With a spectacular canyon cut by the Virgin River, Zion National Park is perfection. Our family has visited 26 national parks to date, and Zion remains our all-time favorite. With its town and park shuttle systems (April-October), it’s also the most RV-friendly national park that we’ve ever visited. The best way to see its natural beauty is to follow the water.
On this RV trip, we didn’t have our bikes, so we took the free shuttle into the town of Springdale to Zion Cycles to rent. From the shop, it’s about a mile-long ride back to the south entrance of the park. Bikes are allowed on all park roadways, including the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is a good place to ride when the shuttle is operating and traffic is restricted. (Note: Bikes are not allowed inside the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. Vehicles over 13 feet, 1 inch tall are also prohibited.)
Better still, you can ride along the 1.75-mile Pa’rus Trail, a paved path between Zion Canyon Visitor Center and Canyon Junction that hugs the Virgin River. If you ride during early morning or dusk, you’ll likely see mule deer and wild turkeys along the path. If you’re traveling with pets, they, too, are allowed on this scenic trail. Don’t be surprised if you come across a tarantula on the trail. Not to worry—these amazing arachnids are basically harmless.
Emerald Pools & Weeping Rock
There’s plenty of easy and moderate hiking trails within Zion to keep you busy for several days. We enjoyed the hike to both the Upper and Lower Emerald Pools and waterfalls. The gorgeous, green waters here are stunning. Also, don’t miss the hike to Weeping Rock and its hanging garden, where you can catch water droplets that have been making their way down inside the canyon walls for 1,200 years!
If you’re really fortunate, you’ll experience a sudden, violent rainstorm. Why would you hope for rain? When we were there, a heavy rainstorm caused a small landslide that washed iron-laden rocks from the canyon walls into the Virgin River, turning it blood red. It was an astounding sight!
The Narrows is an unforgettable gorge with soaring walls, sandstone grottos, natural springs and hanging gardens in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon. It measures 16 miles long, up to 2,000 feet deep, and at points, is only 20 to 30 feet wide. However, it’s a hike not to be taken lightly.
You begin the hike on the paved Riverside Walk that follows the Virgin River. This trail is popular and quite crowded. The herd starts to thin when you reach the river crossing. From this point on, hiking the Narrows means hiking in the river. In fact, at least 60 percent of the hike is spent wading, walking, or swimming in the water. We ventured about a mile into the gorge. My youngest son spent much of the time on his father’s shoulders because of the deep water.
Before you attempt to hike the Narrows, make sure to check with park rangers at the visitor center. There is a real and serious threat of flash flooding in the gorge, especially in mid-summer and fall. It’s safest to hike when there’s little chance of rain in the forecast, and the river is low, clear, and relatively warm. If you heed the warnings and prepare well for the conditions, this hike likely will be the most memorable of your trip!
Where to Stay and Eat
I’d recommend staying in the national park at either Watchman Campground (reservations available, electrical hookup only) or South Campground (first-come, first-served, no hookups). There are a few sites along the Virgin River, but they go quickly. What we enjoyed most about these campgrounds (besides swimming in the river) was the ability to park and then explore the park and town via the free shuttles.
Even though you may not be staying there, plan to eat at the Red Rock Grill inside the historic Zion Lodge and enjoy the tasty food and fantastic views. In Springdale, grab breakfast at local favorites Oscar’s Cafe or the Spotted Dog.
In summer, temperatures often exceed 100 degrees. Zion can experience monsoon-like rains from mid-July into September, increasing the risk of flash flooding. If you can hold off until fall, you’ll enjoy cooler, drier conditions and fewer crowds. You’ll also be able to view the autumn colors that dress the cottonwoods and big tooth maples along the Virgin River.
Shellie Bailey-Shah is a travel writer and television consumer reporter in Portland, Oregon. She and her husband, along with her two sons and yellow Labrador, intend to visit all the national parks.