How to Create the Best Zion National Park Itinerary

At first putting together a Zion National Park Itinerary can feel a little overwhelming. There are so many amazing things to do. So we’ve put together this list of things to do in Zion to get you started. When we were on our Utah National Parks Road Trip, we only had one day to spend in Zion so we choose to explore Zion Mt Carmel Highway, hike the Narrows and explore from the Shuttle Bus. As you can see there are so many more great Zion activities. I’ve linked to additional resources to help you plan your Zion itinerary if one of these calls to the adventurer deep in side you!

Switchbacks going down into Zion Canyon on Zion Mt Carmel Highway

Cruise one of America’s Most Scenic Drives: Zion Mt Carmel Highway

The Zion Mt Carmel Highway is a 1930 historical feat of engineering to be admired. Following the Pine Creek Canyon, the 12 mile highway required the building of 2 tunnels through the sandstone cliffs.

You’ll find amazing views of the red sandstone cliffs throughout the canyon and as you weave through the switchbacks that descend into Zion National Park. Make sure you pull off for great photo opportunities. We spent several hours exploring along this beautiful scenic drive. You can find a detailed description in our article about Zion Mt Carmel Highway.

Man Biking Zion National Park
Biking on Pa’rus Trail in Zion National Park – NPS photo

Try your hand at Biking Zion National Park

In most National Parks the roads are way too busy for safe biking. But in Zion National Park your only fellow travelers on the Zion Scenic Drive are the shuttle buses from March through November. On bicycle you will have easy access to the amazing views without worry of cars pushing you off the road.

The only trail for biking Zion National park is Pa’rus Trail. It is any easy ride (1.7 mi) from the Zion Canyon visitor center to Canyon Junction (shuttle stop #3). From there you can ride deeper into the canyon on Zion Scenic Drive. Or for a really fun and easy day, hop on the shuttle with your bike either at the visitor center or at Canyon Junction and ride to the last stop. Then cruise 7.5 miles downhill back to the beginning of Zion Scenic Drive. Here’s our article about how to use the Zion Canyon Shuttle.

For Zion bike rentals check out in Springdale Zion Outfitters or Zion Cycles just outside the park entrance. Or right in the park at the Zion Lodge.

Note that there are no other Zion bike trails. It is possible to ride on Zion Mt Carmel Highway but you must have a vehicle to give you lift through the tunnels so that can be a bit of a challenge.

Brad at the beginning of Hiking The Narrows
Here we are hiking the Narrows, one of the most popular hikes in Zion

Don’t Miss the Amazing Day Hikes

In Zion Canyon you will find great day hikes that fit your time and experience level. From the pleasant stroll along The River Walk or easy hike to Weeping Rock to the adventurous hike through the Virgin River in the Narrows you’ll love hiking in Zion.

Most important when hiking in Zion is to plan for the weather. In mid-summer the temperatures soar over 100 degrees so keep your water bottles full and drink often. Rain can make trails dangerous as water rushes through the narrow canyons. A mild stream can turn into a torrent in a heartbeat. Your first stop as you enter Zion National Park includes checking the rain forecast. In winter and spring waters are frigid as the fill with ice melt from the mountains so make sure you have appropriate gear if you will be wading. These warnings are not meant to scare you away from hiking. Actually just the inverse, we want you to have incredibly successful hikes in this beautiful country. As Brad always says “just be aware of your surroundings”.

It was during this road trip that I discovered a need to upgrade my daypack. The one I had left my back hot and sore after a week of Utah Hiking. Check out the research we did to find the best daypack for women.

Discover the Zion Human History Museum

Start your visit with the 20 minute video shown throughout the day in the Zion Human History Museum. It is a great overview of the park. Then wander through the displays that document the history of people in this area. I think the most interesting is the displays on the role water has played in creating the Zion National Park we know today. The museum is the first stop on the Zion Canyon Shuttle after you leave the Visitor Center.

Zion Canyon Shuttle buses loading Zion Park Visitors
Zion Canyon Shuttle loading at the Visitor Center – courtesy of NPS

Shuttle Hop through Zion Canyon

The only way to travel through Zion Canyon in the summer is on the free Zion Canyon Shuttle. A great way to spend a day is to hop off at each shuttle stop to explore. You’ll find something different at each stop! The shuttle will also be your transport to many of the most popular day hikes in Zion Canyon like the Narrows. The shuttle can be a little confusing at first so before you go check out our Easy Guide to Zion Canyon Shuttle.

Relax on One of the Best Zion National Park Tours

From the Zion Lodge you can catch an early evening narrated tram tour through Zion Canyon. Tickets can be purchased at the Lodge’s front desk for this hour long trip where your guide will share history, stories and a bit of the science that makes Zion National Park so important.

The schedule and days for this Zion tour varies with the season so make sure you check in at the Zion Lodge to make your plans.

mesa jutting into blue sky in Kolob Canyons
Nagunt Mesa in Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park – NPS photo

Get Away from the Crowds in Kolob Canyons

Isolated from the hectic activity of Zion Canyon, the Kolob Canyons area of Zion NP is a beautiful area to spend a relaxing day. The Kolob Canyons entrance can be found just off Interstate 15 about 40 miles North of the main Zion entrance in Springdale.

Start your day off with a stop at the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center and a drive along the 5 mile scenic drive. Kolob Canyon Scenic Drive ends at a gorgeous overlook into finger canyons. While this tends to be a well loved back country hiking area, there are several easy short hikes that take you to amazing canyon views. Joe Braun in his Guide to Zion describes the hikes in this area for you.

Explore Kolob Terrace Road

Here you will find the trail heads to some more adventurous back country hikes including the infamous Subway. The scenic drive is well worth the trip off the beaten path. Kolob Terrace Road is about 10 miles East of the main Zion NP entrance on Route 9 in the small town of Virgin. From there you will wander through a rural area with homes and farms before re-entering Zion. Note this is not a developed area so make sure you take snacks and water with you.

Soaring California Condor – NPS Photo by Kurt Moses

Spot the Birds of Zion National Park

The cliffs of Zion National Park provide prime nesting sites for the peregrine falcon, one of the most notable inhabitants of the park. There are usually 8-10 mated pairs monitored in the park each year. Many climbing cliffs are closed in the spring to allow the peregrine falcon a chance to select their nesting sites. Once nest locations are identified, most cliffs are reopened to visitor traffic by late May.

Imagine watching a California condor, with its 9 foot wingspan, taking off from a cliff near your hiking trail. This impressive scene is common in Zion National Park thanks to efforts to reintroduce the once near extinction bird into the wild. A little more difficult to see, the endangered Mexican spotted owl also calls Zion its home. They love to next in secret cavities in the cliffs and trees of the park.

Mexican Spotted Owlet in Zion National Park Photo courtesy of NPS

And that’s only the beginning of the list of the birds of Zion National Park. Eagles return to these cliffs in the winter. There have been 290 different bird species identified in Zion National Park, of those over 50 are commonly found. In the spring when trees are leafing out and water is readily available the canyons are full of their songs.

Saddle Up Cowboy – Zion National Park Horseback Riding

How about experiencing Zion like early explorers, on horseback? A private concessionaire provides very popular 1 hour Zion Horseback riding along the Virgin River. They also offer 3 hour rides on Sandbench Trail. You will need to plan ahead by making reservations, but it’s not uncommon to be able to pick up a spot just a day or two ahead.

Orange and Yellow of Zion National Park Sunset
Sunset in Zion National Park – NPS photo

View Zion Sunsets Beyond Your Imagination

Zion sunsets are a photographer’s dream. In Zion Canyon itself, you won’t actually see the sun set. Instead you will see the colors in the canyon explode as the setting sun plays on the walls.

For a true sunset head over to Kolob Canyons Drive. Jim Harmer at Improve Photography has documented great sunset locations in Zion. His favorite shot is from Canyon Overlook on the Zion Mt Carmel Highway.

End the Night With Star Gazing into the Darkest Skies

A beautiful place for star gazing is in Kolob Canyon where you are at a higher elevation and don’t have canyon walls blocking your view. Most of the pull offs along this drive provide easy viewing.

However if the hour drive from Zion Canyon is more than you want to do after a long day of hiking then just pop over the Human History Museum’s patio for a great view of the Zion National Park night sky. The patio is a popular spot for Zion photography, both for sunsets and star gazing. The short walk from the Zion Visitor Center parking lot with access to bathrooms make this spot very family friendly.

Zion NP Climber Rappelling Down in The Narrows
Even through we weren’t ready for this level of adventure, we had fun watching this guy rappelling down in the Narrows.

Taking the Adventure up a Notch

Then there’s a whole other level of adventure where you can go canyoneering, backcountry hiking and camping, or rock climbing. Special permits are required through the park rangers. There are a variety of outfitters in Sprindale to help you with equipment and guides if you are new to these activities.

Where to stay in Zion National Park

Camping in Zion

There are 3 campgrounds in Zion National Park. South Campground and Watchman Campground, near the south entrance, are in the desert and will get very hot in the summer. Although a friend said that their kids found relief playing in the adjacent Virgin River. The Lava Point Campground is about an hour from Zion Canyon. You’ll also find a large number of campgrounds in the surrounding communities. Because we traveled in July and knew the heat would be unbearable we chose to camp about an hour North in the Dixie National Forest where the higher elevation meant perfectly cool sleeping nights.

Hotels and other Lodging in Zion

The only in park lodging is the Zion Lodge. A beautiful rustic lodge tucked into the center of Zion Canyon is complete with delicious restaurants.

However you will find great lodging in the gateway town of Springdale. The best part is that hotels along the main street, like the rustic Bumbleberry Inn or the more traditional Holiday Inn Express, have easy access to the Springdale City Shuttle which connects with the Zion Canyon Shuttle in the park. You won’t believe how much you will appreciate not needing to drive into Zion Canyon.

To search for the best hotels in Sprindale Utah, click here.

So many things to do in Zion, right? Your biggest challenge with be deciding which activities will make your own Zion National Park Itinerary! If you have more ideas please share with us in the comments below. And of course, don’t forget to pin this to your Zion Vacation board.Things to Do in Zion National Park. Create the Zion itinerary of your dreams with this list of really cool things to do. Read on to discover more! #walkingtheparks #ZionNationalParkItinerary