Carved by water and time, Zion National Park is a canyon that invites you to participate in the very forces that created it. In the warm climate of southwestern Utah, step into the Virgin River and see the colorful strata that mark the ages rising for thousands of feet up to a narrow strip of sky, then hike to seemingly impossible places and heights.
Zion National Park’s canyons and mesas boast an especially exquisite beauty, even in a state known for dramatic landscapes. Breathtaking Zion Canyon is the centerpiece of this 147,000-acre parkland that protects a spectacular landscape of high plateaus, sheer canyons, and monolithic cliffs.
Opportunities to see and explore Zion National Park abound for people of all ages and abilities, from the scenic byways that slice through the park to the trails that wind through the backcountry. Wildlife watchers can stop at numerous lookouts and search the sky for Zion’s more than 200 bird species, while hikers can strap on their boots and venture out on trails ranging from easy interpretive nature walks to lengthy, challenging hikes through narrow slot canyons. Hiking in Zion National Park is major reason why many people visit.
Rock climbers know Zion National Park for its immense rock walls of red and white Navajo sandstone that rise more than 2,000 feet into the sky. If you look closely, you might even spot some climbers carefully making their way upward, mere specs on a vertical landscape. You may be curious but think such a rock climbing and bouldering experience is out of your reach. Not necessarily – several local guiding outfits offer beginner classes and guided climbs in areas near Zion National Park.
And when you’re done taking in the park’s beauty, you can kick back in one of Zion’s campgrounds and enjoy some family fun while you wind down and plan your activities for the next day. It’s not always easy deciding what to do in such a remarkable environment, but hey, that’s a good problem to have!
Must-See Zion Guide
The hiking in Zion National Park is world famous. Hikers of all abilities will find trails that lead to sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches, and narrow canyons. Remember, it’s always a good idea to stop in the Visitor Center for information and to consult with a ranger about conditions before setting out on a hike.
Many rewarding yet relatively easy day hikes for families can be accessed in Zion Canyon. The Pa’rus Trail and the Riverside Walk are two wheelchair accessible hikes that offer a great sampling of Zion’s incredible scenery. The Pa’rus Trail follows the Virgin River between South Campground and Canyon Junction, while the Riverside Walk takes hikers to the start of the famous Virgin River Narrows – don’t go beyond there unless you are an experienced canyon hiker!
Those in search of additional easy day hikes, including families with small children, will want to check out the Emerald Pools Trails and its spring-fed pools, waterfalls, and views of the canyon; the Weeping Rock Trail that leads to a spring where water emerges from the Navajo sandstone after seeping some 2,000 feet through the rock; and the slightly longer Canyon Overlook Trail, which runs to a high overlook immediately above the Great Arch, commanding gorgeous vistas of the lower reaches of Zion Canyon.
Experienced hikers in search of more adventure will find quite a few things to do in Zion. Consider tackling the Taylor Creek Trail, Angels Landing, The Narrows, and Kolob Arch. Backpackers in search of an overnight trip will love the West Rim Trail, the most popular backpacking trail in Zion National Park, which features easy access to remote country with striking vistas throughout the hike, and The Narrows (best hiked from the top down when backpacking). Note: Reservations for wilderness campsites are required and are often completely booked, so reserve your campsite in advance.
It’s not necessary to venture off the road to experience the wonders of Zion National Park. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is a 6-mile road that follows the North Fork of the Virgin River upstream from Canyon Junction through some of Zion’s most outstanding scenery. This road is closed to vehicle traffic from April to October, but regularly scheduled shuttle busses provide a great way to relax and enjoy the scenery, or stop to take a hike and then catch a later bus back down the canyon.
The Zion Park Scenic Byway (54 miles one way) follows Highway 9 from its western terminus at exit 16 on I-15 to its eastern junction with US 89 at Mount Carmel Junction. The road east from Zion to Mount Carmel Junction, completed in 1930, was considered one of the great road-building accomplishments in history at the time. As you climb switchbacks from the canyon floor to the two high plateaus to the east, passing through two narrow tunnels blasted through the cliffs, you will understand why it created such a sensation.
The Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway (5 miles one way) in the northwestern corner of Zion National Park features the same dramatic desert landscape associated with the main section of the park: towering colored cliffs, narrow winding canyons, forested plateaus, and wooded trails along twisting side canyons. What you probably will not find here are the crowds of visitors, so this is a great place to explore if you are seeking solitude.
Hotels and lodges are great, but if you really want to immerse yourself in the natural wonders of Zion National Park, then camping is a great way to do it.
Watchman Campground and South Campground are located in Zion Canyon and are quite popular, especially mid-March through November, so either make a reservation (Watchman only) or show up early in the day to get a site.
Watchman Campground, named for The Watchman, a famous rock formation that stretches 6,545 feet into the heavens, is situated on a bench above the North Fork Virgin River. Hackberry, ash, and cottonwood trees serve to shade campers. Watchman is the largest campground in the park with almost 200 sites, including group and walk-in sites.
South Campground is smaller (127 sites, no reservations) and is also located along the river. Campsites are shaded compliments of netleaf hackberries and Fremont cottonwoods.
Lava Point Campground is smaller (6 sites, no reservations and no water) and more primitive, ideally suited to tent campers, vans, and truck campers. The campground is located in north-central Zion and sits at 7,900 feet of elevation. For a magnificent view of the park and beyond, you can walk to the Lava Point Fire Lookout a few hundred yards to the east. From the lookout you can see the Pink Cliffs, The Narrows, and features such as The Sentinel in Zion Canyon. Don’t forget to bring your camera because this is one view you will want to bring home from vacation!
Birding and Wildlife Watching
With more than 200 species of birds, Zion National Park is a birder’s paradise. The Peregrine falcon, the bald eagle, and the California condor are all found in the 232 square mile sanctuary of Zion, nesting and resting in their native habitat without being disturbed. The threatened Mexican spotted owl also calls Zion home.
Zion National Park is an official global and state IBA (Important Bird Area), and Zion has been an important part of the recovery effort for the majestic Peregrine falcon, a species which was almost lost from the United States in the 1970s due to the use of DDT and other pesticides.
The park bird list is available at the visitor centers. So grab your best pair of binoculars and start looking toward the sky! Who knows what birds you might see and check off your life list. And while searching for birds, make sure you take time to observe other flora and fauna while walking along the trail, including the more than 1,000 plant species found in Zion as well as dozens of species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians – even fish!
Rock Climbing and Canyoneering
Anybody who has ever stood beneath a sheer rock wall in Zion National Park and gazed up at a climber scaling the heights like a lizard has felt the tug of curiosity: What would it be like to do that? Could I do that?
The answer is yes.
Make no mistake, Zion National Park is a true adventure climbing arena. The big walls are serious endeavors, and the bushwhacking approaches through inhospitable terrain are legendary.
But you don’t need to get that extreme to get a taste of what rock climbing is all about. Several companies in Springdale can introduce you to rock climbing at areas just outside the park (guided climbs are not allowed inside the park). Zion Mountain School (www.guidesinzion.com), Zion Adventure Company (www.zionadventures.com), and Zion Rock and Mountain Guides (www.zionrockguides.com) offer a full range of lessons and guided climbs for people with zero experience – even for kids as young as six.
Canyoneering is also one of the more popular things to do in Zion. However, it is a serious endeavor that often involves rappelling, swimming, and other skills. Those interested in canyoneering should contact one of the guide services that teach courses and lead trips into the park.
Zion National Park
Springdale, Utah 84767