Zion was Utah’s first national park, and thanks to that heritage it remains popular as ever. In fact, the first thing Aly Baltrus, Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at Zion, told us when we called was that she’d suggest folks check out other beautiful American parks instead! (Zion is suffering from an overcrowding issue.)
It’s a “relatively small park compared to the other large parks,” says Baltrus, so keep that in mind if you’re bound and determined to visit this beautiful place. (If your goal is to escape humanity for an afternoon, this probably isn’t the park.) In terms of timing, Baltrus suggests you skip the July high season, and visit between March and May or October and November, if you can. And go hiking early or late: The trails get crowded come 10 a.m. right through mid-afternoon. Here are a few of her tips on making the most of Zion.
If you’re going to book a campsite at Zion, do so as soon as you can! Watchman tends to book up about six months in advance. South Campground is better for spontaneous types, but Baltrus warns that you should get in line to get your spot early—7 a.m. is the earliest one can do so—as it’s often completely booked by 8 a.m.
Related: A Guide to Glacier Bay National Park
Or Stay at Zion Lodge
Save on commuting time to and from your day hike by booking a hotel room right inside the park, at Zion Lodge. It’s rustic, centrally located, and has hot food and cold drink if you’d rather check it out for a bite at day’s end. (Nearby Springdale has plenty of lodging and restaurant options, too, although one shouldn’t expect fancy cuisine: This is “meat and potatoes” country, says Baltrus.)
Walk the Narrows
A more difficult walk for more experienced hikers, the Narrows is an upstream, right-in-the-river hike with gorgeous views of the walls towering over you. “It’s different from Grand Canyon where you’re looking over the canyon,” says Baltrus, because “here you’re in the canyon.” Those cliffs on either side of you stretch 2,000 to 3,000 feet straight up. You’ll want to bring closed-toe hiking shoes that have ankle support and a walking stick, both of which you can rent in Springdale. This is a tough hike; those rocks get slippery, and the water can move quickly. Always check the weather before heading out here, because flash floods are a local reality.
Drive the Scenic Drive
Don’t feel like hiking? No problem. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive runs right through the park, and has plenty of places where you can take knockout snapshots.
See a Waterfall
There are a number of beautiful large and small waterfalls here, depending on the season, and among the most acclaimed are those pouring into the Emerald Pools. Bonus: It’s a “fairly easy hike with a gorgeous waterfall,” says Baltrus.
Related: How to Use A National Parks Pass
Learn to Love the Shuttle Bus!
Parking is extremely limited here, so shuttles buses will be the way you get around, even to trailheads, by and large.
Do a Difficult Hike….
Baltrus isn’t a fan of the “bucket list” approach to Zion, since people’s health and ability levels vary so widely, but for the very able and fit, she’s a fan of hiking Angels Landing, which has extraordinary views at extremely dizzying heights.
…Or a Medium-Level Hike…
Hidden Canyon is less dizzying, just as fun, and ideal for mid-level hikers, with stunning vistas and about a two-hour length.
…Or an Easy One!
For those with small children, the Weeping Rock trail is “extremely short,” says Baltrus—about a quarter mile each way—and would be ideal for families or those who can’t walk very far. Keep in mind that it can get slippery, and won’t work for strollers or wheelchairs.
If you decide to bypass Zion or it’s too crowded, don’t worry, says Baltrus, because “Utah has fantastic state parks.” There’s otherworldly Snow Canyon, the gorgeous Coral Pink Sand Dunes, and the towering Cedar Breaks National Monument, sort of a “mini Bryce [Canyon],” she says. It’s hard to go wrong in the great outdoors in this part of the world.