By Michael Lanza At a bit over 147,000 acres, Zion comes nowhere near America’s largest national parks in sheer immensity. Zion could fit insi
By Michael Lanza
At a bit over 147,000 acres, Zion comes nowhere near America’s largest national parks in sheer immensity. Zion could fit inside Yosemite National Park five times, inside the Everglades 10 times, inside Yellowstone 15 times, and inside our largest park, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias, 89 times. But if you’re a hiker, Zion harbors, mile for mile, some of the most breathtaking scenery to be found on any trails in the National Park System.
This story will point you to Zion’s 10 best dayhikes, based on my personal experience of many visits there over the past three decades, including formerly as a field editor for Backpacker magazine for about 10 years and even longer running this blog.
You will also find in this story my insider tips on how to avoid the crowds when hiking in what has become the third-most-visited national park (after Great Smoky Mountains and Yellowstone). Follow those tips and you will discover an entirely different experience when you’re not sharing the trails with hundreds of other hikers—as are often seen on hikes like Angels Landing and the lower Narrows from spring through fall.
The park’s free shuttle buses operate regularly between the visitor center, just inside the south entrance, to the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive—which is usually closed to private vehicles—for most of the year. See nps.gov/zion/learn/news/newspaper.htm. The visitor center parking lot fills early in the day. The Springdale town shuttle connects to the park’s shuttles and there is public parking in Springdale, shown on this map. It’s often easiest to take the town shuttle to stop number one, just outside the park entrance, and use the pedestrian entrance and footbridge over the Virgin River, walking just minutes to the visitor center.
Trails and roads in Zion are occasionally closed due to rockfall, construction, or other reasons. Check current conditions at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/conditions.htm.
I’d love to hear what you think of these hikes or any suggestions for your favorite hikes in Zion, as well as your thoughts on my tips for avoiding what can be huge crowds on the most popular hikes. Share them—and read others—in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
5 miles round-trip, 1,488 vertical feet up and down
Trailhead: The Grotto (shuttle bus stop no. 6)
You know Angels Landing belongs on any list of the best hikes in Zion—not to mention the best hikes in Utah’s national parks, or the best hikes in the entire National Park System. The five-mile, nearly 1,500-foot round-trip hike reaches its apex in one of the most thrilling half-mile stretches of trail in America. The “trail” follows a knife-edge spine of rock, with chain handrails and steps chiseled out of sandstone in spots. At the summit of this famous pinnacle, you can do a slow spin and see all of Zion Canyon—and its elevation 1,500 feet above the canyon bottom but still hundreds of feet below the canyon rims gives you a unique panorama of one of America’s prettiest natural wonders.
From the Grotto, the West Rim Trail ascends steep switchbacks that get morning sun and can be hot early, to Refrigerator Canyon—often shady and cool—and then the tight switchbacks of Walter’s Wiggles. At Scout Lookout, where the West Rim Trail continues upward, follow the 0.4-mile spur trail up the very exposed crest of Angels Landing to its summit, with fixed chains and steps chopped out of the rock in places. While the ridge offers only a few wider spots (where hikers can safely pass one another), the broader summit area has plenty of space to sit and enjoy one of the park’s best 360-degree panoramas.
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If you have the time and energy, continue up the West Rim Trail into an area of towering beehives, multi-colored cliffs, and increasingly dramatic views of Zion Canyon—spectacular scenery however far you go. (See West Rim Trail description below.)
Angels has a well-deserved reputation as thrilling and scary for its exposure. For anyone who has a fear of heights, it can be terrifying. But hikers accustomed to a little exposure will likely find nothing more difficult than a few sections of short, moderately challenging scrambling. Young kids with the stamina for it, and who will follow instructions, are safe as long as you shadow them closely through exposed sections.
Scroll down to my insider tips for the smartest strategy for avoiding the crowds on Angels Landing and the West Rim Trail.
Due to the hike’s enormous popularity, Zion National Park is launching on April 1, 2022, a permit system for dayhiking Angels Landing. A seasonal lottery held four times per year makes permits available for three-month periods throughout the year; key lottery dates for Zion’s two peak hiking seasons are Jan. 3-20 for hiking permits from April 1 through May 31 and July 1-20 for hiking dates Sept. 1 through Nov. 30. A separate lottery for dayhiking permits is held daily; apply for one before 3 p.m. the day before you want to hike it. Find out more at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/angels-landing-hiking-permits.htm.
See my story “Hiking Angels Landing: What You Need to Know.”
Gear up right for hikes in Zion. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the best daypacks.
8 miles round-trip, 2,148 vertical feet up and down
Trailhead: Weeping Rock (shuttle bus stop no. 7)
The stunning views begin minutes after you start hiking from the Weeping Rock Trailhead, and keep getting better all the way to Observation Point, where you stand at the brink of sheer cliffs more than 2,000 feet above Zion Canyon. In fact, it’s arguably prettier and more varied than Angels Landing. It’s also a longer and harder hike than Angels at eight miles and more than 2,100 vertical feet round-trip, but on a good trail that’s mostly solid rock or paved.
There are three distinctly different sections of the hike to Observation Point—all beautiful. The lower stretch zigzags up through a natural bowl in the cliffs above Weeping Rock (which you’ll get a view of below you), gaining elevation and more-expansive views rapidly with each switchback. The middle section enters the often-shady narrows of Echo Canyon, where a stream spawns greenery and pools of water reflect soaring red and white walls; watch for bighorn sheep at less-busy times of day. The upper section of trail breaks out into the sunshine while ascending switchbacks overlooking the dramatic geology of Echo Canyon (lead photo at top of story), then makes a high, airy traverse above Zion Canyon to Observation Point.
Fit hikers can easily combine this with the half-mile-long spur trail off it to Hidden Canyon; plan at least an hour round-trip for the latter, especially if you want to explore beyond the mouth of Hidden Canyon (see below).
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9.5 miles, about 2,000 vertical feet downhill and 400 feet uphill
Trailheads: Upper end at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, 15.5 miles up Kolob Terrace Road; lower end at Left Fork Trailhead, 8.2 miles up Kolob Terrace Road.
Zion’s most-famous, technical slot canyon, the Subway takes its name from a bend where flash floods have bored a colorful, round passage that resembles a subway tunnel. But it’s so much more than that one, oft-photographed spot. Descending it 9.5 miles from top to bottom—which requires only beginner-level canyoneering skills and a popular, one-day permit that’s difficult to get—takes you through a canyon at times wider than a soccer pitch, with trees growing in the shade of walls hundreds of feet tall, which narrows to a slot barely more than shoulder-width across. Like Angels Landing, the Narrows, and arguably Observation Point, the Subway is considered by some to be one of the most scenic and certainly most adventurous one-day outings in the National Park System.
Also known as the Left Fork of North Creek, the top-to-bottom descent (from the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead to the Left Fork Trailhead) has long sections that do not follow a maintained trail. After following the Wildcat Canyon Trail and turning south onto the Northgate Peaks Trail, watch for a small sign indicating the start of the Subway route. Marked by occasional cairns, it still requires route-finding to descend Russell Gulch, which becomes quite steep and loose near its bottom. Once in the Left Fork Canyon, you will clamber over giant boulders in a twisting canyon of wildly sculpted, kaleidoscopic walls, wade or swim a few deep, frigid pools (bring a dry suit, which can be rented in Springdale), and make three rappels (the longest of them 30 feet, the other two much shorter).
It can also be dayhiked partway from the bottom up, a strenuous more than six miles out-and-back from the Left Fork Trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road, getting as far as the famous subway tunnel before you have to turn around at the base of cliffs. The bottom-up hike features rugged terrain and a creek crossing in each direction. But that’s a very different experience because you see much less of the canyon’s best sections—and you encounter a lot more people. It also requires a one-day permit. If you have the skills for it, do this hike from top to bottom.
See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 1: Hiking Zion’s Subway,” for many photos and details on how to get a popular one-day permit for this classic hike. Don’t enter the Subway with rain in the forecast.
Explore the best of the Southwest. See “The 10 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks”
“The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
The Riverside Walk and The Narrows
2.2 to 10 miles round-trip, nearly flat
Trailhead: Temple of Sinawava (shuttle bus stop no. 9)
One of the most magnificent and unique hikes in the national parks, the Narrows begins at the upper end of Zion Canyon, where the North Fork of the Virgin River has, over eons, carved out a canyon with sheer walls that tower up to a thousand feet overhead and, at times, squeeze so closely together that they turn daylight to dusk. Hiking much of the time in the river, you will find yourself craning your neck up at a canyon that changes with every bend. Springs create waterfalls pouring from rock walls, nurturing hanging gardens in the desert.
The hike begins on the flat, wheelchair-accessible, 1.1-mile (one-way) Riverside Trail, itself a fine, very easy hike, paralleling the river beneath red cliffs and shady cottonwood trees whose leaves turn golden in fall. At the end of that trail, you enter the river and follow it upstream, turning back anytime; it’s usually easy to avoid any sections of deeper, slightly faster current. At Orderville Canyon, a narrow tributary about 2.5 miles from the trailhead (on the right when walking upstream), you enter the deepest and darkest portion of the Narrows, the roughly two-mile-long stretch known as Wall Street, where the river often spans the canyon wall to wall. Wall Street ends just before Big Spring, roughly five miles up the Narrows, beyond which hiking is prohibited without a backcountry permit.
Enormously popular, the lower Narrows teems with hundreds and sometimes thousands of dayhikers on hot days of late spring and summer, when the river is low and warmer. Scroll down to my insider tips for avoiding crowds when hiking in Zion; it includes two tips specific to the Narrows.
You are often walking directly in the river, which is typically ankle- to calf-deep, occasionally up to thigh- or waist-deep, frequently with slippery cobblestones underfoot. That will slow your hiking pace more than expected for a flat hike. Use poles or a walking stick. The water is cold in spring and fall, and there’s little direct sunlight in the Narrows, where the temperature can be about 10 degrees cooler than in Zion Canyon; plus, the wind frequently blows down canyon, making it feel colder. Bring multiple clothing layers—especially if hiking in early morning in spring or fall—and if you don’t own canyoneering boots, neoprene socks, and dry pants, rent them in Springdale. (One rental place is located in the parking lot right across the footbridge leading into the park.) Don’t hike the Narrows with rain in the forecast.
Carry all of the drinking water you’ll need for the Narrows; the river is often murky. You can also refill water at Big Spring if you get that far; you may want to treat it, although I often drink spring water untreated when captured right at its source. (See my favorite water-filter bottles and other water treatment in my review of essential backpacking gear accessories.)
See my feature story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows,” about a top-to-bottom, overnight trip down it.
Click here now to get my expert e-guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.
2.2 miles round-trip, 1,000 vertical feet up and down
Trailhead: Weeping Rock (shuttle bus stop no. 7)
In a place with crazy, mind-boggling scenery around every corner, the 2.5-mile round-trip hike to Hidden Canyon is arguably the most beautiful hike under three miles in the park.
Beginning from the same trailhead as the Observation Point hike, the trail to Hidden Canyon diverges to the right less than a mile up. It ascends switchbacks and traverses the canyon wall, including a section traversing the cliff face that’s wide and safe but exposed.
It’s quite scenic all the way to the mouth of Hidden Canyon, where the trail officially ends. If you’re up for a little scrambling, continue beyond the mouth of Hidden Canyon into the slot canyon, where tight walls rise high overhead; I’ve seen an owl napping in a small tree in this slot canyon. Before long, you’ll reach a sign marking the turnaround point.
See below my tips on avoiding the crowds while hiking in Zion, which include a specific plan for combining Hidden Canyon with two of the other best hikes in Zion Canyon in a single, big dayhike.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Zion, Yosemite, Grand Teton, and other parks using my expert e-guides.
West Rim Trail
16.6 miles (top to bottom), about 800 vertical feet up and 3,600 feet down, or shorter variations
Trailheads: bottom end is the Grotto (shuttle bus stop no. 6), top end is the West Rim Trailhead near Lava Point
I’ve met longtime locals who call this their favorite trail in all of Zion, and it’s easy to see why. Stretching nearly 17 miles from near Lava Point off the Kolob Terrace Road to the Grotto in Zion Canyon, the West Rim Trail traverses a high plateau dividing the almost impenetrable labyrinth of canyons and mesas on its west side from the Narrows and Zion Canyon to the east and southeast. Some of the best backcountry viewpoints in the park are along this footpath.
It can be dayhiked or backpacked in either direction—though it’s mostly downhill going from top to bottom—or dayhiked out-and-back from the Grotto for as far as you’d like to go. The most scenic stretch of the West Rim Trail lies between Refrigerator Canyon (below Walter’s Wiggles and the spur trail to Angels Landing) and the upper junction with the Telephone Canyon Trail (just south of Potato Hollow). So you can see all of that on an out-and-back dayhike from the Grotto that’s the same distance as hiking the West Rim Trail from top to bottom, without requiring a shuttle—but of course, requiring you to hike up and down about 3,000 vertical feet.
The three springs along the West Rim Trail— Beatty, Sawmill, and Cabin springs—are usually reliable, though they recharge slowly at times. Reach the upper West Rim Trailhead by driving 25 miles up Kolob Terrace Road, then turning onto the road to Lava Point and the West Rim Trailhead and continuing about two miles. That road get rough for standard cars in wet conditions, but you can start at Lava Point and hike down the road. Shuttle services are available in Springdale. Kolob Terrace Road is rendered impassable by snow in winter.
See my feature stories about backpacking in the Kolob Canyons and on the West Rim Trail with my family and a 50-mile dayhike across Zion from the Kolob Canyons to Zion Canyon and the East Rim Trailhead.
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Insider Tips: Avoiding the Crowds When Hiking in Zion
The famous hikes in Zion Canyon—like Angels Landing, the Riverside Walk and lower Narrows, and Emerald Pools—can offer experiences that border on magical, especially when there are few other people around. But while the scenery isn’t diminished by walking in a conga line of other hikers, and repeatedly waiting out traffic jams on narrow routes like the upper sections of Angels Landing, the crowds do extinguish some of the magic.
Follow these tips to enjoy some of these hikes almost—or maybe, if you get lucky, entirely—to yourself.
- Hike when other hikers don’t: early morning (catch the first shuttle bus), in late afternoon or evening, or outside the peak season—there are fewer hikers in Zion Canyon in March and November, when you can enjoy days of good weather and dry trail conditions.
- Angels Landing tip no. 1: Either catch the first shuttle bus to beat the rush, or wait until mid-afternoon—when most hikers are coming down and the trail’s lower section receives cool shade. Strong hikers can go up and down Angels in two to three hours. Plus, the trail below Scout Lookout (where the exposed ridge of Angels Landing begins) is obvious and safe for experienced hikers to descend by headlamp after dark, and the sunset from the summit is gorgeous (but you may want to make the exposed ridge traverse before dark).
- Angels Landing tip no. 2: Check out the incredible scenery farther up the West Rim Trail above Angels Landing, where very few hikers venture—but do that before hitting the summit of Angels. Strong hikers can wait until midday or early afternoon, have a shadier ascent, go a mile or two up the West Rim past Angels first, and then backtrack to Scout Lookout to ascend the final ridge of Angels Landing in mid- to late afternoon, when most hikers have already started back down. This timing will give you a rare experience of sharing much of the hike with relatively few people—including the summit of Angels Landing.
- The Narrows tip no. 1: Getting on the first shuttle bus to the Temple of Sinawava will make this hike a vastly better experience than finding yourself in the midst of hundreds or even thousands of other hikers if you start later. It also gives you enough time to hike the 10 miles round-trip to Big Spring.
- The Narrows tip no. 2: By mid- to late afternoon, the line for boarding the return shuttle buses at the Temple of Sinawava trailhead can have hundreds of people, and the wait may stretch to an hour or two. Instead of standing around, take a very pretty, flat, quiet, 20-minute walk down the road to Big Bend (shuttle stop no. 8), where there will probably be no line for the bus.
- From spring through fall, the park visitor center parking lot usually fills by early morning; either get there by 7 or 8 a.m., or leave your car at your campsite or lodging or park (legally) in Springdale and walk or take the town of Springdale’s free shuttle to stop number one, just outside the park entrance, and use the pedestrian entrance and footbridge over the Virgin River to walk to the visitor center. You will avoid wasting time driving in circles in the visitor center parking lot. Private vehicles (except driven by guests holding reservations at Zion Lodge) are not permitted on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive when the park’s free shuttle buses are operating, generally at least from March through November.
- Backpack the trail. Certainly not all of the hikes on this list can be backpacked, but some, like the West Rim Trail, the Narrows, and La Verkin Creek can be done as an overnight or built into a multi-day hike. See my expert e-guide to backpacking Zion’s Narrows and my feature story about backpacking the West Rim Trail and the Kolob Canyons.
- Tip for strong hikers: Combine three of Zion Canyon’s—and southern Utah’s—best dayhikes in one strenuous but doable, 14-mile, roughly 3,800-vertical-foot day. Start with Observation Point and Hidden Canyon in early morning (first shuttle bus), to maximize shade and take advantage of cooler temps and fewer people. Then take the shuttle bus one stop down canyon to The Grotto (where you can refill water), and hike Angels Landing in mid-afternoon, when that trail has more shade and most hikers are coming down, meaning fewer people on top when you get there.
- Get out of Zion Canyon and you will leave the vast majority of hikers behind. Head for the trails along Kolob Terrace Road (West Rim Trail from top to bottom, Northgate Peaks Trail, the Subway) and the Kolob Canyons (Taylor Creek Trail and La Verkin Creek Trail). These trails are also higher in elevation and cooler when Zion Canyon is hot.
Taylor Creek Trail
5 miles round-trip, 450 vertical feet up and down
Trailhead: Taylor Creek Trailhead, just over two miles from the Kolob Canyons entrance in the park’s northwest corner, off exit 40 on I-15.
The Taylor Creek Trail probes into one of the several “finger” canyons, or fairly narrow box canyons that make up the entrancing geology of the Kolob Canyons area of Zion. At five miles out-and-back, with little elevation change, the trail follows the course of a small creek below towers and canyon walls rising a thousand feet and more overhead. It has open stretches with long views of the cliffs flanking the canyon, and shady, forested sections where it passes the historic Larson and Fife cabins, built by settlers in the 1930s.
The trail ends at Double Arch Alcove—a pair of giant arches in the Navajo sandstone beneath 1,700-foot-tall Tucupit Tower and Paria Tower, where a water seep nurtures a lush hanging garden below the lower arch.
This easy hike is good for families and quite scenic for anyone interested in heading out for a few hours. The Kolob Canyons are also higher in elevation and cooler when Zion Canyon is hot.
See my “Photo Gallery: Hiking the Kolob Canyons of Zion National Park.”
La Verkin Creek
Up to 14 miles (or less) round-trip, 1,000 vertical feet or less up and down
Trailhead: Lee Pass Trailhead, just over two miles from the Kolob Canyons entrance in the park’s northwest corner, off exit 40 on I-15.
The enchanting scenery of the Kolob Canyons begins from the winding road into this section of the park (and it’s well worth the short drive to the Kolob Canyons Viewpoint). Besides the benefit of escaping the crowds of Zion Canyon, hiking the La Verkin Creek Trail takes you along a lively creek through a canyon where the green of the scattered cottonwood trees and desert vegetation makes for a striking contrast with the burgundy cliffs.
The 6.4-mile hike from Lee Pass to the Kolob Arch Trail junction is fairly easy (downhill in that direction), but the best scenery (besides the trailhead view) is in the last two miles along La Verkin Creek. There are numerous nice campsites in this canyon. The half-mile hike to see Kolob Arch is, frankly, just okay—the 287-foot span is considered the world’s sixth largest, but you see it only from a significant distance.
Like many Southwestern streams, La Verkin Creek’s level varies significantly throughout the year, often running high and brown with silt in spring, while mellowing to a much lower, quieter, and clearer stream by late summer and fall. It can be challenging to ford in spring (and usually easy by fall), but fording isn’t necessary for a dayhike or overnight trip on the La Verkin Creek Trail—only if you want to continue south from La Verkin to the Hop Valley, Kolob Terrace Road, and perhaps on to the West Rim Trail.
See my feature stories about backpacking in the Kolob Canyons and on the West Rim Trail and about a 50-mile dayhike across Zion from the Kolob Canyons to Zion Canyon and the East Rim Trailhead.
Northgate Peaks Trail
5 miles round-trip, virtually flat
Trailhead: Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, 15.5 miles up Kolob Terrace Road.
When you’re ready to escape the hiking hordes in Zion Canyon, drive out the Kolob Terrace Road and take this flat, easy, five-mile, out-and-back hike (which is also the route to descend the Subway). Crossing the flat, open plateau at first, with views of cliffs and slickrock domes, and passing through thin, quiet ponderosa pine forest on the Wildcat Canyon Trail, you reach the junction with the Northgate Peaks Trail at 1.4 miles.
Follow that path south for just over a mile until it ends at an overlook between the two 7,000-foot domes called the Northgate Peaks, with a view toward the 7,395-foot North Guardian Angel and into the labyrinthine topography of the park’s Great West Canyon (which is also the Left Fork of North Creek, aka the Subway, although from up here you don’t have a real view down into that canyon).
Canyon Overlook Trail
One mile round-trip, very little up and down
Trailhead: Canyon Overlook Trailhead at the east end of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel.
Just a mile round-trip, but not quite as easy as the distance implies, this trail weaves through short sections that are rocky, traverses ledges and a wooden walkway built into a cliff, and passes through an undercut, while delivering views down into the slot canyon of Pine Creek. You might see bighorn sheep on the slickrock ledges along the way.
But the real treat is reaching the end of the trail, at the brink of the cliff with a sweeping view down Pine Creek Canyon to lower Zion Canyon, framed by the 7,709-foot East Temple and a complex landscape of cliffs and beehive formations. You’re actually standing on top of a feature called The Great Arch, although it isn’t visible from its top, but can be seen from turnouts along the lower part of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway (UT 9).
This trail is popular and its trailhead parking lot, located immediately east of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, is small. You might have to wait for someone to vacate a parking space, or park at a turnout farther up the road and walk back down the road.
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Two Bonus Tips
Some of Zion’s most unusual and striking terrain lies along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway between lower Zion Canyon and the park’s east entrance—especially above the Canyon Overlook Trailhead. Pull over at one of the turnouts along the highway and talk a short, off-trail hike. Be careful to avoid walking on vegetation—there’s plenty of solid rock to hike on—and don’t climb any steep slab that you’d feel uncomfortable or endangered descending.
One of the nicest and easiest ways to see Zion Canyon is by bicycle—which is not only scenic, but quiet and virtually traffic-free when the shuttle buses operate and private vehicles are prohibited, from March through November. Either pedal up and back down the road, or put your bikes on a shuttle bus, take it up to the end of the road at the Temple of Sinawava, and pedal the 6.2 miles down the road to Canyon Junction or roughly eight miles back to Springdale. In late afternoon, you’ll have more shade (in spring and fall) and there’s no wait to get on a bus because most people are coming out of the park rather than going in.
There are more dayhikes in Zion that could be on this list—not to mention backpacking trips and canyoneering adventures. Consider these 10 hikes a great starter list for a park you’ll want to explore further.
See all of my stories about Zion at The Big Outside, or scroll down to Zion on my All National Park Trips page. Planning to combine Zion and Bryce in one trip? See “The Best Hike in Bryce Canyon National Park.”