What You Need To Know For Planning A Visit To Zion National Park During COVID
National parks became an even bigger draw than normal once COVID hit, as people were still looking to get out and travel a bit but be outside and away from people. And so for the most popular national parks, that forced them to make some changes to manage the crowds.
I’ve written a much deeper post on visiting Zion, as well as how to do a long weekend combining Zion and Bryce Canyon, so I’m not going to go through all of that in this post. Here I wanted to focus more on what you need to expect and prepare for when visiting Zion during COVID/post-COVID era, and how that differs from “normal”.
As one of the most popular (and so crowded) U.S. national parks and one deeply dependent on the shuttle system, it stands to reason that Zion has seen some changes.
What this post covers:
- What’s different about visiting Zion during COVID
- What to know about Zion shuttle tickets
- Changes to the shuttle shops
- How to visit if you can’t get shuttle tickets
- What to do at Zion during COVID
What’s different about visiting Zion during COVID?
The biggest change (and challenge) with visiting Zion during COVID is that you now have to have a ticket in order to use Zion’s awesome shuttle system—and there are only a certain amount of tickets available each day. More on how that works below.
Additionally, they have closed about half of the shuttle stops, meaning you can’t get on or off there. This is a super bummer for the average traveler, as it means you miss out on some cool views. It DOESN’T mean you can’t walk to those places yourselves, but it does make it harder.
If you’re planning a trip to this area, here’s other info that will help:
What to know about Zion shuttle tickets
So back to the shuttle system changes. This is the most important thing to know because it absolutely requires planning ahead, and possibly being even more flexible than usual.
Currently (as of early April 2021) you have to get a ticket in order to use the shuttle system in the park. They’re free (you still have to pay to enter the park), and you can get them at this website (this site has some really critical things you need to know about using the tickets as well, so read carefully!).
Here are a few tips:
- GET THEM AS EARLY AS YOU CAN! In peak season in particular, the tickets go incredibly fast. But they also release them in waves twice a month I think, so keep checking back, or call the park and find out how you can set yourself up for success
- They are non-transferable, and you may be asked for photo ID (it needs to match whoever purchased them)
- You have to have one for each day of your visit, and you get a time window to show up for each day
- The time listed is the start of the ticket window validity, and you can board (initially, at the visitor center) until the end of that hour. So if your window is 10am, you can show up and board your first shuttle between 10-11am
- Cell service in Zion and Springdale is pretty awful, so I’d recommend printing your tickets out ahead of time, or at very least taking screenshots on your phone so you can access and scan them
- You will need to continue showing your ticket to board in most cases throughout your visit, so keep it handy
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Changes to the shuttle stops
One of the other big changes (and a real bummer in my opinion) is that some of the shuttle shops are not currently open, meaning the buses won’t stop there.
I’m speaking to what was closed when I visited in October 2020 (in the pic below, and to my knowledge is still correct), but I’d expect this to change over time so make sure you get up-to-date info before your visit.
In particular, having Canyon Junction and Court of the Patriarchs stops closed means you miss out on the iconic view of The Watchman peak from the bridge, as well as the easy 3-minute walk up to an amazing view of the Patriarchs (you can see both in my longer post on Zion).
Now, Canyon Junction IS walkable from the Pa’rus Trail, plus you can drive to it during off hours, but still a bummer. It also means that the line to board the shuttle at the Temple of Sinawava can be CRAZY.
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Oh no! I couldn’t get a Zion shuttle ticket! Am I screwed?
No! Whether you didn’t realize you needed Zion shuttle tickets tickets, or just couldn’t get them for the date you wanted, you still have some good options for having an awesome Zion visit despite the COVID changes.
One thing you could consider is renting an electric bike either in Springdale or whatever town you’re staying in (we were in St. George), and using that to explore Zion to your heart’s content. My friends did this (including a little sidecar for their toddler) and it was super easy and allowed them to go anywhere in the park they wanted (which meant they could also avoid the crowds).
You can still enter the park and hike/walk, so for instance the Pa’rus trail is still a great option (plus it’s a flat, easy trail). You can also still drive the east side of the park, including the mile-long Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, Kolob Terrace, and passing the Watchman.
You can drive the east half of Zion anytime, but when shuttles are not operating then personal vehicles are permitted to access Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (the main road through the park).
One thing I’d recommend if possible is getting up before sunrise and driving into the park to the Canyon Junction bridge to watch the sun rise over the Watchman.
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What to do at Zion during COVID
I’m not going to go super in-depth on some of the specific hikes, since I have a much longer post on what to do in Zion, but I wanted to show a few things that are still great to do (and are pretty easy) when visiting Zion during COVID.
This includes whether you have shuttle tickets or not, with the exception of the first one.
Ride the shuttle all the way around
This needs an asterisk, because you are now required to disembark at the Temple of Sinawava (the furthest point out) and then you’d have to re-board. But doing a full round on the shuttle was always a good option for first-time visitors, and now even more so.
You get great views, and it helps orient you to the park overall. I recommend being on the left side of the shuttle when leaving the Visitor Center, and the right side leaving the Temple of Sinawava for the best views (though both sides are stunning).
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Walk the Riverside Trail
The downside is that this trail was always more popular because it’s easy, and now it’s even more crowded, but it’s still a great option when visiting Zion. It starts at the Temple of Sinawava stop.
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The Riverside Trail is what connects to the Narrows, and so if you’re feeling adventurous you can even do some or all of that hike. We had neither the time nor inclination to hike the whole Narrows, but we wanted to feel like we were getting a taste of the experience.
We probably hiked 15 minutes in, then turned around, and loved the experience. I wore quick-drying tennis shoes, provided better protection for me than river sandals (but that’s what lots of people wore).
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Walk the Pa’rus Trail
Whether you got shuttle tickets or not, this is a cool trail to walk (especially morning or evening, since it has basically no shade). The trail starts from the Visitor Center, so you don’t need to take the shuttle at all, and it’s a pretty easy and even wheelchair-accessible trail.
What’s awesome about Pa’rus is it’s where the canyon really opens up a bit and you get really sweeping views that are easier to photograph than the close-in/straight-up canyon walls elsewhere in the park.
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Emerald Pools hike
The Zion Canyon Lodge is one of the shuttle stops that is still open, and that makes the Emerald Pool hikes a good option if you’re visiting during COVID. We did the Lower Emerald Pools when we visited a few years ago, and it’s a pretty easy 1.2-mile hike with some great views.
The Middle and Upper ones were closed when we were there (due to trail conditions), but they’re a little more difficult and supposed to be beautiful (and less crowded).
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Drive the eastern side of Zion
The eastern side of the park doesn’t get nearly as many visitors, and showcases a totally different type of geology, color palette, and topography. I love how this lets you get up out of the canyon and get some pictures from a further-back perspective.
Plan for half a day to do the drive there and back (or you can do it on the way to Bryce Canyon), and longer if you’re planning to hike as well.
Additionally, one of the cool things when driving the east side of Zion is the mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel you’ll drive through. It was built in the 1920s (finished in 1930), is pitch-dark and a unique experience.
One last word of caution on visiting Zion during COVID!
As I mentioned above, do not underestimate the wait time for shuttles!! Even before COVID you’d have trouble catching a shuttle back toward the Visitor Center near park closing, but with fewer stops available the lines become quite long. I wouldn’t recommend waiting til the last shuttle if I were you.
Hopefully this helps you plan your trip to this amazing national park! As always, make sure to check the official website for updated opening times, restrictions, trail closings, Zion shuttle tickets, and much more!
Other U.S. roadtrips you’ll love:
- A Roadtrip Through South Dakota’s Badlands National Park
- Epic Road Trip Itinerary: A Guide To The Oregon Coast
- A Day Trip to the North Rim Grand Canyon
- An Awesome Long Weekend Itinerary in Portland & Willamette Valley
- Waves and Off-Roading on Maui’s Road to Hana
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