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Zion National Park in One Day

Zion Valley - Kayenta Trail

Zion National Park was our last stop on the Utah Mighty 5 Road Trip and it was a perfect way to close out our Utah Mighty 5 National Park adventure. Zion is arguably one of the most popular parks in Utah and one of the better-known National Parks in the entire United States.  

One day at Zion National Park will suffice most people’s outdoor desires while offering time to do some amazing hikes that are accessible to people of all fitness levels. Not only will you be able to see most areas of Zion you will have enough time to complete a mesmerizing scenic drive and check out the main hub for the park, the city of Springdale Utah.  

Zion national Park Entrance Sign

Driving, Parking and Shuttles in Zion National Park  

Driving

You have a few options when driving into Zion National Park and they mostly depend on where you are staying during your Utah trip. If you are following our Mighty 5 Itinerary and staying in Glendale then you are coming through the eastern park entrance. The other main option to enter Zion is if you are coming from Springdale, the main tourist hub for Zion.  

It’s important to know where you are driving into the park from, because depending on the entrance you come from, you must account for time to certain parking lots and trailheads. On a good day it will take around 30 minutes from the East Zion Entrance to the Zion Visitor Center.  

This is really important to know when planning your day itinerary since if you plan your trip during a ticket shuttle period you need to make sure you can make your shuttle time.  

Parking  

The parking situation at Zion National Park might not be horrible but can turn quite hectic if you do not plan ahead. The main section of parking at Zion is located at the visitor center area and during peak season can fill up by 8am.  

If you arrive later in the day and cannot find a spot inside of park at the Visitor Center, then you will need to make the quick drive to Springdale which is the main town and hub for Zion. This only pertains to the shuttle season, since when shuttles are not in service, you’re able to drive straight to most trailheads.  

The town of Springdale offers plenty of public parking options that are part of the Zion Shuttle System and will get you right into the park for free as part of your day pass or Annual National Park Pass.  

Shuttle System 

Like many other very popular National Parks in the U.S. Zion National Park offers a shuttle system. The Zion shuttle system can transport you not just from the main town hub of Springdale into the park but also to most of the trailheads across the park.  

Unlike a lot of National Parks in the U.S. though, Zion requires you to use the shuttle system to see most trails during peak travel season. During normal times the shuttle system ran on a first come-first serve basis, but during COVID-19 times the shuttle system runs on a time slot reservation in order to limit capacity. It is crucial to check the Zion National Park website for the most up to date information on shuttle services.  

If you do arrive at the park during the off season and shuttles are not required, parking is still extremely limited at most trailheads.  

A fun option if you do visit Zion during peak season and want to avoid the shuttle system you are able to ride a bicycle into the lower canyon which bypasses the shuttle requirement. You are able to rent bicycles at Springdale and some rental facilities even have e-bikes that will make the trek easier.  

Lastly, you do have the option of staying at the Zion Lodge which does allow your car to enter into the lower canyon. This is a decent option if you are trying to get into some trails like Angels Landing before anyone else since you do not need to wait for the shuttles to start running.  

One Day itinerary

  • Zion National Park Visitor Center 
  • Shuttle to Zion Lodge 
  • Angels Landing Trail – 4-5 hours 
  • Emerald Pools Trail (Lower, Middle, Upper) & Kayenta Trail – 2-3 hours 
  • Shuttle to Temple of Sinawava  
  • Riverside Walk Trail 
  • The Narrows Trail & Required Specialized Gear 
  • Drive to Canyon Overlook Trail (sunset) 

Zion National Park Visitor Center 

We always start our National Park hikes at the Visitor Center to check in with the rangers, make sure the hikes we want to do that day are accessible and of course check out the gift shop! 

The most important reason for checking in at the visitor center with the park rangers is to check trail conditions as well as any surprise warnings that could change your plans and the trails you take. Depending on the time of year, some roads might be closed due to snow, some trails could have been washed away due to rainfall or construction could have shut down certain parts of the park. Rangers will always have the most up to date information and if you are lucky might have tips to make the most out of your day at the park! 

During our talk with the rangers, we got an update on a few closed trails at the park such as the Weeping Rock trail being shut down for some time now due to a rock fall. Luckily, we knew this ahead of time because we always check National Park websites beforehand, but you never know what else could have changed overnight! 

One big thing that was brought to our attention during our chat with the rangers was that Angels Landing, one of the hikes we looked forward to, would be highly unlikely. There is a fine line between a ranger letting you know not to do a trail and encouraging you not to do a trail. Our ranger informed us that while the trail wasn’t officially closed it was extremely icy and not in the best conditions. We are big proponents of “there will always be another day” and there is no need to risk your life for a trail that you can always come to later.  

Lastly, we always recommend to use the restrooms at visitor centers, since you will most likely only run into pit toilets elsewhere in the park. At Zion, like many parks in Utah, during the winter season a lot of toilets at smaller trailheads might be closed completely due to maintenance.  

Rule of thumb in our book is when you find a good toilet use it like it might be your last! 

Shuttle to Zion Lodge 

We started our morning by grabbing the first shuttle we could to the Zion Lodge where we would start our hikes for the day. Zion Lodge on the shuttle route is a great place to start at since it offers restrooms and food options.   

Angels Landing Trail 

There is no doubt that Angel’s Landing is the most popular hike at Zion National Park and offers some of the most known views of the canyon. Unfortunately, due to the ice and snow that Utah had been getting during our visit we chose not to risk the hike.  

If the weather is good during your visit, then Angels Landing is a must do trail. It is a strenuous hike, so it does require a high level of physical fitness.  If there is one hike that encompasses what Zion is and what beauty resides inside this park then Angels Landing will deliver that.  

The hike will take the majority of your day depending on how fast and strong you are, so plan ahead to make sure that this might be the only hike you complete since your legs might be shot once you are done. 

This hike takes 4 to 5 hours to complete round trip, but that time frame could get drastically higher during peak season since Angels Landing is also quite famous for traffic lines the last half mile to the summit due to how tight the trail path is.  

Emerald Pools Trail (Lower, Middle, Upper) & Kayenta Trail 

Our first hike during our one-day visit to Zion was Emerald Pools Trail and Kayenta Trail which is our top recommendation for anyone visiting Zion National Park.  

We decided to join two trails together and create a great one-way trail that would offer us some amazing sights, challenging hikes but also be efficient in time.  

The entire trail we planned took us along 2.5 miles by starting at the Zion Lodge trailhead and finishing at The Grotto Trailhead to catch the shuttle for our next hikes.   

We highly recommend this loop for people who might not have a ton of hiking experience but still want to see some unique areas of Zion. The loop we created is a pretty popular route due to its time efficiency and accessibility. 

The Emerald Pools Trail will lead you from the Zion Lodge up a relatively well paved and compact dirt trail that stops at three separate pools/waterfalls. Each pool offers something different but we believe the first pool offers the best waterfall picture and awe-inspiring views. The second pool and waterfall area are honestly just part of the route and it isn’t until the upper pool and last waterfall that you get to enjoy the beauty of Zion.  

The upper pool of Emerald Pool Trail is the perfect spot for a mid-hike picnic to regain your energy for the hike down. A funny story of the Upper Emerald Pool was that we started a time lapse video with our DJI Pocket 2 and actually started hiking back down only to realize after about a mile that we had left the camera at the Upper Pool!!! To say it lightly it was one fast sprint to the top again since we were so worried someone could have taken it, but we got lucky! In a turn of events some of the people who picked our picnic spot were making jokes on when we would return for it, and several people on the walk back recognized us and were curious why we accepted the challenge a second time. 

Once you are ready to head back down you will follow most of the same path you followed to the Upper Pool but you will find a sign that says The Grotto which is the picnic area and shuttle stop at the end of the Kayenta Trail.  

The trail down to The Grotto is relatively simple with some minor stone staircases but once you pass them, the last half mile is relatively flat and downhill.  

We are big fans of doing this loop since it knocks out so many great areas of Zion and is time efficient for those of us who only have one day at the park! 

Shuttle to Temple of Sinawava 

Once you arrive at The Grotto after finishing the Kayenta Trail you will be ready to jump on the shuttle again and take it all the way to the end, to the Temple of Sinawava. This will be the starting point for the second most popular hike at Zion, The Narrows and the shorter hike that follows The Virgin River and finishes at the start of The Narrows hike.  

The Riverwalk Hike 

The Riverwalk Hike is a quick 1.9 mile out and back trail that follows The Virgin River and offers some amazing views of the hanging gardens and weeping walls around. The trail is very family friendly and is relatively flat and paved the entire way, meaning almost anyone should be able to tackle it.  

If you are looking for a simple hike to do with kids or anyone not in great hiking shape then this is the trail for you! 

The Narrows  

If you are looking for adventure and one of the most unique hikes in the entire National Park system, then The Narrows is the hike for you! 

You will need to complete the Riverwalk Hike to arrive at the entrance of The Narrows but before you get excited make sure you are prepped and geared up for the hike.  

The Narrows is extremely unique in that you will actually be hiking inside The Virgin River so get ready to get wet!  

Now that you know what you will be getting into, it is time to make sure you have the correct gear to get you there and back safely. While you are definitely able to go purchase all these items on your own, we highly recommend for you to head to a local retailer and rent them for the day. Unless you are truly canyoneering in ice cold water regularly it makes no sense to buy this type of gear.  

The town of Springdale which acts as the main hub of activity outside of the Zion west entrance has plenty of retail stores offering rental equipment for all seasons. We have only had hand on experience with Zion Outfitter but there are quite a few options when it comes to renting gear in Springdale.  

There is no specific mileage for the trail and if you are worried about hiking in a river, we highly recommend you to at least go up a half mile or so and if it is too much then turn back. But the fun thing about this hike is going farther down the canyon as the walls close in on you and the water gets deeper it truly turns into another world.  

Drive to Canyon Overlook Trail 

The last hike for the day and one of our favorite sunset hikes in the park since it is so accessible is the Canyon Overlook Trail. This is one of the few spots in the park that opens up to the lower canyon without requiring a lot of work. The trail in total is around 1 mile round-trip without any real elevation gain meaning it is family friendly.  

Zion National Park Canyon

One word of warning for everyone wanting to make this your sunset hike… you are not alone and everyone else also wants to do this as their sunset hike.  

Plan ahead and head to the trail earlier than you think you need to in order to find a parking spot in the very small lot area. The trailhead is located on the way back out to the East Entrance of the park and will be on the way home if you are staying in Glendale like we did during our last trip.  

While there is a small parking lot at the trailhead that will 99.99% likely be full and you will need to find parking along the main scenic road, so start keeping an eye out before you get to the lot since it is quite hard to turn around once you pass the trailhead.  

Zion Scenic Drive 

While hiking in Zion might not be everyone’s cup of tea especially if you have small children or elderly travelers, you still have an amazing opportunity to see the beauty of Zion.  

The Zion Canyon Scenic Byway 9 that takes you from the Visitor Center to Mt. Carmel in the east entrance is hard to beat. This route offers everything you want to see in Zion from the comfort of your car. The stretch of highway will take you through approximately 26 miles of twist and turns through some of the most amazing scenery in Zion and in Southern Utah. We keep saying this in every post about Utah, but it honestly is just breathtaking views everywhere you look! 

If you do not have a lot of time to hike, take the time and do the scenic drive even if it is a bit out of your way. Not only will the views be amazing but you get to drive through a 1.1-mile tunnel that was built in the 1920’s and is a pretty unique experience! 

One downside to the tunnel being so old is that it isn’t the widest tunnel so to accommodate modern RV’s and tour company buses. Because of this, there will almost always be a backup at each end of the tunnel while larger vehicles drive down the center of the tunnel. If you have a RV, check out the Zion National Park website to make sure you do not have to pay more to drive through the tunnel and that you arrive at the appropriate times.  

This is also the route you will take from the Visitor Center parking to head over to the Canyon overlook Trail for your sunset hike. Meaning it might be the last drive you do in the park if you are spending the night in Glendale outside of the east entrance. We say this to make sure you grab a meal at Springdale or have food at your destination since when you exit the park there are very limited options for food.  

Springdale City (Brewery, Dining, Shopping) 

We actually stopped in Springdale before heading for the sunset hike at Canyon Overlook Trail which would be your main hub of getting food, brews and any other items you need.  

Springdale is the main town outside of the west entrance of Zion National Park and is a very well-developed area. You will be able to find everything you need while visiting Zion at Springdale, including a great brewery, gear rental companies and a supermarket! If you are not going to Bryce as we did on our Mighty 5 Road Trip and just visiting Zion then staying in Springdale might be a much better option.  

Zion National Park, is probably one of the more popular National Parks in Utah and one you should definitely not miss out on. We think there are better parks to visit during your Mighty 5 Road Trip but with easy access, built out nearby town and plenty of accessible trails it is hard to skip out on Zion. We loved our time at Zion and think it offers some very unique views and breathtaking scenery. It is hard to argue that The Narrows and Angels Landing offer some of the most unique hikes in the state if not the entire Southwest United States.  

If you are looking for two amazingly unique hikes to do in Utah then Angels Landing and The Narrows will tick those boxes. If you are not up to that challenge we cannot recommend the other hikes from Emerald Pools to Canyon Overlook enough. Zion has so much to offer and you will be able to see what the hype is about from almost all trails.

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14 Responses

  1. Zion is my number one must see national park, it just looks so amazing. Great to know about the parking situation, maybe I’ll have to plan a slightly out of season trip. But whatever happens I think Springdale is a great choice for a base – you had me at brewery!!

    1. The local brewery at Springdale is freaking awesome! We cant recommend it enough but definitely also encourage people to go in the off season since it is slightly too crowded during the summer months and just not as enjoyable.

  2. This national park looks and sounds amazing, and love that Springdale is a great home base to explore the area from. Glad to hear there are a variety of hikes to choose from. I can imagine that sunset and sunrise hikes are popular, too bad you couldn’t have it all to yourself.

    1. Springdale is an awesome spot to explore Zion from! The hikes are amazing but even with people we enjoyed every minute!

  3. Wow, what an epic day! So impressed you fit in so much. I love that there’s a shuttle bus option – that is so handy! And thank goodness no one took your camera. I would’ve been so upset having to turn around for it!

    1. We where so afraid we lost our camera! But not the worse experience to hike back a beautiful area for those views!

  4. So many people are writing about Zion National Park – it seems to be going through a renaissance at the moment. Yours is the best one I’ve seen written on it and your attention to giving exact details is impressive. I defo feel I could just use this guide to get the most out of a visit there.
    The long drive sounds great as I would hire a car for this area of the parks and try a few smaller hikes. Thanks for the info

    1. It truly is going through a new era and I think lack of international travel is making people explore their own backyard!

      We love Zion and cannot recommend it enough.

  5. Great tip about checking in with the park rangers especially for an inexperienced hiker (like me)!

    Lovely picture of you both at the top.

    My heart leapt when I read that you’d left your camera but glad you got it back!

    1. Checking with Park Rangers is almost a necessity! We definitely freaked out when we left the camera LOL

  6. I just went to Utah on a solo trip a couple of weeks ago and went to Zion park! However, I was driving from SLC, so by the time I got to the park there was no parking in the visitors center or the town. Couldn’t get a paid shuttle ticket or get the chance to get on a free shuttle because I had nowhere to park the car. However, I drove through the park, stopped at multiple pull off points and did some exploration that way. Next time, I’ll make it to the trails for some epic views. But I enjoyed reading your post and experience on the park.

    1. Darn that’s always the worse! We always try and let people know to check the park website especially for things like shuttle tickets that sell out so fast. Hoping you get to visit again soon!

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