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How to Make the Most of 1 Day in Zion National Park

How to Make the Most of 1 Day in Zion National Park
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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 asI 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.


Note: This post is accurate as of March 2021. I have double-checked my recommendations to ensure everything is still available during the ongoing pandemic. For the most rent updates, be sure to check the Zion National Park NPS website. If you see an error, please let me know in the comments.

Planning Your Visit to Zion National Park

1 Day in Zion National Park - Entrance

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 

1 Day in Zion National Park - Shuttles

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, 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 your private vehicle into Zion National Park during peak visitation times. In Spring 2021, you must ride the shuttle:

  • 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, you must have a ticket to board the shuttle. These can be reserved at recreation.gov.

Additionally, the Visitor Center doesn’t have enough parking even given the new shuttle reservation system. So on the day of your shuttle reservation, you may need to park elsewhere in the nearby town of Springdale and take a different shuttle to the Visitor Center to transfer to the canyon shuttle.

Zion National Park Entrance Fees 

1 Day in Zion National Park - Entrance

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:

You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Zion NPS website.

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:

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!)

1 Day in Zion National Park

If you have only one day in Zion, here’s what I recommend:

  1. Start with sunrise at Canyon Overlook
  2. Park at the Visitor Center and ride the shuttle into the Zion Canyon an early morning hike
  3. Have a late lunch in the nearby town of Springdale
  4. Drive up to the Kolob Canyon for an afternoon hike
  5. 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

1 Day in Zion National Park - Sunrise on Towers of the Virgin

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

1 Day in Zion National Park - Road

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 Scenic Highway

When I was in Zion, the Zion-Mt. 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 via this route, if that’s also on your list.

Visit the Zion Human History Museum

1 Day in Zion National Park - 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.

Go Hiking

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.

Visit Kolob Canyon

1 Day in Zion National Park - 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 the Grand Canyon and to the nearby rock formations as they light up during the golden hour.

Go Stargazing

1 Day in Zion National Park - Stargazing

The real reason I wanted to visit Zion National Park will surprise nobody: it’s one of the most popular national parks in the U.S. 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

1 Day in Zion National Park - Emerald Pool Trails

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).

Weeping Rock Trail

  • Distance: 0.4 miles
  • Effort: Easy
  • Shuttle Stop: Weeping Rock (Stop 7)

Weeping Rock is a super-easy, super-short trail that takes you to one of the famous geologic features in Zion: Weeping Rock. This sloping, curved rock wall seems to ‘weep’ as groundwater seeps out through the porous parts of the rock. There are other parts in the park where you can see this effect, but Weeping Rock is the biggest and most impressive.

Emerald Pools Trails

1 Day in Zion National Park - Emerald Pool Trails
  • Distance: 3.0 miles max
  • Effort: Easy to Moderate
  • Shuttle Stop: Zion Lodge (Stop 5)

If you hear someone recommend Emerald Pools, 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 is an easy, flat 0.6-mile one-way out-and-back.
  • Middle Emerald Pool adds another 0.2 miles each way, and some elevation.
  • Upper Emerald Pool 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. 

Watchman Trail

1 Day in Zion National Park - Three Patriarchs
  • 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.

Riverside Walk

  • 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 Advanced Hikes

1 Day in Zion National Park - Slot Canyon

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. It’s a long 9.4 miles out-and-back, and takes around 8 hours.
  • 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.

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.

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Andy

Friday 26th of March 2021

If a ticket on the shuttle isn't available, I believe you mentioned you drove to Kolob Canyon, is this correct?

Valerie

Saturday 27th of March 2021

Yep, during my trip, we did – and I don't believe there's any shuttle for that part of the park.

kayla

Saturday 27th of February 2021

Thanks for this, very helpful. My son and I are going to be in Las Vegas for a few days next month. He REALLY wants to go to Zion, and I've been debating whether it's worth all the time we'll spend in the car. Also wondering if the parking situation is going to be a hassle. Your post has convinced me that it's worth the drive. I appreciate all the details in your post! Is the shuttle from Springdale a hassle to figure out/catch, if all the parking inside the park is full?

Valerie

Tuesday 2nd of March 2021

Thanks for reading, Kayla! I'm not sure how much of a hassle the Springdale shuttle is as we didn't use that services when I visited, but I know there were signs all over town so I'm sure you'll be able to handle it!

Ryan

Monday 18th of January 2021

Valerie,

This was super helpful. My family is looking to do a day trip to Zion from Las Vegas in February. How early should we plan on being at the park to make sure that we are at the canyon overlook for sunrise?

Thanks again,

Melissa Engdahl

Thursday 25th of March 2021

Hey Ryan. Did you do the day trip last month? We are planning one too from Vegas and would love your feedback.

Valerie

Tuesday 19th of January 2021

Ryan, I'd check sunrise times for the day you plan to visit – but be prepared that it's a 2.5-hour drive from Vegas to Zion, so if sunrise is at 6:30am on February 15th, you need to leave at 4am to be there for sunrise!

Laurie

Thursday 24th of September 2020

Your itinerary sounds great but I'm a bit confused by how to do both the sunrise hike on the Canyon Overlook Trail and also get into the park on the 6AM shuttle. I thought the Canyon Overlook Trail was outside the park. You make the sunrise hike sound spectacular but we'd also like to get into the park early enough not to have to park in Springdale. We're planning on bringing bikes into the park to pedal the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive too. Can you try to be more specific with the logistics or what am I missing?

Valerie

Wednesday 30th of September 2020

Thanks for asking, Laurie. Doing both definitely depends on the sunrise; when I went, we *would* have had time to drive to the Canyon Overlook Trail (which is a short 1-mile out-and-back) and get back before the main lot was full, because the sunrise was really early. If you're visiting in the winter though, you might not be able to do both – then again, the park isn't as busy in the winter so there will be parking available later! Sorry I can't be more specific, but if you double check on Google Maps and with the sunrise times, that will help you know if you can make both happen.

rachel frampton

Tuesday 1st of September 2020

My friends and I are planning to go canyoneering at the Zion National Park, which is why we're currently looking for a guide service. Thank you for this because at least now we're aware that our vehicle will not be allowed inside the park. We'll also keep in mind to start booking a room at the lodge that you've mentioned.

Valerie

Thursday 3rd of September 2020

Sounds like fun – have a great trip, Rachel!