A Guide to Zion National Park (with a Toddler!)

After an epic weekend trip to Rocky Mountain National Park in September, we decided to use our time off work between Christmas and New Year’s to check off another national park that had been at the top of our wish lists for quite a while: Zion National Park in Utah. Pictures of the iconic red rocks had been tempting us for years, and with international travel mostly off the table, we figured it was a great time to explore more of the diverse nation we call home.

Because we were squeezing our trip into a short time span between holidays (and because accommodations near the park are so dang expensive), we ended up having just two full days in the park. But we found that two days was enough to experience the park’s unique natural beauty without getting too worn out from hiking with a toddler!

Here is a rundown of our weekend in Zion National Park.

How to Get to Zion National Park

Even though Zion National Park is located in southern Utah, the best airport to fly into is McCarran International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas. It’s the closest major airport, and it’s usually pretty easy to find reasonably priced tickets to Las Vegas from most US cities.

From Las Vegas, we recommend renting a car and making the scenic 2.5 to 3-hour drive to Zion. If you’re traveling in winter, try to get a vehicle that has 4-wheel drive in order to stay safe on some of the icy roads located higher up in the park. (Our vehicle didn’t have 4-wheel drive, but I wish it had.)

Drive Through Valley of Fire State Park  

Located conveniently between Las Vegas and Zion National Park is Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. The 40,000 acres of vibrant red-rock desert landscape is something you won’t want to miss (and it’s well worth the $10 entry fee).

While it’s possible to get a feel for the park simply by driving through it, we recommend stopping for at least one hike. We did the Rainbow Vista hike, which is a little more than a mile long with 95ft of elevation gain. The views were stunning, and Claire was able to do most of it on her own with the exception of the more treacherous parts at the lookout. If you’re traveling with a baby or toddler, bringing a baby carrier or hiking backpack is invaluable (we forgot to grab ours when we headed to the airport and regretted it all weekend!).

After completing the hike (which took us about an hour, even with a toddler who was determined to stop to look at every single rock along the way), we continued the drive to our accommodations near Zion National Park.

Where to Stay When Visiting Zion National Park

Camping. If you want to stay directly in the park for the easiest access, you have the option of three campgrounds, two of which are in the Zion Canyon portion of the park: South Campground and Watchman Campground. Campsites are limited and fill up quickly, so make reservations online well in advance of your trip.

Springdale. The closest town to Zion National park is Springdale, which is about a 5-minute drive from the main south entrance of Zion National Park. It is home to a wide array of hotels and apartment rentals and is the most convenient location if you wish to stay outside the park.

Hurricane. A little bit further away (about 35 minutes from the park entrance), Hurricane is another small town with some accommodation options. We stayed in an apartment rental in Hurricane, because it was a lot cheaper than the family-friendly accommodations closer to the park (also, it had cute sheep, so there’s that). Though it was a bit longer of a drive to and from the park, we didn’t find the location to be terribly inconvenient, especially since we only made the drive once per day.

Tickets for Zion National Park 

The entry fee for Zion National Park is $35 per vehicle for 7 days. Discounts are available for seniors, visitors with disabilities, and active military members. Tickets can be purchased at the park entrance (both cash and credit cards are accepted).

Zion National Park Shuttle

Something that is different about Zion National Park than any other national park we’ve visited is that for large parts of the year, much of the park is only accessible via the park’s shuttle system. Shuttle tickets cost $1 per person (in addition to the park entry fee) and must be purchased online in advance. Find more info here.

That said, some areas of the park are accessible to personal vehicles year round. We chose to skip the shuttle and instead to stick to unrestricted sections of the park. We made our decision primarily because we were traveling with a toddler during a pandemic and weren’t too interested in getting into a shuttle with other people, because Claire napped on and off during the day and we didn’t want to be tied down to a shuttle schedule, and because it was very cold when we visited, and we didn’t want to wait outside at shuttle stops!

The downside to skipping the shuttle was that we were very limited on the hikes we could access. Because the shuttle ticket is so cheap, it may have been better to make a reservation just for added flexibility.

What to Do in Zion National Park (without the Shuttle)

The most popular activity in Zion National Park is hiking, but it is also possible to enjoy the parks natural beauty on a scenic drive or picnic. We did all three. These are some of the hikes we did with a toddler (and without shuttle tickets).

Pa’rus Trail (3.5 miles; 50ft elevation). An easy hike along a paved path with only 50ft of elevation gain, the Pa’rus Trail is a great option for families with young children in strollers or visitors in wheelchairs. It is also a good option for dog owners (as long as the dog stays on a leash).

We didn’t end up doing the whole trail, because we got rained out. But Claire was able to do a lot of it on her own, and she especially liked seeing all the cute dogs we passed along the way!

Canyon Overlook Trail (1 mile; 163ft elevation). Though fairly short, the Canyon Overlook Trail is certainly more challenging than the Pa’rus Trail. But the views from the top are absolutely incredible, and it is still a feasible option for families. Older children could likely handle the hike with little assistance. But there are several steep drop-offs along the trail, and some portions with uneasy footing. So for toddlers, we recommend bringing a carrier or keeping a firm grasp on their hand at all times. Sam ended up carrying Claire for most of the hike.

There are restrooms at the trailhead, but parking is extremely limited. Be prepared to park quite a ways away unless you arrive first thing in the morning.

Timber Creek Overlook Trail (1.1 mile; 255 ft elevation). Another good hiking option for families is the Timber Creek Overlook Trail with nice views of Zion. This trail is in Kolob Canyon (as opposed to Zion Canyon where most of the popular hikes are located) in the northwest of Zion National Park.

We enjoyed visiting Kolob Canyon, because it had only a fraction of the traffic of the much more popular Zion Canyon. Plus, we were able to see it blanketed in snow, which was lovely! Just be aware that, if you’re traveling in winter, the roads may close during inclement weather.

Eating in Zion National Park

Restaurants

Dining options are pretty limited within the park. The Red Rock Grill, located in the Zion National Park Lodge, is a full-service restaurant open for breakfast lunch and dinner. A reservation is required for dinner. The Castle Dome Café, adjacent to the Zion National Park Lodge, is a seasonal snack stand with patio seating. For more restaurant options, leave the park and head to nearby Springdale.

Picnic

Instead of trying to find a restaurant, we packed a picnic lunch and ate it at one of the picnic tables at the Pa’rus trailhead. The views were lovelier than any restaurant we’ve ever seen! An added bonus was that we didn’t have to worry about keeping our toddler from being too noisy and annoying everybody else in an enclosed space—situations we try to avoid at this stage of life! (The only downside to this option is that one of the days was cold and rainy, so we ended up having to eat our lunch in our rental car. So be sure to check the weather forecast.).

When to Visit Zion National Park 

For the fewest crowds, visit between October and March. We went in December and didn’t have a difficult time avoiding crowds in most places. But even in the off season finding parking at some of the trailheads is challenging. The other downside to visiting during the off season (especially December-February) is that snow and ice can limit the number of trails that are open and bad weather conditions may close large swaths of the park altogether.

For sunny and warm weather, visit in spring or summer. But bear in mind that temperatures soar in July and August and campgrounds may be booked out well in advance.

No matter which season you choose, Zion National park is well worth a visit.

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A Guide to Visiting ZIon National Park

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