By Michael Lanza
At a bit over 148,000 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 over the past three decades, including formerly as a field editor for Backpacker magazine for about 10 years and even longer running this blog.
You will also find in this story my insider tips on how to avoid the crowds when hiking in what is one of the most-visited national parks. 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.
The park’s free shuttle buses operate regularly between the visitor center, just inside the south entrance, to the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive—which is usually closed to private vehicles—for most of the year. See the park’s Information Guide at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/publications.htm. The visitor center parking lot fills early in the day. The Springdale town shuttle connects to the park’s shuttles and there is public parking in Springdale, shown on this map. It’s often easiest to take the town shuttle to stop number one, just outside the park entrance, and use the pedestrian entrance and footbridge over the Virgin River, walking just minutes to the visitor center.
Trails and roads in Zion are occasionally closed due to rockfall, construction, or other reasons. Check current conditions at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/conditions.htm.
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. I try to respond to all comments.
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.
Due to the hike’s enormous popularity, Zion National Park launched on April 1, 2022, a permit system for dayhiking Angels Landing. A seasonal lottery held four times per year at recreation.gov/permits/4675310 makes permits available for three-month periods throughout the year. Key lottery dates for Zion’s two peak hiking seasons are Jan. 1-20 for hiking permits from March 1 through May 31 and July 1-20 for hiking dates Sept. 1 through Nov. 30. A separate lottery for dayhiking permits is held daily at recreation.gov/permits/4675310; apply for one before 3 p.m. the day before you want to hike it. The permit is only required for hiking the spur trail up Angels Landing; anyone can hike as far as Scout Lookout without a permit. Find out more at nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/angels-landing-hiking-permits.htm.
See my story “Hiking Angels Landing: What You Need to Know.”
Gear up right for hiking in Zion.
See the best hiking shoes and “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
8 miles round-trip, 2,148 vertical feet up and down
Trailhead: Weeping Rock (shuttle bus stop no. 7)
Alternate route: about 7 miles round-trip, 800 feet up and down
Trailhead: East Mesa Trail
Unfortunately, two of the best hikes in Zion Canyon, the Observation Point Trail and Hidden Canyon (below, which can be combined), have been closed since a major rockfall in 2019, with no indications of reopening. The usual access, the East Rim Trail at Weeping Rock in Zion Canyon, is closed, barring access from there to Observation Point and to the Hidden Canyon Trail, as is Weeping Rock shuttle stop no. 7 in Zion Canyon.
Fortunately, there is an alternative route to Observation Point from the East Mesa Trailhead, at about 6,500 feet outside the park. To reach that trailhead, from the park’s East Entrance, drive 2.5 miles east on UT 9 and turn left onto North Fork County Road; follow it for 5.4 miles and turn left/west onto Twin Knoll/Pine Angle Road. Continue straight past the left turn onto Buck Road, then swing right/north onto Beaver Road, which could get rough before reaching the East Mesa Trailhead. The dirt roads on the East Mesa are passable for most cars when dry and can become impassable even for four-wheel-drive vehicles when wet; but the road to East Mesa Trailhead may require 4WD.
The East Mesa Trail leads west and southwest across the high, ponderosa pine-forested plateau, which lacks the constant, magnificent scenery of the East Rim Trail from Zion Canyon to Observation Point; but it may offer more solitude and does get much more interesting after it passes the head of Mystery Canyon (don’t wander down into that technical canyon) some two miles from the trailhead. At the junction of the East Mesa and East Rim trails, about 3.1 miles from the East Mesa Trailhead, turn right/west and follow that trail, with little uphill, to where it ends at Observation Point, high above Zion Canyon and distinctive Angels Landing below and across the canyon.
Hiking to Observation Point from the Weeping Rock Trailhead, the stunning views begin minutes after you start out 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.
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).
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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 one-day permit for this classic hike. Don’t enter the Subway with rain in the forecast.
Explore the best of the Southwest. See “The 12 Best Hikes in Utah’s National Parks”
“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.
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.)
See my feature story “Luck of the Draw, Part 2: Backpacking Zion’s Narrows,” about a top-to-bottom, overnight trip down it.
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)
Note: Hidden Canyon has been closed since a major rockfall in 2019, with no indications of reopening.
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 section traversing 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.
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West Rim Trail
16.6 miles (top to bottom), about 800 vertical feet up and 3,600 feet down, or shorter variations
Trailheads: bottom end is the Grotto (shuttle bus stop no. 6), top end is the West Rim Trailhead near Lava Point
I’ve met longtime locals who call this their favorite trail in all of Zion, and it’s easy to see why. Stretching nearly 17 miles from near Lava Point off the Kolob Terrace Road to the Grotto in Zion Canyon, the West Rim Trail traverses a high plateau dividing the almost impenetrable labyrinth of canyons and mesas on its west side from the Narrows and Zion Canyon to the east and southeast. Some of the best backcountry viewpoints in the park are along this footpath.
It can be dayhiked or backpacked in either direction—though it’s mostly downhill going from top to bottom—or dayhiked out-and-back from the Grotto for as far as you’d like to go. The most scenic stretch of the West Rim Trail lies between Refrigerator Canyon (below Walter’s Wiggles and the spur trail to Angels Landing) and the upper junction with the Telephone Canyon Trail (just south of Potato Hollow). So you can see all of that on an out-and-back dayhike from the Grotto that’s the same distance as hiking the West Rim Trail from top to bottom, without requiring a shuttle—but of course, requiring you to hike up and down about 3,000 vertical feet.
Plan your next great backpacking trip in Zion, Yosemite, and other parks using my e-guides.
The three springs along the West Rim Trail— Beatty, Sawmill, and Cabin springs—are usually reliable, though they recharge slowly at times. Reach the upper West Rim Trailhead by driving 25 miles up Kolob Terrace Road, then turning onto the road to Lava Point and the West Rim Trailhead and continuing about two miles. That road get rough for standard cars in wet conditions, but you can start at Lava Point and hike down the road. Shuttle services are available in Springdale. Kolob Terrace Road is rendered impassable by snow in winter.
See my feature stories about backpacking in the Kolob Canyons and on the West Rim Trail with my family and a 50-mile dayhike across Zion from the Kolob Canyons to Zion Canyon and the East Rim Trailhead.
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.
See all of my stories about Zion at The Big Outside, or scroll down to Zion on my All National Park Trips page. Planning to combine Zion and Bryce in one trip? See “The Best Hike in Bryce Canyon National Park.”