How To Spend An Amazing Weekend In Zion National Park
I’ve been saying for years now that I need to get out and explore more of the amazing national parks in the United States. And shamefully, Zion has been on my list since I started *making* a list, featuring specifically on 2017 and 2019‘s list as well as more generally on 2018‘s. I mean, SERIOUSLY, get it together!
But we finally did it! We spent an awesome 2 days in Zion in April, then went on to Bryce Canyon. Overall we were blown away by the natural beauty here, and my parents are still talking about how much they enjoyed it. So I want to share my recommendations for things to do in Zion if you only have a couple days—and particularly if you’re not some crazy fit extreme hiker and more of a regular person.
Other inspiration & tips for visiting this area:
The main attraction at the park is Zion Canyon. It’s a 15-mile-long canyon carved by the Virgin River. The canyon walls and peaks rise on either side of the fiver and trails, wowing you at every turn.
Make sure you pore through the official Zion National Park website for up-to-date info on hours, fees, trail or road closures, activities, and everything else you’ll need to know.
An important addition: Planning A Visit To Zion National Park During COVID
Can you enjoy Zion if you’re not a crazy hiker?
YES! Both Zion and Bryce are great national parks for casual walkers and hikers, and even have quite a bit of wheelchair access on some of the trails. The shuttle system is great (more on that below) and and makes it easy to get around. My parents are young and in good health, but don’t really ever hike, and my dad has some back and hip issues (some of which I share). Suffice to say, we knew going in that we weren’t tackling The Narrows or Angel’s Landing.
I’ll be doing a separate post on great easy hikes in Zion, but have provided topline info on some of the best ones below. Even if you’re not a crazy fit hiker, don’t be surprised if you end up with 15,000+ steps each day. It’s hard to be here and not be a *little* active!
Tips for photographing Zion National Park
I’ll be honest, despite how stunning the park is, it can be quite a challenge to photograph for all but professional photographers. That’s because—as my dad said—the only angle is UP.
The scale of everything is so massive that it can be tough to capture the perspective and size. Additionally, because it can be hard to get enough sky in there, it’s hard to get all the nuances of color and feel like there’s contrast. And light is everything!
Try and find a focal point, something at the foreground that can give you some perspective. I found mid-morning and mid-afternoon light and sky (on a sunny day) to be pretty good in a lot of the different areas. Pray for blue skies, because without them everything is kind of beige. Play around with catching a sunburst or halo right on the edge of a cliff…you’ll see a couple of these throughout this post. And know that you’ll probably have to do a bit of editing to get some contrast in there and hopefully make your photos look a bit more like what it looks like in real life!
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How to get to Zion National Park
It’s not super close to civilization, so you’ll probably have to fly somewhere and then rent a car and drive. You have a few options, depending on what’s most convenient for you. Vegas is actually one of the best options, and it’s only a couple hours’ drive from there. If you didn’t want to rent a car, you could take a shuttle from Vegas to St. George, but I think it would be a bit challenging and limiting not to have a car here.
Check flights into St. George, Utah, as well…a smaller airport for sure and could be more expensive, but you might be surprised. Salt Lake City is the other logical one.
I flew into Salt Lake City, but only because we had family there we hadn’t seen in forever. The drive from there was about 5 hours, so it’s definitely not the most convenient airport for Zion. It’s a gorgeous drive though.
Where to stay in Zion
There are several good options, including staying inside the park at Zion Canyon Lodge. But we stayed at the Desert Pearl Inn right outside the park, on the recommendation of some friends and several blog articles I’d seen. We couldn’t have been happier with our stay there.
I ended up upgrading slightly to a riverside room, and then called ahead to the hotel to ask for a second-floor room with a balcony. Those are assigned day-of (and don’t cost extra), and we ended up getting one because we’d asked ahead of time and it was noted on our reservation.
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Our room was huge, and had a great, well-stocked little kitchenette in it. The pool area was great too, though it was a bit chilly for us to enjoy it. We loved our balcony, and even saw a little herd of deer wander past early one morning!
The location is very central to both the park and the shops and restaurants of Springdale, and there’s a shuttle stop right out front (map of the shuttle stops below). Overall we loved our time at Desert Pearl—my parents couldn’t stop raving about it. I’ve included some info on where to eat and drink in Springdale at the bottom of this post as well.
Getting around and resources in the park
By and large, you’re going to want to park your car for the majority of your stay here. Parking inside the park is suuuuper limited and fills up early in the morning, and the shuttle system both in Springdale and inside the park (and the handoff between them) is fast, efficient, and easy to use. Not to mention that the lines to drive into the park are bananas during peak season.
The great news is that the shuttle system both in the town of Springdale and within Zion National Park is awesome. They’re technically two separate shuttle systems, but connect easily. You can look up the times online, but basically assume that you can catch a shuttle at any of the stops every 5-15 minutes.
Shuttle stops inside Zion National Park (in order): Zion Canyon Visitor Center, Museum, Canyon Junction, Court of the Patriarchs, Zion Lodge, The Grotto, Weeping Rock, Big Bend, and Temple of Sinawava
Make sure you read my post about changes to Zion shuttles during COVID
Pro tip: Take a photo of the shuttle map so you can easily figure out where you are and where you’re going
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Once you walk into the park and either show your Park Pass or purchase one (or a ticket), make sure to stop by the Visitor Center to get important info on what trails might be closed, ranger activities, and much more.
Things to do with 2 days in Zion
While two days may not seem like a lot, you can actually experience a ton in the park, particularly if you’re not wanting to do all of the very long, strenuous hikes. Below I’ve laid out some of my favorite things to do in Zion on a weekend trip.
Take the shuttle round-trip
One piece of advice I saw when researching my trip was to take the shuttle all the way around the park as the first thing you do in Zion. We arrived mid-afternoon, so this was the perfect way to start out our trip.
The shuttle takes about 40 minutes each way, and it stops at all 9 of the stops each way. It helped us get oriented to the park, the views, the names of things, and start plotting which things to prioritize based on time of day, the light for photographing, etc. We never had to wait more than 10-15 minutes for another shuttle to come by, though in peak season they might be pretty packed.
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Hop on and off as the whim strikes you…I first jumped off at #3 for the views of the Sentinel, then at #4 for the views and a quick hike up Court of the Patriarchs (more on that below). Then we got off at each of the other stops just for fun and to snap some pics. Also at stop #9 because there was a screaming child and I just…couldn’t.
You can get off at #6, Weeping Rock, and see this little waterfall up on the cliff just a two-minute walk from the shuttle stop. But a fairly short 30-minute hike each way will take you to the aforementioned weeping rock (we didn’t do this due to time).
Where to watch sunrise and sunset at Zion
So here’s the thing—neither is all that spectacular. And both are crazy hard to photograph well. That’s because of a few things, but mostly the high canyon walls and peaks that rise around you, which block the normal sunrise and sunset on the horizon.
On both sunrise and sunset, I’d recommend the view of the river and the Watchman at the bridge by Canyon Junction (stop #3, if the shuttles are running). You can drive in if you’re there super early (at least at some times of the year)…it’s right at the point where you can’t drive into the park further but could go on toward Bryce if you wanted. The sunset view of the Watchman from the Pa’rus Trail is supposed to be good too.
We watched the sunrise at the Temple of the Virgins one morning (stop #2, behind the museum), and it was lovely. We were there for a long time watching the light change and eventually light the tips of the mountains on fire. But then we headed up to Canyon Junction Bridge (stop #3) and that timing worked well…start at Temple of the Virgins or Court of the Patriarchs and then go to the bridge after that.
If you’re watching sunrise over the Watchman from Canyon Junction Bridge, make sure to look to your left up the road…I was obsessed with this view of the road that leads toward the east side of the park, as the light started to hit the canyon walls.
Go on a few hikes
If we’re talking things to do in Zion, hiking definitely has to be on the list. Because even if you’re not super active, it’s hard to see the best of Zion without a bit of hiking. Though some of it could really be termed “walking” or “strolling”, as there are several great hikes that I’d classify as pretty easy.
Court of the Patriarchs: Stop #4, 2-minute “hike”
Calling this a hike feels kind of silly, but we’ll go with it. It’s not great for wheelchairs because of how steep it is, but it’s just a minute or two to the top, and view of the Court of the Patriarchs is amazing. Sunrise is great, when you can see the light hit the tips of the “patriarchs”, and I think the light mid-afternoon here was awesome too.
Lower Emerald Pools: Stop #5, 1 to 1.5 hours
This is a nice little hike to a couple of waterfalls, a there-and-back trail. There are a couple hills up and down, but nothing terribly strenuous. Good for families, there were lots of people with little kids strewn up and down the trail. You can walk behind the little waterfalls when you get to the halfway point, which is always a nice touch (and the kids love).
The trailhead starts across the street from Zion Canyon Lodge and is super easy to follow.
Riverside Walk: #8, 1 to 2 hours round-trip
This is a cool trail that takes you right up to the mouth of The Narrows, the starting point for that much more intense hike. The Narrows were closed when we visited the first time due to flash flooding, but we probably wouldn’t have tackled on this trip anyway.
To get to the Riverside Walk, take the shuttle to the last stop, Temple of Sinawava. The walk is really lovely, right along the river. Overall it’s pretty easy and a good chunk of it is wheelchair accessible.
These are some of the most iconic views in Zion, so soak it all in. I was bummed we couldn’t see the beginning of The Narrows (I would have liked to walk just a bit in to see the views), but this was a beautiful morning for my mom and I.
The Narrows, #8 (30 minutes to a half day)
On my second visit to Zion, I was able to do just a little bit of the famous Narrows hike, which starts at the end of the Riverside Trail. We only went about 15 minutes in and then turned around (we had limited time), but it was so cool even just experiencing that taste of the iconic hike!
I wore quick-drying tennis shoes (though many people wore river sandals). I was honestly surprised the rocks weren’t more slick (but I guess fast-moving water helps keep them clean)…they definitely do move, though, so place your feet carefully and go slow. Lots of people had walking sticks for balance, which was smart.
Pa’rus Trail – Visitor’s Center, probably 1 hour one-way
This is the only hike we did that offered the option of either just going one-way, or round-trip. You can go there and back, or go to the end and catch the shuttle back from stop #3. Pa’rus offers some of the best hiking views in the entire park, and is also one of the most wheelchair-accessible trails to boot.
We actually abandoned my dad at stop #2 because his hip was killing him, so he went to the museum to wait for us. Mom and I continued on to the Canyon Junction Bridge (stop #3). This would be a great hike to take near sunset, since the Watchman views from this trail are awesome.
Drive the eastern side of the park
The eastern side of the park doesn’t get nearly as many visitors, but offers a totally different type of geology, color palette, and topography. It’s definitely worth a morning or afternoon’s drive if you have the time…and a weekend in Zion definitely will give you enough time to spend a couple hours doing this.
You’ll drive into the park, then continue on when you reach Canyon Junction Bridge. The road starts to wind its way through the canyon, with tons of different pull-out points.
Eventually you’ll come to two tunnels, one of which is INSANELY long. The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel was built in the 1920s (finished in 1930) and is really impressive. It’s over a mile long, and pitch dark except for occasionally tiny windows (for ventilation, I assume). This is the short one (obvs…).
Once you get past the long tunnel, the landscape changes to a more washed-out palette. The rocks have a lot more beige and white in them, and lots have crazy patterns criss-crossed. It’s like a different place altogether.
While this wasn’t my favorite part of the park (partly because the skies were so blah, so it didn’t photograph well), I’m so glad we did this drive. Note, if you’re heading to Bryce Canyon after Zion, you’ll drive this route regardless.
Where to eat and drink at Zion National Park
Within the park, your options are super limited so make sure you pack snacks and water and such. You can find water fountains here and there, but Zion Canyon Lodge is your main place for food and any other beverages.
There are quite a few decent options in Springdale for restaurants. One thing that I did notice was that the pace was pretty slow, even at places like coffee shops…everybody seems to move at their own speed, so bring your patience and just sit back and relax. Here were some of the places we went during our short stay.
- Cafe Soleil: Great for coffee, pastries, lunch options. Super close to the park, and nice vibe (quite small though!).
- Oscar’s Cafe: Really cool vibe, good food, nice covered patio area. I had a delicious local oatmeal stout and a good burger here, super happy. Insider tip—get the sweet potato fries, way better than the regular fries.
- Deep Creek Coffee: Great coffee and delicious pastries (the lemon blueberry scone was melt-in-your-mouth!). Slooooow, just as a warning, they’re not in any hurry here so just bring your patience.
- Meme’s Cafe: I always want to say “meme” rather than “mimi” 🙂 We stopped here for breakfast after a chilly sunrise photography sesh and had a great meal. My parents were super happy about the bottomless cups of coffee too.
- Rosita’s: This is out way on the edge of town, lots of parking and super cute! Unfortunately the food itself is super basic…not bad, just nothing I’d go out of my way for and super limited options. Not a “sit down and order” restaurant, more order at the counter and they’ll bring it to you. Drinks are good though and it’s got a great vibe. Would be great to go with friends and have drinks.
- Bumbleberry Inn: We grabbed a slice of their famous bumbleberry pie one night and took it back to the hotel to watch the sunset from our balcony. Pretty darn good pie.
- We also ate at Red Rock Grill, which is inside Zion Canyon Lodge, but weren’t impressed at all. We did grab lattes here to go one morning, took forever and they weren’t anything to write home about, but beggars can’t be choosers inside the park!
Where to buy alcohol: If you’re wanting to buy something to take back to your room, head down to Switchback Liquors. Utah alcohol laws are odd and restrictive, but this tiny little package store has an oddly great assortment and really reasonable prices.
WHEW! As you can tell, we crammed a ton into our 2 days in Zion, and yet didn’t feel rushed at all. It’s just a very doable park in a short time, perfect for a long weekend. It combines nicely with Bryce Canyon and other national and state parks in the area. I hope this post has helped inspire you to visit and provided helpful tips for planning your own trip. Definitely hit me up in the comments if you have any questions!!
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- Armstrong Woods: Hiking in Sonoma, California’s, Towering Redwoods
- How to Visit Thor’s Well on Oregon’s Coast
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