Utah’s Crown Jewel
This is the final entry into the Lodge at Red River Ranch’s In-Depth series, which covers the national parks in detail. And, fittingly, we’re doing Zion National Park last. Zion is the most popular of Utah’s parks, the most developed, the most funded, and the most famous. In fact, it is often described as the “crown jewel of Utah’s national parks.” So we’re pretty excited to tell you all about it. We’ve already covered Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef (we even did a few bonuses, like the Burr Trail), so be sure to check those out too.
The Visitor Center
As with any national park, you gotta start at the visitor center. The Zion Canyon Visitor Center has tons of information about the history, geography, and geology of the park. You can get trail guides there for free. (You’re gonna need these. It’s also a good idea to buy a topographical map of the park while you’re there.) Plus, there is a cool educational video that provides great background info on Zion. But perhaps most importantly, you’ll want to go to the visitor center because that’s where you can get onto the Zion Shuttle.
The Zion Shuttle
The main attraction of Zion National Park is Zion Canyon. And throughout most of the year, the only way to get into Zion Canyon is via the shuttle system that operates in the park. The shuttles help keep vehicle traffic to a minimum in the canyon, which can’t support the amount of traffic that would otherwise ensue. You just can’t park 50,000 cars in a canyon. So you gotta get on the shuttle to see Zion Canyon. The shuttle loudspeakers play some interesting narration that describes the passing scenery, which is informative. The shuttle makes four stops in the canyon, which lead to some of the greatest hikes in the world!
Note: At the time of this writing the Zion Shuttle requires reservations. This is in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and in line with the park’s measures to keep everyone safe. Reservations can be made at recreation.gov.
Alright, this is what you came to Zion for. You’ve seen the visitor center, you’ve ridden the shuttle up the canyon, and now you’re ready to hike! Here’s the link to the complete list of day hikes in Zion Canyon. And here’s what we at the Lodge at Red River Ranch suggest that you do:
Canyon Overlook Trail – This trail is located to the east of the visitor center, just before crossing through the Zion-Mount Carmel Trail. It’s only a mile round-trip, with moderate elevation change. The trail leads to great views of the lower section Zion Canyon. There are some steep drop-off along the trail, but these are mostly fenced. Unlike the other trails in Zion Canyon, this one is access by personal vehicle. Parking is limited, so get there early.
Angel’s Landing – If you know anything about Zion National Park, it’s probably that Angel’s Landing is the most popular, most famous hike in the park. You’ve undoubtedly seen pictures of the hike – that famous chain section – and the views from the top on social media. And it’s all for good reason. While Angel’s Landing is a very strenuous hike, it’s well worth the effort to make it to the top. We promise you’ll never forget it. The trail is 5.5 miles roundtrip, with large, steep elevation changes. There are intense drop-offs along the hike, so don’t attempt it with children or with those who are afraid of heights.
Emerald Pools – If you’re looking for something a little more low-key, then maybe just hang out on the Emerald Pools trail. The first pool, Lower Emerald Pool, is easily accessed on a paved path, making it perfect for kids, wheelchairs, and strollers. Plus, it’s got a waterfall. Middle and Upper Emerald Pools are a moderate hike up the hill. It’s only one mile roundtrip to the Upper Pool. The cool, green, shaded trail makes for an excellent summertime hike.
The Narrows – The Narrows is, as the name implies, the narrowest canyon in the park. It’s a fun, dramatic, and very wet, hike. For most of the trail you’ll be hiking in the Virgin River. If you start at the Temple of Sinawava (where most people do) you can hike along the Riverside Walk for about a mile before you’ll have to hop in the water. Since there is some variation in the manner in which you can hike the Narrows, we suggest you look at this page here on the official Zion site.
Beyond Zion Canyon
Zion Canyon is amazing, but as with most national parks, there is always more to explore. In particular there are two other sections of Zion that are worth mentioning: Checkerboard Mesa and Kolob Canyon.
Checkerboard Mesa is the area to the eastern section of the park. You can access it via the famous Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. This tunnel is an impressive engineering achievement, especially considering it was built in the 1920s. At the time of completion, it was the most expensive road in America. On the other side of the tunnel is Checkerboard Mesa. There are lots of place to stop, and stretch, and look around this sandstone wonderland.
Kolob Canyon is the second area of Zion that we highly recommend. This section wasn’t part of the original park, but was annexed years later. It’s a red sandstone canyon with huge, rising monoliths. A scenic drive will take you to the top of the canyon. There’s some really fantastic hikes in Kolob Canyon too. We can’t recommend this section of Zion enough.
To enter Zion National Park, you’ll need to pay the park entry fee of $35 per vehicle. This gives you access to the park for a week. Other options, including annual passes, are available. See your options here.
There are three campgrounds in Zion where you can stay. The South Campground, Watchman Campground and Lava Point Campground. Lava Point is a primitive campsite about thirty minutes from the entrance to Zion proper. It’s first-come, first-serve. South and Watchman campgrounds, on the other hand, are fully developed, and must be reserved ahead of time at recreation.gov. Prices start at $20/night.
Zion does have one other accommodation option, which none of the other national parks in Utah have – a lodge that operates inside the boundaries of the park. Zion Lodge was built and managed by the National Park Service for many years, but has since been privatized. You can check out the Zion Lodge here.