This article on the perfect Zion itinerary was written by Zesumme contributor Kayla Sheffield.
In southeastern Utah, the Virgin River shapes the sandstone canyons of Zion National Park. It has carved the echoing canyon for thousands and thousands of years. Now, visitors come from all over the world to marvel at its beauty. The canyons of Zion are painted in red and tan sandstone, with lush vegetation running between the base of the canyon and the edge of the Virgin River. Those blessed to see this treasure in the West will find it is nothing like they have ever seen before.
History & Culture of Zion National Park
Zion first experienced human presence 8,000 years ago. The most prominent group of people of this time were the Virgin Anasazi. They tracked mammoths and were hunter-gatherers that farmed at the base of the canyon, where it was flat and pressed against the Virgin River. The Anasazi would eventually leave the canyon, moving southeast for more prosperous farming.
During the time of the Anasazi, another group by the name of Parowan Fremont inhabited the Zion canyon. Evidence shows that the Virgin Anasazi and the Parowan Fremont frequented areas like the Kolob Plateau. Like the Anasazi, the Parowan Fremont were displaced by catastrophic flooding and retreated to other lands for sustainability.
In the 1700s, Euro-Americans settled in Zion. By way of the Old Spanish Trail, settlers followed the Virgin River until they found the Zion Canyon. Starting in the 1860s, a Mormon pioneer by the name of John Wesley Powell came to Zion for scientific exploration. This marked the first time the U.S. Geological Survey mapped Zion Canyon.
Small towns popped up along the Virgin River but struggled for survival. The river was prone to extreme flooding, and the arid land made for poor soils, limiting the viability of farmland. In 1919, Zion National Park was established. Since then, tourists from all over the world have come to feast their eyes on the natural wonder known as Zion.
Zion Itinerary: Planning Your Trip To Zion
In order to get the most out of your trip to Zion National Park, we recommend mapping out your quest. There is no shortage of things to do and beauty to see; Zion National Park has everything from a walk through the museum and stargazing to river trips and rock climbing. Planning any trip can be extremely taxing, so we are providing you with our idea of a perfect three-day adventure in Zion National Park.
When you first go to the park, take a trip to the Visitor Center and grab a map to help you get around. Also at the Visitor Center you can purchase an entrance pass that lasts for a full 7 days and costs $30. An individual pass will also last 7 days and only costs $12. You can drive around the park but we prefer the shuttle system to get to all the main attractions – it is more efficient and comes from both directions every 10 minutes.
With the large amount of visitor traffic in the park, it is important to try and get an early start each day of the trip. There are plenty of hotels near Zion National Park that you can choose to stay in during your trip, but we recommend staying in Zion Hotel located in the middle of the park to stay close to the action. There are also camping options for those who are interested for an even more authentic experience.
Day 1 at Zion National Park
Assuming you drove in the night before and now have a full first day available for adventuring, you have many possibilities to choose from. If you are interested in hiking, which if you are coming to Zion you most likely are, we have chosen some of the easy hikes available. They range from 0.4 miles to 3.5 miles and do not exceed more than 100-feet change in elevation. Most of them only take a few hours so you can definitely fit in a few of these hikes, or add in a more challenging one if you have time. This is a great start for your Zion itinerary.
Easy Hikes That Won’t Take Much of Your Time
Archeology Trail: This trail is located right behind the Visitor Center and climbs up a small hill. It’s not the most exciting Zion has to offer but it is easy to get to and only takes about 30 minutes. It’s perfect to knock off the list right when you get to the park.
Pa’rus Trail: You can drive to this trail or take the Shuttle to stop #1 Visitor Center or #3 Canyon Junction. The trail follows the Virgin River starting at the South Campground and winding all the way to Canyon Junction. The entire trail is 3.5 miles roundtrip and is estimated to take 2 hours. It is also the only trail in Zion that allows pets.
The Best Hike If You Want To Skip The Super Easy Ones
Watchman Trail: If you are at the Visitor Center and would rather embark on a more moderate hike, we recommend completing the Watchman Trail. Like the Pa’rus Trail, the Watchman will take hikers approximately 2 hours to complete and is 3.3 miles roundtrip. The difference here though is that the Watchman offers views of the Towers of the Virgin, lower Zion Canyon, Watchman Peak, and Springdale.
The Emerald Pool Trails: The Emerald Pool trails offer three hikes ranging in difficulty. We recommend doing all three because they offer absolutely breath-taking views of the canyon, associated waterfalls and spring-fed pools. The three trails can be accessed at shuttle stop 5, the Zion Lodge.
- Lower Emerald Pool Trail: This is the easiest of the three trails, and is estimated to take about half an hour to complete. It is approximately 1.2 miles roundtrip, and takes hikers to the Lower Emerald Pool and waterfalls. The Lower Emerald Pool Trail has about a 70ft uphill climb.
- Middle Emerald Pool Trail: This is slightly more difficult than the Lower Emerald Pool Trail. It is 1 mile long one way and leads to the Upper Emerald Pools, and hikers can expect to take an hour to complete this trail roundtrip.
- Upper Emerald Pool Trail: The third and final Emerald Pool Trail is a 3 mile roundtrip hike. This will take approximately an hour and a half to complete. Like the Middle Emerald Pool Trail, the Upper Emerald Pool Trail is slightly more difficult than the other two, but is still family friendly. As far as elevations go, it is a 350ft uphill climb.
If Time Permits…
The Grotto: If you have extra time on your hands and you just completed the Emerald Pools, we recommend continuing to the Grotto Trail. It is another easy hike, only spanning 1 mile round trip. It is mostly shaded and offers a wonderful view of the lower Zion Canyon.
The Weeping Rock: After the Grotto, we recommend taking the shuttle to stop 7 to continue on to the Weeping Rock. This trail is just under half a mile but offers access to a rock alcove.
Day 2 at Zion National Park
Now that you have your legs warmed up from Day 1 of this Zion itinerary, we recommend going to the Grotto shuttle station to pick up right where you left off the day before. If you didn’t get to do the Grotto, we recommend starting with that one for an early morning wake up.
Hikes That Will Thrill
Angels Landing: This is not a hike for beginners or those fearful of heights. It is a very strenuous hike and is only recommended to those who have experience hiking. This will take even the most experienced hikers at least 5 hours to complete. If you love heights and thrilling hikes, Angels Landing is right up your alley. You will climb over a mile high, but the views are the most rewarding.
The ever-changing rock formations can be extremely slim in some places. Angels Landing is known as one of the 10 most dangerous hikes in the world. It is an insanely steep hike. If you do try to tackle this one make sure you take extra care with every step. Angels Landing is meant for the thrill seekers of the world. There are chains anchored in the sandstone for most of the dangerous portion of the hike, but those are still to be used with caution. Be careful! This trail can be accessed at shuttle stop 6, The Grotto.
After the Thrill of Angels Landing
If you just completed Angels Landing, chances are you are feeling a rush of adrenaline and trying to process the fear you just experienced for the last few hours. Needless to say, it’s time to have a quiet evening to get your heart rate back down. If you didn’t just spend half your day hiking Angels Landing, this option is still for those looking to close out a wonderful Day 2.
We recommend hopping in the car and taking a drive on Zion Mount Carmel Highway. You will have plenty of opportunities to stop at viewpoints and take in all of what the backcountry of Zion has to over. Near the top of the canyon you will enter Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel. It was completed in 1930 and spans a little over a mile long.
There are a few trails when you get through the tunnel if you feel like a little more hiking. You will eventually wind you way to Checkerboard Mesa, which gets its name from the checkerboard crack pattern in the sandstone. This will be one of the best drives you ever experience.
The Less Fear-Filled Alternative
Sandbench Trail: This trail can be accessed at shuttle stop 5, Zion Lodge. It is approximately 7.6 miles roundtrip, and is estimated to take around 5 hours to complete. If you are visiting between March and October, you can embark on a guided horseback ride. Thousands of years ago, a massive landslide dammed up the main canyon under The Sentinel. This is where Sandbench gets its name, from the “sand bench” created by the landslide. It is a great option for those looking for a long hike, but not the thrill of the Angels Landings. After the hike, we recommend taking the scenic drive down Zion Mount Carmel Highway to Checkerboard Mesa.
Day 3 at Zion National Park
Hike the Narrows. Hike. The. Narrows. This hike is what Zion is known for. If you choose to embark on the Narrows with this Zion itinerary, you are guaranteed to have an experience of a lifetime. There are plenty of other hikes to choose from if you want to experience the Zion Narrows on a less strenuous hike.
For the Daring Adventurers
The Narrows via Riverside Walk: Similar to Angels Landing, the Narrows are meant for the experienced hikers. Embarking on this hike means you will be spending most of your time wading, walking, and sometimes swimming in the Virgin River. If you cannot swim, this hike is NOT for you. Flash flooding is a REAL danger here and can be deadly. If you are going to hike the Narrows, make sure you check the weather and know of any flash flood potential.
Make sure you wear appropriate clothing and pack for the occasion – you will get wet. With all that said, hiking the Narrows can be the experience of a lifetime. You will travel through the Virgin River and can hike as much as 10 miles upstream before turning around. Depending on distance, the Narrows can take you 4-10 hours to complete. There isn’t actually a trail to follow since you are just working your way up the Virgin River.
During the summer months, this hike is packed. If you get the change to do it, the Narrows will provide you with stunning views. It will also give you an up close and personal experience of the river that has shaped Zion Canyon for thousands and thousands of years.
For the Less Daring
Orderville Canyon: This is a great alternative to the Narrows if you are looking for a less challenging hike. It is another strenuous hike but is encouraged for beginners. The Orderville Canyon is the little sister to the Zion Narrows. It will take about the same time and has its own amazing views. You will experience short swims and lots of climbing over boulders and rock formations. The views are worth the effort.
The Perfect Three Day Zion Itinerary
Your trip to Zion National Park will be full of breathtaking views of Zion Canyon. There are many hikes you can choose from, no matter your skill level, that will give you up close views of the Virgin River and the canyon she has formed throughout many thousands of years. Whether you are coming for a short trip or a more extensive one, we hope you experience as much as you can that this Zion itinerary has to offer.