The siren song of Zion National Park has been calling nature lovers for generations. Hikers flock here year after year to climb sandstone peaks and splash through the Virgin River to enter The Narrows. A trip to Zion is the highlight of many family’s summer vacations, even when temperatures in this desert region reach scorching heights. Is it worth it? Why yes it is.
Zion National Park was one of the many parks we squeezed into our cross-country road trip as we moved from Seattle to Maryland in October 2014. A simple trip to see the Redwoods and Yosemite quickly turned into a trip to see as many national parks in the west as possible, even though we could only spend about a day in each. We would go on to see Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon after Zion before we booked it to the east coast.
Our boys, who were ages 2 and 5 at the time, were seeing parts of their country that they never knew existed. My husband and I were excited to explore as much as possible, and our boys were more than up for the adventure. In fact, my oldest pushed us more in Zion than any of the other parks by insisting we complete the Emerald Pools hike (see below) before we left the park for the night. We only had one day to explore and he didn’t want to miss a thing.
Organizing any kind of family trip can be stressful, and Zion National Park is no different. There are a few things to know before you head out to the park and hit the trails. If you are short on time, this is the perfect guide for you, but if you are planning to stay more than a day, you’ll still enjoy this easy guide to exploring the park with kids.
Where to stay
The drive into Springdale, UT towards Zion National Park is overflowing with lodging options that will be happy to have you and your children stay. We loved the Cliffrose Lodge and Garden. It was an easy five-minute walk into the park, located along the Virgin River and a short distance from restaurants in town. The rooms were spacious and comfy and the staff went above and beyond to make our stay effortless and enjoyable. The included breakfast didn’t hurt either.
What to pack
- Hiking boots or good walking shoes
- Snacks for your hikes
- Picnic lunch (unless you eat in the park at the lodge)
- Kid carrier (strollers will work on very few trails)
- Travel insurance (always better to be safe than stranded!)
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Park entrance fee $25 per vehicle/ $12 per pedestrian
- Cell phones do not work in the park. Stick to the trails.
- Check the weather before you start a hike. Distant storms can cause flash floods. Ask park rangers at the visitor’s center if you aren’t sure about weather or trail conditions.
- You will need more water than you think. It is the desert and you will dehydrate more quickly while hiking around the park, especially if you are carrying a kid on your back.
The parking lots in Zion fill up by 10am most mornings and don’t start to clear out until about 3pm. Walk from your hotel to the park visitor’s center if that is an option or park in Springdale (the town just outside of the park) for free and take the free shuttle into the park.
One of the best parts of the park is the free shuttle system that brings you to different spots throughout Zion Canyon. You can leave your car in the lot and dive right in. Shuttles run regularly and you will never wait for one for too long.
Riverside Walk (easy): The Narrows, Zion’s legendary slot canyon, but when you are exploring Zion National Park with small children the closet you might get is the end of the Riverside Walk. This peaceful and paved hike is the last shuttle stop, and runs along the river that carves its way through the canyon.
You will have the chance to skip a few stones, look up at the mammoth rocks that make Zion the beauty she is and see a lot of people in water pants and water shoes who just came back from hiking the Narrows. The hike is worth it even if you can’t venture on into the Narrows. Take the shuttle to the end and just start walking. It’s a great way to start your day in Zion.
Emerald Pool Trail (easy to moderate): The Emerald Pool Trail starts out easy as you wander your way through some woods on a paved trail. You will hear the pool before you see it depending on the time of year as water crashes over a cliff into the first pool. You can even walk under the waterfall. Just watch out—it can get slippery.
The trail from the lower Emerald Pool to the upper Emerald pool does get a little trickier. The paved trail disappears and you will walk on a sand and rock trail, which can get slippery in spots. There are no guardrails, so make sure young children stay away from the edge. The final leg of the upper pool does require climbing a few rocks, but it’s nothing a mom or dad with sure footing and a baby in a carrier on their back couldn’t do with a little hand holding from their spouse. If our 5 year old can do the entire trip, so can you.
Other trails you might want to tackle
- Archeology Trail (easy)
- The Grotto Trail (easy)
- Pa’rus Trail (easy)
- Weeping Rock Trail (easy)
- Canyon Overlook (moderate)
In the canyon you might bump into a few creatures that you weren’t expecting. Keep an eye out for scorpions, mountain lions and desert tortoises. This is their home, not yours, so be respectful and give them space. We didn’t bump into any animals except a few elk in a field, but we were always on the lookout.
Other animals Zion is known for:
- Steller’s Jay
- Peregrine falcon
- Canyon tree frog
- Black-chinned hummingbird
You cannot actually drive into Zion Canyon. You have to take one of the many shuttles that run a loop throughout the park, walk or ride your bike. This has helped alleviate congestion and also make the canyon one of the more peaceful national parks in America, or at least I think so. The shuttle is free and makes it very easy to see multiple spots in the park in just one day. You can also just sit back and enjoy all of the gorgeous sandstone cliffs looming overhead.
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway: There is one drive you can do that takes you east out of the park if you drive far enough—the Zion- Mount Carmel Highway (Rt. 9). This drive is definitely worth it, as you will drive through rock arches, a very impressive tunnel that was dug out by hand, and pass stunning multicolored sandstone that was around well before man probably.
One-Day in Zion National Park with kids itinerary
- Enter the park as soon as it opens (8a.m.)
- Talk to the park rangers about hiking conditions
- Take the shuttle to the end of the line
- Walk along the Riverside Walk (about 2 hours)
- Take the shuttle to Weeping Rock trail
- Hike Weeping Rock trail (about 30 minutes)
- Take the shuttle to Zion Lodge
- Cross the street and climb the Emerald Pools Trail
- Lunch at Zion Lodge
- Take the shuttle to Zion Human History Museum
- Explore the museum before hiking the Pa’rus Trail
- Take the shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center, buy a few trinkets
- Hop in the car and drive the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
NOTE: if you are heading to Bryce National Park the next day skip the Zion-Mount Carmel drive. You can do that on the way.