Nestled between towering sandstone cliffs and extending along lush riverbanks, Zion National Park preserves an extensive network of canyons, desert towers, thriving forests, and altogether unlikely landscapes in southern Utah that truly defy comparison— in a state whose claim to fame is the fantastical and otherworldly, this is the crown jewel.
After spending several weeks in Zion National Park and venturing deep into the Zion Wilderness, I’ve still hardly scratched the surface— but I also discovered some real magic, both on popular trails (which are popular for a reason) and more obscure routes (which showcase the best of Zion without the crowds). Whether it’s your first or fifth time to the park, be sure to check out some of my favourite trails for a new perspective!
The Narrows, arguably the most popular and certainly the most unique hike in all of Zion, begins from the Temple of Sinawava (shuttle stop #9) and follows the river over a dozen miles as the towering canyon walls narrow into little more than a slot.
It’s insanely popular, so you can expect massive crowds in spring and summer, but it’s also popular for a reason— The Narrows is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and for the novelty alone (not to mention the mind-blowing scenery), it’s an absolute MUST in Zion.
The Narrows hike begins along the relatively flat, paved Riverside Walk, a 2mi trail that eventually leads to a wide section of the Virgin River, where you’ll spend the next few hours tediously navigating over rocks that feel more like greased bowling balls in a flowing river that often reaches above thigh-high. I promise, it’s far more fun than it sounds, particularly on a hot day!
There’s no final view or official stopping point (very few people hike the entirety of the river, since it takes the better part of 12hrs), so you can continue as far as you’d like— I’d recommend hiking as far as the junction and then exploring a short distance into Orderville Canyon (to the right), as the scenery becomes more lush and the terrain requires more scrambling.
I’d also suggest hiring proper canyoneering boots, neoprene socks, and a walking stick from Zion Outfitter (just outside the main park entrance; $29/day), as these will make the hike infinitely more enjoyable and far safer!
Trailhead: Temple of Sinawava (Shuttle Stop #9, Zion Canyon Road)
Elevation gain: negligible
Trail time: 1-10hrs
Highlights: incredibly unique hike directly through the Virgin River in the shadow of Zion’s towering canyon walls; explore lesser-seen Orderville Canyon; flexibility to make it as short or as long as you like!
2 | Watchman Trail
Although short and less popular than many other hikes on this list, the scenery along the Watchman Trail is no less spectacular, and it makes for a perfect introduction to the red sandstone towers that characterise Zion National Park. Consequently, this is an excellent activity to occupy time between major hikes!
The Watchman Trail begins near the Visitor Centre and campground of the same name, so there’s no need for a shuttle ticket; follow large signs to the trailhead and begin a gradual ascent towards the final viewpoint.
This hike won’t take you to an airy summit or through a rushing river, and it’s unlikely to be your absolute favourite, but it offers awesome views of Zion’s iconic Watchman Peak and provides a much-needed break from the foot traffic on other trails within the canyon!
Trailhead: Watchman Campground near Zion Visitor Centre
Distance: 3.3mi / 5.3km
Elevation gain: 370ft / 112m
Trail time: 1hr
Highlights: hike in the shadow of Zion’s iconic Watchman Peak; incredible views on a relatively short and easy trail
3 | Hop Valley to Kolob Arch
When the crowds and chaos of Zion Canyon become too much, you can always head over to West Zion to explore thissurprisingly secluded section of the park.
One of my very favourite finds on this side of Zion is Hop Valley, a 14mi backcountry trail leading through meadows of wildflowers and winding down a thickly forested path to reach the base of Kolob Arch, the world’s second-largest natural rock arch!
The scenery in Hop Valley is both familiar and distinct from the rest of the park, the sandy (and I mean VERY SANDY) trail featuring an incredible variety of wildlife and foliage, all in the shadow of Zion’s characteristic orange sandstone cliffs.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this trail totally booms in popularity over the coming years, so set aside a day to explore while it’s still delightfully under the radar of the millions of visitors crowding The Narrows and Angel’s Landing.
Trailhead: Hop Valley trailhead off Kolob Terrace Road (west Zion, Kolob Canyons)
Distance: 14.3mi / 23km
Elevation gain: 1790ft / 545m
Trail time: 7hrs
Highlights: uncrowded trail with essentially NO other hikers; view of the world’s second-largest natural rock arch, Kolob Arch; amazing wildflowers in the spring
4 | Angel’s Landing
Bordering on insta-famous, Angel’s Landing is insanely popular for its sweeping views of Zion Canyon as much as for the unique experience of ascending a sandstone tower via a steep, chain-supported trail with a dizzying amount of exposure.
For many inexperienced or intermediate hikers, this is likely to be the craziest hike you’ve ever done and possibly closer to a true climb than you’ve ever gotten— it’s almost like via ferrata on the final section to Angel’s Landing, with iron rungs and chains bolted into the rock to offer assistance on the somewhat harrowing ascent.
If you are severely afraid of heights (1000ft drop-offs!) or languish at the thought of a 455m climb, this is probably not for you; instead, check out Observation Point below, which has even BETTER views than Angel’s Landing without the difficult approach!
The hike to Angel’s Landing begins at the Grotto (in Zion Canyon), where you’ll stroll along the Virgin River for a few minutes before gradually ascending onto the trail. For the first couple miles, the route is rather tame, following a wide, paved trail through chilly Refrigerator Canyon and up a series of switchbacks amusingly referred to as Walter’s Wiggles.
Finally, you’ll read the end of the paved trail and the start of the eagerly-awaited/dreaded (depending on who you ask) chain section!
This final upwards push along the ridgeline is markedly more strenuous, requiringcareful footwork over the slippery terrain and some light rock scrambling aided by metal chains and rungs, all on the narrow edge of a cliff rising 1000ft above the valley floor. The reward, though, is an amazing and very windy perch above Zion Canyon and its many red peaks, a view you won’t soon forget!
There are absolutely WILD crowds at Angel’s Landing at almost all times of year, which can make the chain section pretty stressful, even if you aren’t afraid of heights.
My best advice is to start the hike late in the afternoon— as long as you can make it down past the chains before dark, it’s WAY better to descend without anyone pushing past you and definitely easy enough to use a headlamp on the paved switchbacks.
Trailhead: The Grotto (Shuttle Stop #6, Zion Canyon Road)
Distance: 5.4mi / 8.7km
Elevation gain: 1490ft / 455m
Trail time: 3hrs
Highlights: soaring views over the valley and into Zion Canyon; unique “chain section” gives hikers the experience of ascending a steep ridgeline without actual climbing gear
Bonus: Scout Lookout
An often-overlooked trail branches left immediately before the chain section of Angel’s Landing and ascends a short distance back to offer a different view of Zion Canyon. You can see the crowds ascending AL in the photo above, but we were the only people at Scout Lookout with similar views all to ourselves!
Although not a replacement for the main hike (it certainly could be if you’re scared of heights, though!), this is a super worthwhile side trip that affords a brief reprieve from the chaos and crowds of the main trail, as well as giving you an interesting perspective overlooking Angel’s Landing itself.
5 | Observation Point via East Mesa
The Narrows, Angel’s Landing, and Observation Point are often referred to as Zion’s “Holy Trinity”, the best (or at least most popular) of the park’s many hiking trails. In reality, most people won’t have time for all 3 during a short visit, but there are actually plenty of reasons to choose Observation Point over Angel’s Landing.
For starters, you can get an even better view from Observation Point than from Angel’s Landing and with only a fraction of the effort. There’s no chains section, no 1000ft drop-off (except at the final viewpoint), and less than half the elevation gain, but there’s also NO crowds and no need to fight for parking or get a shuttle ticket, since the hike begins outside the east park boundary along a quiet dirt road.
The East Mesa trail to Observation Point is well-graded, all ascents/descents are pleasantly undulating, and before you know it you’re on the edge of a rock overlooking theentirety of Zion Canyon, Angel’s Landing, Zion’s many impressive peaks, and even the Narrows. In terms of work/reward, it doesn’t get any better than this!
Trailhead: East Mesa trailhead on Fir Road (just outside east Zion)
Distance: 6.7mi / 10.8km
Elevation gain: 700ft / 215m
Trail time: 2.5hrs
Highlights: an even MORE spectacular view over the valley and Zion Canyon than afforded by Angel’s Landing; far less crowded than hikes that begin in the canyon
6 | Northgate Peaks
Even further removed from the bustle of Zion Canyon are East and West Northgate Peaks, a pair of slickrock domes rising above the colourful canyon walls and verdant forests of West Zion.
This hike isn’t technically in Kolob Canyons, the remote NW-Zion annex that receives a minuscule fraction of the main park’s visitors, but it’s super close, equally off-the-beaten-path, and every bit as spectacular.
For a small hike, Northgate Peaks also give you a lot of bang for your buck! In just a few miles, you can be high on the summit and overlooking Pine Valley, not another soul in sight.
In many ways, the peaks remind me of Checkerboard Mesa in the east, but with a mass of thriving trees and scrub— Northgate Peaks and the entire Kolob Terrace Road region are amazing for their blend of characteristic and distinctly different Zion scenery. If you’re looking for something past the major tourist draws, this is it!
Trailhead: Wildcat Canyon trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road (west Zion)
Distance: 6mi / 9.7km
Elevation gain: 1120ft / 340m
Trail time: 2.5hrs
Highlights: lesser-explored corner of Zion National Park without the crowds; summit a small peak for sweeping views of west Zion
7 | Pa’rus Trail
The Pa’rus Trail, aptly named after the native Paiute word for “bubbling water”, is a leisurely, flat cycle/walking trail that winds along the Virgin River and offers spectacular waterfront views up at the park’s many peaks.
I’d consider this to be more of a stroll than a true hike, but the scenery is beautiful enough to warrant inclusion on this list— and like the Watchman Trail listed above, Pa’rus makes for a great pre- or post-hike activity, easily fitting in around the rest of your itinerary!
There are sparkling pools, enormous flanks of lush plantlife, countless photogenic bridges, and killer views of the red sandstone cliffs, so consider bringing a picnic lunch and hanging out a while.
Trailhead: Pa’rus trailhead across the bridge from the South Campground near Zion Visitor Centre
Distance: 3.4mi / 5.5km
Elevation gain: 160ft / 48m
Trail time: 1hr
Highlights: leisurely trail perfect for strolling or biking; incredible views along the Virgin River of Zion’s iconic peaks
8 | The Subway (Left Fork of North Creek)
Of all the incredible hikes within Zion National Park, the Subway, a hollowed-out sandstone gorge resembling an underground tunnel, is the MOST spectacular— but you’ll have to work for the experience.
Elusive wilderness permits greatly restrict visitors to the canyon, and technical terrain further limits who can experience the otherworldly splendour of this remote cave and its emerald pools on the traditional canyoneering approach, but there’s also an easier “bottom-up” approach that doesn’t require specialised gear and still offers an incredible experience in one of Zion’s premier wilderness areas.
*NOTE: All canyoneering and hiking trips into the Subway require a permit; read this post for heaps of info & insider tips on how to score an advance or last-minute permit!
At 9.1 miles and 1305ft of elevation gain, the Subway isn’t an overly long or steep hike, but it still takes the better part of a day, thanks to the terrain (heaps of creek crossings and narrow, rocky trails along the bank) and the beautiful scenery (which will have you stopping every few minutes to take photos).
Setting off from the Left Fork trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road, the trail begins with a steep, rocky descent to North Creek. From here, faint trails zigzag along both sides of the creek, heading upstream towards the Subway for several hours.
During the first three-quarters of the hike, it’s possible to stay dry by rock-hopping across the creek and opting for paths along the bank, but I actually found it far more fun to walk through the water and explore this incredible riparian ecosystem— the entire journey is punctuated by vibrant wildflowers, golden frogs, small fish, and an explosion of green foliage, all best enjoyed from the creek itself.
I’d recommend hiring proper canyoneering boots, neoprene socks, and a walking stick from Zion Outfitter (just outside the main park entrance; $29/day), as these will make the hike infinitely more enjoyable and far safer!
A series of wide, flat waterfalls announce the entrance to the Subway, and before you know it, you’re entering the namesake feature, which is even more spectacular than it’s possible to describe.
In addition to the semi-circular canyon wall and the warm glow of light that filters through, almost like the beam of a Subway approaching, deep pools cut into the rock slab make for a truly otherworldly scene. For those who want to wring every ounce of fun out of the Subway, hop into the pools at the back of the canyon and scramble/swim through the narrow walls and around the bend, where a hidden waterfall greets only the most eager of explorers.
This is the kind of place that’s immediately worth any trouble it took to reach. If you’re debating between other trails within the park, there’s simply no contest— it has to be the Subway!
Trailhead: Left Fork trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road (west Zion)
Distance: 9.1mi / 14.6km
Elevation gain: 1305ft / 398m
Trail time: 7hrs
Highlights: Lush riparian flora and fauna along North Creek; amazing canyon views and sandstone cliffs; incredibly unique geology and emerald pools at the Subway make this the best hike in Zion!
Getting to Zion National Park
The most direct way to reach Zion National Park is from Las Vegas (3hrs) or Salt Lake City (5hrs), both of which have major airports.
The park is also 1hr from Bryce Canyon and 30min from Kanab, Utah (via the east entrance).
Entrance fees for Zion National Park
In order to enjoy most of the activities on this list, you’ll need to purchase a 7-day access pass to Zion National Park for $35USD at either the east or west entrance station.
Alternatively, grab an annual NPS pass for $80USD, which will get you into all 63 national parks and thousands of other national monuments and forests around the country! These can be purchased from the visitor centre, Recreation.gov, and from outdoor retailers like REI.
Getting around Zion National Park
Many of the hikes on this list begin in Zion Canyon, which is accessible by shuttle bus from March to November or by private car during the winter. For more info about the shuttle, check out this section of my Zion guide.
Can’t get shuttle tickets? There are other options, the best of which is hiring a bike and riding along Zion Canyon Road to various trailheads.
Also note that 4 of the hikes on this list actually start OUTSIDE of Zion Canyon and 2 begin from the Visitor Centre, so there’s still plenty to do even when the main park gets busy!