Utah has 5 National Parks within its borders. These include Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. We also like to count 4 other parks as belonging to Utahns because they are so close: Great Basin, Mesa Verde, Yellowstone, Grand Teton. At Utah’s Adventure Family, we think it is our responsibility to help you get the most out of your vacation to these gems.
Today we feature Zion National Park. This park, located in southern Utah east of St. George is a ranked in some polls as one of the top 5 National Parks in the country. In this post, we’ll give you everything you need to know, including links (all links are to other areas of our site) to hikes and things to do in and around Zion. We also created a Zion Bingo sheet for our kids that they used while exploring the park, and surrounding area.
Let’s start with the specifics: Zion has 3 areas, two of which require a $30 entry fee, or a National Parks Annual Pass. The first area is Kolob Canyons. This small area right off the I-15 freeway has a Visitor’s Center, a 5 mile scenic drive and 2 family friendly hikes.
The second area is Kolob Terrace Drive. There is no fee required for this area as it weaves in and out of the park. You can read more about this little known section of the park on our link. The third, and by far most popular and largest section of the park is Zion Canyon, which we’ll discuss in great detail below.
There is a large Visitor’s Center on the St. George side of Zion Canyon. You can get hike permits, directions, or catch the shuttle there. That’s right, Zion is a shuttle park. A few miles up the road from the Visitor’s Center the road splits. Any passenger vehicle that can fit in the tunnel can travel to the east (right) toward Kanab. The left fork goes into Zion Canyon where it dead ends, and only the shuttle is allowed.
Before visiting Zion, make sure to visit the National Parks website and see what hours the shuttle is running. The shuttle generally runs March through November, and on weekends and holidays during the winter, but things can change quickly. So we like to double check right before we go so that we are prepared. The shuttle is free and very convenient for getting around in Zion.
Stop #1: Visitor Center
I’ll start by explaining the shuttle system, since you will certainly have to use it. It runs from March-November. First of all, Zion is about as busy as Disneyland in the summer. So you may have to park in town and ride a shuttle just to get to the Visitor’s Center! But if you’re lucky enough to park at the Visitor’s Center, you can climb on the shuttle. This is Stop #1.
Stop #2: Museum
Luckily, the shuttle comes very often– about every 5-10 minutes. At some point in your trip, you’ll want to get off at Stop #2. This is the Museum. At the museum, you can watch a short interpretive video (20 minutes), which tells the history of the park. We definitely wouldn’t skip this spot, even though the museum is small. You can walk behind the museum and see some of the famous Zion landmarks. This is also where all the Ranger talks happen if you decide to attend one for the Junior Ranger Program.
Stop #3: The Junction
Stop #3 is not particularly important, but it is where shuttles are divided from vehicles. It’s called The Junction. In other words, you can drive to Stop #1-3 (but you probably won’t be able to park), but there, the road splits and only shuttles can go to Stops #4-9. Cars have to go to the right, through the Mount Carmel Tunnel Road, which we will describe below. Some people find spots in dirt parking lots near the Junction and catch the shuttle here.
Stop #4: Court of the Patriarchs
Stop #4 is called the Court of the Patriarchs. This is a short, simple stop that everyone should do. You can get out and look at the 3 peaks named after biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There is a very short (100 yards) doable paved trail to an overlook that get’s you above the trees to see the patriarchs.
Stop #5: Zion Lodge
Stop #5 is Zion Lodge. There are several trails here including the Grotto and Emerald Pools, though if you take our advice on these hikes, the Lodge is the end goal rather than the trailhead. You can stay at Zion Lodge, and eat at the restaurant here as well.
Stop #6: Grotto
Stop #6 is the Grotto. There is a very nice area for a picnic as well as the trailheads for Emerald Pools and the Grotto as we describe them on the links above. You can start Angel’s Landing here as well (we have not done this hike with our children).
Stop #7: Weeping Rock
Stop #7 is Weeping Rock. This is the trailhead for Weeping Rock, which you definitely should do because it’s short and paved. It is also the trailhead for Hidden Canyon Trail. This stop is currently closed (2021).
Stop #8: Angel’s Landing Overlook
Stop #8 is Angel’s Landing Overlook. There isn’t a whole lot here, but if you’d like a photo, you should get out and take it here.
Stop #9: Temple of Sinawava
Stop #9 is the final stop where the shuttle turns around and heads back down the canyon. For some reason this stop is called The Temple of Sinawava. The Riverside Hike and the Narrows both start at this stop.
Mt. Carmel Tunnel Road
Mt. Carmel Tunnel Road separates from the canyon road at Stop 3. You can take a private vehicle on this road, which you should definitely do. The main feature of this road is the tunnel, which is over 1 mile long, easily the longest tunnel we’ve been in! Remember that you may not stop in the tunnel, and large rigs will need to be careful in the tunnel.
Other stops along this road include Pine Creek Waterfall, which is one of the most secret hikes in Zion. At the far end of the tunnel you’ll see the trailhead for our favorite Zion hike, Canyon Overlook Trail. This trail is extremely popular and parking can be difficult. We like to hike here early in the morning or later in the afternoon/evening when crowds are thinner. Just past Canyon Overlook trail, you will find a new family favorite, The Hobbit Hole. This trail leads through a slot canyon and through a small natural arch/natural bridge. It is perfect for families.
There are a few other overlooks and one shorter tunnel heading toward the east gate, and you should definitely drive all the way out to see the unique features there including Checkerboard Mesa. We also saw the Desert Bighorn Sheep both times we drove through this section of the park, so keep a sharp eye out!
One thing that we love to do in National Parks is the Junior Ranger Program. When you arrive at the Visitor’s Center ask for a book. This program is good for ages 4 and up, and it clearly tells you how many pages you need to do. One of the pages asks questions that you will answer at each shuttle stop. Be aware of this page before you get too far up the road, or you’ll have to backtrack.
This program is FREE and you earn a cool badge made of wood at the end. Our boys have quite a collection of Junior Ranger badges and patches from National Parks, National Monuments, and State Parks.
There are tons of activities for families in Zion National Park. Don’t miss our other reviews on the Kolob Terrace Road and Kolob Canyons section of Zion, as well as our full hike review at Zion Hikes for Kids. We also found a lot of fun Things to do Near Zion. Enjoy your time in this amazing National Park.
Tips for Families
- GO EARLY in the day. We arrived at 8:00 am one day and 8:30 am another day and we easily found a parking space in the front of the Visitor’s Center parking lot. When we left around 11:00 one day, there were no spots, tons of people driving around looking for spots, and a line at the ranger booth to get in. So be an early bird the days you visit Zion.
- Go mid week. We were there on a Wednesday and Thursday and the park was pretty quiet. I’m sure the weekends are filled with people.
- Make a plan. We started at Stop #9 and worked our way backward through the stops. We didn’t want to do too many long hikes in a row, so we did Riverside Walk, then Weeping Rock, then lunch, then the Grotto, Court of the Patriarchs, and then watched the movie at the Visitor’s Center as a rest. Do what works for your family.
- Take what you need for the day! Since you won’t have easy access to your car, plan ahead to carry a lot of water and lots of snacks or a lunch. We had each of our boys carry backpacks to help divide up the load.
- Have fun! Don’t get caught up in getting everything on the list done. We have a big problem with this sometimes, so we have to remind ourselves that if we don’t hike EVERY single hike in Zion…it will be okay. We can always come back when the kids are bigger anyway. Enjoy the beautiful surroundings and being on an adventure with your family.
- Check out our ideas for Things to do NEAR Zion National Park when you need to escape the crowds.