Zion National Park could be called a heaven on earth, a red-rock wonderland created by wind, water, and snow. Mormon pioneers arriving in the area in the 1860s were so overwhelmed by the natural beauty of Zion Canyon and its surroundings that they named it after the Old Testament name for the city of Jeruselem.
The park’s ecosystems support about 800 native plant species, including more flowers than anywhere else in Utah. With more than 80 percent of the park designated wilderness area, it doesn’t take more than a few strides from a visitor center parking lot to pass into shimmering, absolute nature. But why take the well-trodden trail? Here are a few tips for how to experience the peace of the park during the crowded high season.
Zion Canyon is epic, but the park is full of off-the-beaten path adventures and hidden gems, perfect for seeking out during the crowded summer high season. So pull over, wander off, and let chance be your guide. You don’t need a path for adventure; just 100 yards away from just about any road in Zion is likely to reveal a magnificent vista not on any map or in any book.
Kolob Canyons may be smaller than Zion Canyon, some 40 miles to the south, but this wilderness delivers countless adventures in the form of empty hiking trails and 2,000-foot cliff walls with hardly anyone to hear their own echoes. While the park's waterfalls generally attract crowds on hot summer days Pine Creek waterfall remains under the radar; this small, but swimmable feature is an easy mile round-trip hike from an unmarked trailhead near the park's south entrance. But beware: the pleasant, creek-side hike can become suddenly dangerous if a flash flood strikes.
The park revolves around Zion Canyon—15 miles long and almost 3,000 feet deep in places. It also includes much of the surrounding terrain, landscapes that range from desert to the high-altitude forests sprawling across the plateaus above the canyon.
After making the transition from till to tourism over the past century, the old riverside town of Springdale is the park’s primary gateway. The main drag (Highway 9) is flanked by heaps of hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and shops, as well as outfitters that arrange adventure activities in and around the park. Choose between rock climbing and rappelling, helicopter and 4x4 tours, guided hikes along the Narrows, and tubing on the Virgin River downstream from the park. The Zion National Park Forever Project, the park’s official nonprofit partner, organizes a number of outdoor learning adventures, service projects, classes, lectures, and special events through its field institute, in addition to operating three stores inside the park.
Pedestrian and vehicle bridges connect Springdale with the national park Visitor Center on the other side of the Virgin. In addition to exhibits and information, the visitor center is the southern terminus of the Zion National Park Shuttle, which is the only way to reach the heart of the canyon between spring and fall when visitation peaks. Private vehicles are not allowed beyond Canyon Junction, turnoff to the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. Even if you’re not headed for south-central Utah, the highway makes an interesting detour through what was once the world’s longest auto tunnel to a geological oddity called Checkerboard Mesa, a sandstone facade scarred by hundreds of vertical and horizontal fissures.
The first stop on the shuttle route is the Zion Human History Museum, which details the heritage of Native Americans and Mormon pioneers in the region. Entering the canyon, the shuttle makes seven stops, including viewpoints of celebrated stone formations such as Court of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) and Weeping Rock, as well as historic Zion Lodge, a classic national park lodging designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood and opened in 1927. The park’s most celebrated landmark—the Great White Throne, a 1,500-foot rock face—can be seen from numerous places along the canyon road.
The road (and shuttle route) ends with a dramatic flourish inside the Temple of Sinawava, a colossal natural amphitheater. A riverside path continues to the Narrows, where the thousand-foot-high canyon walls are sometimes just 20 to 30 feet apart. Anyone is free to hike the Narrows as far as upstream Big Springs (beyond that you need a backcountry permit). But be prepared to get wet: much of the trail is through waist-high water.
Zion Canyon is laced with other popular trails, from easy hikes including Emerald Pools (2.2 miles) to strenuous uphill slogs that lead to Angel’s Landing, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point. Backpackers can trek the West Rim Trail (14.2 miles) across the wilderness Horse Pasture Plateau to Lava Point, where another trail connects to Kolob Canyons in the far north.
Drivers can explore the high country via two motor routes that start outside the park. Kolob Terrace Road runs 22 miles from Virgin, Utah, to Lava Point and its scenic overlook. Exit 40 on Interstate 15 drops down to Kolob Canyons Visitor Center and the start of a road that leads 5.4 miles to a vista of the impressive red-rock gorges. High-country hikes are possible from both of the Kolob roads.
A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.