The Beginner’s Guide to Visiting Zion National Park
Zion National Park is high up on the bucket list for most and had made our top 5 to visit when we first got very serious about camping. Zion is conveniently located just a few hours from Las Vegas, making it easily accessible from a major airport. Over the years, it has become a very popular destination as the landscape is breathtaking and the history is rich. However, like planning all national park trips, especially for a beginner it can be a daunting task.
So I Want to Go to Zion... Where to Start?
Since National Park trips are becoming more popular every year, it is important to start planning early! Not booking far enough in advance is the number one mistake made by beginners as lodging options can fill up months in advance. Planning is even more important if you intend to visit during the busy season!
So When is the Best Time to Visit?
Despite soaring temperatures, Zion can get very busy in the summer as this is prime travel time since school is out. The park recommends visiting between May and November as the flood season has passed so the Narrows are a hiking option.... and it is one you don't want to miss! We visited Zion in September, so we missed the summer crowds. Although it was still hot with temperatures in the high 80s during the day, night was comfortable to sleep in as it dipped into the 50s. The leaves had just started to change, making October prime time for fall colors.
How to Get to Zion
Depending on where you live, traveling by plane is one of the easiest ways to get to Zion. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is 170 miles from the park and Salt Lake City International Airport is 311 miles from the park. Both airports have a variety of car rental options. If you fly into Salt Lake City, you can take a short connecting flight to Saint George, Utah which is a short 49 miles from the park. However, the car rental options are more limited. The airport is almost the smallest I have ever seen and I fly out of Lexington, KY.
So Where Do I Sleep?
Well that just depends! Zion National Park offers a variety of lodging options to accommodate all your travel needs. We are big campers, so we always choose the outdoor options. Zion has three main campgrounds including South and Watchman, which are both located in Zion Canyon. Lava Point Campgroup is about a 1-hour drive from Zion Canyon on the Kolob Terrace Road. Since camping is popular, reservations are recommended so you can be guaranteed a spot. Reservations can be made at recreation.gov. Camping is permitted in designated campgrounds, but not in pullouts or parking lots. The Zion wilderness has over 90 miles of trails and dozens of designated backpacking spots for the off-road adventurer. All overnight backpacking in the park requires a wilderness permit. To get more information on overnight backpacking permits, visit https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/backpackingreservationsexplained.htm.
The primary thing to take in consideration when planning a camping trip to Zion is the temperatures. In the summer, high 90s are common with lows rarely dipping below 65, which makes staying cool a challenge. The sun in Zion is brutal in the summer months and most campsites offer little shade. We stayed in Watchman Campground in mid-September and while it was comfortable at night, it was steamy during peak sunshine hours.
For those who gravitate towards amenities, there are plenty of options in and around the park. Zion Lodge is located in the middle of the park off of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Lodging is offered year-round, and reservations are always recommended. For reservations, please visit https://www.zionlodge.com/lodging/reservations/.
Outside the park, lodging can be found in Springdale and St. George. Options range from hotels, to Airbnb's and bread and breakfasts.
I am Hungry!
Your sleeping arrangements could impart determine your food options. Since we are avid campers, we rely on freeze dried options which we cook using out JetBoil. If you are interested in camping food, check out our "What's "Cooking" on that Trip?!" in the Gear Reviews section.
If food mixed with boiling water in a Ziplock back is not your thing, there are two food options located in the park. Zion Lodge is home to both Red Rock Grill and Castle Dome Café. For menus and hours of operation, visit https://www.zionlodge.com/dining/red-rock-grill/.
Springdale is a stone's throw away from the entrance of Zion National Park and offers some amazing grub options that are sure to refuel you after a long hike. Our personal favorites were Zion Canyon Brew Pub and Zion Pizza and Noodle Co. Zion Canyon Brew Pub is a 7-minute walk from the visitor center and easily accessible from Watchman Campgroup. We chowed down on some amazing burgers and washed them down with ice cold beers. Zion Pizza and Noodle Co is the go-to pizza spot and we are pizza snobs! Nothing is better than a giant serving of carbs after a long day of hiking in the heat.
What is there to do in Zion?
Again, this depends on what makes your heart sing! Zion offers several options to fit the needs of everyone in your group. You could take the day and explore the sights along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is only accessible by the park's shuttle bus that aims to reduce traffic in the park. During coronavirus, the shuttle requires tickets to be purchased in advanced which can be bought at https://www.recreation.gov/ticket/facility/300016. The in-and-out road runs along the canyon floor, with towering cliffs on both sides. The road offers views of the most famous sites in the park and is home to several of the main trailheads.
If you enjoy scenic drives in your own vehicle, we recommend the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, which runs through the park from the South Entrance to the East and offers starkly different perspectives when compared to the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.
Zion offers some of the most amazing hikes in the United States and there is something for all fitness levels. Two of the most famous hikes are Angels Landing and the Narrows. We chose a lengthier adventure and hiked the 17-miles West Rim Trail. Please read our Best of Zion for detailed descriptions of our favorite hikes!
The Human History Museum is a must visit for the history buff in your group and is located at the first stop on the shuttle bus. The museum features a permanent collection on American Indian Culture, pioneer settlements, and the creation of the park.
Canyoneering and rock climbing are popular activities as Zion's slot canyons are some of the best in the world. Gear is plentiful in nearby Springdale, specifically at Zion Outfitters. In addition, courses that cater to the beginner to advanced enthusiast are offered and can be arranged in Springdale.
The most important thing to consider when planning any national park trip is to just let go and enjoy the wonders that nature has to offer. Take the time to disconnect, turn off your phone and simply enjoy.