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10 Things to Know Before Going to Zion National Park

10 Things to Know Before Going to Zion National Park

Zion National Park is the third most popular National Park in the United States. It’s centrally located near the city of Springdale in southern Utah, near the Arizona and Nevada borders.

The number of things to do and see within its vast wilderness can be dizzying. To help you plan a trip to one of the country’s most beloved national parks, here’s everything you wanted to know about visiting Zion National Park.

10 Things to Know Before Going to Zion National Park

1. How to Get to Zion National Park

Morning in Zion National Park, UT

Zion National Park sits at the edge of the Dixie National Forest.

Getting to Zion National Park takes less than a three-hour drive from Las Vegas, just over four hours from Salt Lake City, seven hours from Phoenix, and just shy of ten hours from Denver

But it wasn’t always so easy.

When the park’s status first became official, there was only one road to and through the park. In 1927, construction began on the Mt. Carmel Highway to give visitors from all over the country a direct route into the park. Construction finished in 1930.

Aside from a brief closure due to a tunnel collapse, the road has been a park fixture ever since.

Today, there’s more than one road to get to the park, which is surprisingly close to many major western cities.

But if you’re traveling to Zion National Park, bring a map because even the most advanced cell phones don’t get service, and the geography makes GPS tracking spotty.

You’ll access Zion National Park from the north, south, and west via I-15 or from the east via US-89.

2. When Was Zion National Park Founded?

Canyon in Zion National Park

Technically, Zion National Park has no official founding date, though it has centuries of history. The area in which Zion National Park currently exists was once called the Mukuntuweap National Monument

Former United States President William Howard Taft declared the site a US National Monument in 1909 to preserve the main canyon through which the Virgin River flows.

The canyon’s original name, Mukuntuweap, was bestowed upon it by John Wesley Powell in 1872. The word means “straight canyon” or “straight river” in Paiute, the language of the region’s first inhabitants. 

Congress established the National Park Service in 1916. In 1918, director Horace Albright renamed the Zion National Monument area, reasoning that the original name was hard to spell and for English speakers to pronounce correctly without offending people. Yup.

It became Zion National Park by an act of Congress in 1919.

Mon and Canyon Views

In 1914, when Zion National Park was still Mukuntuweap National Monument, only about 300 people came to see the majestic canyon.

The first year that park officials kept visitation statistics was 1919, and in that year, 1,814 visitors traveled to Zion National Park. 

Nearly 100 years later, in 2017, over four million people visited the park, dwarfing those early visitor numbers. Only the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the Great Smoky Mountains see more annual visitors. 

In fact, the park welcomes so many visitors that Zion travel is damaging the fragile and historic landscape.

A reduced budget led to fewer park rangers, leaving more tourists to wander off the trail, leaving unofficial (and harmful) footpaths all over the canyon. However, park officials have preserved the landscape with timed entry reservations and other limitations.

4. How Large Is Zion National Park?

Hikers in Zion National Park

Zion National Park occupies 229 square miles of sandstone canyons, river tributaries, plateaus, and natural ecosystems, but it wasn’t always that size.

When President William H. Taft first established the Mukuntuweap National Monument, it encompassed fewer than 16,000 acres

In 1916, federal funding provided for a road to be built, extending five miles into the canyon, but there still wasn’t a convenient way for faraway visitors to reach the site.

Getting better access would require more land, and in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation that would expand Mukuntuweap National Monument to nearly 77,000 acres and change its name to Zion. 

Over time, local people sold more and more of their land to the Zion National Monument, which soon became Zion National Park. The National Park Service continued to develop the park itself, while other government entities developed the surrounding communities and infrastructure. 

In just over 100 years since Taft first established the Mukuntuweap National Monument, it has grown from just 25 square miles to nearly 250. 

5. What Is There to Do at Zion National Park?

Man Looking t the Canyons

Zion National Park is a playground for nature lovers, with various activities to get you in touch with the natural world.

Whether you’re an outdoor athlete or just want to take in the scenery from the comfort of your car, you’ll find plenty of things to enjoy your time doing. If you’d like, you can even hire a guide to Zion National Park to help you do it all.

The Virgin River

Believe it or not, this ancient river formed the vast majority of Zion’s main features. The North and East Forks of the Virgin River flows through the National Park, emptying into Lake Mead, which connects the Virgin River to the Colorado River. There’s lots to do here.

  • Canyoneering
  • River trips
  • Fishing
  • Swimming (in some areas)

Zion Canyon

The steep slope of the Colorado Plateau over which the Virgin River flows gave it even more power than larger, more gradually sloping rivers, enabling it to carve the massive canyon that occupies most of Zion National Park.

The 2,000-foot Navajo Sandstone cliffs are a testament to the unimaginable power of flowing water. There are several ways to enjoy the sights here.

  • Hiking
  • Backpacking
  • Bicycling (on Pa’rus Trail only)
  • Horseback riding
  • Climbing
  • Bird watching

The Narrows

This canyon section is especially popular because it provides stunning views of those steep Navajo Sandstone cliffs for hikers of all ability levels.

Zion Canyon is so narrow in some parts of The Narrows that the Virgin River covers the entire bottom, and the tall cliffs offer some shade even on the hottest summer days. There’s plenty to do here.

Freestanding Arches

One of the most surprising sights in Zion National Park – even compared to the Virgin River and the mighty canyon it carved – are the freestanding sandstone arches.

These thin ribbons of stone seem to defy gravity as they tower over park visitors. You can see them on foot or horseback.

See Related: Best Places to Travel in Your 20s in the US

6. What Is Hiking like in Zion National Park?

Hiker on the Top of a Canyon

Nature novices and outdoor athletes alike love hiking in Zion National Park, with its majestic natural formations and varied ecological landscapes.

There are hiking trails for visitors of all abilities and skill levels. There’s even a five-mile scenic drive through the Kolob Canyons for those who want to see the sights without getting out of the car.

Zion Canyon has the most popular trails, many of which are easy enough for even the most inexperienced hikers. 

  • Riverside Walk. This 2.2-mile round trip hike has only a 57-foot elevation change. The first half-mile of the hike is paved and accessible for people of all mobility levels, while the remainder is unpaved, and wheelchair users may need some assistance completing the trail. 
  • Watchman Trail. If you’re up for a slightly more advanced day trip, this trail offers gorgeous views along its 3.3 miles. Along the way, you’ll see lower Zion Canyon, Watchman Peak, and the Temples and Towers. The elevation change is a moderate 368 feet, and it can get muddy, so proper footwear is a must.
  • Angels Landing. Zion Canyon’s most adventurous day hikers take the West Rim Trail over five miles to Angels Landing. This four-hour hike gains nearly 1,500 feet in elevation, but that’s not all that makes this hike strenuous. There are a lot of switchbacks over sandy trails, and the last half-mile is a treacherous balancing act along a terrifying narrow ridge to the summit.

Other park sections have hiking trails with varying difficulty levels, but most are moderate to difficult. These include:

Backpackers who plan to be on the trails overnight must get a Zion Wilderness overnight backpacking permit and be well prepared for whatever conditions they encounter.

There are restrooms, filling stations, and visitor centers near the trailheads in Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyon, but not in other areas, so come prepared with plenty of water.

Pets are not permitted on any hiking trails in Zion National Park, except for the Pa’rus Trail that departs from the main Zion Canyon Visitor Center.  

7. When Is the Best Time to Go to Zion National Park?

Trees and Canyon in Zion National Park

Zion National Park is open year-round, although some roads and trails close seasonally or as needed due to current conditions.

The Watchman Campground inside Zion National Park is also open year-round, but some sites are seasonally unavailable.

That said, depending on what kind of adventure you’re looking for, some times of year are better than others.

The vast majority of Zion National Park is a desert ecosystem, with weather conditions that can change dramatically in a short time, at any time of year.

Whenever you’re planning a trip to Zion National Park, come prepared for various weather conditions, including rain, sun, and snow. Here’s what you can expect from each season.

Winter

The park sees nearly half of its annual precipitation from December through March, so don’t forget a raincoat!

While daytime high temperatures are often a pleasant 50 degrees Fahrenheit or more, they plummet below freezing at night, so camping in winter is not for the faint of heart. Still, it’s easier to enjoy the desert landscape without the oppressive summer heat.

Spring

When spring arrives, visitors can enjoy pleasantly warm weather and plenty of sunshine, but the wet, stormy weather of winter doesn’t release its grip on the park just yet.

Springtime weather swings rapidly between summer and winter conditions, so travelers should come prepared for anything during this time of year.

Summer

The summer is the most popular time to visit Zion National Park, primarily because of traditional school schedules and summer breaks, so crowds are plentiful this time of year.

There’s little shade in the vast majority of Zion National Park, and temperatures can easily top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so visitors should bring sunscreen and lots of water this time of year. 

The Narrows, with its flowing water and sheer cliff faces on either side, provide a pleasant respite from the heat in the summer months.

On the other hand, monsoons are possible from July to September, and flash flooding is an ever-present risk, particularly in the narrow canyon along the river.

Fall

The autumn months generally have the most pleasant months for outdoor activities like hiking and canyoneering, but as in the spring, conditions can change quickly.

Temperatures can fluctuate over 30 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the day and night, so fall visitors should bring lots of layers and be prepared for both hot and cold weather conditions.

See Related: Warm Winter Backpacking Destinations

8. What Is the Wildlife Like in Zion National Park?

Mule Deer in the Wild

The diverse landscape and microclimates of Zion National Park make it an ideal home for various wildlife.

There are hundreds of bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, and fish species inside the park. All of them are protected within the park’s boundaries, but some species are particularly noteworthy. 

The Mexican Spotted Owl, a threatened species, calls Zion National Park home, as does a group of Mojave desert tortoises.

Keen birders may spot a peregrine falcon or California condor, two species that are slowly growing in population within the safety of the park.

In the daylight, mule deer graze in the canyon where gray foxes and mountain lions hunt in the evening.

A Zion National Park guide can help you identify wildlife while you’re out and about in the park. Nature and bird watching activities are the most popular things to do on Zion National Park trips.

9. What’s the History of Zion National Park?

Canyons and Skyline

The area where Zion National Park now sits was alive and active long before it became a tourist site. The story of how it came to be today is almost as interesting as seeing it all for yourself. 

Natural History

Around 275 million years ago, the area that Zion National Park now occupies was a flat basin at around sea level.

Over time, the streams from nearby mountains carried sand, gravel, and mud into the basin, and these sediments continued to layer on top of one another, compressing the layers below. This process created over 10,000 feet of layered sediment.

The shallow sea that periodically filled this basin carried an incredible amount of minerals, which worked their way through the layers.

These minerals hardened the different layers into limestone, shale, and sandstone, forming the sedimentary rock layers we can see today. 

Meanwhile, powerful shifting forces deep inside the Earth pushed upward on the crust, causing vast land areas to rise slowly. Over millions of years, the Colorado Plateau rose more than 10,000 feet above sea level, with Zion National Park near its western edge. 

This uplift caused water in the area to begin tumbling down the edge of the Colorado Plateau, forming rivers like the Virgin River.

The steep slope of these rivers gave them more force than typical rivers, cutting through the rock layers. This erosion formed the Zion Canyon, where you can see the area’s geological history in sedimentary rock layers.

The Virgin River is still carving the landscape to this day, deepening and shaping the canyon and other natural landforms.

Millions of years from now, these natural wonders will look nothing like they do today, thanks to the mighty power of moving water.

Human History

Archeologists have identified evidence of human inhabitants in the area that is now Zion National Park going back more than 8,000 years.

In the Archaic Period, which lasted from approximately 6,000 BCE until 1 CE, nomadic hunter-gatherer communities roamed the Colorado Plateau. The later humans of this period have become known as “Basketmakers.”

The Formative Period followed, with two primary human societies: the Ancestral Puebloan and Parowan peoples.

Unlike the nomadic people before them, the people of the Formative Period set up permanent habitations called “pueblos.” Around this time, we begin to see human-made grinding stones – or metates – and ceramics appear in the archeological record.

Both groups disappeared around 1300, probably due to extended droughts and catastrophic flooding.

The Neo-Archaic period shows another group of inhabitants, the nomadic Numic language speakers, flourishing in the area. One such group, the Southern Paiute, began cultivating crops to supplement their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The Southern Paiute would remain in the region through the 1700s, until the mid-1840s, when Brigham Young led his church members to the Great Salt Lake Valley.

From there, the Mormons began to claim Zion canyon as their own, and the Southern Paiute disappeared from the region around this time, just before the official development of the area began.

See Related: Best Things to Do on the West Coast USA

10. Where Can I Stay near Zion National Park?

Couple Camping in a Park

There are plenty of places to stay in and around Zion National Park.

If you want to experience the park at its best, we recommend camping, but if you’d like something a little more luxurious, there are hotels, cabins, and other rentals nearby, too.

Camping

There are three campgrounds located inside Zion National Park. Watchman Campground and South Campground are in Zion Canyon, and the Lava Point Campground is on Kolob Terrace Road, about an hour from the canyon.

  • Watchman Campground is the primary campground inside of Zion National Park. It’s open year-round and has 176 total sites, two reserved for ADA use, and all of which require reservations. These sites are evenly divided among RV and tent sites. There are electrical hookups, cell service, flush toilets, and drinking water available, but no showers or laundry.
  • South Campground is also near the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, but it’s a much more “natural” camping experience than Watchman. There are 117 sites at South Campground but no electric hookups. Still, flush toilets, potable water, and cell phone reception are available. It’s open March through October, and all sites require a reservation.
  • Lava Point Campground is a camper’s dream, located over an hour’s drive from the South Entrance of Zion. You’ll have it nearly to yourself as there are only six primitive campsites, and RVs are not permitted. There’s no electricity or running water, but there are pit toilets. Lava Point is open from May through September, and reservations are not currently required.

Backpackers have more camping options along the trail but generally must camp in designated sites only. Some dispersed camping places exist inside the Wilderness areas, including the East Rim Trail and Wildcat Canyon.

All other trails have a limited number of designated camping sites for backpackers, and an overnight wilderness permit is required. 

If you plan on renting an RV to bring with you to Zion National Park, make sure the company you rent from has a Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) permit to do business in the park.

Park officials may turn away RVs owned by companies without a proper permit at the park, so do your homework in advance to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

Outside the park, there are many other camping options available, like Juniper Grove Camp Zion, which offers a luxury camping experience.

The Bureau of Land Management maintains developed campgrounds and dispersed camping areas in the surrounding areas. There are also several private campgrounds and RV rental companies near Zion National Park.

Hotels and Cabins

If you were hoping for something a little less rustic, there are plenty of lodging options with four (or more) walls and a roof over your head. Inside the park, you’ll find the Zion Lodge, open year-round.

Visitors who stay at the Zion Lodge can choose from hotel rooms, suites, and cabins, all of which are air-conditioned for extra comfort in the hot summer months.

You can also find lodging in nearby towns that serve as basecamps to Zion National Park. For example, you can stay at the Zion Wildflower in Virgin, UT, or Zion’s Most Wanted Hotel in Hildale, UT. 

Cedar City, Kanab, Springdale, and St. George are other nearby cities. Each one offers plenty of places to stay and things to do on your Zion trip when you’re not exploring the wilderness of Zion National Park.

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