Zion National Park

The Great Arch in Zion National Park, Utah, USA, circa 1960. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

A Natural Wonder Unlike Any Other

Known for its towering sandstone monoliths, swooping rock arches and painted canyon walls, Zion National Park’s natural wonders place it among the great sightseeing destinations in the western United States. The majority of the park’s land is protected wilderness, open to backcountry travelers on a limited basis. The demand for access is so high that prospective backpackers and canyoneers must enroll in a lottery in order to explore this wild terrain.

Yet much of Zion’s beauty is display right from the canyon floor. In 15-mile long Zion Canyon, paved roads and accessible nature trails make sightseeing easy. Great White Throne, pillar of white Navajo sandstone that featured prominently on the park’s 1938 WPA poster, can be seen from most points along the Zion Canyon scenic drive.

Adventure is often just a bus stop away. To limit car traffic in the park, a free shuttle bus runs through the canyon, stopping at popular vistas and trailheads. While short nature paths and day hikes are common, some of them, like the Angel’s Landing trail, can get pretty challenging.

Whether you’re looking to take in nature’s grandeur from a safe distance, or test your limits in the backcountry, Zion National Park has plenty to offer.

Activities in Zion National Park

Backcountry

With the designation of the Zion Wilderness in 2009 as part of the Omnibus Land Management Act, protections to Zion National Park’s extensive backcountry increased dramatically, leaving an intense natural landscape for trekkers to explore. The vistas change with the season, from wildflowers in the spring to fall colors in the high country in early September.

Permits are required for all camping in the backcountry, and visitors should take extra precautions based on the season. If you’re planning on hiking canyons, particularly in the Zion Narrows, plan on getting wet. Since the Zion Narrows trail is the river itself, expect to spend about 60 percent of the trip walking through water, wading and even swimming.

Please be aware that access to the backcountry is tightly regulated. High-demand areas like The Subway and Mystery Canyon hold reservation lotteries in addition to setting aside a few passes for walk-ins. If you’re shooting for a reservation, it makes the most sense to avoid weekends and holidays.

Day Hikes

While visitors might have to go fairly deep into the wilderness to check out the Kolob Arch, many of Zion’s natural wonders are easily reached. Self-guided hikes to the Emerald Pools and Weeping Rock, covering loops between one and three miles, are great for groups with kids. Hikers looking for a longer trip might want to check out  hikes to Taylor Creek in the Kolob Canyon district or up Angel’s Landing.

The latter, while one of the most popular hiking trails in the park, gets rather hazardous during the final mile of the ascent. Since it’s exposed and demanding, travelers with young kids should probably skip the Angels Landing trail. But, if you make it to the top, the view from 1,500 feet above Zion Canyon’s floor is legendary.

Ranger-Led Activities

Zion offers a variety of ranger-led programs that provide professional insight into the park’s natural and cultural history. Programs are typically offered from April to November in Zion and Kolob Canyons, and include nature hikes, guided bus tours and “patio talks” with the canyon floor as a resplendent backdrop.

Bird Watching

If you’re looking to spot a peregrine falcon, a bald eagle or a California condor, Zion is the right place. The park is home to 288 recorded bird species, and factored heavily in recovery efforts for endangered birds. Its high craggy cliffs continue to be a preferred nesting site for falcons in the park. Protection of nesting sites sometimes prompts closure of hiking trails.

Rock Climbing

Zion National Park is a well-known place for rock climbing and bouldering. There are many walls that appeal to experienced climbers because of their challenging conditions — high, unshaded climbs on sandstone aren’t recommended for novices. Touchstone, Spaceshot, Prodigal Son and Moonlight Buttress are all popular climbing destinations within Zion National Park. The best seasons for climbing in the park are May through May and September through November. The combination of monsoon rains and extreme heat during the height of summer make conditions particularly hazardous.

Visiting Zion National Park

Seasons, Fees, Permits and Campgrounds

Zion National Park is open all year round, but programs, facilities and activities can vary with the season. It’s a good idea to check weather conditions before visiting. Weather changes drastically depending on the season. Summers are generally hot and dry, but monsoon rains have been known to cause flash flooding from mid-July into September. Winters are cold and rainy, with nightly temperatures that drop below freezing.

The standard entrance fee to the park, which is valid for seven days, is $25 per car or $12 per motorcycle, bicyclist or pedestrian arriving on foot. Check the park’s website for additional information on fees, including days when the entrance fee is waived.

The National Parks Service maintains three campgrounds in Zion, all of which are very popular and fill up quickly during the season. South and Lava Point campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Spots at Watchman campground may be reserved up to six months in advance. Since visitation peaks during summer months, reservations are highly recommended. Additional, commercial campsites are available near the park. Zion Lodge offers modern accommodations right on the canyon floor.

Permits are required for all organized activity that benefits individuals or organizations rather than the public at large. This includes weddingscommercial filming, and the scattering of ashes. The park also requires backcountry permits for all overnight trips, as well as for select trail use and rock climbing trips. When planning a trip to the backcountry,  make sure to check fire conditions.

Visitor Centers, Museums and Shuttle System

Several visitor centers, information desks and museums are located in Zion National Park. The Zion and Kolob Canyon visitor centers are open all year, with some seasonal hours. The Zion Human History Museum is closed during the winter, and the Zion Nature Center is only open during the summer. Visitors to the park can also explore select archeological sites, including ones with petroglyphs (rock carving) and pictographs left by ancient inhabitants of the area, subject to strict regulations and availability. If you are staying in nearby Springdale, hop on the free Zion shuttle bus to cut down on your carbon footprint.

Rock Formations

Zion’s massive rock formations, hewn by geologic forces over millennia out of tan and red Navajo sandstone, are an inspiration to photographers, a challenge to climbers, and a marvel to hikers along the canyon floor. Be sure to check out famous natural landmarks like Angel’s Landing, the Great White Throne, the Kolob Arch, the Three Patriarchs and the Checkerboard Mesa. As you hike the canyon floor, be sure to look up and catch a glimpse of the park’s magnificent freestanding arches.

New Wilderness

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act into law. The bill designated more than two million acres of land as wilderness in nine states. Almost 125,000 of those acres would be come the Zion Wilderness. This increased protection of the lands, rivers and streams in the area, and slightly increased the borders of the park. No commercial enterprises, no permanent roads — just miles and miles of pure nature to explore on foot.

Wildlife in Zion National Park

Peregrine Falcons

Peregrine falcons nest in Zion National Park, occupying high cliffs that often share space with the park’s more popular hiking routes, such as the Angel’s Landing trail. Naturally,  preservation trumps recreation, forcing these trails to close while the falcons tend to their young.

The fuss about these falcons is well warranted. Habitat reduction and food-chain poisoning from pesticides like DDT once pushed the peregrine’s worldwide population so low that it nearly became extinct. Its restoration is one of the great victories of the modern conservation movement, in which Zion has played an important role. In addition to the peregrine falcon, several once-endangered or currently endangered species of bird, such as the bald eagle and the California condor, call the park home.

Ringtail Cat

Ringtail cats aren’t really cats — they’re actually closely related to raccoons. Found all over the American Southwest, these nocturnal omnivores thrive in rocky territory close to water. Since they keep late-night hours, these animals can be tough to spot, but visitors can look for them in riparian (riverside) areas in Zion National Park. Ringtails were once domesticated and kept as pets by Western miners and homesteaders. The animals’ nocturnal habits meant that they stayed out of the way during daylight hours, emerging at night to hunt mice in their keepers’ cabins. If you encounter a ringtail cat in Zion National Park, don’t pet, feed or harass it, even if it approaches you (which it very well might).

Mule Deer

Although their range isn’t limited to the deserts of the Southwest, long-eared mule deer are specially adapted to hot climates. Their ears, which can reach up to nine inches long, help keep the deer cool by conveniently dissipating heat. Mule deer are a common sight on the floor of Zion Canyon, where they can be seen grazing on shrubs. White-spotted fawns, which appear in spring, are a favorite op for visiting amateur photographers. Just make sure to keep your distance when snapping photos.

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