Zion is a magnificent park with stunning, soaring scenery. The canyon’s name is credited to Isaac Behunin, a Mormon pioneer who believed this spot to be a refuge from religious persecution. When Brigham Young later visited the canyon, however, he found tobacco and wine in use and declared the place “not Zion”—which some dutiful followers then began calling it.

The geology here is all about rocks and water. Little trickles of water, percolating through massive chunks of sandstone, have created both dramatic canyons and markedly undesertlike habitats, enabling an incredible variety of plants to find niches.

The Virgin River cuts through Zion Canyon. Photo © Judy Jewell.

The Virgin River cuts through Zion Canyon. Photo © Judy Jewell.

The first thing that catches the attention of visitors are the sheer cliffs and great monoliths of Zion Canyon, reaching high into the heavens. Energetic streams and other forces of erosion created this land of finely sculptured rock. The park spreads across 147,000 acres and contains eight geologic formations and four major vegetation zones. Elevations range from 3,666 feet, in lower Coalpits Wash, to 8,726 feet, atop Horse Ranch Mountain.

Zion’s grandeur is evident all through the year. Even rainy days can be memorable as waterfalls plunge from nearly every crevice in the cliffs above. Spring and fall are the choice seasons for pleasant temperatures and the best chances of seeing wildlife and wildflowers. From about mid-October through early November, cottonwoods and other trees and plants blaze with color. Summer temperatures in the canyons can be uncomfortably hot, with highs hovering above 100°F. Summer is also the busiest season. In winter, nighttime temperatures drop to near freezing, and the weather tends to be unpredictable, with bright sunshine one day and freezing rain the next. Snow-covered slopes contrast with colorful rocks. Snow may block some of the high-country trails and the road to Lava Point, but the rest of the park is open and accessible year-round.

Planning Your Time

Visitors short on time should drop in at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and ride the shuttle along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, stopping for short walks on the Weeping Rock and Riverside Walk Trails. If you have a full day, you can also include an easy hike to the Emerald Pools or an ambitious trek up to Angels Landing.

Hikers rest before taking on the final stretch to Angels Landing. Photo © Judy Jewell.

Hikers rest before taking on the final stretch to Angels Landing. Photo © Judy Jewell.

It’s always worth spending part of a day hiking with a park ranger. If you can join a ranger hike, spend the morning of your second day going wherever the ranger leads you. In the afternoon, depending on your energy, hike to Weeping Rock (short) or Hidden Canyon (longer).

After this, it’s time for longer hikes: Angels Landing is a classic for those who are in good shape and not afraid of heights. Alternatively, if weather conditions and your own abilities are suitable, the hike up the Virgin River (largely in the river) is a spectacular way to spend another full day.

For visitors with more time and a desire to leave busy Zion Canyon, the Kolob is great for longer hikes. It’s also worth taking just a couple of hours to drive Kolob Canyons Road, which begins at I-15 about 17 miles south of Cedar City. Motorists with more time may also want to drive Kolob Terrace Road to Lava Point for another perspective of the park; this drive is about 44 miles round-trip from the town of Virgin and has some unpaved sections.

Exploring the Park

Zion National Park (435/772-3256, $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, $15 pedestrians and cyclists) has four main sections: Zion Canyon, a higher-elevation area east of Zion Canyon, the Kolob Terrace, and Kolob Canyons. The highlight for most visitors is Zion Canyon, which is approximately 2,400 feet deep. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive winds through the canyon along the North Fork of the Virgin River, past some of the most spectacular scenery in the park. A shuttle bus ferries visitors along this route spring-early fall. Hiking trails branch off to lofty viewpoints and narrow side canyons. Water-loving adventurers can continue past the pavement’s end and hike up the Virgin River at the Narrows in upper Zion Canyon.

The spectacular Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, with its switchbacks and tunnels, provides access to the canyons and high plateaus east of Zion Canyon. Two other roads enter the rugged Kolob section northwest of Zion Canyon. Kolob is a Mormon name meaning “the brightest star, next to the seat of God.” The Kolob section includes wilderness areas rarely visited by humans.

Travel map of Zion National Park in Utah

Zion National Park

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Zion & Bryce.