I spent my summers in college working in the Southwest, during which my team and I would lead groups of young backpackers through the red-tinged wilderness of Utah. But it wasn’t until this year, in celebration of the National Park Service’s centennial, that I got the chance to revisit one of my favorite spots of all: Zion.

Know Before You Go

There is limited parking inside Zion National Park boundaries, but the regular shuttle service can whisk you through the park with ease. In peak times, however, it’s difficult to hop aboard a shuttle mid-park (they’re usually full), so you’d be best off leaving your car at the entrance to Zion and catching a ride from one of the stops in Springdale. Note: From mid-March through October, and weekends following that, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is only accessible by shuttle.

Take the Easy Route

Don’t have a lot of time to spare? In reality, you need multiple days to really get a feel for the breadth of Zion’s majesty, but if you just have a mere afternoon in the park, head out to Zion Lodge and take a walk to the Emerald Pools, which is three miles round-trip on a paved trail and takes less than an hour by foot. Be sure and visit the Lower, Middle and Upper Pools for different vantage points of the falls.

Escape the Crowds

The Kolob Canyons aren’t quick to reach if you’re already inside the main area of Zion, but that’s precisely why this section of the park is a great option if you want to flee the masses. On the northwestern side of Zion, these 2,000-foot cliff walls are only accessible via the Kolob Canyons Visitor Center entrance, about an hour away from Springdale. There are scenic drives as well as unpaved trails that lead to natural rock arches, abandoned cabins and other panoramic lookout points—and the best part of all is that you’ll likely have them all to yourself.

Lay Your Head

A number of the area’s hotels are clustered in Springdale at the base of Zion, but personally I preferred staying in Hurricane, midway between St. George and the park entrance itself. Coral Springs Resort not only offers well-appointed suites at a very reasonable price, but it’s located in close proximity to a number of the state parks—and offers sweeping red rock vistas of the surrounding buttes and canyons. Zion Lodge’s setting is spectacular—it’s the only in-park lodging option and situated right in the middle of it all—but you need to plan your trip accordingly, as it often requires booking a room a good six months in advance (or sometimes, more).

Cool Off

Sand Hollow State Park is quite literally an oasis: 20,000 acres of wilderness 13 miles east of St. George with a large, crystal clear reservoir for boating, kayaking, swimming, standup paddleboarding and more. Adventure sports like ATVing are popular pastimes at Sand Hollow, as are jumping off the tall rock outcroppings in the northern quadrant of the park.


See the Sunrise

Closer to St. George than Zion—just nine miles north of the city proper—Snow Canyon State Park is one of the area’s best-kept secrets. Formerly inhabited by the Anasazi Indians, the 7,400-acre park is punctuated by dramatic buttes, sandy dunes, hidden slot canyons and plenty of undulating, burnt orange rock formations, the result of the Navajo sandstone that dominates the terrain. Within Zion, The Towers of the Virgin, directly west of the Zion Museum, are beloved sunrise spots.

See the Sunset

Within Zion, The Watchman is undoubtedly the most photographed icon, as well as the most popular place to observe a sunset. Visitors line up on the bridge above Virgin River hours in advance to try to stage the perfect photo of the sunbeams glinting off the towering rocks. If you’re outside of the park in St. George at the golden hour, head up to Dixie Red Rock where your entire surrounds will light up in hues of yellow and red as the sun sinks lower.

Refuel and Rehydrate

Springdale has no dearth of eateries, both fast-casual and sit-down establishments, but the Zion Canyon Brew Pub reigns supreme, thanks to its diverse offerings of microbrews and its hearty fare like the mouthwatering bison meatloaf burger served in a delightful patio space with the canyons surrounding you from every side.

Don’t Miss This Local Staple

What’s a bumbleberry? Your guess is as good as mine. (The restaurant that made it famous whimsically describes bumbleberries as “burple and binkel berries that grow on giggle bushes, so named because they giggle when the berries ripen and the bush begins to quake, and at the precise moment that they ripen, they giggle.”) Whether a fictitious fruit or a blend of other berries, I don’t care, the bumbleberry turnover at the Bumbleberry Inn might have been the best thing I ate while in Utah.