This fall we took the kids out of school for a few days and drove to Southern Utah, home of The Mighty 5 (five incredible national parks all within a certain radius in Southern Utah: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Arches National Parks. It’s a trip that’s been on my outdoors-loving bucket list for quite some time.
We devoted five days, saw two of The Mighty 5 (Zion and Bryce) and came away with a certain awe that only comes with standing in the shadows of these giants. It is an incredible trip, and a family-friendly one if you know a few vital insider tips beforehand.
Zion National Park is such a great destination for families and when you go, just make sure you’re adequately prepared. Here are the things I wish I knew before we went.
How To Do Zion National Park and Be Adequately Prepared
1. Understand the parking situation.
First and foremost, the parking situation at Zion National Park is frustrating at best. One vital thing you need to know before going into the park is that you do not drive through Zion National Park. As opposed to Yellowstone or Bryce Canyon, you have to take a shuttle.
The in-park shuttle is free, but unless you arrive at the crack of dawn and get a free spot at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. If you’re a late-riser, plan on paying at least $20 bucks to park in the nearby town of Springdale (it’s literally steps from the park entrance). Even parking on the side of the road will cost you. If you know this going into it, the parking experience is much easier to swallow.
2. Your journey begins at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.
The entrance to Zion National Park is confusing if you’ve never been there or don’t know what to expect.
Don’t: Expect to drive through the park. We learned this mistake the HARD way and wasted over an hour driving the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (which was beautiful, but was taking us nowhere near Zion National Park). It’s misleading if you drive through the ticket booth and just keep driving. You will drive and drive and drive and get further away from Zion.
Do: Park before you enter the park. Get out and walk to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center where your journey begins. Here you’ll purchase entrance tickets or show your parks pass, use the restroom, ask questions, buy souvenirs, and get on the shuttle that will take you through the park and back.
3. Stop and grab a Junior Ranger activity book.
If you’re traveling with kids, make sure to get a Junior Ranger activity book from the park ranger at the help desk. This is such a fun activity for kids! It’s a book full of guided questions, games, and different animals and plant life that kids will look for on their quest through the park.
This was fantastic in helping keep our kids’ attention. They appreciated the park so much more and were actually actively engaged in every hike instead of whining and complaining.
At the end, kids who’ve completed every activity in the book (including visiting a ranger-led presentation) will get a cool collectable pin.
4. Riding the shuttle.
The shuttle system is actually really great in Zion National Park. It’s easy to hop on and off and they give you a map of every stop so you know where each hike is located. It was refreshing not to have to worry about parking a car or battling traffic like you often do in say Yellowstone for example.
There are several shuttles running up and down the canyon at once, so if you do have to wait, it’s only for ten minutes or so. Just make sure if you want to go up the canyon, you’re on the shuttle going up, and vice versa.
5. Which hikes should I do?
Oh, there are so many good ones! To be adequately prepared to do Zion National Park, know which hikes you are wanting to do and how many days you are planning to spend. There are easy, moderate, and strenuous hikes, all with unprecedented views.
The soaring red rock peaks jut so high into the sky that you feel dwarfed in comparison. The Virgin River is a calming guide that weaves through the canyon and also offers lots of beautiful photo ops and feet-wading.
If traveling sans kids, Angel’s Landing is one of the most talked-about hikes, and also one of the most strenuous. It’s on our list to do next time without our kids.
But so much of Zion National park is very kid-friendly! Our group included seven kids ages 18months to ten years old and we were astounded at how well they did and how much fun they had.
Our favorite Zion hikes to do with kids were the Lower Emerald pools which is a 2ish-mile round-trip trail that is largely shaded and leads you to a beautiful waterfall trickling over your head.
Along the way there are several rocks and caves the kids loved climbing.
Riverside Walk was awesome. Again, it’s a 2ish-mile round-trip fairly flat walk that feels more like a beautiful nature walk along the Virgin River. At several places you can pull off, dip your toes in, and take in the California Condors soaring overhead or the extreme rock climbers who look like ants up on the cliffs.
Riverside walk also leads to The Narrows—another hike I’ll come back and do without kids, as you are literally walking in cold water through an amazing slot canyon.
6. How long should I stay?
We only had one day to enjoy Zion National Park which I thought was perfect with young kids. If you are going with adults, make sure to give yourself 2-3 days if you want to get all of the cool hikes in.
We stayed in St. George, Utah which was about an hour drive from Zion National Park. You can also stay in the small town of Springdale which has a few hotels. There is only one lodge inside Zion National Park that you stay (Zion Lodge), otherwise your hotel options are Springdale, St. George, and Cedar City. There are also camping options if you’d like.
7. What can I bring into the park?
Water first and foremost. You’ll get hot; you’ll get thirsty, so each person having their own backpack and water bottle is essential. There are places to refill your water at each shuttle stop, so don’t worry about having to bring in a 25-pack, but do bring a large water bottle.
Eating. There is one small cafe inside the park near Zion Lodge where you can purchase food, but perhaps the easiest and most authentic way to eat in the park is by picnic. You can pack in food and drinks and take a rest along many of the trails and byways and enjoy a mountain picnic. Just make sure to pack out any garbage or dispose of it in nearby waste bins.
And don’t feed the squirrels! They are everywhere and it is a park rule to refrain from giving them food. (Rabid squirrels are not much fun.)
8. Why are there people in waterproof pants and boots?
With averages temperatures of 85 degrees in the summer and 75 degrees in the fall, you’ll wonder what so many people are doing with thick-looking pants on and odd waterproof boots. They’re hiking The Narrows and if you plan on doing that hike as well, it’s definitely a smart idea. The Narrows is definitely an advanced hike and as mentioned above, is mostly walking through frigid water. If doing all 9.4 miles, you’ll need to rent the waterproof pants and boots.
(I walked across the river with shorts and bare feet, just to see what the mouth of The Narrows was all about and people looked at me like I was crazy. That water was freezing!)
Speaking of weather, early fall, is a lovely time of year to visit Zion National Park. The peak tourist season has died down somewhat and the weather was sunny, lovely, and just right. We went the first week of October and enjoyed 75 degree weather.
9. Is Zion National Park worth the hype?
Yes! 100% yes! It was incredible to see and experience the sheer cliffs and red rock architecture that makes Zion National Park so famous. This Ralph Waldo Emerson quote has always stuck with me and I try to live by it:
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.”
Zion National Park is a life-time must and the sooner you get to see it, the better.