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Blurred version of the feature image used to fill empty space behind the feature image Looking down the Watchman Trail at Zion National Park

Visiting Zion National Park for the First Time

  • Written by Lindsey Huster
  •  / 
  • 7 min read
  •  / 
  • Last updated 2 months ago

While visiting Zion National Park for the first time, I was pleased with the importance Zion places on the preservation of the park by educating visitors to be responsible for themselves while enjoying the park. This includes everything from respecting the animals and packing out your own garbage to knowing your hiking ability and being prepared on the trail.

Crowds and visitor responsibility

Last week I wrote about the crowds and visitor responsibility at Zion.  If you missed that post, check it out here: Zion National Park- Crowds and Visitor Responsibility

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Our First Day at Zion National Park // Zion Trip 2019

Our first visit to Zion

Keith and I made the decision that Sundays would be the best day for us to visit the park.  Keith works during the week and it is a 40 min drive to the park. Since it was Fall, each day and the passing week got considerably darker earlier so time and daylight were major factors for us.  Getting into the park on a weekday would be optimal, but not likely for us.  We hoped that Sundays would be less busy than Saturdays while still giving us the entire day to enjoy the park.

Our first visit was the first Sunday we were in town.  We arrived early in the day, by 8 am, and were pleasantly surprised by a nearly full parking lot at the visitor center, but at the same time, it was not crowded.  No line at the bathroom and we got right on the shuttle bus.

Desert view with the towering walls of Zion National Park in the background
Desert view with the towering walls of Zion National Park in the background
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The Virgin River is cutting its way through the canyon at Zion National Park
The Virgin River is cutting its way through the canyon at Zion National Park

Our plan for the day

We planned to arrive early and leave early when visiting Zion National Park for the first time.  We wanted a quick overview of the park, to see how the shuttle bus system worked, gather more information about the hiking we planned to do, and just find out more of what to expect within the park.

I planned for us to ride the bus to all of the stops first.  I thought this would take about an hour to an hour and a half and then we would walk the Grotto trail (0.5 mi.).  Next, we’d walk the Archeology trail (0.4 mi.) before finally making our way back to the visitor center to look at the programs offered, etc.

What we actually did for the day

Well, we did not stick to this plan!  Not even for more than a few minutes.  We ended up getting off the bus and walking along the Grotto trail, which is just a really short walk from one bus stop to another.  We did get to see lots of deer and enjoy the quietness of the morning in Zion. Then we hopped back on the bus and rode to the last stop.  Keith and I wanted to get in a little exercise so we strolled along Riverside Walk (2.2 mi.) to get a peek at The Narrows. The Narrows hike starts at the end of the Riverside Walk.  There were definitely more people in this area, but the crowd wasn’t terrible.

By this time we were getting hungry but didn’t want to leave the park.  We rode the bus back to Zion Lodge and saw a pretty long line at the cafe.  Upon further exploration, we found Red Rock Grill within the lodge.  The easy decision was made to have a nicer dining experience for only a few dollars more than the cafe.

Now, we were refueled and were getting through the park more quickly than we thought so we stopped at the museum to watch the video about the park.  I always enjoy these videos and think it’s worth the time to learn more about the park. Next, we decided to go ahead and hike the Watchman Trail (3.3 + mi.).  This was on our list for a future hike so it was really nice to be enjoying more of the park than we thought we’d be able to on this first visit.

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Hiking the Watchman Trail

According to the park guide, the 3.3-mile trail is rated moderate and has an elevation change of 368 ft.  We added on the loop at the end which made our hike slightly longer (my watch recorded 4.5 miles total).

This hike was breathtaking and what a way to be introduced to Zion National Park!  The views at the top were amazing and it didn’t seem real! I felt like we were in a painting and I think the pictures confirm my thoughts!

I had read and made note that this hike is great for sunset.  While we didn’t stay for sunset, I can imagine how spectacular that would be.  Late in the afternoon was a great time to hike this as it wasn’t busy and the light filling the canyon created a landscape beyond what I imagined.

Incredible view of Zion National Park from the Watchman Trail
Incredible view of Zion National Park from the Watchman Trail

More information about the Riverside Walk

I think Riverside Walk is a great starting point for exploration while visiting Zion National Park for the first time. You have the opportunity to ride the bus through the park, listen to the informational recordings and then get out to see it for yourself.

The walk takes you along the Virgin River along the bottom of the canyon. The trail is paved, although sandy at times, we did see a guest in a wheelchair near the end of the walk. This hike a long enough to take a little bit of time (the park guide says 1.5 hr.), but not too long or strenuous for the majority of abilities and ages to enjoy. There are also plenty of marked trails that lead to the river for further enjoyment. This trail is quite busy, but the sound of rushing water helps to drown out the noise and if you find a secluded spot along the river it’s incredibly peaceful.

Keith and Lindsey are standing next to the Virgin River on the Riverwalk Trail
Keith and Lindsey are standing next to the Virgin River on the Riverwalk Trail
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Getting our first peek at The Narrows

At the end of the Riverside Walk is the beginning of The Narrows hike.  We were planning to do this hike on another day so it was nice to get a quick preview of the entrance.

Even if you aren’t going to hike it, it’s fun to step into the water and get a great photo.  Yup, there will be quite a few people around, but you’ll likely be able to find an angle without people for a great picture.

Stepping into the water, we wanted to feel the depth and temperature.  You can rent gear for hiking the narrows and while it isn’t expensive, we weren’t sure we needed it.

I’m glad we did the Riverside Walk separate from hiking The Narrows.  It allowed us to take our time and really enjoy the hike, take pictures, etc.  That way when we went hiking The Narrows we could quickly get to the main event for that day.  Not everyone would have the luxury of time to do this, but I’d recommend it if you do.

Getting our first peek at The Narrows hike through the Virgin River
Getting our first peek at The Narrows hike through the Virgin River

We are so happy to be traveling again!

Keith and I both were so happy while visiting Zion National Park for the first time!  We did not experience the crazy crowds we had heard about, partly due to our planning and we got to see much more of the park than we thought!  Leaving, we were anxious to get back into the park for all the hiking adventures that would await us in the coming weeks!

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