A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.
Zion National Park showcases the incredible geology of southern Utah, a red-rock wonderland created by wind, water, and snow. Among the U.S.’s most beloved (and photographed) parks, it offers varied hiking opportunities, challenging rock climbing, and winter cross-country skiing trails.
Arriving in the 1860s, Mormon pioneers were so overwhelmed by the “natural temples” near the headwaters of the Virgin River they decided to call it Zion after the heavenly city of the Old Testament. Although Brigham Young considered it blasphemy—and actually forbade its use—the name endured as a symbol of the nature that blesses so much of southern Utah.
The park revolves around Zion Canyon—15 miles (24.14 km) long and almost 3,000 feet (914.4 m) deep in places. It also includes much of the surrounding terrain, landscapes that range from red-rock desert to the high-altitude forests sprawling across the plateaus above the canyon. The park’s various ecosystems support more floral diversity (around 800 native plant species) than anywhere else in Utah, and more than 80 percent of the park (124,000 acres/501.8 sq km) is designated wilderness area.
After making the transition from till to tourism over the past century, the old riverside town of Springdale is the park’s main gateway. The main drag (Highway 9) is flanked by heaps of hotels, restaurants, art galleries, and shops, as well as outfitters who 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 like 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 (457.2 m) 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 (304.8-m) canyon walls are sometimes just 20 to 30 feet (6.1-9.1 m) 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 like Emerald Pools (2.2 miles/3.5 km) 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/22.85 km) 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 (35.4 km) 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 (8.7 km) to a vista of the impressive red-rock gorges. High-country hikes are possible from both of the Kolob roads.