Jagged rock mountains reach for the clouds, casting long shadows into the canyons and valleys threaded below. As the sun rises, the cliffs take on a reddish glow that makes it feel like you’re exploring Mars instead of the far southern corner of Utah. The otherworldly landscapes that make up Zion National Park draw visitors world wide. And, for outdoor-loving families, it’s a perfect playground.
Centuries of wind, water and erosion created the unique rock formations and mesas you’ll only find among Zion’s 147,000 acres. The most popular draw is Zion Canyon. There are two entry points into the park, both along Utah State Route 9; it’s $25 for a seven-day pass.
For a dramatic entrance, opt for the east entrance. The road winds through a mile of canyon courtesy of a tunnel carved out of sheer rock. About the time your eyes adjust to the darkness, light breaks through – marking the exit and framing the canyon walls beyond it. Veer left and make a quick stop at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center for maps and trail info.
Visitor center parking fills by mid-morning, so stash your car in nearby Springdale. Free shuttles depart all day from well-marked spots.
Trailheads for many easier hikes are also near the visitor center. For paved paths, head north for the short drive to Riverside Walk trail. It follows the Virgin River with canyon walls all around you – dip your toes in the cool waters. The loop takes around 90 minutes.
Southeast of here, the Weeping Rock trail is much shorter (30 minutes round trip), but has steep sections that might exhaust little feet. Entice kids to keep going to see a rock alcove at the end that’s covered with springs. Tumbling waterfalls seem to fill the space below, making the lower Emerald Pools trail worth the hour-long round trip.
Perhaps the best time to hike any trail is early in the day, when crowds are few and temperatures are low. Keep in mind elevation within the park spans 3,700 to 8,726 feet.
Less popular hikes
For other roads less traveled, visit the park’s second visitor center at Kolob Canyons. One of its child-friendly trails is the Kolob Arch trail, which leads to a 287-foot long rock archway – and the perfect photo op.
Moderate and advanced trails run throughout the park. Talk to rangers at the visitor center about which might be right for your family. Some are restricted to small groups while others, like The Narrows, take eight hours and can be extremely dangerous. Don’t go without hiring a guide.
Or sightsee on wheels. From April to October, the six-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is open only to pedestrians, bicyclists – and park shuttles. The trek offers spectacular views and plenty of stop-offs. Or cruise the Zion Park Scenic Byway through canyons and cliffs. The loop is just over 100 miles.
Find a camp spot
South of Zion’s main entrance, Springdale and Rockville both have hotels. But to enjoy the park night and day, consider camping. Make a reservation for the Watchman Campsite with its 176 sites. It’s first-come, first served at the South Campground with 127 sites and the smaller Lava Point Campground, which is ideal for tent campers.
Photos courtesy Utah Office of Tourism, Film & Global Branding