Zion Travel Tips
Zion National Park Logistics
Location: Zion National Park is located in southwest Utah, easy to reach from I-15 via UT Highway 9. Zion National Park is about 3 hours northeast of Las Vegas and about 5 hours southwest of Salt Lake City. Zion has two park entrances, both on Utah state Route 9. One is 33 miles east of Interstate 15 and the other is 12 miles west of U.S. 89. Zion is a great addition to itineraries that include Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Lake Powell and Grand Canyon National Park.
Geography: The jaw-dropping geography of Zion National Park is a result of the Virgin River slicing through thousands of feet of layered Navajo sandstone to create dramatic and steep-walled Zion Canyon. Originating from snow-drifts atop the 9,000-foot-high Markagunt Plateau, the Virgin River flows through a spectacular landscape of high plateaus, sheer canyons, and monolithic cliffs. Zion Canyon itself is like a desert oasis, with the Virgin River’s cobbled banks are lined with groves of box elder, willow, cottonwood, and ash trees. Wide alcoves in the cliff faces hide dripping springs that nourish ferns and wildflowers in lush hanging gardens. In its upper canyon, the river dashes through an abrupt defile called The Narrows, a deep, narrow slot canyon with a gradient as steep as 80 feet per mile.
GPS coordinates of park entrances: South Entrance (Zion Canyon): 37.201964, -112.988342; Northwest Entrance (Kolob Canyon): 37.454170, -113.225693; East Entrance: 37.233313, -112.875457.
Overnight options: Rustic Zion Lodge is the only accommodation inside the park (www.zionlodge.com). It is located about three miles up Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from the park entrance. Zion also has three campgrounds: Watchman Campground ($16-$20 per night, 184 sites, electrical hookups, generators not permitted, reservations available at www.recreation.gov) and South Campground ($16 per night, 127 sites, no hookups, generators permitted 8 a.m. - 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. – 8 p.m., no reservations) are both located along the Virgin River near the South Entrance. The more primitive Lava Point Campground (6 sites, no fee, no reservations, no hookups or water) is located in north-central Zion. Campgrounds often fill up early so arrive early or make a reservation in advance (Watchman only). Numerous lodging options are also available in nearby St. George.
Climate and weather: The weather at Zion National Park can be characterized in a word—diverse. During the hot summer season, temperatures over 100 degrees are common, so people venturing out for a hike should stick to the early morning and late evening. Spring and fall have the more moderate weather and might be the best time to visit Zion. April and May and September and October are usually warm and sunny with highs between 60 and 90 degrees on average. However, expect occasional cool and even rainy spells during these months. During springtime expect the water levels in the canyons to be higher—some of these hikes may be off limits. Autumn is an ideal time for a Zion visit, with clear days, mild nights, and low water levels that make hiking and exploring safer and more enjoyable. Fall colors in Zion Canyon are usually best viewed in late October.
When to visit: Zion National Park is open every day of the year, 24 hours a day. The most popular months to visit are April through October, when the shuttle busses are running in Zion Canyon. From November through March primary traffic is allowed in Zion Canyon. Spring, summer and fall will be more crowded than winter. Because spring runoff can make canyon hiking difficult or impossible, and summer temperatures can make hiking at midday uncomfortable or worse, fall is the best time to visit Zion if you're a serious hiker. Simply put, though, there really isn’t a bad time of year to visit Zion National Park. It largely depends on your preferences for activities and crowds.
Fees: 7-day entrance passes to Zion National Park cost $25 for vehicles and $12 per person for motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. The shuttle busses that run in Zion Canyon from April through October are free.
Tips for Hiking in Arid Lands
Hiking in Zion National Park and surrounding areas poses challenges that are encountered nowhere else. Much of southwestern Utah’s public land is free of conventional trails, and hikers may have to rely on their map and compass skills to find their way. The defining feature of the region is “slickrock,” in which vast expanses of sculpted sandstone have been scoured bare by wind and water.
As its name suggests, slickrock can be very slippery when it gets wet. Trails and routes that cross slickrock will be marked only with cairns, if they are marked at all.
Hikers who travel through canyons should remain constantly aware that it is much easier to climb up a slickrock face than it is to descend one. Local Search and Rescue teams are routinely called to rescue hikers who ventured up onto ledges from which it was impossible to descend.
Be Aware of the Weather
Perhaps the most obvious challenge in desert hiking is the extreme weather. During the hottest parts of the day, the temperature can reach 120°F several feet above the floor of the low desert. Summer hikers should wear broad-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, and baggy pants to protect themselves from the intensity of the desert sun. Cover exposed skin with sunscreen lotion. Take a lesson from the local wildlife and hike in the cool of the mornings and evenings, and rest in the shade during the heat of the day.
Drink Plenty of Water
Perhaps one of the most important Zion National Park tips is to drink lots of water. The desert air wicks moisture away from the body at an amazing rate, and active hikers should plan to drink about a gallon of water per day during their trip. Desert water sources may run dry for part of the year and often contain exotic microbes that can cause intestinal disorders. Always carry enough water to meet your daily needs, and filter all surface water to remove the harmful microbes.
Avoid Stings and Bites
Many desert-dwelling animals have evolved poisons, and they may bite or sting when provoked. The rattlesnake is the most notorious of these, although its reputation for aggressiveness is undeserved. This nocturnal predator will flee when given a chance, and it rarely bites unless it is surprised or cornered. To avoid snakebites always watch where you put your hands and feet and avoid reaching into dark places or overturning boulders. This practice will also help you avoid scorpions, most of which have painful stings. Scorpions like to hide in dark, moist places; hikers who leave their boots outside overnight may be in for a nasty surprise in the morning.
Learn How to Follow a Faint Path
Many of the most popular treks in this corner of Utah exist only as primitive routes that may not be marked at all. Visitors to backcountry areas should have a few elementary trail-finding skills in their bag of tricks, in case a trail peters out or a snowfall covers the path. A topographic map and compass, and the ability to use them, are essential insurance against disaster when a trail takes a wrong turn or disappears completely. (A GPS unit can also be a big help, but always carry a compass and paper map as a back up!)
A few additional Zion National Park tips and tricks, noted below, may aid a traveler in such a time of need.
- Maintained trails in southwestern Utah are typically marked in a variety of ways. Signs bearing the name and/or number of the trail are present at some trail junctions, although weathering and inconsiderate visitors sometimes remove these plaques. Do not rely on these signs to contain mileage information.
- Along the trail several kinds of markers indicate the location of maintained trails. In forested areas, cuts in the bark of living tree—known as blazes—are made immediately beside the path. In spots where a trail crosses a gravel streambed or bare slickrock, piles of rocks called cairns mark the route. These cairns are typically constructed of three or more stones piled atop one another, a formation that almost never occurs naturally.
- In the case of an extremely overgrown trail, markings of any kind may be impossible to find. On such a trail the techniques used to build the trail serve as clues to its location. Well-constructed trails have rather wide, flat beds. Let your feet seek the flat spots when traveling through tall brush, and you will almost always find yourself on the trail. Look for “check dams” and other rock-work on the trail that may have been put in place to prevent erosion. Old sawed logs from previous trail maintenance can be used to navigate in spots where the trailbed is obscured; if you find a sawed log, then you must be on a trail that was maintained at some point in time. Switchbacks are also a sure sign of an official trail; wild game travels in straight lines, and horsemen traveling off-trail seldom bother to zigzag across hillsides. Previous travelers can also leave clues to the location of old trails; watch for footprints or hoof marks as you travel.
- When attempting to find a trail that has disappeared, ask yourself where the most logical place would be to build a trail given its source and destination. Trail builders tend to seek level ground where it is available, and they often follow the natural contours of streamcourses and ridgelines. Bear in mind that most trails avoid up-and-down motion in favor of long, sustained grades culminating in major passes or hilltops. Old trailbeds can sometimes be spotted from a distance as they cut across hillsides at a constant angle.
Take Care of the Environment
Desert hikers must be particularly careful not to upset the ecological balance of desert communities. Many plants and animals live on the edge of their capabilities, and any added stress may result in death. Give a wide berth to nesting birds, animals with young, and wildlife that is using a water source. Feel free to watch these wild inhabitants of the desert, but do so at a respectful distance so that your presence does not disturb them.
Finally, hikers who are traveling in the low desert or piñon-juniper scrubland should watch for biological soil crusts and avoid walking on them. These crusts are dark and granular and contain algae and other microbes that come alive following rains. A major source of nutrients for desert soils, they form a crucial link in the web of desert ecosystems. Biological soil crusts are very fragile and may not recover for decades after being trampled.