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11 Top Attractions & Things to Do in Zion National Park

Jul 24, 2017

Sightseeing and outdoor adventures are what Zion National Park is all about. Whether you have only a couple of hours to drive through the park or several days to explore it in more detail, there are some highlights you simply shouldn't miss. The main attractions in Zion are the sites along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. If you're looking for things to do, you'll find hiking trails for all abilities; opportunities for horseback riding; and for the more adventurous, canyoneering and rock climbing. To learn about the people who have inhabited this region over the centuries, be sure to stop in at the Human History Museum.

From mid-March to late November a free shuttle bus system operates within Zion National Park and from the town of Springdale to the park. The shuttle buses within Zion take tourists to stops along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, and cars are not permitted along this stretch during these months.

1 Explore the Sights along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive

Shuttle bus on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
Shuttle bus on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
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The most dramatic section of Zion National Park is Zion Canyon, accessed along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, an in-and-out road that runs along the canyon floor, with towering cliff walls on both sides. This road offers views of some of the most famous sites in the park, including a view up to Angels Landing, and dead ends at the start of one of the park's signature features, the Narrows. It is also where many of the park's key attractions are found.

The park's shuttle bus, which allows you to hop off at the scenic sites and hiking trailheads along the way, offers a hassle-free way to explore this area. You can also bike this route. Shuttle buses are equipped with bicycle racks. In winter, when the shuttle bus is not operating, you can drive this route in your own vehicle.

2 Drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway

Drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
Drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
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The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, which runs through the park from the South Entrance to the East East, is arguably as scenic as the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, but provides a starkly different perspective as it winds high above the valley for dramatic views from one side of the valley to the other. The road hugs the cliff wall as it climbs up on the mountainside. After a steady climb, the road passes through a narrow 1.1-mile tunnel. The tunnel is not wide enough for RVs to pass, so traffic is held back in one direction when RVs are entering the tunnel. RV drivers must pay a fee when they enter the park in order to pass through the tunnel.

Immediately after exiting the tunnel on the east side is the parking area for the Canyon Overlook Trail, a one-mile round-trip hike to an incredible viewpoint over the valley. Beyond this point, the landscape changes to rolling ridged mountains of orange and cream colors. This side of the park is higher, often cooler, and home to a scattering of large pine trees.

Roadside pullouts offer convenient observation areas all along this drive. The shuttle does not operate along this route.

3 Hit the Trails on a Day Hike

Canyon Overlook Trail
Canyon Overlook Trail | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
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Zion National Park has some outstanding hikes that range in length from less than a mile to multi-day treks. Two of the most famous hikes in the park are Angels Landing and The Narrows. Angels Landing is a strenuous hike that climbs to a spectacular viewpoint looking over Zion Canyon. The trail follows a narrow ridge with long drop offs and is not for everyone and certainly not for anyone with a fear of heights. The Narrows, by contrast, follows a river through a huge slot canyon. This is a seasonal hike that takes some planning if you want to tackle it.

Some of the most popular hikes in the park are much easier, one-mile or less in length, and lead to a variety of natural features, from small pools to weeping walls. The Riverside Walk, Weeping Rock trail, and Lower Emerald Pools trail are three of the main walks. These are all accessed from the shuttle bus and offer big rewards with little effort. For a more comprehensive list of popular hikes, see our article on the Best Hikes in Zion National Park.

4 Weeping Rock

Weeping Rock
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One of the major sites along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is Weeping Rock. This dripping stone overhang offers a close-up look at the hanging gardens that cling to the otherwise, sheer cliff wall. Depending on the season, the amount of water coming off the rock can be drips, a stream, or a full waterfall. Standing at the base of Weeping Rock, you get a different perspective of the valley and a real feel for the enormity of the canyon walls.

Weeping Rock is one of the stops on the Zion shuttle bus through the canyon. To reach the rock requires a half-mile round-trip walk.

5 Riverside Walk

Riverside Walk
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Riverside Walk is a scenic 2.2-mile round-trip path, but you don't need to complete the whole trail to enjoy this area of the park. This paved trail runs along the Virgin River and is the last stop on the Zion shuttle bus (Temple of Sinawava). Hugging a rock wall in some places, the trail passes hanging gardens, and spurs lead down to the water's edge. Across the valley, on the opposite side of the river, huge waterfalls may be pouring off the cliff wall, particularly in the spring. This is also a good area for spotting birds and other wildlife.

6 Lower Emerald Pools

Lower Emerald Pools
Lower Emerald Pools | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
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Similar to Weeping Rock in many ways, Lower Emerald Pools features a weeping wall and pools at the base. The site is accessed by a .6-mile round-trip paved trail, leaving from the Zion Lodge shuttle bus stop. This is a particularly nice stop in the spring, when the leaves are out and water is flowing over the wall. If you have more time and energy, you can continue on beyond this point, walking behind the falls, to the Middle and Upper Emerald Pools.

7 Checkerboard Mesa and the East Side of Zion National Park

Landscape on the east side of Zion National Park
Landscape on the east side of Zion National Park | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
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While Checkerboard Mesa has its own parking area and information plaque, several other mountainsides in the vicinity also beg to be explored. Pullouts on this side of the park are small, accommodating only a few cars at a time, but if you can find a spot, it's worth pulling out and taking some time to appreciate the unique scenery up here. This side of the park has a much different appearance than Zion Canyon, on the west side.

Checkerboard Mesa is the first stop after entering the park through the East Entrance. This white-colored mesa does have a distinct checkerboard pattern to it and is worth stopping to see. Beyond here, the landscape reveals a mix of orange and white stone that seems to swirl in ridges up the mountain sides. Large pine trees dot the hillsides.

8 Human History Museum

Human History Museum
Human History Museum | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
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To learn about the cultural history of Zion, stop in at the Human History Museum, the first stop on the shuttle bus. The museum features large, easy-to-read displays and a huge model of the park and surroundings to put the area in perspective. The permanent collection includes information on American Indian culture, pioneer settlements, and the creation of the park. Temporary exhibits are also on display and cover a variety of topics. A video runs every half hour, and rangers are available to answer questions.

9 Canyon Trail Rides

Canyon Trail Rides
Canyon Trail Rides | Photo Copyright: Lana Law
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Horse lovers can appreciate the beauty of Zion on a riverside ride at the base of huge stone walls. From March to October, horseback riding tours take guests for a scenic one-hour ride along the Virgin River, through one of the most beautiful areas of the park. Longer tours are also available for more experienced riders. This can be a nice alternative to, or a break from, hiking and sightseeing. It's also a popular family activity. It's advisable to book tours in advance to secure a spot. All tours are operated by an authorized concessioner of the National Park Services.

10 Canyoneering and Rock Climbing

Rock climbers in Zion Canyon
Rock climbers in Zion Canyon
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Zion's slot canyons and unique landscape make canyoneering a popular activity in the park. A variety of outfitters in nearby Springdale offer courses, equipment rentals, and general information on canyoneering in the area. Courses for beginners through to advanced enthusiasts are offered. Even if you are not interested in lessons, these outfitters are also good places to start - especially if you are not familiar with the area.

If you look up as you're driving through the park, you are likely to see rock climbers on some of the sheer walls above you. Climbing trips can also be arranged through outfitters in Springdale.

11 Camping

South Campground
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Spending a night under the stars and canyon walls of Zion National Park is an experience worth pursuing. There are campgrounds outside the park gate, but camping within the park is a whole other experience. Watching birds and wildlife flitting about the campgrounds, sitting around a fire ring in the evening after dark, and peering up at the night sky create a different set of memories than simply exploring Zion by day. Watchman Campground and South Campground are the two main camping areas in the park, and both offer beautiful natural surroundings and well-spaced sites. These two campgrounds are close to each other, near the West Gate entrance to the park. This is also near the town of Springdale, so you can still easily pop into town for anything you need.

A third much smaller and more isolated campground is located in a separate section of the park, at almost 8,000 feet. This is Lava Point Campground, on Kolob Terrace Road, about 50 minutes from the Zion Canyon section of the park.

Where to Stay near Zion National Park

The town of Springdale is located right outside the South Entrance of Zion National Park and is the most convenient place to stay. From your hotel in Springdale, you can even hop on a free shuttle bus to the park. For better hotel rates you can also stay in St. George, a little less than an hour away.

  • Luxury Hotels: Located in Springdale, the quaint riverside Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens offers a tranquil retreat on the edge of the Virgin River. A heated outdoor pool, hot tubs, and a riverside beach grace the property, and luxury rooms and villas come in a variety of sizes. Another outstanding accommodation option is the nearby Cable Mountain Lodge, also with a full range of suites and studio options. Both of these properties are set in beautiful surroundings and feature outstanding views.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: Mid-range hotels in Springdale are slanted towards the upper end. The recently renovated Holiday Inn Express offers an outdoor pool, remodeled rooms, and beautiful common areas with huge windows and wood décor that blends in well with the setting. The Majestic View Lodge is another property to consider in this category, with, as the name suggests, spectacular views, along with an outdoor pool. For a more moderately priced mid-range option, La Quinta Inn & Suites St. George is a good choice, about 55 minutes from the park.
  • Budget Hotels: Two popular budget hotels in nearby St. George, less than an hour from the gates of Zion, are the Howard Johnson Inn & Suites and the recently remodeled Chalet Motel.
  • Camping: For a detailed look at campgrounds in and near Zion, see our article on the Best Campgrounds near Zion National Park.

More Great Places to Explore in Utah

Some of the highlights of any trip to Utah, beyond Zion National Park, are exploring Utah Parks and lacing up your boots to hit Utah's best hiking trails. If you are traveling through Southern Utah and interested in hiking, you'll definitely want to check out the best hiking trails in Bryce Canyon National Park. Further east, you'll find all kinds of things to do in Moab, one of Utah's great outdoor destinations, including hiking and sightseeing in Arches National Park. For a general overview of places you shouldn't miss in Utah, see our list of Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Utah.

Campers exploring the US Southwest can find all the best places to camp in our articles on the best campgrounds near Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks near Moab, as well as camping around St. George. In Nevada and California, discover the best campgrounds near Las Vegas and in Joshua Tree National Park.