Before visiting Zion National Park in April 2018 we did some major research online about the park. We knew the major hikes we wanted to take and a bit about the South Campground where we’d be staying. We also read a few things about the crowds in the park — but nothing like what we experienced when we got there.
In fact, there were a few things we missed when we did our pre-trip research about Zion. Today we’re posting our “5 things we wish we knew before visiting Zion National Park” to help you plan your trip. We hope by sharing these we can help you have a better visit to one of our most popular national parks.
1. Make a plan for the heat.
Coming from our base camp in St. Paul, Minnesota all temps in the Southwest are hot. While we were expecting Zion to be warmer during our April 2018 visit, we definitely could have been more prepared for the sun and the heat. Temps were in the mid to upper 80’s F while we were there which meant we had to adjust some of our planned hiking around the heat of the day.
During the busy summer travel months, the temps in Zion Canyon regularly top 90° F. Temps can also get that warm in the shoulder months of April-May and September-October. Having a plan for the heat can make a huge difference in how much you enjoy your visit to Zion. Here are some good tips for managing the sunshine and heat in the park:
- Hike early in the day whenever possible. This helps with crowds too (see below).
- Bandanas, hats, and UPF clothing (affiliate link) are a must.
- Apply sunblock in the morning and then pack it in your backpack. With the intensity of the sun in Zion, you should plan to re-apply more often.
- Hike slowly and take more frequent water breaks. Stop in the shady spots on the trail to enjoy a drink and relief from the sun.
- Drink enough water, and then drink some more. If you plan strenuous hiking, use electrolyte replacements (affiliate link) to help your body stay hydrated and performing well.
- Know the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
2. The gateway town is fully stocked.
Typically when we plan for national park camping trips, we pack everything we need for the full trip. We carefully check off our list of all the fresh food, dry goods, cooking supplies, and camping gear, because the closest place to purchase supplies might be 45 miles away. The closest gateway town might only have a convenience store and a dodgy tavern that you wouldn’t go in anyway.
That’s not the case with Zion. The gateway town of Springdale, Utah just outside the southern entrance is fully-stocked and within walking distance from the campgrounds. The shops in town have full amenities for any groceries or camping gear that you may have forgotten. While we do enjoy the solitude of a backcountry campsite, it was nice to know that if we needed something during our stay it was easy to find.
Springdale is also home to some great spots to relax at the end of a long day of hiking. Check out the restaurants, the Zion Brewery, the art galleries, and our favorite: the ice cream at the Springdale Candy Company.
3. Get to the park as early as possible.
We cannot stress how important it is to get out into the park as early as possible during the day. People told us this before we left and we were still surprised about the crush of crowds that arrive mid-to-late morning through the afternoon. It’s not a joke that cars often have to wait up to two hours to get into the park.
Recently there’s been some talk of restricting the number of visitors to Zion National Park because the crowds can be so out-of-control. If you want to enjoy the park instead of stuck in a traffic jam, try to get to the south entrance visitor’s center by the time the first shuttle bus leaves (between 6:00-7:00 am)
4. Know how the shuttle bus schedule operates.
In order to control the traffic and crowds, Zion established a shuttle bus system in 2000. You do not have the option to drive to popular trailheads like The Narrows, the Emerald Pools, and Angels Landing. Everyone rides the
Each year the shuttle bus carries more than 6 million riders from stops within Zion Canyon. With that many people, it’s important before you go to the park, to spend some time learning how to use the shuttle bus schedule to get around the park. Don’t waste the time you could be hiking and enjoying the canyon trying to navigate the bus system. Here are some tips to know:
- There are two loops (the Zion Canyon Shuttle Loop and the Springdale Shuttle). The Zion Canyon Shuttle goes up into the canyon, the Springdale Shuttle takes you through town and up to the south entrance.
- You may need to stand in line at some of the popular shuttle bus stops (Zion Canyon Visitor’s Center, Zion Lodge, Temple of Sinawava). If you don’t mind walking, most of the stops care connected via trails along the Virgin River. Take the bus one way and walk back instead.
- The buses are free to hop off and hop on as often as you like.
- The bus schedule changes. Go to the NPS Zion website and download the most current schedule before you travel.
- Pets are not allowed on shuttle buses. Find out where you can take a pet in Zion here.
5. There are other places to hike besides The Narrows and Angels Landing.
In 2017 and 2018 Zion saw record-setting crowds during some summer weekends. So much so that popular “Instagram-worthy” hikes like the Narrows and Angels Landing experienced wait-times just to get on the trail. Weather damage and budget shortfalls have closed trails in other areas in the park and forced more people to hike in the same areas, creating wait-times, overloaded bathrooms, and frustrated visitors.
While we agree that The Narrows and Angels Landing are some gorgeous places to go in the canyon, standing in a line to get on a trail is not our idea of a fun vacation. You can still have an amazing visit to Zion without going on either of these hikes (trust us, we’ve done it!)
Try our 3 Easy Day Hikes Guide for less-crowded options. If you’re looking for the same strenuous (and nail-biting experience as Angels Landing, try Observation Point, Hidden Canyon, or the Canyon Overlook Trail.
Other Things to Know before Visiting Zion National Park
How much does it cost to get into Zion National Park?
As of April 2019, the park requires all visitors to purchase an entrance pass. The pass is good for 7-days including the date of purchase. Passes are $20 per person (for
You can also avoid the fees and purchase an annual America the Beautiful Pass to get into all national parks and federal lands. Read about park passes here: National Park Passes: The Ultimate Guide
What’s the best time of year for visiting Zion National Park?
Zion is open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. That being said, there are some times of the year that we’d recommend visiting. It mostly depends on your tolerance of crowds.
The shuttle bus operates April to October which makes parking and getting around the canyon much easier. Shoulder seasons (March-May) and (September to November) will always be less busy than the prime summer travel months. The hiking in the mid-day heat is much better in these months too.
Do I need camping reservations in Zion?
100% Yes. The campgrounds in Zion Canyon will fill by mid-day almost every day they are open. The campgrounds are also fully reservable, so don’t expect you can drive up and find a site even if you arrive early. See our camping guide to the South Campground for more information about making camping reservations in the park.