Things to Do in Zion National Park
At the aptly named Emerald Pools, a verdant stream connects a series of three fresh water pools—a picturesque contrast to the earthy red cliffs that dominate Zion National Park. Three hiking trails access the pools, ranging from a short paved route to a more strenuous loop. Flowing waterfalls and crystal-clear pools make this a must-visit spot.
Though the sprawling Zion National Park covers 229 square miles, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is the most popular section of the park. In fact, this winding drive up Zion Canyon is so popular that from March 15 until mid-October, the nine-mile drive is only accessible by riding the Zion Park Shuttle. Along the way, there are stopping points for major sights—from Zion Lodge and the Court of the Patriarchs to the trailhead for Emerald Pools—and the scenic drive reaches its terminus at the Temple of Sinawava. While visitors must ride the shuttle in summer, the road is open to private vehicles during the late-fall and winter. There is a decent amount of parking at most of the stops, although during the holiday visiting season the road can be congested and parking can be a bit tough. Nevertheless, this is the main vein that leads through canyon and offers accessible day hiking and views, and takes an entire day to explore properly from the south end of the canyon to the top.
Towering rock formations, colorful slot canyons, and a maze of hiking trails make Zion Canyon the heart of activity in Zion National Park. The Virgin River courses through the green valley floor and painted sandstone cliffs, creating a desert oasis that draws hoards of visitors to the scenic park.
One of Zion National Park’s most famous hikes, The Narrows are the narrowest section of Zion Canyon, with sandstone walls reaching 1,000 feet (305 meters) high and sometimes 20 feet (6 meters) across. The Virgin River flows underfoot for most of this adventurous trek—be prepared to get wet.
In 1930, when the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel was completed in Zion National Park, it was the longest tunnel anywhere in America outside of an urban city. Today, this 1.1-mile tunnel navigates the innards of a soaring sandstone mountain, and provides a conduit connecting Zion National Park with Utah’s famous Bryce Canyon. The road itself, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its beauty and feats of engineering—the grandest of which is the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel that’s become an attraction in itself. As a means of illuminating the deeply dark tunnel, multiple “windows” have been cut through the wall to showcase the view outside, though you’ll want to keep moving, rather than stop, to make sure traffic keeps flowing. In the three years that it took to complete the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, the total cost eventually ballooned to just over half a million dollars. In 1930 that sum was unconscionable for simply creating a road, but seems like a bargain when you consider today the feat that the builders pulled off.
The hike to the top of Angels Landing in Zion National Park ranks among the most famous in the world. It’s only moderately challenging until the final half mile, when the trail becomes precipitous and the narrowness of the path—not to mention sheer drop-offs to either side—offers an additional mental challenge. Visitors who make it to the top are rewarded with spectacular views.
While you might want to cry at Zion’s beauty, save the weeping for the natural springs that trickle down Zion Canyon. At this popular stop along the canyon drive, a paved trail climbs for half a mile up the canyon wall, and provides views of a spring that slowly drips towards the Virgin River below. The water that seeps from the vertical cliff face has been trapped in the walls for years, and while the flow is rarely more than a trickle, large icicles can form in winter and hang from the multi-hued cliffs. After a heavy rain or thunderstorm, a torrential waterfall can sometimes form high on the canyon walls, and the rocky alcove at the top of the trail offers a panoramic vantage point for viewing the water and the valley floor below. While standing beneath the undercut rock, look out towards the other side of the valley where the Great White Throne thrusts its way above the surrounding spires. Though “weeping walls” are fairly common in Zion National Park, the Weeping Rock trail is short and accessible for all different types of travelers.
Named after the biblical figures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the sandstone cliffs known as the Court of the Patriarchs are popular among photographers, rock climbers, and early risers. A visit here doesn’t require much time on its own, but it’s an accessible vantage point for capturing the beauty of the awe-inspiring Zion National Park.
You can thank the meandering Virgin River for Zion’s epic beauty. Due to the ferocious forces of erosion over 200 million years, the Virgin River has carved Utah’s sandstone into geological art. Beginning at over 9,000 feet to the north of the park, the north fork of the river winds its way for 190 miles toward southern Nevada and beyond. Along the way it sculpts legendary formations such as Zion’s famous Narrows, and the striated lines of the canyon walls provide a peek at what the center of the Earth might look like.
On the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, the road parallels the Virgin River as it winds its way down the canyon, and rockslides, floods and shifting boulders are evidence that the river isn’t quite finished carving Zion Canyon. In the town of Springdale on the park’s southern entrance, tubing down the river is a popular activity in the late spring and summer.
Zion may have become a national park in November of 1919, but the history of humans walking through these canyons dates back almost 12,000 years. Before there were tourists, pioneers, and Mormons, the Anasazi and Paiute Native Americans were the first settlers to make this landscape their semi-permanent home. At the Zion Human History Museum, marvel at animal pelts that were used by settlers to stay warm through the harsh Utah winters, or read the tales of the western pioneers who would eventually start outposts and towns. There are firsthand accounts from railroad workers who lay tracks throughout the mountains, and stories from the Civilian Conservation Corps diaries from the men who first made the trails. A 22-minute video provides a visual representation of the park’s fascinating history, and over 50,000 objects intricately explain the cultural, natural, and geologic diversity that’s sculpted the park to this day.
More Things to Do in Zion National Park
Deep in the backcountry of the northwestern section of Zion National Park, Kolob Arch is a natural wonder that’s worth the all day hike. Spanning 287 ft. Kolob Arch is the world’s second longest naturally occurring arch—and only three feet shorter than Landscape Arch at Arches National Park. The arch is an iconic symbol of the park that encapsulates its rugged beauty, although reaching the arch requires 14 miles of hiking through isolated wilderness. Despite the length of the total journey—which can often take up to 12 hours—the hike to the arch is a revered pilgrimage for backcountry enthusiasts and hikers. Should you choose to hike to Kolob Arch, be sure to pack along plenty of water and be comfortable with hiking at the high altitude. The trailhead begins over 6,000 feet, and spring and fall are the best months for comfort and milder weather.