You’ve probably heard of the majestic Angel’s Landing and The Narrows, but Zion actually offers tonnes of other trails and landmarks you won’t want to miss. Delve into this comprehensive guide to the best things to do in Zion National Park.
Zion National Park is a bucket list trip for more travellers than almost any national park anywhere. Don’t believe me? The relatively compact stretch of Southern Utah’s high desert, with its majestic slot canyons, scenic Virgin River, and famed hiking trails, draws more than 5 million people every year.
Every time I’ve been to Zion, I love it a little more but my last trip to Southern Utah was a joy. Aside from landing in the ER after an attack by a bat (seriously), I packed in plenty of great hikes, shot some brilliant photos of the International Dark Sky Park and learned about the history and geology at the museum and out on the trails.
And now I’m sharing that joy with you – this guide covers everything you want to see, do, and photograph in Zion National Park. Let’s adventure!
Best Things to Do in Zion National Park
Take the Mount Carmel Highway Scenic Drive or the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
Let me start by saying that one of the prettiest road trips in the USA is the road to Zion. In fact, both the scenic drive through the canyon and Mount Carmel Highway Scenic Drive are show-stoppers.
The 40 km (25-mile) route on Highway 9 takes you through windy mountain roads and some of the most scenic areas in the park, like the canyoneering favourite Checkerboard Canyon. Don’t miss the chance to drive through the 1.1-mile tunnel, which runs East-West and even has windows etched out to allow passengers to see the scenery when driving through.
Alternatively, you can ride along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, allowing access to many famous trails and Zion National Park activities.
The official Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to cars from March to November due to crowds and traffic. But you can still take the Zion-Mount Carmel Drive nearly any time of year.
Hike Along the Watchman Trail
It’s funny. For as close to the visitor’s centre as the Watchman Trail is, it’s nowhere near as popular as you’d think. Maybe that’s part of why I love it so much.
The cool thing about this trail is just when you think you’ve seen the best of it (where many hikers mistakenly turn around), it gets even better.
Once you hit the first plateau, continue counter-clockwise on the loop trail for even better vistas. This 5.3-km (3.3-mile) route allows you to capture a few different vantage points of the famous 1,995-metre (6,545-foot) sandstone cliff on the way back, but also gives you an excellent view of Bridge Mountain.
The main trail is easy to find from the visitor’s centre. Just follow the signs across the paved road near the parking lot to start. After the first plateau, look for the path to my favourite viewing areas.
Trek up the Summit to Angel’s Landing
Angel’s Landing. It hardly needs an introduction, but if you’re familiar with the 454-metre (1488-foot) Jurassic-era rock formation, you already know it’s a force to reckon with.
Real talk: I didn’t venture up to the summit on my last trip to Zion. I consider myself a proficient hiker, but that drop-off straight into the abyss (some of it without guardrails) was enough to keep me content snapping photos below.
But if the 8-km (5-mile) trail with nearly 460 metres (1,500 feet) of elevation change sounds like a walk in the park, you can apply via lottery for a spot the night before your visit.
If you want to do the hike, you can apply via online lottery 2-months before your travel dates or the night before. Find more information here. Winners need to carry a copy of the permit with them, which you can download to show proof of registry.
Hike Through the Narrows
Arguably the most famous hike in the park, The Narrows are certainly one of the most unique. Intrepid travellers who brave the often icy waters to the scenic rapids at Big Springs will experience gorgeous scenery from start to finish.
There are a few things you’ll want to know going in. You can face some challenging and even dangerous circumstances when walking the 16-mile path through a 2,000-foot high slot canyon. Rain and snow can cause perilous conditions like icy-cold water and flash flooding.
You can do this hike alone if you apply for a permit, but I’d recommend a guided tour for most hikers.
Stargazing in the Park
There are few places as mesmerising as Zion after the sun goes down. While you can choose just about any area around the canyon and enjoy the International Dark Skies Park, I have a few favourites.
Set yourself up with a good camera or telescope a ways down the Pa’rus Trail, and you’ll have a great chance to capture the Milky Way and other celestial wonders with minimal light pollution.
Astrology apps go a long way toward making sense of what you see in the night-time skies. I like the Night Sky app, as it does a great job mapping out the constellations, making them easier to interpret. Photo Pills is also great for helping you see where the Milky Way will rise so you can set up your shot in advance.
Walk to the Lower Emerald Pools
Not every hike in Zion requires a high level of experience or training. One of the most popular trails in the park is an easy 1.4-mile stroll and one of the most scenic ways to reach the emerald pools.
The payoff at the end is gorgeous, with gorgeous green-blue waters you can photograph (but not swim in).
The bridge to the trail is closed right now, but you can access the pools by starting at stop #6 on the shuttle called The Grotto.
Spend a Night Camping
Camping in Zion is an excellent way to wake up and score a seat for the best sunrise along the Watchman Trail or even sleep under the Milky Way.
Zion is home to numerous spots where you can pitch a tent or park your RV. There are 3 official sites (South Campground is my favourite location), but you can also find well-established campsites on a walk-up or reservation basis in other areas like Chinle Trail and Kolob Canyon.
Explore Zion’s Desert Lowlands
One area of the park often overlooked by tourists is the Desert Lowlands. Several trails have unique and varying scenery, including cactus forests, succulents, and spectacular wildflowers in the spring.
If you go in the cooler months, you can try the challenging Chinle Trail, a 26.1-km (16.2-mile) trek with 575 metres (1,8860 feet) of elevation change.
It’s a cool part of the park because you see fascinating geology, like petrified forests and the volcanic rock at Coalpits Wash. You can also stay at one of several primitive campsites by reservation or on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Drive down Highway 9 West from Springdale until you reach Anasazi Way. Take a right and another about 150 metres (500 feet) into the Chick Trail parking lot.
Want the best view of Zion Canyon? Easy enough. Just take the short 1-mile out-and-back route up the Overlook Trail, and discover some of the most scenic views of Zion Canyon from over 600 metres (2,000 feet) above.
Take Highway 9 East through the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and look for the parking spots on your right when you exit.
Look for Wildlife
Zion is home to hundreds of animals, some of which you won’t see in many other places. Look for rare and exciting species like the Mexican Spotted Owl, Peregrine Falcons, Mountain Lions, and Desert Tortoises.
This diversity in wildlife allows you to capture some excellent nature photos while visiting Zion.
Remember to hike in groups whenever possible and to keep your distance from animals to protect them and yourself.
You may see wildlife any time of year, but late fall is a beautiful time as crowds begin to thin out.
Explore the Red Caves
Looking for an adventure you haven’t heard of in Zion? Just past Mount Carmel, you can find 2 sets of slot canyons known as the Red Caves. Both areas offer challenging hikes, but the Upper Cave is the most accessible since you won’t have to do much climbing
Your reward? Beautiful erosion patterns sweep high up the Navajo sandstone walls, giving you plenty of great photo ops.
You can get to both sections of the caves from Springdale in under an hour on Highway 9 East.
Stand Under Weeping Rock
Weeping Rock is a charming landmark where visitors can take a short hike from shuttle stop 7 to stand under the “raining” sandstone formation. It’s an easy 0.6km (.4 mile) trail, and catching some mist from the showers is especially welcome on the hottest days.
Take a Bike Ride Down Pa’rus Trail
The Pa’rus is one of the flatter trails in the park, so it’s great for beginners who want a mellow stroll through the valley while admiring the red rock formations like The Watchman from below.
A long but gentle pathway is ideal for a brisk walk, jog, or better yet – a bike ride along the Virgin River.
How do you get there? You can hire a traditional or e-bike just outside the park at several locations or go on a guided tour.
Explore Kolob Canyons
One area that many visitors overlook is Kolob Canyons. That means it’s a great way to separate from the summer crowds.
There are numerous trails in this section of the park, but my favourite is the Timber Creek Overlook Trail. It’s a 1.7 km (1.1-mile) out-and-back hike with beautiful views of Kolob Terrace.
Watch the Sunset at Kolob Terrace
Looking for a low key amazing spot to watch the sunset? This area has a few great locations along several trails, but Lava Point is my favourite.
You can walk up to the viewing point from Lava Point Road in a few minutes, making it a low-effort, high-reward trek.
Keep an eye on trail closures, as the roads close off due to extreme weather relatively often.
Winter is one of the most exciting times to visit Zion, especially when there’s a snowstorm or two in the days leading up to your arrival.
When the roads are open, and conditions are right, you can snowshoe on the East Rim Trail or Checkerboard Mesa for the more advanced adventurers.
No snow near the park? Don’t fret. You can ski or snowboard at Brian Head in the winter, which is only a 90-minute drive from the park.
Looking for things to do in Zion National Park besides hiking. Check out a guided tour where you can go canyoneering in a slot canyon if you’re keen to experience some adrenaline-pumping fun.
Don’t worry if it’s your first time out. The expert guides will set you up with a challenge for nearly any skill level so you can have a good time without pushing yourself too far outside your comfort zone.
Photograph the Court of the Patriarchs
You’ll find various religious references throughout Zion, and one of the most famous collections of red rock cliffs gets its name from Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac.
Dr. Frederick Vining Fischer, a methodist minister, coined the phrase, likely due to the impressive stature of the eroded sandstone towers. They’re some of the most photogenic landmarks in the park, and catching them at sunrise is a treat.
Visit Zion Human History Museum
Don’t look over this excellent museum, which has an impressive history collection from cultures living in the area for hundreds of years.
In this small but important museum, you’ll find artefacts and photos documenting the indigenous cultures, pioneer settlers, and wilderness in the park.
Get off at shuttle stop 2 and take a short walk over.
Take a Helicopter Ride Over Zion
If you’re looking for unique things to do in Zion National Park, taking a tour over the Crater Hill Volcano and West Temple offers unique perspectives of some of the most scenic mountains and valleys in the park.
You’ll fly over the Virgin River and red rock canyons with an expert pilot on this 10-20 minute guided helicopter tour.
Practical Tips for Your Zion Trip
Most visitors fly into Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and hire a car. Once you’ve made it to Zion, or at least somewhere close enough to plan your adventures over your trip, it’s time to plan how to get into the park.
If you’re camping in the South Campground, heading in as early as possible is your best option to find parking. Otherwise, take the shuttle from Springdale, which runs around every 15 minutes.
The Springdale Line has 9 stops near the most popular hotels. Then, you can take a Zion Line to your hiking destination. Check out the most current schedules here.
Other Top Tips for Your Visit
- Many of the best trails are in direct sunlight. Bring lightweight clothes in the summer, plus sunscreen, water, and a protective hat any time of year.
- If you want to discover another Utah national park, Bryce Canyon is only a 2-hour drive.
- When you look around at the cliffs, canyons, and valleys, remember they’re here because of extreme weather and erosion. Never get caught out on the trails before or during a rainstorm, as flash flooding is a serious threat.
- There are mountain lions that actively roam around Zion. You’re more likely to see them in remote stretches, but overall, your chances are quite low of any direct encounters.
How Long to Visit Zion National Park?
I know many people fit in some of Zion’s best attractions in 2 days. But I recommend 3-5 nights to see more of the area and leave without feeling like you missed out on anything.
Best Time to Visit
Many of the millions of visitors plan their trips for the summer months, and if it’s the only time that works for you, don’t hesitate to book.
But I find that the weather is unpleasantly hot, and when you combine that with the crowds on the most popular trails, I’d say it’s best to stick to shoulder season.
Visit in the fall to enjoy the best Zion National Park attractions and activities in cooler temperatures with smaller crowds.
Where Should I Stay in Zion National Park?
Best Western Plus Zion Canyon (Mid-Range)
Stay at the Best Western if you need a break from tent camping or would just rather have a comfy bed, outdoor pool, hot tub, and breakfast available to get you ready for your next day of exploring the national park.
SpringHill Suites by Marriott (Luxury)
If you’re looking for something a bit more luxurious, SpringHill offers king and queen suites in a contemporary setting, just minutes from the park in nearby Springdale.
The service, decor, and amenities are all on point, and the complimentary breakfast is a popular way to start each morning before hiking.
Things to Do in Zion: Map
More National Park Adventures
- Why You Need to Visit Capitol Reef National Park
- Unmissable Things to do in Grand Canyon National Park
- Yosemite National Park is Incredible: Here’s What to Do When You Go
- Brilliant Things To Do in Rocky Mountain National Park
Love This? Save and Share on Pinterest