Zion National Park Itinerary: A Low-Key Trip (+Tips for 2021!)

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This is not the ultimate guide to Zion National Park. This is not the essential bucket list of things to do in Zion National Park. What it is is an overview of the trip we took to Zion in May 2021, and how we planned and had an excellent time spending just 2-3 days in Zion. If you’re looking for a low-key visit to Zion that doesn’t try to cram everything into a few days, or you’re looking for a straightforward guide on how to get shuttle tickets in Zion, where to camp in Zion, etc. this article will help you! 

Note: This information is current as of May 2021.

Visiting Zion National Park in 2021

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Zion is extremely popular. It is among the top 3 most popular National Parks and for good reason—it’s really beautiful. But if you’re planning to visit Zion National Park in the next few months, you should know that it is incredibly busy and crowded, especially right now. So be prepared for that and plan accordingly with the following tips:

How to Avoid Crowds in Zion National Park

  • Don’t go (just kidding! But pick a good time)

  • Go in the off season or shoulder season

Consider visiting Zion outside of the busy summer months. While winter may be chilly, and some of the hikes not possible, it’s a stunning place in every season. As an added bonus, you don’t have to worry about shuttles in winter: the Zion Canyon road is open to private cars at that time!

  • Avoid weekends

Every popular spot is going to be less crowded on weekdays. 

  • Start your days EARLY

The best way to beat the crowds is to start early. Not just your hikes, but getting to the park itself. Even the National Park Service recommends getting to Zion hella early, or parking in Springdale. According to the website, “Parking is usually full by 8-9 am. The best way to avoid delays entering Zion is to park in Springdale and ride the town shuttle to the park.”

On our trip, we hiked The Narrows on a Saturday morning (broke the rule of avoiding weekends, whoops). We got started around 8am on our shuttle, so were hiking around 8:30am. It was fairly busy, but not overly so at this time. However, on our way BACK down The Narrows a couple of hours later, the once-pristine river was beginning to take on a zoo-like quality. In all honesty, it was hard to find places to walk and we had to take turns with other hikers in many spots along the way. So go, early—like 7am early.

You’ll definitely want to arrive early to the park in general. Lines to get in (both car and pedestrian/bike entrances) were growing long by mid-morning. And as the NPS recommends, it may be advisable to park somewhere in Sprindale (the town right by the park) and take one of the town shuttles to the park proper. The parking within Zion fills up FAST.

  • Choose less popular hikes/stops

Another option for having a chill trip to Zion may involve selecting less-popular sites and hikes. This isn’t ideal for every traveler; some of us couldn’t THINK of visiting Zion without tackling Angel’s Landing. But if you’re more flexible, you may find you have a better experience. The Narrows and Angel’s Landing are the two most well-known “big” hikes, but there are plenty of other options to keep you busy.

We heard many travelers talking about Emerald Pools trails being really worthwhile. On one day, we hiked The Watchman trail, which was not particularly busy (though we did climb it in the heat of the day—another big NO-NO. Please learn from our mistakes lol!) We loved this hike, which had some challenging uphill sections but ended with spectacular views.

Also consider Kolob Canyons. I’ve been seeing this spot recommended a lot lately. While the hike is within Zion National Park, the entrance is on the totally opposite side. You just might experience this beautiful spot with far, far fewer crowds. 

Where to Stay in Zion National Park

Figuring out where to stay near Zion can be a challenge. There are a number of hotels in nearby Springdale that would be suitable, but these are likely to book up fast. If you plan in advance, booking one of the hotels near Zion National Park may be your best bet. If you choose one near to one of the Springdale shuttle stops, you won’t have to worry about parking! Plus, after a hot day in the sun, you can return to the comforts of your air conditioned lodging.

One hotel to check out is the Cable Mountain Lodge, located super close to the Zion NP Visitor’s Center. What an ideal location!

Many people prefer to camp in Zion or nearby. That is what we did this time on our trip, as we had rented a campervan for a short road trip out of Vegas. (Though I’m starting to think hotels are more my thing…..) Camping is a great, affordable option, but it can be tough to snag reservations at Zion during busy times.

We camped for two nights at South Campground inside Zion National Park. The fact that we scored a site was nothing short of miraculous. South Campground sites become available to book 2 weeks in advance of the travel date. And when I say 2 weeks, I mean 2 weeks on the DOT. I was able to get our site by being online at Reservation.gov just before 10am EST on the day bookings were opening. I was logged into my Reservation.gov account, had pre-selected my desired site that morning, and had it in my cart ready to go. Exactly at 10am, I clicked on the button to book. And boom, it was ours. 

As I said, these are very difficult to get, but if you follow the above procedure, you just might get lucky.

The other campground near the front of Zion is Watchman Campground, which books out 6 months in advance.

While the campgrounds were lovely, offering views like this:

You should know there are no showers at the Zion Campgrounds.  While this is somewhat inconvenient, you CAN get a paid shower in a very nice facility at Zion Outfitter. This is just outside of the park and you can walk from your campground through the pedestrian exit to get to Zion Outfitter. They offer hot showers for $4 (5 minutes) and they also have laundry facilities underneath the store.

Pro tip: Don’t forget your park pass or receipt when exiting, as you’ll need to show it to get back in! 

Also, another pro tip: the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it. $80 for one year gets you access to all the National Parks and a total of more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. If you’re visiting more than 2 parks on your trip (such as nearby Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon) then you’ll definitely save money with this pass.

How to Get Shuttle Tickets for Zion National Park

In the busy months, Zion National Park operates shuttles to bring visitors up the canyon. No private vehicles are allowed on the road, making some spots inaccessible without shuttle tickets.

Because of social distancing requirements, the Zion National Park shuttles are currently working in a similar way to South Campground reservations. You must book them online at specific times. Currently, shuttle tickets are released on this schedule, according to the website:

“Tickets listed as ‘Not Yet Released’ will be available at 5:00 p.m. MT the day before. Advance tickets are released twice a month, once on the 16th and then on the last day of the month at 9:00 a.m. (for example tickets for June 1-15 are released on May 16). The second group of tickets (listed as Not Yet Released) are released at 5:00 p.m. MT on the day before (for example, additional tickets for Sunday are released at 5:00 p.m. on Saturday). The timing and number of tickets listed may change. ”

Unfortunately, I was not so lucky getting shuttle tickets as I was a camping reservation. I clicked ONE MINUTE too late and the shuttle tickets were gone. (It’s a zoo out there, guys!)

But it ended up being a blessing for us, because after doing some research, I discovered that shuttle tickets are not essential to have an amazing trip to Zion. While some of the more well-known sites are only accessible from shuttle stops (like The Narrows and Angel’s Landing), you have a few options available to you.

  • Book a private shuttle

Surprisingly, the official shuttles aren’t the only “shuttles” you can get in Zion. There are a number of private tour operators who have some kind of arrangement that allows them to bring guests into the park and up the Canyon road. This is the option we chose. We booked with Red Rock Shuttle, and they were great. Though the cost of a private shuttle (around $30) is significant compared to the $1 park shuttle, the ability to get where you need to go is vital for a low-key, fun Zion trip like you want. 

The shuttle picked us up right by Zion Outfitter, too. Convenient to get to from our campsite and convenient for picking up our gear before the trip. 

One drawback of the private shuttles like this is that they don’t make multiple stops for you. What I mean is, they take you out to your destination and then bring you back; they won’t shuttle you between shuttle stops. While this could be annoying for some, we planned just to use the shuttle to access the Narrows, and it worked perfectly us. (Note: Red Rock WILL bring you to additional stops, but you have to return to the park entrance each time).

A couple sits on a perch by the round with tall rocky mountains behind them.

  • Rent e-bikes

A hugely popular option currently for Zion is foregoing the need for a vehicle altogether. Instead, rent yourself an electric bike! We saw these everywhere in Zion, and they look quite fun! 

As an electric bike, you don’t need nearly so much physical power to ride it as a traditional bike. This means the 8 miles up the Canyon road to the Narrows entrance is doable, and the other stops are even closer.

The benefit of a bike is that you don’t have to stick to a shuttle schedule or worry about getting tickets. You have the freedom to get around the park as you please. There are many places to rent bikes in Zion, including Zion Guru.

  • Explore other parts of Zion

Ultimately, you can see PLENTY of Zion’s beauty even if you don’t have shuttle tickets or go on the Canyon Road. Take the opportunity to tackle different, less-popular hikes, like Kolob Canyons, or Observation Point. The Watchman and Pa’rus Trail are also accessible without going up the Canyon road. In fact, the trailheads for these are right by the Visitor’s Center. 

And you CAN still drive within the park; just not up the Canyon road. Instead, you can make your way along the winding, scenic Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, with its many pull-offs and viewpoints. This is a stunning road, and was very popular and crowded during our trip, showing that it is still one of the highlights of Zion. On this road you’ll also find Canyon Overlook Trail, which offers lovely views comparable to Angel’s Landing. Again, you can still ENJOY ZION without shuttle tickets. 

Zion National Park Itinerary: 2 Days

Day 1 in Zion

This is day one of your Zion itinerary, or even better yet, the evening before the first official day.

  • Arrive, get situated/checked in to your accommodation
  • Head to the park. Be prepared to wait in line if early-midday. Late afternoon may a faster entry.
  • If time allows, tackle one of the shorter or easier hikes in the park. We recommend the Pa’Rus Trail (paved and fairly flat trail that is great for biking) or The Watchman Trail (3 mile moderate trail with great payoff and views). Don’t forget lots and lots of water! This is the desert! We both have Osprey Hydration Packs and they worked incredibly well for this trip.

  • If hiking The Narrows tomorrow, grab any rental gear tonight. 
  • Make dinner at your campsite/dine in Springdale/at your hotel
  • Get a good night’s sleep!

Day 2 in Zion

Today you’ll be getting up early to tackle your “big hike” of choice. For most visitors, this is likely to be Angel’s Landing or The Narrows.

We opted for The Narrows, as we weren’t as keen on the steep drop-offs of Angel’s Landing and thought that hiking IN A RIVER would be much more memorable. We were right! More on The Narrows hike below.

Day Two in Zion Itinerary:

  • Arrive at the park (early!)
  • Get your shuttle (early!)
  • Start your hike (early! – If you’re opting for a laid back Zion itinerary, allowing yourself plenty of time to enjoy the day is key).
  • Complete your big hike (general recommendations allow 4-6+ hours for The Narrows, bottom-up, 5 hours for Angel’s Landing). 
  • Grab a shower and lunch
  • Hop in the car and take a scenic tour of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. There are tons of pull-offs along this stunning road, so even non-hikers will love this part of Zion. Pro tip: You don’t need the Zion Shuttle to see this road. So if you don’t score shuttle tickets, this is a perfection option to still see some of the best of Zion!
  • Do the Canyon Overlook Trail just before sunset for some pretty views (or tackle it tomorrow morning at sunrise for even better lighting!)
  • Have a great dinner and an easy rest tonight—you earned it!

Hiking The Narrows: What You Need to Know

Before talking about a potential 3rd day in Zion, I want to take a minute to share with you all that I know about The Narrows. Here’s another great guide all about this hike, so if you want to read more in depth about The Narrows hike, click here.

Hiking The Narrows from the bottom up is what most people choose to do. There is an alternate option to hike from the top down, but that’s a long hike for someone in better shape than I. If you’re in moderate-decent shape, you’ll be just fine with The Narrows bottom up, by the way. But keep in mind that it is challenging. You’ll be walking much of the time right in the water (The Narrows is essentially right inside the Virgin River), with occasional spots thigh or even chest deep. When we went, May 2021, there was a thigh-deep portion of the hike about 15-20 minutes in. At that point, getting very wet is not optional. 

So how do you manage hiking in a moving river? Rent some gear! While many people will tell you that Narrows gear is unnecessary, we found it to be very useful for us. We rented gear from Zion Outfitter (located directly outside the park and right next to the pedestrian/bike entrance). Our summer gear included the water-friendly boots, neoprene socks, and a sturdy walking stick, for about $30 a person.

Could you hike in your own shoes? Probably. But they are going to get sopping wet. Even our rented “waterproof” boots got filled with water. But the real benefit of those shoes is the neoprene socks (so you’re not dealing with wet cotton socks, ew) and non-slip soles. The shoes were supportive, easy to walk in, and I think prevented us from slipping more than we did.

And that stick that comes with the gear? Also really essential. On the way out to the hike, I wondered why I was toting this heavy wooden stick. It turned out to be an integral part of keeping myself steady and upright amidst the rocky bottom of The Narrows. This item is a must-have, in my opinion. Don’t hike The Narrows without it. 

Currently (summer 2021), the Virgin River, and thus the Narrows, is experiencing an issue with a toxic cyanobacteria bloom. This sounds pretty scary, but the evidence shows that this has not deterred hundreds of hikers (us included) from attempting The Narrows. Please read the park’s official information for the most accurate, up-to-date details about the bacteria. It would seem the risk is minimal and the biggest concern is not ingesting the water. Yet you have to make your own decision about whether to go. In the words of the Parks: “your safety is your responsibility!”

Day 3 in Zion, if Applicable

Now you’ve had two super fun, but not-too-crazy days in Zion National Park. If you have more time to spend here, that is awesome! I think you could spend a week in Zion and have an incredible trip experiencing nearly everything the park has to offer. 

But what if you have just one more day, or even just a morning in Zion? I recommend doing some kind of sunrise hike. Canyon Overlook is a fairly short trail (and is accessible from the Zion-Mt. Carmel Road, so you don’t need shuttle passes). This makes for a lovely sunrise spot. But other hikes would also be a good option in the morning. You can’t go wrong with those beautiful red rocks all around. 

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