One Day in Zion National Park: A Beginner’s Guide

Only have one day to explore Zion National Park in southern Utah? No problem! Follow this guide to make the most of your time in Zion Canyon and experience all the best it has to offer.

If I had to describe Zion in a word, it’d be: awe-inspiring.

There’s just no other way to explain the way you feel standing in the middle of Zion Canyon, surrounded by giants.

The place is absolutely stunning; so much that it almost feels surreal at times. And lucky for visitors, this National Park is quite accessible and easy to visit in one day!

Read on for our best tips + the perfect itinerary for spending one day in Zion National Park:

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One Day in Zion National Park

Zion National Park is massive. It covers 229 square miles, to be exact. But seeing the best Zion National Park has to offer in one day is totally doable. That’s because the most visited sections of Zion National Park are found along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, a 6.3 mile road heading into the canyon that’s only accessible by shuttle bus most of the year.

But more on that to come…

Here’s a few tips to get you off to the right start in Zion:

Getting to Zion National Park

If you’re traveling from afar, the two most popular airports for getting to Zion National Park are Las Vegas (LAS) and St. George (SGU).

St. George is the closest and about an hour drive from the park. It’s a small regional airport with limited servicing routes, but as demand for visitors to the southern Utah area grows, so do your flight options. We found really cheap $150 round-trip tickets from our own little airport here in Omaha, Nebraska, so it IS possible to get a good deal to St. George. I recommend setting up a low fare alert with Airfare Watchdog.

If St. George is out of the question, your next best bet will be flying into Las Vegas. It’s a bit longer drive (2 hours and 40 minutes), but you’ll have lots of options for cheap flights. Just be sure to weigh the cost of extra gas and driving time to make sure it’s worth it.

You’ll most definitely need a car rental to get to Zion National Park. We always book with RentalCars.com for their guaranteed cheap prices and flexible cancellation policies.

The Best Time to Visit Zion National Park

Zion National Park is a busy place, welcoming 4.3 million visitors per year!

That said, a large majority of those visitors arrive in summertime, which makes the park swell with people from June through August.

If you can manage it, try to plan your trip to Zion in the spring or fall. The park will be much more peaceful, you’ll spend less time waiting in line for the shuttle, and you also won’t have to hike in the sweltering heat!

I’d highly recommend visiting in October or November. We visited in mid-November and lucked out with some awesome weather and almost no crowds whatsoever! Plus you have all the beautiful fall colors happening which makes it feel even more special.

Where to Stay near Zion National Park

There are loads of options when it comes to staying near Zion National Park. Ultimately, it comes down to how close to the park you want to be, and what kind of amenties or experiences you’re looking for.

Hotels in Zion National Park

Zion Lodge | The only hotel actually within Zion National Park is the Zion Lodge. With a small collection of cabins, hotels room and suites, it’s pretty small in comparison to the massive amounts of people that travel through the park each year.

But if you book far enough in advance and visit in the off-season, you’ll be rewarded with a spot right in the middle of the park, with easy access to unlimited hiking opportunities. The hotel also has 2 restaurants on-site (one seasonal).

See prices on: Hotels.com

Hotels near Zion National Park

Outside of the park, you’ll find plenty of accommodations in the town of Springdale (which borders the park to the west). For more budget accommodations or those wanting to combine a Zion + Bryce Canyon trip, look to the small towns east of Zion.

Some other top-rated hotels that sparked our interest were:

La Quinta Inn & Suites (Springdale, $$) | For a semi-budget-friendly option, consider the highly rated La Quinta in Springdale. The property offer a location in the center of town with free cribs, it’s own convenience store and gear rental shop, and an outdoor pool.

Compare prices on: Hotels.com | Agoda | Booking.com

Springhill Suites (Springdale, $$$) | A little further down the road, the modern Springhill Suites my Marriott is a favorite among travelers. Families will appreciate spacious suites with a sofabed in every room, along with free hot breakfast and an outdoor pool.

Compare prices on: Hotels.com | Agoda | Booking.com

Apple Hollow Cabins (Glendale, $$) | If you’re hoping to combine a trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon, Apple Hollow Cabins is located half-way between the two in quiet Glendale.

While you won’t find much for amenties in this little town, (there are a handful of restaurants and a grocery store in nearby Orderville), these luxury cabins make a stay out in the wilderness worth it!

Compare prices on: Hotels.com | Agoda

Vacation Rentals near Zion National Park

You’ll also find plenty of family-friendly Airbnb options in and around Zion National Park. We stayed at this budget-friendly Airbnb in Orderville, a small town with few amenities, but exactly halfway between Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.

New to Airbnb? Use our referral code and get up to $55 in free travel credit when you book your first stay!

Getting Around Zion National Park

Once you’ve decided where to stay, your next big decision will be deciding how to get to and from and around the park.

The most important thing to note is that private cars cannot drive in Zion Canyon, the park’s main thoroughfare, during a majority of the year (unless you’re staying at the Zion Lodge). Instead, the park offers a free shuttle with many stops throughout the park at the most popular trailheads.

There is also a second shuttle line called the Springdale line. This line runs along Zion Park Boulevard, where you’ll find most of the restaurants and hotels in Springdale, finally ending at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.

  • If you have a rental car (we recommend booking through RentalCars.com), you can park at the Visitor Center and board the Zion Shuttle from there.
  • If you’re staying at one of the nearby hotels in Springdale, take the Springdale shuttle to the Visitors Center, and then transfer to the Zion shuttle to enter the park.

During the busy summer when the park is packed, there are long waits at each shuttle stop, and especially at Stop #1, the Visitors Center. My best advice is to get there as early as possible in the day (the first shuttle departs the Visitor Center at 9 AM) as well as bring plenty of snacks and things to keep you and the kids occupied while you wait.

Itinerary for One Day in Zion National Park

Only have one day to explore Zion National Park? No problem! We did most of the park in one day and loved every minute of it.

Here’s how I suggest spending one perfect day in Zion:

Canyon Overlook Trail

Start your day a bit outside the main area of the park at Canyon Overlook Trail. This moderate, but short trail is a must for any visitor! There is very limited parking near the trailhead, but in the off-season (November) we had no difficulty finding parking around 9 AM. I imagine it’s much more difficult in summer, so be prepared to either arrive super early, or try multiple times.

If you can snag yourself a parking space, the trail will take you along some rocky terrain and steep drop-offs as you make your way on the .5 mile trail to the Canyon Overlook. (I highly recommend having young kids in a carrier for this hike!)

The views from Canyon Overlook are simply indescribable. It’s an amazing way to start the day and excite you for what’s to come!

Once back in your car, make the winding drive through the canyon (an experience in and of itself!) to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.

Zion Canyon Visitor Center

After hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail, head to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center where you’ll be parking your car for the rest of the day.

Again, arriving early will be your best bet at a parking spot; these lots do fill up by mid-day in summer!

At the Visitor Center you can browse informational displays, stop at the gift shop, and grab a trail map or Junior Ranger booklet.

Outside you’ll find a long line to ride the Zion Shuttle. Instead, head past the shuttle stop and follow signs for the Pa’rus Trail.

Pa’rus Trail

The Pa’rus Trail leads you along the Virgin River bank and then through a grassy meadow. The trail is completely flat, making it ideal for letting little ones “hike” this trail for themselves.

You could carry on along the river, but instead head towards the Zion Human History Museum, making this a short 1 mile hike. Stop here to view cultural exhibits or to watch the 22 minute park overview video (necessary to complete the Junior Ranger program).

From here (Stop #2), hop the shuttle in the direction of Temple of Sinawava.

Riverside Walk Trail

Once aboard the shuttle, follow it all the way to the last stop, #8 Temple of Sinawava. From there, head toward the Riverside Walk Trail. This trail will again lead you along the Virgin River (now a bit wider) and is the start of The Narrows hiking trail.

Follow the trail all the way to where the Narrows begins, about 2.2 miles round-trip. Again, it’s a very easy, relatively flat walk along a paved trail, so it’s a great one for families.

Back at the trailhead, stop for some snacks while you wait to board the shuttle back in the direction of the Visitor Center.

My only photo of Lower Emerald Pools. The trail was closed for maintenance during our visit.

Lower Emerald Pools Trail

Your next stop in Zion will be at Shuttle Stop #5, Zion Lodge. Follow signs for the Lower Emerald Pools Trail.

This short, easy trail is paved and leads to a pool and waterfall. At just 1.2 miles round-trip, it’s a quick in and out by itself.

If you want to keep going (and I do recommend you do!), keep trekking upwards following signs for the Middle and Upper Emerald Pools.

Upper Emerald Pools Trail

If you want to add on a bit more difficult hike to your day, keeping going up the hill towards the Upper Emerald Pools. It is a bit more strenuous than other hikes on this itinerary, but we managed with two children, so it’s definitely doable. Be prepared for a steep elevation climb to the top where you’ll find a large pool nestled under a cliff.

Tip: If you’re running short on time, skip the Upper Emerald Pools and follow the signs straight to…

Kayenta Trail

Instead of doing a full round-trip on the Lower Emerald Pools Trail, I recommend taking the scenic route and diverting over to the Kayenta Trail.

I hadn’t heard many people talk about this trail in my research of Zion, but it wound up being one of our favorites!

The 2 mile hike is moderate in difficulty and takes you on a trail along the edge of the canyon for some absolutely stunning views from above. (Keep the little ones close, or better yet, in a carrier, as this narrow trail has some steep drop-offs.)

When you get to the base of this trail, cross the footbridge which leads to #6 The Grotto station. Hop the shuttle back to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center to complete your one day in Zion!

PS. In your research, you might read recommendations for Weeping Rock Trail, a short paved path that’s an easy trek for families. At the time of our visit, it was closed indefinitely due to rockfall damage. I’ve left it out of this itinerary for the time-being, but you can always check here to see if it’s reopened.

Planning a trip to Zion National Park? Drop me any questions you might have in the comments!

xo laura

planning a trip to zion national park?

Here’s a few final tips…

  • Set up flight deal alerts to St. George (SGU) with Airfare Watchdog.
  • Find family-friendly Airbnbs near Zion.
  • Or compare hotel prices in Springdale with Booking.com.
  • Get the lowest car rental rates with RentalCars.com
  • Book a guided canyon tour with Viator.
  • Be prepared for anything with travel insurance from World Nomads.

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