Zion National Park in Utah: Everything You Need to Plan Your Trip from Must-Sees and Wildlife to Lodging and Camping

by Jon D. B.
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Ready to take the heavenly canyons for all their worth? Zion National Park is unlike anywhere else on Earth, and Outsider has you covered for every aspect of the perfect trip.

One of America’s most-visited national parks, the hallowed Zion stands true to its name. Massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red soar into a brilliant, ever-changing sky as incredible wildlife dominate cliffs, ravines and rivers.

Due to this remarkable nature, however, Zion is also one of the most dangerous national parks in the nation. As a result, we’ll cover imperative safety information here in addition to crucial trip planning advice for Zion National Park. In total, you’ll find:

  • What To See: Best Zion Trails & Views from Easiest to Hardest
  • What To See: Zion’s Remarkable Wildlife Watching
  • Where To Stay: Campgrounds in Zion National Park
  • Where To Stay: Lodging within Five Miles of Zion National Park
  • How To Stay Safe: Zion National Park Safety

Up first are Outsider’s must-see views and trails of Zion courtesy of Amy Myers.

What To See: Best Zion Trails & Views from Easiest to Hardest

The park revolves around two major attractions – Zion Canyon and the Kolob Canyons. Most first-time visitors flock toward the southern portion of the park where Zion Canyon lies. Here, you can find some of the more popular trails and attractions, as well as the nearby town of Springdale, where folks often end their days at one of the many popular restaurants.

Of course, with more attractions come larger crowds. That’s why those who prefer a bit more tranquility tend to prefer setting up camp or finding a room near the Kolob Canyons. Here, you can see just as many breathtaking views but without so many people sharing the same trails, as long as you don’t mind skipping out on some of Zion National Park’s must-sees.

Outsider’s Recommended Views & Trails in Zion National Park:

  • Timber Creek Overlook (easy)
  • Petroglyph Pools to Slot Canyon (easy)
  • Zion Narrows Riverside Walk (easy)
  • Pa’rus Trail (easy)
  • Separation Canyon Trail (moderate)
  • Emerald Pools Trail (moderate)
  • The Watchman Trail (moderate)
  • The Subway Trail (strenuous)
  • Angels Landing Trail (strenuous)

There’s literal tons of pros for each journey above; too much to list out here, in fact. For a thorough breakdown of each recommended trail, check out our Zion National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks, from Angels Landing to the Subway Trail next. – Amy Myers

What To See: Zion’s Remarkable Wildlife Watching

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Bighorn sheep graze in Zion National Park in Utah on February 9, 2017. (Photo credit: RHONA WISE/AFP via Getty Images)

With a whopping 148,000 acres, Zion National Park protects the heart of Southern Utah’s remarkable ecosystem. Flora and fauna are abundant in the heavenly desert, with some creatures defying imagination. Like the ringtail cat, for example, which isn’t a cat at all. But you’re as likely to spot a ghost as you are these elusive tree-dwellers.

Instead, head to Zion in search of their incredible desert bighorns (above), a park staple. From these large sheep to California condors to collared lizards, Zion National Park is home to some of the most fascinating desert wildlife on the planet. Below is a list of highlights, i.e. which animals you’re most likely to actually spot while in the park – and where.

Where To Spot Zion’s Wildlife Highlights:

  • California Condors:
    • Frequently seen perched on or soaring above Angels Landing
    • Kolob Terrace Road near Lava Point
  • Mexican Spotted Owls:
    • Deep, narrow slot canyons of Zion National Park
    • NOTE: Mexican spotted owls are endangered, but sightings are on the rise in the park. Please be extra-courteous and cautious if you spot one
  • Desert Bighorn Sheep:
    • between the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and the East Entrance
    • Entire East side of Zion NP
  • Mule Deer:
    • Grazing throughout the cooler morning and evening hours in the campgrounds
    • Near the Zion Lodge
    • Along the Virgin River at the bottom of Zion Canyon
    • During the heat of mid-day, they seek shade and den
  • Where to spot Rock Squirrels:
    • Riverside Walk trail
    • Pretty much everywhere else
    • NOTE: Rock squirrels carry dangerous zoonotic diseases. Never feed or approach
  • Canyon Tree Frogs:
    • Around water courses like streams, creeks, and rivers
    • Craggy rocks near water sources
  • Collared Lizards:
    • Zion’s lower canyon
    • Watchman Trail

For in-depth information on each species above and how they relate to the park, please see our Zion National Park Wildlife: Which Animals You’ll Spot and How to Stay Safe next.

Where To Stay: Campgrounds in Zion National Park

There are three campgrounds to choose from within Zion. Two are located in the southern region (closer to Zion Canyon) and one is in the northeast region near the Kolob Canyons. The lower two campgrounds, South and Watchman, are the more popular, as they’re closer to the more popular first-time attractions. Meanwhile, the northern-most campground, Lava Point, is much more secluded and offers a quieter stay at Zion National Park.

Busy season for the national park tends to be between mid-March through November, but Zion is so popular that you may find crowds during the winter months, too. Reservations are required for almost all campgrounds, but it’s a smart idea to book as far in advance so you don’t have to fight against crowds. Visitors can book a max of 14 nights at a time in the park with an additional 30 days allowed for the rest of the year. – Amy Myers

Where To Stay: Lodging within Five Miles of Zion National Park

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Zion National Park’s South Entrance. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

It’s true that the campsites within Zion National Park fill up quickly. But the good news is that there are just as many lodging opportunities, if not more, in close proximity to the park’s south entrance. For those that prefer to have air conditioning and electricity, this should probably be your first option.

Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort

Zion National Park Lodge

Canyon Vista Lodge, Bed and Breakfast

On top of a wide range of amenities, the lodges and campgrounds near Zion Canyon all have spectacular views of the park. So, even though you’re not within the park’s borders, you still feel connected to the experience. – Amy Myers 

For thorough pros and cons of each site, see our Zion National Park Lodging: Campgrounds, Cabins, Securing Reservations in Zion Canyon, Kolob Canyons and More next.

How To Stay Safe: Zion National Park Safety

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Photo credit: Doug Merriam/MCT/Tribune News Service via Getty Images.

As with any venture, safety in Zion depends on your own good judgment, adequate preparation, and constant awareness. Rangers respond to over 250 medical incidents in Zion NP every single year. And personal responsibility is the only way to avoid ending up a part of the park’s Search and Rescue statistics yourself.

Flash Floods: Water & Weather Are Unpredictable in Zion National Park

There are multiple cases of group fatalities in Zion National Park due to flash flooding. Always check the weather ahead of your visit, and be sure to pay extra attention to atmospheric changes while in the park.

  • Monsoon season is from July to September and is due to an increase in atmospheric moisture and summer heat, which leads to strong thunderstorms, a frequent occurrence in the desert southwest and Zion NP
  • Flash floods can occur at any time in Zion National Park and in the desert southwest, and are a sudden increase in depth and speed of water in rivers, streams or washes due to heavy rain from thunderstorms. Flood waters carry large debris like tree trunks and boulders

Desert Safety: Carry Enough Water, Heat Stroke & Exhaustion Symptoms

  • Carry Enough Water: The desert is an extreme environment. Carry enough water, one gallon per person per day, and drink it. Water is available at visitor centers, campgrounds, Zion Lodge, and some shuttle stops. Do not drink untreated water.
  • Heat Exhaustion occurs when the body loses more fluid than is taken in. Signs of heat exhaustion include nausea, vomiting, fatigue, headaches, pale appearance, stomach cramps, and cool clammy skin.If a member of your party begins to experience any of these symptoms, stop your hike immediately. Find a cool, shady area and have the victim rest with their feet up to distribute fluids throughout the body.
  • It is important to drink fluids, but it is also important to eat. While suffering from heat exhaustion, drinking fluids without eating can lead to a potentially dangerous condition of low blood salt.
  • If heat exhaustion symptoms persist for more than two hours, seek medical help.
  • Heat Stroke is an advanced stage of heat exhaustion. It is the body’s inability to cool itself. Symptoms include confusion, disorientation, behavioral changes, and seizures.If you believe that a member of your party is suffering from heat stroke, it is imperative to cool them using any available means and obtain immediate medical assistance.

Terrain Safety: Steep Cliffs Require Caution

Falls from cliffs on trails have resulted in death in Zion NP. Loose sand or pebbles on stone are very slippery, so please be careful of edges when using cameras or binoculars. Never throw or roll rocks in the park, either, as there may be hikers below you. These best practices may save yourself and others from injury and death:

  • Stay on the trail
  • Stay back from cliff edges
  • Observe posted warnings
  • Please watch children

In addition, Rockfall Hazards occur throughout the park and are especially high near any cliff face. Pay attention to your surroundings, stay off of closed trails, and, if unsure, keep away from cliffs.

Great Basin Rattlesnake is Zion’s Only Venomous Snake

It’s in our DNA to fear snakes, and for good reason. But remember, rattlesnakes will never be out in search of human-sized prey. They’re more afraid of us than we are of them, and it’s this fear during surprise encounters that typically brings them to strike.

  • Rattlesnake Safety:
    • As always, watch where you are walking, and pay attention for the sound of their warning rattle
    • If you encounter a rattlesnake on a trail, back away slowly, and give it plenty of space
    • In the unlikely event that you or someone near you is bitten, remain calm, and seek medical attention immediately

While rattlesnake encounters are rare in Zion NP, it is imperative to watch your step in their habitat – which is potentially anywhere in the park. Like most pit vipers, the Great Basin rattlesnake is identifiable by the triangular head (above). Locally, the park says, “Great basin rattlesnakes are usually light brown with darker brown blotches down the middle of their back. However, their colors can vary over a range of shades, and they usually blend in well with their surroundings.”

*Health Watch Advisory For All Waterbodies in Zion National Park Due to Toxic Cyanobacteria*

All visitors should be aware that Zion NP is currently experiencing toxic cyanobacteria blooms in their waters. Cyanobacteria is harmful to all living creatures and can be fatal to our pets and ourselves.

  • Toxic cyanobacteria caused the death of a pet in Zion National Park in 2020
  • Since, staff have been actively monitoring for the presence of harmful cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins in three major tributaries of the Virgin River within the park: North Fork of the Virgin RiverNorth Creek, and La Verkin Creek
  • Colonies of cyanobacteria can appear yellow, tan, green, brown, or black in color (See images)

Symptoms of cyanotoxin poisoning include: Skin rash, salivation, drowsiness, tingling, burning, numbness, pain, incoherent speech, seizures, vomiting, and diarrhea. Everyone reacts differently, so please remain vigilant for yourself and your party.

  • Do not drink stream water anywhere in the park at this time
  • Avoid primary contact recreation – do not swim in park water or submerge the head
  • Children are especially vulnerable to cyanotoxins
  • Keep dogs on a leash while in Zion NP and out of the water
  • Please remain vigilant for cyanobacteria mats (see images)

If you have concerns of cyanotoxin poisoning while in Zion, please contact the Utah Poison Control Center at (800) 222-1222. Always call 911 in the event of a medical emergency. For more information on Zion National Park cyanobacteria safety, please see their NPS website.

Stay safe out there, Outsiders, and happy trails through Zion National Park! For more on how to stay safe when visiting, see our Zion National Park Safety: Toxic Cyanobacteria, Desert Safety, Cliffs and Other Best Practices to Stay Safe next.

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