Zion National Park was one of the first National Parks we visited as a couple, when we first got together many years ago. We stopped at Zion in our U-Haul on our move to California from Massachusetts, and tent camped in the National Park campground.

Coming from the rolling green hills of New England, Zion’s massive and soaring sandstone cliffs were an alien landscape the likes of which I’d never seen. I remember staring around slack-jawed at the stunning beauty and massive scale of the canyon – something other visitors can attest to, I’m sure.

Somehow I convinced Kathy to climb Angels Landing for the first time – the 1,400-foot tall monolith that stands in the middle of upper Zion Canyon. We were both terrified – neither of us could believe that the park service allowed regular hikers up there at all! In spite of our fear, we finished the climb, and the memory is one of the first and most significant in our relationship.

Kathy on Angel's Landing Circa 1998
Kathy on Angel’s Landing Circa 1998

We recently climbed Angel’s Landing for the 3rd time (pics below), and I assure you it’s still scary. The short and steep hike to the landing is listed in Outside Magazines 20 Most Dangerous Hikes and for good reason – the upper half mile of the hike is steep and very dangerous. Six people have fallen to their death since the second time we climbed it – and someone falls almost every year and who gets rescued from a lower ledge – or gets caught in a tree. In other words, the death toll could easily be higher!

We stayed in the Zion NP area for over 3 weeks, so I figured I’d share some tips to make a visit to Zion easier for other RVers – and then I’ll share some of what we did in Zion along with photo galleries below that. Ready? Here we go!


Visiting Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Zion National Park consists primarily of a massive, beautiful, sandstone canyon carved by the Virgin River. It was first established as a National Park back in 1919, so it’s impressive enough that even people 100 years ago knew it should be protected for future generations. If you’ve never visited, you should. It’s an incredible and awe-inspiring place!

National Park Fees

Entrance to Zion costs $30, and that buys you a 7 day pass. If you plan to visit other nearby parks including Bryce Canyon (also $30), Cedar Breaks, Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, etc.. then it makes a lot of sense to buy an Annual Parks Pass for $80, as that will give you access to any/all parks whenever you choose to visit. We stayed in Zion area for 3 weeks and visited several times during that timeframe. Our park pass made this easy – whereas the $30 entry would have limited our visits to just 7 days.

Driving in Zion National Park

Entering Zion National Park by car or RV is usually time-consuming. Every time we visited, there was a long line of cars waiting to get through the gate. It would be nice if they put registration in one lane, and re-entry in another lane, but it is what it is. Give yourself extra time.

Many people visit Zion National Park by parking at the Visitor Center and taking the shuttle bus into the park. There’s very little parking near trailheads in the park itself, and many areas require permits, so the bus is the best way to get into and around the park.

If you do want to park at the Visitor Center, you’ll need to arrive by 10am on most days. Zion is incredibly popular, and the parking area fills up quickly. You can also park at the Visitor Center after 3pm, as many people arrive early and leave early.

If you arrive much past 10am, then your option is to park in Springdale – the pleasant town just outside Zion’s gate – somewhere near a shuttle bus stop (or some call the buses trams).

The buses to Zion are free, and there are 5 stops spread over a couple miles, along with several parking lots and lots of street parking. In other words, if you want to visit the park, you can visit the park – but the later you get there, the longer it will take to find parking and to actually get into the park.

Zion Shuttle Stop

Note that the buses in Springdale are different than the buses in Zion NP. The Springdale buses take you to a footbridge that leads to the Zion Visitor Center. From there, you’ll need to get on a Zion bus if you want to go into the park. Again, give yourself plenty of time.

The buses are all free – which is excellent – but they do take some time to get where they’re going as they stop at every stop. Also, note that buses stop running at around 8:30pm, so plan on being done with any hikes before then unless you want to walk all the way out of the park!

Driving Through the Park – You can Drive through Zion National Park, although you’ll still need to pay a full-priced entry fee. If you drive through Zion in an RV – or any large vehicle – you also have to pay an ‘escort’ fee to go through the tunnel to the upper part of the park.

I’d recommend skipping the drive through Zion as it’s steep – and instead taking routes 59/389/89 to get to the other side of the park. If you’re coming from the north, you can cross the mountains easily on route 20 just north of Cedar City to get to 89 and the upper part of Zion.


Best RV Campgrounds Near Zion National Park

Most people – including us – visited Zion from the west side. That’s the St. George, Hurricane (pronounced ‘her can’) side of the park, and there are lots of options for RVers to camp including in Zion National Park itself.

Zion National Park Campgrounds

Zion National Park offers RV camping in both the Watchman and South Campgrounds – both near the entrance to the park. If you’d like to camp in the park, we recommend reserving WAY in advance. Reservations at Watchman are booked through August as I’m typing this – so again, you’ll need to plan well in advance.

Watchman Campground has electric and water available, so it’s the best option for RVers.

South Campground is first come first serve, but the campground fills up by midday even on weekdays. The available campsites are better suited to tenters or small RVs – however it’s your best option in the park for last minute trips.

While we’ve tent camped in Zion, we’ve never driven our RV into the park. Zion campgronds are usually very crowded, and we rarely plan far enough in advance to book reservations. There’s also not that great a cell phone (data) signal in Zion Canyon. It’s gotten better – but I wouldn’t count on being able to work from it, especially with all the visitors trying to upload selfies.

Nearby State Parks

Sand Hollow State Park – We recently stayed at Sand Hollow State Park, which has online reservations and full hookup (W/E/S) campsites for only $28/night. Sand Hollow is about 45 minutes from Zion but it can still get busy – especially on the weekends.

Quail Creek State Park – Also nearby, but doesn’t appear suitable for larger rigs, and doesn’t have hookups.

Nearby RV Parks

We recommend staying at Willow Winds RV Resort in Hurricane for best results. Yes there are other RV parks, and yes, some of them are closer, but Willow Winds is the best value equation in the area.

Our Shaded Site at Willow Winds RV Resort
Our Shaded Site at Willow Winds RV Resort

First, Willow Winds is only 30 minutes from Zion. This is far enough to avoid crazy tourist crowds, but close enough to get to the park easily. Second, almost every campsite is covered by trees. If you’re visiting in the summer, you know just how important – and rare – shade can be in the desert!

Third, Willow Winds is priced well. With Good Sams it cost us $31/night + tax for full hookups in the shade. If you book a week, you essentially get 1 day free, and if you have the time to stay a month, it’s just $420 + electric.

Finally, Willow Winds is extremely well run and very clean. There are several spotless laundry facilities, bathrooms, a small gym, and a lodge. Every site is spotless and well maintained.

We don’t work for Willow Winds, and they did not sponsor this post or these statements – we simply found it to be an excellent place from which to visit Zion during the warmer part of the year.

We didn’t stay at any other RV parks, so can’t comment on them – however all the other parks we looked at were more expensive and not as nice as Willow Winds.

Boondocking

Originally, we intended to boondock outside of Zion. There’s some great spots just off Sheep Bridge Road on the way to the park where you can camp for free.

The problem we had, is that it was projected to hit 90 degrees every day, and there’s no shade on BLM land. We have our cat – Lexi the travel kitty – and we can’t bring her into Zion, and we didn’t want her to cook, so that’s why we opted for a shady RV park for the week instead.

Boondocking Off Sheep Bridge Road
Boondocking Off Sheep Bridge Road

There are a few other potential boondocking areas, but Sheep Bridge Road is your best best. It’s only 15 to 20 miles from Zion, and there’s good Verizon 4G available as long as you stick to camping on the ridge. If you drive into the canyon (right turn about 1 mile in), there’s a lot more boondocking spots, but no cell service.


What we did in Zion


Angels Landing

Angels Landing
Angels Landing – You’re hiking to the top of this!

As I mentioned above, We’ve hiked Angels Landing several times, and it’s still one of the scariest and most impressive hikes we’ve ever done.

The hike itself is only 5 miles round trip, however for the first mile you gain almost no elevation. That all changes during mile 2, as you climb over 1,000 feet to the upper edge of the canyon, and then cross over to the monolith that is Angels Landing.

At this point you have 1/2 mile of cliff-exposed bouldering aided by chains bolted into the sandstone walls to reach the top. As there’s only one way up and one way down, the chain tends to form traffic jams.

If you get freaked out in crowds, this is not the hike for you! Most falls happen when people try to push around other people in dangerous areas, so make sure to speak up and/or yell if people are pushing you. Better to be safe!

We recommend hiking Angels Landing closer to the evening, as the setting sun lights up the sandstone beautifully, and the crowds are smaller in the afternoon.


Biking Through Zion to the Narrows Trail

Biking through Zion is something we both highly recommend. It was one of our favorite things we did, and it’s a fantastic way to see the park!

Biking Zion National Park

With a bike you can stop at any of dozens of overlooks and viewpoints that are difficult to get to via the shuttle buses. We took our time on the way in and took dozens of pictures.

The bike path starts between the Visitor Center and the campground on the Pa’Rus Trail. The path follows the river for a couple miles, and then dumps you on the main park road around Shuttle stop #3.

This is the point at which only shuttle buses, park vehicles, and visitors to the Zion lodge are allowed, so the road is not very busy and is perfect for bikes. Just make sure to get off the road when the Zion Trams come by, as they won’t pass you until you’re off the road.

We biked all the way to the end – nearly 8 miles into the park – and then we locked our bikes up and hiked down to the entrance to The Narrows.

Unfortunately during our visit there was too much water flow to hike The Narrows. If the park closes The Narrows, make sure to listen. Water can be very unpredictable in slot canyons, and lots of people have underestimated and died in the Zion Narrows. It’s not worth it – go when it’s safe!

We hiked back to the trailhead and ended up biking through Zion National Park in the dark. The park doesn’t close, and there are no trams at night, so if you get a chance we highly recommend this ride! Biking through the park at night is magical – words can’t really describe it.


Emerald Pools Hike

Zion’s Emerald Pools are one of the easier and more visually stunning hikes in the park. If you have just one day, I’d recommend hiking to the upper Emerald Pools.

Rich Hiking to Emerald Pools
Rich Hiking to Emerald Pools

Note that even though this hike is relatively easy, there are still a fair number of fatalities due to people falling. Hikes in Zion often have cliff exposures, so it’s important to pay attention and be careful!

The Emerald Pools are formed by runoff that comes down and through Zion’s cliff walls. This leaves striping and interesting colors and formations on the rock walls and cliffs overhead.

Emerald Pools also affords you the chance to see waterfalls cascading into free space overhead – and depending on rainfall these can be pretty spectacular. During our visit they were somewhat less so – but still very impressive and worth the hike!


Food & Brews Near Zion

Food after a hike at ZCBC
Food after a hike at ZCBC

Directly adjacent to the footbridge that takes you to the Zion Visitor Center, you’ll find the Zion Canyon Brewing Company. This convenient spot has solid food and ok (for Utah) Beer.

Why just ok for Utah? Because Utah’s draconian 4%-ABV cap on beer and Ale dramatically limits what brewers can do with their beers. Most of the beers brewed in Utah are malt-bombs – not our favorite kind of beer.

That said, ZCBC does brew a decent IPA – their Redemption IPA. I wouldn’t seek it out, but if you’re a hop lover and eating at ZCBC, then you should find Redemption adequate.

Wrapping Up Zion

We had such a fantastic time at Zion, and we don’t plan to wait another 15 years before we go back. Using the tips above, we’re planning to spend a month in the area within the next two years so we can hike some of the other hikes, and see some of the other sights – including Kolob Canyon and the hike to the upper rim.

If you’re familiar with the Zion area and you have recommendations or comments about our recommendations, please leave them in the comments. Until next time, happy trekking!

Author

Hi, I'm Rich - Perpetual traveler, photographer, writer, and web designer. To contact me, visit my site - www.richkent.com. Thanks for reading, and happy trekking!

9 Comments

  1. Hello! We are planning to visit Zion too. We will be driving a 32 RV and staying in a RV park in the area but not close enough to have a shuttle stop in a walking distance. How did you go from your RV park to Zion? Where did you park? It seems that is really difficult to park an RV in the park or near a shuttle stop. Thank you so much!

    • Rich Reply

      Hi B – we stayed in Hurricane at the Willowwind RV park. (Nice place – lots of trees). We then drove into Zion in our Tow Vehicle – our Honda Fit. Hurricane is about 30 minutes from Zion, so not bad. It worked well for us. Good luck!

  2. Hi Rich, we are planning a trip to the five national parks in June 2018. We are driving our 20ft RV and concerned about the parking in Zion and other parks as well. Are there parking areas that accommodate RV ‘s near the visitor area where you can catch the shuttles?

    • Rich Reply

      Hi Terri – we were just in Zion last year (love that park). You will have no problems parking a 20-foot RV at any of the big parks – Zion, Bryce, etc.. There are huge parking areas near the entrance (for shuttle parking) with parking for RVs and Buses – and at 20-feet, you’ll probably fit in a regular parking space anyway. Have a great trip!

  3. Great post as planning to go similar route. Question on boondocking – is there designated spots for that? Don’t want to wake up with a fine anywhere. 🙂 planning a week long trip around south Utah and am not too much into campgrounds each night.

    • Rich Reply

      Hi Stefan – Yes, there are designated boondocking campsites in several areas. For directions, information and reviews, I recommend using Campendium.com. They have an entire ‘free camping’ section that will tell you where you can camp for free legally. Good luck – you’ll have a great time!

  4. Great post Rich. My wife and I are doing something similar. Started out in Bend, Oregon and have traveled across the entire US and up into Canada. We hit Canyonlands (The Needles) and Arches earlier in September. Planning on heading back west in January and will hopefully hit Zion. It looks absolutely amazing. Thanks for the information and the great pictures.

    Cheers,
    Jason

    • Rich Reply

      Thanks, Jason! Zion is one of our all-time favorite parks. Simply an amazing place. We’ve yet to hit Canyonlands but it’s on the list. Sounds like a great trip – and we LOVE Bend. One of our favorite places. Cheers!

  5. Debbie Kent Reply

    There I read this again and enjoyed it all over again. As I said, you write really well and I thought the trek was wonderful.

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