Zion National Park is in southwestern Utah near Springdale and is the sixth most visited US national park with almost 3 million visitors a year. Not surprisingly, most people visit during the months of June, July, and August. However, my family and I chose to visit Zion in late February, and what a great decision that was.
Advantages of visiting Zion National Park during the winter:
There are several reasons for visiting Zion National Park during late winter, but the top one that comes to mind is to escape the crowds. During the summer months, Zion can feel quite crowded but if you go during the winter, there is only around a quarter of the people there as during the summer. You don’t feel like you’re constantly walking on the heels of other groups of people and you can enjoy the peaceful nature of the park better.
Also, Zion Canyon is beautiful during the winter months and it’s cool to see frozen or partially frozen waterfalls (pun intended). The peaks weren’t snow-covered when we were there, but I’m sure they’re even more beautiful when they are.
Another advantage of going during late winter is it’s not as hot. During the summer, the temperature is often above 100°F/38°C. That’s not exactly comfortable hiking weather in my opinion. But during late winter, daytime temperatures are usually around 50-60°F, which is quite comfortable when you’re hiking. There is a chance of rain or snow, however, as nearly half of the annual precipitation in Zion Canyon falls between the months of December and March. When we were there, the weather was great with no precipitation but you do need to be prepared for wet or slick conditions.
Disadvantages of visiting Zion National Park during the winter:
The biggest disadvantage of visiting Zion National Park during the off-season winter is some of the trails may be closed due to ice. Although this was not an issue while we were there, it is a possibility during the winter, especially during the peak of winter.
Another disadvantage is if you want to hike The Narrows during the winter, you’ll need a dry suit. The Narrows is a section of the canyon on the North Fork of the Virgin River. You wade through water that’s around waist-deep on most people during certain sections, but the level of the river varies by season. We just hiked up to The Narrows as far as we could without getting wet and turned around. We’ll have to do that hike another time when it’s warmer. Fall would be a good time for that and not so crowded.
Trails in Zion Canyon
There are seven trails in Zion Canyon but eighteen trails total in Zion National Park. Some of the more popular trails are The Narrows (discussed above), Angel’s Landing, and Lower and Upper Emerald Pool Trails. I had just read about someone falling to their death from Angel’s Landing before we went to Zion, so I nixed that trail since falling to my death didn’t really sound very appealing to me. If you do hike the ever-popular Angel’s Landing trail, just be very aware while you’re out there and be cautious.
We chose to hike Lower Emerald Pools (a portion was closed due to a rockslide several months prior), Upper Emerald Pools, Kayenta, and The Grotto Trails, which all form a nice loop of about 5 miles and can be completed in a few hours even with lots of stops for photo ops. These trails are listed as easy or moderate by the National Park Service. While the entire hike is definitely not easy, there are some difficult parts to it. We also did the Riverside Walk Trail to The Narrows and went as far as we could go there. Riverside Walk Trail is 2.2 miles and follows the Virgin River along the bottom of a narrow canyon. It is an easy and scenic trail.
On our second day, we chose the Watchman Trail, which is 3.3 miles round-trip and is listed as moderate. There are views of the Towers of the Virgin, lower Zion Canyon, and Springdale. The trailhead is by the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. The Watchman Trail was my favorite trail at Zion National Park. It was a good way to end our stay at the park.
How to Get Here
Although you could arrange a tour with a company, most people fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, and drive the 2 1/2 hours from there. Alternatively, you could fly into Salt Lake City, get a rental car, and drive 4 1/2 hours from there. Public transportation (not counting the Zion National Park shuttles) are pretty much non-existent in this area, so unless you’re with a tour group, you need to have your own vehicle or a rental. We flew into Las Vegas, spent the night there, and drove from Vegas. If you’d like to read further about that, see Las Vegas Layover, the Anti-Bourdain Version. The roads were all well-maintained and it was an easy drive, even in our (unexpected “upgraded”) rental sports car.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Cable Mountain Lodge and couldn’t have been happier with the choice. There are several different suites and studios to choose from and you are literally within walking distance to Zion National Park. You don’t have to worry about fighting to find a parking spot or wait in a long line just to get into the park, just walk out of your room and take a short walk over a bridge to the park. We stayed in a suite and it was HUGE! We had a full, well-stocked kitchen, table with chairs to eat at, large living room area with a sofa bed and a separate bedroom, and a nice bathroom. There was even a balcony off the bedroom with chairs and a small table.
Zion Lodge, the only lodging available in the park, is three miles north on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and is open year-round. Motel rooms, cabins, and suites are available but the suites tend to be much more expensive than what I paid at Cable Mountain Lodge. Zion also has three campgrounds with only Watchman Campground offering reservations from March through November.
Regardless of where you stay, whether it’s at Cable Mountain Lodge, Zion Lodge, Watchman Campground, or somewhere else in Springdale, make your reservations as early as possible, at least several months in advance. Places book up quickly, especially during the busy summer months, but year-round as well.
Where to Eat
The only restaurants in the park are at Zion Lodge and are Red Rock Grill and the seasonal Castle Dome Cafe. I was surprised at how few restaurants there are in the town of Springdale. There are less than thirty, but several are only open seasonally or only for breakfast and/or lunch. We ate at MeMe’s Cafe for pastries and muffins after hiking the first day, Zion Pizza & Noodle when my daughter wanted pizza, Zion Brewery, and we picked up breakfast items and lunches to take with us into the park at Sol Foods. MeMe’s Cafe looked like it had the best options for breakfast, but we chose to eat in our hotel room for breakfast to save time and money. If you’re a foodie, you’ll likely not be impressed with the food choices here. I wouldn’t call myself a foodie and found that nothing my family and I had was bad per se, but nothing was really spectacular either.
What to Bring
Dress appropriately for the weather but if you’re doing The Narrows remember it’s much cooler here even in the heat of the summer. Bring a jacket just in case and depending on the season, dress in layers. Be prepared to get very wet if you’re hiking The Narrows.
Bring enough water and snacks to get you through several hours.
You’ll want sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses year-round.
Bring the maps that they give you at the gate with you.
Don’t forget your receipt for re-entry or even better get an Interagency Annual Pass to allow access to all national parks for $80, good for 12 months from purchase.
Zion National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with some services and areas closed seasonally.
Parking is limited inside Zion, and parking lots at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center commonly fill by mid-morning. To avoid parking hassles, park in the town of Springdale and ride the free town shuttle to the park. You can park anywhere along the road in town that does not have a parking restriction. To find the shuttle stops, look for the ‘Shuttle Parking’ signs throughout town. If you are staying at a lodge or motel, leave your car there and take the shuttle to the park, or better yet, stay at Cable Mountain Lodge and just walk to the park!
You could easily spend a week at Zion and still not do all of the trails. Just don’t try to do them all in 2 or 3 days, or you’ll be exhausted by the end. Check out the listings and descriptions in this very descriptive hiking guide ahead of time and decide which trails are right for you.