Zion National Park: A User's Guide

Autumn in the Zion Narrows, beyond the regular trail of Riverside Walk. (Photo: OneEighteen/Flickr).
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It’s hard to say a place that gets nearly 3 million visitors a year is underrated, but Zion National Park in southern Utah isn’t on as many “bucket lists” as it should be. For most folks, nearby Grand Canyon National Park is a looking-down experience. Zion National Park is a looking-up experience. And some trails here offer a stomach-churning mix of looking up and looking down — way down.

It’s a place where Mother Nature shows off her flair for sculpture and geology is displayed in cream, pink and red.


President William Howard Taft signed an executive order establishing Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909. The name was changed to Zion National Monument in 1918, and the U.S. Congress established the monument as a national park on Nov. 19, 1919.

Things to do

Take the stairs at work in the months leading up to your visit to Zion National Park so you can take on the trek to Angels Landing a 5.4-mile roundtrip hike worth every labored breath. The walk up is steep and exposed — if you’re afraid of heights, you may want to pass. But the canyon views from Angels Landing are heavenly.

The Pa’rus Trail is relatively flat and follows the Virgin River. The Riverside Walk is a two-mile roundtrip stroll that begins at the Temple of Sinawava at the end of Zion Canyon. You can continue from the end of the paved path into the Zion Narrows if you’re willing to get your feet wet.

Guided horseback trips include a one-hour trip along Virgin River to the Court of the Patriarchs.

The Subway at Zion National Park

Why you’ll want to come back

Most visitors don’t stray far from the Virgin River and the red rock canyons. The Kolob Canyons area — accessible via Interstate 15, northwest of the park’s southern entrance — is cooler, higher and less crowed.

Flora and fauna

The range in elevation across Zion National Park — from about 3,800 feet above sea level in the canyons to 8,800 feet in the high country — contributes to a diverse mix of plant and animal life in the park.

More than 900 species of plants grow in the park ranging from cactuses such a claret cup and cholla to ferns flourishing in the hanging gardens found on canyon walls. Fremont cottonwoods grow along the Virgin River valley. Ponderosa pine, Utah juniper and pinyon are found in the upper elevations.

Zion is home to 78 species of mammals, 291 species of birds, 44 species of reptiles and amphibians, and eight species of fish. Visitors may see mule deer, foxes, bats, bighorn sheep and rock squirrels.

Peregrine falcons breed in the park.

By the numbers:

  • Website: Zion National Park
  • Park size: 146,597 acres or 229 square miles
  • 2010 visitation: 2,687,872
  • Funky fact: The eco-friendly Zion Visitor Center has no air-conditioning and instead uses passive downdraft cooltowers to keep the building comfortable. Water sprayed on pads at the top of the towers evaporates, cooling the air. The cool, dense air sinks through the tower and exits into the building and onto the patio.
This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States.

Inset photo of The Subway, a canyon located upstream: sufw/Flickr