Zion National Park - Your ultimate go-to guide!
So we are going to just start off by saying that we have quite possibly just spent our most favourite seven days in the whole of the USA, while camping, hiking, and enjoying the magic of Zion National Park.. iI’s going to be incredibly hard for us to put into words how special this place is, and unless you are experiencing the sounds of the wildlife and waterfalls, fresh air, and picture perfect sights for yourself, it may be a little hard for you to understand why and how Zion completely took our breath away.. but we will do our best to tell our story and share our photography captures of this completely underrated National Park! But we warn you.. it’s going to be a long one - we’ve done our best to categorise it for you.
We arrived to Zion from Bryce Canyon National Park (we have a whole seperate blog post about our 24 hours in Bryce which you can find in our previous post, or link here), strategically planning our arrival before the weekend rush that many American’s had warned us against! Entering via the eastern entrance, we were greeted with mountainous landscapes, and right at the very top of them.. big-horned sheep! Finally, our first big-horned sheep sighting in North America! We drove along the 12 mile (20 km) scenic highway which connects the South and East entrances, travelling down steep switch-backs, and through the 2 mile historic Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel.
Emerging on the southern side of the park, the Zion Canyon was a completely different world! Fast flowing rivers, mountains so tall that your neck gets sore from staring up at them for too long, and trees so green that you forget you are in a desert.. We spent the first half hour driving through Zion uttering nothing but the word “WOW” every few seconds..
We’ll attempt to cover as much information as we can in the next few paragraphs about all things campsites, hiking, shuttle buses, and activities for a rainy day!
Camping - Arriving mid-week, we were hopeful to score ourselves a campsite. But nope, it seemed as though everyone else had the same idea! There are two campsites in Zion NP, the Watchman Campground (reservation campground where you can book your spot in advance online), and South Campground (first in, first serve only). We were quick to discover that people book out their campsites in the Watchman up to 6 months in advance, so we instantly crossed this one off our list. We visited the South Campground where a helpful ranger advised us that they were completely full for the night, however every morning at 7am she will re-assess who is leaving for the day, and allocate sites on a first come basis. With over 100 seperate campsites, she advised that around 30 of these clear out each day, but warned us that all campsites can pack-out again by 8am! We were told that our best bet to scoring our own site would be to come into the park as early as possible (around 5am!), and line-up in our cars at the campground entrance.
There are lots of options for camping/lodging in the town of Springdale which is only a few minutes drive from the southern exit, however the closest free-camping/BLM land is around a 25 minute drive away (around 5 minutes up Kolob Terrace Road). Taking into consideration our backpacking budget, we decided to go with the free camping option and we were given helpful directions from the Visitors Centre as to how to make our way here.
At 4.30am the next morning we were up and making our way back into Zion to secure ourselves a campsite, we were the first car in line, we went back to sleep in our van for a few hours before waking just before 7am where we were allocated the first vacated site for the morning - and we couldn’t have been any luckier with our placement! You can understand why these campsites are in such high demand when they are RIGHT NEXT TO the Virgin River and the mountains - some of the best views in the park right outside your tent or RV :) We paid for 3 x nights of camping ($20 per night), and decided to spend our following nights in the BLM free campsites to save costs.
If $20 per night is within your budget, we couldn’t recommend the South Campground enough - you are walking distance from the Visitor Centre and shuttle buses meaning you are saving on gas, and you can leave your car and belongings at your campsite while you go and explore the park. You fall asleep to the sound of the rustling trees and flowing river, and wake up to the sun rising over the mountains only meters away from you - it couldn’t get much better than this.. All of the campsites are rather spaced out from one another, but there is always the opportunity to share coffee, popcorn, and campfires with new friends too - which is exactly what we were lucky enough to do!
Hiking - Spending 7 days in Zion National Park gave us a lot of time to explore the park at our own pace, including many of the hiking trails! We will list the trails that we did in order of our most favourite first, including length, round-trip duration, elevation change, and NPS classified difficulty level:
Angels Landing (5.4 miles / 8.7 km’s) / 4 hours / 1488 feet / Strenuous:
Considered to be one of the most dangerous trails in the world, Angels Landing is a hike that has been on our bucket list for some time! Every person that we had ever discussed this trail with advised us that the best thing we could do is start this hike as early as possible to avoid the crazy number of people who all want to climb it also. The first shuttle bus to take you to the trailhead departs the Visitors Centre at 7am. The only other way to make your way to the trailhead if you wanted an even earlier start would be to rent a bicycle, or have someone with a car drop-you off - unfortunately both of these weren’t realistic options for us, so the 7am shuttle bus it was!
With around 20 other keen hikers, we were the first ones to hit the trail for the morning. The first half of the hike is relatively moderate in difficulty, with lots of gradual incline and a total of 21 switchbacks (so we were told, it was much too early to be counting). You then arrive to a viewpoint of both the valley, and what is ahead of you if you decide to continue all the way until the end. We met a lot of hikers who turned back at this point and their fear of heights got the better of them. Or maybe it was the warning sign advising 6 people since 2004 have died on this trail..! Trying not to think about worst case scenario’s, we soldiered on and made our way to the commencement of the “landing”, a steep and narrow incline with fatal drop-off’s either side, chains drilled into the rocks to assist you with making your way up/back down as you scramble over large rocks, tree’s, and large more rocks.
Extremely thankful that we had jumped on that first early morning shuttle bus, we were able to take our time and get lots of photo snaps and video footage along the way with ease. Not only did we beat the masses of people, but we also beat the hot sun.
Although a little dangerous and sketchy at times, the hike was our favourite in Zion and the 360 degree views that we were rewarded with at the top were worth every single switchback and rock scramble! Such good fun and one we will always remember - Angels Landing truly did take our breath away.. for a number of reasons! Whether you’re in Zion for just a day, or an entire week - if you aren’t super fearful of heights (or even if you are, this a good opportunity to conquer them!) Angels Landing is a MUST DO!
Observation Point (8 miles / 12.9 km’s) / 6 hours / 2148 feet / Strenuous:
We were looking for a longer day-hike trail in the park, and had had a few people recommend Observation Point to us, and boy are we glad that we did it! Climbing even higher than Angels Landing (you can actually see the Angels Landing platform from the end of the trail), Observation Point was such an incredibly diverse hike. Initially you walk up many switchbacks that take you along the side of a mountain, before climbing through Echo Canyon. Continuing up further switchbacks, you have gorgeous views of the mountains and valley below for most of the time. 85% of this trail is quite a steady incline, with the last 1 mile being relatively flat all the way to the final viewpoint. The recommended hiking time was 6 hours round trip, however we did this in around 3 hours all up, and also had plenty of times for photos and a half an hour lunch break.. but bring something warm to wear at the top, it gets pretty darn windy at 6521 feet!
If you still have a bit of energy on the way down, the trail also forks off to the Hidden Canyon (read below) which was another one of our favourites during our time in Zion.
Hidden Canyon Trail (2.4 miles / 3.9 km’s) / 2.5 hours / 850 feet / Strenuous:
This trail is the only other trail in the park (other than Angels Landing) which also has chains for you to use to navigate your way up and down the mountain. The first half of this trail is the same route as Observation Point, before you fork off onto the other side of the mountain. Lots of steep switchbacks along the side of the mountain, with the chain area being in a section where there are long and fatal drop-off’s below. At the end of this trail is when you reach the Hidden Canyon - and they call it this for a reason! Once you reach what you think is the end of the trail, there is the potential to continue to walk along the unmarked track through the canyon. We spent around another 1 hour scrambling up and over rocks, under trees, and through a little bit of water - nothing too crazy, but also not something you would probably bring your mum along to do! We turned back around once the water got a little too deep in the canyon, but we’re sure that during the dry seasons you could go a little further..
Upper Emerald Pool Trail (1 mile / 1.6 km’s) / 1 hour / 200 feet / Moderate:
Classified as an easy/moderate and short trail, we decided to wear our sneakers for this one.. BIG mistake! It had been raining the night before, leaving the trail extremely wet, muddy, and having us wishing we had worn our trusty hiking boots instead of slipping and sliding in the mud. Always wear your hiking boots people! This was a short and slightly uphill hike, finishing at a little beach oasis.. a waterfall as high in the sky as can be, and a little pool beneath (not quite the emerald colour we were expecting, but absolutely beautiful all the same!). There were lots of families enjoying these views with a packed lunch - a great hike to bring the kids on or a quick short one if you only have limited time in the park.
Riverside Walk (2.2 miles / 3.5 km’s) / 1.5 hours / 57 feet / Easy:
The Riverside walk is the gateway to the Narrows trail (which was unfortunately closed due to high water levels and freezing temperatures), so we decided to at least go and check out what we were missing out on! The trail was extremely easy and paved for the entire way, but there was also the option of walking right along the sandy river for 50% of the trail, which of course we did. After a short while you arrive at the end of the Riverside walk, which is also the beginning of the Narrows hike. As we had been advised, the river was quite deep, strong in current, and absolutely freezing in temperature.. so instead we sat along the sunny riverbank and enjoyed our picnic lunch, talking about how we can’t wait to come back to Zion one day to explore the canyon further.
Pa’rus Trail (3.5 miles / 5.6 km’s) 2 hours / 50 feet / Easy:
The Pa’rus trail is the only trail in the path that bikes and pets are accommodated for. It was also the trail that started from right outside our campsite, so we decided to take an afternoon stroll to get a few photos of the river and mountains beyond as well as give ourselves a mini-bath and take a quick dip in the Virgin River! Kirk jumped in completely and gave himself a good scrub all over in the freezing temperatures, whilst Mish decided that dipping her feet in was cold enough for her liking before starting to turn purple and go numb.. missions accomplished!
Court of the Patriarchs
A very short but steep trail to a viewpoint of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob peaks - we jumped off the shuttle bus here to grab some quick photos of these gorgeous mountains, a perfect little stretch-your-legs pit-stop which we would recommend!
In addition to the above, there are also number of other trails which we unfortunately did not get the opportunity to do, some because they were closed, and others due to lack of time. The two that we were most devastated about were the Narrows & the Subway - I guess this just gives us another reason as to why we we will just have to come back to visit Zion one day!
The Narrows - a very popular hike in Zion, which we were unfortunately not able to do due to the high water levels and strong currents which would have meant that we were swimming down the river, rather than walking it! If you are visiting Zion during any other season other than Winter, we would certainly recommend checking out this 9 mile / 15 km trail as all of the photos we have seen from here look INCREDIBLE.
The Subway - again, a trail that was recommended wasn’t hiked due to the high water levels. The Subway is a hike that you need to obtain a backcountry permit for in advance, and another crowd favourite.. hopefully we will have stories to tell about these two upon another american adventure!
Shuttle Buses - With 3.5 million people visiting Zion National Park each year, the park shuts the majority of the road off to the public, and instead organises a free shuttle bus service which departs every few minutes from the Visitor Centre, museum, trailhead, and look-out spot in the park. We were never waiting more than 5 minutes for a bus, however we have heard that line-ups do occur in the busier times of year, so again, the earlier you can get into the park, the better! But not only are there shuttle buses that take you throughout the park, but there are also regular free shuttles that will take you to and from the nearby town of Springdale - so if you don’t fancy driving in and battling for a carpark in the limited parking lots, leave your vehicle in the village and jump on the shuttle! We absolutely loved not having to worry about driving and instead we could sit back and relax on the bus, enjoying the beautiful views out of the windows whilst on the way to our destination.
Rainy Days in Zion & Springdale - We had a day or two of rain while we were in Zion, and while all trails are still completely accessible, we decided to spend a day relaxing and exploring the nearby town of Springdale instead of hiking in the crazy cold and wet weather. First we jumped on the shuttle and went to the Zion Human History Museum - here we watched the 20 minute orientation film which is played every 30 minutes in their mini-theatre. We loved how informative it was and how much we learnt about the history and development of Zion National Park - if you have some spare time in the park, we would definitely recommend checking it out!
We then made our way into Springdale, the quaint village which is literally two minutes outside of the park! Someone we met in our campsite had recommended that we check out the Flying Monkey restaurant - wood oven pizza’s at a very reasonable price considering location and quality (around $13 per pizza) - maybe it was due to the fact that we hadn’t dined out for over a month, or maybe it was just purely because the pizza’s were so god-damn delicious, but we were in food-heaven.. Flying Monkey is a MUST if you are looking for a place for lunch or dinner while staying in Zion. Oh, and did we mention the sunset mountain views? So good.
Kolob Canyons - One part of Zion which often is forgotten about are the Kolob Canyon’s, this much smaller but equally as impressive section of the park is located just off the HWY 15 on the north-west side of Zion. We made a short stop-off here on our way up to Salt Lake City, and were once again blown away by the mountainous landscapes and beauty. We found this part of the park much much quieter, and lesser hiking opportunities, however we learnt that here is where you are able to find what is potentially the world’s largest natural arch! It can be reached via a full-day hike, or overnight treck.. if we had known about this earlier we would certainly have organised to spend an extra night camping in the Kolob Canyon in search of this world wonder!
Luxury Lodging at Desert Pearl Inn - We were fortunate enough to spend a night in grand comfort at Desert Pearl Inn - a lodging walking distance at only 1.5 miles from the southern entrance of the park in Springdale. We enjoyed a riverside suite which overlooked the Virgin River and the mountains of Zion National Park. With a hot-tub, in-ground saline swimming pool, and the friendliest staff you will ever come across, we couldn’t’ recommend highly enough Desert Pearl Inn during your Zion NP stay. Check out our seperate blog post here to read more!
After visiting numerous hot-spot national parks throughout the USA, including Yosemite and the Grand Canyon (we have separate blog posts about both of these also if you’re interested to hear more!), we have together decided that Zion National Park is our new favourite.. Incredibly diverse, and with such a magical history, there truly is an undeniable powerful energy in Zion NP that left us in complete awe, 100% of the time, all of the time.
Feel free to email us with any other questions you may have - we always love hearing from you guys! & if you haven’t already, make sure you sign up to our mailing list so that you’re notified next time we post a blog about our national park experiences :)