only the most capable of climbers. But for those with the nerve and the mountain goat ability to negotiate first Walter's Wiggles and then the sharp ridgeline to the lofty perch 5,990 feet above sea level, the payoff are the incredible views of Zion Canyon. This is definitely not recommended for those who fear heights, young children, or hikers without proper footwear (in other words, flip-flops are not recommended). Check out the ehike you can find on this page of the park's website to get an idea of what you'll encounter. The trail had some restoration work completed last fall, so the footing should be fairly good.

* Take A Hike. There are some great short hikes in Zion Canyon that lead you to shimmering pools of waters, and summer's cloudbursts can turn on incredible waterfalls toppling off the cliffsides. For a list of hikes, download this PDF guide from the park. 

* Watch Walls. Actually, this involves watching climbers inching their way up the sides of Zion Canyon. The spectators might not number as many as those in the Yosemite Valley watching climbers assault El Capitan, but watching nimble climbers work their way to the clifftops, if only for 10 or 15 minutes, is interesting. You can also watch for birds at the same time, as nearly 300 bird species pass through the park each year, including peregrines that nest on some of these cliffsides.

* Kolob Canyon. Though visiting this corner of Zion, which drew its name from Mormon cosmography -- Kolob is the "star nearest to the throne of God" -- requires some time in your vehicle, if this is your only visit to the park you should seriously consider the trek. While the drive along the 5-mile-long Kolob Canyons Road is pretty enough with its viewpoints and overlooks that help you understand the park's geologic basement, if you're not averse to a hike you can find one of the world's largest sandstone arches, 287.4-foot Kolob Arch. This corner of Zion also harbors Double Alcove Arch, which entails a much shorter hike to reach and doesn't disappoint.

* Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and Checkerboard Mesa. The highway is an attraction in its own right, as it zig-zags up out of Zion Canyon and then passes through a mile-long tunnel bored through the mountains between 1927 and 1930 at a cost of $1.9 million. The tunnel, which has six windows, or "galleries, that were knocked through the sandstone walls, was built to provide somewhat easy access between Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon national parks.

The Checkerboard Mesa draws its name from the criss-crossing lines carved into ancient sand dunes that were turned to rock.

* The backcountry. Venture away from civilization and Zion's backcountry offers an intriguing landscape to explore. Hardy hikers set their sights on the 16-mile Zion Narrows Trail, which starts north of the park and follows the Virgin River down through a deep slot canyon and ends at the Temple of Sinawava.

There also are canyoneering adventures, but you need the skills, equipment, and a permit to tackle these. Or you can join a trip led by a park approved outfitter.

For those seeking a more rustic camping experience than staying at either the Watchman or South campgrounds in Zion Canyon, but don't want to walk too far, the Lava Point Campground can be reached via the Kolob Terrace Road in the northern end of the park, about an hour from Zion Canyon via the Kolob Terrace Road. However there are just six sites here, and there is no available water.

The hike to Kolob Arch is 14 miles roundtrip, and is best done with an overnight spent in the backcountry. There are designated campsites, many along La Verkin Creek, that you can reserve through the park.

Double Alcove Arch is at the end of an easy, 2.5-mile-long trail that leads you past soaring cliffs and weary homesteaders' cabins.

* Springdale. This small gateway town is easy to walk and offers a nice mix of art galleries, restaurants, and lodging accommodations.

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Kurt, a "must do" adventure during a visit to Zion National Park is the 1 mile hike to the top of the Great Arch of Zion along the Canyon Overlook Trail to observe the rapidly changing colors and moods of Zion Canyon before sunrise.  This hike is especially memorable when there's a full moon out, as the moon sets over the Temples of Towers of the Virgin as the sun rises in the east. 

Here's another suggestion:  The view of the mouth of Zion Canyon from the top of the Rockville Bench on the south side of the Virgin River above Rockville, UT is a view seen by very few who visit this park, yet it's readily accessible (when the unpaved roads are dry) and very much worth the extra effort and time.  Drive the short distance from Springdale to Bridge Road in Rockville, UT, cross the Virgin River, and continue south and up 200 East along an unpaved road that winds high above the town of Rockville. Once on top of the cliff, geologically referred to as the Rockville Bench, explore the many of several outstanding vantage points.  The 180 degree panorama looking north into the mouth of Zion Canyon is truly exceptional.  Early morning or late afternoon light is best for photographs.  Bring along a tripod to capture the full extent of this impressive panoramic view. 

There are a lot of nice places to stay in Springdale and there is a free shuttle bus that takes one through the town, stopping every few blocks, right up to the park entrance. Get off the Springdale shuttle, walk across the bridge, and you are in the park's visitor center. From there one can pick up the park's shuttle that goes up the canyon to the Temple of Sinawava, stopping at all the major trail heads. Two favorite hikes from the Weeping Rock trailhead are Hidden Canyon and Observation Point. Double Arch in Kolob Canyon is serene. Best time for Emerald Pools is early morning. Take the earliest shuttle and you will have this very popular hike all to yourself. Birds will accompany you along the way and you will be able to hear the water trickling from above into the pools.

Zion is the center of a great summer vacation. Not far to the south is the North Rim of the Grand Canyon featuring the same scenery in a much quieter location. Not far to the north is Bryce Canyon, another great place to hike. From Zion to both the North Rim and Bryce, one takes the Zion to Mount Carmel road around hairpin curves, through a tunnel, and past the Checkerboard Mesa.

Watchman campground has electric hookups in all sites.  Ideal for powering A/C in a camp trailer without the need of a noisy generator.  Reservations are a must in summer, but apparently can be made perhaps a day prior in some cases.

The hike to Angel's Landing seems to have developed a bad rap during the past few years and most undeservedly so.  But for those who just can't stand the thought of exposed, unguarded heights, do yourself a huge favor and take the trail to Observation Point.  It has virtually the same view down Zion Canyon, is a much more user-friendly ascent, a larger "viewing platform" from the top of the ridge and has the added bonus of looking DOWN on Angel's Landing.  
Also, for those with more than a few hours to spend in the backcountry of the park do justice to your trip and hike the West Rim trail.  The easy way is from north to south, which just so happens to lead you back into the main body of the park just outside the town of Springdale.  It can easily be done securing a single overnight campsite.  Try and get site 1 or 2, about 10 relatively flat miles from the trailhead, near a fairly reliable water source (a spring that MUST be filtered) and are the closest to the plateau overlooking the greatest decent on the trail, encompassing some absolutely great views down the canyon from just north of the Angel's Landing area. The final trek is mainly downgrade and shaded from late morning thru evening and ends near some top-notch dining and R&R which might feel well-earned for those with limited backcountry experience.  Getting lost is virtually impossible, water is pretty easy to be had even in mid-summer and the shade is generally ample enough to ward off any sun-related issues.  Even the bugs tend to be minimal.
But no matter how long yourr'e allocating for your stay at the park one really should do the drive up to and through the Zion-Mt.Carmel tunnel.   Stop at the bottom of the switchbacks, look around and marvel at the engineering accomplishment that opened up the possibility of motorized travel through this remote region of the country.
You're welcome........

Don't forget the wild turkeys.

Dinner on the fly, as it were.

Dinner on the fly, as it were.

Hiking the Virgin River .... climbing Walter's Wiggle to Angel's Landing .... If you're a hiker you have to do it once, but not twice. LOL.  It was the ultimate challenge for this young 60yr old gramma. The almost straight-up ridge ascent with the help of chains should have been very unnerving, but it wasn't. The 3ft wide 'land bridge' midway up was the unnerving part.  Going down was just as hard as going up.  I just luved the parents with the 9month old on their back - NOT. Her parents took her to the top when she was little - so she had to do the same with her baby. 
Best part of the ascent was the rush for the coolness of the Virgin River.

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