Zion National Park Visitor Guide

Rate this story:

Each year, more than three million people visit Zion National Park for its plunging red cliffs, forested riverside trails and stunning slot canyons. Within the borders of the 229 square miles are high rocky plateaus, a maze of narrow canyons, the Virgin River and its tributaries, and precipitous rocky cliffs with condors soaring above.

Zion Canyon, the main canyon in the park, attracts many visitors with its majestic sights that are easily reached via short walks from pull-offs on Zion Scenic Drive. However, if you venture slightly farther from the road for camping, hikingbackpacking or canyoneering, the crowds wane and the natural beauty increases exponentially.

Visit in winter if you prefer solitude—many hiking trails remain accessible and you can often ski or snowshoe in the eastern part of the park, or on the high mesa just outside the park’s East Entrance.

The options for exploring Zion are vast, so we spoke with Steve Kasper, REI Adventures Zion National Park guide and expert. Included below are a few of his insider tips to get you off the main thoroughfares and into the wild.

Camping in Zion

Zion National Park has three campgrounds; all three have stunning views of Zion’s impressive rock walls. The campgrounds fill up quickly mid-March through November.

Watchman Campground (176 sites, most sites reservable): Watchman Campground is close to the South Entrance—the park’s main entrance. Tent and electric campsites are available year-round, and generators are not allowed. Eighteen walk-in sites serve cyclists. Reservable sites can be booked six months in advance. Find details about making reservations here. We recommend reserving a site by the river.

South Campground (127 sites, non-reservable): Located just past Watchman Campground, South Campground has 127 non-reservable sites. This campground does allow generators. More details.

Lava Point Campground (6 sites, non-reservable): Lava Point Campground has six primitive sites and is the quietest and most remote official campground in Zion. It has pit toilets and trashcans, but no water. Limited use of generators is allowed from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Camping here is free. More details.

Hiking and Backpacking in Zion

Hidden arches, sweeping cliffs, winding narrows, vast expanses of slickrock and cool and shady pinyon forests are just several of the highlights of hiking and backpacking in Zion.

Kasper says that many of the best Zion hikes don’t follow a specific trail, but rather involve explorations of a hidden side canyon, or an extended wander on exposed slickrock. Make sure you have a detailed map and compass and know how to navigate, especially if you venture off-trail. Also pack plenty of water because there are few natural sources to dip from.

A permit is required for any overnight stay in the Zion Wilderness and backcountry camping is permitted in designated backcountry sites. If you day hike The Narrows, the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, you’ll need a permit. Get more details on permits.



Zion Canyon Area

The most popular trails in Zion National Park are in Zion Canyon, which is accessible from the Zion Scenic Drive. From approximately mid-March until mid-November, Zion Scenic Drive is closed to cars but serviced by a free park shuttle. The shuttle schedule is subject to change, so check the Zion National Park Getting Around page for updates.

Hidden Canyon day hike (moderate to strenuous; 1.1 miles to Hidden Canyon entrance, one-way; 1 mile farther into canyon): Start this trail at Weeping Rock. At the first intersection, some people turn left toward Observation Point. Turn right instead, to hike toward Hidden Canyon. The trail is cut into the cliff and has chains attached to the cliff face for you to hold as you ascend to an 800-foot drop. Eventually the chains peter out at the entrance of the true mouth of the canyon. Most people stop here but Kasper recommends you keep going.

As you continue on, follow the narrow, sandy canyon with occasional chains to help you navigate around slickrock obstacles. The obstacles will become more difficult as you go, but if you keep at it you’ll eventually come to a small but spectacular hidden arch on the right side. It’s about 10 feet tall and big enough to walk through.

The most adventurous hikers can continue up Hidden Canyon along a progressively more difficult trail to a huge grotto about a mile beyond the arch.

Virgin River day hike (easy; 2 miles one-way): There’s no official trail along the Virgin River, but you can follow it for about two miles from Weeping Rock to the Temple of Sinawava. River washouts may force you onto the paved road for short stretches. For an easy downhill hike, take the free shuttle to the end of the line and walk back.

Chinle Trail/Coalpits Wash day hike (moderate; 15.5 miles round-trip): Experience the desert Southwest on this nearly flat hike. Start the Chinle Trail from the Anasazi Way Subdivision and wind through open desert toward the base of Mount Kinesava. You’ll see petrified wood and highly developed areas of cryptobiotic soil en route. There isn’t a trail in Coalpits Wash, but there is a well-beaten path that’s clear to the junction with Scoggins Wash, where you bear left to get to pools tucked between scattered boulders and splashing waterfalls. This hike is recommended for fall, winter or spring.

The Narrows day hike (moderate; 5 miles round-trip): This gorge, walled in with thousand-foot high cliffs, is one of Zion’s most popular hikes. You can do it as a two-day backpacking trip from the East Side or as a day hike (permit required).

For the day hike option, begin at the Temple of Sinawava and follow The Narrows until you reach Orderville Canyon, the first obvious side canyon on the right. Swim and scramble up the side canyon—it might be crowded at the beginning, but the crowds will thin as you continue into the cool, deep narrow slot. Along the way you’ll see natural springs and hanging gardens. The route is the river, so for most of the hike you’ll be wading, walking and sometimes swimming.

East Side Area

While some trailheads in this part of the park are signed, you can reach unmarked side canyons and great hiking from small turnouts off the main road between the Zion Tunnel and the park’s East Entrance. If you’re feeling adventurous, and don’t mind occasional rock scrambling and steep terrain, pull over, park and explore. The East Side is a great place to see bighorn sheep.

Checkerboard Mesa Canyon day hike (moderate; 1 mile to the pass at the end of the canyon, with the option to continue): Hike to Checkerboard Mesa from an unmarked pullout close to the East Entrance of Zion. Coming from the East Entrance, pass a large pullout signed Checkerboard Mesa. Park at one of the small pullouts several hundred yards beyond. Hike in the dry wash along the base of Checkerboard Mesa, named for the checkerboard pattern in the sandstone, via an unmarked canyon on the south side of the road. The canyon is on the west side of the mesa.

Observation Point day hike (easy; 6.4 miles round-trip to Observation Point): Most hikers get to Observation Point from Zion Canyon via a 2,200-foot, four-mile climb. You can avoid the crowds and the leg burn by reaching Observation Point through the east side of the park.

Take the paved North Fork Road to the dirt-road backcountry park entrance through Zion Ponderosa Ranch. There, Park Service signs indicate turns to Observation Point. Drive dirt roads to the eastern park border and then hike the East Mesa Trail for direct access to Observation Point without the climb.

Pine Creek day hike (moderate; up to 1 mile round-trip): Hike up narrow Pine Creek Canyon from a tiny parking lot on the east side of Highway 9 as it exits the tunnel. From there, descend into the dry wash on a rough trail near the bridge and hike upstream to get into a rarely visited stretch of narrows. (DO NOT hike downstream or you will immediately come to a technical rappel.)

The deepest, narrowest part of the canyon is several hundred yards long and sometimes flooded. You can follow Pine Creek upstream about 0.5 miles to the confluence with Clear Creek, a good turnaround point.

Other Trails

Some of the least traveled trails in Zion are in the heart of the park. They’re a bit harder to get to, but worth the effort.

East Rim Trail day hike or backpack (moderate; 11 miles one-way, car shuttle required; or backpack into Echo Canyon and back): The East Rim Trail offers sweeping views of Zion’s slickrock, but it also lets hikers trek through Zion’s majestic ponderosa forest.

Start from the East Entrance Trailhead and climb to the rim for views into Jolley Gulch and then Echo Canyon Basin, ultimately descending to the floor of Zion Canyon and finishing at Weeping Rock. Recommended in spring and fall.

West Rim Trail day hike or backpack (moderate; 16 miles one-way, car shuttle required): This high alpine trail takes you from the West Rim Trailhead near Lava Point to The Grotto in Zion Canyon, with sweeping views of Wildcat Canyon.

Traverse across the high alpine terrain before you drop into Potato Hollow, then climb out of it. At this point, either take the Telephone Canyon Trail for a shortcut to Cabin Springs or take the West Rim Trail that follows the canyon rim with views south and into Phantom Valley. Stop at Scout Lookout for the view straight down to the Virgin River, and follow the chains up near Angels Landing if you are not afraid of heights. Recommended for late spring, summer or fall.

Hop Valley Trail day hike (moderate to strenuous; 15 miles round-trip):This trail wanders through open fields with wide panoramic views of the area’s dramatic rock formations. As you near Hop Valley, the trail starts its decent. The sandy Hop Valley floor has dizzying vertical walls rising on both sides. Descend into La Verkin Creek for views of Kolob Arch, the world’s largest freestanding arch.

Trans-Zion Trek backpack (difficult; 47 miles one-way): It takes most hikers three to five days for this backpacking trip, which is a sampler platter of what Zion has to offer: deep canyons, high ridgelines, mountain creeks and exposed rocky rims.

Begin at Lee Pass to miss the steep hike up Lava Point. You’ll need to shuttle cars or get a lift from one of Springdale’s outfitters. The trail is logistically intensive—you may need to stash water and you will need to reserve campsites. Local outfitters will organize permits, campsites and cache water for you.

Canyoneering in Zion

Zion is considered the Mecca of Utah canyoneering. Most Zion canyons are deep and breathtakingly beautiful, with numerous rappels and a few swims. In popular canyons, well-established anchors are easy to spot, but in wilderness canyons you’ll have to set your own rappels. Wilderness canyons can be dramatic and very technical.

A permit is required if you plan to do any technical canyoneering. Get more information about canyoneering permits.

The Subway: This Zion classic combines hiking and canyoneering in the Left Fork of North Creek. To do the route top-down, you’ll begin the strenuous 9.5-mile hike at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead and exit at the Left Fork Trailhead. It requires rappelling skills, 60 feet of rope, and solid route-finding skills. You’ll swim through several deep pools of cold, debris-filled water. The Subway slot canyon is the grand finale when you do the route in this direction.

Because of the popularity of The Subway, the park created an online lottery for reservations during the peak season of April through October. The lottery does not run from November through March due to low demand, however, a permit is still required and can be obtained online. More details.

Rock Climbing in Zion

Zion’s grippy, 2,000-foot sandstone cliffs make a stunning playground for big wall climbers. Most routes are 5.10 and 5.11, but there are good 5.4s and 5.5s and some one- and two-pitch routes for climbers not ready for a big wall adventure. Nearly all of Zion’s routes are trad, with a few top rope or sport climb options.

Located in the heart of the park, Lady Mountain was once a popular hike that involved ladders, chains and cables. The route is now closed to hikers and the hardware has been removed, but climbers can still do this technical route. There are exposed 5.4 to 5.6 moves.

March through May and September through early November offer moderate temps, making these popular times to climb. During the summer, many of the big wall climbs are in full sun and temps on the wall can surpass 100-plus degrees. In July and August, afternoon thunderstorms are common. Don’t get caught, and don’t climb wet sandstone—it’ll break.

Permits are not required to day climb in the park, but you’ll need a permit if you plan to bivouac. Get more information on climbing permits.

Bouldering: There is a house-sized boulder 40 yards west of the south entrance to Zion Canyon popular with boulderers. Drilled Pocket Boulder, half a mile north of the south entrance on the west side of the road is also a popular bouldering spot—it’s a slab with a prominent south facing crack. More details.

Biking in Zion

Bicycles and park shuttle buses are the only vehicles allowed on Zion’s Scenic Drive from mid-March to mid-November. The road goes from Canyon Junction Highway 9 to the Temple of Sinawava. There’s one bus every seven minutes, and no other traffic, making it an ideal bike ride.

To do the ride, park at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and take the paved Pa’rus Trail, accessible to hikers and bikers only. At Canyon Junction leave the paved trail and pedal the main road the rest of the way. If you don’t want to ride the entire route, you can load your bike onto a bus and take it to the Temple of Sinawava. Hop off and enjoy the gradual downhill bike ride back to the visitor center. The ride is about 7.7 miles one-way.

Winter Activities in Zion

Zion National Park generally receives mild temperatures and little snow accumulation on the canyon floor throughout winter, making hiking and biking possible year-round. Some of the park’s southern routes, often too hot to hike in summer, make excellent winter excursions. Hiking trails can have snow, ice or mud in spots, so check conditions, and bring hiking crampons.

The East Rim can have deep snow—often enough to snowshoe or cross-country ski in December and January. The East Rim Trail may have enough snow for snowshoeing or skiing. The deepest snow is usually just outside the park toward East Mesa. In snowy conditions, be prepared to stop when the snow gets too deep to drive through, and to ski or snowshoe from there. North Fork Road is not maintained in winter beyond Zion Ponderosa Ranch.

The park shuttle doesn’t operate from approximately mid-November to mid-March, so you can drive Zion Scenic Road at your own pace. The shuttle schedule is subject to change, so check the Zion National Park Getting Around page for updates.

Birdwatching in Zion

California condors were mostly wiped out by the early 1980s, with only 22 of these majestic birds left in the world. Thanks to a captive breeding program, the California condor is slowly coming back. Captive-bred birds have been released in California, Baja California, and the Vermillion Cliffs of northern Arizona in the past 30 years, and they’re now breeding successfully in the wild—the world population is now around 400. About 70 of these birds live wild in Arizona and Utah, and around Zion.

For a chance at spotting them, take a hike on the popular Angels Landing Trail. Follow the trail to Scout Lookout—about two miles and 1,000 feet off the canyon floor. Or, you can take the West Rim Trail to Lava Point to look down on condors soaring below sheer cliffs that plunge to the Virgin River.

Tips for Visiting Zion

The main canyon of Zion National Park is Zion Canyon. It’s home to the Visitor Center, Zion Lodge and the shuttle system. Many of Zion’s most popular trails and landmarks are here, which also means it’s the busiest part of the park.

The park’s East Side tends to have fewer visitors, and it’s less developed—many of the canyons in the East Side aren’t signed.

The Kolob Canyons section of the park in the north is one of the most spectacular parts of the park. Its signature scenery includes soaring red Navajo sandstone cliffs and finger canyons. There are few hiking trails in this section of the park, and the hiking trails that are here are very long day hikes, like the 14-mile hike to Kolob Arch. It’s worth checking out, but most people see Kolob Canyons from the car.

Getting to Zion

Zion National Park is located on State Route 9 in Springdale, Utah. See the Zion Directions & Transportation page for information about traveling to the area.

Zion Fees and Passes

All park visitors must purchase a recreational use pass to enter Zion. Fees depend on the type of pass you choose, your method of transportation and your age—youth 15 and under are free. Opt for a weekly pass or upgrade to an annual pass if you plan to visit other Utah National Parks. The America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass covers all national parks and federal fee areas. More fee details.

Zion Weather

Visit the Zion National Park weather page for current and predicted weather, water and wilderness conditions, as well as any park alerts.

Zion Maps

National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps do an excellent job of showing campgrounds, trailheads, trail mileage, scenic overlooks and interpretive trails. There are also excellent maps available online from the National Park Service.

Shop REI's selection of Zion National Park guidebooks and maps.

Food and Supplies in Zion

There is a full restaurant as well as a snack bar at Zion Lodge, which is inside the park. You cannot purchase groceries inside the park, and only limited camping supplies are available from the Zion Lodge gift shop.

Springdale, a small town at the mouth of Zion Canyon, has restaurants, cafeterias, snack shops, grocery stores and outfitters where you can buy last-minute camping gear. If you’re looking for a larger grocery store, or you can’t find what you need in Springdale, drive to La Verkin, Hurricane, or St. George.

Special Concerns in Zion

Flash floods: Many visitors come to Zion to visit its narrow slot canyons. When it rains, flash floods—which can happen instantly and unexpectedly in those canyons—are a serious and life-threatening danger. Before you go canyoneering, check in with the nearest visitor center or backcountry office for a weather update. Permits are required to enter slot canyons within the park boundaries.

Rock fall: While there’s no need to hike with a helmet on, rock fall can also be a hazard inside Zion’s slot canyons and near its cliffs, particularly after it rains. Saturated sandstone is weak and can fall. If you’re canyoneering, wear a helmet.

Steep cliffs: Whenever hiking, be careful around steep cliffs. Loose sand or pebbles on stone are very slippery. And, never throw or roll rocks. There may be hikers below you.

Drinking water: Don’t underestimate how much water you’ll need while hiking in the desert. It’s recommended that you carry at least one gallon per person per day. Water is available at visitors centers, campgrounds, Zion Lodge and some shuttle stops. Water from streams and rivers must be treated before drinking.

REI Adventures guide, Steve Kasper, contributed to this guide.

Related Articles

The Ten Essentials

Backpacks: How to Choose

Backpacking: Training Tips and Exercises

Travel with REI Adventures

Zion National Park Trips

No more articles