Zion National Park is a sprawling 229 square mile (146,000 acre) federal park in the southwest corner of Utah. The park also includes a further 124,000 acres of protected lands dedicated as the “Zion Wilderness” to keep modern development from encroaching the natural wonder and beauty of the park. But when is the best time to visit Zion National Park?
Originally protected under the name “Mukuntuweap National Monument” in 1909 and officially established by the National Park Service in 1919, park attendance was 1814 visitors in its inaugural year. The popularity of visiting our national parks has grown significantly and in 2017, over 4.5 million visitors came to see Zion’s magnificence. Zion National Park is listed as the third most visited National Park in the United States, behind only the Grand Canyon in Arizona and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Most of these 4.5 million visitors come to visit in the peak season. Topping out at over a half million visitors in each of the six months from April through September in 2017, tapering slowly off with slightly fewer visitors into the rest of the calendar. Officially “off-season” is November through March and statically, the lowest attendance is always in the month of January.
So why visit Zion in the off-season? The reason is simple, fewer visitors means you get to experience the park on a much more intimate level. Today’s off-season attendance is akin to the peak numbers of the mid 1950’s. You will move about the park more freely and soak in the wonders without bumping into too many elbows or waiting in traffic at the gates. The autumn and winter months at Zion are every bit as amazing as the rest of the year, explore why you should visit Zion in the off-season.
The logistics of your visit are better during the off season. The weather is pleasant and the traffic is much easier to navigate. Nice weather, shorter lines will start off your visit to Zion National Park on the right foot.
You might imagine the weather in off-season Zion may be prohibitive to exploring the National Park. However, the reality is the weather is quite a nice change from the sweltering summer heat and the cooler temperatures can be a welcomed element to your hiking excursions. With highs typically in the 50’s and 60’s, and nighttime lows generally hovering just about 30, the winter climate of the desert is a prime time to visit without the added exposure to the oppressive summertime desert heat.
The snow will fall through the off-season months and at the higher elevations and peaks, the snow will accumulate and create that beautiful winter landscape we see in pictures and postcards. But down at the lower elevations and among the hiking trails, the snow almost always melts away within an hour or two after falling, leaving a fresh feeling of renewal for you to wander into.
Getting into Zion National Park during the summer months can be a frustrating experience. Extremely long lines at the entrance gates, and limited parking, leading to full parking lots, are enough to start your summertime visit off on a sour note. The available parking is regularly at capacity as early as 8am and can be cause for a delay of your visit as you turn around to the town of Springdale to search out available paid parking there. The National Park Service runs a shuttle system from Springdale into the park, but once the Park’s lots are full, the lines for the shuttles lengthen as well.
During the off season, the lines to gain entry to the park are shorter or even non-existent. The lower attendance numbers means the National Park Service does not run the shuttles and you are free to drive your own vehicle along the scenic routes to the parking lots at the trailheads. While ample parking is never guaranteed, the off-season months are more likely to accommodate all visitors.
During the off-season, smaller crowds will allow you to take in the majesty of Zion National Park with a more relaxed approach. The spirit of the raw and wild park can captivate you on a more personal level.
The slower season makes for a great time to visit Zion. The local town of Springdale is always open for business and ready to facilitate your every need. The summer rush of expensive and overbooked hotels, waiting for hours to be shown to a table in a crowded restaurant gives way to a more leisurely trip, with your pick of hotels and fine dining establishments. Not to mention, during the off-season these accommodations can be less expensive, allowing you the opportunity to spend that extra money on other excursions, or upgrade your stay to a more elevated experience.
This sleepy mountain town of just over 500 people is dedicated to the tourism Zion National Park brings them and retains the heart of a small artistic community. The town is full of small-businesses such as art galleries, restaurants, coffee shops, and even a microbrewery. Equipment rentals and tours are less busy during the winter months, you will be able to experience all Springdale has to offer and maybe even take in a last minute guided tour or rental.
Once in the park, let the beauty of Zion wash over you and take away your daily worries. During the off-season you will have more opportunity to breathe in the natural wonders of the park. You can sense the preservation of nature and the rebounding of the biosphere as the grand park recuperates from the summer’s vast number of visitors. You can be one of the few observers in any given area, seeing the park much like it was originally intended to be, a preserved natural landscape. The overcrowding of our National Parks is an inevitable problem, as they become more and more popular, we all want to go and see them. The off-season months are the best time to visit, as you will have the delightful experience of a “getaway” vacation rather than the summertime visit to a crowded attraction.
Your off-season visit to Zion National Park can be a more productive visit. You can explore more of the park. While the autumn and winter months have plenty of fellow visitors and you won’t exactly have the entire place to yourself, the lower attendance does give you the freedom to take the park in at your own pace. You can aggressively hike up the trails or take a leisurely stroll and not get swept along with the crowds of summer.
The more popular hiking trails are less congested with fewer people moving along them while the longer, more challenging trails are all but abandoned. If you are an experienced hiker, these off-season months find fewer novices venturing out for their first hikes granting you free travel to move through without being forced to slow down. However, if you are a beginning hiker or have a need to take the hike at a slower pace, the off-season is a prime opportunity to start out on the hiking trails as you won’t feel “in the way” or compelled to “keep up” with the busier summer crowds.
Fewer visitors and less crowded trails increase the chances of coming across an animal encounter. The larger fauna are out and about foraging for food while you’re out in the wild and the scarcity of people and less tourist chatter, you may see more of the local inhabitants of Zion National Park. Bighorn sheep, wild deer, elk, large soaring and nesting eagles… the relative quiet of the off-season is a chance to view these animals in their natural habitat without the next hiker coming around the bend scaring them off.
If you have your camera ready, you’ll have plenty of chances to photograph these magnificent animals closer than you think. Getting that one great shot is easier during the off-season at Zion. Not only is there no end to the parade of wild animals, but there is no competition among your fellow visitors to set up and take the picture. Whether it is a grazing sheep, a fabulous waterfall, or a spectacular sun beam shining upon a peak, nothing takes the beauty out of the moment more than holding your camera over a crowd of thirty people all trying to take the same picture. Visiting Zion in the off-season allows you the freedom to set up the composition and get the shot you really wanted, one that will remind you of your fantastic visit to Zion.
Visiting Zion in the off-season allows you to feel a more intimate connection to the park, experience it in your own way and at your own pace. If you are there to participate in winter activities like snowshoeing, cross country skiing, or just a good winter hike, Zion will provide you with all that and more. The lower attendance numbers during the off-season provides this spacious National Park with plenty of open room. More encounters with wildlife and fewer interactions with the natural shortcomings of the busy summer tourist season. Seeing the park as it once was, without the crowds and the noise shows you a window into the past. A photographer’s dream, lonely hiking trails with a picturesque landscape around each and every corner… Come visit Zion National Park during the off-season and you will see for yourself how magical it can be.