I decided to write a few blog posts about how to enjoy several different National Parks if you only have one day there. I hope you find my suggestions for Zion National Park helpful in your travels.
Zion National Park is a pretty small park, but it certainly is a popular one. In fact, in 2017 only Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon National Parks received more visitors. The park is less than 200 miles from Las Vegas, so that makes it the most easily accessible of the southwest National Parks.
I’ve been to Zion three times so far, and feel like I’ve seen quite a bit of the park (at least in Zion Canyon). If you only have one day to see Zion you’re almost definitely going to be limited to Zion Canyon, but that’s ok. The incredible canyon will certainly be crowded, but the attention is well-deserved. Thankfully, the park is very user-friendly. Through most of the year cars are not permitted inside Zion Canyon (unless you’re staying at the lodge). However, the park utilizes a very nice free shuttle service. You can hop on the shuttle at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, Human History Museum, or the Zion Nature Center. In fact, you can actually get on a shuttle right in the town of Springdale, just outside of Zion National Park. The shuttle conveniently stops outside many of the hotels in town. So, the best way to spend your time in Zion is to hop on the shuttle, ride it into Zion Canyon and know when to get off and what to see and do. That’s where I come in. So, here are my suggestions for a day in Zion:
1. Hop on the free shuttle and ride it into the park. Depending on when you arrive you might want to stop in the Visitor Center to learn more about the park. If you arrive before the Visitor Center opens or if it’s already late in the morning I’d suggest continuing past the Visitor Center and into Zion Canyon.
2. Even if you only have one day in the park you can still fit in a nice amount of hiking. Zion is home to two of the most famous hikes in the entire National Park System. The Angel’s Landing Trail leads steeply into the sky and the Narrows follows the Virgin River between towering sandstone walls. Weather permitting, I recommend trying out at least part of both of these amazing trails. If it’s dry I suggest getting on the Angel’s Landing Trail soon after entering the park. It’s a fairly strenuous hike and it will be crowded. It will also get really hot in the middle of the day if you’re there in the summer. If you have a fear of heights (like me) you can stop at Scout Lookout before the trail becomes super narrow with 1,200 foot drop-offs. You’ll still have outstanding views from there and won’t have to risk your life.
3. Once you get back down to level ground I’d recommend admiring a couple of the quick and easy sights. Weeping Rock is less than a half-mile roundtrip. The viewpoint for the Court of the Patriarchs requires even less effort. Both are short and easy, but worthwhile sights.
4. Next it would probably be a good time to stop at the Zion Lodge for a nice lunch outside. Watch out for the turkeys, I saw some walking through the parking lot.
5. After lunch it’s probably going to be pretty hot out. At least that’s the case most of the year in Zion. So, it’s the perfect time to cool off. There’s no better way to do that than to venture into the Narrows. First take the shuttle to the end of the line at Temple of Sinawava. Then embark on the easy and level Riverside Walk. It’s about a mile to reach the entry to the Narrows. The walkway is paved. You’ll notice the canyon continually get tighter as you continue down the trail. At the trail’s end the path disappears, but a few steps drop into the Virgin River as water spans the distance between both canyon walls. Know the weather forecast. If the weather looks good and there is no rain expected you should be able to enter the water. The other thing to check is the river itself. You want to make sure the water isn’t too cold, isn’t moving too fast, and the water level isn’t too high. If all the conditions are welcoming venture into the river for a while. You’ll notice that once you get out of view of the Riverside Walk the amount of people drastically decreases. If you go in the water make sure you have sturdy footwear that won’t slip on the rocks. Trekking poles or a walking stick will help keep you from falling, too. When I was there the water got about waist-deep. Wade through the water for as long as you like. I continued to Orderville Canyon and explored that for a short amount of time before turning back. It was easily the highlight of my time in Zion. That took me a couple of hours. Just go as long as you’re comfortable.
6. If the weather or water did not cooperate and you weren’t able to venture into the Virgin River there are other options. Another popular, but less exciting trail is the Emerald Pools Trail. This is a trail of variable length. Paths reach three different pools. If you want to conserve time (and/or energy) skip the upper emerald pool.
7. Then sit back and relax while you enjoy your ride in the shuttle back through the scenic Zion Canyon. Wrap up your day with a visit to the Visitor Center if you didn’t enter earlier. Or try out the Nature Center or Human History Museum.
8. If you left your car inside the park you can drive along another scenic drive on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway before heading through the long dark tunnel toward the east entrance. Check out the unique Checkerboard Mesa or hike the short Canyon Overlook Trail on the eastern side of the park to finish off a great day in the park.