Zion National Park in one day: what to do, where to stay, how to get around and practical tips for the perfect visit.
Have you ever visited a place so beautiful, words failed you? I have and that place was Zion National Park, Utah (USA).
When we planned our day to that powerhouse of beauty that is Zion Park, we knew we were working against the clock.
Zion is a large National park and one so beautiful and rich of hikes and things to do, a day was hardly enough to even just start to scratch the surface.
However, one day is all we had and so we planned very carefully to make our 24 hours in Zion count.
These are our top tips for seeing the best of Zion National park in a day.
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Zion National Park in one day: where to go
Zion National Park is in South West Utah and has breathtaking tall read peaks, narrow canyons and mountain scenery so beautiful, they make it one of the most scenic places in the whole of the US, if not in the world.
The park extends over 229 Sq Miles however, the main area of interest to visitors in Zion is Zion Canyon, home of the famous Zion scenic drive.
This is the area of Zion you can access without hiking and the one with the main Zion facilities as well as the starting points to Zion’s most famous hikes.
If you only have one day in Zion, the Canyon and the main Valley floor is the place to go.
Here, you can get all the info from the visitor center and see what hikes are most suitable for the time you have, your level of fitness and the time of the year you find yourself in the park.
Zion in one day: what entrance is best?
Zion National Park has two entrances, one from St George/Springdale (South) and the East entrance, along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, towards Bryce Canyon.
If you can, I highly recommend you enter Zion from the east and leave from the South: the drive from the East entrance is SPECTACULAR and the best possible first impact with the wonder that is Zion.
Need to know: the East entrance passes through a tunnel and there are limitations to the size of vehicles allowed. You can find all the official info about the Mt Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel here
The best way to see Zion National park in a day: itinerary overview
We spent one night in Zion Lodge and one in St George, so this one day in Zion itinerary foresees a full day in the area.
Should you only be able to stay in Zion one night, at the end of this post I give some alternatives for how to spend only a few hours in the park instead.
Since we are not strong hikers and we were in Zion park with the kids, we spent the day seeing as much as possible rather than hiking.
However, we have gathered a lot of info about the several hikes in Zion Park and considered many before settling on our itinerary.
You will find a list of the main hikes in Zion and their level of difficulty at the end of this post, to help you make your Zion itinerary at best.
One day in Zion National Park: step by step itinerary
Stop 1: Visitors center and Pa’rus trail to the Zion Museum and Nature center
Start your day at the Zion visitors center, close to the South entrance.
Here you can leave your car (see below for shuttle system info), get maps of the park, and up to date information about accessibility and safety of trails on the day of your visit.
If visiting with Zion with kids, this is also the place to collect your junior ranger booklet – a fabulous way to get the kids to engage with the park and learn about it while having fun.
How to use the Zion shuttle system. Zion Canyon is served by a handy shuttle system, free for park visitors. This serves the whole canyon floor and has stops leading you to points of interests and starting point of trails. You can find all the info and stops in the free map available at Zion visitor’s center. The shuttle is the only vehicle allowed on most of the Zion drive during the high season (includes summer)
From the visitors center, we walked up the Pa’rus trail and along the Virgin River to the Museum of Human history and the Zion nature center.
This is a short, easy walk that we were able to do with the kids and one that offered excellent views over the expansive scenery of Zion.
Stop 2: listen to a ranger talk
Zion National Park rangers give free talks in several locations and at several times during the day and I highly recommend you listen to one.
They are short enough, easy to follow and informative and a fantastic way to dig a little deeper into the history of the park.
The talks are open to the general public and suitable for kids.
Taking part in a talk is a pre-requisite for the kids to become Junior Rangers but I do recommend adults to take part too.
The info and trivia you learn will blow your mind!
Stop 3: Shuttle to Zion Lodge
After the ranger talk, we boarded the shuttle, passed the Court of the Patriarchs (stunning) and arrived at Zion Lodge.
The Lodge is a handy stop.
It has a restaurant, a cafe and restrooms and it is also the starting point of several short trails easy to tackle even for non- hikers such as the Grotto trail (which we took) and the Emerald Pools trail
Stop 4: lunch at the Lodge
Zion Lodge is the only area in the park with food facilities and you can choose between a fast-food style lunch (pizza, burgers, hot dogs, ice creams etc) at the outdoor cafe or a full-on lunch at the Red Grill, upstairs.
We had dinner at the Red Grill and lunch at the cafe’.
For dinner, I do recommend reserving a table while for lunch, you can just queue up although be advised that the wait for a table in high season can take time.
Stop 5: afternoon hike at the Riverside Walk (leading to the starting point to the Narrows)
After a good lunch, we took the shuttle all the way to the last stop, the so-called Temple of Sinawa.
This stop is in a gorgeous part of Zion and is the starting point to the Riverside Walk and the Narrows, one of the most famous hikes in Zion and one of the big reasons hikers have Zion as one of the favorite parks.
Tackling the Narrows requires preparation and equipment.
However, it is possible to get to the start of this trail and see its beginning following the Riverside walk, which is easy and beautiful.
The Riverside walk is a path that follows the Virgin River.
It starts at the temple of Sinawa shuttle stop, at the very end of the Zion Canyon and requires no hiking experience: part of it is paved and even when the paved part stops, the trail terrain is not too rough.
For this hike, you do not need special gear but I recommend you have good walking shoes and also bring some water sandals or water shoes, so you can enter the river when you get to the entrance to the Narrows.
Stop 6: cooling down in the Virgin River
Zion Canyon is created by the Virgin River, a welcome source of water in an otherwise desert landscape.
Several hikes in the park follow the river and there are designated spots where it is also possible to get to the water and get your toes it: Zion gets so hot in summer, this will be a welcome and fun activity!
Please make sure you only enter the river where the official signs allow it: this is for your safety and that of the park. A lovely area for this was along the Riverside Walk, close to the start of the path.
Stop 7: drive up to the Canyon Overlook trail and catch the views
Zion Canyon is the most popular and visited part of Zion Park.
However, one of the most scenic, monumental and unforgettable parts of Zion is the road leading from the East entrance to the Canyon.
We took this drive coming from Bryce but even if you come from St George, I highly recommend you come here and stop to catch the views (or hike the canyon overlook trail – this is considered a moderate hike).
If you just drive here, it will not take long and the sunset over the red rocks of Zion may well be one of the most beautiful nature scenes you have ever seen!
Stop 8: dinner at the Red Grill
There is no better way to end a day in Zion than with dinner at the Red Grill, the restaurant with panoramic views inside Zion Lodge.
The restaurant has a large window overlooking the valley: book in advance and come before sunset for a relaxed dinner with stunning views of the valley.
Other things you can do with one day in Zion National Park: Zion Hikes
Zion is a hikers paradise and many hikes can be done even with just one day in the park.
These are the hikes available. The times and level of difficulty listed come from the official park recommendations.
Please always check with the rangers before starting any of these hikes to make sure the trail is open on the day you are in Zion and the weather conditions are suitable for hiking.
Easy Zion Hikes:
- Pa’rus Trail, 2 hours, paved – strollers and wheelchairs may need assistance
- Archaeology Trail, 0.5h – short but steep
- Lower Emerald Pool trail, 1h, paved
- The Grotto Trail, 0.5h
- Weeping Rock Trail, 0.5h – short but steep
- Riverside walk, 1.5h, paved – strollers and wheelchairs may need assistance
Moderate Zion hikes
- Watchman Trail, 2h – moderate drop-offs
- Sand Bench Trail, 5h – deep sand and little shade
- Upper Emerald Pool Trail, 1h
- Kayenta Trail, 1.5h, moderate drop-offs
- Canyon Overlook Trail, 1h, long drop-offs, mostly fenced
Strenuous Hikes in Zion Park
- Angels Landing via West Rim Trail, 4h, unsuitable for children or anyone with a fear of heights (the last section is along a narrow, steep ridge to the summit)
- Hidden Canyon Trail, 2.4h, not suitable with fear of heights, it follows a cliff face to the mouth of a narrow canyon
- Observation Point via East Rim Trail, 6h
- The Narrows via Riverside Walk, up to 8h
Less than a day in Zion Park? what to do in Zion in 3 hours or less
Zion is so beautiful no stay in too short (or too long!).
If you only have a few hours in Zion, the best way to see the park is catching the shuttle – a ride from top to bottom of the canyon takes 80 minutes and it is a good way to see the Park and learn about it.
The most scenic shuttle stops in Zion are Court of the Patriarch, Zion Lodge and Big Bend.
If you are interested in hiking the easy hikes listed above can be easily done with just a few hours in Zion.
What to wear for a day in Zion
If you only have one day in Zion, the last thing you want it to pack special gear you will only use for a few hours.
Thankfully, unless you want to hike, there is no special gear needed for a day in Zion.
To visit the Canyon floor and take the easy hikes, good walking shoes are sufficient and I recommend some water shoes or water sandals for entering the river.
For a day in Zion, I recommend you pack:
- Good walking shoes
- Good breathable clothing for the summer months: think outdoor shorts, hiking pants etc
- Water sandals
- Sun hat and sunscreen for the summer
- Reusable water bottle
If you do intend on hiking, please make sure you pack accordingly and equip yourself with all the rangers recommend for the hike in question.
Where to base yourself for one day in Zion National Park
The very best place to stay to visit Zion National Park is Zion park itself.
The park has one lodge and bookings are handled by the Parks accommodation service, which you can find here.
The Lodge gets booked out months in advance but it does get cancellations so if you keep an eye on it, you may get a room – we did, and it was worth it!
Campgrounds are also available in the park.
If you cannot stay in the park, Springdale is the getaway town just outside the park and St George, farther down the road, can be a good option too.
If staying in St George, do take into account that the driving time back and forth will eat into your time in the park.
What worked for us was a compromise: a night in the park and one in St George, after leaving.
Good to know: because of the additional distance, accommodation in St George is usually significantly cheaper than staying closer to the park (4 times cheaper, in our case – we stayed here).
One day in Zion with kids: additional tips
Zion is easy to visit with kids and, unless you are a hiker and your kids are not, you don’t necessarily have to adapt your day excessively to make Zion child-friendly.
It is, however, useful to have some tips.
Get the junior ranger booklet
Completing the program takes time (a few hours if you have kids age 9 or up) but the booklet is worth getting anyway.
It is full of information and fun activities for them that you can do in your own time.
You can get it at the visitors’ center or, sometimes, at the park entrance station.
Lounge outside Zion Lodge
Outside Zion Lodge, there is a lovely lawn perfect for younger kids to run around in the shade
Bring an all-terrain stroller if tackling paths
Some of the paths in Zion are paved but occasionally hard for strollers with small wheels.
I recommend an all-terrain one if you are planning on doing any walks.
Take an easy hike
Some of the easy hikes in the park are child-friendly. All those in our itinerary are suitable for kids.
One day in Zion: final considerations
Zion National Park is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
The Zion scenic drive is stunning and mixes elements that are reminiscent of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon in a unique and breathtaking way.
While Zion deserves several days to be fully enjoyed, don’t believe those who tell you one day in Zion is not enough: even a minute in this stunning park is worth the trip!