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ZION NATIONAL PARK: A (Very) Helpful Guide – Video, Photos, Locations

Zion National Park is one of the most beautiful and overcrowded places in the world. Here’s how to see it all while escaping the crowds.

It’s Still Possible to Visit Zion National Park While Escaping the Crowds.

the watchman zion national park
Utah’s Zion National Park

Zion National Park is unlike anywhere else on the planet. Looking up at those impossibly big canyon walls for the first time is a feeling you don’t ever forget.

It’s no wonder why millions of people every year come to visit this breathtaking place. Millions of people visit lots of national parks each year that don’t have the sort of overcrowding issues that Zion does – so what gives?

The major difference is that most national parks that see millions of viewers a year have a larger area for folks to spread out. In Zion, the main canyon is extremely narrow and just a mere 15 miles long.

Don’t let that deter you from visiting! There are still ways to see Zion without the crowds. In this post I’ll detail exactly how I go about doing this year after year.


About My Travels to Zion National Park

outdoor photography essentials, zion national park utah, pattiz brothers
Me (right) and my brother, Jim (left) at Zion

I first visited Zion National Park back in 2015 and vividly remember my first impressions of the park. It was truly awe-inspiring. The towering red canyon walls were mesmerizing but, surprisingly, so were many other parts of the park that I had never seen any of my friends post about.

The primary goal of my visit was to experience the park to its fullest and capture the essence of the place for a film my brother and produced on the park. The video we produced was featured by National Geographic and Conde Nast Traveler

To do this, we traveled every road in the park, visited every overlook, and went on most of the hikes. It was an unforgettable adventure. So much so that I’ve been back several times since.


Zion National Park Guide

Contents

  1. About the Park
  2. History
  3. Map
  4. Directions & Location
  5. Video
  6. Weather & Seasons
  7. Things to Do
  8. Camping & Lodging
  9. Photos

About Zion National Park

Canyon Overlook Trail | Zion National Park

Exquisitely carved by the Virgin River over millions of years, Zion Canyon is one of the most stunning places on earth. But don’t stop there!

This park has so much more to offer outside of the main canyon. Golden meadows, sweeping vistas, red rock mountains, towering white temples, and powerful ancient rivers comprise this incredible treasure.


Things to Know Before You Visit

Entrance Fees: The entrance fee for Zion National Park is $30 per vehicle. If you plan on visiting more than 1 national park this year I suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks or online here). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.

Sunscreen: For many of us visiting national parks in the summer means lots of sun. Seriously, some of these parks can zap you if you don’t wear sunscreen. We happen to like this one because it works AND it’s not full of a bunch of chemicals.

Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.

Dogs are not allowed on trails in most national parks due to their potentially disruptive presence with the natural ecosystem. The basic rule is they are allowed where cars can go so be sure to check the rules before bringing along your furry friend.

Things to Pack

Map: I use this one.

Guide: I recommend this one – James Kaiser is the gold standard when it comes to national park guide books.

Sandals: We recommend these sandals that we love and these sandals which have straps.

Insect Repellent: You hope not to need it, but you want to have it. We typically bring an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent with us just in case.


Details About Zion National Park

Location: Springdale, Utah

Established: November 19, 1919

Size: 323,431 acres

Native Land: Hopi, Navajo, Northern Ute, Pueblo of Zuni, Southern Paiute

Visitors: 4,320,333 (2018)

Entrance Fees: $30 per vehicle (or $80 for America the Beautiful Pass)


Zion National Park History

zion national park history - ranger at entrance station
A ranger at the South Entrance station of Zion National Park

Native Peoples

The earliest known human inhabitants of the area now conserved as Zion National Park were present about 8,000 years ago during the Archaic period. These peoples were primarily hunter-gatherers.

At around 2,000 years ago the inhabitants of Zion began building structures, planting crops, and settling in the area. Eventually the Anasazi people arrived to the area, approximately 1,500 to 800 years ago and inhabited the area for hundreds of years.

When the Europeans eventually arrived on the scene the native occupants of the area were primarily the Paiute people.

The Arrival of Mormon Pioneers to Zion

In the 1800s Mormon pioneers and explorers began to filter into the area settling the Virgin River area in 1847. They gave the area the name “Kolob” which in Mormon scripture is a heavenly place.

In 1851 Nephi Johnson, a Mormon missionary led by a Southern Paiute guide, entered the Virgin Canyon area for the first time and wrote about it’s agricultural potential.

Those reports reached Isaac Behunin who settled the Zion canyon floor in 1863 residing near the area where the Zion Lodge is located today. It was Behunin who is given credit for naming the area Zion after the biblical place of peace.

The Powell Expedition in Zion

In 1869 the Powell Expedition led by the famous John Wesley Powell entered the canyon for the first time bringing with them survey photographers.

Zion National Park History
John K Hiller photo from 1871 of the Virgin River with West Temple on the left. A horse can be seen in the river along with two wagons in the photo as well.

One of these photographers, John K. Hillers, took photos (featured above) that eventually made it back east and stimulated excitement about the area.

Establishment of Mukuntuweap National Monument

zion national park history - observation point
Hikers at Observation Point

In 1909 the hype around the Zion area (largely due to depictions of it being present at the 1904 World’s Fair) was sufficient enough for President William Howard Taft to conserve it as Mukuntuweap National Monument. The name coming from a word John Wesley Powell mistakenly thought was what the Paiute called the area.

The name was changed to Zion on recommendation of the acting park service director as a result of complaints by the local Mormon population.

RELATED: If you’re interested in learning more about island history, check out our Cumberland Island post.


Establishment of Zion National Park

On November 9, 1919, Zion was congressionally designated as a National Park. Upon the park’s designation road construction began opening the park to average folks.

zion national park history - rock slide
An early work crew cleans up a rock slide in Zion National Park

A Presidential Visit

In 1923 the park was visited by it’s first sitting President of the United States, Warren G. Harding, as part of a larger trip to the west (a trip he would never return from). Harding toured the park on horseback and was deeply impressed by what he saw.

zion national park history - president warren g harding
President Warren G Harding at Zion National Park

“I have today viewed the greatest creations of the Almighty in the majestic natural wonders of Zion National Park. It has inspired me with a deeper religious conviction.

I am acquainted with pioneer stock. It has made the United States. By the difference between the arid and cultivated sections I can read the story of your work. To you men and women who came with your families in covered wagons into this country when the water still flowed through its natural gorges, the nation owes a debt of gratitude.

I am the first President of the United States to come and express that gratitude but I feel sure when I tell of this trip to my successors all future Presidents will come to visit this country of wonders.”

President Warren G Harding

Harding went on to visit Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Alaska as part of his trip. He would never return to the white house, passing suddenly and unexpectedly in San Francisco on his way home.


Zion National Park Map

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Official Zion National Park Map (courtesy NPS)

Where is Zion National Park?

Zion National Park is located in the southwestern corner of Utah near the Las Vegas and Arizona borders.


Getting to the Park – Directions & Location

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Las Vegas to Zion National Park Driving Directions

Closest Airport: Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS) – 3 hours driving (172 miles)

The fastest way to get to Zion National Park is by plane, flying into Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. From there, the drive to the park is typically around 3 hours.

I recommend flying into Las Vegas, renting a car from the airport, and driving to the park.

Rental Car: Las Vegas Airport (LAS) – (Hertz, Enterprise, Budget, Dollar, & more)

Alternate Route: Flying into Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) is another popular option that is often combined with a Utah National Parks Road Trip. This route is longer but the added stops are worth the fuss!

RELATED: An EXPERT Guide to Utah’s National Parks Road Trip (Videos + Tips)


Video

WATCH: I co-produced this 3 minute short film on Zion NP

About the Video

ZION is the culmination of nearly a month spent exploring Zion National Park during peak fall color. Exquisitely carved by the Virgin River over millions of years, Zion Canyon is one of the most stunning places on earth.

But don’t stop there! This park has so much more to offer outside of the main canyon. Golden meadows, sweeping vistas, red rock mountains, towering white temples, and powerful ancient rivers comprise this incredible treasure. This was filmed primarily in stunning UHD 8K.

We chose to capture this film in Autumn to showcase the stunning and little known fall color of Zion National Park. Fall is also a time when visitation dies down from peak summer months and one can find more solace in the park.

Filming Locations

Locations featured in this film include: Zion Canyon, Kolob Canyon, Kolob Terrace, The Narrows, Angels Landing, Canyon Overlook, The Great White Throne, Big Bend, The Watchman, Lava Point, Mt. Carmel Highway, and more.

Here are a few fun statistics from our trip:

  • Crew Members: 3
  • Time: 24 days
  • Distance: 100mi+
  • Photos/Videos: 35,000+
  • Digital Memory: 4TB

Lens Rentals by Pro Photo Supply

RELATED: 14 BREATHTAKING National Park Videos to Inspire Your Next Trip


Zion Seasons & Weather

zion national park seasons more than just parks
Clouds move through Zion National Park in Autumn

Zion’s weather quite variable day by day. Extreme weather events like flash floods happen here often so it is crucial to be vigilant of current conditions. Even on clear days, flash floods can come seemingly out of nowhere.

Always have a plan in case of unexpected storms or weather. I’ve even been caught in a random near white-out snowstorm in the park before! While that’s somewhat rare, unexpected weather is not.


Best Time to Visit

The best time of year to visit Zion National Park is September and October as visitation wains, temperatures cool off, and fall foliage (yes, foliage in Utah!) is dazzling.

The best season to visit Zion National Park is Autumn with stunning foliage, cooler temperatures, and smaller crowds. Spring is also a lovely time to visit with smaller crowds and bright spring greens filling the canyons.

With that being said, each season brings something different and beautiful to Zion National Park.


Zion By Season

Spring in Zion National Park

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Big Bend | Zion in Spring

Spring in Zion is lovely with rising temperatures, beautiful bright green spring foliage, and far less crowds than Summer. In Spring the cottonwoods begin to get their leaves back giving the canyons a splash of vivid bright greens.

This time of year is far less popular to visit due to vacation schedules and those who choose to visit will be rewarded with more solitude. Highs will get up into the 80s with lows in the 40s & 50s.

Even though crowds will be significantly reduced this time of year the most popular trails will likely still be crowded. If you’re looking to find further solitude check out Kolob Canyon, Kolob Terrace, Lava Point, and Pine Creek Gorge Slot Canyon.


Summer in Zion National Park

summer in zion
Zion in Summer

Summer in Zion National Park ushers in hot weather and massive crowds. Days are hot and nights are warm with highs reaching into the 100s and lows in the high 60s.

Every Summer millions of tourists pack in to the 15 mile long Zion Canyon so trails, shuttle stations, and roads are typically quite crowded.

Luckily, Zion has instituted a wonderful shuttle system to keep cars off the road in the main canyon and improve visitor experience.

Despite the massive influx of visitors, there are still spots where one can escape the crowds. If you’re looking to find solitude check out Kolob Canyon, Kolob Terrace, Lava Point, and Pine Creek Gorge Slot Canyon.


Fall in Zion National Park

fall zion national park
Cottonwood Trees in Golden Yellow | Zion in Fall

Fall in Zion National Park is lovely with the hot temperatures of summer cooling off, crowds diminishing, and stunning fall foliage popping. Cottonwoods turn a striking golden yellow/orange  this time of year adding something extra to every photo.

Luckily, Zion has instituted a wonderful shuttle system to keep cars off the road in the main canyon and improve visitor experience.

Even though crowds will be significantly reduced this time of year the most popular trails will likely still be crowded. If you’re looking to find solitude check out Kolob Canyon, Kolob Terrace, Lava Point, and Pine Creek Gorge Slot Canyon.

RELATED: 10+ Must See National Parks This Fall (A Stunning Guide)


Winter in Zion National Park

kolob canyon zion national park
Kolob Canyon Snow Storm | Zion in Winter

Winter in Zion National Park can be beautiful with temperatures cold enough for snowfall. It may be hard to conceive during the extreme temperatures of Summer but Zion National Park sees occasional snow in Winter months.

The contrast of the white snow against the red rock is the perfect fodder for stunning photos.

The best part of visiting Zion in winter is the reduced crowd sizes. Crowds in the winter are very minimal and visitors can get areas that are usually packed all to themselves.

Even though crowds will be significantly reduced this time of year the most popular trails will likely still be crowded. If you’re looking to find further solitude check out Kolob Canyon, Kolob Terrace, Lava Point, and Pine Creek Gorge Slot Canyon.


Best Things to Do in Zion National Park

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The night sky at Zion National Park

There are so many incredible, breathtaking, and life-changing things to do in Zion National Park.

Whether it’s exploring slot canyons like The Narrows or The Subway, hiking to stunning overlooks like Angels Landing, and scenic drives like the Zion Mt. Carmel Highway.

We’ve detailed some of the best things to do in Zion National Park below. For a complete list visit our: 11 BREATHTAKING Things to Do in Zion National Park 2021

1. Hike the Narrows

narrows zion national park things to do
Hiker (me) in the Narrows at Zion | Things to Do Zion

The Narrows is one of the absolute coolest hikes and things to do in Zion National Park and the entire national park system for that matter. Hikers hike, walk, and wade through a narrow canyon of massive red rock canyon walls where the Virgin River has been at work for millions of years.

Distance: 16 miles (but most only hike the first few miles which are incredible)
Time: Typically 2-3 hours depending on how far you go

The total hike is 16 miles long but most folks only do the first few which are incredible. You’ll need some good water shoes for this hike and a hiking pole is recommended although most folks go without (water shoes can be rented in Springdale at a number of places). The deepest the water gets is about 3-4ft but most of the hike is in ankle deep water.

From time to time toxic algae blooms occur in the Virgin River which can be harmful to humans so make sure to check the NPS site before visiting.


2. Ascend Angels Landing

Angels Landing Zion National park
Angels Landing from below | Zion Things to Do

Angel’s Landing is the most popular, well-known hike in Zion National Park leading to one of the most iconic views in all the National Park system. The Angel’s Landing trail is a steep 5 miles with about 1,500ft of elevation gain.

Distance: 5 miles
Elevation Gain: 1500 feet
Time: Typically 3-4 hours

This hike is not for acraphobics or the faint of heart as one section of the trail involves holding onto a chain bolted onto a cliff side with sheer drop offs.


3. Soak it all in at Canyon Overlook

zion national park more than just parks
Canyon Overlook | Zion National Park

Canyon Overlook is one of the most spectacular and relatively easy to access overlooks in all of Zion National Park. Located on the Zion Mt. Carmel (East) side of the park, the Canyon Overlook Trail is a popular one.

Distance: 1 mile roundtrip
Time: Typically 1-2 hours

The trail itself is about a mile round trip with little elevation gain. Hikers will be rewarded with sweeping views of Zion National Park.


4. Explore Pine Creek Gorge Slot Canyon

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Pine Creek Gorge Slot Canyon | Zion National Park

Pine Creek Gorge Slot Canyon is one of the most popular technical canyoneering spots in Zion National Park. If you’re not up for technical rappelling then  no problem!

Drive toward the east entrance a bit and find another part of the Pine Creek Gorge to hike around. The creek bed is long and provides lots of great entry points for hikers.


5. Catch a Sunset From Lava Point

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Sunset from Lava Point | Best Sunset Zion National Park

Lava Point is best spot in Zion National Park to watch a sunset. Located in the Kolob Terrace section of the park, this lesser-visited destination is worth a stop.

Escape the crowds here with a very different kind of beauty than the red rock canyons. This overlook does not require any sort of a hike and is situated next to our favorite campground in Zion National Park, Lava Point Campground.


6. Drive the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway

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Zion-Mt Carmel Highway

The Zion Mt Carmel Highway Scenic Drive is one of the most beautiful drives in the entire national park system. Massive colorful rock formations and lots of beautiful hikes abound in this section of Zion National Park.

The drive is located on the lesser explored (than the main canyon) east side of Zion where the bighorn sheep roam.

While you’re on this side of the park be sure to check out Canyon Overlook and Pine Creek Gorge Slot Canyon.


Where to Stay – Camping & Lodging

Camping & Campgrounds

lava point campground zion national park
Lava Point Campground | Zion National Park

Zion National Park has 3 campgrounds with over 300 campsites offering a wide variety of camping options.

Watchman Campground
  • 203 sites
  • Year-Round
  • Standard $20 / Electric $30
  • First come / Reservation

Watchman Campground is the most popular campground in Zion National Park located next to Springdale with easy access to all of the park’s most iconic attractions. Due to it’s popularity this campground can feel a bit crowded and busy at times with less space between sites than in many other parks.

Watchman Campground sites feature picnic tables and fire pits. The campground itself features toilets and access to the shuttle system.

South Campground
  • 117 sites
  • March-October
  • Standard $20 / Electric $30
  • First come / Reservation

South Campground is a very popular, ideally located campground in Zion National Park. South Campground is located next to Springdale near the park’s South Entrance and is situated among a beautiful grove of cottonwoods.

From South Campground, campers have easy access to all of the park’s most popular attractions and shuttle system. Due to the campground’s popularity it is a bit crowded and fills up fast.

South Campground sites feature picnic tables and fire pits. The campground itself features toilets and access to the shuttle system.

Lava Point Campground

6 primitive sites
Year Round
Standard $20
First come-first serve

Lava Point Campground is the smallest, most serene, and most remote campground in Zion National Park. This campground located in the Kolob Terrace section of the park situated next to the stunning Lava Point Overlook.

Lava Point offers visitors a totally different experience from the red rock canyons and is my favorite for that very reason. While the park’s other two campgrounds can be quite hot during Summer, due to this campground’s elevation (7890ft) it is much cooler.

This campground has what are described as six “primitive” sites that feature a picnic table and fire pit. Pit toilets are available here and that’s it.


Zion Hotels, Motels, & Resorts

zion national park lodge
The Zion National Park Lodge (courtesy wikimedia)

Zion National Park has a whole host of lodging options including a beautiful lodge located within main canyon itself. We’ve linked many of the most popular ones below.

For tent options see our camping section above.

Lodging options inside the park include:
Lodging options outside the park include:

Where to Eat – Restaurants & Food Options

Zion National Park has a plethora of great dining and food options with major sections of the park being located next the cities of Springdale and Cedar City.

We’ve listed a few of our favorite options below:


Zion National Park Driving & Transportation

zion national park shuttle
The Zion shuttle cruises past the Big Bend stop

Zion National Park has a few different transportation options that add convenience for the visitor. Visitors can experience the park on foot, by bike, by car, or by shuttle. Visitors should know that no cars are allowed inside the main canyon unless you have reservations at the Zion Lodge.

Zion Shuttle System

zion shuttle
Zion Shuttle System

The Zion Shuttle is a great way for visitors to visit the main (zion) canyon which holds the majority of the most popular attractions in Zion National Park. This convenient mode runs daily and currently visitors must acquire $1 tickets prior to boarding.

zion shuttle map
Zion Shuttle Map

The shuttle stops at all of the most popular spots in the canyon and gives viewers a unique way of enjoying the park. For more shuttle info visit the NPS website.

Zion National Park Driving

Driving in Zion National Park is limited to all the areas outside of the main canyon.

This includes:

  • Zion Mt. Carmel Scenic Highway
  • Kolob Terrace Road
  • Kolob Canyon.

Gas is available in Springdale, Cedar City, Mt. Carmel Junction, and beyond.


Zion Photos

Photos of Zion from the production of our film.


Summary | Leave us a Comment!

That’s a wrap folks! Hopefully you feel like you’ve got a good handle on your next trip to Zion National Park. Please leave me a comment below and let me know if you have any questions or comments.

I hope to see you on the trails sometime soon!


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Will Pattiz

Co-founder of More Than Just Parks. Husband. Conservationist. Currently living in NYC.

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