Zion National Park is my happy place. My parents were raised in southern Utah and and at least once a year, my dad would load all the kids and cousins into our old van and take us for a day in Zion. Now I love visiting this park with my kids.
For as many times as I have visited Zion National Park, I still haven't seen it all. But, I have a few favorite short hikes and activities in Zion Canyon – the most visited section of the park – that we do nearly every time we go.
Here are my favorite things to do in Zion National Park.
The Visitor Center is your first stop. The shuttle starts here and it's a good place to let the kids run around while you top off your water bottles, make sure everyone has stopped at the bathroom and get an overview of the park.
Get Junior Ranger information for kids ages 5-12 at the ranger desk. Junior Ranger is a free program at U.S. National Parks. Kids complete a booklet of age-appropriate activities and return it to a ranger desk for a free souvenir ranger badge. Each park has a different badge, so these are fun to collect.
The Pa'rus Trail is a paved walking and biking path that ends at the Canyon Junction shuttle stop. This trail is under two miles one-way and is wide, paved, and flat. It's a nice nature walk, and usually uncrowded.
Human History Museum
The Human History Museum is a good place to learn more about Zion National Park and participate in Ranger programs. Walk here from the Pa'rus Trail or take the shuttle stop. This one isn't a top priority for my family.
The Human History Museum was closed on our last visit to the park.
Zion Lodge is a great stop when you are ready for lunch. We love the large lawn with a huge shade tree and benches for picnics. There is also a snack bar, restaurant, and gift shop. Be sure to refill your water bottles at the filling station.
Related: Where to Stay at Zion National Park
Emerald Pools trailhead is across the road from the Lodge. There are three pools. The trail to the Lower Pool is a half-mile one-way and is paved.
The Middle Pool is a short but rugged hike up and is the least interesting of the three pools. But it has nice views of Zion Canyon.
The Upper Pool is .3 miles beyond the Middle Pool and it is a rugged uphill hike. Most school-age kids should be able to do it without much trouble.
The Upper Pool is surrounded by sheer red rock cliffs and during some of the year, a waterfall pours into it. It is shady and spectacular. Swimming is not allowed in the Emerald Pools. Still, my daughter managed to step or fall into the water both times she has hiked here. Consider packing a change of clothes for kids.
Angel's Landing is one of the most popular hikes in Zion National Park. The trail climbs from the canyon floor to the top of a cliff and rewards hardy hikers with spectacular views of Zion Canyon.
I've hiked to Angel's Landing twice, and it's a steep and strenuous hike. It's 5.4 miles roundtrip. I recommend it for families with older kids who like a challenge.
This hike starts at the Grotto shuttle stop. Wear good hiking shoes and pack plenty of drinking water and snacks.
The last half-mile of this hike is dangerous, with steep cliffs on both sides of the trail. It's much more dangerous when crowded, so permits may required to hike the last half mile. Get the latest information about Angels Landing permits at: https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/angels-landing-hiking-permits.htm
Big Bend is a quick and easy shuttle stop. It's a good photography spot. We have also spotted a condor's nest in the nearby cliffs, when rangers set up a spotting scope at Big Bend.
The last stop on the shuttle line is the Temple of Sinewava. The Riverside Walk starts here.
This wide paved trail takes you to the Virgin River and the entrance to the Narrows where you can play in the water on a warm day.
The Narrows is one of our favorite summer hikes, but you can hike the Narrows at almost any time of year if you have the right gear. Outfitters near Springdale can rent waterproof boots, pants, and poles.
Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel
After you have visited Zion Canyon, take the right fork at Canyon Junction and drive up to the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. You could do this later in the day, or on your 2nd day.
This 1.1-mile tunnel was the longest of its kind when it was finished in 1930. You'll catch glimpses of the scenic canyon through windows along the way.
I loved driving through this tunnel when I was a kid, and still feel a lot of nostalgia when I drive through.
The arched tunnel is not very tall, so one-way traffic is the only way RVs can drive through. Expect delays. Go early/late in the day and avoid holiday weekends/school breaks for shorter waits. Oversize vehicles will need to pay extra for a tunnel permit.
Canyon Overlook Trail
Look for the trailhead for the Canyon Overlook Trail as you reach the far side of the tunnel. Parking is on the right and the trailhead is on the left.
This 2-mile round trip trail is easy enough for most families and you'll be rewarded with fantastic panoramic views at the end.
The parking lot for this trail is tiny, and the shuttle doesn't come here. You can park along the road, away from the tunnel.
Checkerboard Mesa is another good stop on the Zion-Mount Carmel Road. It's an interesting viewpoint, but most people wouldn't call it a highlight of the park. A couple of years ago, we saw a herd of mountain sheep, which was a first for me.
There is a good chance that you will see wildlife, such as deer, mountain sheep, squirrels, and birds at Zion National Park. On our last visit, rangers had spotting scopes set up at Big Bend so we could see a rare condor's nest.
This is a good opportunity to teach kids not to disturb or feed wildlife. Zion National Park animals would not typically be considered “dangerous,” but they are still wild. Those cute squirrels can give a painful bite.
Zion Canyon is the most popular section of Zion National Park. It is only six miles long and serviced by a two-lane dead-end road.
You'll be required to use the free shuttle every day from March-November, and on some additional weekends and holidays in December, January, and February.
The shuttle is easy to use and arrives every few minutes, but it is often crowded – especially as everyone rides one way in the morning and the other way in the afternoon. Plan to fold strollers.
Shuttles have bike racks. Bicycling is a great way to see Zion Canyon.
The shuttle is wheelchair accessible.
Related: 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees
Parking at Zion Canyon can be a huge hassle because there are usually more visitors than parking spaces. My last visit was a Friday in late September and it was still tough to find a parking space.
Once we find a place to park, I usually find that crowds aren't a big problem. The canyon feels big and peaceful. There is space for people to spread out.
Look for parking at the Visitor Center parking lot. If that's full, try looking along the side of the road near Canyon Junction. Spaces inside the park will typically fill by 9 AM. I'd aim for 7 AM on a holiday weekend.
If you don't find parking inside Zion, you can park in Springdale and take the free town shuttle to the park entrance where you'll walk in and pick up the Zion shuttle at the Visitor Center. Public parking in Springdale can cost an additional $30 per day, plus parking and shuttling will take extra time.
Here are my strategies for finding a parking space inside Zion National Park
- Arrive early – before 8 or 9 AM
- Arrive late – after 3 or 4 PM
- Stay at the Zion Lodge, Zion campgrounds or in Springdale – close enough to walk, bike or shuttle.
- Avoid holiday weekends and school breaks
Utah schoolkids typically get Spring Break around Easter and Fall Break in mid-October. Avoid these weeks if you can.
A reservation system for Zion Canyon has been proposed, but is not happening at this time. Get more tips and updates for Zion National Park traffic at https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/
Zion Canyon is the most visited part of Zion National Park, and it's a must for your first visit. Expect large crowds during most of the year.
Start your day early and consider staying in the park or in Springdale if you really don't want to deal with traffic and parking. Avoid holiday weekends and school breaks, if possible. Plan to use the shuttle.
I hope that your family has a wonderful trip!
Good to Know
Where: State Route 9 in Springdale, Utah.
When: Open year-round. Winter is the best time to avoid crowds. Spring and fall offer the best weather for hiking. Summer is great for water hikes like the Narrows. Zion Canyon is very popular and crowds are growing year-round.
How Much: $35 per vehicle for seven days
How Long: a few hours to a few days
Amenities: shuttle, camping, lodging, restaurant, snack bar, gift shops, restrooms