Zion National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the United States, and for very good reason. It is home to some of the most beautiful scenery, majestic mountains, fascinating wildlife, and natural wonders you’re ever likely to find in one reasonably accessible place. We spent three days camping in and exploring Zion, and here are some of our best tips to get the most out of your visit:
1. Camp inside of the park.
If at all possible, reserve a campsite at one of Zion’s two campgrounds (Watchman Campground has full hook-ups, while South campground is primitive), or rent a room at the Zion Lodge. Watchman campground is a well-maintained, modern campground, and one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever parked our rig. There’s just no way to describe the feeling of waking in the morning, stepping outside with a cup of coffee, finding yourself surrounded by majestic mountains, and watching the colors shift as the sun rises and the shadows move across the cliff faces.
Admittedly, this can be a difficult tip to follow. Campgrounds and hotel reservations fill quickly – as much as a full year ahead – so planning is essential. But even if there is no space available for when you are planning to visit, DON’T GIVE UP! People regularly cancel their reservations for a wide variety of reasons. Some people will reserve a campsite for two weeks while only planning to stay for a few nights but are not sure which. The cancellation penalty is small, so doing this gives them flexibility on when to arrive. So keep checking on www.reserveamerica.com for last-minute cancellations. That’s what we did, and we were able to snag four nights in a prime location while reserving only a week or so ahead!
2. Start your day early to beat the crowds.
It’s just a short walk from your Watchman campsite or the Lodge to the station where you can beat the crowds by taking an early-morning tram into Zion Canyon. (No cars are allowed. You must take a tram.) Do you want to look at mountains, rivers, and wild goats, or do you want to look at people? In late May we found that the crowds and lines really began to build by 10:00 am, so whether you’re staying inside or outside of the park, it’s worth the effort to get up early and get going! We were told that in the summer, the lines to get into the park are extremely long, and only so many can enter at a time due to limited parking. Cars start lining up as early as 6 am! (There is also parking available in the town of Springdale with free shuttles into the park.)
3. Sign up for a ranger talk or tour.
Our national park rangers love their parks, and they love sharing their insider knowledge with their guests. At a minimum, you should stop in the visitor center and ask a ranger for their best suggestions for the day. And if at all possible, sign up for a tram tour. (They fill up fast during high season, so you should reserve in the visitor center as soon as you arrive.) We’ve consistently found that the rangers are enthusiastic, well informed, and offer insights that will greatly enhance your visit. Plus, being in touch with other rangers, they know where to look for wildlife right at that moment and are eager to share such information with you.
4. Don’t try to cram too much into one day.
There is so much to see and do at Zion National Park that there’s a real temptation to schedule every hour of your day with activities. But sometimes the best thing to do is stop – stop hiking, stop taking pictures, stop exploring – and just soak it in. Listen to the sound of the rushing river or the gentle springs. Watch the colors shift on the mountains as the angle of the sun changes or the clouds cast their shadows. Pause to reflect on the beauty of creation and the Creator who lifted the mountains from the primordial seas (Psalm 90:2). Sometimes you can see more by sitting in one place than by traveling for miles.
Zion National Park has so many treasures to uncover. Three days was enough for us to hit the highlights, but we are eager to go back for more.
5. Don’t miss the east side of the park.
The west entrance is the most popular and gives easy access to Zion Canyon. But if you have time, drive through the long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel to the east side of Zion, where the terrain, vegetation, and wildlife are remarkably different. We were very fortunate to encounter some bighorn sheep grazing close to the road while others walked the precarious rocks. These sheep don’t usually live on the west side of the park.
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