The best way to see Zion is to spend a week in the park, starting with the visitor center displays and programs, then taking a Zion Canyon Scenic Drive trip on the shuttle bus, and gradually working from short hikes and walks to full-day and overnight treks into the backcountry.
If you have only a day or two, we recommend that your first stop be the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, near the south entrance to the park, to see the exhibits; look through the free Zion Map & Guide, which describes various hiking and viewing options; and finally talk with a ranger about the amount of time you have, your abilities, and your interests.
If your goal is to see as much of the park as possible in 1 full day, we suggest the following:
After a quick stop at the visitor center, hop on the shuttle bus, which hits the major Zion Canyon roadside viewpoints, plus the Zion Human History Museum. When you get to the Temple of Sinawava, instead of just taking a quick look and jumping on the next shuttle, hike the easy 2-mile round-trip Riverside Walk, which follows the Virgin River through a narrow canyon past hanging gardens. Then continue the shuttle bus trek back to the lodge (total time: 2-4 hr.), where you might stop at the gift shop and possibly have lunch in the lodge restaurant.
Near the lodge, you'll find the trail head for the Emerald Pools. Especially pleasant on hot days, this easy walk through a forest of oak, maple, fir, and cottonwood trees leads to a waterfall, hanging garden, and the shimmering lower pool of the Emerald Pools. This part of the walk should take about an hour round-trip; those with a bit more ambition may want to add another hour and another mile to the loop by taking the moderately strenuous hike on a rocky, steeper trail to the upper pool.
If you still have time and energy, drive back toward the south park entrance and stop at Watchman Trail Head. Here, a moderately strenuous, 2-mile, 2-hour round-trip hike takes you to a plateau with beautiful views of several rock formations and the town of Springdale. That evening, try to take in the campground amphitheater program.
Seeing the Park by Car & Shuttle
If you enter the park from the east, along the steep Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, you'll travel 13 miles to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, passing between the White Cliffs and Checkerboard Mesa, a massive sandstone rock formation covered with horizontal and vertical lines that make it look like a huge fishing net. Continuing, you'll pass through a fairyland of fantastically shaped rocks of red, orange, tan, and white, as well as the Great Arch of Zion, carved by the forces of erosion high in a stone cliff. At the east end of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel is the trail head parking for the Canyon Overlook Trail, a relatively easy 1-mile walk to a great viewpoint. After driving through the tunnel, you'll traverse a number of long switchbacks as you descend to the canyon floor.
The park's shuttle bus system consists of two loops: One in the town of Springdale and the other along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, with the loops connecting at the transit/visitor center just inside the south park entrance. April through October, access to Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (above Utah 9) is limited to shuttle buses, hikers, and bikers. The only exception will be overnight Zion Lodge guests and tour buses connected with the lodge, which will have access to the road as far as the lodge. Shuttle stops are located at all the major-use areas in the park, and shuttles run frequently (about every 6 min. at peak times). In winter, when visitation is lowest in the park, visitors are permitted to drive the full length of Zion Canyon Scenic Drive in their own vehicles. Complete information about the shuttle and all stops is available at the visitor center.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.