8 Must-See Zion National Park Experiences For Beginners

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Utah’s first national park, Zion National Park, was established in 1919 and is today the most visited park in the state. The park’s main road, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, opened in 1932. Summers are traditionally the busiest time of the year in Zion, but spring and fall are very popular times to visit as the people are trying to beat the heat. Summers in Zion can regularly reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If you really want to avoid the crowds, winter can also be a great time to go. No matter when you go, you will see spectacular natural beauty and there will be plenty of opportunities to spend time in the great outdoors and experience nature at its best.

1. Ride the Zion Shuttle System

A shuttle system runs throughout Zion National Park. There are nine stops, starting at the Visitor Center, and the last stop is at Sinawava Temple. The free shuttle also stops on all popular intermediate trails. Except during certain times in December, the shuttle is the only way to explore the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Private vehicles are not allowed when the shuttle is operating, i.e. most of the year, except December. The shuttle is wheelchair accessible and has room for backpacks, bikes, and climbing gear, so there should be plenty of room for all of your gear. Masks are mandatory in the shuttle.

2. Sion – Mount Carmel Tunnel

We headed to Zion from Bryce Canyon and entered the park from the east. As we took the Zion Mount Carmel Freeway and approached the park, we were blown away by the breathtaking scenery. We were also very surprised with the Zion Mount Carmel tunnel. I read it was a mile long and a very narrow tunnel, but actually going through the tunnel was something else! It was originally built to allow direct access to Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon from Zion National Park. The trail was built from the 1920s when the cars were much smaller and there weren’t as many large campers. Because the tunnel is so narrow, there are vehicle size restrictions in place today. If your vehicle is taller or wider than the limitations, you will need to use traffic control in the tunnel. With traffic control, the park rangers will stop oncoming traffic in the tunnel so that you can descend to the center of the road in the tunnel. There is a charge for using traffic control, but it’s less than $ 20 per vehicle and allows you two trips through the tunnel in 7 days. In addition, the tunnel closes between 4.30 p.m. and 7 p.m. depending on the season. If you arrive after opening hours, you will need to come back at 8 am the next morning to go through the tunnel or take an alternate route around the park.

SJ Morgensen

3. The town of Springdale, Utah

Unless you’re staying in the park at Zion National Park Lodge, there’s no more convenient place to stay near Zion than Springdale. The town of Springdale is located on the southern border of Zion and has all the amenities you will need for your trip. We stayed at one of the many hotels that line Zion Park Blvd and our stay could not have been better. We were literally in the shadow of Zion and it was amazing to sit in front of the fireplace and gaze at the beautiful red rocks. In addition to the many hotels, there are many restaurants in town, so you are covered in the event of a hunger strike. There is also a good selection of specialty shops and outfitters in case you forgot to bring your hiking gear. The local grocery store, Sol Foods, is a great place to stock up on essentials. Check out the charcuterie at the back for homemade soups and salads. The toasted bagel I had with my chicken curry salad was exceptional. I know a bagel is a bagel, but this one is really awesome!

4. Use the Springdale shuttle system

Springdale also operates a shuttle system that operates from spring to fall. The Springdale shuttle system takes visitors from the town of Springdale to Zion National Park. This is really great because taking the shuttle will allow you to leave your car in your hotel parking lot and not have to fight traffic in Zion. Zion’s parking lot fills up quickly, so you have to arrive very early to get a parking space. Save yourself headaches and help avoid traffic jams in the park, just take the shuttle. The shuttle route has nine stops in Springdale and runs from early morning until late at night.

5. Oscar Café in Springdale

After a day at the park, you will be hungry. For exceptional cuisine, check out Oscar’s Cafe. This local gem is fantastic. We asked the girl at the front desk for a recommendation for a good local place for dinner. She said Oscar is the place to go and highly recommended their burgers. In my mind, one of the best things about traveling is discovering great local restaurants and bars. I always eat local because it’s usually so good and I always love supporting small local businesses. I didn’t have a burger, but Oscar served us one of the best meals on our trip. This is a casual restaurant with a heated outdoor patio and a small indoor space. The place was packed with hikers and park visitors, but even with the laid back vibe the kitchen produced top notch and elevated food. Menu selections range from burgers and salads to Mexican dishes. I went with the salmon with a maple glaze that was served on a bed of rice, with a poblano pepper stuffed with cheddar mashed potatoes. But wait, there is more! My starter was also accompanied by well-seasoned black beans and a side dish of corn, cilantro, onions and red peppers. The guacamole that came with our fries was really fresh and tasted homemade, just like the fries. We were there out of season so we were able to walk in directly without a reservation. If you are going during peak season I would call ahead to see if you can reserve a table. I think you will like it!

Emerald Pool Falls on the Emerald Pool Trail in Zion National Park.
Emerald Pool Falls (Photo credit: SJ Morgensen)

6. Cool trails for all levels of experience

Although I am not an experienced hiker, I do enjoy hiking the trails. There is nothing better than fresh air and exercise in a breathtaking landscape. And that’s exactly what you can experience in Zion, regardless of your hiking experience. We had a blast hiking several trails in Sion. My favorites were the Middle and Upper Emerald Pool trails. Both are 1.5-3 miles round trip and took us less than 2 hours. Both are classified as “moderate” trails by the National Park Service, which means they are moderately difficult. I agree and the difficulty for me was mainly the elevation changes. There are also rocky steps and wet terrain from the waterfalls so all trails can be difficult at times. We had fun hiking and the scenery was amazing. You just can’t see the same views without walking through the rocks. If you want a paved trail, the Pa-rus trail is a popular paved trail that is handicap accessible and even allows dogs!

7. Extreme hiking adventures

I’ve learned that real hikers have Zion National Park on their list for two specific reasons: Angel’s Landing and The Narrows. If you’re not familiar, these two hikes are the most important for legitimate hikers in the United States. Angel’s Landing is considered one of the most dangerous hikes in the country. The Narrows is another iconic and dangerous hike that all true hikers have on their radar. The thing with The Narrows isn’t the height but the flash floods that can happen in the blink of an eye. If a tough hike through parts of the Virgin River sounds like fun, then you might like The Narrows hike.

Bryce Canyon National Park in winter.
ASGARALY LOULOUA / Shutterstock.com

8. Drive to Bryce Canyon

You might not know that another of Utah’s spectacular national parks, Bryce Canyon National Park, is only about 90 minutes from Zion. You can access Bryce Canyon through the east entrance to Zion National Park on US-89. You’ll walk through Zion’s Mount Carmel Tunnel, which is a mile long, and reach Bryce Canyon in about an hour and a half if you don’t stop. Since the parks are only about 80 miles apart, many people visit both parks in one trip. This is what we did and I recommend it. The drive between the two parks is something not to be missed. And you really shouldn’t miss either park if you’re in the area as they are both incredibly beautiful, but very different. That said, everyone we spoke to said to take time for both in your itinerary, but don’t drive in between after dark. Many have told us that it is definitely better not to drive after dark in the area, period. The roads are very dark and it is very common for wildlife to meander on the roads at night. It is therefore preferable to stay after dark and hit the road early in the morning.

For more activities in SionUtah’s home state at this time of year, consider:


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