Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Zion National Park: What You Shouldn’t Miss the First Time You Visit
March 9, 2021
Originally Posted June 2020; Revised & Migrated March 2021
Travel Date May 2020
Despite some pandemic adjustments, we started our summer road trip by visiting Zion National Park for the first time. During 2020, we visited fourteen National Park-managed sites and several other beautiful places. To get more trip inspiration check out other Utah destinations here.
Prior to Covid-19, I wanted to spend our first summer on the road exploring National Parks. We planned to travel throughout Texas, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado and I didn’t think we could miss some of the biggest attractions in the area, our National Parks and Monuments.
Zion National Park
Zion was designated the first national park in Utah. The park was created to protect the picturesque sandstone canyons and plateaus. Southern Utah and especially Zion National Park is known for amazing hiking. To read our favorite hikes of the summer, check out our blogs with the hiking tag.
Zion National Park consists of two separate districts. Most visitors skip the backcountry district, Kolob Canyon. Instead, choosing to focus their time and attention on the easily accessible and popular Zion Canyon district.
Best time to visit Zion
Summer is the most crowded time of year to visit Zion. Spring and fall are less crowded but will still require navigating somewhat crowded shuttles and trails.
If you have flexibility, I recommend visiting the park on the edge of the shoulder season into winter. Air and water temperatures will be colder and the Narrows will be closed. But the crowds will be smaller providing more solitude in this beautiful park.
Zion Opened for Us
In mid-May, while we were boondocking in northern AZ, I obsessively monitored the National Park website and social media for updates. At that point, the Watchman campground remained closed due to COVID19. But we had not received cancellations for our May 22nd campground reservations. I remained optimistic as we made our way towards Zion for our first time.
I had all my fingers crossed the campground would open. Prior to us leaving Dallas, Zion opened for day-use visitors. If the Watchman campground didn’t open, we planned to camp in nearby public lands and drive into the park for day use.
Thankfully on the morning of May 20th, the NPS (National Park Service) announced Watchman campground would be opening on May 22nd. Good timing for us since we’d been traveling north from Texas for the past six days in hopes the campground would be open. With confirmation from NPS, we crossed the border into Utah towards Zion.
Can I drive my RV to the east entrance of Zion?
From our boondocking location near Page Arizona, Google wanted to send us the quickest route through the east entrance of Zion. This was our first time visiting Zion so I had to rely on others for route guidance.
Based on my internet research, I knew the east entrance of Zion requires driving through a 1.1mile tunnel that was not tall enough for Pippi. Actually, Pippi can fit in the tunnel but we’d have to straddle the center line to obtain the necessary height clearance.
The NPS will stop oncoming traffic for larger vehicles to pass but this requires a $15 permit and two rangers to facilitate. I couldn’t find clear guidance if the rangers were working at the tunnel during COVID so we took a 30-mile detour to the Springdale (south) entrance of Zion.
How to get to Zion National Park
You can get to Zion National park through two entrances. The Springdale (west) entrance is accessible by all vehicles. The Mt Carmel tunnel limits the (east) entrance to smaller vehicles. If your vehicle is 11’4″ (3.4m) tall or 7’10” (2.4m) wide then you will need a permit and tunnel escort. Rangers provide this service during certain times so be sure to check out the NPS page for updated hours.
Where to stay at Zion National Park
The best place to stay at Zion National Park depends upon your budget and desired level of comfort. I would recommend:
Zion Lodge for hotel accommodations within the park
We loved staying at Watchman Campground and would recommend if you can get reservations. It is located adjacent to the Visitor’s Center and in close proximity to the Par’us Trail. The campground offers electric connections at the sites but no sewer or water. There are several dishwashing sinks and an RV dump station available for campers’ use.
How to get reservations at the Watchman campground?
I got our reservations at the Watchman campground through persistence and a little luck. The best way to get reservations at this popular campground is to book six months in advance as soon as they open.
I started searching for summer National Park campground reservations in January. All of the sites large enough for Pippi were already fully booked.
In late March, I randomly checked the Watchman campground in Zion and was able to find availability during the Memorial Day weekend. I suspect other campers canceled their reservation because of the pandemic and I had really lucky timing in booking three nights in site B5 and a single night in site B19.
What to do at Zion National Park
There are many things to do at Zion National Park the first time you visit. However, if you are limited on time, I recommend:
Check out the Zion National Park Visitors Center
Bike or ride the shuttle bus along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
Drive the Zion- Mt Carmel Scenic Hwy
Walk or bike the Par’us Trail for the river views
Watch the sunset at Canyon Junction Bridge
If you want to hike I’d recommend:
Emerald Pools Trail
If you want an adventurous hike I recommend:
What to Expect at Zion National Park During COVID-19
Operations were altered for COVID when we visited Zion for the first time. Many trails and the visitor center were closed. The park shuttles were not running. Only a handful of trails were open inside the park. The park bookstore/gift shop was open. Each day a limited number of cars were allowed along the normal shuttle route. The spring/summer 2021 park status is still the same. Check here for current conditions.
We made it to our campsite and finished setting up in time for lunch. After lunch, we decided to explore the visitor center and Par’us trail on our bicycles. The Par’us trail runs 3.5-miles from the visitor center to the Canyon Junction shuttle stop at the entrance to Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.
Zion National Park Visitor Center
I would definitely recommend starting at the visitor’s center if you are visiting Zion for the first time. It is the perfect place to get ranger recommendations, insider tips, and ensure you know the current trail conditions.
At the visitor center, we were offered a park map and brochure from a socially distanced and masked park ranger. He pointed out key interest areas on our map with a wooden dowel at an outdoor table rather than the usual indoor visitor center.
We also saw the bookstore/gift shop was open with signs recommending social distancing but the layout of the shop made that difficult. The bookstore is not operated by the NPS so they were operating under different COVID protocols.
I was very excited to find the passport stamps were available because I have a National Parks passport and like collecting park stamps from our travels.
The city of Springdale has parking meters along the roadside for many miles approaching the park entrance so visitors can park remotely and ride the Springdale shuttle into Zion. The Visitor Center parking can fill quickly during busy times and the remote shuttle from Springdale is an alternative.
The Springdale shuttle is an extension of the NPS Zion shuttle system and runs from April through October. It has nine shuttle stops throughout town.
During peak season (mid-May to early September), the shuttle runs every 10-15 minutes from 5:30 AM until 11:15 PM, with reduced frequency in the very early morning and late evening. During off peak seasons (spring and fall), the shuttle runs every 10-15 minutes from 6:30 AM until 10:15 PM.
How to get around Zion National Park
Personal vehicles are not allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. However, there are a few ways to get around Zion National Park:
Bike along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (plan to share the road with limited traffic)
Zion Lodge guests can drive their personal vehicles along the scenic drive to the lodge.
During COVID, first come first serve passenger vehicles were allowed along the scenic drive.
Bike the Par’us Trail from the Zion visitor center to scenic drive
During our park recon outing, we learned the Par’us ‘trail’ is a nice, wide, paved multi-use path from the visitor center (next to the Watchman campground) to Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. It is the only bike-friendly trail in the park.
I recommend either walking or biking the Par’us Trail the first time you visit Zion. A few of my favorite views of Zion are from this trail.
On our exploratory bike ride, we stopped at the entrance to the scenic drive and talked to a few park rangers. We learned the scenic road closed at 9:15 am that morning when parking areas reached capacity.
Bike the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
We also talked to a physically-fit ranger about riding our bikes up the scenic drive. He regularly rides his road bike to the top and in his opinion, it was the best way to see the scenic drive. The speed allows cyclists to see more wildlife. He also told us there were a few steep areas that required some climbing but not too strenuous.
I had already researched and knew it was close to 1400-feet of elevation gain which sounded fairly strenuous to me. As a fit-ish asthmatic, I was scared to attempt biking this road especially since the slight hills on the friendly Par’us trail winded me at a few points.
Based on my reluctance to bike the scenic drive then hike several miles of trails, we planned to wake up early the next morning, pack lunches and drive our car to the scenic drive early with big hiking plans for the day.
Unfortunately the following morning, the scenic drive was already full and closed to traffic by 7:30 am. We saw cars parking along the roadside several miles past the scenic drive and walking back to start their day. The scenic drive is six-miles one-way and I wanted to save my energy for trails.
With a bad attitude about our plans being altered, we decided to drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway east of the park since we were already in the car and heading that way.
Drive The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
During our exploration along the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway, we saw a family of Desert Big Horn sheep but they were unfortunately too far away for a decent photo.
The area was full of steep rocky areas and very scenic. We also drove through the east entrance tunnel during our outing which was impressive. The tunnel is 1.1-mile long and has several “windows” that provide quick glimpses of the canyon. However the view coming out of the tunnel breath-taking.
We also saw rangers assisting larger vehicles at the tunnel so we could have driven in the east entrance on the previous day. The Springdale entrance was an easier drive that didn’t require special permits or ranger assistance.
Canyon Overlook Trail
The Canyon Overlook Trailhead is located immediately east of the tunnel and is highly rated. The trail provides little shade but offers sweeping canyon views.
Sadly, it was closed during our first time visiting Zion in late May 2020 due to COVID-19. Canyon Overlook Trail is definitely on my wish list for our next visit to Zion National Park.
Lemonade out of Lemons
After returning home I spent a few hours moping around because our day was ruined. It was our first time visiting Zion, and I wanted it to be perfect. Kevin remained positive and encouraged me to try biking the scenic drive. He was doing his best to make lemonade out of lemons. To convince me to try the bike ride, he said we could turn around or take a break whenever I needed one.
Can anyone bike the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive?
We packed lunch and headed to the top of the scenic drive for an afternoon hike on the Riverside Trail. Honestly, the bike ride up the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive was beautiful and very manageable especially with little to no traffic on the road.
We saw teens on single-speed bikes and people much less fit than us making the trip gracefully. Granted some of the less fit were on electric bikes which aren’t 100% pedal-powered.
If you are not traveling with bikes, there are many Springdale shops that offer rentals. The views are worth it.
I was really surprised at the large crowds of people walking the scenic drive (again it is six-miles one way) in the early afternoon. But with full parking lots and no shuttles, they had few other choices if they wanted to hike most of the park’s open trails.
Without the shuttles running, bicycling the scenic drive was a great experience and I would definitely recommend it. There are sheltered bus stops along the route if you need to take a break or two in the shade.
What are the best hikes in Zion?
The best hikes in Zion are a matter of opinion but here are my superlatives to help you decide between the trails.
Par’us Trail – best accessible trail
Riverside Trail – best riverside walk
The Narrows – best water hike
Angels Landing – best story to tell
Kenyeta Trail – best way to experience the canyon
Emerald Pools – best way to get close to nature without hiking all day
Best Hikes at Zion: Riverside Trail
Riverside Trail is the last stop on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Based on the crowds at the trailhead, it appeared to be very popular. This trail leads to the bottom of the Narrows and was the reason for the crowds.
The riverside trail is an easy one-mile partially paved path that winds along the Virgin River to the Narrows.
I recommend everyone walk Riverside Trail during their first time visiting Zion.
Best Hikes in Zion: The Narrows
The Narrows is one of the most popular hikes in Zion. In 2020, it opened on May 22nd for the season once the spring river had receded to a safe level.
The Narrows trail runs along the narrowest part of Zion Canyon. In some areas, river water can cover from one side of the canyon floor to the other. Hikers have to walk in the rocky river bed to follow this trail and therefore must wade through the deeper sections of the river.
The trail is a ten-mile roundtrip but the accessibility depends on water levels. High water levels in the spring tend to deter most hikers from completing the full ten-miles.
Kevin and I found a nice shady rock beside the river for some quality people-watching at the bottom of the Narrows.
The local squirrels were very bold. We watched one squirrel swipe a half-eaten peach that a hiker sat on her backpack for a moment.
The river was about knee-deep at the first crossing but the slippery, uneven rocks on the river bottom made the walking very slow and difficult. We saw several people start the journey without specialty gear but noticed most of them returned within a few minutes. I only recall seeing a few people fall into the river at the first crossing.
The returning hikers were varying degrees of wet depending upon how far they hiked. Based on my eavesdropping, it sounded like some of them decided to turn around when the water was chest-deep.
I toyed with the idea of trying the first river crossing. It was our first time at Zion and the Narrows is really popular. But I quickly changed my mind after a few minutes ankle-deep in the freezing water. I decided I was content to take some pretty pictures and watch other people hike the Narrows. If I change my mind, I am sure this will not be our last visit to Zion.
What I should know about the Narrows?
Since the trail runs through the river bed, the Narrows are subject to life-threatening flash floods. It is critically important, to check at the park visitor center or with a park ranger for trail conditions before starting the Narrows hike.
What do I need to hike the Narrows at Zion?
I am certain the Springdale outfitting shops love the Narrows because hikers rent hiking sticks (literally a wooden broomstick with a rope handle), waterproof boots. We even saw several people in rented waders.
If you are interested in the experience and wondering what do I need to hike the Narrows, don’t worry. Everything can be rented from the Springdale outfitters adjacent to the entrance of the park. However, the supply is limited so I recommend reserving your supplies as soon as you arrive in Springdale.
Some hikers mentioned the wooden sticks were sturdier than traditional trekking poles on the river rocks. At a minimum, I would recommend renting a hiking stick and preparing for freezing cold, wet feet if you aren’t interested in waders or waterproof boots.
The next morning we chose to sleep in, have a nice warm breakfast and then ride our bikes to The Grotto parking area on the scenic drive. I started the day with slight discomfort in my knees from the previous day’s 16-mile bike ride and three-mile hike. But, I really wanted to hike the Kenyeta Trail to the Upper Emerald Pools.
Best Hikes in Zion: Angel’s Landing
One of the most popular trails in Zion, Angel’s Landing, also starts at The Grotto parking area.
Angels Landing towers 1,488 feet over the Virgin River. The trail’s numerous switchbacks over sand and slickrock (known as Walter’s Wiggles), long drop-offs, and exposed edges have ranked Angels Landing among the most dangerous hikes in many outdoor publications. In the past month, two hikers have died hiking Angels Landing.
I believed the NPS warnings against Angel’s Landing for those with fear of heights. Therefore, I had no interest in hiking Angel’s Landing while visiting Zion for the first time. Also just watching others at Angel’s Landing on YouTube was more than enough to make my heart race uncontrollably.
The top section of the Angels Landing is a narrow clifftop with chains. It is barely wide enough for a single hiker. But the trail is an out and back which means outbound and inbound hikers must pass each other.
Due to the limited space on the trail, hikers should plan to hike Angels Landing at off-peak times. Plan your hike before sunrise or late in the day for fewer crowds.
It seems people love this hike for bragging rights. It is a once in a life-time experience. Those who climb to the top are also rewarded with unparalleled sweeping views of the area.
Best Hikes in Zion: Kenyeta Trail
We opted for a less dare-devil option at The Grotto trailhead. The 1.7-mile Kenyeta trail wound along the canyon side and provided really nice views of the area.
The Kenyeta trail ends at the Middle Emerald Pools and many hikers turned around. But this is where the trail to the Upper Emerald Pools starts and it is worth the extra effort.
Best Hikes in Zion: Upper Emerald Pools Trail
The trail to the Upper Emerald Pools was only 0.3-mile but it consisted of mostly uneven stone and earthen stairs up. It was a strenuous hike but the pool at the end was spectacularly beautiful.
Signs around the pool state “no swimming” but many visitors ignored them and took a cooling dip in the water.
Kevin and I wondered if the danger of falling rocks was the reason for the swimming restriction.
We found a rock in the shade and enjoyed our lunch before starting the hike back. The views from the trail were beautiful.
On our return trip, we found a lesser-traveled side trail and spotted a few deer having lunch.
They were clearly accustomed to hikers taking their picture and appeared to pose for us.
Springdale is a cute little Utah mountain town that exists primarily for tourists visiting Zion National Park. We saw people waiting at most restaurants and streets full of shoppers on our visit. In 2019, 4.48 million people visited Zion so I suspect the Springdale businesses do quite well.
What’s in Springdale
Most shops in Springdale are in a small village directly adjacent to the west entrance of Zion National Park. There is a small tourist grocery that offered firewood, ice, and most grocery items. You can buy all necessities in Springdale but if you are price conscious, I would recommend stocking up before getting to the park. The items I priced were from 50% to 200% above average Walmart pricing.
Springdale has several restaurant and shopping opportunities however the area was over-crowded during our visits. We chose to cook our meals at the campground and spend our free time exploring the park.
We did check out Zion Brewing in the town of Springdale.
The beers were all 5% ABV or lower due to Utah alcohol laws. They were nice but nothing spectacular.
We enjoyed our cold beverages on their patio and watched park visitors walking into Zion via the short walk path.
The patio at Zion Brewing is a nice way to wrap up a day in the park.
We also saw several kids with tubes playing in the river. Their chattering teeth were clear indications that the river was not any warmer here but they were having too much fun to stop.
My body needed a break
The next morning I woke up with very sore knees and my body needed a break. We had to move campsites so I spent more time on my feet that morning than I wanted and my already sore knees became angrier. In the prior three days, I had ridden my bike ~33 miles and hiked ~6 miles, not including several non-trail walks.
My body very loudly and clearly told me it was done. So we spent the day relaxing on our sofas and watching TV while I took anti-inflammatories and iced my knees. It was disappointing to admit defeat and “waste” a day while at Zion for the first time but that is how it goes sometimes.
The following day we checked out of Watchman Campground and my knees were slightly better. We decided to stay in the area and headed to the nearby Hurricane Cliffs BLM public lands so we could explore more of the area while my knees continued to recover. Check out our Hurricane and St George blog for good places to eat and things to do in the cities close to Zion.
First time at Zion
During our first time at Zion, we were awed by the area’s beauty. We hiked and biked the Zion Canyon area until I wasn’t able to walk. But we loved it and will do it all again but with more training hikes to prepare.