Zion National Park, Utah, is freaking beautiful. It’s what people are referring to when they say things like “the most amazing destinations in the United States are its National Parks.” The red cliffs rising high above the green foliage elicit the kind of awe that you can only find in other US National Parks (like, for example, Yosemite National Park, where the cliffs are gray, not red, but every bit as awe-inspiring). For those of us who are self-described as “outdoorsy,” the whole park is one giant, exciting playground waiting to be discovered on foot, camping or rock-climbing gear in tow (or in my case, a daybag full of snacks). Zion National Park is full of amazing day hikes that unlock its mysteries, step by step!
So when Matt Burns, travel writer extraordinaire, reached out to me offering to guest post a guide to the best Zion day hikes, I was like YASS, please write this for me so that I can use it for my next trip to Zion, muahahha. That’s what my blog is for, you guys. Free travel guides, delivered to my inbox.
Personally, I’ve only visited Zion National Park once, on my very first cross-country road trip. During that trip I hiked only one Zion day hike: it’s the easiest one on this list, and I had little to no experience hiking, but I still managed to make it harder than it needed to be by bringing way too little water and dehydrating myself in the middle of July. Don’t be me, y’all.
Anyway, Matt is MUCH more experienced than either me or Jeremy. He’s a digital nomad who’s traveling the world like a bada$$ and just casually posts epic pictures like this one:
Watching the sunset in Bryce Canyon National Park after an epic day of hiking. pic.twitter.com/yi43R86Ymn
— Matt Burns Travel (@MattBurnsUK) February 3, 2018
Color me impressed. So I’m super excited to hand the reigns of this post over to Matt, today’s featured guest poster! Take it away, Matt.
Table of Contents
About Zion National Park
Zion was Utah’s very first National Park and ever since its inception in 1919, has been quietly gaining a solid reputation as something of a true hiking mecca. Over the past few years, Zion has become a kind of buzz-word for adventure. It’s a park with a rep for tough hikes and insane views, plus some pretty incredible rewards.
And I mean, 3 million visitors a year can’t be wrong, can they?
It’s this reputation for adventure and great hiking that makes Zion National Park one of my favourite National Parks to visit in the US. If you’re a hiker, or even just a lover of great views, this place is probably pretty high up your to-visit list too.
Much of Zion National Park is essentially a valley which has been carved out by the deceptively powerful Virgin River over the course of, well, a long time. This tiny little river might not look like much when you’re hiking along side it (or even through it – more on that later), but take a second to look around you.
Like, look up. It did that.
Sheer, red sandstone cliff faces rise straight up out of the valley floor, carved out over thousands of years. The sort of steep, dizzying, death awaiting cliffs that make you look up and say “yeah…I could probably hike that”.
Wait. What are you talking about, Matt?! Ahhh come on…It can’t be just me who thinks like that, right?
I mean, let’s at least agree: if you’re planning a visit to this unique, geologically inspiring and historic park, then there’s no better way to see it than to get out and hike in it! And there are plenty of amazing day hikes in Zion for every kind of hiker, from easy hikes to difficult ones.
Now, I know Lia and Jeremy have had their fair share of hiking fails over the years. From knee injuries on the Quilotoa Loop hike in Ecuador to that time on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu to the hell-arious but scary Cataract Falls hike in Northern California (I genuinely spat out some coffee when I read the line “Spoiler alert: we didn’t make it.”).
But hey, something something when you fall off a horse, you keep hiking, or whatever, right? So hopefully this post will inspire them to get out there and give hiking another shot.
If nothing else, I’m sure there will be some great stories to come out of it and I for one am looking forward to reading them!
OK, back to the business at hand: Zion. Here’s my run down of the best hikes in Zion National Park, plus important stuff you need to know about each one.
Things Hikers Need to Know About Zion National Park
Some quick logistical stuff you need to know first off. In a bid to cut down on congestion within the park and also to limit pollution, the National Park Service runs regular, free shuttle busses throughout the park and even out into the nearby town of Springdale, Utah. Certain parts of the park are closed to cars and you’ll only be able to access them via the shuttle or on foot (or on bike, if that’s your thing). The shuttles are always really regular – they ran every 5 or 6 minutes last time I was there – but they run at different times of day depending on the season.
- Zion Hiking Tip: For up to date information about the shuttle including where to pick it up and where each stop is located, check the NPS official guide.
It’s super easy to navigate around the park as the bus drivers will always shout out the stop number over the tannoy and will usually also list the most popular hikes at each of the stops as you go. But just to be safe, check out the guide and make a note of your stop number.
One other quick thing: Some of the hikes listed below can get a bit sketchy in bad weather.
I’d recommend checking this link here for up to date trail conditions before setting off, and making sure you’re well prepared for all eventualities. Which leads conveniently into this next section…
What to Pack for Hiking in Zion National Park
Before we send you off on your hike, here are the most important must-have day hiking essentials. It’s not that hiking in Zion National Park is dangerous, per-say (unless you are disaster magnets like Lia & Jeremy) but you want to be prepared, just in case. Bringing the right gear can be the difference between an amazing hike and a 10-hour slog on a blistered foot or a rumbling tummy … or much worse. So prepare! Here’s what you need to bring for your Zion day hikes.
- Never, ever, hike without a compass. If your phone doesn’t get service, if you wander off the trail on accident, or if you’re not good at navigating with things like moss and stars, a compass is the #1 best just-in-case tool you can bring on your hikes!
- 50-100oz of water: Do not skimp on water, especially if you’re hiking in Zion National Park between May and September, when it is insanely hot! This Camelbak Hydration Pack fits 100oz of water, snacks, AND has room for the rest of your gear, too.
- Hiking Shoes & Socks: Lia & Jeremy both hike in Trail Runners rather than heavy duty hiking boots – they’re lightweight and travel friendly, more flexible and comfortable, and they dry super quickly when it rains or after a water crossing (which, spoiler alert, one of the hikes below has quite a few of) so your feet will stay toasty and dry. Pair them with well-made wool socks, like Darn Tough, which are well-earned hiking favorites. They’re soft, durable, and they come with a lifetime guarantee in the event of holes (that’s how you know it’s real). When things start getting wet, pull some waterproof socks on over top of your wool socks to keep your feet dry and blister-free.
- Hiking Clothes: Wool hiking gear is an amazing choice for hikers thanks to its ability to cool you down in the heat and keep you warm when you’re wet or sweaty. Always make sure to bring at least 1 layer, because you never know.
- Snacks: A hungry hike is a miserable hike! Always bring a snack, even for a short hike, just in case your hike goes on longer than planned. You want something nutritious, with a good mix of complex carbs, fats, protein, and electrolytes to fuel your body. My favorite hiking snacks are peanut butter filled pretzels, dried fruit (like apple rings or dried mango), and almonds.
- Headlamps: A headlamp is an important hiking safety must-have, especially if you’ll be starting a hike before sunrise or ending after sunset (even if you don’t exactly plan to). They’re small and lightweight and easily fit in any pack. Bring one. YES, even on a day hike! You never know if you might need it and if you do, you’ll be SO glad you brought it.
- Trekking Poles: Trekking poles are incredibly helpful for difficult terrain or potentially tricky hikes, or if you are a person who is very clumsy (or all 3). I like the Black Diamond trekking poles because they’re lightweight and fold down easily, but they’re super sturdy. Consider them a safety tool that will save your knees on steep down-hills and your wrists & ankles on unstable ground.
- First aid kit: You need a first aid kit that covers you in the event of a variety of calamities. Your first aid kit doesn’t need to be big, but it should have the basics: bandaids, alcohol wipes, waterproof matches, burn treatment, even stuff for stitches. Make sure to include moleskin patches for when you feel a blister coming on.
- Multiple ways to start a fire and filter water:This is a hiking/back-country camping basic, but even on a day hike I recommend at least a little bit of just-in-case coverage. I have a lighter and some waterproof matches tucked into my first aid kit, along with some water purification tablets and this tiny Sawyer water filtration system. Just in case – better safe than sorry, etc. I’m a walking disaster waiting to happen, so I do my best to over-prepare 😉
- Always bring rain gear. Because if you don’t, not only will you be miserable if it starts to rain, but you could potentially open yourself up to a host of other health issues, like pneumonia. This Ultra-Light Rain Jacket is super lightweight and packs down to nothing, taking up almost no space in your pack. Waterproof Socks are also super handy to have, even if your hiking boots are waterproof.
- Radio Signaling Walkie-Talkies: Look, I know these are overkill for most hikes. But the further away from civilization you go, the more these just might save your a$$. Don’t be a statistic about lost hikers in Zion National Park. These bad boys have a 35-mile mountain to valley range, are fully waterproof (and even have a water-activated flashlight, nifty), and have a handy emergency alert button that will sent out a signal the minute you need help. Sure, you’ll probably never need to use them… but think of it as the best insurance policy you’ll ever buy.
Now that you’re safely prepared and ready to go, let’s hit the trails!
The 6 Best Day Hikes in Zion National Park
the “classic” hike
Distance: 4.1 miles | Elevation Gain: 1,617ft | Difficulty: Hard Altitude At Top: 5,790ft | Trail Guide: Link | Shuttle Stop: 6
It’s only right and fair that we kick off this post with an absolute Zion classic. This is the hike that most likely led you here in the first place, right?
Easily the most iconic hike in the park, Angels Landing is stunning, popular and treacherous in almost equal measure. Every year, without fail, the top section of this strenuous hike claims another life.
But, those same risks are also what makes the Angels Landing hike fun. It’s about the challenge. Oh, and the view. It’s about that too.
The first half of the Angels Landing track is a leg-burning 1000ft ascent over a 2 mile distance, with the latter portion being made up of merciless, unforgiving switch backs. At this point it’s tough to know what’s worse – looking down to see where you’ve come from, or looking up to see where you still have to go.
But hey, it’s nice to be outside, right?
Once you’ve completed the switchbacks, you’ll be in the relative safety of Scouts Lookout. Time for a snack break.
From here, it’s dealers choice whether you call it a day here or crack on for the remaining 500 vertical feet to Angels Landing itself.
But, you came this far, so you should definitely push on. Unless it’s windy or icy, in which case forget it.
The section of the trail between Scouts Lookout and Angels Landing is where things start to get interesting. Imagine hundreds of people all trying to get up and down a long staircase barely wide enough for single file. With no banister.
It’s pretty chaotic at some points, but generally speaking, the trail seems to manage just fine.
- Zion Hiking Tip: For the best (and safest) Angels Landing experience, try to avoid hiking during busy peak times. Aim for early morning. Like, first shuttle bus kind of early (check the schedule here). The early morning alarm might not be a great start to the day, but it’s a much less crowded, safer and more enjoyable way to experience one of Zion’s most renowned hikes. And if you’re going that early, you do need to bring a headlamp.
the “less death-y but with better views” hike
Distance: 7.2 miles | Elevation Gain: 2,148ft | Difficulty: Medium | Altitude At Top: 6,521ft | Trail Guide: Link | Shuttle Stop: 7
Higher than Angels Landing, the summit of Observation Point has marginally better views and a slightly clearer angle out over the Zion valley, but without the same narrowness and level of risk. It’s also significantly less crowded.
While everyone else is busy trying to battle their way up Angels Landing, you’ll be tackling the cheeky chipmunks at the top of Observation Point, who have grown far too accustomed to sharing your packed lunch. Sorry, guys. Not happening.
At the beginning part of the hike you’ll climb up through neighboring Echo Canyon, which is beautiful in itself and is also home to some pretty cool rock cut-outs.
As you hike Observation Point, there are some sections with some very steep drop offs, but it’s nowhere near the same level as Angels Landing and the path is always plenty wide enough for everyone. So if you’re terrified of heights, plummeting to your death, etc …. Observation Point might be a better day hike option for you than Angel’s Landing.
If you fancy your chances against the chipmunk punks, you’ll need stop 7 on the shuttle. Look for the start of the East Rim trail and Observation Point will be well sign posted from there.
- Zion Hiking Tip: If you plan to do both, do Angels Landing before you tackle Observation Point. I say that because, after you’ve seen the view from Observation Point, the one at the top of Angels Landing might not be enough to tip the risk/reward balance in its favor.
the “something very different” hike
Distance: Up to 15 miles | Elevation Gain: 1,017ft | Difficulty: Medium | Trail Guide: Link | Shuttle Stop: 9
Time for another Zion “must do”! The Narrows hike is up there with Angels Landing as another iconic Zion day hike. It’s an extremely well trafficked route that offers something different to anything you’ve ever done before.
In a nutshell, this hike will have you hiking through the Virgin River.
Not through as in across it.
But through as in in it.
For a river that’s carved out such a deep canyon, most of the time, the Virgin River is actually pretty shallow in some parts. The Narrows is a hike that takes full advantage of that fact, as it has you hiking straight through the path of the river and into the canyon.
You can make this hike as long or as short as you like, but the longer you push on for the further you get down the canyon and the cooler the hike becomes. As you continue, the canyon walls get closer and the going becomes more of everything.
You can access the start of the Narrows hike from shuttle stop 9, and you’ll need to start out following the Riverside Walk track. That’ll take you to the mouth of the canyon with a river coming out of it and the place that should really mean the end of a hike. Except that you’ll be continuing. Yup, into the river.
Dip your feet in and get used to that cold water. You’re going to be spending the next 5 or 6 hours in it.
- Zion Hiking Tip: If you’re really intent on trying this hike, it’s probably best to avoid the busy peak summer season. Shoot for the shoulder seasons instead. Wading through the ice cold water without the summer sunshine to warm you up might not sound great, but the thinner crowds make it a price well worth paying. Plus it’s a great excuse to bring more hiking chocolate. You know…for energy, and all that.
- Bonus Hiking Tip: Gear is incredibly important on this technically difficult hike. At the very least, you’ll need trekking poles and neoprene socks. Also consider river walking shoes, like these canyoneers. And don’t wear cotton for this hike! You need clothing that will keep you warm and insulated even in cold water. The best hiking clothing for insulation when wet is wool, which naturally stores and releases water, keeping it warm when it’s cool and cooling you off naturally when it’s hot (see recommendations above in the “what to pack for Zion” section). For more suggestions and advice on the Narrows hike, here’s a helpful guide.
the “secret” hike
Distance: 3.2 miles | Elevation Gain: 915ft | Difficulty: Medium | Trail Guide: Link | Shuttle Stop: 7
This hike is a great way to see a part of Zion that most people skip over completely or don’t even realise is there. I’m dubbing it the “secret” hike because for the most part, that’s exactly what it is. It’s a short 2.4mile / 3.9km hike along the cliff face to the mouth of a narrow canyon.
Unlike the Narrows, this canyon is dried out and you can hike your way into it while keeping your feet nice and dry.
After hiking for about 3 miles, you’ll reach the end of the maintained trail. But don’t let that stop you.
If you can clambour your way up the rock small rock face that marks the end of the official trail, you can continue on up the canyon a little further for a taste of a relatively untouched hanging canyon.
Eventually, after you’ve scaled a couple of rock faces and skipped over a few boulders, you’ll come to a natural sandstone arch in the middle of the canyon: a perfect spot to have lunch before you turn around and hike back out.
You can access the Hidden Canyon day hike from stop #7 on the shuttle bus. Start out on the Weeping Rock trail and then keep right at the fork.
the “hike that got away” hike
Distance: 7.0 miles | Elevation Gain: 1,305ft | Difficulty: Hard (Navigation and trail finding skills required) | Trail Guide: Link | Shuttle Stop:
This difficult Zion day hike is called The Subway because a section of the hike resembles an underground subway tunnel, as the curved walls of the canyon close in overhead.
But, truth be told, I can’t really tell you much about what it’s like to complete this hike because, well, I’ve never been able to do it. Hence how it won the title of the “hike that got away.”
What I can tell you is that this remote and difficult to access hike is managed by the National Park Service, and a special permit is required all year round if you want to get onto it. Permits are allocated on a random lottery system, and you’ll need to apply well in advance if you want to make sure you get your hands on one for the right dates.
Why do you need a permit exactly?
Well, the hike is an extremely popular one and also a very challenging one. NPS needs to limit the number of people out here on the trail, but also monitor traffic into an area that requires extensive route finding for those who choose to take it on. Basically, you want to leave a paper trail. But if you’re up for the challenge, this hike is definitely for you.
If you’re organised and lucky enough to get your hands on a permit, you should definitely make sure you do it. You can find all the Subway permit info you’ll need right here on the National Park Service website, and I recommend looking into this sooner rather than later.
Just do me a favour and don’t tell me if it was too amazing, yeah?Emerald Pools
the “hike that never got away from anybody at all”
Distance: 2.3 miles | Elevation Gain: 662ft | Difficulty: Easy | Trail Guide: Link
Maybe it’s the name that does it, or the fact that it’s one of the earlier stops on the often very crowded shuttle. But the Emerald Pools hike gets absolutely packed!
Still, the Emerald Pools is a much more casual and easy going day hike, and way more accessible than the other hikes featured here. It’s also a great little hike which takes you through a variety of scenery and gives you a great taste of what Zion National Park is all about.
And that makes it popular. Very popular.
Truth be told, it consists of two hikes mashed into one.There’s lower emerald pools and upper emerald pools. The trail to the lower pool is only around half a mile or so, but it does gain a bit of altitude.
If you’re still feeling good after you reach the lower Emerald Pool, you can push on further up to the upper pool. Or, you can make the hike even longer still by linking onto the beautiful Kayenta Trail, which follows the path of the Virgin River briefly and over a bridge before taking you right to the next shuttle stop.
- Hiking Trip from Lia: This is the only Zion day hike I’ve ever done, and I did it in mid-July. Because the hike was techincally “easy,” I brought along nothing more than a 16-oz bottle of water. But most of the hike is sunny and sandy, and I quickly found myself incredibly dehydrated. Lack of water turned this hike into much more of a challenge than it needed to be! So if you’re hiking during the summer months, bring PLENTY of water.
Where To Stay In Zion National Park
If you’re keen to stay within Zion National Park itself, there are two options: the luxury splurge, and the rustic budget-friendly option.
- Luxury Splurge: The Zion Lodge is located within Zion National Park. It’s the best place to stay in Zion if your idea of a National Park retreat is a rustic but comfortable lodge nestled into stunning cliff-faces and trees, possibly with like, a stone fireplace crackling in your room. So you know. Heaven, etc.
- Budget-Friendly Option: If being indoors is simply not one-with-nature-y enough for you, you can sleep outside under the stars, with a stone fireplace crackling right outside your tent. If you bring (or rent) your own camping gear, you can tent camp within Zion at one of the 4 drive-in campgrounds maintained by the National Park Service. Click here for the Park Service’s guide to the Zion campgrounds and information on how to reserve a spot.
If you don’t mind staying just outside the park itself, the tiny township of Springdale, Utah is where you’ll want to base yourself for your Zion trip. This little hub exists mainly to service visitors to the park and there are heaps of accommodation, food and – most importantly – places to get coffee.
The small little township is located right at the entrance to Zion National Park, and there is even a shuttle bus which runs to ferry people in and out of the park for those who are keen to beat the traffic and leave the cars behind.
Accommodation options in Springdale range from camping and RV parks to high end luxury lodge style accommodation. Other good, budget friendly options include the Pioneer Lodge and the Bumbleberry Inn, which gets major bonus points for having the most adorable name ever.
You can search for deals on lodging in Springdale using HotelsCombined, which compares prices on ALL of the hotel deal sites (Expedia, Booking, Hotels.com, all of them) to find you the best possible price. Seriously, it’s a budget traveler’s BFF. Here’s a handy dandy search box to make your life slightly easier:
Fingers crossed you find some of the info in this guide useful, and if you have any questions about any of them, I’ll be hanging out in the comments below. Just give me a shout. Thanks again to Lia and Jeremy for hosting me! You can follow me at my website Matt Burns, on Twitter, or on Facebook. Happy hiking everyone! – Matt Burns
Psst: Are you ready to strap on your hiking shoes and hit the trail somewhere scenic? Check out some of our other favorite hiking & outdoor adventure posts!
- The 8 Best Day Hikes Near Denver, Colorado (That Nobody Knows About)
- The 8 Best Hikes Near San Francisco, California
- Where to Stay Near Yosemite National Park
- 8 Outdoorsy Things to Do in Ruidoso, New Mexico
- 14 Unreal Outdoor Adventures You Need to Try in Carson Valley, Nevada
Oh, and if you’d like to submit a guest post for us, check out our guest posting guidelines and send us a note.
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