The best way to experience Zion Canyon is to walk beneath, between and, if you can bear it (and have good balance!), along its towering cliffs. Trails vary, from paved and flat river strolls to precarious cliffside scrambles. Whether you're heading out for a day of rock hopping or an hour of meandering, plan on packing and consuming plenty of drinking water throughout your hike to counteract the effects of a high-altitude workout in the arid climate.
Keeping the sun at bay is a real challenge at Zion National Park (though less so by mid-afternoon in the canyon, shielded by steep walls). Put on sunscreen before you set out, and reapply at regular intervals. Because the park's hikes usually include uneven surfaces and elevation changes, wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots. A lot of veteran hikers carry good walking sticks, too, as they're invaluable along trails that ford or follow the Virgin River or its tributaries.
Zion is one of the most popular parks in the country, so it can be hard to envision just how alone you'll be on some of the less traveled trails. If you want to do a backcountry hike, make a reservation and let park rangers know where you’re going and when you plan to be back.
Park rangers warn hikers to remain on alert for flash floods; these walls of water can appear out of nowhere, even when the sky above you is clear.
Emerald Pools Trail. Multiple waterfalls cascade (or drip, in dry weather) into algae-filled pools along this trail, about 3 miles north of Canyon Junction. The path leading to the lower pool is paved and appropriate for strollers and wheelchairs. If you've got any energy left, keep going past the lower pool. The quarter-mile from there to the middle pool gets rocky and steep but offers increasingly scenic views. A less crowded and exceptionally enjoyable return route follows the Kayenta Trail connecting on to the Grotto Trail. Allow 50 minutes for the 1¼-mile round-trip hike to the lower pool, and 2½ hours round-trip to the middle (2 miles) and upper pools (3 miles). Easy. Trailhead at Zion Canyon Scenic Dr., Zion National Park, UT, 84767.
Grotto Trail. This flat trail takes you from Zion Lodge, about 3 miles north of Canyon Junction, to the Grotto picnic area, traveling for the most part along the park road. Allow 20 minutes or less for the walk along the half-mile trail. If you are up for a longer hike, and have two to three hours, connect with the Kayenta Trail after you cross the footbridge, and head for the Emerald Pools. You will begin gaining elevation, and it's a steady, steep climb to the pools, which you will begin to see after about 1 mile. Easy. Trailhead at Zion Canyon Scenic Dr., Zion National Park, UT, 84767.
Pa'rus Trail. This 2-mile, relatively flat walking and biking path parallels and occasionally crosses the Virgin River, starting at South Campground, ½ mile north of south entrance, and proceeding north along the river to the beginning of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. It's paved and gives you great views of the Watchman, the Sentinel, the East and West temples, and Towers of the Virgin. Dogs are allowed on this trail as long as they are leashed. Easy. Trailhead at Canyon Junction, Zion National Park, UT, 84767.
Riverside Walk. Beginning at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop at the end of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, 6½ miles north of Canyon Junction, this 1-mile round-trip shadows the Virgin River, and in spring wildflowers bloom on the opposite canyon wall in lovely hanging gardens. This is the park's most trekked trail, so be prepared for crowds at high season; it is paved and suitable for strollers and wheelchairs. A round-trip takes one to two hours. At the end of the trail, the Narrows Trail begins. Easy. Trailhead at Zion Canyon Scenic Dr., Zion National Park, UT, 84767.
Canyon Overlook Trail. The parking area just east of Zion–Mount Carmel tunnel leads to this popular 1-mile, one-hour trail. The overlook at the trail's end gives views of the West and East temples, Towers of the Virgin, the Streaked Wall, and other Zion Canyon cliffs and peaks. The elevation change is 160 feet. Moderate. Trailhead at Hwy. 9, Zion National Park, UT, 84767.
Hidden Canyon Trail. This steep, 2-mile round-trip hike, starting 3¼ miles north of Canyon Junction, takes you up 850 feet in elevation. Not too crowded, the trail is paved all the way to Hidden Canyon. Allow about three hours for the round-trip hike. Moderate. Trailhead at Zion Canyon Scenic Dr., Zion National Park, UT, 84767.
Taylor Creek Trail. In the Kolob Canyons area of the park, about 1½ miles east of visitor center, this trail immediately descends parallel to Taylor Creek, sometimes crossing it, sometimes shortcutting benches beside it. The historic Larsen Cabin precedes the entrance to the canyon of the Middle Fork, where the trail becomes rougher. After the old Fife Cabin, the canyon bends right into Double Arch Alcove, a large, colorful grotto with a high blind arch (or arch "embryo") towering above. To Double Arch it's 2¾ miles one way—about a four-hour round-trip. The elevation change on this trail is 440 feet. Moderate. Trailhead at Kolob Canyons Rd., Zion National Park, UT, 84767.
Watchman Trail. For a view of Springdale and a look at lower Zion Creek Canyon and the Towers of the Virgin, this strenuous hike begins on a service road east of Watchman Campground. Some springs seep out of the sandstone to nourish hanging gardens and attract wildlife here. There are a few sheer cliff edges, so supervise children carefully. Plan on two hours for the 3-mile hike with a 380-foot elevation change. Moderate. Trailhead at main visitor center, Zion National Park, UT, 84767.
Angels Landing Trail. As much a trial as a trail, this hike beneath the Great White Throne is one of the most challenging in the park. Leave your acrophobia at home as you work your way through Walter's Wiggles, a series of 21 switchbacks built out of sandstone blocks. From here you traverse sheer cliffs with chains bolted into the rock face to serve as handrails in some (but not all!) places. In spite of its hair-raising nature, this trail is popular. Allow 2½ hours round-trip if you stop at Scout's Lookout (2 miles), and four hours if you keep going to where the angels (and birds of prey) play. The trail is 5 miles round-trip and is not appropriate for children. Difficult. Trailhead at Zion Canyon Scenic Dr., about 4½ miles north of Canyon Junction, Zion National Park, UT, 84767.
Narrows Trail. After leaving the paved ease of the Gateway to the Narrows trail behind, the real fun begins. Rather than following a trail or path, you walk on the riverbed itself. In places you'll find a pebbly shingle or dry sandbar path, but when the walls of the canyon close in you'll be forced into the chilly waters of the Virgin River, walking against the current (tack back and forth, don't fight it head-on). The hike is a stunning and unique nature experience, but it's no picnic. A walking stick and shoes with good tread and ankle support are highly recommended and will make hiking the riverbed much more enjoyable. Be prepared to swim, as chest-deep holes may occur even when water levels are low. Like any narrow desert canyon, this one is famous for sudden flash flooding, even when skies are clear. Before hiking into the Narrows, check with park rangers about the likelihood of flash floods. A day trip up the lower section of the Narrows is 6 miles one-way to the turnaround point. Allow at least five hours round-trip. Difficult. Trailhead at end of Riverside Walk, Zion National Park, UT, 84767.