How to Spend Three Days in Zion National Park

Utah has five national parks (only Alaska and California have more) and you can’t go wrong vising any of them. However, it’s undisputable that Zion National Park is in a league of its own, even in a state with so much to offer. At more than three million visitors annually, it’s the third-most visited national park, just behind Yosemite!

If you plan to be part of those three million, you have much to look forward to! Spending three days in Zion National Park is guaranteed to make you wish you had three more days (and then some) to spend. May to September is considered peak season, and Zion can average 17,000 visitors per day during that time. Yes, it’s a big park, but you’ll want to start your days early to maximally enjoy all that Zion has to offer!

At 229 square miles, you’ll have plenty of space to take in the beauty of the desert and its red rocks that have been federally protected for more than 100 years! Zion is a hiker’s dream come true and has more trails than you’ll know what to do with, so make sure you have time to follow this itinerary fully and do your best to see everything Zion has to offer in these three days!

Before Entering the Park

Utah’s first national park is open every day of the year, and the weather at the beginning and end of peak season can be particularly enjoyable. The same goes for early to mid-fall after the crowds die down a bit. If you have the option to wait until September or October, you can expect high temperatures to be in the upper 60s to up 70s.

Since Zion is filled with slot canyons, there are always precautionary warnings around flash floods. Slot canyons are quite narrow and are burrowed into sheer rock, and while quite beautiful, require an extra bit of preparation. 

Flash floods mainly affect the months of July, August, and September. If you keep an eye on the weather forecast and are aware of your surroundings, you should be more than prepared. Zion National Park will also post official information and warnings, so as long as you check their website for any precautions, you’ll be free to roam through Zion safely.

In terms of transit, Zion has an ample shuttle system that is not currently requiring you to get tickets ahead of time, as was previously the case. As always, check Zion’s website before heading into the park for the most up to date information.

Springdale is such a lovely town. f11photo/Shutterstock

Day 1: Where to Go and What to Do

The most popular entry into Zion National Park is through Springdale via Utah State Route 9. You’ll follow SR 9 east into the park. This is one of only two roads you’ll have to pay attention to during your time, as the majority of Zion’s popular spots are in the eastern half of the park. 

Since there is no highway connecting the eastern and western portions of the park (unless you leave the park and re-enter), navigating Zion is incredibly simple! Because of this fact, most visitors enter through Springdale and thus this itinerary will follow that.

The other reason from the Springdale entrance’s popularity is that, during the shuttle’s season, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is closed to private vehicles. What this means for you is that, typically, you cannot drive the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from March through November.

The Zion shuttle service is free and runs from Springdale to the entrance of the park, where you can walk in. During peak season, you can shuttle into the park starting at 6:00am. It is first come first served, so get there early! From there, the shuttle runs up and down the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, allowing you to move from trailhead to trailhead throughout your day without worrying about parking!

Stop 1: Pa’rus Trail

  • Length: 3.4 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 157 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 1 hour and 20 minutes

Your first stop is just inside the park’s gates, near the visitors’ center. Consider this trail a nice warmup where you get to take a first look at what Zion has to offer! The trail is flat and forgiving, so you can take hikers of all ages! Do watch out for bikes though, as this trail is popular for a quick bike ride as well.

Stop 2: The Watchman Trail

  • Length: 3.1 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 646 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 1 hour and 40 minutes

Just across the road from the Pa’rus Trail is the Watchman Trail. About the same length as the trail you just hiked, you’ll find this trail to be a bit more of a challenge. Zion is known for having some strenuous hikes, and while this isn’t nearly as hard as hikes such as Angel’s Landing, it should be a great taste of what hiking Zion is like!

The very beginning of the trail may be undergoing some renovations still when you visit, but beyond that, you should expect the trail to be as it usually is. From about 0.8 miles to 1.2 miles into the trail is where the majority of the climbing is and what rates this trail as moderate. Beyond that, this well-known trail is manageable and quite rewarding!

If you’re looking to camp, the Watchman Campground is located at the south end of the visitor’s center area on the other side of the fee collection office. Note that there are only three main campgrounds in Zion, so you’ll have to be quick about getting reservations in advance if you want to camp in the park!

Emerald pools in the Subway. Pierre Leclerc/Shutterstock

Stop 3: Emerald Pools

  • Length: 3 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 620 feet
  • Type: Loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Taking the shuttle up the road to the Zion Lodge stop, you’ll find the start of several different Emerald Pools hikes. While there are multiple to choose from, this three-mile loop encompasses all the best pools in a single hike and can’t be missed!

While camping options are sparse inside of Zion, you can also opt to stay at the Zion Lodge, located right next to the Emerald Pools trailhead. With the first stop of day 2 being The Narrows, arguably Zion’s most well-known hike, staying inside the park may be to your benefit.

Day 2: Where to Go And What to Do

Your second day starts with the famous Narrows hike. Zion has about 4.5 million visitors annually and a large portion of them will hike the Narrows at some point. If you do the math, you’ll realize that equals an early wakeup call if you want to avoid as much of the crowds as you can. If you opted to stay inside this park, your wakeup call may be a bit more manageable. 

Stop 1: The Zion Narrows Riverside Walk

  • Length: 1.9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 193 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 45 minutes

Possibly the first thing that pops into your head when you think of Zion National Park is the Narrows. Prepare for the reality that you will run into crowds and you will get wet. If you understand what you’re in for, you can have the best possible experience and a great photo op. With hikes like this one, always check the weather forecast and Zion’s website before you undertake it. While you aren’t likely to experience a flash flood, it’s your responsibility to make sure you know what the weather is going to look like and do your best to be safe.

You have some options when hiking the Narrows. While it is a virtual guarantee that there will be crowds, especially during the warmer weather, you have the option to cut your hike short or to continue beyond the standard length of the Narrows Walk. You can do simply the Zion Riverside Walk at just under a mile round-trip if you aren’t interested in doing the full Narrows Hike. Expect this to take about 20 minutes roundtrip. 

Alternatively, if you want the full experience and want to outlast the crowds, consider Elephant Temple via Riverside Walk. At 5.4 miles, this is definitely longer than most people will hike The Narrows for and likely the closest you’ll get to a low level of crowds. If you want to make the full trek, you’ll have great opportunities to take photos of waterfalls and interesting rock formations before coming upon Elephant Temple itself. Expect to spend about two hours doing this hike.

Stop 2: Shelf Canyon Trail

  • Length: 0.7 mile
  • Elevation Gain: 259 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 30 minutes

You’ll have to spend some travel time to get from The Narrows to Shelf Canyon, however beating the worst of the crowds in the Narrows is worth the time. You’ll need to take the shuttle back to Springdale to get your car as State Route 9 does not have a shuttle service. 

Luckily, you’ll only have to find parking once as this area has multiple awesome hikes in one place! Consider this hike a nice stretch of the legs after having to take the shuttle and drive afterwards. Certain areas of the trail may require some minor scrambling so wear good shoes and embrace scrambling through Zion! If you’re lucky, you may get a chance to see some of Zion’s wildlife like bighorn sheep.

Stop 3: Pine Creek Narrows Trail

  • Length: 1.2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 232 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 45 minutes

You’ll be best served downloading a map of this trail beforehand. While a beautiful slot canyon, some of these trails aren’t as well marked as they could be. If you have a map with you though, you’ll be just fine! 

Expect to run into some rocks you’ll have to walk over and do some maneuvering around, but you shouldn’t be too challenged by this trail if you have good shoes. Expect a few uphills and downhills, but all of them are doable!

Stop 4: Zion Canyon Overlook

  • Length: 1 mile
  • Elevation Gain: 187 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 35 minutes

Probably the most popular trail on this side of the park is the Zion Canyon Overlook. Definitely a popular one and for good reason: Expect some of the best views available when you get to the overlook at the turnaround point. If you can time your day so you hike this at sunset, there’s no better way to experience the Zion Canyon Overlook!

Day 3: Where to Go and What to Do

Your last day is back on SR-9 heading towards the east exit of Zion. While the east exit is quite popular, if you plan to exit at Springdale, you can just turn around once you finish up your hiking for today!

Cascade Falls. pics721/Shutterstock

Stop 1: Cascade Falls

  • Length: 2.2 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 465 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Your first stop of the final day is just a bit east of where you ended yesterday. Starting early is best in Zion generally, but especially in the eastern portions of the park. Don’t let the elevation gain scare you, it’s a gradual uphill and downhill. While there are small portions of slickrock and obstacles, anyone should be able to finish this trail if you’re not in a rush. 

This isn’t a heavily trafficked trail, so you may have it entirely to yourself if you get there early enough!

Stop 2: Many Pools Trail

  • Length: 2.3 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 544 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 1 hour and 20 minutes

While just over two miles, there is a bit of elevation gain, so take your time! There are some slickrock parts of this trail, so be aware when you reach those. Otherwise, while about as well marked as most East Zion hikes, this is a great way to start your morning before it gets too warm. 

Stop 3: Petroglyph Pools to Slot Canyon

  • Length: 1.1 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 180 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 35 minutes

Another trail you’ll want to download a map beforehand for! East Zion hikes, while beautiful and rugged, are not always perfectly marked. With some enthusiasm and a bit of scrambling, you’ll be rewarded with views and solitude, a welcome change from Zion Canyon Scenic Drive! The petroglyphs will come up on your left and you’ll want to look for an access trail to the left for your hike towards the slot canyons as well.

The views towards Checkerboard Mesa is one of the highlights of this trail. orxy/Shutterstock

Stop 4: East Rim Trail to Overlook

  • Length: 4.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 547 feet
  • Type: Out and Back
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Estimated Time to Complete: 2 hours and 15 minutes

The perfect way to end your Zion National Park trip is with the views on this trail! While a bit longer than the previous trails, it isn’t difficult at all and all skill levels should have an easy and enjoyable time here! Take your time and soak in the views. 

Once you’re finished, you’ll be right next to the eastern exit of Zion if that’s where you plan to leave the park. If you have a shorter day and can’t make all of these hikes, this is absolutely one you’ll want to keep on the itinerary!

As long as you have lots of water and you check the weather forecast ahead of time, Zion National Park is a trip you’ll never forget! While some of the hikes here are more difficult than other national parks, the views promised are well worth the extra work. As always, check Zion’s website for the most up to date information on weather and closures.

Hopefully this itinerary has helped inspire your next trip to Zion’s stretch of the Utah desert. 

We can’t wait to hear all about it!

About the author

Lauren Juliff

Lauren Juliff is a published author and travel expert who founded Never Ending Footsteps in 2011. She has spent over 12 years travelling the world, sharing in-depth advice from more than 100 countries across six continents.

Lauren's travel advice has been featured in publications like the BBC, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Cosmopolitan, and her work is read by 200,000 readers each month. Her travel memoir can be found in bookstores across the planet.

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