Utah

The Scenic Drives of Majestic Zion National Park

Zion National Park is Utah’s most popular National Park.  In fact, it was the third most-visited National Park in the US last year with 3.6 million visitors.  The popular hiking website AllTrails.com ranks it as the single best National Park in the US.  Zion is famous for it towering sandstone peaks and canyons, and its well-known hikes such as The Narrows and Angels Landing.  If asked to describe Zion in a single word – I would easily chose Majestic.

A road trip to Zion National Park was first up on our agenda for what will hopefully be a better travel year in 2021.  We visited in early March, as the temperatures were starting to warm, but before the peak tourist season really started in full force a few weeks later.

Due to its popularity, Zion can be very very crowded.  Even in early March, access to Zion’s main canyon is limited to a shuttle service on the weekends. I wanted the freedom (and isolation – still the pandemic, after all) to use my own car the whole time, and avoid the shuttle lines. So, we explored Zion over the course of a Thursday afternoon and a Friday. And then, we didn’t stick around to share shuttle seats with those weekend crowds. Instead, we traveled to nearby St George, where we explored the significantly less crowded Snow Canyon State Park (you can read about that beautiful Park by clicking the link).

We weren’t in Zion long enough for me to write one of my thorough posts about the entire Park.  But, we made it a point to drive each of Zion National Park’s 4 Scenic Drives during our visit.  In this post, I’ll show you these stunning roadways.  Plus, I’ll show you a few of the great hikes that you can find along the way.

Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links.  If you buy something after clicking one of these links, I may earn a small commission.  This does not cost you anything extra and helps support this blog.

Map thanks to Wanderlog, a road trip planner on iOS and Android

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is the most popular roadway in the Park. This road begins a few miles north of the Park’s South Entrance, winding north/south through Zion’s main canyon for 6 miles in one direction. It’s also the access road for many of the Park’s best known sites including Angels Landing, the Great White Throne, and the Narrows. Tall domes of red and white sandstone line this drive as it follows the course of the Virgin River through the canyon.  During most of the year, you can’t drive this road in your own car.  Since the sites are so popular and the parking so limited, a shuttle runs up and down the road, transporting park visitors.  Bicycles and e-bikes are still allowed along this route when the shuttle is running. The nearby town of Springdale offers plenty of e-bike rental options.

Entrance sign to Zion National Park with tall sandstone peaks in the background
Main Entrance to Zion National Park at Springdale Utah

During our early March visit, the shuttles weren’t running on weekdays.  I was able to drive my own car along the route and park in the various parking lots along the way.  Parking was not an issue on Thursday afternoon. However, the parking lots were packed on Friday. Lucky timing did help me find a spot to park every time I needed one.

Here are some of the great sites along this most popular of the Zion National Park Scenic Drives. 

The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive heading northward into the canyon
The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive heading northward into the canyon
The Three Patriarchs in Zion National Park
Court of the Patriarchs
Zion Canyon in the afternoon light from along the Virgin River
Looking south down the canyon near the start of the Emerald Pools hike
The Great White Throne in Zion National Park
The Great White Throne

Then as I mentioned, you can access some of Zion’s most popular hikes along this road.  Here’s a quick look at a few of these.

Emerald Pools Trail

The Emerald Pools Trail is located midway along the Scenic Drive. If you take this hike in its entirety (about 3 miles round trip), you will climb to three separate pools of water – with the upper pools feeding the lower pools.  The pools are located in a canyon alcove, surrounded by high sandstone peaks.

First, a fairly easy trail takes you to the lower Emerald Pool. Here you’ll find a long semicircular sandstone shelf over which water cascades from the Middle Emerald Pool above.  

Water cascading from above at the Lower Emerald Pool In Zion National Park
Water cascading from above at the Lower Emerald Pool. Note the trail in the lower right corner

From there the trail ascends to the Middle Emerald Pool. 

Reflection of Zion canyon walls in Zion's Middle Emerald Pool
The opposite canyon wall reflecting in the Middle Emerald Pool

And from there, the trail ascends even more steeply to the Upper Emerald Pool, tucked right in against the tall sandstone peaks. 

Hiking from Zion's Middle Emerald Pool to the Upper Emerald Pool surrounded by tall sandstone walls
The Upper Emerald Pool at Zion National Park
These pools are truly just that …..pools.

Riverside Walk 

This trail is located at the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.  This mostly flat 2-mile round trip paved trail is one of the easiest in the Park.  It takes you along the Virgin River, through a narrow canyon with soaring sandstone walls.  Ultimately the trail ends at The Narrows – one of the most famous hikes in Utah.  Here you can continue hiking up through the ever-narrowing canyon, but only by walking in the river.  Since it was early March and the water was cold, we did not continue further.  Outfitters in Springdale will rent you the appropriate cold-water gear if you want to go for it.  In the summer, hiking The Narrows up through the river is very very popular. 

Near the beginning of the Riverside Walk in Zion National Park
Near the beginning of the hike – heading into the narrowing canyon
The entrance to The Narrows in Zion National Park
This is where the paved trail ends and river walking begins.
A view along the Riverside Trail in Zion National Park
Returning along the trail in the late morning light.

Angels Landing and the Scout Overlook Trail

These are certainly two of the Park’s famous and popular trails, so I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention them.  However, we didn’t hike them during our trip. Scout Overlook is a 3.6 mile round trip hike with a steep 1100 foot gain, ending with a commanding view of Zion Canyon. 

From Scout Overlook, the extremely challenging hike out across Angels Landing starts.  Here the trail takes you further along a narrow sandstone precipice for even more commanding views of the Canyon.  Chains are affixed to the sandstone to assist you along the way. You gingerly negotiate this section of trail with a sheer 1500 foot drop off either side.  

Regular readers of this blog know of my height phobia.  Needless to say, I will never hike Angels Landing.  The much braver Mrs. TT has hiked it twice in the past.  Sadly, two hikers have fallen to their deaths already in 2021 – one during the time of our visit. My picture of Angels Landing is from the Scenic Drive on the ground below – the perfect place to see it in my cowardly, but safe opinion. 

An upwards view of the Great White Throne and Angels Landing in Zion National Park
Angels Landing on the right. Great White Throne on the left

Zion-Mt Carmel Highway

The Zion-Mt Carmel Highway is the other road in Zion’s south canyons. It branches off at the beginning of the Scenic Drive, climbing through a series of switchbacks east-west through lower Zion Canyon, and out to the Park’s east entrance. It takes you through a tunnel carved into one of the canyon’s tall sandstone walls.  Large windows are carved through rock at various points along the tunnel.  I have a memory from when I was younger of parking inside the tunnel and looking out through the window.  That’s no longer allowed.  This 1-mile long tunnel was a remarkable feat of engineering when it was built in the 1920s, and at the time was the longest tunnel of its type.  

The east tunnel entrance to the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel
The tunnel’s east entrance
Tunnel windows along the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnel in Zion National Park
Two of the tunnel’s windows

You can access this Zion National Park scenic drive all year long without needing to worry about the shuttle. But note that the tunnel closes during winter evenings. And it closes to large vehicles in the evenings year round. These hours vary depending on the season. You can check the schedule here. 

As we climbed up and down the switchback road between the canyon floor and the tunnel entrance, we enjoyed remarkable views out across this section of the Park.   Then, after passing through the tunnel, we found the parking area and trailhead for the popular Canyon Overlook trail.

Canyon Overlook Trail

The Canyon Overlook trail is a 1-mile round trip hike that takes you to the edge of the canyon’s high east walls where you have a commanding view across the lower Zion canyon. I’ve written a more detailed post on the Zion Canyon Overlook Trail. But for now, here is the view from the top….

The view at the end of the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National park
What a view.!! And note the winding Zion-Mt Carmel highway in the valley below
A view of lower Zion Canyon from the Canyon Overlook Trail

Kolob Terrace

Kolob Terrace is a beautifully remote part of Zion National Park. It sees far fewer visitors than the Main Canyon.  And driving through this part of the Park is free!  While all other entrances to Zion have a gated entry, the scenic drive through Kolob Terrace passes in and out of the Park twice, with only roadside markers indicating Park entry and exit.  Throughout this drive, beautiful other-worldly sandstone formations dominate the eastern landscape.  

The entrance to Zion's Kolob Terrace

The road to the Kolob Terrace Scenic Drive starts across from the town of Virgin Utah.  Once on it, we drove a little over 6 miles before reaching the official entrance to the Park. We then followed the road for a total of 16 miles to the parking area for the Wildcat Canyon Trail.  Here, the elevation approaches 7000 feet, and in early March there was enough snow on the road to keep us from wanting to go further.  Ultimately, the road takes you to Lava Point where several long backcountry trails into Zion National Park start, including The Subway.

A snowy March road at 7000 feet in Zion's Kolob Terrace section

The scenery along the Kolob Terrace Scenic Drive is spectacular and should not be missed.  We spent about two hours on this drive – starting from our lodging in Springdale. I had a hard time capturing the full beauty of this scenic drive in my photos, but at least they give you an idea.

One of the spectacular eastward views while driving the Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park
The stunning sandstone formations of the Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park

Now for Some Family History

Though not on the usual tourist track, I made it a point to stop in the town of Virgin after driving the Kolob Terrace Scenic Drive.  Virgin is one of the small towns (pop 550)  along the highway leading directly to Zion’s main entrance. A Marriott Fairfield Inn, an RV Park, and a few vacation rentals can be found here.  It also happens to be the town settled by my pioneer ancestors. 

My great great great grandfather James Jepson was directed by Mormon leader Brigham Young in the early 1860s to help establish this settlement along the Virgin River with the express purpose of growing cotton. The cotton growing experiment didn’t work, but the Jepson family stayed and helped continue to settle and develop the area.  In 1877, his son James Jepson Jr built a large house out of local limestone.  The house still stands and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The small street has been renamed Jepson Street.  

Sign for Jepson Street in Virgin Utah
The James Jepson pioneer home in Virgin Utah

Kolob Canyons

Kolob Canyons is in the northwest section of Zion National Park, 30 miles from the Park’s main South Entrance. From the visitors center, located just off I-15 (the main freeway through this part of Utah), a 5-mile drive quickly takes you up a steep road to the Kolob Canyons Viewpoint. All along the way, red sandstone peaks introduce themselves with each turn.  From the top,  the view looks eastward to the line of those same peaks and their canyons. These are named the Kolob Fingers.  You can find several hiking trails in this part of the Park too.

The entrance to the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park
Red Sandstone canyon in the morning light in the Kolob Canyons section of Zion National Park
Sun rising over the Kolob Fingers
A view from the top of Kolob Canyons

We pulled off the freeway and drove this scenic route on the morning we returned home, north to Salt Lake City.  Morning is not the ideal time to visit Kolob Canyons. As you can see, the sun in the eastern sky shines in your eyes and camera lens. But the drive is a stunner, no matter the time of day. 

Note: you do have to pay full $35 park admission to drive this short road. I don’t think the drive is worth $35 on it’s own. But if you have paid Park admission already, or have the America The Beautiful Pass, then it’s absolutely worth stopping and taking the drive up.  Also be aware that due to its elevation, the road is often closed with snow in the winter. 

A Few Zion Area Travel Tips

The town of Springdale Utah (pop 350) sits at Zion’s South entrance. Here you’ll find many lodging opportunities – but it’s still a small town, so plan well ahead with your reservations. While staying in Springdale is the most convenient, you can also find lodging west of the Park in Virgin (20 minutes), Hurricane (30 minutes), and St George (45 minutes). Orderville is located 20 minutes from Zion’s East entrance. Booking.com is always one of my favorite sites to find lodging.



Booking.com

Zion National Park Lodge is a great lodging option when visiting Zion. It’s located inside the Park, halfway along the Scenic Drive, directly across from the Emerald Pool Trail. I would have loved to stay here, but cell service and wifi is unreliable in this part of the Park and at the Lodge. Unfortunately, our jobs at home require us to stay connected when we travel. We ended up having lodging adventures in Springdale, unexpectedly staying in two different places. I won’t go into that 🙂

We ate good meals at two of Springdale’s popular long-standing restaurants – Oscar’s Cafe and The Spotted Dog.

You absolutely need to plan ahead if you are visiting Zion when the shuttle is running. I was able to avoid the shuttle with my early March weekday visit, but the shuttle runs full time starting mid March through late Fall. Click here for all the important up-to-date shuttle information and protocols.

My Utah National Park Reading List

We loved Zion National Park and I can fully understand the crush of visitors that come to see its majesty. If you are looking for a quieter National Park experience in Utah, then check out my post on Capitol Reef National Park.

Bryce Canyon is another must-see Utah National Park and is only 85 miles away from Springdale through the tunnel. You can check out my Bryce Canyon National Park post here.

And if you travel to Moab Utah, you can complete the Utah Mighty 5 by visiting Arches and Canyonlands NPs.

Plus, click here to read about some other great National Park Scenic Drives

34 Comments

  • Lannie

    As always, loving your Utah adventures. I visited Zion with my parents as a kid, but not yet as an adult!

    How cool about your family in Virgin! And the home too!! Love that you have a connection there!

    • thethoroughtripper

      Yes, that part of Utah has always been important in our family. Lots of relatives there still. So unlike some of the other National Parks in Utah, I’ve been to Zion several times.

      • Chalk and cheese travels

        Thanks so much for continuing to bring us to this amazing part of the world. I’m so intrigued by the landscape.
        These drives look amazing those tunnels looks so good. Love the memory of driving through and stopping shame not allowed no more it must be amazing.

        • thethoroughtripper

          Glad to hear that you continue to enjoy the Utah posts 🙂 A few more coming and then I might feel safe enough to go somewhere else

  • Stefan (Berkeley Square Barbarian)

    Good idea to avoid the shuttles, yes. I hope I would have done the same. “Sheer 1500 foot drop off either side” on the Angels Landing climb?” That does sound rather scary yes…. and sad to hear about the climber that met his maker while you were in the area. On the other hand, plenty of uplifting bits in your article. Nature is so amazing in all those NPs in the U.S…. you guys are so lucky!

    Ellie and I are just back from a hike in the South Downs. Basically rolling hills going up to 271m above sea level, maximum prominence of any hill: 70m. The last hiker that died in the Downs died of boredom, I’m sure.

  • Becky Exploring

    Zion National Park certainly does look majestic! It’s been on my bucket list for years. I agree that I’d rather drive myself than take a shuttle so visiting in the off-peak season seems best. Angels Landing hike sounds appealing but the part about people dying is quite scary and sad. It’s so neat that you can trace your family history back and find the house your ancestor built! You must be a bit of a celebrity in that town, right? 😉

    • thethoroughtripper

      I’ve never tried out my potential celebrity status when visiting. Maybe I should announce myself next time and see what happens!

  • kmf

    I can’t wait to take these scenic drives and hikes at the majestic Zion National Park. Utah keeps calling my name so need to answer it! Great guide as I’m definitely planning to visit!

  • Ross

    Great post and photography. Such a beautiful place. I would take on the tunnel! You have an Interesting and impressive family connection to this area. How nice to have a street named after your ancestor.

  • SteveH

    Brought back great memories of an amazing National Park and the photos were beautiful. You can’t go wrong where ever you travel in Zion and it looks like we both included the same places in our trip. Great minds think alike.

  • Jan

    Oh look at those electric blue sky, the tumbling hills and soaring boulders. National Parks such as Zion can not only offer a meditative feeling but also a sense of belonging. Glad that you were able to trace a part of your ancestry and looked at it with tenderness.

  • Jane

    Lucky you being able to drive through Zion. It was really busy when we were there so no driving was allowed. The upside of this was that cycling (we opted to get our bikes out rather than queue for shuttles) was very pleasant. How cool to have that historic link too. I shall look for Jepson House and street next time I am in the area.

  • Wendy White

    Wow the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive looks incredible. I’d try and time it so that we could drive it ourself too. The scenery is spectacular and I’d love to hike both the Emerald Pools Trail and the Canyon Overlook trail. Cool family history as well Steven.

  • Kasia

    What a gorgeous area to explore! I think next time I go to the USA, I will try to visit a National Park. I love the family connection – although when I read cotton, I thought, “cotton in that area?” so it was not a surprise to read that it didn’t take.

  • Francesca

    Zion National Park has some striking landscapes. Absolutely stunning. Sounds like there are some amazing hikes to do there although I’d probably admire Angel’s Landing from a distance too.

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