Planning a Trip to Zion National Park
So, you’re going to Zion? First up, great decision! It’s one of my favorite Parks and made it on my list of the best National Parks in America. However, trips to Zion National Park do take some planning. Either there are lots of people and things can be full (summer) or not everything may be open (winter, spring and late fall).
But don’t let that deter you. When planning trip to Zion National Park, there are some basic steps to follow. I have outlined them all here to help you plan your Zion National Park trip and make it as easy as possible.
I tend to follow these steps in order, but you should use this Zion National Park trip planner in the way that makes most sense for you, and you may find yourself doing things in a slightly different order. That’s fine, of course.
For more information about Zion, read my Guide to Zion National Park.
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1. Choose when to visit Zion National Park
The first step is to decide when you are going to take your Zion National Park vacation.
When is a good time to visit Zion National Park? Well, it depends. Zion National Park is open all year and each season has pros and cons. In summer, it can get well over 100°F/ 38°C. This is also when the park is most crowded. Spring and fall are cooler (between 60°F/ 15.5°C and 90°F/ 32°C). Winters are cold. Spring is when the snow in the mountains melts, so canyons can flood. Fall color is usually best in late October.
To see more information about the pros and cons of each season, read my detailed post on the best time to visit Zion National Park.
2. Decide how long to visit Zion National Park
How many days to spend in Zion National Park? Well, this also depends. You may not have a choice, and if a long weekend is what you have, or a day trip from Las Vegas is all the time you can spare, then you will pick the highlights and have a great time. If, however, you have more flexibility, how many days in Zion National Park will depend primarily on what you want to do.
There is a lot to do, including some of the most epic hikes in America, and plenty of adventure activities. You can also relax and enjoy stunning scenery from stops on the shuttle bus or from pullouts on the one main road through the main canyon.
Also worth visiting is Kanab, just over an hour from Springdale. It makes a great base for further explorations in the area. Here is a helpful list of things to do in Kanab.
3. Decide what kind of trip to take
Hand in hand with deciding what to do is deciding how to go to Zion National Park. There is no one best way to visit Zion National Park. There are a few choices and which one you choose will depend on how you like to travel.
First though, where is Zion National Park located? Zion National Park is in Utah in the Southwest of the United States, a few hours’ drive northeast of Las Vegas.
(a) Take a Tour
Most of this planning guide is to help you plan a trip independently, but if you’d prefer the ease and comfort of a tour, there are a few options.
A long road trip
7-day west and southwest tour: The tour starts in Las Vegas and drives along the stunning coastal road past Big Sur to San Francisco. From there, in summer you head to Yosemite National Park and in winter to Monterrey and the fantastical Hearst Castle. Then to Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon and from there Zion National Park before ending in Las Vegas. What a trip! Book the 7-day west/ southwest tour here.
11-day west and southwest tour: This one starts in Las Vegas and goes straight to Zion National Park. From there, you’ll head to Bryce Canyon, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Then Monument Valley; Antelope Canyon and Horsehoe Bend near Page; and on to Grand Canyon. You’ll loop back to Vegas before heading north through Death Valley and on to Yosemite National Park before ending in San Francisco. Book this amazing 11-day tour here.
A day trip from Las Vegas
There are a couple of options for day trips from Vegas if your time is more limited.
Zion only in one day: This small group tour makes for a long (11 hours) day, but you will travel by luxury 4WD or minivan to the main canyon and have time to travel along the canyon and see the main sights. Book the one-day in Zion tour here
Zion and Bryce Canyon in one day: You’ll be busy (it’s a 13-hour day), but you will get to see two of America’s best national parks in one day. First off Zion, then you’ll travel up via Checkerboard Mesa to Bryce Canyon and then back to Vegas. Book the one-day tour to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks here .
A short tour
If you have a little more time but still want to have the hassle of planning taken away, there are a couple of 2- and 3-day options.
2-day tour to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The tour picks you up in Las Vegas and heads to Bryce Canyon, where you’ll spend the afternoon and evening. The next day is the fairly short drive to Zion National Park, where you’ll send the bulk of the day before heading back to Las Vegas in the evening. Book the 2-day tour to Zio and Bryce Canyon here.
3-day tour to Zion, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Parks + Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon. The tour starts in Las Vegas and goes to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park in Utah on the first day. Day two is Arizona and the stunning Antelope Canyon and legendary Monument Valley. Day three is Horseshoe Bend and Grand Canyon’s south rim before heading back along the famous Route 66 to Vegas. Book the 3-day southwest highlights tour here.
(b) Travel independently
If you’ve decided to plan your trip yourself, whether you plan to take a road trip to Zion National Park, combine a trip to Zion with a trip to Bryce Canyon National Park and I strongly recommend this (more on this below) or just focus on Zion itself, this planning guide is here to help. Read on.
4. Learn how to get to Zion National Park
If you are taking a tour, obviously you can skip this section, but if you are planning to travel independently, then you will need to decide how to go to Zion National Park. There are two basic choices.
(a) Fly in
How to fly to Zion National Park
There are a few options for flying into Zion National Park. The most common choice for flying to Zion National Park is to fly into and out of Las Vegas. Although the location of Zion National Park is in Utah, Las Vegas’ McCarran airport in Nevada is the closest major airport (170 miles away). It takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes to drive from Vegas to Springdale, which is just outside Zion National Park. Note that when you cross state lines, you change time zones.
The other major airport is in Salt Lake City, 300 miles away. There are small regional airports in Saint George (49 miles) and Cedar City (60 miles), but renting a car and driving from Vegas is the most popular option.
Driving from Las Vegas to Zion National Park is easy. Just head straight up highway 15 and turn right on to 9. You can see driving directions for travel to Zion National Park from Las Vegas here.
If you prefer not to drive to Zion National Park, although there is no train to Zion National Park, you can get a bus to Zion National Park. The Las Vegas to Zion National Park bus goes to Springdale. You can (and, in fact, have to) get a free shuttle from Springdale to Zion National Park for most of the year, so it is not necessary to have a car to get around the main part of the park once you are get to Springdale, so this is definitely an option.
Combining Zion National Parks and Bryce Canyon National Parks is common since they are close to each other.
If you are planning a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks from Las Vegas, I recommend starting in Bryce Canyon (about four hours from Las Vegas) and then driving to Zion, so that the longest part of your trip is out of the way at the start and you get the best views of Zion as you drive down the canyon (see Driving Through Zion section below).
The distance from Bryce Canyon to Zion National Park is 72 miles/ 117 km and it takes about 1.5 hours. For driving directions to Zion National Park from Bryce Canyon, click here.
(b) Take a road trip and drive there in your own car
Depending on how far from Zion you live and how long you have for your vacation, a road trip that includes Zion is an option. You’ll save money on a rental car and see more.
If you are doing this as part of a big road trip, then you will need to work out the logistics from where you are traveling from. The approximate distance to Zion National Park and standard driving times for common places are:
- Grand Canyon to Zion National Park: 340 miles / 550 km | 6 hours
- Flagstaff to Zion National Park: 250 miles / 400 km | 4.5 hours
- Hurricane, Utah to Zion National Park: 22 miles / 35 km | 30 minutes
- Bryce Canyon National Park to Zion National Park: 70 miles/ 120 km |1.5 hours
- Salt Lake City airport to Zion National Park: 310 miles / 500 km | 4.5 hours
- Page, AZ to Zion National Park: 120miles / 190 km | 2 hours 15 minutes
- Antelope Canyon to Zion National Park: 124 miles / 200 km | 2 hours 40 minutes
- Moab to Zion National Park: 344 miles / 553 km | 5 hours 15 minutes
- Phoenix to Zion National Park: 400 miles / 645 km 6 hours 45 minutes
- Denver to Zion National Park: 635 miles / 1020 km | 10 hours
- Los Angeles to Zion National Park: 430 miles / 630 km | 7 hours
- San Diego to Zion National Park: 490 miles / 785 km | 7.5 hours
- Santa Fe to Zion National Park: 550 miles / 890 km | 9 hours
Driving through Zion National Park
Can I drive through Zion National Park?
No, for most of the year, there is no driving in Zion National Park, other than to pass along the Zion – Mount Carmel highway from the East Gate to the main South Gate, to stay in the National Park lodge or the scenic Kolob Terrace Road.
If you plan on driving through Zion National Park, note that soon after entering the East Gate (which you will do if you are coming from Bryce Canyon National Park), there is a long tunnel.
How long is the tunnel in Zion National Park? The Zion – Mount Carmel Tunnel is 1.1 miles long and is an engineering marvel.
Be aware that if you have a large vehicle (11’4″ (3.4m) tall or taller or 7’10” (2.4m) wide or wider, including mirrors, awnings, and jacks), you will need a tunnel escort. You will need to pay $15 for a permit when you enter the park and travel within designated hours, which vary throughout the year. The fee covers a ranger closing the tunnel to two-way traffic so you can travel safely through it crossing the mid-road line. Check for dates/ times on the park’s website.
There is almost no parking inside the park other than at the lodge, which is for guests only. However, there is parking just outside the main entrance of the South Gate and at several locations in Springdale. You can then get the frequent, free shuttle to Zion National Park. There are pickups at the main entrance and in Springdale and multiple stops in the park.
5. Book airfare and rental car, tour and shuttle
Now that you have decided how you are going to get there, the next step is to start booking things.
Use the links above to book a tour. If you are traveling independently:
If you are getting to Zion National Park by bus, you can book the shuttle bus from Las Vegas to Zion (Springdale) here and the shuttle bus from Zion to Las Vegas here.
For more information about boking the shuttle, read my Guide to the Zion Shuttle (and how to get tickets).
6. Plan your itinerary
You’ve already done some rough planning in order to determine how many days to go for, and you may have done this more detailed planning already, but if you haven’t, now is the time to plan a day-by-day outline of what you’ll do. Of course, your plans may change with the weather and other unexpected things, but because Zion can be so busy and there is so much to do, I recommend planning out your days and then swapping things around if you need to (and can).
If the shuttle is packed, never fear. There are alternate ways to reach the park and plenty of other things to do. Read my Guide to Visiting Zion Without Shuttle Tickets for more information.
7. Pick and book accommodation
Like other national parks in the USA, there are several places to stay in Zion National Park, including a lodge and several campsites in Zion National Park itself.
However, there are actually a lot of accommodation options because, unlike many other national parks, there is a town right by the park entrance, as well as several other small towns near Zion National Park, including Hurricane, St George and Kanab.
The nearest town to Zion National Park, Springdale, is literally right outside the main park entrance and is where the free shuttle bus into the park starts.
Where to Stay in Zion National Park
1. Lodge Inside Zion National Park
Like many other National Parks in the USA, there is a lodge in the National Park, the Zion Lodge, Zion National Park. The lodge at Zion National Park is in the middle of Zion Canyon, so its location is hard to beat, and there is an enormous cottonwood tree that is lovely to sit under. The lodge itself is kind of ugly, though.
2. Zion National Park Campgrounds
There are three campgrounds inside Zion National Park.
Mid-March to the end from November, the Zion National Park campgrounds are usually full, so reservations are recommended.
- 0.5 miles/ 800 m from South Entrance of the Park (convenient for the shuttle to the Narrows)
- 117 sites (no hookups)
- restrooms at nearby Watchman Campground
- 0.25 miles/ 400 m from South Entrance of the Park (convenient for the shuttle to the Narrows)
- 176 sites (69 for tents only)
- the best option for Zion National Park RV camping: no full hookups, but there is a dump station
- This is on Kolob Terrace Road, about an hour’s drive from Zion Canyon, so not convenient for the Narrows hike.
If you are camping, check out my detailed buying guides. They will help you make the best decision for essential camping gear so your vacation to Zion is perfect:
- Best 4-Person Tent
- Best 6 Person Tent
- Best 8 Person Tent
- Best Truck Tent
- Best Air Mattress for Camping
- Best Portable Solar Panels for Camping
- Best Tent Heaters
- Best Generators for Camping
- Best RV Generators
- Best Camping Fridges
3. Lodging near Zion National Park (Springdale and beyond)
Staying in an Airbnb is a great option and the good news is that there are plenty of great Airbnbs in Springdale. I have curated a hand-picked list of the top vacation rentals in and around Springdale. Take a look.
If you’d rather not stay in an Airbnb, here are my top picks for other accommodation options:
|Best lodge near Zion National Park||Cable Mountain Lodge||9.3||Check availability & price|
|Best of the cabins near Zion National Park||Red Rock Inn Cottages||9.4||Check availability & price|
|Best inn near Zion National Park||Flanigan`s Inn||9.4||Check availability & price|
|Best of the resorts near Zion National Park||Ponderosa Ranch Resort||8.7||Check availability & price|
|Best vacation home near Zion National Park||Watchman Villas||9.5||Check Availability & price|
|Best of the motels near Zion National Park||Zion Park Motel||8.8||Check availability & price|
* Based on highest booking.com ratings at time of writing.
If none of these appeal, check out other hotels near Zion National Park here.
8. Book travel insurance
You should never travel without travel insurance. If you’re American and have health insurance, it is quite possible that your regular health insurance will cover regular medical expenses when you are out of state (but also possible it does not – always check with your health insurance company).
However, it still won’t cover trip cancellation, damage or theft of property while traveling, or emergency repatriation. If you are hiking and heaven forbid something happens and you need to be medi-vaced out, it will cost an absolute fortune if you have to pay yourself. If this all sounds like Greek to you, check out my Guide to Buying Travel Insurance (on my other blog).
A great insurance option is World Nomads. They cover many adventure activities including hiking as long as you are following standard hiking routes below 19,685 feet. Check their website or get a quote right here:
9. Decide what to bring to Zion National Park
What to take to Zion National Park will depend somewhat on when you go. However, some of the essential things to bring to Zion National Park include the Lonely Planet guidebook. You can buy the Lonely Planet for Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks here. The Lonely Planet for Southwest USA is here if you are travelling more in the area.
Have a fantastic trip! Do you have any other tips for how to plan a trip to Zion National Park? Share them in the comments below.
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James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents. He has visited all of the main national parks in the United States, as well as many national monuments and state parks.
He has rafted through the Grand Canyon; rappelled down slot canyons near Zion and Arches; hiked among the hoodoos in Bryce and the enormous trees in Sequoia; admired the waterfalls in Yosemite and the colored hot springs in Yellowstone; seen moose in Grand Tetons and seals in the Channel Islands, and much more.
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