The first time I road-tripped from Los Angeles to Zion National Park, I remember thinking that the Virgin River Gorge, which cuts a deep slash across Arizona’s northwest corner, was something like a certain literary wardrobe: you entered on one side via the quiet Nevada desert, then emerged a handful of twists later into the magical expanse of Utah, which practically vibrated with otherworldly sights. But the journey was nothing compared to the destination Zion brims with bucket-list backdrops, from its intoxicating blend of brilliant colors to its serpentine canyons and sheer cliffs, that since my very first visit have never failed to leave me awestruck.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting
Water rules everything around you
Those same forces that shaped Zion’s canyons and cliffs are still hard at work. Staying on top of the weather forecast is crucial for not only enjoying your visit but ensuring that you stay safe. Even a light rain is enough to make slick rock basically, smoothed sandstone—live up to its name; tread lightly, and avoid trails and routes with steep drop-offs (like the famous Angels Landing) when rain or ice is present. Also avoid canyoneering or hiking in narrow canyons when a threat of rain exists; flash-flood danger is real. Check the weather for the immediate area where you’ll be traveling and also at the canyon’s source point. The National Weather Service’s flash-flood-potential rating is a great resource. Make tracks to higher ground if you encounter any of these signs of a possible flash flood: the sight or sound of an approaching storm, sudden debris flows, water becoming murky, loud noise up canyon, rising water levels, or increasing current strength.
There’s more to the park than Zion Canyon.
Sure, the canyon features some of the most iconic scenery and nearly all of the park’s services, but considering it’s a tiny drop in a 148,000-acre bucket, you’re missing out if you don’t venture further afield. It’s worth the 45-minute drive from the main entrance to reach the park’s northwest corner and Kolob Canyons, a series of parallel fissures guarded by tall sandstone fins that glow a fiery red during sunset. Park at the Kolob Canyon Viewpoint, and hike the trail that climbs above it for a front-row panorama (and a little more solitude). Crowds also thin out in the park’s East Rim area, located—you guessed it—east of Zion Canyon and adjacent to the east entrance. Here, State Route 9 (SR-9) is called the Zion–Mount Carmel Highway, and it’s such a beautiful drive that I once cruised it every single day during a trip—and still wish I’d spent more time out there. The sandstone here lacks oxidized iron, which makes it much whiter than in the main canyon; a prime example of both the color and the wild weathering process that shapes these formations is the cross-hatched Checkerboard Mesa towering near the east entrance.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit Zion
December through February marks the park’s low season, when crowds thin out due to colder temperatures that range from 50 to 30 degrees (including subfreezing nights) and frequent precipitation—but the brave souls who persevere are rewarded with the high-contrast splendor of stark white snow decorating bright red cliffs. While some of the park’s high-elevation roads (including Kolob Canyons Road and part of Kolob Terrace Road) close once snowfall accumulates, Zion Canyon is still open for business.
Visitors return once spring arrives in March, when temperatures are around 40 to 60 degrees. Every week the temperature ticks steadily upward, leading to snowmelt that feeds an array of wildflowers that usually begin sprouting in April. That same rapid thaw also means a high flow rate for the Virgin River. For safety reasons, the popular Narrows area of the canyon is typically off-limits to hikers in spring.
By June, the mercury tips toward triple digits, where it will hover most afternoons throughout the summer. This makes it a perfect time to visit the park’s upper elevations along the Kolob Canyons and Kolob Terrace areas, and to hike the Narrows, which is typically much cooler than the rest of Zion Canyon. But stay vigilant—monsoon season begins in mid-July and runs through mid-September, which means that a perfectly sunny morning can easily give way to a stormy afternoon and flash-flood warnings.
September offers one last hurrah for heat seekers (between 60 and 90 degrees) before the temperature begins to dip by ten degrees come October. The upside is that cooler weather brings colorful foliage as canyon cottonwoods and aspens erupt in bright yellow displays. By November, the leaves have all but disappeared, replaced by a shimmering layer of frost that develops overnight. This is a wonderful, less crowded time to enjoy the park, as long as you arrive armed with an assortment of layers.