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.
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.
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.
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.
From there the trail ascends to 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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
Plus, click here to read about some other great National Park Scenic Drives