Let’s just get this out of the way: one day at Zion National Park is not enough. There, it’s out there. BUT, sometimes you only have one day… so, let’s call this “An Introductory Tour of Zion National Park” and promise ourselves we will come back and give it the time it deserves.
Zion National Park, the first national park in Utah, is a canyon that boasts so many shades of red, tan, pink and yellow of Navaho Sandstone, cut by the Virgin River. With incredible views, unique geology and diverse wildlife, this park is definitely a do-not-miss. Check out a park map here, although you’ll get one at the entrance as well.
With only a day, I would start out in the Canyon – in the center of most of the action at Zion. Park in town or at the visitor center and jump on the free shuttle that runs every few minutes throughout the day. Make a stop at Zion Lodge and walk across the street onto the Emerald Pools Trail. It’s a paved trail that’s gets really busy throughout the day. About half the people stop at the lower pool, and half of them stop at the middle pool, so keep going through the slightly strenuous climb up the canyon wall will reward you with some quiet time near the pools and a great view. I wouldn’t spend too much time here, though; we’ve got a jam-packed day. The reason this is one of the most traversed trails is that it’s rare to see pools and gardens full of ferns and moss in the middle of a desert. Total distance: 1.2-3 miles roundtrip.
You could get back on the shuttle and head a few stops down to Weeping Rock. Or take the Riverside Trail to it (about a mile between the shuttle stops), which would allow you to take in a little more of Zion. Weeping Rock is a paved trail to a very popular attraction in Zion. It’s named for the water that continuously “weeps” through the stone to keep the hanging gardens thriving, a welcome site in a desert! Total distance: 1 mile roundtrip.
Get back on the shuttle again (or keep strolling along the Riverside Walk) and take it to the last stop: Temple of Sinawava. From here, a short walk along the Riverside trail will take you to the beginning of Zion Narrows trail along the river. You could continue, but be prepared for a more strenuous hike (the narrows are 12 wet miles roundtrip), and be sure to check weather and flood conditions. For a short one day trip, it’s about a mile to the start of the narrows.
Back on the shuttle, take it the visitor center for a very scenic ride to another short hike. Drive east on Route 9 towards the tunnel. You’ll be tempted to stop at every pull out and take photos, but not to worry, there will be plenty of photo opps coming up. Go through the 1 mile tunnel (it has windows!), and immediately after, park in the tiny lot to your right. Across the street is the trailhead for Canyon Overlook. Hiking to the top is pretty easy, with a few spots where if you’re afraid of heights (like me), you might get pretty nervous. The end is a stunning view of the canyon and all the tiny cars below. It gives you some perspective on just how gigantic Zion really is.
If you’ve still got time, go back the way you came into Zion National Park via Route 9 and head to the lesser traveled Kolob Terrace area. The best part about this area is that you may not see very many visitors (unlike the main section, which in summer season will be pretty crowded). If you’re up for an easy hike, take the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead to Northgate peaks. If not, just enjoy driving in the solitude. Total distance: 4 miles roundtrip for the hike.
More Hiking at Zion National Park
For avid hikers, without a doubt Zion will not disappoint. Angels Landing (5 miles) and Narrows (12 miles) would both be fabulous add-ons if you have another day. Or skip some of the stuff above and head straight there. Both are strenuous. Angels landing is along the side of the canyon (eek!), and Narrows is mostly in the water. If you plan on any of these, be prepared with plenty of food and water. Also, check the weather for potential rain. Flash flooding can be extremely dangerous here.
Other things to do at Zion National Park
Canyoneering, rock climbing and birding are all popular at Zion. With a week, you could easily relax and really dive into the park, exploring the popular center of the canyon and the less-trodded areas like Kolob Terrace. The surrounding area of the park didn’t have much for the non-outdoorsy types, but St. George is small town nearby that even has an In-N-Out Burger!
Have you visited any national parks in your travels? What are your favorites? What would you do with only one day in Zion National Park?