Zion National Park is like nowhere you’ve ever seen. An “oasis in the desert,” it offers the red-rock canyon scenery you imagine when you think of Utah — alongside crystal-clear rivers, waterfalls, wildflowers, and wildlife galore. And when you visit, you’ll learn about the Southern Paiute people who this land was stolen from. The ideal itinerary for Zion National Park includes nature, adventure and culture.
Many visitors attempt to breeze through this park in a day. But 24 hours is barely enough time to scratch the surface. 3 days in Zion will allow you to see the off-the-beaten-path corners, get into the backcountry, and enjoy the gateway town/artist hub of Springdale.
In this post, I’ll help you plan the perfect trip to Zion in three days. Let’s dive in!
Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.
- 1 About Zion: The Southern Paiute history
- 2 The perfect itinerary for Zion National Park: Getting started
- 3 Day 1: Angels Landing and Emerald Pools
- 4 Day Two: The Subway (and alternatives)
- 5 Day Three: The Narrows and horseback riding
- 6 If you’re heading to Bryce Canyon National Park
- 7 Practicalities for your Zion National Park itinerary
About Zion: The Southern Paiute history
The true name of Zion Canyon is Mukuntuweap, a Southern Paiute word meaning “straight river” (although other translations also exist). Local people may also have called the area “Loogoon.”
White settlers stole the land from the Southern Paiute people in the late 1800’s, as U.S. policy forced those who weren’t killed by disease onto reservations. Mormon settlers moved in and damaged the fragile wilderness.
More than 50 years later, the area was designated Mukuntuweap National Monument. But after struggling to attract visitors, the federal government further erased Indigenous history by renaming it Zion National Park.
Other Indigenous peoples lived on and used the lands that are now Zion hundreds of years ago. The Archaeology Trail takes you to petroglyphs dating back thousands of years, along with an ancient Puebloan dwelling.
Today, there’s a movement in the U.S. to return National Parks like Zion to Indigenous Peoples. For more context, this article is well worth a read.
The perfect itinerary for Zion National Park: Getting started
Springdale, Utah is the gateway to Zion National Park. It’s about a 4-hour drive from Salt Lake City, a 2-hour drive from Las Vegas, or a 90-minute drive from Bryce Canyon. It’s a lovely little town with art galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants.
You’ll be able to pack in much more to your Zion trip if you stay in Springdale. It’s expensive, but you won’t have to commute up to an hour every day to Hurricane or St. George (the other popular bases). I’ve included accommodation recommendations at the end of this post.
To save money and time, pick up a pack of bagels and cream cheese/jam/nutella from Sol Foods so you can whip up a quick breakfast in the morning before restaurants open.
You won’t want to have to double back to Springdale in the middle of the day for lunch, and Zion Canyon’s only food option is the mediocre restaurant at Zion Lodge. So grab some tortillas and hummus, sandwich ingredients, or trail snacks from Sol Foods to tide you over until dinner.
How many days in Zion National Park?
The perfect Zion vacation involves some hiking, some swimming, some canyoneering, and some relaxing (but really not so much relaxing).
The absolute bare minimum time for a trip to Zion National Park would be two days. This would allow you to hit a couple of the most popular trails.
But if you want to head into the backcountry and escape the tourist crowds, you need a minimum of 3 days. That also gives you more options for backcountry permits.
I know, I know, many people plan a trip to Zion National Park with far less time — some people try to rush through in as little as one day. But once you’ve stood in shuttle lines for awhile, you’ll realize this is not a park that accommodates rushed itineraries.
Day 1: Angels Landing and Emerald Pools
Start your itinerary in Zion with a bang by climbing the park’s most famous landmark. Spend the rest of the day tackling easier trails.
Today is a fairly relaxed intro to the park, so you can get used to hiking in the desert and navigating the shuttle system. You’ll hike about 8 miles and gain about 2,000 feet in elevation.
Angels Landing hike
Hop on the very first shuttle for the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive at 6 am and head to The Grotto — the stop to hike Angels Landing. This morning you’re going to climb 1,500 feet to a panoramic view of the canyon.
Angels Landing is a moderate 5-mile trail. But its last half-mile is an extremely exposed scramble. You’ll use chains, handholds and footholds to traverse a 3-foot-wide ridge with 1,000+-foot drops on both sides.
It sounds (and looks online) scarier than it is. But if you don’t want to do the scramble, there are still epic views from safer spots along the first 2.5 miles to the top.
The Angels Landing trail begins with switchbacks up the canyon wall. Then you’ll traverse a flatter section in the shade before coming to “Walter’s Wiggles,” a steeper set of switchbacks that takes you to a rock with views on both sides. If you’re nervous about heights, turn around here. If you’re game to continue, follow the trail up the chains.
Angels Landing is among the most crowded hikes I’ve ever done. The crowds make the chains a bit nerve-wracking, but more importantly, they mean the hike takes much longer than you’d expect. The final mile to and from the summit took me 90 minutes because of the crowds. There is no way I could have done it faster without passing people dangerously close to the cliff edge.
I promise the views from the top are worth it — but stay at least 6 feet away from the ledges for your photos. Most accidents on Angels Landing happen at the summit, when hikers get dangerously close to the cliffs.
For more detail on this hike, check out my complete guide to Angels Landing.
Emerald Pools Trail
Angels Landing is an out-and-back trail, so you’ll finish up at the Grotto where you started. This is a good chance to use the restroom, refill your water bottle and enjoy lunch at the picnic area.
You can either take the shuttle to Zion Lodge or use the 1-mile Kayenta Trail to connect to Emerald Pools. The shuttle is quick — you can use one of the circulator buses that doesn’t double back to Springdale, so lines are short. The Kayenta Trail has lovely canyon and river views, allows you to see the entire Emerald Pools landscape from a distance, and is much less crowded than most Zion Canyon trails.
The Emerald Pools Trail is the best easy hike in Zion. The trail takes you to a waterfall spilling over a cliff into a blue-green oasis below. There are a few ways you can do it, depending on how much energy/time you have.
The area encompasses three pools — Upper, Middle and Lower. The Lower Pools are spectacularly beautiful. Plus, they’re the easiest to reach — they’re 0.6 miles from Zion Lodge or immediately at the end of the Kayenta Trail.
If you want to check out the Middle and Upper Emerald Pools, you can combine them for a 3-mile, moderately difficult loop. The loop is worthwhile if the area has gotten rain recently, but less interesting during droughts. The Middle Pools were dry when I visited, and I didn’t think the Upper Pools were worth the challenging climb.
Whichever route you choose, it’s an easy 0.6 miles back to Zion Lodge after you visit the pools.
Dinner: Oscar’s Cafe
You burned a lot of energy today, so help your muscles recover with a huge dinner. Oscar’s Cafe is one of the best options in Springdale.
The restaurant has a large outdoor seating area, full bar, and excellent Mexican cuisine. I tried the veggie enchiladas and they were top-notch. Portions are large enough to satisfy hikers after a full day on the trails. The service is excellent, and they’re accustomed to families and large groups.
Not into in-person dining right now? No worries! Oscar’s has takeaway as well. You can order from the hostess and wait outside for your meal.
A word of warning: Springdale’s restaurants fill up quickly in the evenings. Plan to eat around 5 pm or expect to wait an hour or more for a table. At Oscar’s, I appreciated that they had separate waiting lists for indoors and outdoors. I didn’t feel safe with indoor dining at the time so it was great to be guaranteed an outdoor spot.
If you’re still hungry after dinner, drop in to Springdale Candy Company for some cheap and tasty ice cream.
Day Two: The Subway (and alternatives)
Get ready, because today is going to be the highlight of this Zion National Park recommended itinerary. Leave the crowds behind, snag a competitive permit and head into Zion’s remote backcountry on the Subway trail.
The Subway earned its name from a slot canyon formation that looks like you’re exploring a metro tunnel. But the hike is much more than that. It runs along the North Fork of the Virgin River, past dozens of desert waterfalls, beneath towering red-rock cliffs.
The Subway is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done.
There are two route options for the Subway — top-down, and bottom-up. The former is a technical canyoneering route for which you need ropes, full climbing gear, and wetsuits. The latter is a challenging day-hike.
Hiking the Subway (Bottom-Up)
You’ll need to start at the crack of dawn today, so make sure you have supplies on hand for breakfast. Scarf down a bagel and drive 30 minutes from Springdale to the trailhead, aiming to arrive by 7:30 am. (Yes, really. This hike could easily take you 12+ hours.)
The trail starts along the canyon rim before plummeting very steeply to the riverbed. Put a pin in your GPS app here — most hikers who get lost in Zion’s backcountry miss the turn up the canyon wall. It’s a left turn toward the Subway.
For the next 5 miles, you’ll hike, wade, scramble, swim, climb, slide, and crawl along the river to the mouth of the slot canyon. There is no trail — sometimes you’ll start up an informal path only to encounter an impassible boulder. Other times you’ll wade through the river or scramble up a waterfall. It’s slow-going and exhausting, but the scenery is worth the effort.
Finally, you’ll get to a point where the canyon walls narrow to the width of the river. It’s just a short walk into the slot canyon. Go as far as you like, but after the first quarter-mile you’ll encounter deep pools with frigid water. You’ll need a dry bag to proceed further.
When you’re finished, return the way you came. Sounds simple enough, but you’ll probably end up taking a slightly different route back.
Subway permits and practicalities
The Subway is an extremely fragile ecosystem. So Zion National Park limits the number of visitors to just 80 a day. You must have a permit for this trail.
Permits are available online via a lottery system that opens two months in advance. If you miss the window and they don’t sell out, you can shoot for a calendar reservation the 5th of the month of the month prior to your trip at 10 am Mountain Time. (So April 5th at 10 MT for a hike on any day in May — be ready to book at 10 am on the dot.) Your final option is a walk-up permit, but you have a very slim chance at that point.
Permit reservations cost $5. The day before you hike, you’ll have to stop by the Backcountry Permit Office at the Springdale Visitor Center to pick up the permit itself. You’ll pay $15 — and you’ll need your rental car’s make, model and license plate.
You will get wet on the Subway hike. In anything except the peak of summer, it’s worth renting neoprene socks. I also rented water shoes and was glad I had them — no blisters even though my shoes were wet all day! You can book gear online at Zion Outfitter and pick it up the evening before your hike.
Alternatives to the Subway hike
If you aren’t able to get a permit for the Subway, or if you aren’t comfortable navigating without a trail or rock scrambling, there are a few other ways to get away from the crowds today.
For visitors with rock climbing or canyoneering skills, you could try for a permit to do Orderville Canyon top-down. It’s known for being a very difficult hike or an easy canyoneering route. You’ll encounter two rappels and swim through deep water in several sections — you can’t do this hike without a rope. Permits for Orderville are fairly easy to get.
If you want a long day outside without anything technical, consider the Kolob Canyon section of Zion. Kolob Arch makes for a great all-day hike, clocking in at 14 miles. It’s not deserted — you’ll pass about one group every 30 minutes in shoulder season — but it’s far quieter than Zion Canyon.
Alternatively, check out the Timber Creek Trail in the Kolob Canyon area. This is an easy 1.2-mile trail that brings you to a panoramic overlook well away from the crowds of Angels Landing.
Dinner: Whiptail Grill or Spotted Dog Cafe
If you do the Subway hike, you’ll be lucky to reach your car before 5 pm — even with an early start. And by the time you get there, you’ll be wiped. So head back to Springdale and get yourself some food.
Whiptail Grill and Spotted Dog Cafe are right across the street from each other. Whiptail is Mexican-focused, while Spotted Dog is more casual American. The menus are similar in price and the food is good at both places, so pick whatever you’re craving or whichever has the shorter line.
Both restaurants have some outdoor seating and will do takeout if you arrive before the dinner rush.
Day Three: The Narrows and horseback riding
This is it: your last day in Zion National Park. So finish up with a couple of the highlights — the iconic Narrows hike and a classic Western horseback ride.
Today could be a lighter/later day if you want to sleep in. The only downside is The Narrows gets super-crowded by mid-morning. It’s a large, wide space, so crowds aren’t as frustrating as they are on Angels Landing. But if you plan to do the whole 12-mile hike you’ll want to be on the trail no later than 10 am, which means being on a shuttle by 9 am.
Breakfast: Cafe Soleil
Don’t leave Springdale without eating at Cafe Soleil.
This artsy little café near the Springdale Visitor Center has espresso beverages and breakfast entrees to die for. The breakfast burrito will power you through a long day of hiking. The cappuccinos have perfect latte art. And it’s all served in a cozy dining area or on a patio with views of red-rock cliffs.
Luckily, this little spot opens at 7 am — so you can still get a reasonably early shuttle.
Hiking the Narrows
Next up is the one Zion Canyon experience you can’t miss: Hiking the Virgin River Narrows through Zion Canyon.
This hike is so famous because it requires you to stay in the river almost the whole time. In other words: you will get wet. Very wet.
You’ll almost certainly want gear from Zion Outfitter for this hike. In spring-fall, you’ll be ok with neoprene socks and water shoes. Rent a dry pack if you don’t have one. You can also rent a walking stick, but you’re better off with your own trekking poles if you have them. Full wetsuits are available for winter Narrows hikes.
The hike begins from the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. You’ll start out on the Riverside Walk — a flat, easy, paved trail — for a mile. That trail ends with a few steps into the river. It’s the last point you’ll be on dry land.
Head up-river to begin the Narrows trail. You’ll pass the waterfall at the exit to Mystery Canyon. Then, it’s about 0.6 miles to Orderville Canyon — you can hike in for a bit before you reach the technical section. This also marks the beginning of Wall Street, where the river is at its narrowest and the canyon walls over 1,000 feet high. Most hikers turn around here, and if you decide to do the same, you’ll never encounter water more than chest-deep.
Day hikers can continue as far as Big Spring, about 6 miles in. You’ll encounter a few tricky rock scrambles and deep swims, but the secluded oasis at the end is 1,000% worth it.
Before you set out for The Narrows, verify with the Park Service that it’s safe. Toxic cyanobacteria has plagued the Virgin River for the last few years, which could make the hike dangerous for children. You would also be at extreme risk if you’re in the canyon during a flash flood.
Close out your itinerary for Zion National Park by mixing up your activities a bit. Riding a horse through Zion Canyon is one of the best ways to enjoy the scenery and learn more about the ecology. (If you hike all the way to Big Spring in the Narrows, you probably won’t have time for this activity.)
Horseback rides start from Zion Lodge, near the Emerald Pools trailhead. There are two options — a one-hour ride and a three-hour ride. The one-hour ride works better for this itinerary, since departures run as late as 3:30 pm.
You might be wondering why it’s worth riding a horse when you can see the same scenery on a hike. But the guides for these rides will point out all sorts of little things you’d never notice on your own. You’ll learn about cactus flowers, soil health, wildlife and more.
I did a horseback ride on my first trip to the park — when I was 9 years old. It was so memorable that it’s the whole reason I booked a trip back to Zion as an adult. This is a great activity if you have kids who are old enough to ride.
You can book a ride in advance here. You’ll need to check in 30 minutes before the ride begins.
If horseback riding isn’t your thing, try walking The Grotto trail instead. Or if you’re wiped from the desert heat and all the hiking you’ve done, head back to Springdale to shower and relax.
Dinner: Campfire food or King’s Landing
You’ll likely arrive back in Springdale in early evening, completely exhausted. You’ll need to return your Narrows gear to Zion Outfitter before heading back to your accommodation.
If you’re camping, this would be a great night to grill over a fire. Sol Foods has burgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, and a salad bar full of sides. You can put together a hiker-recovery-worthy dinner for under $10.
At the other extreme, try snagging a reservation for King’s Landing. This high-end spot features locally sourced, seasonal cuisine served up by one of Las Vegas’s top chefs.
If you’re heading to Bryce Canyon National Park
Visiting Bryce after you visit Zion? Lucky you, you get one more morning in the park.
The Zion – Mount Carmel Highway takes you on a scenic drive above Zion Canyon. You can hike the Canyon Overlook Trail or divert to a trailhead for Observation Point along the way.
The scenic drive is part of Zion National Park, so you’ll need to show your park pass or pay the admission fee to drive it. There is no other direct way to reach Bryce Canyon.
Practicalities for your Zion National Park itinerary
Zion is one of the Utah Mighty 5 parks that requires the most advance planning. Long shuttle lines, huge crowds, permits, and equipment rentals make for tricky logistics. If you’re used to the more laid-back East Coast wilderness experience, like in the Great Smoky Mountains, Zion is a bit of a rude awakening.
When to visit Zion National Park
Zion is in southern Utah — the heart of the Southwest USA’s high desert country. You might think that means unbearable heat all year round, but in reality, it means wild temperature fluctuations.
The best time to plan an itinerary for Zion National Park is mid-spring and mid-fall. From April-May and September-October, you’ll have warm days, chilly nights and low flash flood risks. If you’re camping, prepare for overnight temperatures below freezing.
Summer in Zion can be unbearably hot and unbearably crowded. Daytime temperatures soar over 100 degrees. However, this is a great time for water-based activities like hiking the Narrows.
Winters in the desert are frigid. Snow and ice are common, and the temperature is often below 20 degrees at night. Camping is not realistic. Some trails close or become unsafe — Angels Landing is particularly dangerous when it’s icy.
No matter when you visit, keep an eye on the park’s flash flood warnings. Many of Zion’s hikes are in slot canyons, where being trapped in a flood would be fatal. Check at the Visitors Center in Springdale each morning and change your plans if the forecast is “probable” or “expected” floods. Flash floods are most common in summer but can occur anytime.
Admission to Zion National Park
Zion National Park charges entrance fees.
If you plan to visit multiple parks within a year of your trip to Zion, the best deal is the America the Beautiful pass. This $80 pass gets you into most federally managed national parks, monuments, forests and wilderness areas. It covers all of the Mighty 5 Utah national parks. You can purchase online or at any park entrance — if you buy online your pass will be mailed to you, so buy it at least a month in advance.
Just visiting Zion? It costs $35 per vehicle or $30 for a motorcycle for 7 days’ admission. This is your best option if you plan to visit Zion Canyon and other areas of the park, like the Zion-Mt. Carmel highway or the Kolob Canyon area.
You can also pay $20 to walk or cycle into the park for up to 7 days. This works best if you only plan to visit the Zion Canyon area, since you don’t need a car to access the trails.
Discounts are available to certain groups, like veterans, families of 4th graders, and seniors. Learn more here.
If you have an America the Beautiful Pass, entering Zion at the Springdale gate is pretty quick. Expect long lines if you need to pay fees at the park entrance.
Getting around: The Zion Canyon Shuttle
We can’t talk about the perfect Zion itinerary without talking about the shuttle system. It’s the only way to access many hikes — and it’s an enormous pain.
Th shuttle departs from the Springdale Visitors Center every few minutes starting at 6 am. It stops at the Zion Lodge, The Grotto, and the Temple of Sinawava (other stops are currently closed due to landslides).
Lines for the shuttle have been up to four hours long this year (2021). To avoid major headaches getting into the park, aim to be on the 6 am shuttle or consider going into the canyon after 2 pm. It’s most crowded between 9 am and 2 pm.
The last shuttle out of Zion leaves the Temple of Sinawava at 8 pm in summer. But don’t count on getting on it. If it’s full (which it will be), you’ll have to walk all 8 miles out of the canyon in the dark. Aim to be on a shuttle by 7 pm to avoid this.
Zion is constantly tweaking its shuttle protocols to prioritize COVID safety and accommodate explosive visitor increases. Check the latest here before you visit.
If you want to avoid the shuttle, visit Zion in winter, when you can drive into Zion Canyon. Or you can walk or bike along the Zion Scenic Drive to access the trails. Distances range from 3-8 miles one-way.
Where to stay for your 3 days in Zion
As I mentioned at the beginning of this itinerary for Zion National Park, you’ll save a ton of time driving if you stay in Springdale. It’s more expensive, but since gas in Southern Utah is also crazy expensive, it pretty much evens out.
If you want to save money, camping is the ideal accommodation option for Zion. The park-operated Watchman Campground is the cheapest and most basic. You can reserve sites up to 6 months in advance (meaning, be online 6 months in advance to the hour). Sites cost $20/night and have toilets, but no showers.
Can’t get into Watchman? You have two other options. First, you could primitive-camp on BLM lands around Springdale. There are plenty of great spots — in the La Verkin area, you’ll get epic sunrises and sunsets. It’s a bit of a longer drive to Zion National Park and you’ll have to deal with parking in Springdale, but the camping is free. It’s best to have a 4WD/high-clearance vehicle, since you’ll have to drive unmaintained dirt paths to reach the sites.
Alternatively, book a site at the private campground in town — Zion Canyon Campground and RV Park. This was where I stayed. It’s pricey — $60 a night for a small site — but you get clean bathrooms and good, hot showers. Plus you’re allowed to have fires in their fire pits, they have laundry, and you can walk into Zion National Park — saving you $15-20 a day in parking fees.
As you leave, you’ll surely agree that a Zion National Park 3 day itinerary isn’t enough. The oasis in the desert calls hikers back again and again. Yeah, it’s crowded and hot, but don’t skip Zion during your Utah road trip.
Like this post? Pin it!