There’s no question that Zion National Park is home to some of the most breathtakingly beautiful—and physically challenging—hiking trails in the country. However, if you’re not a big hiking fan or just want to add something different to your itinerary, you’re in luck. Zion has plenty of interesting, unique and awe-inspiring activities for visitors of all ages, and none of them involve trekking the trails.
Hit the Road
While vehicles are highly restricted in Zion Canyon, there are a few alternate options for satisfying scenic drives.
Mount Carmel Highway
This 12-mile stretch of road runs between the park’s south and east entrances. The highway leads you along steep ascents and descents. Yo go through the 1.1-mile Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel. This tunnel was carved into the park’s sandstone mountains nearly 90 years ago. Depending on the season, you’ll also take in sparkling waterfalls, snow-capped peaks and hordes of hoodoos. Hoodoos are the layered rock formations for which Zion is famous.
Kolob Canyons Scenic Drive
Located about 40 miles north of Zion Canyon, this area of the park is less crowded but certainly no less beautiful. Take Exit 40 off I-15 for a five-mile route filled with red-stained canyons, vast cliff walls and towering mountain peaks. Kolob Terrace Road begins outside the park in the town of Virgin. It climbs to elevations above 8,000 feet at Lava Point and continues north to Kolob Reservoir.
Join a Jeep Tour
Leave the navigation to the experts with a Jeep tour of the park, available through several reputable companies, including Zion Jeep Tours. The three-hour option takes visitors from the town of Springdale into the backcountry cliffs of the Kolob Terrace. From there, the tour stops at one of two mesas that offer breathtaking views of 2,500-foot cliffs. These cliffs are bathed in the vivid orange, pink and purple hues of the setting sun.
In addition to providing fascinating park history and trivia, seasoned tour guides stop frequently. This allows passengers to take photos, observe wildlife and study the Native American paintings along the park’s rock walls.
Rent a Bike
Pedal power is an excellent way to see the sights of Zion up close. For trail riding, you’ll have to stick to the Pa’rus Trail, as it’s the only one that cyclists are permitted to use. Starting from the south campground, the trail wanders north to the Virgin River. It then goes through the valley of Zion Canyon before it ends at Canyon Junction. During the ride, you’ll cross picturesque bridges, pass bright splashes of wildflowers and spot a variety of wildlife. This wildlife can include mule deer, coyotes, foxes and possibly even mountain lions.
Road cyclists have access to the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive all year, although vehicular traffic is also heavy during the winter months. However, the Scenic Drive is closed to cars from February through November. This leaves only shuttles to compete with bikes along the roadway. Conveniently, all park shuttles are equipped with bike racks. Many cyclists catch a shuttle to one of the last stops along the road and then ride back through Zion Canyon to the visitor’s center.
Bike rentals are available at Zion Lodge inside the park, as well as at several locations in Springdale, including Zion Cycles and Zion Outfitter. A group tour is another good option if you prefer to let someone else handle the logistical details.
Ride a Horse
If biking’s not your style, horseback is a relaxing, gently-paced method of exploring the park. Canyon Trail Rides offers one- and three-hour tours that cover Zion’s most picturesque sights. This includes the Three Patriarchs, the Beehives and striking cactus gardens.
The longer tours traverse the Sand Bench Trail, ultimately climbing 500 feet to reward riders with panoramic views of the southern section of the park. Children age seven and older are welcome on the shorter rides ($45 per person). The three-hour tours are limited to ages 12 and up ($90).
Soar Through the Sky
Adventurous visitors can experience the park from a wholly different vantage point via Zion Helicopters. The company offers eight different routes through Zion. These routes range from 45 to 100 miles, and start at $165 per person. The vast perspective and stunning views make these tours a once-in-a-lifetime—if somewhat pricey—experience.
Zion National Park is a safe haven for nearly 300 species of birds, making it a birdwatchers’ paradise. Among them are several species making a comeback from the brink of extinction. This includes the California condor, bald eagle, Mexican owl and peregrine falcon.
Over the past 50 years, the peregrine has made a dramatic resurgence from its 1970 low point of less than 40 breeding pairs in the continental U.S. This majestic bird is considered the fastest animal on the planet. Thy can reach speeds up to 200 miles per hour as it dives to capture its prey. The falcons build nests in the rocky crags of Zion’s sandstone cliffs but spend most of their time soaring high above the ground, to the delight of the park visitors below.
In addition to these powerful winged creatures, you’re also likely to observe ravens, hummingbirds, herons, rock pigeons, woodpeckers, kingfishers and American dippers, American dippers are named for the way they bob their heads below the surface of Zion’s waters to find food. Before you set out on your birdwatching expedition, you can print a copy of Zion’s extensive bird list for guidance on which species you’re likely to see based on the season and section of the park you’re visiting.
Take in a Light Show
Zion’s vast skies and minimal light pollution make it an ideal location for stargazing, as well as enjoying the splendor of its sunsets. As the sun sinks below the rocky peaks and red-stained cliffs, visitors are treated to an explosion of oranges, pinks and purples painting the canyon walls and the darkening sky. Once night falls, the skies over Zion sparkle with thousands of stars. Many of these are stars that most city-dwellers have never seen with the naked eye.
Keep the following tips in mind when planning your skygazing time:
- The Watchman is perhaps the most picturesque location for watching the sunset, with the Virgin River meandering through the foreground and the Towers of the Virgin looming in the distance. The trailhead is located just north of the park’s south entrance; follow the signs to the Watchman Campground.
- Don’t stop on roads or stand on the shoulders to stargaze. You’ll be difficult for drivers to see in the waning daylight. Use pull-outs or parking lots, or better yet, walk to a safe vantage point at a trailhead.
- Carry a light to help you safely traverse the park’s paths in the dark, but keep it switched off once you’ve stopped to look at the stars.
- Bring a star chart to help orient you to the locations of constellations and planets.
Participate in Ranger-Led Programs
During peak season (April through October), park rangers at Zion lead a wide range of educational and interactive programs for guests of all ages. Program topics cover park-related history, geology, plants, wildlife and more, and best of all, they’re free. Specific information about the current program schedule is available in the official Zion Map and Guide as well as at visitors’ centers and bulletin boards throughout the park. Available activities include:
Children age six through 12 can earn their Junior Ranger badge and become certified Zion National Park Junior Rangers in two ways:
- Complete one of two classes offered at the Nature Center, or
- Complete an activity booklet (available at the Visitor Center) on their own
Kids younger than six may receive a special patch for completing an activity sheet available at the visitor center and Human History Museum.
Rangers lead a daily walk on the Watchman Trail, departing from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at 8 a.m. Participants will walk two miles on a rocky trail with a modest (368-foot) elevation gain. Plan to bring or wear sturdy shoes, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and water.
Rangers lead 20- to 30-minute talks on a variety of topics daily at the Zion Human History Museum, which is located at Shuttle Stop 2.
Join rangers at the Zion Lodge and Watchman Campground for a 45-minute program every evening from May through September. Topics and activities vary daily.
These free 90-minute tours take place every day from the end of May through the end of September. The shuttle departs from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, and reservations may be made in person only up to three days in advance.
Visit the Museum
The Zion Human History Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people who have inhabited and explored Zion over the course of millennia.
Permanent exhibits focus on Native American culture, pioneer settlements and the development of the park. Temporary exhibits have included:
- Diaries from Civilian Conservation Corp members
- Park employee photographs
- Replicas of Union Pacific Railroad facilities, and more
Though it’s well-known as a mecca for hiking enthusiasts, Zion National Park has much more to offer than just beautiful and challenging trails. Whether you explore Zion on by car, Jeep, bicycle or horse, you’ll discover a wealth of interesting and unforgettable activities for all ages. Zion truly is the crown jewel of our national park system.