The Complete Zion Trip
Exploring The Zion Region
Tucked into the southwest corner of Utah, Zion National Park is the centerpiece for a 6-day red-rock vacation that includes a little bit of everything that makes the state such a marvel to experience. Whether you’re flying into Salt Lake, Las Vegas, or nearby St. George, most visitors will enter the park through Springdale, a growing town that’s equipped to offer plenty of creature comforts in this otherwise wild region.
The Zion region exists at the intersection of many different ecosystems, each with their own treasures to uncover. From the red sands of the Mojave desert to the west, to the high alpine forests to the north, to the narrow slot canyons to the south, no matter where you turn, the classic red rock vacation you may have in mind will end up being more diverse than you’d ever expect.
Because of this region’s close proximity to I-15, you’re never too far away from a city or town full of knowledgeable locals happy to help you get the most out of your vacation. This itinerary is full of suggestions that aren’t quite on the radar of the average visitor, but nonetheless offer memorable moments that rival a scramble up Angel’s Landing. For certain experiences we recommend taking advantage of guides that can help you explore like a local and find views rarely found in brochures or Instagram feeds, as well as make as little an impact on the fragile ecosystem as possible. This is a region that rewards taking the path less traveled, sure to leave you feeling like that one overlook was made just for you.
Prepare for your trip with these how-to visit Zion tips.
- Start: From Salt Lake City drive roughly five hours south west to Springdale
- End: From Kanab head back to Salt Lake City or extend your trip by visiting the Bryce Canyon region
- Hours of Driving: 21+ hours, including travel between the region and Salt Lake City
- Watchman Trail
- West Rim Trail To Cabin Spring
- Sand Bench Trail On Horseback
Though Zion National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the country, their decision to restrict car traffic within Zion Canyon has kept it a picturesque place to explore. Shuttles run throughout the day through the Zion Canyon Drive, giving visitors front-door access to all the “must-see” spots. The park entrance and first shuttle stop are within walking distance from anywhere in Springdale, so leave your car where it is and stretch your legs before the main event. First-time visitors will inevitably want to check out the Emerald Pools or the vertigo-inducing Angel’s Landing trails, but we suggest you stay flexible, hopping off the shuttle wherever others choose to stay on to find a trail or experience that offers a degree of solitude. You really can’t go wrong, no matter where you decide to roam.
Where to Stay
Spend the night in Springdale before a second day of exploring Zion.
Tips for Prepared Travelers
- Soil Sleuth: Protecting Utah's Living Landscapes
If you’re just arriving in Zion, the perfect place to orient yourself is on the Watchman Trail, originating from the main parking lot. While everyone else zigs to wait for the shuttle, zag instead and enjoy this moderate 3 mile out-and-back that lets you look down on the hustle and bustle of Springdale, as well as the mouth of Zion Canyon.
Sharing the Grotto Trailhead with the uber-popular Angel’s Rest Trail, this strenuous 10-mile out-and-back trail splits at Scout’s Lookout. While many others will choose to wait their turn to ascend Angel’s Rest, you can continue up the West Rim Trail for scenery that many believe to be the park’s best-kept secret.
See the park just like the first visitors did a century ago by riding horseback along the Sand Bench Trail, a massive ancient landslide offering a relatively smooth ascent that lets you view the mouth of the canyon from the outside, looking in.
- Grafton Ghost Town
- Wire Mesa Loop Bike Trail
Day two is all about going against the flow. From mountain bike trails on the perimeter of the park, to literal ghost towns, there’s plenty to experience in the Zion region that still feels wild and unexplored. You’ll immediately notice the change of pace as you drive south against the flow of traffic heading into the park.
Those already familiar with Utah know that Moab is a mecca for singletrack riding, but the area south of Zion National Park is also home to some seriously epic lines. Whether you’re bringing your own bike or renting from one of the local outfitters, there are trails suited for any experience level.
After your two-wheeled adventures, return to Springdale for your last night in the shadow of the canyon walls. The sunsets in Springdale are worth lingering on a patio with a cold drink in hand as the night climbs its way up the eastern face of the nearby cliffs.
Where to Stay
Make up for a day spent outside of the national park’s borders by reserving a camping spot within Zion, either at the Watchman or South campgrounds.
Tips for Prepared Travelers
- Hiking Southern Utah with Younger Children: Tips for Family-Friendly Adventure
Every ghost town has a story to tell. They are often reminders of long-forgotten dreams, hopes, struggles, and gradual decline. Some say that Grafton is the most photographed ghost town in the West, and it was, in fact, the filming location for parts of "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid," among other Hollywood movies. This is private property, so do not attempt to enter structures and visit with respect.
This looping singletrack trail south of Grafton is a great choice for anyone with a little bit of time mountain biking experience under their belt. Just a few miles from Springdale, you can still see breathtaking views of the mouth of Zion canyon throughout the 7.5-mile journey. If you’re a newbie, take the short doubletrack road 1.5 miles north from the trailhead to experience a similarly epic vista.
Back in town, take your time wandering the main thoroughfare to sample the shops, diners, and more before settling on a place to grab a bite to eat. No matter your taste, this bustling town will have something to satisfy your post-hike cravings.
- Snow Canyon Climbing Guide
- St. George
- Tuacahn Amphitheatre
It’s time to hit the road to nearby St. George, a city experiencing remarkable growth. Before you hit the town, you’ll detour to Snow Canyon State Park, a natural wonder that exists at the intersection of three different geologic zones — the Mojave desert, Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau. Due to the confluence of forces shaping this land, you’ll marvel at the diverse landscape before you.
Rock climbers of all skill levels have learned to call these canyons home, with bolted routes scattered about, and cyclists that prefer tarmac to singletrack will find plenty to enjoy on the park’s scenic drive.
In St. George, summer visitors will have the opportunity to take in a show at the Tuacahn Amphitheatre. This stage is nestled within a red rock canyon, offering concertgoers a once-in-a-lifetime open air show under the clear desert sky. (Read: Exploring the Arts in St. George)
Where to Stay
Spend the night in luxury digs at one of St. George’s resorts, or camping in the nearby Red Cliffs Recreation area.
Visitors to Zion no doubt notice the daring climbers scaling the vertical cliff walls. Here in Snow Canyon, there are routes for all skill levels. Whether you’re looking for a short scramble or a full-on challenge, check out our climbing guide to get the most out of the park.
Once a simple launch pad for adventures in the Zion region, St. George has become the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. With that growth comes more opportunities for visitors to get a break from the backcountry, including luxurious lodging, white-napkin dining, and world-class golfing.
It’s the greatest show in Earth. On the southern edge of Snow Canyon State Park, tucked away within a red rock canyon, the Tuacahn Amphitheatre hosts concerts, broadway shows and more under the brilliantly clear night sky. It’s the perfect blend of culture and nature you’re apt to find on your entire journey.
- Sand Hollow State Park
- Red Cliffs Desert Reserve
- Cedar City
After a relaxing night of culture, it’s time to get dirty! Depending on your tolerance for thrill-seeking, your morning can be spent riding ATVs and OHVs up and down the red dunes of Sand Hollow State Park, or float across Quail Creek Reservoir on rented stand-up paddle boards.
No matter your choice of morning activity, save plenty of time to explore the Red Cliffs Recreation area for the remainder of the day. Again, you have a choice between the red-rock rimmed Upland area, and the fragile desert ecosystem of the Lowland zone. Visitors interested in ecotourism can carefully explore the Lowland area with a guide to learn about the sensitive species and microbiomes that hold this transition zone together. Those with kids in tow are welcome to comfortably explore the City Creek area (or the red rock playground of Pioneer Park) just north of St. George.
Tips for Prepared Travelers
- Things to know about Off-Road Vehicle Use
You wouldn’t expect “spectacular beaches” to be a calling card for a landlocked state, but that’s exactly what makes our newest state park a must-see. With over 6,000 acres of sand dunes open for ATV and OTV riding, you can hit the beach without checking the tide charts.
This reserve, much like the Snow Canyon State Park, is part of the transition zone between the Mojave, Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. Protected species found in all three zones coexist here in fragile harmony, giving careful observers a chance to view life in this harsh environment.
Home to the Tony-award winning Utah Shakespeare Festival that runs every summer, Cedar City combines the essence of a rugged frontier town with a more refined food and art scene. With wine tastings at local art galleries and gourmet spots to grab a bite, it’s a nice change of pace from the sun-baked backcountry.
- Brian Head in Summer
- Dixie National Forest
- Cedar Breaks National Monument
Now for something completely unexpected: a lush, green high alpine forest in the middle of red rock country. Dixie National Forest never fails to surprise travelers driving through the Zion region. One moment you’re looking out at mesas and buttes straight out of classic westerns, then you turn a corner to find yourself in an entirely different world. Because this area doesn’t fit with the “classic” national park vacation many visitors have in mind, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. That makes it a perfect place to explore for anyone who loves actually “getting away” during a vacation. The centerpiece of the day’s activities is Cedar Breaks National Monument, another hidden gem that is often overlooked. Geologically similar to Bryce Canyon National Park, this natural amphitheater is a few million years older and slightly more weathered than its national park doppelganger. That said, it still scratches that itch to sample Utah’s iconic hoodoo spires in a more laid back, remote location — though at 10,000 feet above sea level can require taking your time to acclimate.
Where to Stay
Camping under the crystal clear Milky Way in Cedar Breaks National Monument.
Winter visitors familiar with Brian Head already know how it’s ski slopes are one of Utah’s best-kept secrets. The same holds true for the warmer months, with lift-serviced mountain biking, family-friendly adventure trails, and a summer concert series bring the fun, even when snow is still months away.
No, you aren’t taking a detour through Appalachia. Driving through the Dixie National Forest, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking that was the case. This alpine forest connects Brian Head to Cedar Breaks National Monument, but it’s worth taking the scenic loop along state Route 143 and state Route 14 to see a greener side of red rock country.
This majestic 2,000-foot deep natural amphitheater calls to mind its big brother Bryce Canyon to the east with huge spires shaped over millions of years of wind blowing through the canyon. Because it’s an official Dark Sky Park, camping nearby is a must do, especially if you can attend a ranger-led stargazing program during the summer months at this certified Dark Sky Park.
- Moqui Cave
- Wire Pass Slot Canyon
- Lake Powell (Glen Canyon)
Spend the final day of your journey heading south for the border — with Arizona, that is — in search of slot canyons to explore. These canyons on the Utah-Arizona border range in difficulty from leisurely strolls to technical multi-day expeditions. No matter your comfort level with the claustrophobic walls of Utah’s slot canyons, they are always more enjoyable with the aid of a local guide. After enjoying breakfast in Kanab, join up with a tour operator to get the most out of the nearby slot canyons such as the family-friendly Peekaboo Canyon or a multi-day trek through Buckskin Gulch, the longest navigated slot canyon in the state.
Tips for Prepared Travelers
- Expert Tips for Your Next Canyoneering Adventure
A few miles outside of Kanab you can find a natural history museum situated within a redrock cave. With both Native American artifacts and dinosaur tracks on display, it’s a one-stop shop for a unique dose of human and natural history in a quirky setting.
Sharing an entrance with the 21-mile Buckskin Gulch thru-hike, this 3.7-mile out and back trip lets you explore Utah’s enchanting slot canyons without committing to an intense, two-day canyoneering trip. Enjoy this hike in the late spring or early fall with a guide for the best experience.
A location that could be an entire vacation all on its own, Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is an aquatic playground surrounded by red rock canyons. From houseboats to airstream trailers to fully-serviced campgrounds, no matter what you define as “getting away,” you can do it here.