Standing in the shadow of the Court of the Patriarchs, the Navajo Sandstone peaks mesmerize me. As I hike through Zion National Park, it dominates my senses with its bold rock formations. Looking over the edge of the bridge, I realize the tame-looking Virgin River carved and molded it all.
The summer monsoon season shapes and erodes the rock. An afternoon storm turns a tickle of water into a torrent of debris and rushing water that shapes Zion’s landscape.
Zion is a part of the Grand Staircase, a geologic survey where over 500 million years can be studied in rock layers. The Grand Canyon represents the bottom layer, Zion represents the middle layer and Bryce Canyon National Park represents the top layer.
Zion National Park Must-Dos
Don’t have a ton of time? I explored Zion National Park with kids in just a few hours. Visit the following if limited on time.
Just inside of the eastern entrance along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, the Checkerboard Mesa offers an example of stone fracturing and Zion’s ancient sand dunes.
Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel
The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel is a favorite with kids, unless your kiddo is afraid of the dark. As a one-mile long tunnel with several windows bored through the walls, I wish I could stop the car to savor the beauty framed by the tunnel’s windows.
Enter or Exit through the East Entrance of Zion National Park along Zion Mount Carmel Highway to drive through the Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel.
The Watchmen and West Temple
At the southern entrance, the Watchmen and West Temple offer inspiring peaks close to the Zion Human History Museum.
The Zion Lodge
The historic Zion Lodge offers a lunch break and a couple of family-friendly trails. I hiked the Emerald Pools Trail. Located right across the bridge and the Virgin River, it’s a 1.2-mile round trip hike with a paved, mostly flat trail.
The Grotto Trail, a 1.0-mile round trip hike, ends at the hanging gardens. And can be combined with the Emerald Pools Trail for a longer hike for kids up for more hiking.
The Temple of Sinawava
Take the Riverside Walk, a 2.2-mile round trip trail that’s accessible with assistance, along the Virgin River. An option for families with older kids looking for longer hikes. Take this trail to reach The Narrows, the all-day, strenuous hike along the Virgin River.
Zion National Park Family Fun
Hiking is on my kids, 13, 12 and 8, must-do list for every park we explore as a family. I choose popular trails less that two miles long for my 8-year old.
The Lower Emerald Pool Trail offers families with school-age kids a semi-shaded 1.2-mile paved round-trip trail to a 100-foot water fall. The trail slips under the rim and the water tumbles down from above.
Tilting my head up, a drop of the waterfall lands on my cheek as I absorb my surroundings. The indigo sky draws my eyes upward while the red sandstone walls radiates warmth and the emerald moss clinging to rock fills me with a sense of vitality. Only a hike under a waterfall can transform a moment into a memory.
For families with strollers, try the Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. I found an accessible 2.2-mile roundtrip trail from the Virgin River to the Narrows.
To explore Zion National Park at a slower pace, try a guided scenic tour aboard a bus to see all the photo-worthy sights and maybe some of the Zion’s mountain goats too. Afternoon tours depart from Zion Lodge, three times a week.
For the adventurous families, Zion National Park offers guided horseback rides. With a one-hour and three-hour tour to choose from, families ride in the shadow of the peaks.
Zion National Park with Kids
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Zion National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the patches that the Rangers present them after completing their booklets.
For kids who yearn for more, Zion National Park offers a seasonal resource for families. Zion Nature Center (open 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day) offers families a chance to play games, look at exhibits and read books. Located north of the South Campground, it’s minutes from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.
Zion National Park offers the Junior Paleontologist Program as well.
Cool Facts about Zion National Park
It all began as a windswept desert 180-million-years ago. Time slowly compressed the sand into the Navajo Sandstone that rises up 2000 feet today. With the reoccurring floods of the region, water sculpted the canyon with the eye of an artist.
Archaeologists excavated evidence of human existence from 7,000-years ago. The Ancestral Puebloans cultivated corn and squash in the area.
The Mormons settled in Utah during the 1850s and Isaac Behunin named the area Zion, or Kingdom of Heaven. Though a Methodist minister, Frederick Fisher, named the Three Patriarchs, the Great White Throne, Angels Landing and the Organ rock features and continued with the religious theme.
Zion National Park earned its national park status in 1919. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed the Mount Carmel Tunnel in the 1920s and the switchbacks of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.
Where to Stay in Zion National Park
Inside of the park, Zion Lodge offers a main building that sits on the spot of the original lodge that burned in the 1960s. Modern hotel rooms and historic western cabins from the 1930s flank the lodge building that houses a restaurant, a café, a coffee bar, a gift shop and an outdoor patio.
The cottonwood trees shade the lawn in front of the lodge is a favorite gathering place. Situated next to the Virgin River, guests are steps away from hiking.
Where’s Zion National Park
Zion National Park is located 160 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada, the closest international airport. Springdale, Utah, Zion’s gateway town to the South Entrance, offers services for travelers.
Utah’s Route 9 is the Zion National Park Scenic Byway from the Interstate 15 turnoff. If continuing to Bryce Canyon National Park, exit through Zion Mount Carmel Highway for a stunning drive.
Zion National Park is part of the Grand Staircase and included in many national park itineraries. It’s located 85 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 122 miles away.
Zion National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $30 per private vehicle.
Zion National Park offers a free seasonal shuttle bus (Spring through Fall) that departs from the visitor center stopping all the major destinations along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive like, Canyon Junction, Zion Lodge, The Grotto and Temple of Sinawava.
Know Before You Go:
- Temperatures in the summer can reach 100F, carry water at all times. I stop and make my kids toast the mountains so we remember to drink water.
- Wear a hat and apply the sunscreen.
- Monsoon season is late June through September where flash flooding can occur with little warning.
- Consult a Park Ranger before hiking The Narrows Trail to see if flash flooding is predicted.
- Cell service is weak within the park.