Zion National Park, UT
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Zion National Park, UT

Ditch the car! Pedestrians rule at this popular Red Rock park.

Hiker's Haven

Plateau of Zion's East Rim,
copyright Zion National Park

Summer may bring bumper-to-bumper traffic to this popular national park, but make no mistake about it: Pedestrians rule at Zion. The park boasts more miles of walking trails than road. The river is fair game for hikers. Cars are no longer permitted on its scenic 7-mile drive -- you'll have to take the shuttle.

This is a walker's park, first and foremost. Those red rock cliffs towering 2,000 feet above the canyon floor may look formidable, but there's something in them for everyone -- from short, flat strolls to gut-busting treks.

So ditch the car, put on your hiking boots, and get ready to explore. Tip: By midday, most trails are basking in full sun, so start early. The scenery won't look nearly as spectacular through swollen, sunburned eyes.

No Sweat

Plan to spend most of your time hiking Zion Canyon (the main section). Unlike other parks, Zion doesn't skimp in the beginners' department. What's more, the easy hikes are just as scenic as harder ones. Here are our favorite short hops, ideal for families with small (or lazy) children:

  • Weeping Rock Trail. This half-mile trail climbs through lush plant-life and vegetation to a series of springs that flow from a cliff wall. During the spring and summer, wildflowers cover the walls. Weeping Rock is one of the top attractions for kids.
  • Emerald Pool Trail. This shaded hike past three waterfall pools is a welcome respite on a hot summer day. The first portion of the 2.5-mile trail is paved and can be negotiated by wheelchairs. For a bit more exercise, continue on to Upper Emerald Pool with its white sand beach. (Sorry, swimming and wading are prohibited.)
  • Sand Beach Trail. Another easy loop follows the canyon's west side for 3.6 miles, providing great views of the Three Patriarchs and Streaked Wall. During the summer, horseback rides are also conducted along this trail.

Straight to the Top

Watchman Peak, copyright
Zion National Park

Experienced hikers can thank the Virgin River for carving out Zion's canyon walls more than 13 million years ago. Those towering cliffs now provide the perfect terrain for scaling the park's many peaks, all of which offer dizzying views of the valley below.

One of Zion's most popular hikes is Angel's Landing. You'll hear a lot about this so-called scary trek during your stay here. But don't let that stop you from trying it. Only the last half-mile is a corker. Mostly, the trail is a steep but scenic climb on wide concrete paths to Scouts Landing, with 21 switchbacks along the way named Walter's Wiggles, after a former park superintendent.

Wait at Scout's Landing, if you're prone to vertigo, while the rest of your group goes on to the 6,000-foot summit. That last half-mile gets very narrow, and there are steep drop-offs on either -- or both -- sides (chains are provided).

Exposed sandstone along the
Zion-Mt.Carmel Highway,
copyright Zion National Park

Get Your Feet Wet

Looking for a unique adventure in Zion? Take a stroll or hike up the Virgin River itself. The "trail" starts as a paved, 1-mile wheelchair accessible path along the water, aptly called Riverside Walk. It is the most popular path in the park.

At the end of the path, you can turn around or join the hundreds of folks who plunge into ankle or knee-deep water for some river hiking. (Don't do this with small children!) Pick up a walking stick where the paved path turns into riverbed. (Make sure to wear sturdy hiking boots, to avoid turning an ankle on slippery rocks.)

This water portion of the trail is called The Narrows, because the canyon walls come closer and closer together as you work your way upstream (in some spots they're just 40 feet across). Along the way, there are small beaches, hanging gardens, waterfalls, and interesting side canyons to explore. It's possible to hike 18 miles upriver if you're fit for backcountry adventure. But most people turn back after 2 or 3 miles.

Fall is the best time to try this hike, when water levels and thunderstorm risks are at their lowest. Check at the visitor center when you arrive for river conditions and flash flood warnings.

Big Fun for Small Visitors

Foggy day in Zion Canyon,
copyright Zion National Park

Zion National Park offers wonderful opportunities for kids to explore and appreciate the park's beauty. In addition to easy trails throughout the park, the Zion Nature Center, in the South Campground, offers a Junior Ranger Program for kids 6-12.

At the visitor center, rangers lead various child-oriented evening programs and slide shows that change weekly. From spring through early fall, there are nightly campfire programs and ranger walks.

You can also take the family aboard the Zion Shuttle for a 7-mile scenic drive with sensational views of the canyon. Get off at any point to explore hiking trails, have a picnic, or grab a bite at Zion Lodge.

Beyond Bi-Pedaling

Here are some other exciting activities inside and outside the park:

  • Zion ATV Tours. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are not permitted on parklands, but you can kick up some dirt on the high plateaus overlooking Zion's famous canyons. Local tour companies will take you to Toqureville Falls, The Paiute Trail System, Dinosaur Tracks, Hurricane Sands, The Arizona Strip, the ancient Indian petroglyphs, or other points of interest.
  • Horseback Riding. Put on your cowboy boots and hit the open trails! At the Ponderosa Ranch, next to the park, you can take a guided tour along the Zion's east rim. Along the trail, you'll get a bird's-eye view of the park's outstanding landscape.
  • Tubing. Floating down the Virgin River on an inner tube is another popular pastime. Most of the year, the river is safe and easy to navigate, but watch out for high waters in spring. Access the river at Watchman Campground.
  • Grafton Ghost Town. First settled in 1859, Grafton is approximately 6 miles from the south entrance to Zion. This well-preserved ghost town appeared in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.


Type of trip: Hiking, walking, sightseeing, swimming

Best ages: 6 and up

Ideal trip length: Four to five days

Distance: St. George, UT (40 miles), Cedar City, UT (60 miles), Las Vegas (158 miles), Salt Lake City (306 miles)

Best time to go: Spring and fall, when temperatures are moderate and crowds are light.

Weather: 73/36 degrees in spring, 100/66 summer, 78/49 fall

Lodging: Park lodging (hotel and motel rooms, individual cabins) is popular and sells out quickly. The town of Springdale at the entrance to the park has a larger variety of accommodations, including camping grounds, lodges, and bed and breakfasts. Make your reservations at least three months in advance.

Squirm factor: None

If You Go...

Zion Canyon, copyright
Zion National Park

Zion National Park. Exit 40 off I-15, Springdale, UT, 435-772-3256.


Zion ATV Tours. 7 miles east of the park entrance, 800-293-5444.


Horseback Riding. Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, 800-293-5444. Open March through December.


Grafton Ghost Town. Grafton, UT.


Contact: Go-Utah Travel Guide.


The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spots: Zion Pizza and Noodle Company, 868 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, UT, 435-772-3815. This is the place for great pizzas and pastas. In summer, expect a long wait for a prime table on the patio.

Best souvenirs: An official engraved Zion National Park walking stick broken in on the Narrows. Available in different sizes at the Zion Lodge shop.

Traffic alert: From April through October, vehicular traffic is not permitted in the park. Leave the car at the visitor center and take the shuttle.

Side Trips

Bryce Canyon

Mother Nature must have been thinking "eye candy" when she created Bryce Canyon, just 86 miles northeast of Zion. This national park is a magical land of red rock amphitheaters, arches, and hoodoos -- eroded sandstone pinnacles -- which seem to have popped out of a fairy tale.

Just 18 miles long and 6 miles wide, it's also tiny compared to Zion's 229,000 square miles, making it a good day trip. You can see it all by car, or take an easy hike down into the amphitheaters (it's the trek back up that'll have you huffing and puffing). Our favorite walks:

  • Rim Trail. An easy 5.5-mile hike along the perimeter of the plateau above Fairyland and Bryce amphitheaters and a great place to watch the sunset.
  • Queens Garden. A 1.5-mile trail that descends from Sunrise Point through wonderful hoodoos, making it the easiest trail down to the amphitheater (plan on a tougher hike back up).
  • Navajo Loop. A 1.5-mile path to Wall Street Canyon, bottoming at Twin Bridges, a pair of thin natural arches. The hike back up follows sharp switchbacks.
  • Peekaboo Loop Trail. An easy 3.5-mile hike to the Bryce Amphitheater. Watch your step...you have to share this trail with the horses!

The park's elevation (about 2,000 feet higher than Zion) keeps it delightfully cool in summer. But bring a warm jacket in spring; temperatures can drop into the low 30s and 20s. Off State Road 63 South, 435-834-5322.

Reviewed April 2004.