Zion National Park, which sits in the southwest corner of Utah, is one of five national parks in the state. Known for its dramatic canyons and red rock cliffs, Zion National Park is one of the few parks that are open year round. The Zion Canyon cuts through the park, offering many hiking trails on both sides of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. There are three entrances to the park -- South, East, and West -- and each entrance has a series of trails that can be accessed either via the visitor center or the adjacent parking lots.
Hiking in Zion is by far one of the most popular activities in the park. Perhaps it is the sheer number of trails that are there to traverse (without being too overwhelming like some of the other parks) or diversity in the views that the trails provide (valley, river, or mountain), but hiking in Zion National Park is an absolute must.
No matter what your activity level, there is a trail for you in Zion. A quick tip here is that it is always advisable to check in at the ranger station to get the latest information in terms of trail closures, rockslides, weather, and wildlife just to be on the safe side. In fact, this is a requirement if you plan on going backcountry camping or overnight hiking in Zion as well.
One of the things that makes Zion National Park popular among hikers is that many of the park’s most popular trails can actually be accessed from the valley floor along the six-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. In the summer months, the National Park Service has established a shuttle service to reduce the number of cars that can enter the park. So, you can park your car at any of the visitor centers and take the free shuttle from trail to trail. However, in the winter months, the shuttle is not operational, and you can actually drive your car throughout the park. Keep in mind that some roads are closed or not maintained in winter, so give yourself plenty of time to get around. It is best to get an updated trail map and guide from any of the ranger stations or park visitor centers.
Here are some of the most popular trails in the park that we enjoyed during a recent winter trip to Zion. The best part of the whole experience was the fact that because it was the off-season, we got most of the park to ourselves with minimal crowds along each trail.
1. Pa’rus Trail Close To The South Entrance Of Zion National Park
This is an easy paved trail that can be accessed from the South End Visitor Center. The trail follows the Virgin River from the South campground to Canyon Junction. This trail is handicap accessible and also allows both pets and bicycles. In fact, it is the only hiking trail in Zion National Park to do so. It has some great photo opportunities along the trail and by the end of the river. The trail is around 3.5 miles long and can be completed in about two hours depending on your pace. There is minimal elevation gain since this trail is considered to be at the valley floor, so we actually biked the trail with kids in tow.
2. Watchman Trail Close To The South Entrance Of Zion National Park
Similar to the Pa’rus trail, this trail is starts from the Visitor Center and is fairly easy to complete. The trail head can be accessed from Watchman Bridge. An easy way to identify this is by the throngs of photographers who wait on the bridge to get that iconic shot of the Watchman’s peak, especially at sunset. This trail follows the river and ends at the viewpoint of the Towers of the Virgin, Lower Zion Canyon, Watchman peak, and the town of Springdale. So in essence, it is in the opposite direction as the Pa’rus trail. The entire trip is around 3.3 miles round trip and can be completed in about two hours depending on your pace. We did the trail during sunset, so it took a lot longer as we stopped constantly to take pictures of the red rocks.
3. Canyon Overlook Trail Close To The East Entrance Of The Park
This is one of the most popular trails in the park among photographers, photography enthusiasts, and general tourists. That is because this trail provides some of the most dramatic views of the canyon floor from high above. The trail itself is relatively short -- one mile round trip with no more than 160 feet in elevation gain from start to finish. The trail head can be accessed near the east entrance of the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel. At sunrise and sunset, expect to find hordes of photographers waiting patiently for the perfect lighting situation to get the iconic Zion Canyon shot. We hiked this trail during the day so we didn’t face too many issues with parking, but by the time we came down, the lot was full and people were waiting along the road for a spot to park.
4. Emerald Pools Trail Close To Zion Lodge Inside The Park
The Emerald Pools trail is another iconic trail in Zion National Park. The trailhead is actually right across the highway from Zion Lodge. There are two trail entrances. The Lower Emerald Pool trail actually follows the canyon floor to the pool, which is located at the base of a cliff. There are two small streams that feed into the pool. During spring runoff, the stream may surge and create powerful waterfalls. The trail to the lower pool is fairly easy and just over half a mile long, meandering through the valley along the bottom of the river. The upper pool trail is harder to reach than the other two but well worth the effort, especially in spring when the pool is full of runoff. Several waterfalls arise, creating quite a dramatic sight. The trail to and from the upper emerald pool offers truly breathtaking views of Zion canyon as well.
5. The Narrows
The Narrows are by far the most popular hike in Zion National Park. And because it is the most popular, it is also the most crowded, especially in the summer months. This hike is suitable for hikers of any age, but does require some special gear. What makes this hike special is that the canyon is so narrow at some points that the river covers the valley floor, so hikers have to wade or swim in order to proceed through the hike in its entirety. Of course, this means that you need to be properly equipped to swim or wade through flowing water. Keep in mind that you will get wet. During summer months is it a good idea to check on the water levels with the park rangers. Hiking will not be permitted when the river is high from spring snow runoff for fear of flash flooding. In winter months, the water is quite cold, so a good wetsuit or drysuit might be required. The good news is that this gear can be easily rented in the closest town, Springdale, on your way into the park.
6. Angels Landing
Arguably the most thrilling and most dangerous hike in Zion National Park, the Angels Landing hike is not for the faint of heart nor is it appropriate for anyone who is afraid of heights. This hike is quite narrow at many points, and one section requires hiking with ropes with sheer drop offs on one side. Every year there are many close calls for people who have gotten into trouble on this hike because they have been overzealous in their abilities. The entire trail is around 5.4 miles with about 1,450 feet in elevation gain. Most people take about four to five hours to complete the hike, so plan your day appropriately.
The trailhead is at the bridge across the road from the Grotto Picnic Area in Zion Canyon and can be accessed by the shuttle in summer. The first part of the hike is broad and well maintained. It is at valley level with some switchbacks. The trail then climbs another series of switchbacks called Walter's Wiggles. There are about 21 switchbacks and they are very tight as you gain elevation quite rapidly. The Wiggles get you to the top of the ridge at Scout Lookout, which offers some dramatic views. The final half mile of the trail follows the ridge. It is steep and there are chains in the rock.
As you can tell, the hiking trails in Zion National Park are varied and there is bound to be something for every type of hiker. The key here is to be prepared with enough water, appropriate clothing and footwear, and accurate knowledge of the day’s weather. Of course, like any activity in the outdoors, make sensible choices based on what feels right for you and stay safe.