Have you decided to visit Zion National Park in Utah? Arguably the absolute gem of the National Park system, Zion will undoubtedly be an unforgettable experience! The towering red rock, the evergreen trees, and the glittering Virgin River exquisitely come together to create one majestic and formidable landscape. With so many things to do at Zion National Park, it’ll be easy to please all ages and physical abilities. You’ll just have to find the time to fit them all in!
8 Spectacular Things to Do at Zion National Park
1. Driving the Zion-Mt. Carmel Scenic Highway is an absolute must. In fact, you should plan to drive it a couple of times. Prepare yourself for an impressive, incredible, and even imposing drive with monster slabs of gorgeous rock towering over you on all sides.
If possible, plan to arrive at the park from the Mount Carmel side of Route 9, which is easy to do if you’re coming from Bryce National Park. If you’re staying at the campgrounds or in Springdale, this first introduction to Zion will likely leave you wide-eyed, mouth agape. Its majestic beauty tells you loudly and proudly you’re not in just another National Park in the same way you’re not looking at just another portrait when you marvel at Rembrandt’s brilliance.
The road winds, dips, and ducks into tunnels for 12 miles. Traffic moves slowly, as road and weather conditions, the number of cars, and wildlife demands attentive driving. There are no bathrooms or other services along the route. Plan to have the water and food you need for the time you’ll be out on the drive.
There are scenic pull-offs, but they’re small and often come up suddenly. Drive slowly to not pass one by because U-turns are all but impossible. While stopped, spend time taking in and exploring the terrain. You might even come across a herd of mountain goats grazing on low shrubs and plants!
2. As you drive along the Zion-Mt. Carmel scenic highway, be sure to make Checkerboard Mesa one of your pull-offs. Its light grayish color stands out from the orange layers of sandstone forming the nearby mountains. Not to mention its namesake display of a perfect checkerboard line pattern. Checkerboard Mesa has its own viewpoint and for good reason. It deserves much more than a drive by.
Unlike Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, driving within Zion is largely restricted for much of the year, besides for the scenic road mentioned above. Instead, you’ll need to use the free shuttle system to go to and from the park. Depart from the Springdale Visitor Center and take the shuttle the full length of the drive to get a fuller sense of the park’s vast landscape. Along the way, sights like the Court of the Patriarchs and the Virgin River can be seen and photographed from the road or by walking along short paths to scenic viewpoints. Shuttles run frequently in both directions. I never waited for more than a couple of minutes. The hikes listed below can all be accessed from the 9 shuttle stops, except for the Canyon Overlook Trail.
3. Beginning with the last shuttle stop, Temple of Sinawava, the Riverside Walk is a must. The path is paved and mostly flat. You’ll wind along the Virgin River with opportunities to veer off the paved path and get closer to the water. The walk is 2.2 miles roundtrip and suitable for everyone. It’s not as flashy as some of the other hikes in Zion, but the walk through the trees with the mountains on either side of the river is peaceful and really lends itself to a relaxed pace as you take in your surroundings. I found the Riverside Walk to be one the prettiest spots in Zion.
4. It’s also from this part of the park where people come to hike the Narrows, one of the most iconic Zion National Park hikes. The Narrows is not a trail, but rather a steep canyon through which the Virgin River flows. Much of the hike is done by wading through the river. The day hike is roughly 10 miles out and back, although you can also go out and back for a shorter distance and have equally as memorable of an experience. If you do the full 10 miles, plan on it taking the full day. To go further, you must get a permit.
Check with shops in town and at the Visitors Center about renting gear like wading shoes/boots and walking poles. Also, check Zion’s website and again with the park when you arrive for the most up-to-date information about water levels and conditions. Flash Floods are a real danger and heavy spring snowmelt strengthens the river’s current. Both of these events will most likely close down the hike.
Hop back onto the shuttle and head towards stop 8, Big Bend, and stop 7, Weeping Rock. Big Bend is a popular photo-op spot for the Angel’s Landing trail high above. You’ll actually be able to see hikers along the rocky cliffs, as well as an excellent outline of the hike.
Visiting Zion National Park soon?
5. After capturing a few photos, head toward Weeping Rock and make the short, steep climb. The rock has a constant drip or flow of spring water coming out of it. This creates a moisture-rich environment for plants and “hanging gardens” to develop. In spring, when I visited, these “gardens” were just beginning to grow.
6. Following the shuttle stops back, number 6 is the Grotto and the place to get off for the popular Angels Landing hike. If you plan to hike to Angel’s Landing, arrive earlier in order to avoid significant crowding, especially along the last bit of narrow ledge rock scrambling. At 2.7 miles of one-way steep, uphill walking and climbing, Angels Landing is more strenuous than not. Follow the series of switchbacks to weave your way up the mountain. My next Zion post will be dedicated solely to this hike, but it’s important to note here this hike is NOT for young children or anyone afraid of heights. At its highest points, you’ll be clawing on all fours to get to the top with a steep drop-off on either side of you. The hike and the accompanying views are absolutely spectacular, but all precautions must be taken. The risk is real.
7. As an alternative to Angel’s Landing, many people opt for the shorter (just 1-mile round trip) and much more moderate hike along the Canyon Overlook Trail. The tricky thing about this hike is actually the parking, which is a small pull-off area along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Scenic Highway. As with all the pull-offs, the parking area fills quickly so arrive early!
8. The Zion Lodge is at the 5th shuttle stop. Here you’ll find bathrooms, a place to refill on water, and even a small cafe. The horse corrals are across the way and lead regular horseback riding excursions through the park. You can also access the Emerald Pools hiking trails here. The Lower Emerald Pool hike is easy and takes about an hour or you can continue on to the Upper Emerald Pool and the Kayenta Trails for a longer trek.
Light waterfalls form as water flows from the upper pools to the middle and lower pools. The constant moisture makes the area especially lush, and on a sunny day, the Virgin River sparkles! The Emerald Trails are popular. Be prepared to share the trail and the views.
Are you planning a visit to Zion National Park? Be sure to know the tips you need for a successful Zion visit! Looking for ways to save money on National Park visits? Check out my 5 tips!
What things would you most like to do at Zion National Park?
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