Visiting Zion National Park

Vividly colored cliffs, steep flat walls jutting thousands of feet above narrow canyons, along with flowing streams and panoramic scenes of natural beauty are just some of the attractions that lure visitors to Zion National Park.  Located just north of Springdale, Utah, Zion is one of the most popular  parks in the National Park system. Zion National Park is located along the edge of the Colorado Plateau in an area in which the rock layers have been uplifted, tilted and eroded into a staircase of colorful cliffs running from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon.  The bottom layer of rocks at Bryce are the top layer at Zion, and the bottom layer at Zion are the top layer at the Grand Canyon.

Zion is known for its high plateaus, narrow, but deep canyons cut in sandstone and its stately rock towers and mesas. As the original flat the surface material was subject to erosion, ravines began to form and channel runoff into streams and rivers. These new agents opened even more of the surface to the  erosive agents of wind, gravity, rain, and the powerful force of  freezing and thawing. The result of this concerted action produced the magnificent landscape of Zion Canyon, which is known for its massive sentinels and narrow, sometimes wild, canyons.  The area’s rivers and streams continue to cut through the Plateau as they seek to flow to lower elevations.

Zion Canyon
Zion Canyon

Flowing water is still at work in the park and when it rains “up-canyon” the  small streams you observe on calm days can become raging torrents on others..   It has been observed by scientists that some of the rivers in the park can have their flow volume increased 100 times by intense thunderstorms. If you are going to hike in to remote areas watch the weather and pay attention to the information provided by the Visitor Centers about possible flooding.

It is important to know that the park is composed of a wide variety of sedimentary rock layers.  Some are  brittle and may give way when stepped on, others are slippery and some rock types have both characteristics.  Even worse when the weather turns  wet many of these rock layers are a danger for hikers and other rock scramblers.

There are two main entrances to the Park.  The most popular is the South Entrance near the town of Springdale, Utah.  There is an Eastern Entrance about ten miles east on the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. While the scenery along the eastern road is gorgeous, it does not quite reach the level of Zion Canyon.  If you desire more solitude than you will find in Zion, you can head up the Kolob road to the Lower Kolob Plateau area, although the Kolob Terrace Road is closed in winter.

Zion National park is closed to vehicular traffic. While there is parking lot near the South Entrance to the Park, it is easiest to park in nearby Springdale (there are 9 stops in this small town) and ride the free National Park Service Shuttle to the Park entrance and Visitor Center. A second shuttle route runs the six-mile long Zion canyon Scenic Drive and a ride on this delightful circuit lasts approximately 90 minutes. Buses run from dawn to dark, as often as every 7 minutes.  You can get on or off the shuttles at the stops of interest to you. See the park website for more details on the shuttle system.

Park elevations range from around 3,500 feet  to over 8,000 in the high country.  The Zion Canyon area is around 4,000 ft. in elevation, but everywhere from there is uphill (except the exits from the Park).

Availability and Admission Fee

The entrance fee to the park is $25 per private vehicle, $12 for pedestrian or cyclist. Admission is for 7 days. Discounts are available for seniors (aged 62 and older).

Open all year, although some facilities may be closed or offer reduced hours during some parts of the year.  The Zion Canyon Visitor Center (highly recommended) is open daily, except Christmas, and its hours are variable depending on the season.  At the very least, it is scheduled to be open from 8 am to 5 pm;  it is open later in summer and fall.  See the official Zion National Park website for more details on visiting.

There are a number of programs led by park rangers,  including walks and hikes, shuttle tours and an interesting evening program.  Trails that you might consider hiking include Weeping Rock Trail, Court of the Patriarchs Trail, Lower Emerald Pool Trail, Riverside Walk, Watchman Trail, Hidden Canyon Trail and Angels Landing Trail. See this downloadable file from the Zion National Park website for a thorough introduction to the Park and its programs.

Camping

Zion has three campgrounds, two of which are in Zion Canyon while the other is in Kolob Terrace, about an hour’s drive north.  Reservations for the campgrounds in the Canyon are recommended.  See this page from the National Park Service Website on Zion for more details on camping.

Best Time to Visit

Zion experiences a wide range of weather conditions  throughout the year and  extreme  changes from day to night temperatures of over 30 degrees  are possible anytime of the year. .

Summer days are warm and sometimes hot, but nights are usually mild. Afternoon thunderstorms are common mid-July through mid-September and flash flooding in some of the narrower canyons is a possibility when this happens.

We think that  September and October are the best times of year to visit Zion. The autumn color change in foliage usually start in September in the high county and peak in Zion Canyon in late October. Winter is the most challenging season for a visit and you should be prepared for winter driving conditions anytime from from November through March (when precipitation peaks).   As you know, weather can be variable and the guidelines we have provided here may not be exactly the weather you experience on your journey.

Lodging and Nearby Places

The nearest major airports are Las Vegas, Nevada (164 miles) and Salt Lake City, Utah (309 miles).

Many visitors prefer to stay at the Lodge at Zion National Park.  You can find more about the lodge here,  as well as make reservations.  As in the other National Parks in Utah, the reservations are provided by Xanterra, a company that holds the exclusive license to manage the lodging properties within the park.

A wide variety of lodging and restaurants can be found in Springdale, Utah, just outside the park.  Springdale is a pleasant, little town, with some excellent pizza parlors and modest shopping.

Bryce Canyon National Park is  approximately 54 miles to the east of Zion, while the Grand Canyon’s North Rim is around 128 miles.  The Grand Canyon’s panoramic South Rim is 248 miles, a function of the fact that you need to detour around the Grand Canyon to see see the South Rim.

Death Valley National Park is 286 miles southwest and should be combined with a visit to Las Vegas (142 miles), as long as you are in the area.  If you do wander down to Vegas, you will enjoy the ride and might want to take at quick look at St. George, Utah (45 miles) one of the fastest growing cities in Utah due to its attractiveness as a retirement community for those attracted to the great outdoors.