Julie United States 11 Comments

Zion National Park and its epic hiking trails have become an extremely popular place to visit in recent years. This is a spectacular destination and one of our favorite national parks in the USA. However, due to crowd levels, trail closures, and cyanobacteria in the Virgin River, Zion has become a challenging park to visit. Here are 5 things to know before visiting Zion National Park.

An Overview of Zion

Zion National Park is home to several of the most popular hikes in the United States. Angels Landing and the Narrows are two trails that draw most visitors to this park. The hefty climb up to Observation Point is another popular hike, the reward being jaw-dropping views across Zion.

Many of the hikes and best things to do are located along the Zion Valley. For most of the year, a shuttle zips visitors to and from the hiking trailheads…cars are not allowed on this road when the shuttle is in operation. During the winter months, when the shuttle is not running, you are permitted to drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

There is one lodge inside of the park, the Zion Lodge. This is a great place to stay, since you are centrally located within the park and can walk right to some of the more popular trails. Springdale is the gateway into Zion. With numerous hotels and restaurants, this is where most visitors stay.

For more information about Zion National Park, click here to read our Guide to Zion National Park. Get important travel planning tips, sample itineraries, advice on when to go, where to stay, and more.

Things to Know Before Visiting Zion

#1 Some Hiking Trails are Closed

Currently, Hidden Canyon, Observation Point, and Weeping Rock are all closed due to a rockfall. All three of these hikes start at the same trailhead, the East Rim trailhead. These trails have been closed since August 2019 and there are no projected dates about when these trails will reopen.

There are two alternative routes to get to Observation Point. The shortest option is to hike the East Mesa Trail with a round trip distance of 7 miles. On this hike, you will start outside of the park and hike to Observation Point. You can also get to Observation Point on the East Rim Trail, starting near the East Entrance of Zion National Park. This hike is 20 miles long so it is a massive day hike. Learn more about hiking to Observation Point here.

If you have dreams of hiking to Hidden Canyon or Weeping Rock, you will have to wait until the hiking trail is repaired.

Even if you have no plans to hike these trails, the closures can still impact your visit. With fewer trails open, there are limited options for hikers to spread out in the park, increasing the crowds on the remaining trails. In 2019, before park visitation quieted down a little bit due to COVID-19, the crowd levels were record setting on Angels Landing, enough so that the trail had to temporarily shut down for safety reasons.

For updates on trail closures and the potential repair of the trail to Weeping Rock, Observation Point, and Hidden Canyon, visit the Zion National Park website.

Hidden Canyon Zion

The trail to Hidden Canyon

#2 Toxic Cyanobacteria Bloom in the Virgin River

Since the summer of 2020, toxic levels of Cyanobacteria have been detected in the Virgin River. This was first discovered when a dog died after drinking water from the river.

Cyanobacteria produce toxins that affect the nervous system, causing rash, numbness, pain, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea, and death. Children and dogs are the most susceptible. It can be absorbed through the skin, eyes, and mouth.

Currently, the Utah Department of Water Quality is monitoring the levels of Cyanobacteria in the Virgin River. You can get updates here.

As of May 2021, toxin levels have increased and a “Danger Advisory” has been issued for the Virgin River. According to the national park service website, all visitors are encouraged to avoid contact with the river.

In August 2020, the Zion Narrows did close for a short period of time due to high levels of Cyanobacteria.

If you have plans to hike the Zion Narrows, I recommend being aware of this situation and periodically checking the Water Quality website just so you do not have any unfortunate surprises.

Zion Narrows Hike

Zion Narrows

#3 You May Not Be Able to Hike the Narrows on Your Visit

When you hike the Narrows, you are hiking in the North Fork of the Virgin River through an immense slot canyon. During periods of high flow, the Narrows will close.

The National Park Service closes the Narrows when the flow rate of the North Fork of the Virgin River is over 150 cubic feet per second (cfs). During spring snowmelt, flow rates easily top out over 150 cfs.

The Narrows is usually closed from mid-March through mid-May. If you plan on hiking the Narrows, do not plan your visit to Zion National Park during this time.

The Narrows can also close during flash floods. This is most likely to occur during the summer months.

The higher the flow rate, the more difficult it will be to hike the Narrows, since water levels will be high. From May to December, water levels gradually decrease, so the later in the year you go, the easier the hiking conditions will be. There are some fluctuations due to rainfall and storms, but in general, this is the trend.

The late summer and early fall months are the best times to hike the Narrows. Flow rates are generally low and temperatures are pleasant. We hiked the Narrows at the end of October and it was a phenomenal time to be in the park.

Riverside Walk in October

Riverside Walk in October

#4 The Zion Shuttle

For most of the year (mid-March through November and during the winter holiday season of Christmas and New Years), the Zion Shuttle is in operation. During this time, private vehicles are not permitted to drive on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.

Park at the Visitor Center or take the Springdale Shuttle to the main entrance. The shuttle route starts at the Visitor Center and travels on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive until it ends at the Temple of Sinawava. If you are heading into the park to go hiking, make sure you know the correct shuttle stop for your hike.

Starting mid-morning, lines to board the Zion Shuttle can be very long. We are talking an hour wait or longer. To have the best experience, plan on being on one of the first two shuttles of the day. During peak season and holiday weekends, plan to get in line at least 30 minutes before the first shuttle. I know that’s early, but if you are planning to hike Angels Landing, you will have a much better experience going early, since you can hike the chain section without two-way traffic. It’s worth the early start!  

If you get to Zion and find that lines to board the shuttle are ridiculously long, there is still plenty to do in Zion without riding the shuttle. Read our article 11 Things to Do in Zion if You Don’t Want to Ride the Shuttle for more information.

When the shuttle is not in operation (December, January, and February) you are permitted drive along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Just be aware that parking is limited so it still helps to get an early start.

You are permitted to drive from the Visitor Center to the east entrance all year.

There is a second shuttle system, the Springdale Shuttle, that connects the hotels in Springdale with the main entrance of Zion.

Observation Point Zion

The view of Zion Canyon from Observation Point

#5 Crowd Control on Angels Landing

Angels Landing is the most popular hike in Zion National Park. Crowd levels were so high in 2019 that the national park service began brainstorming ideas on how to control the traffic on this trail. Then, the pandemic brought its own changes. During the summer of 2020, the chain section of the hike was closed, for social distancing. The farthest hikers were allowed to go was Scout Lookout.

So, what will happen in 2021? Most likely nothing, not with the recent implementation of the shuttle ticketing process. But, in future years, there is a chance that some sort of crowd control measures will be put into place for Angels Landing.

Angels Landing Chains

Angels Landing trail

In Conclusion

I’m not writing all of this to change your mind about visiting Zion. It is an awesome national park, but due to trail closures, crowd levels, and high bacteria levels in the Virgin River, this park is dealing with some very unique challenges right now. These are all things you need to be aware of before planning a visit here.

If it were me, I’d wait. I’d give it some time for the rockfall to be cleaned up and the trails repaired and for Cyanobacteria levels in the Virgin River to fall (hopefully). There are so many other national and state parks to explore.

Just up the road is Capitol Reef National Park, a highly underrated national park with surprisingly awesome hiking trails, unique backcountry experiences, with just a fraction of the visitors that Zion gets.

Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon are also very close to Zion. There are some super fun hiking trails in Grand Staircase-Escalante, or you can explore the Valley of Fire or Snow Canyon State Parks, which are just a short drive away from Zion.

We love Zion National Park and look forward to our next visit. But we’ll wait until the kinks are worked out. In the meantime, there is enough to do in the American Southwest to keep us busy for a very long time.

If you are planning a visit to Zion National Park and have any questions, let us know in the comment section below.

More Information About Zion National Park

For many more things to do in Utah, click here to read our Utah Travel Guide.

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Comments 11

  1. We are planning a Utah/Grand Canyon North Rim trip and your website has been so helpful! I was wondering about early morning parking at Zion. We have 7:00 am park shuttle tickets and had wanted to ride the Springdale shuttle from the stop near our condo so we would not need to deal with the parking at Zion. However, the Springdale shuttle does not run that early. Do you think we will have a parking issue arriving at the park before 7:00 am?

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      Before 7 am you should not have a problem. From what I have heard, the parking lot fills by 8 am, but I don’t know how accurate that is. If it were me, I’d probably park at 6:30, just to be on the safe side. But that’s great that you got early morning shuttle tickets…it’s almost like winning the lottery right now. Cheers, Julie

      1. Thanks for your thoughts. Maybe we’ll get there early and eat breakfast in the car. And I definitely feel like we won the lottery! The tickets went crazy fast. I was logged on and ordering right when they opened. The tickets were gone within minutes.

  2. I wish I’d seen this before taking a day of our trip to go. I did know about and get shuttle tickets but not that half the park is closed. Zion: 2 stars, do not recommend.

    1. It is a very frustrating place to visit, Debra. It is like Disneyworld. We were fortunate enough to run into a couple at the Grand Canyon North Rim that told us about the difficulty of getting tickets to the shuttle. We changed our plans to do Bryce the next day, instead and hit Zion the following day, since it was past 5PM which is when next day shuttle tickets go on sale. We then logged on at 5PM after we left Bryce and watched disappointed as the site to reserve couldn’t handle the volume. Miraculously, after almost 30 minutes of tickets disappearing and then being supplanted by more, we got the 4 we needed. For 11AM. Not ideal, but we were glad to get them.

      Also, not mentioned in this article is how slammed the parking lots get early. That was one thing I did know ahead of time, and we were renting an RV. I woke up in our lot in St George at 5:45AM and drove while everyone else slept so we could park in the RV lot before 7AM. After 8, Zion gets inundated with cars and RVs. People are greedy and frustrated and will park anywhere. The lot that was clearly marked RV only had dozens of cars trying to squeeze in with an RV or taking up RV spots alone. It was infuriating, but if you aren’t prepared and your shuttle ticket will expire, you do what you do.

      We hiked up to Scout’s Point and that was a workout. There were a ton of people. Angel’s Landing took an extra hour to get up just because of the amount of people on the trail. We skipped it. We also hiked the Riverside Walk. We only had one day, so no time for the Narrows, especially since we couldn’t start until 11.

      Zion was still insanely beautiful and I’m thrilled we were able to make it in. The pictures I took just don’t look real. It is worth the trip, but it is a zoo and a royal pain in the arse to deal with. I just feel for those who don’t know every specific of what you need to do to get in and enjoy it. It is very frustrating…

  3. Hello Julie, I am Angel, from Spain, I sent you a message in your Grand Canyon section… I wanted to do Angel Landings hike in this summer’s same trip (the hike whose name is like mine), but now I am a bit disappointed, may be it will be more difficult to me to get a shuttle ticket.
    I have been twice in Zion before and I didn’t get to do that hike, and I wanted to do it this time 🙁

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      Hello Angel. I remember you. 😊 Getting a shuttle ticket will be very important if you want to hike Angels Landing. Mark your calendar for when shuttle tickets become available so you don’t miss your chance. And do your best to be on one of the first shuttles of the day. It would be a shame to come all of the way from Spain and miss out on doing a hike that has your name in it. 😊 Plus, it’s an incredible hike. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed for you! Cheers, Julie

  4. Great post! The hike to Emerald Pools was my favorite. Just wanted to add that there’s a museum close to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, which is worth a visit. It’s closed in the winter months though.

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  5. Thank you for all this info. I’m taking my chances and going Mid-February. I know I most likely won’t be able to do the Narrows overnight. But that’s ok, because that will allow for more time at Bryce.

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