I’m not the most outdoorsy, but I firmly believe that the U.S. National Parks are our greatest natural treasure. I’ve been lucky to visit a lot of the parks during my travels, including a recent visit to Zion National Park with my blogger friend Marissa from Postcards to Seattle. We didn’t have a long trip, and only got to spend one full day in Zion National Park. Admittedly this isn’t as long as I could have spent… but we made the most of it!
Based on our experience, I’m pulling it all together to help you make the most if you only have one day in Zion as I did. Read on for tips on planning your trip, where to stay, how to spend just one day in Zion National Park and see as much as possible, and the best hikes for your Zion National Park day trip.
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Pueblos and Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in May 2019 and updated in June and August 2021 to provide the most up-to-date information on visiting the national parks this year.
Planning Your Visit to Zion National Park
Before we dive into the ‘what to see and do section’ there are a couple important logistics you’ll need to know to plan your trip.
Driving & Parking in Zion National Park
I’m starting with the whole issue of driving and parking in Zion for two reasons: 1. I didn’t realize it was going to be an issue until I saw the page about the shuttle service, and 2. I realized it was a really complicated issue that required extra planning.
The important thing to know is that you can’t drive private vehicles into Zion National Park during peak visitation times. In Spring 2021, you must ride the shuttle bus:
- On weekends between February 13 and March 7
- Every day from March 13 to May 8
On these dates, you must ride the free Zion park shuttle from the Visitor Center.
Additionally, the Zion Canyon Visitor Center doesn’t have enough parking space. So on the day of your visit, you may need to park elsewhere in the nearby town of Springdale and take a different free shuttle to the Visitor Center to transfer to the canyon shuttle.
Zion National Park Entrance Fees
As part of the National Park system, Zion operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are you options:
- The private vehicle entrance fee, good for 7 days, is $35. This makes sense if you’re parking at the Visitor Center.
- You can walk into the park for $20 per person, good for 7 days. This is what you’ll pay if you park in Springdale and walk in.
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it! You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Zion NPS website.
Other Tips for Planning Your Trip
In addition to using my guide to plan your day in Yosemite, you know I always love a good guidebook as a comprehensive resource in the planning process. That’s why I was excited when the team at Moon Guides reached out and asked me if I’d recommend their Best of Zion & Bryce guidebook.
Unlike some guidebooks that give you a ton of information – way more than you could ever sift through or pack into however much time you have – this guidebook is focused on helping you plan for 1-3 days in both Bryce and Zion National Parks. That means it’s a perfect compliment to my suggestions here, since it has its own suggested one-day Zion itinerary, plus loads of travel tips and other info too. (You can bet I’ll be using it when it comes time to plan my trip to Bryce, the final Mighty 5 National Park I haven’t yet visited!)
Hotels Near Zion National Park
The only other important detail you need to figure out as you plan your trip is where to stay. Here are my tips:
- In the national park, you can stay at the Zion National Park Lodge. Rooms start from $217 per night. You can also camp in the park.
- In Springdale, the town next to Zion, stay at The Cliffrose (from $260/night), Cable Mountain Lodge (from $199/night), or Majestic View Lodge (from $269/night).
- For vacation rentals, consider this two-bedroom townhome (from $125/night) or this gorgeous modern home, called the Watchman Steel House (from $175/night).
- You could also stay in the larger city of St. George, which is about an hour from the national park. I stayed here, in the Staybridge Inn & Suites (from $79/night).
As you can tell, accommodation is more expensive the closer you are to the park. However, there are plenty of options to fit any budget.
What to Do in Zion National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)
If you have only one day in Zion, here’s what I recommend for the best things to do:
- Start with sunrise at Canyon Overlook
- Park at the Visitor Center and ride the shuttle into the Zion Canyon along the main road, for an early morning hike
- Have a late lunch in the nearby town of Springdale
- Drive up to the Kolob Canyons for an afternoon hike
- Watch the sunset before stargazing
Here are more details on each of those activities and how to do them.
Watch Sunrise Light the Mountains Up
With only one day in Zion, you need to make the most of it. Yes, that means getting up before sunrise and staying up past sundown!
There are some great spots to watch the sunrise in and near the park, including Canyon Overlook Trail (off the Zion-Mt. Carmel Scenic Highway) and at the Zion Human History Center, where you can watch the sunrise on the Towers of the Virgin. I mention both of these in greater detail below.
The most important part of the experience is looking to watch the peaks turn a fiery red as the first rays of light hit them. It’s a breathtaking sight.
Ride the Bus into Zion Canyon
Assuming you’re visiting during peak months, you’ll need to take the official National Park System bus shuttle into the valley if you don’t want to walk the 8.6 miles in to the end of the road.
The shuttle makes nine stops in between the Visitor Center and the Temple of Sinawava at the far end of the canyon. You can hop off at any of the stops for some of the hikes (I mention which shuttle stop each is at below), to see the rock formations, or to walk parts of the road
Drive the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway
When I was in Zion, the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel was closed for road repairs, so I haven’t actually seen that side of the park. That said, it was high on my list when I researched where to go in the park, and I absolutely recommend it.
You can pass by or stop at sights like Canyon Overlook Trail and Checkerboard Mesa (also a great stargazing destination) – and drive on to Bryce Canyon National Park via this route, if that’s also on your list.
Visit the Zion Human History Museum
The Zion Human History Museum helps shed light on the history of the area, from the indigenous Paiute who lived there to white ‘discoverers’ and modern uses of the park. The museum is quite small – a few displays and a theater, as well as an outdoor patio for naturalist/ranger talks – and there’s a small gift shop too.
Outside the Zion Human History Museum, you can see some of the most famous mountains and rock formations in this part of the park. These include the monumental Towers of the Virgin and Watchman in the other direction.
Hiking is the #1 thing to do in Zion National Park, and I’ve got a whole section about the best day hikes in Zion down below. Even for me, a non-hiker, the trails in Zion are exceptionally alluring. Scenic vistas, massive rock formations, the peace and quiet of one of America’s treasured national parks… even if you don’t have full mobility or love hiking either, I recommend planning at least a short walk or hike when you visit. (You can also book a guided hike if you want a little extra support choosing the right trail and exploring the park.)
Visit Kolob Canyon
Kolob Canyon is the lesser-visited part of Zion National Park, and it was personally my favorite area for that reason.
First, you can drive your car into this part of the park rather than needing to take a bus. Second, because there are few crowds, it’s easier to find parking and the trails will be more enjoyable without having to pass loads of people.
Kolob Canyon is a great spot to watch sunset too. There’s a short hike, Timber Creek Overlook, at Kolob View Point where you can see almost 360-degrees – including as far as the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park and to the nearby rock formations as they light up during the golden hour.
The real reason I wanted to visit Zion National Park will surprise nobody: it’s one of the most popular national parks in the United States for stargazing!
Without digging to deep into the details (here’s my Zion stargazing guide), here are a couple quick tips:
- Some of the best stargazing spots aren’t in the main canyon. Checkerboard Mesa, Kolob View Point, even the Human History Museum – all of these are on the edge of our outside Zion Canyon.
- It’s not ideal to stargaze in Zion Canyon. The bus stops running after sunset, so you’ll need to stay in the park or be willing to hike out. Also, canyons aren’t ideal for stargazing because you have limited views of the sky.
- Other parts of the park, like Kolob Canyon, are better. As you can drive into some parts of the park, it’s easier to get in and out with limited logistical issues. They also have fewer crowds, and less chance of light pollution from other people.
It’s pretty hard to go wrong if you’re visiting on a clear night near the new moon – juts get out and look up, and you’ll understand why this is a top stargazing national park.
Perfect Zion National Park Trails for a Day Hike
If you’re curious which of Zion’s many hikes are best if you only have one day, here are a few. Almost all of these are easy hikes too, which makes them ideal if you (like me) are not a huge hiking buff! If you want more tips on hiking in Zion, Marissa put together a guide to hikes in Zion National Park and she’s way more outdoorsy than me!
Canyon Overlook Trail
- Distance: 1.0 miles
- Effort: Easy
- Shuttle Stop: None, located on the east side of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel
Canyon Overlook, as its name suggests, is an easy one-mile hike that’s perfect for sunrise – or any time you want to get a really impressive vista. Right now this trail is technically open, but the only way to approach it is from the east (rather than through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, which is currently closed).
Emerald Pools Trails
- Distance: 3.0 miles max
- Effort: Easy to Moderate
- Shuttle Stop: Zion Lodge (Stop 5)
If you hear someone recommend Emerald Pools Trail, it’s important to note it is actually three trails: Lower Emerald Pool, Middle Emerald Pool, and Upper Emerald Pool. These three hikes vary in distance, elevation, and effort:
- Lower Emerald Pool Trail is an easy, flat 0.6-mile one-way out-and-back.
- Middle Emerald Pool Trail adds another 0.2 miles each way, and some elevation.
- Upper Emerald Pool Trail moves into moderate territory, with another 0.8 miles each way and few hundred feet of elevation.
As of writing, both Middle and Upper Emerald Pool Trails are closed due to trail washout and subsequent repairs.
- Distance: 2.7 miles
- Effort: Moderate
- Shuttle Stop: Visitor Center (Stop 1)
Watchman is a good moderate trail for those who want to get away from the crowds, gain some elevation, and get up close and personal with the mountains. You’ll get an excellent view of Watchman Peak, as well as most of lower Zion Canyon, including the Visitor Center below.
- Distance: 2.2 miles
- Effort: Easy
- Shuttle Stop: Temple of Sinawava (Stop 9)
Formerly known as Gateway to the Narrows, Riverside Walk follows along the Virgin River back to the point where the more challenging Narrows hike begins. It’s an easy, flat out-and-back hike that’s mostly shaded – ideal for hot days in Southern Utah, for those with limited mobility, or families with small children.
Longer, More Strenuous Hikes
If you really love hiking, you already know Zion’s best hikes are longer – they will take up most or all of a full day in the park. Here are the big three:
- The Narrows – This slot canyon is picturesque and interesting to hike, but access depends on the water level and time of year. It’s a long 9.4 miles out-and-back, and takes around 8 hours. (There are also guided hikes if you’re sold on it but want extra support.)
- Angels Landing – Everyone on Instagram knows Angels Landing, which is a massive elevation gain hike (1488 feet) over the course of 5.4 miles. It’s super picturesque, but expect queues at the peak to get that Insta-worthy shot.
- Observation Point – Set out from Weeping Rock for this 8-mile hike to the most stunning view at the highest point you can reach on a formal trail. This is definitely an all-day hike, and you’re going to feel it the next day!
Pro-tip: Trail conditions for these advanced hikes change frequently. Check the NPS website for all alerts when you plan your trip.
Doing any of these trails will take most of the day, so they’re ideal for someone whose main goal for visiting Zion is to do a more advanced hike and not much else.
Visiting Zion National Park from Las Vegas
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about whether or not it’s possible to drive to and from Zion from Las Vegas in a single day. The short answer is: yes, you can do a day trip from Las Vegas to Zion National Park.
It’s a 2 hour, 40-minute drive each way from McCarran International Airport to Springdale, so you’ll spend five hours on the road; this gives you several hours (6-8, depending on the time of year you visit) to explore the park. You can also book a guided tour from Vegas to Zion that does the driving for you and helps you explore the park more efficiently. While doing the driving and park visit in a single day isn’t the way I would do the trip, it is definitely possible!
Now that you know how to visit the park, what to do, and which hike(s) you’ll make, you’re all set for a perfect day in Zion National Park. If you have other questions about visiting Zion National Park, let me know in the comments!
Thanks to Greater Zion for hosting me during my stay, as well as the Staybridge Inn & Suites for arranging my hotel. This post was produced as part of a partnership agreement, but all of the companies and experiences I endorsed were included at my own discretion.