Zion National Park

Zion Canyon, viewed from Angels Landing

Even among America's National Parks, few can match the stunning beauty of Zion National Park. Situated between the Dixie and Canyon Country regions of southern Utah, the park protects a series of incredible rock formations and high sandstone cliffs, and is a favorite spot for hiking, backpacking, canyoneering and climbing. In fact, Zion has some of the most spectacular trails in the National Park System. Unlike many other parks in the American Southwest, where visitors look down from the rim of a canyon, visitors to Zion walk on the canyon floor and look up. In addition to the magnificent monoliths and cliffs, the park is known for its desert landscape of sandstone canyons, mesas, and high plateaus.

Understand

History

Mormon pioneer Issac Behunin built the first log cabin in Zion Canyon in 1863, near the location of the current Zion Lodge. Behunin Canyon, a technical slot canyon, was named after him. During the remainder of the century, small communities and homesteads in the area struggled to survive. Pioneers gave the canyon the name "Zion", a Hebrew word meaning safety, or a place of refuge. Despite the name, the canyon offered little arable land, poor soil, and catastrophic flooding, making agriculture a risky venture. By the first decade of the 20th century, the scenic qualities of southern Utah, and Zion Canyon in particular, had been recognized as a potential destination for tourism. In 1909, a presidential executive order designated Mukuntuweap National Monument. The new monument was, however, virtually inaccessible to visitors, since the existing roads were in poor condition and the closest railhead was a hundred miles away. The monument's name was changed to Zion National Monument in 1918, and in 1919 the monument was expanded and designated a national park. Visitation to the new national park increased steadily during the 1920s, and in 1930, the newly completed Zion-Mt Carmel Highway allowed motorists to travel through the park to Mount Carmel Junction, then on to Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon. This highway was one of the greatest engineering feats of modern times, requiring the construction of a 5,613-foot tunnel, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, to negotiate the vertical sandstone cliffs of Zion. The switchbacks leading up to the tunnel proved to be an even greater task to accomplish. The Kolob Canyons section, near Cedar City was established as a National Monument in 1937 and added to Zion National Park in 1956.

Landscape

Zion National Park encompasses some of the most scenic canyon country in the United States. The park is characterized by high plateaus, a maze of narrow, deep, sandstone canyons and striking rock towers and mesas. The North Fork of the Virgin River has carved a spectacular gorge in the park called the Zion Narrows. The canyon walls in some places rise 2000–3000 feet above the canyon floor. The southern part of the park is a lower desert area where colorful mesas border rocky canyons and washes. The northern sections of the park are higher plateaus covered by forests. To the east is amazing slickrock country and a vast array of unpaved trails, hidden canyons and peaks to explore.

Flora and fauna

Sacrad Datura

Although Zion is in an arid desert climate, the park has almost nine-hundred native species of plants, seventy-five species of mammals, two-hundred-ninety species of birds including the recent addition of the California Condor, forty-four species of reptiles and amphibians and eight native fish.

Mammals commonly found within the park's borders include bats, jack rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, gophers, kangaroo rats, beavers, mice, porcupines, coyotes, gray fox, ringtails, skunks, mule deer and the rarely seen mountain lions. Peregrine falcons, rattlesnakes and numerous lizards are also species that visitors may recognize.

There is a wide variety of plant life in the park, seeing that the unique geology has created diverse environments such as deserts, canyons, slickrock, hanging gardens, riparian, and high plateaus. There are many beautiful wildflowers, including the Sacrad Datura, which is common in Zion and is often found along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and on the canyon floor in Zion Canyon.

Climate

The hanging gardens of Zion

Throughout Zion Canyon, you will find life growing on the steep cliffs. Beautiful wildflowers, hanging ferns and moss thrive in the micro-environment. How does it survive in this seemingly arid land?

It's the surprisingly porous Navajo sandstone that makes up the high cliffs of Zion. Rainfall and snow melt collect on the top of the mesas and seep through the sandstone until it reaches the tougher Kayenta formation, where it is forced out of the rock, creating springs in Zion Canyon and allowing hanging gardens to grow. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Weeping Rock, which lies below the mouth of two hanging canyons. The canyons serve as drainages, collecting surface water runoff and concentrating it into the Navajo sandstone, supporting the Weeping Rock spring. Other springs can be seen in various places of the park including along the Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava.

In addition to plant life, the springs also provide a home for freshwater snails, like the tiny Zion Snail, which is only found in Zion National Park. Keep an eye out for other wildlife around the springs, such as birds, lizards, and various insects.

Weather in the park varies greatly with elevation, and even at the same elevation may differ by over 30°F between day and night. During the spring the weather is very unpredictable, with stormy, wet days common, although warm, sunny weather may occur too. Precipitation peaks in March. Summer days are hot (95-110°F), but overnight lows are usually comfortable (65-70°F). Afternoon thunderstorms are common from mid-July through mid-September, making flash floods (if hiking in one) in the canyons a danger. Autumn days are usually clear and mild with cool nights. Winter storms bring rain or light snow to Zion Canyon, but heavier snow to the higher elevations such as the east side of the park, Kolob Terrace and Kolob Canyons. Clear days may become quite warm, reaching 60°F; nights are often in the 20s and 30s. Winter storms can last several days and cause roads to be icy, but the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway is owned by the park and the NPS keeps it in excellent condition even in the winter.

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
 
Daily highs (°F) 54 58 66 74 85 96 101 98 91 78 64 53
Nightly lows (°F) 30 34 38 44 53 62 69 68 60 49 37 30
Precipitation (in) 1.8 2.0 2.0 1.3 0.7 0.3 1.2 1.5 1.0 1.3 1.4 1.6

   Data from NOAA (1981-2010)

Orientation

There are sections of the park that are not connected by road; the Kolob Canyons area is in the park's northern area and offers interesting canyon views and hiking. The remote Kolob Terrace offers an uncrowded and scenic drive, spectacular slot canyons and hiking. The highly photographed "Subway" is found in this section of the park. The more popular (and more crowded) Zion Canyon area is in the southern portion of the park and contains many of the park's most famous scenic wonders such as Angels Landing and the Great White Throne. The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway runs from the south entrance of the park to the east entrance featuring magnificent landmarks and hiking along the way such as East Temple, Checkerboard Mesa and the Great Arch. The Zion Narrows and Orderville Canyon, two of the parks most popular canyons begin on the east rim of the park and end in Zion Canyon.

Get in

Zion National Park area map

By car

Zion Canyon, the most popular section of the park, is accessed by taking SR-9 from the east or the west.

From the west: I-15 passes west of Zion and connects with SR-9 just north of St. George. From there SR-9 travels through the towns of Hurricane, Virgin, and Springdale before entering Zion Canyon.

From the east: US-89 passes east of Zion and connects with SR-9 (The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway) at Mount Carmel Junction. From there SR-9 travels through the park's east Entrance and into the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel before descending into Zion Canyon.

The Kolob Terrace road is accessed off SR-9 in the town of Virgin, west of Zion. The Kolob Canyons entrance is accessible from I-15, exit 40, near Cedar City.

Cars can be rented in Salt Lake City, Cedar City, St. George, and Las Vegas. McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas offers rental cars that usually have good rates.

NOTE: Visitors driving RVs, pulling trailers, or with any vehicle that is over 7'10" wide or over 11'4" tall should be aware that due to the small size of the tunnel an escort is required to pass through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel; the fee for this escort is $15, valid for a round-trip. Most RVs, buses, trailers, 5th wheels, and some camper shells require an escort. Escorts are at the tunnel from 8AM-8PM during the busy season and arranged at the entrance gate in the winter. Semi-tractor trailers are not permitted in the park.

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible only by the Zion Canyon Shuttle the majority of the year, but from November until the end of March, private vehicles are allowed to drive into the canyon.

By plane

St. George is the closest city with commercial airline service. St. George opened the new, larger St. George Municipal Airport in January 2011, which services the area with flights from Salt Lake City on Delta Connection and from Denver on United Express. Both routes are operated by SkyWest. Flying into Cedar City (30 miles north of Zion National Park) from Salt Lake City on SkyWest is an additional option.

The nearest major airport is McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, about a three-hour drive to the park on Interstate 15.

The second closest major airport is in Salt Lake City, about a five-hour drive on I-15.

By bus

There is no public transportation into the park. Tour buses can be arranged through travel agencies, and Greyhound buses visit the cities of Salt Lake City, Cedar City, St. George, plus Las Vegas in Nevada. For Utah Greyhound information call +1 435 586-9465.

Fees/Permits

A $30 entrance fee is required for all private vehicles entering the park that is good for seven days. Motorcycles, individuals on foot, and bicyclists are charged a $12 entrance fee. Private vehicles which only visit Kolob Canyons still need to pay the $30 entrance fee (good for the whole park).

There are several passes that allow free entry for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot or on bike. These passes are valid at all national parks including Zion National Park:

In 2016 the National Park Service will offer several days on which entry is free for all national parks: January 18 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), April 16-24 (National Park Week), August 25-28 (National Park Service's 100th birthday weekend), September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day).

Get around

Zion Canyon map

By car

The majority of the park is accessible by car, although Zion Canyon is accessible only by the free shuttle from April through the end of October. Large vehicles, (7'10" in width or 11'4" in height), (RV's, buses, trailers, 5th wheels, and some camper shells) that wish to travel the length of the park, require an escort to be stationed at both ends of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. Large vehicles have trouble staying in their lane while traveling through the tunnel. Escort costs are $15 per vehicle, valid for two trips through the tunnel during a seven-day period. Very large vehicles, including those taller than 13'1", may be prohibited from entering the tunnel.

During the winter Zion roads are plowed and sanded, except the Kolob Terrace road, which is closed. Be prepared for winter driving conditions, including potentially icy roads, from November through March.

By shuttle

From mid-March through the end of October, Zion uses a shuttle system to eliminate congestion in the canyon. The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to all private vehicles during this time (except those with a red pass that are staying at the Zion Lodge). Shuttles are fully accessible, with extra room for bikes, backpacks, and climbing gear.

Zion operates two different shuttle routes. One goes through the town of Springdale (see the Get around section on Springdale), and terminates at the Park entrance, within walking distance of the visitor center.

The other route goes through Zion Canyon and has 9 stops: the Visitor Center, the Zion Human History Museum, Canyon Junction, Court of the Patriarchs, Zion Lodge, Grotto, Weeping Rock, Big Bend, and the Temple of Sinawava.

Frequency of the Zion Canyon route depends on the time of day. In Spring and Fall the shuttle runs from 6:45AM-10PM every day, with 7-15 minute frequency. In the Summer (mid-May to early September) the shuttle runs from 5:45AM-11PM every day, with 6-15 minute frequency, and 30 minute frequency in the very early morning and late evening.

By foot

The Hidden Canyon Trail

The beautiful scenery of the park makes a hike practically a mandatory event. Some of the best hikes in the National Park System are in Zion, including Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows. The park offers trails of varying difficulty and length, suitable for twenty minute strolls or multi-day backpacking trips.

By bike

Zion is one of the most bike friendly parks in the National Park System. Bicycles are an excellent option for traveling the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Shuttle buses are equipped with bike racks for those wishing to ride only part of the way. Bicycles are permitted only on established roads and the Pa’rus Trail which goes from the Watchman Campground to Canyon Junction. If you're riding from the south entrance into Zion Canyon, take the Pa'rus Trail since it's safer than the main road.

Cyclists must obey traffic laws. Bicycles are not allowed on hiking trails (except the Pa'rus Trail) or off-trail. Ride defensively; automobile traffic can be heavy and drivers may be distracted by the scenery. Park shuttles will not pass bicycles, so use turnouts to allow them to pass. Riding through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel is prohibited; bicycles must be transported through the tunnel by motor vehicle. Usually the ranger (escort) at the tunnel will ask those driving a truck if bikers can hop in the back of their trucks. If you aren't bringing your own bike there are a few rental agencies in Springdale.

By guided tour

A number of companies provide guided tours of Zion National Park that include transportation from the surrounding areas. Some companies will provide bus travel from nearby towns while others begin in Zion National Park. Some will provide just a brief tour with small stops, while others may take you on a hike, and arrange all your meals.

See

Looking up at the cliffs of Zion Canyon from the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Do

Hiking

The Court of the Patriarchs

Simply driving through Zion is an incredible experience, but to enter Zion and not take at least a short walk would be foolish. The park is a hiker's mecca, with trails of varying difficulty and length, ranging from easy strolls to steep climbs or backcountry hikes. The park information desk provides detailed information and overview maps for the main day hikes and trails ranging from short strolls to strenuous hikes of several hours. Longer backcountry hikes with overnight camping have to be discussed with the park rangers in order to reserve spots for the limited back country camp sites in the park.

The most famous trail, and arguably the most spectacular, is the 2.5 mile strenuous climb up to Angels Landing. Of the easy walks, Weeping Rock and the Emerald Pools Trails are classics. For those seeking a longer, full-day hike, the classic Zion hikes are along the East and West Rims. And for serious backpacking, the Trans-Zion route is the full 48 mile hike across the entire park, from Lee's Pass in the west of the Kolob Canyons to the east entrance of the Park.

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Zion Canyon trails

The Narrows
Angels Landing

Kolob Canyon and Kolob Terrace trails

Photography

Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway

Zion offers the photographer a unique and incredible landscape with many opportunities to explore color, texture, and light. Animal life, while not as obvious as in some other parks, offers some opportunity for wildlife photography.

Horseback riding

On horseback permits are not required for day trips, but are required for overnight trips. The maximum group size for horseback trips is six animals. For overnight trips the maximum stay in any single location is one night. Stock must be hobbled or tethered to reduce damage to vegetation. To reduce the spread of noxious and exotic weeds all stock must be fed only certified weed-free hay one day prior to entering the backcountry, and when using park trails. When traveling by horseback on trail areas stock must remain on trails. Free-trailing or loose herding is not allowed. Animals must be kept at a slow walk when passing hikers. When standing, stock must be kept at least 100 feet from drainages.

Stock may be used in these areas:

Guided trail rides can be arranged with park concessionaires:

Rock climbing and canyoneering

The Subway
The Subway's only required reppel

Climbing in Zion or entering technical slot canyons requires appropriate hardware and skills. Individuals interested in climbing or canyoneering should check for information at the visitor center and be aware that some routes may be closed when peregrine falcons are breeding or conditions are unsafe.

Canyoneering is popular in Zion, but most canyoneers stick to easier canyons such as Orderville Canyon, Subway and even Keyhole and Pine Creek while others venture out to Behunin Canyon, Mystery Canyon, Lodge Canyon, Echo Canyon, Das Boot, Englestead Hollow, Spry Canyon, Icebox Canyon, Kolob Canyon and just outside the park Birch Hollow and Fat Man's Misery. Few attempt Imlay and Heaps, considered perhaps the most difficult technical canyons in the park.

Ranger programs

Buy

Nearby Springdale (outside the south entrance to the park) offers a large variety of gift shops, two small grocery stores, candy and specialty shops, most within walking distance of each other. On the east side of the park, Mount Carmel Junction is more rustic, but there are some quality gift shops and a small gift and grocery store right outside the entrance to Zion.

Eat

The only food sold within the park is located at the beautiful Zion Lodge.

There are dining options at both entrances of the park. Both sides of the park refrain from building any fast food chains, but they do offer unique and tasty dining option. Springdale offers a nice selection of restaurants including pizza, oriental, American and Mexican food. There are also some good options on the east side of the park in and near Mount Carmel Junction. Buffalo seems to be a popular dish on the east side, and most of the food is American served with a western flair.

Drink

All water in Zion National Park should be treated by filtering or purifying before use. The Giardia parasite, which can cause a nasty and persistent gastrointestinal disturbance, is common in the water here. There is potable water available at the visitor center, museum, Grotto, and the campgrounds in the park.

Sleep

Lodging

Zion Lodge

There is only one lodge within the park. The towns of Springdale and Mount Carmel Junction are located just outside of the park and have numerous places to stay, as do further afield towns such as Hurricane and Apple Valley.

Camping

There are two campgrounds within the main section of the park:

Both of these campgrounds provide restrooms, picnic tables, RV dump, drinking water and utility sinks.

Backcountry

All backcountry camping requires a permit, which is available for a fee at the visitor center. Maximum group size for backcountry usage is twelve people.

Walk-in permits are issued the day before a canyoneering trip. Backpacking permits are issued up to three days prior to the trip date. Permits given out are limited and issued only when the backcountry desk at the visitor center is open. Express Permits allow participants to obtain a permit on-line. Sign-up every three years is required and must be in person and at the backcountry desk. Due to the popularity of the "Subway" and Mystery Canyon, a lottery has been setup to dole out permits for these two technical slot canyons.

Reservations can be revoked in the event of adverse environmental conditions such as flash flood danger. Hikers are required to obtain a permit in person at the backcountry desk the day before or day of a hike.

Pristine Zones allow up to 12 people, and hiking/canyoneering in these zones usually requires technical gear and equipment: Mystery Canyon, Imlay Canyon, Kolob Canyon, Behunin Canyon, Heaps Canyon, Echo Canyon, Spry Canyon, Englstead Hollow, Bulloch Canyon, Ice Box, and the Upper Right Fork of North Creek.

Primitive Zones allow up to fifty visitors: Orderville Canyon, Pine Creek Canyon, Keyhole Canyon, and the Subway.

Stay safe

Weather conditions are posted at the visitor center, but flash floods can occur in the park without warning. The danger is not limited to just hiking in slot canyons. People have been washed off trails to their deaths during flash floods. Although it's gorgeous when the rain pours, it's not a safe time to be on the trails. Flood waters originate upstream, so a flood may occur when the weather does not seem bad overhead. If hiking in a narrow canyon and the water begins to rise even slightly or get muddy, begin looking for higher ground.

Remember to be careful of steep cliffs; people have died falling when they venture too close to the edge. Some trails are more hazardous than others and should be attempted only by experienced hikers without a fear of heights. Loose sand and pebbles on stone are extremely slippery. Be extra careful near the edge when using cameras or binoculars. Never throw or roll rocks; there may be hikers below. Stay on the trail, stay away from the edge, observe posted warnings, and if you have children with you, watch them carefully!

Go next

Towns outside of the park offering amenities include:

Zion National Park lies near the Canyon Country region of Utah. Other nearby parks are:

In addition, other nearby destinations include:

Routes through Zion National Park

Junction Springdale  W  E  Mount Carmel Junction END


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