In 2017, Zion National Park had yet another record-breaking year for visitors, earning it the title of the 3rd most-visited National Park in the country. All of these visitors might seem like no match for a vast stretch of protected wilderness. But many visitors to the park don’t realize that Zion is relatively small, at least compared to other major National Parks. Zion stretches just over 146,000 acres. For comparison, Yellowstone is more than 2.2 million acres, the Grand Canyon more than 1.2 million, and Yosemite is just under 800,000. The largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias, covers over 13 million acres.
While there are no caps on visitor numbers just yet, the crowds can hinder visits to Zion during its busiest time of year; summer. That doesn’t mean that you should avoid the park during the nation’s most popular travel season. Instead, you can follow a few simple tips to beat the crowds and still enjoy all that Zion National Park has to offer. Keep reading to learn more.
Get an Early Start
Long days of hiking and exploring Zion National Park and the surrounding area make it tempting to sleep in the next day. But give in to that temptation, and you’ll pay for it with lengthy shuttle lines and crowded trails. Starting around 9 a.m. each morning, the thousands of day-visitors to the park start shuffling out of their cars and into the shuttle lines. By 10 a.m., you can expect a lengthy wait. After that, it will be several hours before the line dies down again.
If you want to avoid the lines and make the most of your day in the park, you’ll need to rise early and get in line for the shuttle early as well. For most of the summer, the first shuttle leaves at 6 a.m. Later in the summer and early fall, you’ll have until 7 a.m. to catch the first trip.
If you choose to stay too far from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center in Springdale, where the shuttle can be caught, you’ll have to get up even earlier, and lose even more precious sleep. Watchman Villas is located just steps away from the visitor’s center and shuttle stop. You can roll out of bed and right into the line to start your adventure in the park before the rest of the world is awake and on their way!
Head to the Last Shuttle Stop First
Even if you catch the first shuttle of the day, you’ll still be sharing it with other early birds eager to get on the trails. If you want to truly experience the tranquility of Zion National Park and take an almost-private hike on some of its most iconic trails, don’t hop off the shuttle at that first stop. Instead, stay on and wait a few stops.
Early in the day, most visitors will be getting off at the first few stops or riding to the Zion National Park Lodge. Riding to a later stop early in the day and enjoying one of the trails located there will mean far fewer crowds.
Those looking for an easy hike that won’t be crowded early in the day may enjoy:
Lower Emerald Pool Trail: With a trailhead located near the Zion Lodge, this is one trail that’s sure to be busy later in the day. Ride the shuttle to stop 5, and enjoy this paved, 1.2 mile hike to see the famous pools and a few waterfalls as well.
Riverside Walk: Those looking for a longer trail and a chance to learn more about the scenery and the park itself will enjoy the Riverside Walk. Hop off at stop 9 and hike the paved, wheelchair-accessible 2.2 mile trail, lined with trailside exhibits.
If a moderate trail is more your style, one of these options might be a better fit for your first hike of the day:
Upper Emerald Pool Trail: Visit the upper levels of the Emerald Pools on this 1 mile moderate trail. Like the easy hike of a similar name, this one starts at the Zion Lodge, located at shuttle stop 5.
Kayenta Trail: While the Upper Emerald Pool Trail may see increasingly larger crowds as the day wears on, the Kayenta Trail, which also leads to the Upper Emerald Pools, is a bit longer, at 2 miles, which may keep some of the day visitors pressed for time away.
More difficult, strenuous trails are always less crowded than easy hikes. But because every other experienced hiker visiting the park on any given day also knows this, even the tougher trails will see their share of hikers during the busiest days of the year. If you want to start your day with a rugged adventure, head to one of these trailheads first:
Angels Landing: The infamous Angels Landing trail, with its steep overlooks and narrow ridge leading to a breathtaking summit, is an incredible hike any time. But with no crowds around to block your view, it will be particularly stunning early in the day. This hike is 5.4 miles and climbs nearly 1,500 feet in elevation, so it isn’t for beginner hikers or those with young children along. Always make sure to pack plenty of water and to dress for any possible weather that may come your way. You’ll want to exit the shuttle at stop 6 to start this trail.
Hidden Canyon Trail: While it may be a shorter hike with less elevation climbing, the Hidden Canyon Trail still offer adrenaline-pumping drop-offs.
Choose an All-Day Hike
If hopping on and off the shuttle all day long to take in the various viewpoints and hikes of Zion sounds like a drag, avoid the crowds entirely with a longer day-hike. While the park’s lengthier day hikes certainly aren’t for beginners, if you have the experience and stamina, an 8 or even 14 mile hike is a great way to get away from the park’s busiest areas and enjoy the untouched beauty of Zion’s wilderness areas.
The East Rim Trail is an 8 mile adventure through Echo Canyon that takes dedicated hikers to Observation Point. From here, you’ll have a breathtaking view of Zion Canyon from far above its valleys.
If you have canyoneering experience, you can also hike The Narrows, by way of Riverside Walk Trail. This 14 mile trail will take you up to 8 hours to complete, so it definitely requires some pre-planning and training before you take it on.
Go Back to Springdale for Lunch
Not up for a strenuous hike, or simply want to make it to more than one destination in the park in a single day? Another great way to beat the crowds is to plan two visits to Zion in one day. Your first visit should be the early one. Get to the shuttle as close to the time it opens as you can. You can still wait for a later shuttle stop to catch a less-busy trail. Enjoy the park for a few hours. When it begins to get particularly busy, which usually occurs between 10 a.m. and Noon, head back to Springdale. Take a nap, get some lunch, or enjoy the amenities of your hotel.
Then, head back to the shuttle in the late afternoon, between 4 and 5 p.m. This is when many of the park’s casual day visitors and tour groups leave. You can then enjoy several more hours in the park with fewer crowds. As an added bonus, catching a sunset at one of Zion’s many breathtaking overlooks or scenic spots is a special experience!
Planning the Perfect Zion Adventure
By rethinking how you explore Zion National Park and using a bit of smart strategy, you can still enjoy a fun, crowd-free adventure even in the middle of the busiest season. Of course, if you really want to avoid the crowds, you can always plan an off-season visit to the park!