An off-season two-night stay at Zion National Park
Although we’d been to Zion National Park in Utah twice before, it had been a long time since the last visit — too long! So we planned a short trip to go there following a Las Vegas weekend with friends in early December. Zion and many national parks are wonderful any time of year, but visiting off-peak season will let you avoid any crowds while enjoying many of the same beautiful scenes and activities. Zion’s peak seasons are summer and fall.
On this trip, we would only have time to experience a small part of the over 146,000 acres of canyons, sandstone cliffs, and meadows, but we left totally satisfied with our two-night stay in Zion.
In any season, the weather can change dramatically in the West, but especially in the winter. We felt lucky that we had clear and dry conditions for our full day in the park and our hikes. The next day, an early morning rain turned into snow as we headed out of the park and back home. The snow was beautiful to behold, but it would have cut short our hiking experiences of the previous day.
Where to hike and where to stay at Zion National Park
Zion is well-known as a hiker’s paradise and there are trails for everyone. We enjoyed an easy walk (Riverside Walk), an easy hike (Lower Emerald Pool Trail), and moderate hikes (Middle and Upper Emerald Pool Trails). With more time, we would have loved to explore other popular trails such as Angel’s Landing Trail, also not far from the lodge.
Easy hiking at Zion
We drove to the Riverside Walk trailhead after lunch at the lodge. It was perfect for an after-lunch scenic hike. We took our time to breathe in the fresh air as we admired the peaceful scenery of the winding river and dramatic cliffsides.
Beginning at the Temple of Shinawava, the Riverside Walk is an easy 2.2-mile round trip walk on mostly paved and level terrain. It follows along the Virgin River and leads to the beginning of The Narrows, a strenuous (and potentially dangerous if you’re not prepared) hike through the river in the narrowest portion of Zion Canyon flanked by thousand feet high sheer rock walls on both sides. At the time of our visit, the water was too high to even take a short portion of the trail.
Riverside Walk tip: The pathway is wheelchair accessible.
Lower Emerald Pool Trail
The Lower Emerald Pool Trail (accessed near Zion Lodge) is one of the most popular in Zion and is about one mile each way. There are scenic views, trees and other vegetation, light waterfalls, and other pretty sights along the way. The trail is appropriate for most abilities, but still be careful around the spots where there are some short drop-offs. You can also continue on from here to the Middle and Upper Emerald Pools trails (which we did) if you have the time and endurance to do all three.
Moderate hiking at Zion
Middle and Upper Emerald Pool Trail
We keep in shape quite well with our hikes in the Sonoran Desert while at home in Scottsdale, so we were prepared for continuing past the Lower Emerald Pool and continuing upwards where the terrain gets more challenging. You gain 200 ft in elevation walking from the Lower Pool to the Middle Pool and then another 200 feet to the upper pool, where the trails become very rocky and sandy. Depending on your pace, it will take about two to four hours to do the full round trip of all three pool.
Around the pools tip: During wet periods, there will be parts of the path where the ground can be wet and muddy. At the upper pool, we crossed on stepping stones through the water from the trail to reach the dry area next to the pool and waterfall.
Where to stay at Zion National Park
There are lodging options outside of the park, including many in the nearby town of Springdale, but we chose to stay two nights at Zion Lodge the only accommodations available inside the park.
Our goal was to have a short quiet nature getaway, so were not concerned about having a selection of restaurants and stores available. The lodge has a restaurant, small convenience, and souvenir shop which suited us well.
We arrived late afternoon at the lodge after about a 2-1/2 hour drive from Las Vegas. We checked in and then spent a little time settling into our 2nd floor King room and enjoying the impressive view of sheer above from our balcony.
The lodge has individual cabins (which have fireplaces) and hotel rooms and suites with private porches or balconies. The hotel rooms and cabins are separate from the main building, but are all in easy walking distance to the lodge where the reception, restaurants, and shop are located. Also a short walk from the lodge and rooms is the start of the Emerald Pool trails — lower, middle, and upper.
Red Rock Grill
Although not fine dining, the Red Rock Grill is a good option when staying at the park. We liked being able to walk to breakfast, lunch, dinner. The decor is rustic and it felt rather cozy coming in for a late lunch after hiking and back for dinner after the short stroll in the brisk night air.
We enjoyed quesadillas, quinoa salad, sweet potato fries, grilled chicken, and trout among other soups, sides, and salads. Since Covid, the restaurant is run a little differently than visitors of the past may remember. Orders and payment are taken at the host desk at the entrance of the restaurant where you’re given a number to place on the table of your choice. Food and drinks are served to the table. Check with the lodge for current dining options.
Eating and drinking at Zion tip: Castle Dome Cafe is another food and drink option at Zion Lodge. It is a seasonal snack bar and cafe with a patio that was not open during our visit. Menu items include coffee, pastries, burgers and fries.
Getting around the park tip: Overnight guests of Zion Lodge with overnight stays mailed a red permit prior to arrival allowing them to drive to the Lodge and display while your vehicle is parked. During most of the year, automobile traffic is not allowed and visitors get around by shuttles. Since they don’t run very often in the winter, visitors can drive to the trailheads, as during our stay.
Wildlife tip: Keep a look out for animals as you drive through the park.
We had many deer sightings along the road between Springdale and the park (shown above) and near the lodge where we also saw quite a few wild turkeys (below).
Connectivity tip: Don’t count on it! Unplug and enjoy getting away from the stresses of the world while here since internet access is very spotty because of the remote location. There is WiFi at reception and public areas of the lodge but connectivity is weak.
Summer, winter, spring or fall … don’t miss a visit to Zion National Park. If you’ve got time, you should also consider visting other amazing parks, like Bryce Canyon, while you’re in Utah.