Visiting Zion National Park is a must for many families — for good reason. It’s gorgeous. Pine trees cling to the slopes of spectacular red-rock canyons. A river twists through narrow stone passageways. Melted snow creates delicate waterfalls. The cherry on top? There’s a deep blue sky nearly every day.
This rugged paradise in southwestern Utah is less than 3 hours from Las Vegas, so it’s easy to fly in and drive. One of the most popular U.S. national parks, Zion is the perfect place to explore with your family. There’s something about this corner of the country that will leave your spirit feeling refreshed. For me, it’s sipping a morning cup of coffee in the juniper-scented air, finally unplugging and reconnecting with my family, and soaking up stunning views as far as the eye can see.
If you only have one day in the park like we did, here’s the best way to spend your time in Zion.
Hiking is the primary activity in Zion National Park. There are 18 trails that range from easy paved walks to strenuous hikes. Angels Landing is the park’s most famous trail, so you’ll probably hear a lot of people talking about it. This 5-mile trail is cut into the side of a massive rock. It’s often called the scariest hike in America because the last stretch involves clinging to a steel chain bolted into the side of a cliff.
TIP: I do not recommend Angels Landing for kids or anyone who is unsteady on their feet or scared of heights. For our family’s day, we chose a different hike that was just as memorable but far less treacherous: The Narrows.
The Narrows trail is an epic river hike through a narrow canyon. Although the park brochure classifies it as a strenuous trail, it’s really not that hard. The challenge lies in the fact that you’ll be wading in the river almost the entire time, going against the current and stepping over slippery walks. But kids can definitely do it; my daughters were 11 and 9 years old and had no problem. In fact, this was one of their best memories of our Utah road trip.
Some people attempt to do The Narrows on their own, but going with a guide makes it easier and you’ll get all the gear you need to stay warm and safe. Your tour outfitter should supply water hiking boots, wetsuit socks, walking sticks and dry suits that go over your clothes to keep out water (you can even float down the river in these and not get wet!).
The hike can take up to 8 hours, depending on how far your group goes into the canyon (you can turn back anytime), so be sure to carry lunches along with water bottles in a backpack. Note: You can refill water bottles at spring water taps throughout the park.
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If time allows, spend the rest of your daylight hours doing more leisurely activities. Check out the visitor center, and ask at the information desk about any events taking place that afternoon or evening. Animal talks and stargazing through telescopes at night are two of the park’s most popular ranger-led activities. Zion also has a fantastic gift shop where you can get pins or t-shirts that say “I hiked The Narrows” and wear them as a badge of honor.
Once your gang has recouped their energy, head out to Lower Emerald Pools trail. It’s a little over a mile long and takes about an hour round-trip to walk the paved, uphill path that ends at a waterfall. It spills over into two bright-green pools colored by algae. You can walk behind the 110-foot-tall waterfall and feel its spray before either turning back or continuing uphill on the connecting Upper Emerald Pools trail.
You’ve earned a great big meal, and you can find it at Oscar’s Café in Springdale (the town at the park’s entrance). Be warned: They serve ample portions large enough to split. My family sat on the shaded patio and gorged ourselves on burgers and burritos the size of your head.
By nightfall, you’re bound to be tired. There are lots of accommodations available in Springdale, but if you’ve ever wanted to try glamping, Zion is the place to do it. In Kolob Canyon — the little-visited back side of Zion National Park — you can stay in luxury safari tents at Under Canvas.
It can hardly be called roughing it when you have down comforters, a comfy bed and hot showers. Some tents include a wood-burning stove and a private bathroom too. Kids can even hole up in their own teepee next to your tent. Before tucking in for the night, gather around the communal firepit to cook s’mores and swap stories with other families.
Any school break is a popular time to visit the park, which is open year-round, but summer temperatures hover between 90 and 100 degrees. Shoulder months offer the best weather for outdoor activities.
I recommend planning a trip for April, May or October. That’s when daytime temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees. Mornings and nights can get chilly, so be sure to dress in layers and pack some warmer jackets and hoodies.
With this plan, you can get the most of out your time in Zion National Park and come back with memories you’ll be happy to talk about over the dinner table for years to come.
Editor’s Note: Kristi Valentini is a Detroit-based travel writer who has been featured in Redbook, Parenting and Good Housekeeping. See more of her work at ReadymadeTravelPlans.com. Photos by Kristi Valentini.
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