Located in the vibrant desert of southern Utah, Zion National Park protects an extensive network of slot canyons, dramatic sandstone towers, lush riparian ecosystems, and wildflower-encrusted forests, each diverse square of the park more spectacular than the last. A whopping 84% of Zion is further preserved as Wilderness, the highest level of protection public land can receive, ensuring that this area remains wildly untouched and strikingly beautiful, an unbelievable experience for those journey beyond the beaten path.
In many ways, Zion’s ever-changing landscape is as contradictory as it is magical (cactus alongside ferns?!)— no doubt inspiration for the park’s name, which literally means “heaven”. There are few places on earth deserving of such a title, but Zion National Park and its wild, unimaginable splendour undoubtedly fit the bill.
This 1-day itinerary for Zion National Park crams in 5 awesome hikes, explores the scenic Zion-Mt Carmel Highway, and showcases some of the most spectacular views in a national park FULL of insane views— it’s far from enough time, but it’s the perfect introduction to your new favourite place. Read on to discover absolutely everything you need to know for the ultimate day at Zion National Park, including when to visit, how to get there and where to stay nearby, COVID closures and park health measures, an essential packing list, and a super detailed 1-day itinerary with all the best hikes and viewpoints.
Check out other posts in my 1-day National Park & Public Land series:
Located in southern Utah, Zion National Park is a year-round destination offering spectacular scenery and unique experiences 12 months of the year:
Summer (June to September) is the least recommended time to visit the park, with massive crowds on every trail (3.8mil people visited Zion in 2020!) and overflowing shuttle buses, meaning you’ll be extremely lucky to even get a ticket. Temperatures can soar (32C/90F), making any non-river hikes a real challenge, and again, I can’t emphasise the crowds enough— I’ve never seen anywhere this busy, with the exception of pre-COVID Disneyland.
Autumn (September to November) & Spring (March to May) each boast comfortable daytime temperatures (21C/70F), although early mornings and nights can still be pretty cold (3C/38F). These shoulder seasons are an excellent time to explore Zion in terms of hiking weather, and particularly autumn when the entire valley explodes in yellow and orange trees, but expect it to still be VERY busy, especially in late spring. I was pretty shocked by how busy the park was in May compared to November— there were easily 3x as many people, tickets for the shuttle bus sold out in under 1 minute, and the carpark was full every morning by 730am. Of course, November brings less reliable weather, but I think it’s worth the gamble to enjoy the park without the pandemonium!
Winter (December to February) can still be a good time to visit Zion, but daytime temperatures are extremely cold (7C/45F) and nights are positively freezing. Higher elevation spots in the park might even get snow, but this is unlikely to impact you greatly. Note also that the park shuttle is not in operation during the winter, meaning you’ll have to drive your own vehicle to trailheads and overlooks along Zion Canyon— on the upside, this means more flexibility, but on the down, it means you may struggle to find parking within the extremely limited trailhead parking lots. While crowds are certainly less in Winter, they never diminish completely!
Entrance fees for Zion National Park
As with the entire NPS network, there are fees associated with visiting Zion National Park. If you are only exploring the park for a single week and not planning to visit any other national parks in the next year, you can purchase a 7-day access pass for $35USD at either the south or east entrance stations.
If you plan on visiting more than 3 US national sites in the next 12 months, it’s actually cheaper to get an annual parks pass for $80USD, accepted at all 63 national parks and thousands of other national monuments and forests around the country.
Purchase your America the Beautiful Pass at the visitor centres and entrance stations (south and east entrance), at Recreation.gov, or even in-store or online from outdoor retailers likeREI.
COVID-safe in Zion National Park
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of public health advice from the CDC, the National Parks Service has implemented a number of health and safety measures across the entire network of US parks, mostly to minimise proximity between travellers and prevent the contamination of shared surfaces.
As of mid 2021, Zion National Park is open with a few restrictions:
All travellers to the park are discouraged from interacting closely with people outside their party. Obviously this is difficult to enforce, but try to maintain a safe distance (2m) from other travellers at viewpoints, campsites, and on the trail.
You are not required to wear a mask while hiking, but are encouraged to do so when it’s not possible to physically distance from people outside your party. Although you shouldn’t expect to see many people wearing masks on more strenuous hikes like Angel’s Landing and The Narrows, they are still required at the visitor centre and on the shuttle bus.
The visitor centre (near the south entrance) is currently OPEN with limited capacity.
The Zion shuttle bus is currently operating two loops with limited stops: the first route connects Springdale and other nearby accomodation to the national park, while the other travels through Upper Zion Canyon from the Visitor Centre to the Temple of Sinawava (with reduced stops in between; more on the shuttle bus below). Since this is the ONLY way to get around the canyon from March to November (aside from walking or biking), the park has implemented a timed reservation system to limit the number of travellers on the bus at any one time— again, heaps more on this below, but essentially you’ll need to book a shuttle ticket in advance for departure from the visitor centre within a 1hr time slot. The cost of this ticket is just $1, but reservations can be hard to come by if you’re not organised!
All hikes and viewpoints within the park are open as normal, including The Narrows, Angel’s Landing, and Observation Point. Popular trails can still be extremely busy, so use common sense and respect your fellow travellers.
Public restrooms are open throughout the park and hand sanitiser is provided.
If you are feeling unwell, DO NOT VISIT! Follow local public health guidelines and get tested before visiting the national park.
For the latest updates on trail closures and COVID safety practices within Zion National Park, visit the NPS website.
Other important things to know about Zion
RECEPTION: Mobile reception at the Zion Visitor Centre is unbelievably fast, but you’ll lose connection fairly quickly as you travel down Zion Canyon, so I wouldn’t plan on having internet on any of your hikes. Make sure you’ve downloaded offline maps and done all your research prior to entering the park. I’d also recommend bringing a PLB on longer hiking adventures in case of emergency; I personally use a Garmin In-Reach Mini. If you do need service for something, it’s lighting fast at the Visitor Centre!
WATER: Aside from bubblers at the Zion visitor centre and a few popular trailheads (like the Narrows), you’ll need to carry all your own water with you into the park. Pack extra, as it can get seriously hot out here!
LEAVE NO TRACE: As with every outdoor adventure, and particularly those within protected natural areas, it is critical that you take steps to reduce human impact on the environment. This includes packing out all of your rubbish or disposing of it in the bins provided at most every trailhead, campsite, and viewpoint (many of these spots even have recycling bins!). I’d also encourage you to be mindful of where you go off-trail within the park— it’s absolutely part of the adventure, but not at the expense of delicate plantlife, so be sure to get your off-route kicks on the rocks or other durable surfaces.
Getting to Zion National Park
Located in southern Utah near the Arizona border, Zion National Park is within easy reach of several major cities and their airports, including Las Vegas (3hrs) and Salt Lake City (5hrs).
The park is also 1hr from Bryce Canyon and 30min from Kanab, Utah (via the east entrance), which together with Page, Arizona forms the southwest’s major adventure hub! In short, Zion is incredibly accessible and not to be missed.
Getting around Zion National Park
In a bid to reduce traffic on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, minimise pollution, and alleviate congestion at small trailhead car parks, the NPS implemented ashuttle service several decades ago that still functions as the primary mode of transport within this section of the national park.
From March to November, this narrow canyon road (which provides access to a number of stops on this itinerary, including Angel’s Landing and The Narrows) is completely CLOSED to public vehicles beyond Zion Lodge, meaning you’ll either need to catch the shuttle, bike, or walk to any destinations in the upper canyon.
During the winter when no shuttle is operating, you’re free to drive yourself anywhere within the park, but you’ll definitely still want to arrive early in order to get a spot at popular trailheads.
Zion-Mt Carmel Highway, another popular scenic drive from the east entrance of the park to Canyon Junction (where it intersects Zion Canyon Scenic Drive) remains open to private vehicles throughout the year, so you’ll be able to drive your own car and explore viewpoints along this road at your leisure— as described in the itinerary below!
Reserving a Zion shuttle ticket
In response to COVID and related social distancing requirements, the Zion shuttle now requires a timed ticket, which can be reserved in one of several ways and then saved to your phone or printed as a scan-able QR Code:
Advanced tickets ($1) are released online at Recreation.govon the 16th and the last day of every month for the two week period beginning on the 1st and 16th of the next month, respectively (e.g. on April 16, tickets for May 1-15 become available; on April 30, tickets for May 16-31 become available)
Additional tickets ($1) are released online at Recreation.goveach day at 5pm for the following day
Afternoon walk-up tickets (free) are available on a first-come, first-served basis from 3-5pm at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center
For either of the advanced ticketing options described above (excluding walk-up tickets), you’ll be required to select an entry time, available as 1hr blocks anytime from 6am-3pm (e.g. you can reserve a 10am ticket valid for boarding the shuttle at the Visitor Centre anytime from 10-11am).
Shuttle tickets book up FAST, especially in Spring/Summer, over holiday periods, and on weekends, and there’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll get one if you don’t plan ahead. Set a calendar alert and reserve your timed entry as soon as it becomes available, either the month prior or the day before at 5pm, as described above!
Staff will often give some leeway on entering after your chosen slot, but I wouldn’t count on this, as it’s totally dependent upon how full the shuttles are and also how generous that person is feeling at that particular moment.
Taking the Zion National Park shuttle
The first Zion shuttle departs the Visitor Centre at 6am and then runs every few minutes throughout the day until 6pm, making this a simple and expedient way to explore Zion Canyon. You can still expect queues during busy times, but the new timed ticket scheme actually minimises wait times from the Visitor Centre and keeps everything moving, so it definitely has its upsides!
Note that wait times from the trailheads can be a completely different story, though— you can easily wait 2hrs to board the shuttle from Angel’s Landing or the Narrows back to the Visitor Centre during spring and summer! If this sounds awful… check out the alternatives below.
Although the shuttle previously serviced 9 points along this route, the NPS has temporarily access to several bus stops in response to COVID, and therefore there are only 5 active shuttle stops within Zion Canyon as of May 2021:
Zion Canyon Visitor Centre (Stop #1; this is where you’ll first board the bus)
Zion Lodge (Stop #5)
The Grotto (Stop #6; Angel’s Landing trailhead)
Big Bend (Stop #8)
Temple of Sinawava (Stop #9; The Narrow trailhead)
From any of these stops, you can either catch a shuttle back to the Visitor Centre (Main Shuttle Route) or onwards to other stops (Circulator Shuttle Route; in order: Stop 5, 6, 9 & 8)
Other things to note about the Zion shuttle:
You can hop off at as many shuttle stops within Zion Canyon as you’d like, but you’re only able to depart (and return to) the Visitor Centre once per ticket— pack everything you’ll need for the entire day, because once you come back down the canyon, you’ll need a new ticket to get back on the shuttle.
Make sure to take note of the time that the last shuttle returns to the Visitor Centre (usually around 6pm) and then catch the shuttle BEFORE this! It’s incredibly common for the last shuttle to completely fill with tired hikers and then you’ll find quickly yourself walking the length of Zion Canyon (8mi, if you’re coming from the Temple of Sinawava) all the way back to your accommodation in the dark.
Make sure to pick up a free map when you come through the entrance, as there is no mobile reception within the park! Most viewpoints and hikes are extremely well signed, but it helps to have a paper map to plan your visit. If you miss grabbing a map (outside of staffed hours; typically 8am-5pm) or prefer to use your phone, there’s a downloadable version of the NPS map available here and I’ve also marked all my recommended stops on a handy Google Map (which you can save to your phone) in the itinerary section below.
Alternatives to the Zion Shuttle
When I visited the park in May 2021, the shuttle bus tickets were selling out within several minutes of becoming available, due to enormous crowds but also unscrupulous scalpers buying tickets in bulk and reselling at $15-30.
There are so many stories of people paying for these overpriced tickets and then never receiving anything, or being denied entry because the name on the ticket doesn’t match their ID— don’t be caught in a scam and miss out on Zion as a result!
If you CAN’T get shuttle tickets (which is a very real possibility), your best bet is to either:
Book a private shuttle through the park: Several private companies, including Red Rock Shuttle, operates through Zion Canyon. Tickets are $40/person and you need to provide a drop-off and pick-up time, which means sacrificing flexibility, so this is not my preferred alternative.
Hire a bike in Springdale & ride through the park: There are several bike rental shops just outside the South Entrance (Zion Outfitter is the closest, mere feet from the Visitor Centre) where you can grab bikes ($39/day) and cruise along the Scenic Drive. Although not any cheaper than a private shuttle, this is far and away the better option, since you won’t have to reserve specific times and you can completely avoid queues! We LOVED biking through Zion and actually enjoyed it so much more than the shuttle, since you can really appreciate the view through the Canyon and move at your own pace.
Where to stay near Zion National Park
If you’re hoping to stay overnight either before or after your day in Zion National Park, there are heaps of accomodation options available both inside and outside the park, ranging from backcountry camping to comfortable hotels.
In terms of hotels, I’d recommend either Kanab, which is just 30min away from the east entrance and has a great selection of inexpensive options, orSpringdale, which is directly outside the south entrance of the park but priced higher.
Roadway Inn Kanab | This is a very basic motel in Kanab with pretty outdated facilities, but it’s clean, cheap, and within 30min of the east entrance, making it an excellent choice if you don’t have camping gear and still want to save money; double rooms from $45USD.
Zion Park Motel | A reasonably priced option in Springdale, within easy walking distance of the south entrance and Zion Visitor Centre (if you don’t have an annual pass already, it’s only $20 for a 7-day pass when you enter as a pedestrian!); double rooms from $100USD.
Zion Lodge | If you’re up for an enormous splurge, Zion Lodge is actually located within the national park at shuttle stop #5 (the first stop after the Visitor Centre on the modified COVID shuttle schedule, although you’re also permitted to drive here) and is incredibly beautiful! Rooms start at $220USD.
If you’re up for it, though, camping is SUCH a cool way to experience Zion, either inside or just outside the park. Options range from established sites within the park to free boondocking nearby with absolutely zero facilities.
There are 3 established campgrounds within ZionNational Park, but South & Watchman are the most compatible with this itinerary (Lava Point isn’t within Zion Canyon, so it’s a long drive). Both camps are $20/night for a tent site.
Watchman Campground can be reserved online up to 6 months in advance, but quickly books out for every single night of the reservation season (March to November), so you’ll want to be on the ball to score a site at this insanely scenic spot!
South Campgroundisn’t as nice, since you’ll have to walk to Watchman to use the bathroom or access hiking trails, but reservations are only possible up to 2 weeks in advance, so sites do tends to remain available longer.
Backcountry camping is possible within the park, but you’ll need to reserve a Wilderness Permit in advance or try your luck at one of the limited first-come, first-serve permits available from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center Wilderness Desk the day prior to your intended trip. This is a fantastic way to explore lesser-seen corners of the national park!
You can also camp for free within Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas and Forest Service Land surrounding the park. There are absolutely zero facilities, so you’ll either need to have a good backcountry camping setup or a self-contained van/camper, but this is an awesome way to get away from the bustle of crowded campsites and enjoy nature. For this itinerary, Lambs Knoll or Kolob Terrace will work best (see the Google Map below for exact location). Always make sure to pack it in/pack it out to keep these public lands free of rubbish and preserved for future campers!
Packing list for Zion National Park
Although this is not intended to be a fully comprehensive packing list, here are some absolute essentials to pack for your day exploring Zion National Park:
Water bottle | Plan to carry a couple of litres in the car and on longer hikes, as there is no water available in the park and it can get HOT; this is an awesome bottle with a built-in filter
Snacks | To maximise time exploring, you need to pack food for snacks and lunch, as there is nothing available inside the park; if you plan to picnic, it can also be great to bring compact camping chairs like these awesome REI Flexlite Camp Chairs and a small table
Camera (+ tripod if you’re trying to capture sunrise and sunset shots)
Emergency communication | As there is extremely limited reception in Zion, it’s always a good idea to carry a PLB or other emergency beacon/sat phone for off-trail adventures; I love my Garmin In-Reach Mini
Hat | I wore my Akubra Traveller through all of the national park and loved the sun coverage (not to mention all the compliments!); this is an Australian-made hat, but you can find it online at select retailers in the US and it is SO worth the money
Boots or sturdy walking shoes | You can explore most of Zion in sturdy walking or hiking shoes, but I personally prefer boots and did most of the activities on this itinerary in my square-toe 1306 Blundstones (also from Australia, but available in limited styles online in the US)
Layers! | In autumn, spring, or winter, it is absolutely essential to have lots of layers, as temperatures can vary widely from early morning to mid afternoon; I always pack a down jacket, mountain jacket, fleece jumper just to be safe!
*1-day Zion National Park itinerary
Over the course of my travels, I’ve encountered plenty of amazing places that can easily be experienced in a couple days and effectively checked off your bucket list— you’ve seen all the major draws, even explored off the beaten path, and now it’s on to the next adventure. Zion National Park is NOT one of these places.
Even as I write this 1-day itinerary, know that it’s no where NEAR enough time to appreciate Zion in all its infinite beauty and complexity. For those who truly only have a single day, this is as good a taste as you can hope to get, but you’ll have to miss some real highlights and, ultimately, I can’t stress enough just how worthwhile it is to have more time in Zion National Park.
In an effort to showcase as much variety as possible within the constraints of a single day, I’ve made some tough choices for you, cutting out things that are undeniably incredible but that simply don’t fit alongside all the other activities on this itinerary (like Angel’s Landing, sadly).
If you DO have more time, I highly recommend checking out some of my other Zion guides for the best hikes and other unique experiences, like canyoneering and climbing.
Following this itinerary, you’ll begin your day near the Visitor Centre with a leisurely stroll to the Watchman and along the Pa’rus Trail, then catch the shuttle (or ride a bike) to The Narrows for the park’s most unique hike before driving the scenic Zion-Mt Carmel Highway out the east entrance. Finally, you’ll experience the BEST view over Zion Canyon from Observation Point, a spectacular end to what is hopefully just the beginning of your time in Zion!
Although short and less popular than many other hikes in Zion National Park, 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 one of my favourite activities for those short on time!
Another benefit of beginning your day in Zion at the Watchman is scoring an early morning parking spot at the Visitor Centre, which can often fill by 730am! This will be your home base for the first half of the itinerary, as it’s also the departure point for shuttles into Zion Canyon.
2 | Pa’rus Trail
3.4mi / 5.5km return | negligible elevation gain | 1hr
As you approach the Watchman Trail from the Visitor Centre, you’ll also see signs indicating the Pa’rus Trail, which is an incredibly flat, paved walkway popular among cyclists but equally pleasant for a short hike.
If time allows, you can explore the entirety of this short trail, taking in the many bridges overlooking the Virgin River and its verdant foliage, but even a short stroll along the first section is incredibly worthwhile to get an appreciation for the lush, beautiful canyon.
3 | The Grotto
Returning from the Watchman and Pa’rus trails to the Zion Canyon Visitor Centre, board one of the park shuttles to travel farther up the canyon— this section of the park is closed to private vehicles most of the year, so your only other option is to bike, which can be incredibly fun but usually more time consuming.
One of my favourite quick stops within Zion Canyon is The Grotto (shuttle stop #6), which also provides access to Angel’s Landing (sadly excluded from this itinerary due to time; read this post for more info). Even without continuing all the way to the trailhead, though, this is some of the most incredible riverside scenery in the entire park, particularly during spring or autumn when wildflowers or yellow leaves crowd the banks.
Take a little time to stroll along the waterfront, stopping to photograph the red canyon walls that contrast wildly against the blue of the river and the green of abundant surrounding plantlife.
4 | The Narrows
15.1km / 9.4mi return | negligible elevation gain |4-6hrs
After enjoying your fill of peaceful riverside beauty at The Grotto, hop back on the shuttle and continue all the way to the end of Zion Canyon for a completely different perspective on the mighty Virgin River.
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.
After finally getting into the river this spring, The Narrows quickly rose to be one of my favourite Zion experiences— it requires more focus on footwork than a normal hike (as evidenced by emergency teams carting out hikers with broken legs or sprained ankles nearly every day of the year), but the reward is worth all the effort.
On that note, I’d highly 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.
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 the route crosses into the water and the true adventure begins.
Once in the river, 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.
This took us about 4.5hrs, and that’s at my slow pace, so those with stronger ankles may find themselves well into the canyon before it’s time to turn back. No matter how far you explore, this is sure to be a MAJOR highlight of your time in Zion!
5 | Zion-Mt Carmel Highway
After an incredible adventure in The Narrows, catch a ride on the shuttle all the way back to the Visitor Centre, where you’ll hop in your car and continue towards the east end of the park.
Aside from the beautiful landscape, the scenic drive along Zion-Mt Carmel Highway is an awesome place to explore at your own pace, since there are heaps of roadside pullouts and private cars are permitted year-round.
The road itself climbs via steep switchbacks to the top of the canyon, passes through a rock tunnel, and finally shoots you out the east entrance, all the while offering incredible views and showcasing unique geology— some of my favourite stops are highlighted below.
6 | Canyon Junction Bridge
As you make your way out towards Zion-Mt Carmel Highway, one of the first noteworthy viewpoints is Canyon Junction Bridge overlooking a particularly scenic section of the Virgin River.
Parking is extremely limited, but it’s worth trying to hop out and walk along the bridge for a few minutes, your final glimpse of the river before you drive 800ft to the top of the canyon.
7 | The Great Arch
Continuing along Zion-Mt Carmel Highway, the road also winds by The Great Arch, an impressive natural rock arch eroded into the side of the canyon wall. Several small roadside pullouts offer quick access to the viewpoint, just before the tunnel.
8 | Checkerboard Mesa
After passing through the tunnel and nearing the east entrance of the park, you’ll soon spot Checkerboard Mesa, an appropriately named rock formation sporting colourful hatched striations.
It’s one of the more intriguing geological wonders on this side of Zion and an awesome place to hop out of your car and scrabble around— we even saw a group of desert big horn descending the steep rock and got some seriously cool photos of their gravity-defying climb!
9 | Observation Point via East Mesa trail
10.8km /6.7 mi return | 212m / 696ft elevation gain |2.5hrs
Saving the best overlook for last and wrapping up your day in Zion with a real bang, continue just outside the park to access the breathtaking Observation Point, from which you can look down on the entirety of Zion Canyon, Angel’s Landing, Zion’s many impressive peaks, and even peer around into the Narrows. In terms of work/reward, it doesn’t get any better than this!
In fact, Observation Point is the entire reason I’d recommend skipping Angel’s Landing and instead hiking the Narrows if you only have a single day— you can get an even better view from Observation Point with only a fraction of the time commitment, freeing up time for heaps of other amazing and more diverse experiences within Zion National Park.
Traditionally, Observation Point is reached via the East Rim trail, ascending a fairly sweaty 655m / 2148ft over 4mi (each way) to the viewpoint— however, a serious rockfall has closed this trail indefinitely, and therefore your primary option for accessing Observation Point is via the much easier East Mesa Trail, just outside the park boundary.
The trail is well-graded, all ascents/descents are pleasantly undulating, and before you know it you’re on the edge of a rock overlooking every major landmark you just explored within the main section of the park. It’s quite a view to end your first day in Zion, but hopefully not the true conclusion!