Zion is possibly the most famous National Park in Utah. The spectacle of it is awe-inspiring, from the main drag, which winds through vertical stone canyons, to hikes like Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.
It’s home to more spectacular, sheerly massive sights than most anywhere else in the state. And most visitors don’t even venture outside the most easily accessible 10% of the park. If you’ve never been to the Southwest and you want to be completely mind-blown by the scale and drama of the landscape, Zion should be your first choice.
If you’re cooped up inside reading this, daydreaming about warmer days drinking in the desert sunshine, check out this list of campgrounds in Zion, as well as our handy tips for visiting the park.
Top Tips For Zion National Park
The main challenge to visiting Zion is its popularity. The park has recorded over 3 million visitors per year, every year, since 2014. Here are some helpful considerations to make while planning your trip.
#1 – Timing Your Trip
Though the peak season runs through the summer months, Zion is open year-round to the public. Peak visitation tends to follow what are actually some of the most unpleasant months to visit the desert, when temperatures run well into the hundreds. Visiting during the spring, autumn, or even winter, will give you more room to yourself, and an entirely different experience as the mood of the landscape changes with the seasons.
#2 – Venture Out
The vast majority of visitors to Zion never wandered beyond the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, despite the park’s size – nearly 230 square miles in total. In addition to seeing the classics, consider hiking some of the less heavily-trafficked trails such as The West Rim, The Subway, or for a real adventure, you can go canyoneering in the backcountry.
#3 – Leave No Trace
As always, it’s important to travel and recreate in ways that leave as little an impact on the land as possible. More, now than ever. Be sure not to venture off established trails, as trampling fragile cryptobiotic soil can inflict long-term damage on the ecosystem, and always follow park rules on campfires and packing out waste. We owe it to the land to help keep it in its pristine state while enjoying it.
What You Need To Know
There are a few things you should be aware of before you go. Zion isn’t well-suited to flying by the seat of your pants. Here’s some information to help you avoid a day-of logistical nightmare.
Pack It In
Be aware that resources can be remote from Zion. The nearest town to the south entrance is Springdale, which has some groceries, but be aware that supplies may be limited, especially during the busy season. The availability of water can be sketchy as well, depending on what part of the park you plan on visiting. It’s a good idea to buy whatever you need for your stay on the way into the park, to minimize trips down the highway and back into civilization.
The Zion Canyon Scenic Drive Shuttle
Due to the park’s incredibly high visitation, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive has been accessible only by shuttle since 2017. These shuttles run on a regular schedule throughout the year and make stops along the road at trailheads and points of interest. The shuttle can only be used if you have a ticket, which costs $1. It’s a good idea to get tickets in advance for the days you plan on being in the park, which you can do here.
Campgrounds Do Fill Up
It’s probably not a huge surprise that campgrounds can, and will fill up during peak season. If you intend to camp at Watchman or South Campgrounds, be sure to reserve a site in advance here. Lava Point Campground is first come, first served. As a rule of thumb, plan ahead as much as possible.
Though the park is open all year, not all of its facilities are. The Zion Canyon Visitor Center, park store, and Zion Canyon Wilderness Desk all stay open year-round, as does Watchman Campground (no reservation required in the off-season). Other campgrounds and amenities generally only operate from March to October. The shuttle also runs through the winter, but may have limited hours.
Campgrounds In The Park
There are three campgrounds inside Zion National Park, all of which are fantastic places to pitch a tent and huddle around a campfire. This is your front-row seat to the good stuff in Zion.
#1 – Watchman Campground
Watchman Campground is located about 1/4 of a mile up the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. It sits on the bank of the Virgin River, with a tremendous background of sandstone peaks. The campground has a total of 190 regular sites, some of which have electricity available, and six group sites.
Six of the tent sites at Watchman Campground are walk-in and tent access only. Electrical sites run $30 per night, and tent sites go for $20 per night. The campground has restrooms and potable water available, as well as trees for shade.
#2 – South Campground
Located just north of Watchman Campground, South Campground is slightly smaller, with 117 campsites. There are no hookups available, although there is a dump station complete with potable water. The campground is also right across the road from Watchman Trail, a lovely hike to some nearby towers that can be done in around two hours.
The campground is shaded by large cottonwood trees and shares the same incredible views as Watchman Campground. South Campground is typically open March-October. Campsites cost $20 per night, and group sites cost $50 per night.
Lava Point is located in the northern region of the park and is accessed via the Kolob Terrace Road. It is nearer to the town of Virgin than Springdale and can take much longer to get to – the drive from Lava Point to the south entrance is around an hour and a half. It is, however, still in the park, and provides great access to some of the more remote sights and adventures in Zion. Lava Point sits at almost 7,900 feet, thousands of feet above South Campground, which keeps it much cooler.
The campground is small, with just six primitive campsites available, which are first come, first served. There is no water at Lava Point, so be sure to pack it in. Lava Point is usually open from May through September, depending primarily on weather. If you’re looking to explore some of the less-traveled corners of Zion, avoid crowds and the main road, and are willing to brave some backroads to get there, this is a great place to camp.
What To Do If The Campgrounds Are Full
If you plan on visiting during the busy months, the campgrounds may very well be full. Luckily there are a few solid backup plans outside the park for great camping. For more great campsites in Utah, check out our recent guide to camping all around the state.
Zion Canyon Campground
The closest option to the park itself is Zion Canyon Campground, located just outside Springdale, a mere half mile from the south entrance of the park. From Zion Canyon, you can either take the shuttle directly into the park or take a pleasant 10-minute walk.
The campground is equipped with hot showers, a coin-op laundry, an outdoor pool, and a place to buy convenience items like ice, firewood, and coffee. Zion Canyon is open seasonally from March through November. Rates are dependent on the number of campers, but begin at $69 per night, a reasonable expense considering how many added amenities are available on-site.
Zion River Resort
Just 20 minutes further down the Virgin River is Zion River Resort. The resort is RV friendly and also offers camper cabins and two-bedroom suites. Tent camping is not available. There is a centrally located camper kitchen, several dog areas, a convenience store, a laundromat, a pool, and a propane tank refill station on site. The resort also runs a shuttle bus to the park, making parking a non-issue. Rates vary depending on accommodations, from $40 per day to $278 per day.
Driving up the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway out the east entrance of the park will bring you to the Hi-Road Campground. It operates as a camping resort with an abundance of facilities and services available, including a laundry, pool tables, showers, wifi, and a market. Accommodations include cabins, tent/RV sites, and dispersed sites. At $40 per night, it offers a great balance of comfort and proximity to the park.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
Another option, still only a 40 minute drive from the south entrance of the park is Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. The park is itself an attraction, featuring beautiful sand dunes, slot canyons, and of course stellar camping. There are two campgrounds in the park, which go for either $25 or $40 per night. Camping at Coral Pink Sand Dunes will definitely give you a more secluded experience, along with a few more things to check out while you’re in the area.
Nearer the north entrance of Zion is Kolob Reservoir. It’s often suggested as a good backup plan for Lava Point, and is a great place to camp in its own right. The presence of water is a big plus here, as are the aspen forests on the reservoir’s banks.
Dispersed camping is allowed at Kolob Reservoir, meaning you can find an existing fire ring and pitch camp, with no fee required. It is, however, a longer drive. Driving to the south entrance from Kolob Reservoir can take over an hour in total. It’s a tradeoff, but for a more quiet campsite with great access to water and beautiful scenery (not to mention for free), it’s definitely not a loss.
Well Worth The Effort
It’s important while thinking about the logistics of visiting Zion National Park to remember that this place is popular for a reason. Zion is packed to the brim with rugged charm. Remember that venturing off the beaten path is always rewarding and that the off-season is just as beautiful as the busy season. No matter what it takes to get you to this striking temple of stone in the heart of the desert, you won’t regret making the trip.