Zion National Park, located in Southwest Utah, near St. George and Springdale, is 30 miles long and 15 miles wide (at its widest point). Totaling 148,000 acres (229 square miles), it is host to over 3 million visitors a year.
Formerly known as the Mukuntuweap National Monument, it opened on July 31, 1909. It was incorporated to the Zion National Monument on March 18, 1918, and was established as a national park on Nov. 19, 1919. Within the park, visitors enjoy an amazing cliff-and-canyon landscape, they can see the world’s largest freestanding arch called the Kolob Arch (which measures 310 feet), and they can view a variety of wildlife, including mule deer, mountain lions, and the majestic golden eagle. While elevations range from 4,000-8,700 feet, the park is easy to access and enjoy.
Directions to Zion National Park
From the North: Travel on I-15 south, past Beaver. Exit on Hwy. 20. Follow US-89 to Mount Carmel Junction. Take SR-9 to Zion’s east entrance.
From Arizona: Travel on US-89A through Fredonia, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah. Follow US-89 to Mount Carmel Junction. Take SR-9 to the east park entrance.
From the South: Travel on I-15 north. Take exit 16 and travel through Hurricane to LaVerkin. Continue on SR-9 to the south entrance of the park. SR-9 (also called the Zion-Mt. Carmel Hwy.) through Zion National Park is always open.
Zion Canyon Campgrounds
Campgrounds in Zion National Park fill up quickly. Especially mid-March through November, it can be difficult to find an open campsite. It’s a great idea to make a reservation (available at Watchman Campground only) or to show up early in the day for a better chance at finding an open site.
Watchman Campground: This is the largest campground within Zion with almost 200 sites, including group and walk-in sites. Named for The Watchman, a famous rock formation that stretches 6,545 feet into the heavens, it is situated on a bench above the North Fork Virgin River. Hackberry, ash, and cottonwood trees can be found throughout the campground and provide much-needed shade during the hot summer months in Utah.
South Campground: This medium-sized campground offers 127 sites, but it does not take reservations. Also located along the river, campers can enjoy shade from netleaf hackberries and Fremont cottonwoods.
Lava Point Campground: For a primitive, remote camping experience within Zion, choose this campground that only has six available campsites and offers no water. Perfect for tent campers, vans, and truck campers, Lava Point Campground is located in north-central Zion and sits at 7,900 feet of elevation. For a magnificent view of the park and beyond, you can walk to the Lava Point Fire Lookout a few hundred yards to the east. From the lookout you can see the Pink Cliffs, The Narrows, and features such as The Sentinel in Zion Canyon. This campground does not take reservations.
Birding and Wildlife Watching
Opportunities to view wildlife that call Zion National Park home are plentiful. Zion is home to 78 species of mammals and 44 species of reptiles and amphibians, so there is a lot to see! While some of the park’s animals are harmless, such as the Plateau Lizard and Wild Turkey, some you should watch out for. There are Western Rattlesnakes, Gray Foxes, and Mountain Lions within the canyon’s walls. With temperatures exceeding 100 degrees during the summer months in the park, many of these animals lay dormant during the heat of the day and come out in the cool of the night.
With 291 species of birds in Zion National Park, it is a birder’s paradise. The Peregrine Falcon, the Golden Eagle, and the California Condor all live quiet, peaceful lives in the park. A few threatened animals can be found in the park and are being watched closely: the Mexican spotted owl, the Mojave Desert tortoise, and the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.
Hiking Trails through Zion
The hiking options in Zion National Park are plentiful and amazing! Hikers of all abilities will find trails that lead to sweeping vistas, clear pools, natural arches, and narrow canyons. Remember, it’s always a good idea to stop in the Visitor Center for information and to consult with a ranger about conditions before setting out on a hike.
If you’re looking for easy family day hikes that are also wheelchair accessible, check out The Pa’rus Trail and the Riverside Walk hikes. The Pa’rus Trail follows the Virgin River between South Campground and Canyon Junction and is about 3.5 miles long (round trip). From a Paiute word meaning “bubbling, tumbling water,” the Pa’rus Trail offers a fun, paved hike for the whole family. Starting at the Temple of Sinawava and continuing along the Virgin River, the Riverside Walk is about 2 miles long (round trip) and takes about 1-2 hours to complete.
Other easy day hikes that are perfect for families with small children include the Emerald Pools Trails, the Weeping Rock Trail, and the Canyon Overlook Trail. The Emerald Pools Trail features views of the canyon, spring-fed pools, and waterfalls (in the desert!). The Weeping Rock Trail leads to a spring where water emerges from the Navajo sandstone after seeping some 2,000 feet through the rock. The Canyon Overlook Trail is a little longer than the other trails. It leads to a high overlook immediately above the Great Arch and offers gorgeous views of the lower reaches of Zion Canyon.
There are of course trails in Zion that are geared toward experienced hikers who seek thrills and excitement. There is the Taylor Creek Trail, Angels Landing, The Narrows, and the Kolob Arch. For backpackers who want a remote overnight experience, the West Rim Trail is perfect. This is the most popular backpacking trail in Zion National Park, offering striking views throughout the hike. The Narrows also offers exhilarating hiking and is best hiked from the top down when backpacking.
Go for a Scenic Drive
The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive winds through some of Zion’s most amazing scenery. This 6 mile-long road follows the North Fork of the Virgin River upstream from Canyon Junction through Zion’s famous landscape. Although it is closed to vehicle traffic from April to October, you can catch a regularly scheduled shuttle bus instead to enjoy the exquisite landscape that has been carved out by water and time. Or, if you prefer, take a hike to the top and then catch a bus back down the canyon.
The Zion Park Scenic Byway is 54 miles long going one way and takes about 1 1/2 hours to drive. Jump on it at the intersection of Highway 9 and Interstate 15 (9 miles east of St. George). Head east on the byway until you reach Highway 89 at Mount Carmel Junction. As you traverse along switchbacks from the canyon floor to the two high plateaus to the east you’ll pass through two narrow tunnels blasted through the cliffs. When you reach the end, you’ll understand why this drive is a must for visitors to the park!
The Kolob Fingers Road Scenic Byway is a short but very beautiful drive in southern Utah. Only 5 miles long in one direction, it is in the northwestern corner of Zion National Park and features the same stunning desert landscape that the park is known for. The twisting drive includes many switchbacks that reach over 1000 feet even though the drive only lasts a few minutes. A picnic area and scenic lookout greet you at the top where you can marvel at breathtaking views of towering cliffs, narrow, winding canyons, forested plateaus, and wooded trails along twisting side canyons. Since this drive isn’t a major attraction within the park, and definitely not one to plan your trip around, it isn’t overly crowded or busy. But it’s a great drive to take if you’re already in the area and want to experience even more of the beauty that Zion has to offer.
Premier Canyoneering Opportunities Inside the Park
Zion is one of the premier places in the country to go canyoneering. This sport involves rappelling, swimming, problem solving, hiking, and other skills. Those interested in canyoneering should contact one of the guide services that teach courses and lead trips into the park.