A Choose Your Own Adventure Hiking Guide To One Day In Zion National Park

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I went back and forth for so long on how to do this post for spending one day in Zion National Park. For some parks, like Canyonlands, it’s easy to pick the best things to see and do in one day. Others, like Arches, that’s a lot harder so I pick different combinations of things to give options for one day in the park.

But for Zion, neither of way was working for me, there are just too many options and it would have been extremely repetitive. So I came up with this: part Zion hiking guide, part ways to spend one day in Zion.

I know most people visiting want to or plan to do either both Angels Landing and the Narrows, or at least one of them. Instead of listing ten different ways to spend one day in Zion doing one of those hikes plus other things, I just made a little list.

Travel Services I Recommend:
AllTrails – This is my favorite hike tracking app.
America the Beautiful – The national park pass is essential.
Booking.com – This is great for finding and booking hotels.
Get Your Guide – I recommend Get Your Guide for booking tours.
National Park Obsessed – This is the best national park planner.
Skyscanner – Skyscanner is great for finding and booking flights.
Enterprise – This is my rental car recommendation.
See all my resources here.

Sand Bench trail zion national park Utah

First though, I have brief descriptions of all the hikes included from the main canyon area (this doesn’t include Kolob Canyons or Kolob Terrace Road.) I feel like those are both better to visit if you have more than one day in the park though.

Then, after that, I have two sections with a lot of combinations of the hikes I’ve listed broken down by Big Dogs (that include Angels Landing and/or the Narrows) and the Underdogs (that don’t include those two.)

So this guide to one day in Zion sort of turned into a Zion hiking guide because I couldn’t find a better way to do it myself. I know what I would do with one day in Zion is probably different than most people though.

parus trail zion utah

National Park Goodies

Zion national park east side

How I would spend one day in Zion National Park

Before we get started, this is how I would spend one day in Zion, and it varies by season. I know most first-time visitors will go for the Big Dogs but there is so much more to see in Zion! It’s hard for me not to suggest other hikes over those.

So, here are my three options based on season. In the winter and spring I would do, Canyon Overlook, Watchman Trail, and Sand Bench Trail but if the horses are already on the trail for the year, I would do Emerald Pools instead. I would also do Emerald Pools instead if it had waterfalls.

In the summer I would keep it cool and refreshing by hiking the Narrows, Watchman, Lower Pine Creek Waterfall, and if you have time, Petroglyph Canyon. Finally, in the fall I would do Watchman, Angels Landing, and Pa’rus, three of the best trails to enjoy the changing leaves.

If Hidden Canyon was open, I would probably add that into any season but summer because I loved that trail and it’s different than most in the park.

Overview of Zion hikes

Here I’ve got a brief overview of all the hikes I’ve included in this post. It’s not every single hike in Zion but it is most of the main ones. I did not include The Subway in this post because it’s not a hike the average visitor will (or should) be doing.

This is where you’ll find the distance and elevation gain of each hike, where each hike is (the area of the park), and the highlights of the hike. I won’t go into tons of detail but will link to a full post about each hike.

All distance listed are round-trip and if there is any pertinent information (permits, closures, generally helpful things), it is listed before the stats of each hike.

There are occasions where trails in Zion are closed because of search and rescues, rockfall, trail maintenance, trail conditions, or in the winter, ice. Their Facebook page is usually pretty up to date on these closings and reopenings. If a trail you wanted to do is closed, there are tons of others to choose from.

Photo by Fabio Achilli Flickr

Observation Point – strenuous

**Observation Point is currently closed due to rockfall at the Weeping Rock stop (it’s trailhead) but can be reached from the East Mesa Trailhead outside of the east entrance.**

Distance: 7 via the East Mesa Trail, 8 via the main Observation Point trail

Elevation: 700 feet via East Mesa, 2100-2700 via the main trail (I keep seeing conflicting numbers)

Highlights: The unbeatable view of not just the main canyon below, but Angels Landing, too. I haven’t done this yet, but from what I’ve seen, it’s the best view in Zion since you’re literally looking down at the rest of the park.

I’m not sure I would do this plus an easy hike with one day in Zion since it’s a long hike but I included some options below just in case. For this reason, I’m out. (Shark Tank anyone?) I’m kidding, but I probably wouldn’t do this with just one day in Zion if unless you’re on a return visit.

Maybe the top hike in Zion and, if you can get a permit, a great choice with one day in Zion

Angels Landing – strenuous

You do need a permit to hike the chains part of Angels Landing. These can be obtained online in advance but if you didn’t get one of those, you can try getting one the day before. I would be wary of doing this if you’re extremely afraid of heights.

Distance: 4.4 miles

Elevation: 1604 feet

Highlights: After all the effort on the hike up, you’re rewarded with the second best view in the park. But I would almost argue that the hike itself is the highlight. Often touted as one of the most dangerous hikes in the world, the narrow chains section with 2000 foot drops on both sides may be the biggest draw.

Zion Narrows
Definitely one of the top hikes in Zion and a must with one day in Zion in the summer

The Narrows – strenuous

The Narrows may close due to flash flood chances or bacteria in the water. It varies but if this is your main goal for your trip to Zion, check the website or call to make sure its open before you go. If it is closed for some reason, there are plenty of other great hikes in Zion!

Distance: Up to 9.4 miles

Elevation: 334 feet

Highlights: Literally everything. The unique part of this trail is that you’re actually just sloshing your way through the Virgin River as far as you want to go. It’s a slot canyon, but instead of being a wash like most slot canyons, it’s the river. This hike is almost entirely in the water, so just be prepared for that.

Sand Bench trail zion national park Utah
A great hike in Zion in winter

Sand Bench Trail – moderate

I have not done this in the summer when it’s used for horses. On our trip to Zion in January, the hike was fantastic but we didn’t encounter horse poop. AllTrails reviews from the summer mention the trail being a sandy horse trail covered in poop, stinky, and all around buggy.

If you’ve done it in the peak season, let me know how it was in the comments below. I would only do this one in the winter to avoid the horse poops.

Distance: 5.6 miles

Elevation: 728 feet

Highlights: I would say the highlight of the Sand Bench Trail is that it’s great for getting away from the crowds of the first three trails I mentioned, even most of the rest on this list. The solitude is great, but the views of the canyon are also pretty nice, just very different from others since you’re not up as high.

Watchman trail zion national park Utah
A busy trail, but one not talked about enough. A great hike for one day in Zion that doesn’t require the shuttle.

Watchman Trail – moderate

Distance: 3.1 miles

Elevation: 636 feet

Highlights: The view. The trail itself is good but the view, while not quite as impressive as Angels Landing or Observation Point, was still amazing. And it’s different from those views, which is nice. It was a new perspective on a park that almost only has two views celebrated. I think this is an underrated hike in Zion and one you should try and squeeze in if you just have one day there.

Emerald pools trail zion utah
Waterfalls along the Emerald Pools Trail, a great choice for seeing Zion National Park in one day

Emerald Pools – moderate

The main Emerald Pools trail can close in the winter because of ice (it did while we were there) so you may have to get to them via the Kayenta Trail which is still beautiful.

Distance: 3 miles via the main trail, 2.4 miles via Kayenta Trail

Elevation: 620 feet via the main trail, 629 feet via Kayenta Trail

Highlights: Ok, this one is a little different because what I think is the highlight isn’t something you can see all the time: waterfalls. In the summer, you probably won’t see them unless it rained recently, and this trail would then be my least favorite on the list.

But in the winter, at least while we were there, we got to see tons of waterfalls on the way up and at the Upper Emerald Pool. Its a pretty busy trail so I would ask at the visitor center before you hike this if they know if there is a waterfall there when you’re going.

hidden canyon trail Zion national park
When it’s open, Hidden Canyon is one of my top hikes in Zion, for sure.

Hidden Canyon – moderate

**Hidden Canyon is also at the Weeping Rock stop and is closed indefinitely due to rockfall. It cannot be accessed in any other way at this time.**

Distance: 3.1 miles

Elevation: 971 feet

Highlights: The chain section, not quite like Angels Landing as t’s not exposed on both sides, was my favorite part but, of course the canyon you’re hiking into is also really great. I think Hidden Canyon is kind of like and introduction to Angels Landing because of the exposed chain part.

Canyon overlook trail zion national park
One of the best views in Zion

Canyon Overlook Trail – easy

Parking for the Canyon Overlook Trail is very limited. There is only room for 5-9 cars, if that, across from the trailhead so you may have to park a little further down the road in one of the other parking areas (only in the parking areas!) and walk over, just be mindful of traffic since it’s a busy area.

Distance: 1 mile

Elevation: 187 feet

Highlights: The view at the end, for sure. While it’s not quite as good as Angels Landing (I’m guessing) it is a fantastic alternative if you can’t hike that, especially since this trail is so short. The view is of Echo Canyon instead of the main canyon. I love this trail, and, you may even see bighorn sheep here!

lower pine creek waterfall zion

Lower Pine Creek Waterfall – easy

Distance: 0.7 miiles

Elevation: 55 feet

Highlights: The waterfall, for sure. The trail itself isn’t super exciting, but it could be more fun in the summer if you can splash through the creek and cool off in the water. The rock scrambling at the end would also be more fun without the worry of ice.

No matter the season, though, the waterfall is definitely worth it. Plus, this trail isn’t really advertised so it shouldn’t be terribly busy, especially with the limited parking. It isn’t marked at all, I don’t think.

Zion petroglyph canyon trail Utah

Petroglyph Canyon – easy

Distance: 0.6 miles

Elevation: Not much

Highlights: Obviously, the Petroglyphs. Most of the hikes in Zion have an end point that you’re working toward, a destination. I feel like very few are just for the hike. This short hike takes you to some pretty cool petroglyphs on the east side of Zion and is also not really advertised by the park, for preservation sake.

Things to keep in mind when visiting rock art & ruins:

  • Do not touch the rock art (pictographs or petroglyphs) because the oils on our fingers can degrade them.
  • If you find artifacts, do not take them.  Leave them where they are and just take pictures.
  • If there are structures (rooms, kivas, anything like that) don’t enter them unless it is stated that you can.  Most places you can’t but national and state parks will have restored structures you can enter.  Mesa VerdeEdge of the Cedars, and Anasazi Museum all have ruins you can enter.
  • And finally, don’t carve in or write or paint or draw on the rocks!  I don’t want to have to say this, but I need to for real.
parus trail zion utah
The Pa’rus trail is an underrated easy hike in Zion

Pa’rus Trail – easy

Distance: 3.4 miles

Elevation: 157 feet

Highlights: Just nice views of the Virgin River and surrounding cliffs. This is the perfect hike if you want something easy, but not short. This is far from the most exciting hike in Zion but it’s beautiful and great if you want more of a walk than a hike.

The Big Dogs

There are, I would say, three big hikes in Zion: Angels Landing, The Narrows, and Observation Point. You can do Angels Landing and The Narrows in one day but Observation Point is a lot more difficult so that may depend.

This section shows a few options of combinations that include either just the big dogs or one big dog hike and one or two other hikes.

If there is just one big dog hike, the other hikes are moderate and easy. If you pick one of these options, you’ll definitely be hiking 6-7 moderate-difficult miles in a day. The easy trails are all short, except for the Pa’rus trail but that is totally flat and paved, just longer.

  • Observation Point
  • Observation Point + Canyon Overlook
  • Observation Point + Petroglyph Canyon
  • Observation Point + Lower Pine Creek Waterfall
  • Angels Landing + The Narrows
  • Angels Landing (or Narrows) + Sand Bench Trail + Canyon Overlook Trail
  • Angels Landing (or Narrows) + Emerald Pools + Lower Pine Creek Waterfall
  • Angels Landing (or Narrows) + The Watchman Trail + Pa’rus Trail
  • Angels Landing (or Narrows) + Hidden Canyon
Zion national park east side
Watchman trail zion national park Utah

The Underdogs

Now for the underdogs. These are all of the moderate and easy hikes in various combinations. You could most likely do more than three of these in a day if you want to do more easy ones but I kept it to three unless it was all easy.

Of the big dog hike, I’ve only done the Narrows and, don’t get me wrong, it’s incredible, but I think I prefer most of these. I doubt Angels Landing and Observation Point are bad in literally any way but I just love all of the trails in this category.

I would say these combinations are better if you’re visiting Zion a second time or don’t care about the three main big dog hikes. These are also better for avoiding crowds.

  • Sand Bench Trail + Watchman Trail + Canyon Overlook Trail
  • Sand Bench Trail (or Watchman Trail) + Lower Pine Creek Waterfall + Petroglyph Canyon
  • Sand Bench Trail (or Watchman Trail) + Pa’rus Trail + Lower Pine Creek Waterfall
  • Sand Bench Trail (or Watchman Trail) + Canyon Overlook + Petroglyph Canyon
  • Sand Bench Trail (or Watchman Trail) + Hidden Canyon
  • Sand Bench Trail (or Watchman Trail) + Emerald Pools
  • Lower Pine Creek Waterfall + Petroglyph Canyon + Pa’rus + Canyon Overlook
  • Emerald Pools + Pa’rus + Lower Pine Creek Waterfall
  • Emerald Pools + Petroglyph Canyon + Canyon Overlook
  • Emerald Pools + Hidden Canyon
  • Observation Point

And if following any of these ideas just sounds awful, you can choose your own adventure and make a great list of hike to do with one day in Zion by picking a combination like: one difficult, one moderate; one difficult, one easy; one difficult, two easy; two moderate; two moderate, one easy; one moderate, two easy.

There are literally a million options. I’ll say though, my personal recommendation would be: for winter, Canyon Overlook, Watchman, and Sand Bench; for summer, Narrows, Watchman, Lower Pine Creek Waterfall.

Zion national park east side

What to bring hiking in Zion

Hiking poles – These will be helpful on longer hikes that are on the steeper side.  They’ll be good if you have bad knees for when you’re going downhill and will give you something to lean on going up the hills.

Water bottle – It’ll be hot and you’ll need to stay hydrated.  Even if it’s not hot you need to stay hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.

Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch a lot AND it’s reef safe! If you’re sensitive to fragrance though, it’s not a good choice. I also like the same one but specifically for your face.

Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes, or a visor.  A baseball hat should be fine but I like my giant sun hat, too.

Sunglasses – This is a must no matter where you are.

Light Jacket – Because you just never know.  Weather can change quickly depending on where you are, time of day, and season.  I usually use my rain jacket for this.

Headlamp – I tend to carry my headlamp around all the time when we’re hiking, just in case. 

Emerald pools trail zion utah
The waterfall at Upper Emerald Pool

Slot Canyon Safety

Zion does experience flash floods, especially in the Narrows and they will close that if they need to, but this is something to be aware of for a lot of hikes in the park, just in case. Some I haven’t included on the east side (I haven’t done them yet) would particularly be effected by them.

Flash floods are a huge risk in slot canyons and people die from that far too often. In May 2020 a 7-year-old girl and her 3-year-old sister died in a flash flood in Little Wild Horse Canyon, a popular slot canyon in the San Rafael Swell. This isn’t even a super narrow canyon. And it’s popular. It can happen anywhere.

In 1997, 11 hikers died in a flash flood in Antelope Canyon (the storm was 15 miles away) and that’s a huge reason you need to go with a tour now.

In 2015, seven people canyoneering also died in a flash flood in Keyhole Canyon in Zion National Park. People have even died in flash floods in The Narrows in Zion!

Flash floods are no joke kids. I haven’t seen one in a slot canyon but I did see one right as it was starting in a more open canyon and it really picked up fast. I also saw one in Zion along the Mt. Carmel Highway this summer. It was small but they just happen so fast, please be safe.

  • If you don’t feel comfortable with any climb or narrow squeeze and can turn back, do that! You don’t want to get hurt or stuck and need to be rescued. I linked tons of stories of this below.
  • Make sure you’re following the right fork. A lot of slot canyons have multiple forks or are close to other ones and ending up in the wrong one can have dire consequences (especially in the North Wash area of Utah.)
Zion national park east side
A flash flood in Zion

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Have you been to Zion? What hike in Zion is your favorite? How would you spend one day in Zion?

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