Introducing Zion National Park
Just 155 miles from the bright lights and revolving freak shows of Las Vegas lies another place that seems to spring up from the desert out of nowhere. Leaving Las Vegas on HWY 15 at 80 miles-per-hour, passing through empty desert just like the land upon which the big city was built, a sort of time-warp occurs.
After a brief period on Arizona highways, the route continues into Utah through St. George. There, the white spires of the mormon tabernacles begin to appear, peaking out above rooftops and high desert plateaus and by the time one first glimpses Zion’s canyon walls there is no doubt that this is God’s country.
Vegas has its time and place in the lives of most Americans and the millions upon millions of international tourists who visit each year. Las Vegas undoubtedly represents the pleasure-seeking, risk-taking side of American culture in an amplified yet not inaccurate manner. As that place is increasingly associated with the heart of America, though, the beauty of preserved lands like Zion remain the soul of the country. Getting your hiking boots ready and buy a bigger camera card!
When to Go and How to Get There
Seasons in Zion National Park
Having visited Zion in three seasons now, I can attest that there is something worth seeing in the park at almost any time of year:
Winters are cold and marked with significant reductions in trail access due to snow and ice, but provide a chance to see the great canyon walls without the hum of shuttle buses and fellow travelers. Be prepared for limited services in the nearby town of Springdale and within the park itself. Spring is characterized by variable, though generally pleasant weather. Though I have not been in summer, I know this is considered the busy season and temperatures can also get quite hot outside the shadows of the canyons. On the plus side, warmer weather makes hiking along and into the slot canyon at the far end of the park more manageable and the locals are on top of their service game for the influx of tourists. During the fall season, some of the parks trees shed their leaves, resulting in some interesting colors and then a sort of stark but pleasant gray and white appearance against the red background of the canyons.
Here is an annual average temperature chart from weatherspark.com:
So When do I Go?
Since Zion can be visited most any time of year, when to go comes down more to what you are hoping to do while in the park, the length of your stay, and vacation schedule flexibility. If a short pass-through visit is all you desire, the time of year doesn’t matter much at all, so go when available. If significant hiking is a priority, spring and fall are probably the best times (for great bargains on lightly used bikes and outdoor apparel & equipment, visit around Thanksgiving to take advantage of seasonal sales at the Zion Outdoor and Zion Cycles). The trails can be closed because of snow and ice, so a good rule of thumb is probably no later than Thanksgiving weekend in the fall and for spring, try to wait until the average nightly temperature stays above freezing (April). You can also reference this Zion visitation statistics chart for a sense of when others visit (either so you can avoid them, or join them during the good times).
Getting to Zion National Park
Zion is located in southern Utah, with Bryce Canyon and a host of other state and national parks to the north, Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam to the east, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the south. As such, Zion is often one stop on a larger trip of the southwestern United States. In combining some or all of these elements, expect lots of desert driving with the potential for windy conditions between points of interest.
If Zion National Park is the main attraction, most visitors will find it easiest to fly into McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, where cheap overnight accommodations are easy to come by and every rental car company on earth competes for your business in the new rental car center. The rental center is a short, free shuttle ride from arrivals, but travelers should factor in the ride to and from when considering arrival and departure times. Flying into McCarran also affords Zion visitors the opportunity to find true polarity between the city sights and lights of Vegas and the wilds of southern Utah. From McCarran’s rental car center, it takes about 2.5-3 hours to reach Zion. Along the way, opportunities to stop for food and gas are sparse, but the town of Mesquite (1:15 into the drive) and then the larger city of St. George (1:45 into the drive) both make a good break in the otherwise lonesome drive along I-15.
What to Do in Zion
Hiking in Zion National Park
Zion has much to offer in the way of hiking, it’s leading activity, so that’s where most people start. From the short stroll up to the Weeping Rock, to the several-mile loop of Emerald Pools, and on to longer hikes like Angel’s Landing, there is something for everyone.
Weeping Rock is a short, half-mile hike that begins at one of the Zion Shuttle stops. The draw, besides the family-friendly brevity and ease of the climb, is the seeping water that drips from overhead. According to park information, this water spends hundreds of years finding its way through layer after layer of rock before sprinkling down on hikers, which elicits a feeling of being surrounded by something ancient, of depth and character. It also makes me happy to consider that my charcoal backpacking water-filter takes almost no time at all to produce drinkable water. Imagine having to wait a dozen generations to reap clean water from that which started at the top of the rock formation!
Angel’s Landing is perhaps the most well-known of the bunch and my personal favorite, featuring two miles of steep, but well-established trail to the beginning of the heart-racing half-mile climb to the final viewpoint, for which the hike is named. During this last half-mile, hikers will use bolted-in chains to scurry across sandstone ledges and will most certainly face any fears of heights during a number of moments where the route reveals the entirety of the 1,500ft drop to the canyon floor on both sides of the trail.
A number of people have fallen to their death from this last section (the last section of which we left out of our hike), but on the other hand, it is not uncommon to see young children doing the entire route. Overall, the hike is a must when visiting Zion, but when approaching the last bits, taking stock in your abilities and willingness as well as that of your company before venturing towards the promise of a 360 degree vantage point at the center of the canyon.
For more advice on hiking in Zion National Park, I find Joe’s Guide to Zion National Park to be an excellent resource.
Backpacking and Multi-Day Excursions in Zion
For some, driving far from the metropolis lights of Vegas and the relatively large (by Southern Utah standards) build-out of St. George to the main roads of Zion isn’t enough. This wilderness guide is a great back-country resource from Zion National Park, offering details on primitive campsite locations, water, canyon routes, and other useful information for those that like to get off the beaten path. In particular, the rim trails seem to offer lots of opportunities for multi-day hikes, awe-inspiring views, and some routing flexibility.
Renting a Bike in Zion NP
There are a couple of opportunities to rent bikes at Zion National Park, although there is but one route in the main canyon for which they can be used. Zion Cycles of Springdale, Utah offers road and MTB rentals by the hour or day, and there is another bike shop which rents more casual bikes near the foot-entrance to the park. Consider a spin up the canyon in the afternoon hours, as we did this past November, returning on a gentle downhill as the sun set against the reddish canyon walls. One thing to keep in mind while riding along the canyon road is that, though it is very poorly posted, you are required to stop and pull aside any time a shuttle bus passes on your side of the road.
Within an hour or so drive of the main portion of Zion National Park, there are other cycling options, including some beautiful roads in St. George and a few good mountain-biking routes. Guided MTB trips can be arranged either from St. George or from active travel companies in the Springdale area, such as Zion Adventure Company.
Zion Area Jeep Tours
Fancy covering a lot of ground in a short amount of time, including areas not often seen by hikers and bikers? Zion Jeep Tours offers the backroads of Zion and the surrounding areas by vehicle. One tour includes a visit to the Grafton Ghost Town, while another features a drive to the best spot to view the sunset. This sort of tour might be a great addition to the Zion experience for those who’ve been before or already had plenty of time to experience the canyon itself and are looking for the complete picture of the national park.
Climbing and Canyoneering in Zion
Climbing and Canyoneering are popular activities throughout the southwest, and Zion is no exception. Again, Zion Adventure Company is your go-to provided for active experiences in the Zion area, with basic canyoneering courses, half-day, full-day, and multi-day trips that explore every slot, nook, and cranny of Zion’s canyon-system. For more information about canyoneering in the area, visit this link at Canyoneering USA. There are also rock-climbing excursions through Zion Adventure, though you’re likely to see just as many climbers hanging precipitously from the canyon walls on their own, as Zion is a true climbers mecca. On our trip during the last week of “the season” in Zion, we spotted at least a dozen brave souls mounting challenges on the vertical canyon walls as we shuttled up and down the road from the relative safety of the riverbed.
Relaxing in the Canyon
While there is much in the way of adventure and activity to be had in Zion National Park, there is equal value in just planting oneself literally anywhere for several hours of quiet admiration. The park is a natural beauty of rare proportion and no matter where you are within its boundaries you will feel a sense of awe. There is no cell reception within the main canyon, little in the way of wifi, and in some ways, that’s a blessing. Living in Santa Barbara, I often catch myself taking for granted the stunning environment that surrounds me daily, but it in Zion, the park commands your full and uninterrupted attention.
Where to Sleep and What to Eat
So you know you want to visit Zion National Park by now, having read the first three parts of this series. Now it’s time to figure out where to stay and how to fuel your adventures.
The Lodge in the Park
If you want to stay within the park, but aren’t up for camping out, the Zion National Park Lodge offers very impressive accommodations, including the main lodge and detached cabins (see image below). The lodge also has a large dining area and the buffet breakfast is a good option before heading out on a long day of exploring the canyon trails.
Springdale Lodges and Inns
Cliffrose Lodge & Gardens – Well-kept grounds, attractive accommodations, a large pool, and starting May 1, 2014, a free hot breakfast; all these things plus a bevy of positive reviews from satisfied customers make the Cliffrose Lodge a slightly less expensive alternative to the Zion Lodge.
Hampton Inn & Suites – Those looking to use or accrue Hilton Honors points will be happy with the Hampton in Springdale, which is very stylish and gets great reviews from customers.
Historic Pioneer Lodge – If you don’t mind rustic-themed rooms, this lodge presents a solid value proposition, offering the best rates in town and a discount to eat in their restaurant for customers.
Camping in Zion
Being a national park, Zion offers camping, which definitely has its benefits. During one visit, my wife and I entered the park late and pitched our tent after nightfall. When we awoke and peeled back the zippered tent-door, we were stunned by the beauty of our surroundings.
Watchman Campground is the main camping facility within the park boundaries, offering 176 regular sites, 2 handicap accessible, and 6 group sites, all of which can and should be reserved in advance. Alternatively, during the busy season, you can try your luck at the “first-come, first-served” South Campground. Both offer beautiful views near the entrance to the park, but little shade, so keep sun-relief in mind during hot summer visits.
Where to Eat in Zion
The first thing you need to know about eating when visiting Zion National Park is that, much like all business that transacts in the area, the laws of supply-and-demand are definitely at work. Expect to pay between 10-30% more for everything than you would in St. George, the nearest large city in Utah. Customer comments on various review sites seem to suggest that dining near Zion is a losing proposition, yet you will need to eat and do so often with all the hiking.
Instead of choosing to be disappointed, like so many reviewers of Springdale establishments, adjust your expectations and/or make preparations to mitigate the higher prices of dining out. If you are coming from St. George, stock up on trail snacks and even perishables if your accommodations include a refrigerator (most in Springdale do). Use the savings from avoiding snack-price markups to allow yourself to enjoy a few good meals in local establishments, because after climbing to the top of Angel’s Landing, you deserve it!
All that being said, here are some dining suggestions:
Zion Pizza and Noodle Company – Prices, like at all Zion establishments, will seem a bit high, but you will leave full and sometimes that’s all you really need after a long day of adventure. This restaurant is also located in the same building as Zion Outdoor, where you can pick up any gear or technical clothing you might need. Do note that they don’t accept credit cards!
The Spotted Dog Cafe – Quite a nice dinner dining establishment with a significant wine list by night, the Spotted Dog also offers a buffet breakfast in the morning.
Zion Lodge – You really can’t go wrong eating at the Zion Lodge within the park. They serve breakfast, including a more cost-effective buffet option, as well as lunch and dinner, with a few good beers on draft.
Bring Your Own Food – There’s nothing wrong with stocking up on food while as you pass through St. George or one of the other cities along the route between Las Vegas and Springdale. In fact, having your own supply of cheaply bought snacks and drinks should empower you to go for that overpriced meal in town after a long day’s hike, since you will have saved some money on food earlier in the day.