Zion National Park is one of the best kept secrets of the national park system. When visitors discover the beauty and magic of Zion Canyon, they will be hooked! It doesn’t have that one eye catching feature that sells postcards or pressed pennies, but what it does have is a spectacular cliff and canyon landscape, an abundance of wildlife and a gorgeous river running through it all beckoning you to get in and experience it for yourself.
Our recent visit to Zion was a bit of a surprise. After being wow’ed at the Grand Canyon and inspired at Antelope Canyon, we were taken aback by how beautiful and encompassing Zion was. Here we could really be in nature, experience and feel it. It’s just what we needed.
Where to Stay
There are only a few options of places to stay inside the park, but many more just outside the park in Springdale, UT. If we had planned far enough in advance (i.e. more than 4 months for peak summer season!) a stay at Zion Lodge within the park would have been fabulous. It is hidden away inside the park where motorists driving through cannot reach. The only traffic you will find here are the coming and goings of the Zion shuttle buses.
Being in the center of the park does have a price tag however with rooms averaging around $200 a night. The only other option for lodging within the park is camping. The two campgrounds are South Campground and Watchman. For reservations, your only option is Watchman. You will need to make reservations well in advance to be assured of a spot during the summer. South Campground is first come, first serve. Surprisingly during the week days during our visit it was not always full. Be aware that there is little shade at either campground and this is the desert.
Outside of the park there are a multitude of options for all budgets. Unlike some national parks where being outside the park means a 30-40 minute drive each day to reach the main happenings, Springdale sits literally on the edge of the park and it’s entrance. During the summer there is a shuttle bus from town dropping passengers off at the park. Parking can be difficult at times within the park, but even during peak summer season we always found parking (before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m.) at the Visitor’s Center or Zion Nature Center.
For a fantastic family friendly budget option in Springdale, check out Zion Park Motel. The rooms are basic motel style albeit with a bit more comfortable beds. The hotel boasts a 1970s play set that will keep the kids busy, a pool with unbeatable views and each room has a mini fridge and microwave. Another budget friendly option is Canyon Ranch Motel where all of the rooms are free standing with no shared walls. Their grassy lawn and pool are great for kids needing space to run around. Keep an eye out in the morning and late afternoons for deer hanging out on the grounds.
On the higher end, Cable Mountain Lodge ($160-300 a night) is a family favorite. La Quinta, a chain hotel, is also a great option for families with their picturesque pool complete with fountains for the kids to frolic in. No matter where you stay in Zion, you will be surrounded by gorgeous cliffs and blue skies high above you.
Where to Eat
If you are staying inside the park, you are pretty limited in food choices. The only options for meals inside the park are at Zion Lodge’s dining room and cafe. However, if you are staying outside the park, you are in luck. Springdale has an abundance of choices to suit any taste. There are too many places to list, but some of our favorites that we suggest you check out are below.
Zion Pizza & Noodle Co.
I still dream about the pizza I had here. This local pizza joint is only open for dinner, so plan a night to check it out. A wonderful selection of fresh made pizza and pastas. The great thing here is all pizza’s can be personalized to suit your little one’s tastes – no tomato sauce, no cheese, pesto sauce, etc. Looking for a decadent sauce free pizza? Try my favorite Garlic Rosemary Cheese pizza. Yum. Save your left overs for lunch the next day. (They do take credit cards, so disregard the sign in this photo!)
This is the perfect one stop shop for all of your eating needs. Grab a coffee and pastry on your way to a morning hike. Have time, eat in and sample their hot breakfast options. Heading out for a day of hiking and need lunch? Grab a pre-made sandwich and refreshing lemonade for your hike. Located just outside the park entrance means it’s easy to swing by for breakfast or lunch. This place is the happening hip wifi-free place to get a meal.
If you are looking for a cool outdoor cafe, Oscars is it. A wide selection of options on the menu with huge portions. The kids menu is somewhat limited to typical ‘kid friendly’ food, but waiters will work with you on other menu options as needed. Sit outside under the misters or inside in the AC.
Springdale Candy Company
Looking for an after dinner sweet? Look no further. The Springdale Candy Company has an ice cream bar, packaged candies, homemade candy and a great selection of candy from the olden days (fire balls, lemonheads, squirt gum!). Stock up for your drive too.
What to Do
The beauty of Zion is that unless you are set on hiking every trail, the park is small enough that on most visits you should have time to hike, relax and shop! No matter what you are doing, you will be surrounded by the beautiful red Navajo sandstone cliffs above you.
Play in the River
One of the best memories of our recent trip was hanging out in the river watching the kids catch tadpoles. There are so many access points to the Virgin River that you could try a new spot every day and not get bored for weeks. One of our favorite access points was just behind the South Campground. Other access points can be found on the Pa’rus and Riverside Trails.
Go for a Hike
There are some great family friendly hikes into the cliffs above the canyon. See below for a list of our top family friendly trails. During the hot summer months your hiking time might be limited to early morning or late afternoon, so plan accordingly.
Drive the Mt Carmel Highway
Take a drive along the 12- mile scenic Mt Carmel Highway stopping off at a few view points and taking in short strolls for great views. This road connects the South and East entrances of the park, traveling up many switchbacks and through the historic tunnel. If parking allows, stop at Checkerboard Mesa and Canyon Overlook Trail, all while keeping your eyes peeled for big horn sheep, deer and other wildlife.
Become a Junior Ranger
This is always one of our favorite activities at any national park. The free junior ranger booklet can be picked up at the Visitor Center or Zion Nature Center. These booklets are great for getting kids actively involved in learning about the park you are visiting. To complete your activities for a badge, attend a ranger talk, hike or program which are great ways to get some dedicated time with the knowledgeable park rangers.
Hang Out at Zion Nature Center
In the summer when temperatures reach well above 100°F, a great place to hang out is the Nature Center. They have a multitude of activities to keep the littles busy such as a coloring station, reading tent, park ranger dress up station and lots of exhibits about the wildlife found at the park. There are also planned programs each day in the summer. Check out the latest map and guide newspaper for times.
Eat Ice Cream at Zion Lodge
The perfect after hike treat is a stop at Zion Lodge for a soft serve ice cream. The large grassy lawn just invites you to lay down and stay awhile. The Grotto Trail and Emerald Pool trails both are nearby.
Shop for Rocks
If your kids are like ours, it’s a bummer to not be able to collect rocks during a visit to the park. Instead, head to one of Springdale’s rock shops and load up on fancy rocks of all shapes and sizes. The selection is amazing; the little ones will have a hard time deciding which ones to take home.
Watch a Movie
Drop into the Zion Human History Museum to watch the short 22 min film about the park’s offerings and history. We have found these short films to be quite informative and helpful in guiding our adventures through the national park system. There are also many cool exhibits within the museum to explore, park rangers to chat to and a gift shop where you can load up on souvenirs.
Zion is known for one of Utah’s most dangerous hikes, Angel’s Landing. Steering clear of that one, there are still many great hikes that are suitable for families.
The Pa’rus Trail is less of a hike and more of a path used for biking and strolling. It’s great to use as a base to explore the various river access points. If you are traveling with water loving kids, don’t expect to get too far on this trail!
Weeping Rock Trail
Weeping Rock is the shortest trail in the park at 1/2 mile round trip, however it is steep in sections. This easy family friendly hike takes you to a cliff alcove covered in green hanging moss from the “weeping” water coming out. The water is said to be 1200 years old! It takes that long to work it’s way through the rock. Be prepared to get a little wet from the mist of the falling water.
Emerald Pools Trail
This is one of the most popular family friendly trails in the park. It can be adjusted to suit your family’s hiking ability. The first part of the trail to the lower pools is a fully paved easy .6 miles. Continuing on to the middle pools takes you off the paved path onto a path with rocks and loose dirt for another .4 miles. At this point, hikers can go back down the way they arrived or follow the Kayenta Trail down for a change of scenery. For those wanting a more strenuous hike, you can hike the additional .5 miles to end at the upper pool. The last .5 mile is short, but steep. The trail to the lower pool is not flat, but it is relatively easy due to the lack of steep inclines as well as the occasional shady areas along the river. As you can see, the pools aren’t quite so emerald, but it’s still worth the effort.
This is a great trail to take to or from from the Emerald Pool trails. Heading up the trail towards Emerald Pools is a bit more uphill than the Lower Pools trail, however it is not difficult and the gorgeous views more than make up for it. This is one of the few recommend trails that is not paved which makes it a bit more adventurous for some kids. Try not to get too distracted checking out the amazing views over the meandering Virgin River below and the canyon it has carved over the years.
The Grotto Trail
The Grotto trail is a short 1 mile riverside trail that connects Zion Lodge to The Grotto (shuttle stop). This can be combined with the Lower Emerald Pool and Kayenta Trails to create a 2.5-mile loop. This is another good trail for popping into the river to cool down. Keep an eye out for wildlife in the morning and evening hours.
The Riverside Trail is the gateway trail to the famous Narrows hike (see below). Even without doing the Narrows, this is a picturesque and easy 1 mile (one way) trail to explore. Walking along the river you can stop off at several points to jump into the river to cool down. Continue to the end and splash around in the river that signals the beginning of the Narrows hike.
The Narrows is probably one of the most famous hikes at Zion and for good reason. It is amazing. This hike starts at the end of the Riverside Trail and continues on for 10+ miles (without a permit). You need a permit to continue on further into the canyon, but even exploring the ‘trail’ for a few hours will give you a sense of how special it is. Even though many will say it is not child friendly, you can hike for quite a while with children depending on the depth of the water and your child’s abilities. There are many families on the river, so you will not be alone. Walking sticks are a must! Read more on our Tips on hiking the Narrows with kids.
- Phone service is spotty within Zion Canyon. Bring walkie talkies if your family will be splitting up from time to time.
- Make a habit to check in at the ranger station for the day’s weather forecast. Things can change quickly in the canyon, especially in regards to flash flooding which can happen further up river without any sign of rain in the canyon.
- Carry a change of clothes and pack towels for spur of the moment water play in the river.
- Bring plenty of water and snacks while in Zion Canyon. The only food available within the park is at Zion Lodge.
- During the summer months, unless you are staying at the lodge, your only access to the canyon is by the free shuttle bus system. This adds a bit of time to your day, so plan in advance and cushion any schedules you have with time to catch the bus.
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