Perfect One Day In Zion National Park: How To See The Best

Zion National Park is incredible, and you’ll need more than one day to appreciate it fully. However, if you’ve only got one day in Zion National Park, we’re here to help you make the most of your time and experience the best of the best. 

I grew up in Utah and have been to this park many times, including hiking Angel’s Landing four times. The following suggestions combine my favorite experiences from our years of visiting. 

Getting to Zion National Park

Zion National Park is located in southern Utah, about an hour east of Saint George. Most visitors fly into the Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas (3 hours away) or the Salt Lake City International Airport (4 hours and 40 minutes away).

Saint George does have a regional airport that is serviced by Delta, American, United, and Allegiant, but it only connects to Salt Lake City, Denver, and Phoenix, and there are far fewer car rental options.  Because of this, most visitors flying in from out of state choose one of the bigger international airports. 

Where to Stay Near Zion

There are lots of options for where to stay when visiting Zion National Park, and we’ll briefly go through the pros and cons of each.

Inside the Park

The only lodge/hotel actually inside the park itself is the Zion National Park Lodge, which must be reserved well in advance (six months or more). The Zion Lodge has the advantage of putting you right inside the park, so you won’t need to worry about making an early morning drive to find parking. The big downside of the Lodge is that these rooms are quite expensive. 

Springdale, Utah

The small town of Springdale is a fantastic place to stay during your trip to Zion. It’s only a few miles from the main Visitor Center entrance, and there are plenty of hotel options. 

A few favorites are the Driftwood Lodge, Best Western Plus, and the Holiday Inn Express Springdale. Although much cheaper than the Zion National Park Lodge, these hotels can still be quite pricey. 

Nearby Towns (Toquerville, Hurricane, Washington)

This is hands-down our favorite option, as the lodging is much less expensive.  You can find a good Airbnb for $50-$60 a night instead of paying $200-$300 per night for lodging in Springdale.  The downside, of course, is that you’ll have to drive a little farther to get to the park entrance.  

However, we’ve found that the extra 30-50 minutes of drive time (depending on the town you choose) is well worth the hundreds of dollars saved.  

picture of a street and neighborhood in Washington, Utah, one of the best places to stay with one day in Zion National Park.
We stayed in an awesome condo in Washington, Utah, on our most recent visit to Zion

National Park Entrance Fee

In order to enter Zion National Park, you will need to have one of the following passes:

  • Standard Pass
  • Annual Zion Pass
  • America the Beautiful Pass

Standard Pass

This pass is the best option if you plan to visit Zion National Park only once during the year and do not plan to visit any other parks. The pass costs $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, or $20 per person on foot and can be purchased at the gate. It is valid for seven consecutive days from the date of purchase. 

Annual Pass

This is the best option if you plan on visiting Zion National Park multiple times during the year and are NOT planning on visiting other national parks. This pass can also be purchased at the gate for $70 and admits the pass holder and all passengers in a non-commercial vehicle. 

Personally, we think that if you are considering buying the annual pass, you might as well pay $10 more and just get the America the Beautiful Pass, which we’ll discuss next. 

America The Beautiful Pass

We think this pass is by far the best deal and is well worth your money if you plan on visiting multiple national parks within the same year. The pass is $80 and covers the entrance fee of one vehicle or four people (depending on the park).  

This pass is valid for all lands managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, and more.  And, if you are an active military member or dependent, a senior, have a child in 4th grade, or have a disability, you can get this pass free or discounted.  Because we are a military family, this pass is a fantastic deal for us. 

Important Notes About Entrance Passes

According to the NPS website, you do not need to display your pass in your car window. However, you must remember that if you leave the park and then decide to re-enter, you will need to have your pass with you (even if you re-enter on foot after taking the Springdale shuttle). 

All passes are non-transferable, and park rangers will often check ID, especially with the America the Beautiful Pass.   

Parking in Zion National Park

There is a large parking lot at the main visitor center, where you will park if entering by private vehicle. However, you’ll want to keep in mind that this parking lot fills up FAST (often full by 8 or 9 in the morning), especially during the peak summer months. 

If you don’t want to wake up early to secure a parking spot, or you arrive and the parking lot is already full, the other option is to take the free shuttle that runs from Springdale to Visitor Center.  

This shuttle system begins at the Majestic View Lodge in Springdale and stops at seven other hotels/inns before reaching the Zion Canyon Village.  The first shuttle leaves at 7 am during the peak season of May 19-Sept 15th and at 8 am during the rest of the year. 

list of the Springdale shuttle stops on the way to Zion National Park.
Image Credit:

How to Get Around Inside Zion National Park

Starting in May of 2000, Zion implemented a free shuttle service within Zion Canyon in an effort to reduce vehicle congestion within the canyon.  This shuttle generally operates from mid-February or early March through December, depending on the year.  During the shuttle season, no private vehicles are allowed to drive through Zion Canyon.  

The first shuttle leaves the Zion Canyon visitor’s center at 6 am during the peak season of May 19th through September 15th and at 7 am during the rest of the shuttle season.  No reservations are required to ride the shuttle. Simply show up and hop on at the Visitor’s Center, and then hop off at your desired stop.  

One important thing to note is that, especially during the peak summer months, the line to get on the shuttle can be VERY long.  We’ve found that it tends to be the longest during the mid-morning hours.  

If you don’t want to be stuck waiting in a long shuttle line, we recommend showing up at the park 20 or 30 minutes before the very first shuttle departure time (at 7 or 8 am).  This will put you ahead of the crowds and get you on your hike quicker. 

chained-off queue are at the first shuttle stop in Zion National Park
This chained-off queue area will often be completely full by mid-morning.

One Day in Zion National Park itinerary

There are so many things to do in Zion, and with one day, you’ll barely be able to scratch the surface.  However, there are a few must-do classics, and we recommend you dedicate your one day in Zion to these.  

Angel’s Landing and hiking The Narrows are our top recommendations. If you are fit and fast, you can do both. If you’d rather just choose one, we recommend replacing the second hike with a drive along Mt Carmel Highway/Mt Carmel Tunnel or doing an easier hike in the park.  

Hike Angel’s landing

Angel’s Landing is one of the most iconic day hikes in the United States, and it’s easy to see why.  The views are incredible, and scaling the narrow ‘chains’ section is a thrill.  We’ve actually written an entire post on how to hike Angel’s Landing, so be sure to check that out.  

Starting in 2024, hikers will need a valid permit to hike Angel’s Landing. 

You’ll want to get an early start and be ahead of the crowds for this hike. Even with the permit system in place, it can get crowded, and waiting for descending hikers to pass you on the narrow chains section will really slow you down.  

So, we recommend arriving 20 minutes before the very first shuttle departure time to make sure you’re on that first shuttle.  You’ll then get off at stop #6, the Grotto, and start your climb!

view of the Angel's Landing chains portion of the hike.
We were able to get on the very first shuttle into the park and beat the crowds do the chains portion of the hike.

Angel’s Landing is a fairly difficult hike, and we would budget around four hours to complete it.  If you are fit and fast, and the crowds aren’t terrible, you’ll likely be able to complete it in less time.  On our recent trip to Zion, we completed Angel’s Landing in two and a half hours. 

Alternative to Angel’s Landing: First Portion of the West Rim Trail

The West Rim trail is another one of my favorites in Zion National Park. If you cannot get a permit to hike Angel’s Landing, I recommend dedicating your morning to this trail instead.  

The entire West Rim trail is 14.5 miles, and many hikers will take an entire day to hike it from the ‘top-down,’ using a private shuttle service to get to the north end of the trail and then hiking back down to the trailhead.  

However, for this itinerary, you’ll start from the bottom and hike up to a beautiful plateau that overlooks the valley.  You’ll hit the plateau around mile 9 or 9.5, and you’ll be able to see campsites (this hike can be completed as a backpacking trip).  

overhead views from the West Rim Trail
Our overhead views from the West Rim Trail.

This hike, just like Angel’s Landing, starts at stop #6, the Grotto.  You’ll start up the Angel’s Landing trail and continue until Scout’s Lookout.  Then, instead of continuing on to the chains portion of the Angel’s Landing hike (where a permit is required), you’ll continue along the West Rim Trail to the plateau.  

This is a great alternative to Angel’s Landing, and in some ways, I like it even better.  You’ll still get fantastic views with much fewer people. 

Lunch Break and Pick up Narrows Hiking Gear

After hiking Angel’s Landing, you’ll take a short break before continuing on to the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop.  If you would like to order at a restaurant within the park, you can take the shuttle back to Zion Lodge and eat at their Red Rock Grill or Castle Dome Café.  However, because you’ll want to start your Narrows hike as soon as possible, we recommend bringing a packed lunch to save time.  

This is also when you’ll need to grab your Narrows drysuit or dry pants and shoes from your car (unless you have someone with you who is willing to hang onto your gear while you hike Angel’s Landing).   

The Narrows Bottom-Up Hike

If you’ve got the energy, we highly recommend trying to squeeze a hike through the Narrows into your one-day itinerary.  This hike involves walking directly in the Virgin River through an enormous slot canyon, and it’s an experience unlike any other.  

Depending on the time of year, the river water can be anywhere from ankle-deep to mid-thigh-deep, with places that are neck-deep or higher.  

Kendall and I hiked the narrows together in October.  For the majority of the hike, we had river water up to our knees, with a few places with chest-deep water and one short section where we actually had to swim for a few feet.  Springtime tends to see higher water levels, while late summer and fall tend to see lower levels. 

a narrow portion of the Narrows slot canyon in Zion National Park
One of the first narrow portions we hiked through.

IMPORTANT: before planning your itinerary for Zion, you’ll need to check the current conditions, as this can affect your planning.  Due to the risk of flash flooding within the slot canyon, the park will close the Narrows hike if the flow of water is over 150 cubic feet per second.  

We recommend checking the current river conditions before planning your trip AND on the morning of your planned hike, as conditions can change quickly.  

hiker wearing a drysuit in the Narrows slot canyon.
We rented full drysuits when we did this hike in October 2021

Depending on the season, you’ll likely want to rent a wetsuit or a drysuit for your hike in the water.  Although this isn’t completely necessary during the late summer months, it makes the hike much more comfortable, as the water temperature stays fairly cold all year round.  

The three main rental companies are Zion Outfitter, Zion Guru, and Zion Adventures, all located in Springdale. To save yourself the hassle of leaving the park and re-entering on the day of your hike, we recommend renting your gear the evening before.  

All three companies offer a shoes-only package, a dry-pants-only package, and a full drysuit package. Depending on the weather, you can decide what will work best for you. 

After getting some lunch, grabbing your Narrows Gear from your car, and standing in the shuttle line, you’ll board the shuttle for the Temple of Sinawava (the last stop in Zion Canyon) with your gear in your backpack.  This shuttle ride takes around 45 minutes and is a great opportunity to rest your legs and enjoy the views. 

You’ll start your bottom-up Narrows hike after getting off the bus at the Temple of Sinawava.  The first portion of the hike will be along the paved Riverwalk, and then you’ll reach the entry point to the Virgin River.  This is where you’ll pull on your dry pants or drysuit, neoprene socks, and boots and get in the river!

PRO TIP: We recommend bringing a large black garbage bag and keeping it in a dry spot in your backpack (like inside another gallon ziplock bag). This will enable you to have a dry bag to put your wet Narrows hiking gear (drysuit, boots, etc.) in for the shuttle ride back down the canyon.

The entire bottom-up hike to Big Springs is 8.9 miles.  However, with less than a half day, you should not try to go all the way to Big Springs.  You can hike as far as you’d like up the Virgin River; just remember that you need to budget enough time to make it back down to the shuttle stop well before the last shuttle leaves.  

We definitely don’t recommend cutting it close and trying to make the very last shuttle because, if this shuttle is full, you won’t be allowed to enter, and you’ll be stuck walking (almost eight miles!) in the dark back to your vehicle.  

To avoid this situation, try to get on the shuttle at least an hour before the last shuttle is scheduled to run, just to give yourself plenty of time.  If you are able to start your Narrows hike before 2 pm, you will have a good two hours that you can spend hiking as far up the Virgin River as you’d like and 2 hours for descending back down to the trailhead.  You’ll then have plenty of time to take off your gear, pack up, and be on the shuttle before 6:30.  

IMPORTANT NOTE: the last shuttle departure time is earlier in November and December (6:15 pm), so you’ll need to cut your hike shorter if hiking the Narrows during this time frame.

table showing the Zion Canyon shuttle schedule
Image Credit:

All three rental companies close at 8 p.m., so if you’re fast, you should have time to make it before they close their doors. Keep in mind that the Zion shuttle takes around 45 minutes to drive from the Temple of Sinawava back to the Visitor Center.  

Optional Replacements for Second Big Hike

If the idea of trying to cram two hard hikes in one day doesn’t appeal to you, here are some alternatives that you can swap out for the afternoon hike. 

Easier Hikes

If you aren’t up for two hard hikes, simply do an easy hike in the afternoon. Our top recommendations are the Lower Emerald Pool Trail, Zion Canyon Overlook Trail, or the Pa’rus Trail

Drive the Mt Carmel highway

This is a scenic stretch of highway that goes between the Visitor Center and the east entrance of the park.  This drive has incredible views and two tunnels.  ONE NOTE: traffic can get congested, so be prepared for lots of stop-and-go. 

The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel
The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel

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