By Michael Lanza
At a bit over 147,000 acres, Zion comes nowhere near America’s largest national parks in sheer immensity. Zion could fit inside Yosemite National Park five times, inside the Everglades 10 times, inside Yellowstone 15 times, and inside our largest park, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias, 89 times. But if you’re a hiker, Zion harbors, mile for mile, some of the most breathtaking scenery to be found on any trails in the National Park System.
This story will point you to Zion’s 10 best dayhikes (based on my personal experience of many visits there), and it includes my “How to Avoid the Crowds When Hiking in Zion” insider tips on how to have a much more pleasant experience when hiking in what has become the third most-visited national park (after Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon). Follow those tips and you will discover an entirely different experience when you’re not sharing the trails with hundreds of other hikers—as are often seen on hikes like Angels Landing and the lower Narrows from spring through fall.
I’d love to hear what you think of these hikes or any suggestions for your favorite hikes in Zion, as well as your thoughts on my tips for avoiding what can be huge crowds on the most popular hikes. Share them—and read others—in the comments section at the bottom of this story.
5 miles round-trip, 1,488 vertical feet up and down
Trailhead: The Grotto (shuttle bus stop no. 6)
You know Angels Landing belongs on any list of the best hikes in Zion—not to mention the best hikes in Utah’s national parks, or the best hikes in the entire National Park System. The five-mile, nearly 1,500-foot round-trip hike reaches its apex in one of the most thrilling half-mile stretches of trail in America. The “trail” follows a knife-edge spine of rock, with chain handrails and steps chiseled out of sandstone in spots. At the summit of this famous pinnacle, you can do a slow spin and see all of Zion Canyon—and its elevation 1,500 feet above the canyon bottom but still hundreds of feet below the canyon rims gives you a unique panorama of one of America’s prettiest natural wonders.
From the Grotto, the West Rim Trail ascends steep switchbacks that get morning sun and can be hot early, to Refrigerator Canyon—often shady and cool—and then the tight switchbacks of Walter’s Wiggles. At Scout Lookout, where the West Rim Trail continues upward, follow the 0.4-mile spur trail up the very exposed crest of Angels Landing to its summit, with fixed chains and steps chopped out of the rock in places. While the ridge offers only a few wider spots (where hikers can safely pass one another), the broader summit area has plenty of space to sit and enjoy one of the park’s best 360-degree panoramas.
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If you have the time and energy, continue up the West Rim Trail into an area of towering beehives, multi-colored cliffs, and increasingly dramatic views of Zion Canyon—spectacular scenery however far you go. (See West Rim Trail description below.)
Angels has a well-deserved reputation as thrilling and scary for its exposure. For anyone who has a fear of heights, it can be terrifying. But hikers accustomed to a little exposure will likely find nothing more difficult than a few sections of short, moderately challenging scrambling. Young kids with the stamina for it, and who will follow instructions, are safe as long as you shadow them closely through exposed sections.
Scroll down to my insider tips for the smartest strategy for avoiding the crowds on Angels Landing and the West Rim Trail.
See my story “Great Hike: Angels Landing, Zion National Park.”
8 miles round-trip, 2,148 vertical feet up and down
Trailhead: Weeping Rock (shuttle bus stop no. 7)
The stunning views begin minutes after you start hiking from the Weeping Rock Trailhead, and keep getting better all the way to Observation Point, where you stand at the brink of sheer cliffs more than 2,000 feet above Zion Canyon. In fact, it’s arguably prettier and more varied than Angels Landing. It’s also a longer and harder hike than Angels at eight miles and more than 2,100 vertical feet round-trip, but on a good trail that’s mostly solid rock or paved.
Gear up right for hikes in Zion. See my reviews of the best hiking shoes and the 8 best daypacks.
There are three distinctly different sections of the hike to Observation Point—all beautiful. The lower stretch zigzags up through a natural bowl in the cliffs above Weeping Rock (which you’ll get a view of below you), gaining elevation and more-expansive views rapidly with each switchback. The middle section enters the often-shady narrows of Echo Canyon, where a stream spawns greenery and pools of water reflect soaring red and white walls; watch for bighorn sheep at less-busy times of day. The upper section of trail breaks out into the sunshine while ascending switchbacks overlooking the dramatic geology of Echo Canyon (lead photo at top of story), then makes a high, airy traverse above Zion Canyon to Observation Point.
Fit hikers can easily combine this with the half-mile-long spur trail off it to Hidden Canyon; plan at least an hour round-trip for the latter, especially if you want to explore beyond the mouth of Hidden Canyon (see below).
9.5 miles, about 2,000 vertical feet downhill and 400 feet uphill
Trailheads: Upper end at Wildcat Canyon Trailhead, 15.5 miles up Kolob Terrace Road; lower end at Left Fork Trailhead, 8.2 miles up Kolob Terrace Road.
Zion’s most-famous, technical slot canyon, the Subway takes its name from a bend where flash floods have bored a colorful, round passage that resembles a subway tunnel. But it’s so much more than that one, oft-photographed spot. Descending it 9.5 miles from top to bottom—which requires only beginner-level canyoneering skills and a popular, one-day permit that’s difficult to get—takes you through a canyon at times wider than a soccer pitch, with trees growing in the shade of walls hundreds of feet tall, which narrows to a slot barely more than shoulder-width across. Like Angels Landing, the Narrows, and arguably Observation Point, the Subway is considered by some to be one of the most scenic and certainly most adventurous one-day outings in the National Park System.
Also known as the Left Fork of North Creek, the top-to-bottom descent (from the Wildcat Canyon Trailhead to the Left Fork Trailhead) has long sections that do not follow a maintained trail. After following the Wildcat Canyon Trail and turning south onto the Northgate Peaks Trail, watch for a small sign indicating the start of the Subway route. Marked by occasional cairns, it still requires route-finding to descend Russell Gulch, which becomes quite steep and loose near its bottom. Once in the Left Fork Canyon, you will clamber over giant boulders in a twisting canyon of wildly sculpted, kaleidoscopic walls, wade or swim a few deep, frigid pools (bring a dry suit, which can be rented in Springdale), and make three rappels (the longest of them 30 feet, the other two much shorter).
It can also be dayhiked partway from the bottom up, a strenuous more than six miles out-and-back from the Left Fork Trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road, getting as far as the famous subway tunnel before you have to turn around at the base of cliffs. The bottom-up hike features rugged terrain and a creek crossing in each direction. But that’s a very different experience because you see much less of the canyon’s best sections—and you encounter a lot more people. It also requires a one-day permit. If you have the skills for it, do this hike from top to bottom.
See my story “Luck of the Draw, Part 1: Hiking Zion’s Subway,” for many photos and details on how to get a popular permit and do this classic hike. Don’t enter the Subway with rain in the forecast.
Explore the best of the Southwest. See “The 10 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks” and “The 10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”
The Riverside Walk and The Narrows
2.2 to 10 miles round-trip, nearly flat
Trailhead: Temple of Sinawava (shuttle bus stop no. 9)
One of the most magnificent and unique hikes in the national parks, the Narrows begins at the upper end of Zion Canyon, where the North Fork of the Virgin River has, over eons, carved out a canyon with sheer walls that tower up to a thousand feet overhead and, at times, squeeze so closely together that they turn daylight to dusk. Hiking much of the time in the river, you will find yourself craning your neck up at a canyon that changes with every bend. Springs create waterfalls pouring from rock walls, nurturing hanging gardens in the desert.
The hike begins on the flat, wheelchair-accessible, 1.1-mile (one-way) Riverside Trail, itself a fine, very easy hike, paralleling the river beneath red cliffs and shady cottonwood trees whose leaves turn golden in fall. At the end of that trail, you enter the river and follow it upstream, turning back anytime; it’s usually easy to avoid any sections of deeper, slightly faster current. At Orderville Canyon, a narrow tributary about 2.5 miles from the trailhead (on the right when walking upstream), you enter the deepest and darkest portion of the Narrows, the roughly two-mile-long stretch known as Wall Street, where the river often spans the canyon wall to wall. Wall Street ends just before Big Spring, roughly five miles up the Narrows, beyond which hiking is prohibited without a backcountry permit.
See my feature story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows,” about a top-to-bottom, overnight trip down it.
Enormously popular, the lower Narrows teems with hundreds and sometimes thousands of dayhikers on hot days of late spring and summer, when the river is low and warmer. Scroll down to my insider tips for avoiding crowds when hiking in Zion; it includes two tips specific to the Narrows.
You are often walking directly in the river, which is typically ankle- to calf-deep, occasionally up to thigh- or waist-deep, frequently with slippery cobblestones underfoot. That will slow your hiking pace more than expected for a flat hike. Use poles or a walking stick. The water is cold in spring and fall, and there’s little direct sunlight in the Narrows, where the temperature can be about 10 degrees cooler than in Zion Canyon; plus, the wind frequently blows down canyon, making it feel colder. Bring multiple clothing layers—especially if hiking in early morning in spring or fall—and if you don’t own canyoneering boots, neoprene socks, and dry pants, rent them in Springdale. (One rental place is located in the parking lot right across the footbridge leading into the park.) Don’t hike the Narrows with rain in the forecast.
Carry all of the drinking water you’ll need for the Narrows; the river is often murky. You can also refill water at Big Spring if you get that far; you may want to treat it, although I often drink spring water untreated when captured right at its source. (See my favorite water-filter bottles and other water treatment in my review of essential backpacking gear accessories.)
Click here now to get my expert e-guide to Backpacking Zion’s Narrows.
2.2 miles round-trip, 1,000 vertical feet up and down
Trailhead: Weeping Rock (shuttle bus stop no. 7)
In a place with crazy, mind-boggling scenery around every corner, the 2.5-mile round-trip hike to Hidden Canyon is arguably the most beautiful hike under three miles in the park. Beginning from the same trailhead as the Observation Point hike, the trail to Hidden Canyon diverges to the right less than a mile up. It ascends switchbacks and traverses the canyon wall, including a short section chiseled from the cliff face that’s wide and safe but exposed.
It’s quite scenic all the way to the mouth of Hidden Canyon, where the trail officially ends. If you’re up for a little scrambling, continue beyond the mouth of Hidden Canyon into the slot canyon, where tight walls rise high overhead; I’ve seen an owl napping in a small tree in this slot canyon. Before long, you’ll reach a sign marking the turnaround point.
See below my tips on avoiding the crowds while hiking in Zion, which include a specific plan for combining Hidden Canyon with two of the other best hikes in Zion Canyon in a single, big dayhike.
Read all of this story, including my tips on planning this trip, and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!
Insider Tips: Avoiding the Crowds When Hiking in Zion
The famous hikes in Zion Canyon—like Angels Landing, the Riverside Walk and lower Narrows, and Emerald Pools—can offer experiences that border on magical, especially when there are few other people around. But while the scenery isn’t diminished by walking in a conga line of other hikers, and repeatedly waiting out traffic jams on narrow routes like the upper sections of Angels Landing, the crowds do extinguish some of the magic. Follow these tips to enjoy some of these hikes almost—or maybe, if you get lucky, entirely—to yourself.
A Final Tip
One of the nicest and easiest ways to see Zion Canyon is by bicycle—which is not only scenic, but quiet and virtually traffic-free when the shuttle buses operate and private vehicles are prohibited, from March through November. Either pedal up and back down the road, or put your bikes on a shuttle bus, take it up to the end of the road at the Temple of Sinawava, and pedal the 6.2 miles down the road to Canyon Junction or roughly eight miles back to Springdale. In late afternoon, you’ll have more shade (in spring and fall) and there’s no wait to get on a bus because most people are coming out of the park rather than going in.
There are more dayhikes in Zion that could be on this list—not to mention backpacking trips and canyoneering adventures. Consider these 10 hikes a great starter list for a park you’ll want to explore further.
Tell me what you think.