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Guide to Zion National Park: The best hikes, when to visit, where to stay, and more!

Jul 17, 2021 | Travel, US

Guide to Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

The first time I went to Zion, I was a newly minted college grad and had never seen the American Southwest before. The entire drive from LA up to Zion, I was glued to the car window. It was love at first sight. I loved the dry heat (“it’s like the sun is giving me a hug!”), and the colorful striped desert mountains were unlike anything I had witnessed before.

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I have now officially been to Zion four times, and I don’t think it’ll ever get old. I’ve done almost every trail in the main canyon, and been to almost every restaurant in Springdale. So you could say that I’m expert, or maybe I’m weirdly obsessed… Either way, more and more people are choosing to visit this epic park every year so it’s high time I share my tips! This post is going to cover everything from when to go, what to wear, where to eat, and of course my favorite hikes. It’s a long one so be sure to check the table of contents to find the section most relevant to you!

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Guide to Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

When to go

Mid April and late September to early October are going to be your best bet for balancing weather and crowds, so go then if you can. We recently went for two weeks the last week of April to first week of May, and watched it get more crowded before our very eyes as soon as May hit. June, July, and August are HOTTT (like 100+ degrees) but also apparently some of the busiest months, so avoid like the plague if you can. Winter can get cold and snowy but is the least busy, so if you hate people and/or don’t mind hiking in potentially snowy and icy conditions then I guess it could be ok (but I personally wouldn’t recommend).

Guide to Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

What to wear

One word: LAYERS. The dry desert air doesn’t hold any heat, so it gets hot during the day but cools off rapidly as soon as the sun sets. Also if the sun is out, even 65° F can feel like swimsuit weather!

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In my experience, March to early April is leggings or pants + short-sleeved shirts during the day with a sweatshirt or long-sleeved layer, and jeans + long-sleeved shirts and jackets at night. Anything from late April to early October is shorts + sports bras during the day with a sleeveless layer, and shorts + short sleeves with a light jacket (or pants if you run cold) at night. I’ve linked some of my favorites!

As far as shoes, I prefer hiking boots for the type of rocky terrain that exists in Zion. If you know that you prefer shoes then definitely do that but if you’re deciding between the two: go with boots. I’ve had my pair of Merrell boots for 8 years (literally since my first trip to Zion) and they’re still going strong! Please don’t hike in normal running shoes — they won’t have the necessary traction and you’ll either spend the whole time worrying about slipping and falling or worse: actually slipping and falling.

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Also, not really clothing per se, but the desert conditions very much necessitate a hiking backpack with a reservoir for water. I will easily drink 2+ liters of water on a day hike out here, so carrying water bottles will not cut it! I have an older version of this pack, and Marc has an older version of this pack.

Also not clothing, but I highly recommend polarized sunglasses. It’s very sunny in the desert, and the sun reflects a ton off the rocks!

What to wear in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Kolob Canyons in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

How to get there

Zion is about 2.5 hours from Las Vegas, 4.5 hours from Salt Lake City, and 1 hour from St. George (which has a small regional airport). Minus the time I drove up from south LA (7 hours), I’ve always flown into Vegas and driven up that way. My main tip here is to try not to do that drive in the dark — once you get out of Vegas it’s just miles and miles of very dark desert.

Interested in more destinations in the American Southwest? Check out my American Southwest RV trip guide!
Guide to Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

Where to stay

I’ve only camped in Zion once and we stayed at the Watchman campground. That was 8 years ago though so I really can’t comment on the reservation system, except that I remember it was hard to get one back then so I imagine it’s even more difficult now.

All other times we’ve stayed in the town of Springdale, which is awesome in that it’s literally right outside the park entrance. If you’ve been to many national parks, you know that’s very rare! I’ve stayed at the Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort (See my RV trip guide for more details), at this Airbnb, and also this Airbnb. There are a bunch of options for rentals on Airbnb — they’re on the more expensive side, but you’re paying to be literally right next to the park so it’s worth it IMO.

Where to eat

Fooooood! Traveling, especially to small towns, can be tricky for those with food restrictions. However, I’m happy to report that Springdale has a solid amount of options for everyone! Do expect to pay more here — since it’s basically the middle of nowhere AND a tourist town, things tend to be slightly more expensive.

Guide to Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Guide to Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Traveling on the los FODMAP diet? Check out my tips for traveling and my tips for eating out!

Groceries

We picked up the more specialty items like lactose free milk, sourdough bread, Siggi’s, etc. at the Whole Foods in Vegas before heading to Springdale. Great new: it’s super close to the airport!

While in Springdale we shopped at Sol Foods, one of two grocery stores in town (Hoodoos is the other one). It had a pretty decent selection for being on the smaller side, and we even found gluten free chicken nuggets and sourdough bread!

Guide to Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Guide to Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

Deep Creek Coffee Co

While I can’t comment on their coffee because I’ve banned myself from caffeine right now (?), I can tell you they have a great iced tea selection. Expect to wait in line here though — it was always crowded! Bonus: They sold the cutest tiny teal thermoses here (which I bought, obvs), so this place definitely has my heart ?

Casa de Amigos

We definitely didn’t come here so many times that they started recognizing us… ? Hey what can I say, we’re suckers for legit tacos! I have no complaints about this place. Tacos were delicious, chips & salsa were good, and they served a proper margarita (aka, they didn’t dilute the good stuff with tons of sweet & sour). Definitely recommend.

Guide to Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Crepes from MeMe's Cafe in Zion National Park
Crepes from MeMe's Cafe in Zion National Park

MeMe’s Cafe

Good for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Big fan of the gluten free crepes. The BBQ one was delicious (and a very generous serving of protein ?), and of course the nutella one was a great dessert.

Garden at Bit and Spur in Zion National Park
Tacos from Bit and Spur in Zion National Park

Bit & Spur

A solid dinner option — they’ve got the most beautiful back patio / “garden” too. Tacos were alright but skimpy on the protein filling. Quinoa super salad was a good healthier option. Bonus: they have actual liquor here (most places are beer & wine only)!

Cafe Soleil

A good lunch spot on your way into the park for the day. My gluten free sammy was tasty, so I have no complaints!

Sandwich from Cafe Soleil in Zion National Park
Beers at Zion Canyon Brew Pub in Zion National Park

Zion Canyon Brew Pub

Great for grabbing beers after a long day of hiking. They’re always busy here so if you’re wanting to eat expect to wait. I remember some weird hours while we were there (like maybe they weren’t open for lunch?) but it looks like maybe they’ve changed them to more normal times.

Salad from Switchback Grille in Zion National Park
Steak from Switchback Grille in Zion National Park

Switchback Grille

Good for a more upscale dinner option. Steak was delicious (and I have very high steak standards), drink selection not so much. Apparently Utah law only allows cocktails to have 1 oz of liquor in them, which we learned when Marc’s old fashioned showed up looking like a glass of punch. And then they were out of all their desert wine, which we learned by ordering one at a time and then getting told they didn’t have that one either. ???

Jack’s

Classic sports grill vibe, good for a chill dinner. I got the teriyaki chicken bowl, and also ate some of Marc’s bison burger — if they’d had gf buns I definitely would have gone with the burger. ?

Food from Jack's near Zion National Park
Turkey Club at Oscar's in Zion National Park

Oscar’s

We came here for lunch a couple of times. The turkey club was delicious (and also a very generous protein serving… are you noticing a pattern in how I judge food? ?), but I think the gluten free bread ended up making me feel not great — so if you’re FODMAP sensitive be careful. Don’t get the shrimp tacos unless you prefer more mayo than shrimp in your tacos. ?

How to get around

Within Springdale

If you’re staying close to the “downtown” area of Springdale (near Meme’s and Deep Creek), there’s really no need for a car — everything is walkable!

View from the Kayenta trail in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

Getting to the park

If you’re going to the main canyon, you have a few options. The easiest thing is to walk into the park — the pedestrian entrance is just over a mile from downtown Springdale. This is your best bet if you’re close and/or don’t mind adding in a couple of extra miles for the day. Your second option is to take the Springdale shuttle into the park (free and no ticket required). This is a good option if you’re staying a bit further away, or if you don’t want to waste your energy walking into the park (same). However, we found that the schedule was far from reliable, and the shuttles often times filled up at the earlier stops. Also keep in mind that it stops running around 6pm — that was a not so fun surprise after we got done with a full day of hiking! Finally, you can drive in and hopefully find a parking spot. Chances of this are higher if you’re going in the off season and you get there early, and basically nil if you’re going during peak times. We did this a few years ago when we went in early April and got up early to hike Angel’s.

If you’re going to other parts of the park — say to Kolob Canyon or the East Rim areas (more on these below!), you’ll need a car. I think there are some third party shuttles available too, but we haven’t looked into any of those.

Many pools trail in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
View from Angels Landing in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

Traveling in the park

This is the most fun part (jokes). The main canyon and access to most of the trailheads is not accessible by private vehicle, so you’ll need to navigate the Zion shuttle system. As of June 2021, Zion has discontinued the shuttle ticket system, so getting on the shuttle is a first come first served situation. My advice here is going to sound familiar: come early and during off season for a shorter wait, and expect to wait awhile if you are here during the summer or trying to board in the afternoon. I heard that waits during Memorial Day weekend were up to 4 hours!

As mentioned above, there are also a few shuttle companies who run in the park as well. We don’t have any experience with those though so you’ll have to do your own research!

The narrows in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

What to do — AKA the best hiking

The mountains are definitely the main attraction in Zion, and the best way to truly experience them is to hike them! In addition to the big hitters, there are some really great moderate mid-distance trails that are worth exploring. I’ve listed them roughly in order of my favorites, but truly there isn’t a bad trail here — literally every view is epic.

Angel's landing in Zion National Park
Angel's landing in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Be sure to check out my “Zion” highlight on Instagram for a closer look at our favorite hiking trails!
Angel's landing in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

Angels Landing

Zion Canyon

5 mi, 1500 ft of elevation gain

Strenuous

It’s famous for a reason y’all. For the unfamiliar, the Angels Landing hike ascends almost 1500 feet over about 2 miles to Scouts Lookout. This section of the trail is a feat by itself, but the real fun begins at the last half mile of the trail often referred to as the “chains section” — basically you traverse a narrow ridge with 1000 ft drop-offs on either side to Angels Landing itself, often while holding onto chains to help you stay secure. Definitely not for the faint of heart or those scared of heights, but for those who make it the 360° views at the end are fully worth it! This trail gets crowded and the chains section is one way in and one way out so come early and on a weekday if you can!

The narrows in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
The narrows in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

The Narrows

Zion Canyon

Day hike (aka “bottom up”): up to 9.5 mi, 300 ft elevation gain. Moderate – Strenuous, depending on how far you go.

Backcountry hike (aka “top down”): 16 mi, 1300 ft elevation gain. Strenuous.

The Narrows is a super unique hike because you’re literally hiking in the river that carved Zion canyon. Definitely a bucket list item — I waited until my fourth time to Zion to do it and I’m not sure what took me so long! The Narrows could get an entire post on its own, but see this instagram post for more details on how we hiked it, and definitely do your own research (This post from the NPS, and this post describing the route are helpful). If you want to do the entire thing you’ll be doing it from the top down, and will need a permit. As a day hike you’ll start from the bottom, and can go as far as Big Springs which is just under 5 miles one way. I’d recommend going at least as far as Orderville Canyon which is 3 miles in!

The narrows in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
The watchman trail in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
The watchman trail in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

Watchman Trail

Zion Canyon

3 mi, 650 ft elevation gain

Moderate

The Watchman Trail is my favorite moderate hike in the main canyon. Bonus: it starts from the visitor center so you don’t need to deal with the shuttle! Although it’s not one of the big hitters in the park, it still has awesome views down canyon. It is pretty exposed so bring plenty of water (actually just do that for all the hikes listed here).

Many pools trail in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
PXMany pools trail in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go HungryL_20210504_194224855_ETD

Many Pools

East Rim

2 mi, 550 ft elevation gain

Moderate

This is one of many unofficial “trails” in the east rim area and was super fun. There’s no signage, but if you follow the directions on Alltrails (linked above, make sure to screenshot / download / have the app open before the drive up as you likely won’t have service) it’s easy to find and follow. It follows a slot canyon in the making, with — you guessed it — many pools, ? and climbs up for a great view of the surrounding mountains. The rock patterns around here are just stunning, and you feel like you’re in a different park altogether! Plus the trail was relatively empty which was a nice change from the crowds of the main canyon. You’ll need your own vehicle to get to the trailhead.

Many pools trail in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Zion Canyon Overlook Trail | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Zion Canyon Overlook Trail | Go Messy or Go Hungry

Zion Canyon Overlook

East Rim

1 mi, 200 ft elevation gain

Easy

I’m not usually an easy hike kind of gal, but this quick little trail is a fun one that ends in an awesome view down canyon and of the Zion-Mt. Caramel Highway. You will need your own vehicle to get to the trailhead, and oversized vehicles will need a permit (see this page for more info). Lots of opportunities for exploring the rocks around the trail and doing some scrambling too, if you’re so inclined. (I may have “accidentally” let Marc go the wrong way so I could explore some more ?.) Parking is limited and can fill up quickly so go in the morning.

Kolob Canyons in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Kolob Canyons in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

South Fork Taylor Creek

Kolob Canyon

3 mi, 500 ft elevation gain

Moderate

The Kolob Canyon area is about a 45 min drive from the main park entrance, but worth it if you have a car and want to escape the crowds. This trail is the unofficial partner to the official Middle Fork Taylor Creek trail. We did this one on a tip from the ranger at the Kolob visitor entrance, and I’m glad we did! As described by our ranger buddy: the trail is “primitive” but “the payoff at the end is worth it.” Translation: all 500 ft is gained in the first mile, and the person who made the trail didn’t believe in switchbacks. ? But walking along the canyon walls at the end really is worth it! This is a great hike for hotter days as it actually has shade, and you might even see some snow at the end! Bonus tip: continue down the road to the viewpoint for some more awesome views.

Kolob Canyons in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Pa'rus trail in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry
Pa'rus trail in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

Pa’rus Trail

Zion Canyon

Up to 3.5 mi, 50 ft elevation gain

Easy

Fun fact: “pa’rus” translates to “bubbling, tumbling brook” which is a perfect name for this easy trail that follows the Virgin River from the visitor center (don’t need to mess w the shuttle for this one either). The main trail is paved but if you wander closer to the river you’ll find an unpaved path that is, IMO, much more fun to follow. A good way to see down canyon with little effort.

Emerald Pools (Kayenta + Upper Pools + Middle Pools)

Zion Canyon

2 mi, 630 ft elevation gain

Moderate

The Emerald Pools trails and Kayenta trail (and even Grotto trail) can be combined in various ways — most recently we did the Kayenta, upper pools, and middle pool. You can also add on the Grotto trail to make a 3 mi loop. The middle pools were nothing special (more like a stream / tiny waterfall), but the upper pool was legit and also super relaxing. Best to do counter-clockwise and start with Kayenta as your ascent will be less steep that way.

Upper Emerald Pools in Zion National Park | Go Messy or Go Hungry

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