Zion National Park (nps.gov/zion), in southwest Utah, is one of the most extraordinary places in the American Southwest (and on earth!). It offers adventure surrounded by towering canyons, immense red-sandstone walls, and amazing hikes, such as the Narrows and Angel’s Landing Lookout, that every American must see. Here, how to do Zion on a budget.
McCarron International Airport, in Las Vegas, is the closest airport to Zion National Park, and you will have to rent a car for the 160-mile drive to the park. If you’ve never experienced Vegas before, stay here for a night or two, but keep in mind it is very difficult to do Las Vegas on the cheap. To avoid the siren’s call of spending money, rent a 4WD SUV at the airport and take off toward the mountains on I-15 for desert panoramas that will start to prepare you for the jaw-dropping Utah landscape you’re headed for.
I recommend doing this drive during daylight, not just because you’ll want to take in the desert, but also because it has some winding roads. It’s also advisable to buy several gallons of water in Las Vegas to have on hand.
ENTERING AND NAVIGATING THE PARK
At the park entrance, you will pay $30 per car, which gives you access to the park for seven days. (For $80, you can upgrade to the “America The Beautiful” pass, which grants you access to all national parks. If you plan to go on from Zion to other nearby parks, such as Bryce or Canyonlands, I recommend this option.)
Be aware that Zion, unlike most national parks, does not allow private cars on most of its roads. Instead, the park uses a bus system to shuttle visitors up the canyon to various stops, while providing a narrated tour of the incredible views you’re seeing. There is often a line to get on a shuttle, and on busy days, you may feel as if you’re standing in line for a ride at Walt Disney World. The closer to sunrise you get to the park, the shorter the line will be.
CAMPING: THE ULTIMATE BARGAIN
Tent camping is the least expensive way to experience Zion National Park. How does free sound? You can make camp anywhere on the BLM (public land) without a fee (this is something called “dispersed camping”), but I recommend this option only for travelers who are experienced campers. If you want to camp for free, make sure you have a map and give yourself plenty of daylight to find a campsite.
If you’d prefer campsites with more amenities ($20/night, nps.gov/zion), plan early to book your site, as they book months in advance during the high season. Zion’s Watchman campground is right by the visitor’s center and is the busiest campground. For a little more privacy, you can stay at the Lava Point Campground, about an hour’s drive from the visitor’s station into the park.
HOTELS ARE A SHORT, BEAUTIFUL DRIVE AWAY
Affordable hotels can be found in Hurricane, Utah, about a 20-minute drive from the park. Prices can be as low as $30 in the low season, and $80 in the high season. The drive to and from the park is beautiful, so the it goes by quickly.
STOCK UP ON FOOD IN ADVANCE
To stay on budget, you’ll want to stock up on food and water at a grocery store before you leave Las Vegas (pick up a cooler and ice if you’re packing perishables, of course). There are also several reliable and affordable restaurants not far from the park, in Springdale.
HIKING: ZION’S MAIN ATTRACTION
Zion Canyon is world-renowned for its hiking. Whether you spend the day stomping through a river canyon or scaling the side of a mountain, there is no more rewarding way to spend a day. I highly recommend doing Angel’s Landing before the Narrows, as you'll get wet at the Narrows and waterlogged feet are softer and more prone to blister. Here, two of Zion’s must-hikes:
Angel’s Landing. This is Zion’s most famous hike, which ends with a crawl across the spine of the canyon to a view meant for angels. If you’re afraid of heights (like me), stop on the trail at Scout’s Landing, which provides views almost as good as those farther on. This trail is incredibly steep and strenuous. It’s also often very crowded – by the end of the effort, you’ll be best friends with the people climbing the trail around you. Bring more water than you think you'll need – ideally everyone in your party should carry their own full water bladder.
The Narrows. This is the most fun I’ve ever had on a hike! You can stomp up the Virgin River canyon as far as you want, swimming and climbing on rocks as you stare up at the high walls enclosing you. This hike is great for families and people who are sore from their strenuous Angel's Landing hike the day before. The trail is listed as “strenuous” because it involves climbing over rocks. Note that there is always a risk of flash flooding – keep your eye on the flooding forecast posted around the park, follow all rangers' instructions, and if you start to notice the water slowly rising on your hike, turn back. You can rent the gear you need, like walking sticks and water shoes, at Zion Outfitter (zionoutfitter.com), located just outside the park entrance. This package runs $24/person in the summer, and spending the money on this essential gear will greatly improve your experience.
NEXT UP… BRYCE CANYON
To continue on your Utah road trip, head east from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park, where you will see more of some of the most beautiful countryside in America.