While it is a difficult and ever-changing perspective to name just one favorite national park, Zion National Park is what I tell people is my favorite when pressed. It is stunning, unique, and we have been so many times it feels like an extension of home. It is our favorite place to take visitors to Utah. For this reason, we have been able to put together a really good “must-do” list for a weekend in this park.
Zion National Park is the best in the morning so as you put your schedule together, plan on going to bed early and getting up early. Or just plan on sucking it up and not sleeping.
We have made Saturday the “big objectives” day. This is the day you work your thighs and get to hike two of the most iconic trails of Zion National Park.
First, hike Angel’s Landing. In order to hike Angel’s Landing you will want to be first in line for the shuttle. Zion has a wonderful shuttle system that runs most of the year to keep the park from getting clogged with traffic. When the shuttle is in operation, visitors must use the shuttle to navigate the main part of the park. Visit this link to learn more about the shuttle system. During the off-season, when the shuttle is not in operation, Angel’s Landing is not very crowded so you can take your time getting to the trailhead.
Angle’s Landing takes 3 – 6 hours and is 5 miles roundtrip. The amount of time it takes your group depends entirely on the size of your group, how fast you are moving, and how many other people are on the trail. Walter’s Wiggles – the switchbacks that form the first leg of the trail – are the most strenuous part of the hike.
The second leg, the chains, is significantly less strenuous but can be scary to anyone in the group that is afraid of heights. There are a couple of spots when the trail is narrow and the cliff is sheer. However, it is really not all that scary nor is it very dangerous. We once made the horrible decision to go on Memorial Day weekend because we did not put two and two together. The chains sections was SO PACKED with people, and people who were not making good decisions, that this section did become quite dangerous. Definitely go during a time when crowds are manageable.
As long as you follow the path and keep a hand on the chain then you will be on really quite safe terrain. It is the people that are trying to push the limits, hop around the line, or go way too fast that end up hurting themselves. Stay on the path and you will be fine.
Make sure to bring plenty of snacks and water. Even though it is only 3 – 6 hours 1500 feet of elevation gain in 2.4 miles can make you quite hungry.
Once you get back to the valley floor, take a break for lunch. Either have a picnic on the lawn of the Zion Lodge or head back into town.
After lunch, take the shuttle to the Riverside Walk / The Narrows. No trip to Zion is complete without getting into the Narrows. The Narrows as a whole is a two-day venture that requires a permit. However, anyone can get in the water at the end of Riverside Walk and meander as much of the river as your time allows. Your feet will thank you after that long hike to Angel’s Landing. Even if some people from your party do not actually want to walk in the water, it is fun to just sit on the riverbank and relax.
It is always a good idea to check at the Visitor’s Center to see how much the Narrows is flowing, even if you are just going to spend an hour or so in the river. The rangers can help you make safe decisions. Any time water is involved in an outdoor activity, extra precautions are a good idea.
If you are just getting into the water for a bit, and if the weather is warm enough, Chacos or similarly stable water sandals will work just fine. If you are going to be in longer, definitely think about investing in canyoneering boots and neoprene socks.
After the Narrows, go back into town or return to your campsite for supper. Get some rest – tomorrow is an early day!
What I am about to tell you is my absolute favorite thing to do at Zion National Park. No matter how much you love to sleep in, do not skip this activity. I am taking you to the best spot in all of Southern Utah to watch the sunrise.
Get up an hour before sunrise – adjust the time depending on where you spent the night. You are going to want to be at the trailhead about 30 minutes before sunrise. Make sure you have your headlamps and are dressed in appropriate layers. Even in the summer, mornings can sometimes be cool in the canyon. Pack a blanket, coffee, and breakfast. Read this post to learn how we take breakfast on the trail with us.
Drive the Mt. Carmel Highway, go through the tunnels, and park just on the other side of the tunnels at the trailhead for Canyon Overlook Trail. Start hiking the Canyon Overlook trail. This is a 1 mile roundtrip trail with very little elevation gain that just about anyone can do. The trail itself is pretty cool, hugging the side of the canyon and dipping underneath deep shelves. When you get to the top, find a quiet spot where you can spread out and make breakfast and coffee.
Now, enjoy the view. The sun rises behind you and casts golden hues on all of the peaks and canyon walls. It is truly a sight to behold. When you have had your fill, hike back down.
If you have time, drive part of Mt. Carmel Highway just to see the sights. There is some gorgeous desert flora and rock formations to see on this road. Then come back down and drive the tunnels in the daylight.
Once you are finished with the Mt. Carmel Highway, find some parking and get on the shuttle. The shuttle system in Zion is so smooth. It is also incredibly informative as every bus has either a recording or a bus driver that details the history and sights of the canyon.
Spend the rest of the day exploring some of the shuttle stops. My favorite are:
Emerald Pools, upper and lower. Lower pools is extremely easy to get to. Upper pools is still fairly easy but takes a little effort.
Weeping Rock. Weeping rock is not even really a hike. It is a wall at the beginning of a hike that seeps water, giving it a crying effect. You can see it from the road. Getting right up next to it allows you to see the dampness.
Hidden Canyon or Observation Point depending on how much time you have. Hidden Canyon is the shorter option. Both of these hikes gets you above the canyon. They also take you through incredible sights of the hidden things Zion has to offer.
Where to Eat:
Morning Coffee – Deep Creek Coffee Company
When I went to Deep Creek I was not really in a plain coffee mood but I also did not want to spend an insane amount of money on a latte. I ordered the regular drip coffee anyway. This is the best drip coffee I have had in Utah! Hands down, no exaggeration.
Breakfast – Meme’s Cafe
MeMe’s Cafe has boasts incredible crepes and other breakfast foods.
Supper – Oscar’s Cafe
The way we found Oscar’s is kind of a funny story. Our first time in Zion, we were riding in the shuttle and chatting with the shuttle driver who was an extremely pleasant and friendly person. When we found out that our shuttle driver had lived in the Zion area for most of his life, Kenon did his best to get all the recommendations out of him. The shuttle driver kept informing us that it was against policy, that shuttle drivers are not allowed to give recommendations to park guests. Why? I’m not sure. Kenon worked on this guy for about ten minutes but the guy held solid. Finally, in a last ditch effort, Kenon said, “So, say you are taking your wife on a date in town tonight. Where would you take her?” Laughing, the shuttle driver conceded that Kenon had done well and said, “That’s easy, Oscar’s.”
Oscars is home to burgers and fries and local craft beer, as well as many delicious entrees. Expect to wait for a table, though, as it is very popular!
Never go on a holiday and if you can, go during the off-season. The off-season does not get too cold and there are significantly less people.
Reserve campsites EARLY. They book up super fast during the on-season and any nice weekend.
Summers get hot! Bring plenty of water for everyone in your party, even for the seemingly ‘easy’ hikes.