Located in the red rock country of Southwestern Utah, Zion National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the U.S. This 229-square-mile park is particularly known for Zion Canyon, where cliffs of Navajo sandstone rise several thousand feet above the North Fork of the Virgin River. Another popular attraction is the Narrows, where visitors wade through ankle-deep water into a world-famous slot canyon.
Zion is the most visited of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks, which also include Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. In recent years, Zion has seen record visitation with about 4.5 million visitors each year (not including 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic reduced visitation). Despite the growing crowds, Zion National Park is definitely worth seeing for yourself. And, with a bit of planning, you can even beat the crowds by visiting during the best times to visit Zion National Park.
Best Times to Visit Zion National Park: October & November
One of the best seasons to visit Zion National Park is during fall, when temperatures are mild and crowds have somewhat lessened. In particular, consider October or November, with each month offering several different benefits.
During October, the weather is warm. Average daily temperatures are in the high 70s, and nights are cool but manageable in the high 40s. The park averages less than 400,000 visitors during this month compared with a July peak of over 550,000 people. Another benefit is there’s still plenty of daylight for adventurous activities like hiking and camping. Fall colors, particularly among aspen trees, begin to change in early October at higher elevations. Lower elevations, like in Zion Canyon, peak around late October into early November.
November is another good time to visit. During most years, lower elevation aspens are still peaking with a brilliant display of yellows, oranges, and reds. The temperatures are mild, with daily average highs in the mid-60s. Nights, however, can be quite cold with average lows in the mid- to high-30s—so be prepared if you decide to camp.
Because of these cooler temps, November is a great month for dry trail hikes in Zion National Park. But keep in mind that wet hikes, like the Narrows, can be icy cold on your feet. Those who attempt the Narrows during late fall will need to be prepared with water shoes and neoprene socks. Despite any added challenges of a late-fall visit to Zion, November sees about 215,000 visitors—almost half the visitation of October.
If you can’t make it during fall, another less crowded time of year to consider is spring. March weather, with highs in the mid-60s, is somewhat similar to November. April weather, with highs in the mid-70s, is somewhat similar to October. By May, the highs are in the mid- to high-80s and visitation is increasing, in part due to the arrival of wildflower season.
One big difference with visiting in the spring is that snowmelt can raise the flow in the Narrows. You’ll need to check the water level before you go. From 70 CFS (cubic feet per second) to 150 CFS, the Narrows is considered challenging, requiring wading through swift current and crossing pools that may be up to chest deep. When the flow rises above 150 CFS, the park service will close the Narrows entirely until the level drops.
Zion Canyon Shuttle System
To manage crowds in Zion Canyon, the park service operates two free shuttle services. During the shuttle season, from early May until late November, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles. The Zion Canyon Line (aka park shuttle) runs from the Visitor Center to the many trailheads and turns around at the Temple of Sinawava. The Springdale Shuttle (aka town shuttle) stops at nine locations in the town of Springdale and shuttles visitors to and from the park entrance.
Zion National Park Trails: The Narrows
By far, one of the most famous hikes in Zion National Park is the Narrows. The Narrows isn’t your typical trail. Other than the first 1.1. miles, which are paved, it’s mostly a wet hiking route that involves wading through ankle to knee-deep water in the Virgin River. Along the way, you’ll penetrate deep inside a slot canyon that rises hundreds of feet overhead.
Because you’ll get wet walking in the streambed, and since much of the hike is in shade, it’s best to attempt the Narrows on a warm day. For this reason, most people hike the Narrows in late spring, summer, or early fall. When the weather is colder, like during late fall, you’ll need to wear special water shoes and neoprene socks to keep your feet warm.
Most people attempt the Narrows by starting from the downstream end at the Temple of Sinawava, also known as the bottom-up Narrows. The first 1.1 miles (2.2 miles round trip) is on the Riverside Walk, a paved path that parallels the river into the lower canyon. After the paved path ends, you’ll be hiking in the streambed. Day hikers can go a total of 4.7 miles, one-way, from the Temple of Sinawava to Big Spring (10 miles, round trip) without a permit.
A more strenuous route, which involves obtaining a wilderness permit from the park office, is the 16-mile through-hike of the Narrows. This route takes you from the top down, starting at Chamberlain’s Ranch and ending at the Temple of Sinawava. You’ll need to complete more research to prepare for this challenging hike.
Though many people hike the Narrows in sandals that strap to their feet (avoid flip-flops which can come loose), the park service recommends closed-toe shoes for navigating the loose rocks of the streambed. Another item to consider is using a hiking pole or trekking poles to help you stay upright on wet, slippery rocks. For more information about hiking the Narrows, visit the NPS webpage.
Zion National Park Trails: Angels Landing & other hikes
There are plenty of trails to explore throughout Zion National Park, with most visitors focusing on hiking through the stunning scenery of Zion Canyon. There, you’ll find easy hikes like the paved Pa’rus Trail, which follows the Virgin River for 1.75 miles between South Campground and Canyon Junction. More moderate hikes, with larger elevation gains, include the Watchman Trail (3.3 miles roundtrip).
One of the most famous trails in the park involves a strenuous hike to Angels Landing via the West Rim Trail. The distance is 5.4 miles, round-trip, with an elevation gain of 1,488 feet, including many switchbacks. The views from the Angels Landing summit are amazing, but the hike requires following a final “chain section” along a steep, narrow ridge. For this reason, the park service discourages taking young children or anyone afraid of heights on this trail.
Visitors can hike in Zion Canyon at any time of year, but there are several considerations for deciding when to go. Spring and fall, when weather is cooler, offer the best temperatures for hiking. Summer is hot, but still the most popular time—just make sure you bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat.
During monsoon season, from July to September, afternoon thunderstorms happen frequently. Dangerous flash floods become a concern, and the Narrows and other slot canyons may be closed due to risk of flooding. Winter is cold with short days, and higher elevation trails may be covered with snow or ice.
Where to stay at Zion National Park
When it comes to deciding where to stay what to do in Zion National Park, most people consider two options: camping in Zion National Park or a hotel.
If you choose to camp during your trip to Zion National Park, there are many campgrounds outside the park and three campgrounds inside the park.
Of the three campgrounds managed by NPS, South Campground and Watchman Campground are located in Zion Canyon. Lava Point Campground is located on Kolob Terrace Road, about a one-hour drive from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. Campgrounds fill up almost every night from around mid-March to late November. Reservations are recommended for South and Watchman Campgrounds using www.recreation.gov.
If you prefer a hotel, the only option inside the park is the Zion Lodge, which offers rooms, cabins, and suites. Many more hotels are available in the surrounding communities of Springdale, Rockville, Mt. Carmel Junction, Hurricane, St. George, and Kanab.
Hopefully, you find these tips helpful when planning your trip around the best times to visit Zion National Park. Of course, there’s plenty more information to share. So, let us know what you love about this amazing U.S. park. We would love to hear from you! COMMENT BELOW!
Cover photo: Observation Point in Zion National Park. NPS/Christopher Gezon