Science lessons on geology, weathering, and erosion are one thing, but seeing the red rocks and stacked layers of sandstone in person at Zion National Park takes science to new heights. Located in Southwestern Utah near the town of Springdale, many families travel to Zion National Park as part of a wider road trip including Utah’s Mighty Five parks or the Grand Canyon. Wanting to see it all can be alluring, but you need several days (if not longer) to appreciate Zion National Park with kids, and to fully experience the canyons created by the powerful Virgin River.
This 229-square mile park is a dream for hiking families and outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking trails range from easy to extreme and the diversity of activities will appeal to everyone in the group if nothing else for the bragging rights that come from trekking the most popular trails. Even better for families, Zion is easily accessible from Las Vegas (just a two-hour drive) and although the elevation definitely is higher than sea level – it is unlikely that you’ll feel the effects of altitude or need time to acclimatize.
Although there are 18 marked trails (and an unlimited amount of wilderness trail areas) to explore, here are four family-friendly activities, plus one great place to stay and one great place to eat while visiting Zion National Park with kids.
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Activity 1: Challenge Yourself with a Canyoneering Adventure Day
We are fans of trying new adventures both when we travel and at home. And Zion National Park is the perfect location to learn something new and push yourself beyond your comfort level with canyoneering and rock climbing. We chose to reserve a full day family canyoneering adventure day with Zion Adventure Company. Rappelling, rock scrambling, stemming through narrow canyon walls. You name it, we did it.
Our guide led our private party of two (Zion Adventure Company strives to provide private experiences for families whenever possible) through two secluded canyons outside of the national park. Best of all, the day fostered trust and communication between my daughter and I as we learned to be “on belay” and ask each other for assistance when needed. And when my tween daughter got nervous as I descended down a 60-foot rappel? Our guide reassured her and hooked her to him for a tandem rappel that she still talks about. Website: www.zionadventures.com
Activity 2: Reach New Heights at Angel’s Landing
Angel’s Landing offers a hiking experience unlike many other trails and ranks among the most famous of Zion National Park “must do’s.” While this intense but visually and physically rewarding hike (you’ll climb to just under 1,500 feet from the canyon floor) is not advisable for anyone who is afraid of heights, it is accessible for families with children who are comfortable with a bit of adrenaline. Carved steps, chains, and a few guard rails are there to help you feel more confident.
Truth be told, the most difficult part of hiking Angel’s Landing is not the narrow trail with long drop offs, but the amount of people on the trail as the day progresses. While you might be tempted to sleep as part of your vacation, I’d highly recommend setting your alarm clock for an early morning and catching the first or second shuttle leaving the Zion Visitor Center in the morning. And once you make it to the top? Take a few pictures for the memory books, but then start your descent before you feel like you are part of a Tetris game as the trail becomes more crowded. Not sure the kids can make it all the way to the top? You can go as high as Scout’s Lookout – a landing area where the views are still impressive – without making your way up the narrow spine to the top.
Activity 3: Wade through the Narrows
The Bottom-Up Narrows hike isn’t just a favorite trail, it is a rite of passage for Zion hikers and a unique trek for families with kids. Young adventurers will love wading through the waters of the Virgin river while parents appreciate the narrowing canyon walls and reflections of sunlight that cast rays of gold and red as you go deeper.
Not sure you want to get wet? There is no avoiding water on this hike. Rent dry gear and a walking stick from a local outfitter like Zion Adventure Company in the colder months and bring a dry bag to store your camera or phone. This hike is weather dependent, based on the Cubic Feet per Second levels and flash flood conditions of the Virgin River (the Park Service closes the Narrows when the CFS is over 150, but I’d recommend no higher than 100 CFS with younger children especially). Click here for more about the Narrows Bottoms-Up route.
Activity 4: Explore the Terrain Along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
Cars are not allowed along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive – the main thoroughfare through Zion National Park – from mid-March through October. But you can drive from the Springdale entrance to the eastern entrance along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway. This 10-mile stretch offers switchbacks, sweeping views, and a drive through a mile long tunnel through the stone mountain.
Once you’ve reached the eastern section of the park, you’ll find many pullouts to park your car and explore what feels like uncharted terrain over slick rock and through canyons. Of course, if you do go exploring, be sure to keep track of your route and maintain a sense of where you parked. One of the most impressive views is of Checkerboard Mesa – a coned landform with known for horizontal scratches made my wind and vertical cracks from thousands of years of weathering that resemble a checkerboard.
1 Great Place to Eat: The Whiptail Grill
There are no shortage of restaurants in the town of Springdale, just outside the park. For a local favorite, we asked our canyoneering adventure guide for a suggestion and found ourselves at The Whiptail Grill. Our only mistake was waiting to eat there on the last night and regretting that we didn’t have the chance to go back. This Mexican fusion restaurant once served the community as a Texaco gas station and still reflects the look of a service station with an outdoor patio under the original awning.
Portions are large, but you’ll probably be hungry after a day of adventures. Start off with an appetizer like the Goat Cheese Chili Relleno and then come up with a plan of what to choose between fish tacos, spaghetti squash enchiladas and Mexican pizza. (Or have everyone order one of each and then share!) Be sure to arrive early as seating is the first-come-first serve. Website: www.whiptailgrillzion.com
1 Great Place to Stay: Cable Mountain Lodge
While many families will enjoy nights under the stars at one of Zion’s campgrounds, we opted for a suite at Cable Mountain Lodge. Not only is the property located just outside the main entrance gate to the park, the suites are reasonably priced and offer kitchens, comfortable accommodations, and a pool (and hot tub) to play and relax in after a long day of hiking.
Rooms and suites have private terraces, many of which overlook the massive red rock formations which put on a special show at sunset with the reflection of the setting sun. You’ll also appreciate being within walking distance of several good restaurants and the nearby village where you receive a discount by showing your room key at the local market, IMAX movie theater and shops. Website: www.cablemountainlodge.com