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Zion National Park: First Time Visitor’s Guide

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Did you know Zion is the third most visited US National Park? With jaw-dropping vistas, epic hikes, and an unexpected amount of vegetation and wildlife, Zion’s popularity is not surprising. The beauty of this park is beyond words.

This first-time visitor’s guide to Zion National Park includes everything you need to plan your trip. From what to see, how to get around, and even where to watch the best sunrise.

Zion National Park First Time Visitor Pinterest Image (2)

First Time Visitors Guide Table of Contents

Basic Information

Location

Located in the southwest corner of Utah, Zion National Park is the most famous of Utah’s five national parks, also known as Utah’s Mighty 5.

The closest airport is in the town of St. George, Utah. However, most visitor’s start their journey in Las Vegas (2.5-hour drive) or Salt Lake City (4.5-hour drive) because flights are usually cheaper to these larger airports.

It’s easy to do a road trip from Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and connect all five of the national parks.

View of cliffs from Upper Emerald Pool, Zion National Park, Utah

You’ll find more information on the layout and four main areas of Zion National Park in the Getting Around Zion section of this visitor’s guide.

Admission Fees

There is an entrance fee for Zion National Park. Tickets include seven-day entry.

Prices valid in Dec 2021

  • Private Vehicle with 15 or less passengers: $35
  • Motorcycle: $30
  • Per Person: $20 – Typically used for cyclists or those using the pedestrian entrance. For groups of 15 or less entering the park together, the park caps admission at the same price as vehicle entry.  

We highly recommend getting an America the Beautiful Pass if you plan on visiting other US National Parks or Federal Lands. These $80 annual passes include vehicle admission / entry for 4 adults (*up to 15 adults for Zion) to over 2,000 federally managed parks. Children under 16 are free at US National Parks.

You can buy the pass through the National Park Service website, at many National Parks, or from REI. The lovely folks at REI don’t always know they sell it, but they do.

Clouds sweep over the cliff tops at sunset , Zion National Park, Utah

When to Go To Zion National Park

Zion National Park is open and beautiful year-round. However, the best time to go really depends on what you want to get from your trip.

After we go through a quick rundown of the seasons, we’ll then talk about why we picked October for our trip.

Zion through the Seasons

December - February:

Winters in Zion are cold and wet. When it occasionally snows, the roads usually get cleared quickly. Though, inclement weather could still impact travel, especially for Kolob Canyon. The top of Kolob Terrace Road to Lava Point, closes for the season.

Some trails may close due to the threat of falling ice. Shoe grips are particularly useful this time of year.

Shuttle buses typically don’t run in Winter, except around the holidays. The Zion Visitor Center, Lodge, and part of the Watchmen Campground stays open. However, the Human History Museum and South Campground closes.

The best part, this is as quiet as the park gets.

March - April:

Day temperatures start to warm but the evenings can still be freezing. The trees start to bud, and some wildflowers start to bloom, especially in April. There may still be snow at the higher elevations.

The river may be higher than usual, depending on how much snow is melting, which may close The Narrows.

The park starts to get busy again as folks use their Spring Break to visit the canyon. Shuttle buses start back up and must be used to access the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from March to November.

May - September:

The park fully opens in the summer months, and it gets really busy. It also gets scorching hot, with temperatures regularly over 100 F. Keep in mind, there’s very little shade on many of the trails.

July to September is also Monsoon season with thunderstorms and flash floods a real risk. With more hours of daylight, the shuttles run for the longest hours of the year.

October - November:

The weather starts to cool. Days can still be warm, but evenings can be very cold. Layering clothes help with drastically shifting temperatures.

Visitor crowds start to dwindle, and daylight hours shorten.

Fall colors start to appear around mid-Oct at the higher elevations, then make their way down into the canyon for late-Oct / early Nov.

Up until Thanksgiving, the Human History Museum stays open, and the shuttles still run. 

Cliff tops lit with pinks and purples of sunset on Kolob Terrace Road , Zion National Park, Utah

Why we Picked October to go to Zion

After doing a lot of research, we decided October would be best for our visit.

Weather had the biggest impact on when we wanted to go. We knew summer would be far too hot, especially with very little shade. The summer crowds also weren’t appealing.

We planned to visit Zion as part of a road trip to all five of Utah’s National Parks. Winter felt too risky for driving mountain roads. Plus, some of the areas we wanted to visit close for winter and daylight hours are shorter.

It came down to April or October. Shoulder seasons are great. Prices are usually cheaper, and the weather milder.

After looking at visitation stats, October was a tad quieter. Plus, we felt it gave us the best weather for the full two-week road trip.

In reality, our trip reminded us how unpredictable weather is. Despite it being October, we got to see one of those Monsoon storms at Zion. We had fall leaves at Capital Reef National Monument. Then, a few days later there were snow and hailstorms in Moab. We felt this worked out perfectly, and we got some great photos of Utah because of it.

View of storm coming in over the mountains, Zion Mount Carmel Hwy, Zion National Park, Utah
Average visitors to Zion National Park from 2015 – 2019 by month
Month% of Visitors# of Visitors
January2%91,562
February3%112,890
March8%333,271
April10%431,935
May11%477,342
June13%534,610
July13%557,200
August12%491,483
September11%476,783
October9%391,538
November5%216,742
December3%136,061

Eating at Zion National Park

There are two places to eat within Zion National Park. Both restaurants are in The Lodge at Shuttle Stop #5.

  • Castle Dome Cafe – Seasonal cafe with a small breakfast and lunch menu of hot foods, snacks, and coffees. Only has take-out or outdoor seating with shade umbrellas.
  • Red Rock Grill – Sit down restaurant open year-round for lunch and dinner. Lunch entrees range from $10 – $20. Dinner entrees from $16 – $30.

Food in Springdale

  • Sol Foods Supermarket – We really feel bringing food with you into Zion is the best way to manage lunch. No need to wait in line or leave the park. This little supermarket in the center of Springdale impressed us. They are an all-in-one shop, with groceries, a deli counter with pre-made foods, fresh baked goods, and an amazing salad bar. Admittedly their prices are on the high side, but we felt that way about everything in Springdale.
  • King’s Landing – Though the restaurant has much fancier options on the menu, we grabbed two King’s Landing Burgers to-go on our first night. Oh my goodness they were good! Pricey, but delicious. Dinner entrees from $19 – $32
  • Oscar’s Cafe – There are several Mexican restaurants in Springdale. To help narrow down our choice we went with online reviews and found Oscar’s. Online reviews were spot on. We went with the Chicken Enchiladas and the Pork Burrito. Portions were large and the food was delicious. Dinner entrees from $19 – $33.
Large split rock on Emerald Pools Trails, Zion National Park Stop 9
Hiking a section of the Canyon Overlook Trail with guardrails, Zion National Park, Utah

Books on Zion National Park

If you only have a day or two at Zion National Park, our visitor’s guide and the park’s website should have you covered.

However, if you’re spending several days or going to the more remote sections of the park, you may find a book helpful in planning your trip.

  • Zion: The Complete Visitor’s Guide by James Kaiser – Inspiring and thorough, it’s more than a guidebook, it’s like having a personal tour guide. The detail Mr. Kaiser goes into is incredible, with striking imagery to back-it-up. It includes hiking, rock climbing, and canyoneering information. Plus, if you want to know more about the park’s history, geology, flora, and wildlife, this is the book you want. 
  • Lonely Planet Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks – Lonely Planet is a tried and trusted guidebook series. They don’t use a lot of photos, but they do include great detailed information. You also get two for one, as the nearby Bryce Canyon should also be on your trip list.

Continue with our First Time Visitor’s Guide to Zion National Park.

Travel Resources

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