You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

An Expert Guide to Zion National Park Guide

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 6 days ago Emily Pennington

Zion National Park has remained a thing of road trip lore for over a century, partially due to its proximity to hubs like Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles—but also for its enormous fins of Navajo sandstone that rise up from the Virgin River like rust-red skyscrapers. Originally protected as Mukuntuweap National Monument by President Taft in 1909 (named for the Paiute word that roughly translates to “straight canyon”), the area was re-designated by Congress as Zion National Park in 1919.

These days, Zion routinely makes it into the top five most-visited parks in the entire National Park System. As often happens with photogenic destinations, Zion can feel a bit overrun by iPhone-wielding crowds, particularly within its iconic, 15-mile-long main canyon. Still, the park has a few secret spots up its sleeve, if you’d prefer to avoid the throngs, plus dozens of outstanding lodging options, complete with dreamy red rock vistas, so you can stick around long enough to explore every nook and cranny.

Whether its your first timing visiting or your fifth, consider this your complete guide to Zion National Park—including when to go, where to stay, what to do, and more. 

All listings featured on Condé Nast Traveler are independently selected by our editors. If you book something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Hikers in Zion National Park © Cody Hiscox/Unsplash Hikers in Zion National Park

The best time to visit Zion National Park

Zion is an outstanding shoulder-season park, meaning that it’s at its best in spring and fall, when temperatures are cooler, crowds are thinner, wildflowers are blooming (in spring), and most of the region’s best trails and climbing routes are accessible. As with any remote, mountainous area, be sure to check the weather before venturing into high-altitude zones during shoulder season, as snow can accumulate well into April and early-season storms are possible in October and November.

Beyond that, summer is when most visitors flock to Zion National Park. That’s hardly surprising, as kids are out of school, upper elevation trails are snow-free, and it’s an excellent time to take off on a week-long road trip around Utah’s many natural wonders. However, summer temperatures in the main canyon typically hover around 100 degrees, and flash floods during the monsoon months (July to September) can make hiking The Narrows, a very popular trek through the thinnest stretch of Zion Canyon, impossible.

Winter is the quietest season in Zion, and a great time to visit if you’re seeking solitude or hoping to motor onto Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (a free shuttle is required March through November) and snap a few photos of its famous vermilion escarpments while they're dusted with fresh white powder.

How to get to Zion National Park

The closest major airport to Zion National Park is Harry Reid International in Las Vegas, which will put you 167 miles from its main entrance. There’s also a small regional airport in St. George, Utah, with limited flights operated by Delta, American, and United, which drop you just 47 miles from the park. Either way, most visitors will rent a car to make up the remaining miles and allow for flexibility when exploring Zion’s different areas, accommodations, and restaurants. As such, it’s common to tackle a few national parks (like Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon), or even some of Utah’s best state parks, in one larger road-trip-style escape.

Zion National Park's free shuttles © Joe Borek/Unsplash Zion National Park's free shuttles The Narrows © Treasure Photo/Getty The Narrows

Things to do in Zion National Park

Hikes and backpacking routes

Apart from simply seeing the canyon in person, hiking and backpacking are the main draw at Zion. Famous trails like the adrenaline-inducing Angels Landing now require a timed entry permit to hike (which can be avoided by booking a guided day hike), but there are plenty of other scenic paths through brilliant orange rock formations that any visitor can hop on at will. The Canyon Overlook Trail, on the park’s east side, is a low-mileage, high-reward hike with phenomenal views and photo ops along its easy one-mile stretch. If you’re looking to crunch out big miles and escape the main canyon masses, an overnight or day jaunt along the La Verkin Creek Trail should be first on your list.

Scenic drives

Private vehicles are only allowed along the iconic Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from December through February (a free shuttle is required during other months), but there’s a wealth of alternative scenic drives through the scrubby pinyon pines and striated cliffs that the area is so famous for. Just east of Zion’s main canyon, road trippers can wind around Highway 9 to Mt. Carmel Junction, passing striking tangerine plateaus and the unique, crosshatched texture of hulking Checkerboard Mesa. You’ll find another postcard-inspiring view an hour north from Springdale, along the less-traveled road through Kolob Canyons, which is known for epic hiking trails and brilliant red crags, sans crowds.

Cycling

With private vehicle access to Zion Canyon prohibited spring through fall (creating a safe and car-free scenic route), many visitors opt to bike into the park, and a bevy of friendly Zion bike rental shops have sprouted up nearby to help with growing demand. Zion Cycles and Zion Peddler rent road bikes and eBikes in the town of Springdale, but if you’re seeking an in-park rental, the historic Zion Lodge has you covered. Just remember: Bikes are allowed on park roadways, but not on any paths—except for the paved Pa’rus Trail.

Guided excursions

Not everyone wants to set off into the desert wilderness on their own, and because of Zion’s high popularity there are dozens of standout guided tours and day hikes designed with adventurous travelers in mind.

Equestrians of all ability levels can embark on day trips through Zion’s towering sandstone pinnacles with Canyon Trail Rides, a local business that’s been guiding visitors for over 50 years. Adrenaline junkies hoping to get up-close-and-personal with the park’s rock formations won’t want to miss an expert-led day of climbing or canyoneering with Zion Rock & Mountain Guides.

Solo travelers seeking company, or anyone with more than just a couple days in the area, should check out Wildland Trekking’s basecamp and inn-based hiking tours, both of which include daily meals and a trek through the steep canyon walls of The Narrows.

A LaFave luxury rentals at Zion National Park © Matthew Holyoak/LaFave A LaFave luxury rentals at Zion National Park

Where to stay in and around Zion National Park

Whether you’re seeking something ultra-luxe'gram-worthy, or simply a budget-friendly camping option inside the park, there’s no shortage of great places to hit the hay when your day of exploring Zion is done. Below we cover some of the highlights, though you can find our comprehensive guide on where to stay in Zion National Park here. 

Camping

With 176 sites (including RV-friendly spots with electric hookups), flush toilets, and year-round access, the Watchman Campground is Zion’s largest and best public campground. As such, it often books up months in advance, particularly on weekends and during summer months. Nearby South Campground is an excellent plan B for car campers looking to sleep inside the park boundaries from spring through autumn.

If you don’t mind a longer drive to and from the park each morning (sunset views included), Land Beyond Zion offers well-spaced, amenity-rich camping and glamping sites from founder Shanti Hodges, the woman entrepreneur behind Hike It Baby.

Hotels and rentals

Seeking the best in-park lodging? Head to the historic Zion Lodge. Completed in 1925, this charming hotel and cabin complex was designed by famed national park architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood and is set amongst the sky-high canyon walls and serpentine river bends that have drawn people to the park for decades.

If a vintage, albeit rustic lodge isn’t for you—some of us just need a full kitchen and luxe linens—La Fave’s well-appointed villas and suites will have you relaxing in style. To book an entire house, The Ross in nearby Hurricane has a lavish soaking tub and mountain-modern décor.

Emily Pennington is the author of Feral: Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America's National Parks (February 1, 2023).

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Condé Nast Traveler [Articles/Slideshows]

Condé Nast Traveler
Condé Nast Traveler
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon