Imposing yet fragile, spectacular and delicate, straightforward but also surprising, it’s impossible to visit Zion National Park and not be awe-struck.
The cliffs of Zion Canyon rise up monumentally alongside the meandering, gem-blue Virgin River, while cottonwood trees’ leaves rustle in the gentle breeze. This landscape might seem calm, peaceful and never-changing, but it’s not.
When thunderstorms roll in and lightning flashes above the canyon, surprise flash floods sweep through slot canyons and waterfalls appear out of nowhere from previously bone-dry cliffs. A swollen Virgin River rips loose tree trunks and displaces boulders, a powerful force that continues to change the appearance of Zion Canyon. In fact, Zion Canyon itself is the creation of this seemingly calm river. Everything alive in Zion National Park relies in some way or the other on the life-giving waters of the Virgin River, from the tough vegetation on the sheer canyon walls created by eons of erosion to the park’s famed hanging gardens and its abundance of wildlife.
Even people found livelihood in this unforgiving landscape because of the river’s endless, if sometimes scarce, flow of clear water.
The first people who lived in Zion Canyon, thousands of years ago, hunted camels and mammoths in sheltered canyons and open desert. Those large animals eventually went extinct due to climate change, overhunting and diseases, but people, as they do, adapted. They developed agricultural practices and settled down in Zion Canyon. These were the Ancestral Puebloans, a group of Native Americans that occupied much of the Colorado Plateau, from the Grand Canyon to Utah and Arizona to their wonderful cliffs dwellings at Mesa Verde. After thriving in the region for centuries, they did eventually move on for various reasons, including decreasing natural resources and droughts.
A completely different group of people moved into the region in the mid-19th century—European settlers and pioneers. The first settlers to enter what is now Zion National Park were Mormon pioneers. They stuck around, building small villages on river banks, facing and dealing with destructive flash floods and occasional drought spells. Moreover, they were the people who gave many landmarks in Zion National Park their modern names, including the name “Zion” itself but also places such as the Court of the Patriarchs and Kolob Canyons.
Zion National Park, established in 1919, is now one of the most-visited national parks in America. It attracts more than four million people each year, tourists and adventurers looking to explore some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes.
The park is a superb place for outdoor activities, from hiking and river trekking to canyoneering and rock climbing.
Adrenaline junkies will find sanctuary—”Zion” is a biblical term for a place of refuge—at various places in the park, while more low-key attractions like hanging gardens, weeping rocks and shimmering ponds are popular spots among families and day visitors.
Best of Zion National Park
There’s plenty to see and do in Zion National Park, the most popular of the five epic national parks in Utah. The amazing Zion-Mt Carmel Highway is your way into the park, snaking its way through the park’s southern section. To get to Zion Canyon’s attractions, however, you most likely need to hop on the free Zion Canyon Shuttle. (Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is only open to private vehicles in the low season.)
Zion Canyon is the star attraction and centerpiece of Zion National Park. If you’re after more solitude and off-the-beaten-path experiences, consider visiting Kolob Canyons in the remote northern part of the park. On this page, however, we’ll focus on Zion Canyon. For more information about the Kolob Canyons section, you can visit this webpage.
Major Zion Canyon Attractions
Zion Canyon is filled with imposing rock formations, canyons, natural gardens and world-class hiking trails. These are my personal favorites.
- The Watchman
- Emerald Pools
- Weeping Rock
- Angels Landing
- Echo Canyon
- Observation Point
- The Narrows
Best Hikes in Zion National Park
Numerous trails crisscross Zion National Park, from easy strolls on paved walkways to challenging ascents of towering cliffs. I recommend the following hikes in Zion Canyon.
- Observation Point Trail — 8 miles (12.9 kilometers), strenuous 4-to-6-hour hike to the best viewpoint in Zion Canyon, also including gorgeous Echo Canyon
- Angels Landing — 5.4 miles (8.7 kilometers), strenuous 3-to-5-hour ascent of the park’s most popular rock formation
- Pa’rus Trail — 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers), easy walk on a paved trail along the beautiful Virgin River and through Zion Canyon
- Watchman Trail — 3.3 miles (5.3 kilometers), moderate 2-hour hike to a lookout point at the base of the Watchman, excellent for sunsets
- Hidden Canyon Trail — 2.4 miles (3.9 kilometers), strenuous climb of a steep cliff face to the mouth of a narrow canyon
- The Narrows — various distances, epic hike through the narrowest part of Zion Canyon, no designated trail but literally a hike in the Virgin River
Zion National Park Map
Location: Southwestern Utah, United States
Nearest Town: Springdale
Area: 230 square miles (595.8 square kilometers)
Features: Deep canyons, steep cliffs, desert vegetation, rock formations, lush river banks, weeping rocks and hanging gardens, scenic views
Main Attractions: Angels Landing, Observation Point, the Watchman, Virgin River, the Narrows, Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, Court of the Patriarchs, Checkerboard Mesa, Kolob Canyons
Main Activities: Hiking, camping, rock climbing and canyoneering, wildlife watching, photography
Suggested Stay: 3 days / 2 nights
Further Information: National Park Service
Nearby National Parks