Zion National Park Travel Tips
Oh, Zion National Park. You captivated my heart years ago and never let go. Perhaps it's your red canyon walls, or your magnificent river, or your charming gateway town of Springdale. Whatever your spell of choice is, it's working. Located in the southwest corner of Utah, Springdale is easily accessible from the Las Vegas or Salt Lake City airports. My favorite way to get to Zion is to drive or fly into Denver, cruise through the Rockies, and take Scenic Byway 12 in Utah past some of the prettiest country I've ever seen.
Zion and Springdale have a number of great lodging options. The best campground I've stayed at is the Watchman Campground inside the park boundaries. Be sure to reserve your campsite well in advance as the sites fill very quickly during peak season. The last time I visited during a whim road trip, I tried to book a campsite three months in advance and almost everything was full (we had to stay at the Zion Canyon Campground instead and we weren't impressed). Watchman Campground is a clean, updated NPS-run campground with flush toilets and running water on-site (no showers, though). Close enough to town you could walk but still quiet enough to enjoy the Milky Way at night, Watchman Campground is in a great location.
If you're looking to splurge and book yourself a hotel during your stay, the Cliffrose Lodge is second to none in the area. With the towering red rocks in their backyard and the Virgin River bubbling by, the Cliffrose Lodge is a beautiful place to put your feet up and rest awhile. They're breakfast is above-average hotel fare that the perfect pre-Angel's Landing fuel, and they've got two killer outdoor hot tubs that shouldn't be missed, even in the middle of summer. Like all the best places in Springdale, be sure to book your stay far in advance as dates fill up quickly. If you're lucky enough to visit in the off-season, check Priceline to see if the Cliffrose Lodge has listed a few rooms--they're a steal!
The town of Springdale has remained quaint and homey, although the corporate fingers of tourism have been creeping slowly into the town for a number of years. Check out the local, down-to-earth spots if you can. There are a number of artists in the area ranging from photographers to jewelers to potters. My favorite landscape artist, David J. West, is based in Springdale. I may or may not have 6-8 of his pieces currently hanging in my house. Located right on the main drag, be sure to stop in to his gallery if you see the door propped open and the small neon "Open" sign is on. David is one of the most down-to-Earth people you will ever meet. He is kind, gracious, and humble, willingly sharing his favorite spots to photograph landscapes with novice photographers like myself. He also sells a number of gorgeous pottery pieces from a talented artist on the East Coast. Stop in and show David some love while you're there.
Springdale is fortunate enough to have a growing culinary scene in its midsts. If you prefer to cook your own meals, the Sol Food grocery store in town has a decent selection of local and organic foods, as well as a decent craft beer selection, especially by Utah standards! However, if you have some wiggle room in your travel budget, I have three must-stop establishments when I'm in Zion National Park: Oscar's, Deep Creek Coffee Co, and King's Landing Bistro. Oscar's serves up Mexi-American food that is filling and satisfying, but the main reason I stop is for their early morning breakfast options on their heated patio. It's perfect for those days when I've got a long hike planned and need to fill up on something that will keep me going the whole way.
If I'm in the mood for some lighter fare and the best coffee/chai in Zion (which let's be honest, that's all the time), I walk across the street and visit my friends Heidi and Scott at Deep Creek Coffee. They pride themselves on their organic offerings and their hand-picked selection of teas and coffee roasters. If you're as crazy about chai as I am, you have to be sure to order a mug of Heidi's homemade chai. I dream about that cup of goodness more times than I care to admit! I can't say enough good things about Deep Creek Coffee. I think Springdale grows incredible people by the bunches, because owners Heidi and Scott are delightful and will take the time to chat with you even when their line of customers is out the door. When you stop in, tell them I say hello!
My absolute favorite place to get dinner near Zion National Park is King's Landing Bistro (left). You can read my full review on the establishment here. It's a culinary delight that will knock your socks off. The experience and the canyon views are more than worth it, not to mention the incredible food you'll be putting in your mouth. Chef Thomas has brought something exciting to Springdale, and it will keep you coming back every time.
However, people typically don't visit Zion National Park for the organic coffees and award-winning fine dining restaurants--they come for the scenic wonder that is the park itself! I've been hiking in Zion for over fifteen years now and have hiked almost every day-hike in the park boundaries. A few general tips about exploring Zion Canyon:
1. The shuttle system is convenient, free, and full of information. It doesn't run year round, but when it is running, Zion Canyon is closed to private vehicles except those with permits and Zion Canyon hotel guests.
2. Bring plenty of water. This is the desert, people. Be prepared. Salty snacks, chocolates, and electrolytes are some of my must-haves in my pack as well.
3. Bring layers. For some of the long hikes in the park, it's best to start at or before sunrise, when the cool desert temperatures are lingering. Come lunchtime, the sun is high over head and the temperature can be 20 degrees higher (or more!).
4. Tell someone where you're going. Whether you send your parents or roommate or significant other a text updating them about your plans, it's a wise idea to alert someone what you'll be doing in case emergency services ever needed to find you.
5. Don't hike outside your comfort zone. I'm all for trying new things, but it's also smart to know your limits. I attempted Angel's Landing a few years ago and turned around about half way because I wasn't comfortable with the heights. Part of it is in my head, sure. But I don't want to put myself or anyone around me in danger because of some pride-filled excursion. On this same note, make sure you have proper hiking gear when attempting any of the intermediate-advanced hikes. Some of the riverside hikes can be done in flip flops if you're looking for a leisurely walk. But don't attempt anything harder than that unless you have hiking boots, poles, etc. The rangers at the visitor's center are very knowledgeable and can advise what equipment you will need and what other precautions you should take.
The National Park System does a great job of outlining available hikes, their difficulty level, elevation gains, what you'll see on the hike, etc, so I won't attempt to recreate what they're already so brilliantly made. You can find a park map and brief outline of hikes here. In no particular order, these are the best hikes that I've experienced in Zion National Park:
1. Weeping Wall – easy hike, but pretty and rewarding. Stand under the Weeping Wall to cool off and look for flowers growing out of the canyon walls!
2. Canyon Overlook (below) – near the Zion tunnel, this short hike brings you to one of the more dramatic canyon views in the park. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep in this area!
3. West Rim – one of the longer hikes in the park, you can turn around at whatever point you would like. Some edges to hike along, but the views are incredibly stunning.
4. Hidden Canyon (left) – a good practice hike for those unaccustomed to hiking on cliff edges and having chains available to grab. I was able to finish this hike even with my aversion to heights and my inner ear imbalance; it's just challenging enough. There really is a hidden canyon (and a secret arch) that you hike into before turning around, be sure to make it that far!
5. Watchman at sunset--not really a hike per say, but a must-see in my book. Find out when the sun will be setting that day and arrive at the bridge over the Virgin River by the entrance into Zion Canyon about 15-20 minutes ahead of time. It's a photographer's paradise, so find your spot early and share your space with others.
6. Emerald Pools – three pools on different levels make up this hike. There's a fair amount of elevation gain during this hike, so it will get your heart pumping and your calves and bum burning. It offers great views of the canyon as well.
7. Angel's Landing –*disclaimer* like I previously mentioned, I haven't finished this hike. However, it is the most popular hike in the park for intermediate-advanced hikers. Know your limits, start early in the day, and bring the right equipment. The views are incredible, I've heard. Ask a ranger what their thoughts are if you're hesitant. People have died on this hike, so be cautious.
8. The Narrows – possibly the second-most popular hike in Zion National Park, the Narrows is unique because of the path you follow. The Virgin River is your trail, bringing hikers right in its chilly waters. While climbing and heights aren't a concern for the average hikers of this trail, you will still need the proper equipment and information before starting this hike. Flash floods are a serious potential in the canyon, so be sure to check with the visitor's center what the weather has been and is predicted to be while you're hiking. Walking poles and sturdy boots are highly recommended. It's a super fun hike, prepare to get wet!
9. The Subway (bottom-up, right) –there are two ways to reach The Subway, from the "top-down" or the "bottom-up" (referring to which point in the canyon you start from). I find the bottom-up route to be much more scenic and fun. This hike really tests your mental and physical skills as there is a lot of scrambling and looking for the next cairn to mark the trail. Once you reach a certain point a few hours in, the river becomes your trail. Take care as the river bed and waterfalls can become slippery with algae. When you come to a wide, oval opening in the canyon, hike in another 200 yards or so and turn around: you're looking at The Subway. Be sure to start this hike hours before sunset if you're hiking without headlamps as the way out of the canyon isn't clearly marked and it can be tricky finding your way. I said in no particular order, but this may be my favorite hike in Zion. Shhh.
Now that I've shared my all my favorite spots and tips with you about Zion National Park, I feel like we're virtual friends. Have you visited Zion before? I would love to know what your thoughts are about these lists and if you agree or have favorites I didn't list. Recently traveled to Zion and used some of these tips and ideas listed here? Leave me a comment and let me know what you thought! Safe travels, my friend, and I can't wait to hear all about your adventures.
Your wanderlust friend,