Standing in the shadow of the Court of the Patriarchs, I worship the majestic beauty of the Navajo Sandstone peaks, like I did when touring the man-made cathedrals of the Old World. I take a moment to reflect on the Creator and the Creator’s landscape. I cannot escape the sense of awe, knowing Zion National Park was created with just sand, water and countless millennia.
The Navajo Sandstone dominates my senses in Zion National Park with its bold rock formations carved by a mostly tame Virgin River. Through the seasons of summer monsoon storms, the tickle of the Virgin River changes into a torrent of logs and debris that continues to shape the Zion Canyon.
As a part of the Grand Staircase, a geologic survey where over 500 million years of history can be studied in the rock layers, Zion is sandwiched in the middle. Where the Grand Canyon represents the bottom layer and Bryce Canyon National Park represents the most rock layers.
History of Zion National Park
What began as a windswept desert 180-million-years ago, time slowly compressed the sand into the Navajo Sandstone that rises up 2000 feet today. With the re-occurring floods of the region, water sculpted the canyon with the eye of an artist.
Archaeologists excavated evidence of human existence from 7,000-years ago. Though the Ancestral Puebloans cultivated corn and squash 2,000 years later.
The Mormons settled Utah during the 1850s, and Isaac Behunin named the area Zion or Kingdom of Heaven. Though a Methodist minister, Frederick Fisher, named the Court of the Patriarchs, the Great White Throne, Angels Landing, and The Organ rock features continuing with the religious theme.
Zion National Park earned its national park status in 1919. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed the Mount Carmel Tunnel and the switchbacks of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway in the 1920s.
Sights to See in Zion National Park
Just inside of the eastern entrance and along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, the Checkerboard Mesa offers an example of the fracturing of the ancient sand dunes. A favorite of kids, the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel is a one-mile long tunnel with several windows bored through the walls (unless your kiddo is afraid of the dark).
At the southern entrance, the Watchmen and West Temple offer inspiring peaks close to the Zion Human History Museum. The Zion Lodge shuttle stop offers a lunch break and the family-friendly Emerald Pools Trails.
The Weeping Rock shuttle stop gives families the opportunity to see the grotto with hanging gardens. The Temple of Sinawava is the gateway for the popular trail, The Narrows, after hiking up the Riverside Walk.
The Kolob Canyons, located in the northwest corner of Zion National Park offers a different area to discover. Though not accessible from Zion Canyon, explore Kolob Canyons Visitor Center by driving north on Interstate 15.
Activities in Zion National Park
Hiking is on my kids, 8, 12 and 13 must-do list for every park we explore as a family. I choose popular trails less than 2-miles long to keep 8-year old happy.
The Lower Emerald Pool Trail offers families a semi-shaded 1.2-mile paved round-trip trip to a 100-foot waterfall. The trail slips under the rim and the water tumbles down from above.
Tilting my head up, a drop of the waterfall lands on my cheek as I absorb my surroundings. The indigo sky draws my eyes upward while the red sandstone walls radiate warmth and the emerald moss clinging to rock fills me with a sense of vitality. Only a hike under a waterfall can transform a moment into a memory.
For families with strollers, try the Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. I found a wheel-chair accessible 2.2-mile roundtrip trail from the Virgin River to the Narrows.
To explore Zion National Park at a slower pace, try a guided scenic tour aboard a bus to see all the photo-worthy sights and maybe some of the Zion’s mountain goats too. Afternoon tours depart from Zion Lodge, three times a week.
For the adventurous families, Zion National Park offers guided horseback rides. With a one-hour and a three-hour tour to choose from, families ride in the shadow of the peaks.
Kids at Zion National Park
The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Zion National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the patches that the Rangers present them after completing their booklets.
For kids who yearn for more, Zion National Park offers a seasonal resource for families. Zion Nature Center (open 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., Memorial Day through Labor Day) offers families a chance to play games, look at exhibits and read books. Zion Nature Center is located north of the South Campground, minutes from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.
Zion National Park offers the Junior Paleontologist Program as well.
Lodging at Zion National Park
Inside of the park, Zion Lodge offers a main building that sits on the spot of the original lodge that burned in the 1960s. Modern hotel rooms and historic western cabins from the 1930s flank the lodge building that houses a restaurant, café, coffee bar, gift shop, and outdoor patio.
The cottonwood trees shade the lawn in front of the lodge providing a favorite gathering place. Situated next to the Virgin River, guests are steps away from hiking.
Getting to Zion National Park
Zion National Park is located 160 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada, the closest international airport. Springdale, Utah, Zion’s gateway town to the South Entrance, offers services for travelers.
Utah’s Route 9 is the Zion National Park Scenic Byway from the Interstate 15 turnoff. If continuing to Bryce Canyon National Park, exit through Zion-Mount Carmel Highway for more of this stunning drive.
Zion National Park is part of the Grand Staircase and included in many national park itineraries. It’s located 85 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 122 miles away.
Tour operators offer tours of Utah and Arizona’s national parks that depart out of Las Vegas, Nevada, like Viator.
Getting Around Zion National Park
Zion National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $30 per private vehicle.
Spring through Fall Zion National Park offers a free seasonal shuttle bus that departs from the visitor center stopping all the major destinations along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive like, Canyon Junction, Zion Lodge, The Grotto and Temple of Sinawava.
Tips from a TravelingMom:
- Temperatures in the summer can reach 100F, carry water at all times. I stop and make my kids toast the mountains so we remember to drink water during our hike.
- Monsoon season is late June through September where flash flooding can occur with little warning.
- Wear a hat and apply the sunscreen.
- Wear appropriate shoes for hiking, like lace-up athletic shoes or hiking boots.
- Consult a Park Ranger before hiking The Narrows Trail to see if flash flooding is predicted.
- Cell service is weak within the park.