Dreaming of Travel: Zion National Park
Tips and Tricks for Exploring this Epic National Treasure with Kids
Zion is hands down one of my favorite places in the world and definitely top three in terms of our incredible national parks (although they are each so special in their own way). Believe it or not, our favorite part about Zion is there are NO CARS!! Zion is a biker's heaven and the open air shuttle bus is a great alternative, allowing visitors to focus all their energy on soaking in the beauty.
If you are taking the bike route, bring your own or easily rent one (there are dozens of options just outside of the park entrance in the beautiful town of Springdale, Utah). We rented from Zion Outfitter and we were really happy with the service, cleanliness and selection. There are several other options in town and also at the park entrance (both ebike, kiddo trailers and regular bike.
In making your selection, it's worth noting that there’s a steep incline after the first 1.5 miles in the park, so if you’re not up for that, not to worry, the open air shuttle is an equally wonderful way to get around.
Where to Stay?
Plan accommodations in advance (especially in prime season from June to September). There’s a great mix of cost effective as well as splurge options for hotels. RV and campsites are available in the park, which are exquisite but generally require advance planning and are generally for dry camping with your RV - meaning no electric hook ups, water or dump stations available. You can also find great options in town that don't sacrifice the views.
We stayed at the Quality Inn Springdale in the heart of town. We enjoyed basic accommodations with incredible Zion mountain views and quick access to the park (less than five minutes by bike). The pool was clean and busy with kids playing and splashing after long, fun days taking in the incredible sites! It’s not fancy but definitely feels safe and clean, and you can’t beat the location with walkability to the park and town.
Alternatively, stay a little bit outside of town at Under Canvas Zion in Virgin, Utah. Offering glamping at its best, Under Canvas features beautiful views and great amenities.
The Desert Pearl Inn is a high end boutique feeling hotel with a beautiful pool and exceptional views in the heart of town.
For spots to camp or hookup your RV, Zion Canyon Campground is affiliated with the Quality Inn and a popular choice. For more options, check out this helpful blog about the 7 Best Campgrounds near Zion to find the spot best for your family!
Zion can be a day trip or multi day excursion and there’s plenty to see. If you have the opportunity, I would allow at least two full days.
Plans for Day One
If you are on bicycles, ride through the park entrance and you’ll find restrooms, a gift shop and guides (as well as the shuttle entrance, for which you need to purchase tickets in advance).
Head past the crowds and you’ll quickly be on a beautiful bike path along the Virgin River to the Pa’rus Trail (which is equally perfect for stroller walking, running or biking). The views are incredible, although you can’t go wrong anywhere in Zion, it’s truly spectacular. This is a great option for active families with little kids as there are fun stops along the way. The path does not allow cars and you will have 360 degree views of Zion’s magnificence.
There are several places to enjoy the river and ample photo opportunities. The river access is fantastic, and almost feels like a beach. Spend a little time playing, splashing or kicking back for a picnic. There are also educational sign areas providing opportunities to learn about the history of this geological wonder.
If you’re feeling ambitious and have kiddos strapped in safely or more mature bikers, extend your ride up the road to the Zion Lodge bus stop. We loved the Lower Emerald Pools hike, which was mostly flat with wide pathways (you could easily bring a jogging stroller if desired). As you may expect with the dramatic views and drops, safety needs to be the priority so if you are outnumbered by kids, be cautious, set rules and take the easier routes.
The Lower Emerald Pool Trail is perfect for families and while the views from the Upper and Middle falls are wonderful, you’ll be deeply satisfied with the Lower Falls in every way. The hike is less than a mile in on a paved path. The contours of the canyon walls around the waterfall are panoramic and breathtaking.
This is a great out and back option with a picnic at the end of the trailhead. I would not recommend taking multiple little ones on the loop that passes by both upper levels of the falls. The path is very high up with steep cliffs and without a railing. We had two adults and a good listener but still felt nervous. The out and back is much better suited for families.
If you are feeling extra energy (and have good listeners with you) you can head up to the middle. It is less than ten minutes further but with more challenging uphill terrain. Hike less than ten minutes further to reach the middle falls and enjoy a picnic on the trail, but bear in mind this is more challenging uphill terrain and requires climbing steep steps and a considerable amount of caution with little ones.
The Upper Falls is another thirty minutes up and deeper into the canyon. The waterfall wasn’t running (in late August) but it was still worth the climb. This is challenging and I would say more in the hard category requiring some light scrambling and a lot of climbing but you come across an enclave that is a dreamy experience. It is an ideal place to take a break and play in the sand. We saw many families taking in the beauty and making the Upper Falls a multi-hour stop on their journey with a picnic and some bouldering.
VERY IMPORTANT: On the way down, you’ll be offered an option to go right to exit the Upper Falls, DO NOT go this way with kids. Go down the way you came past the Middle and Lower Falls. The route to the right has steep and dangerous cliffs with no railing leaving absolutely no room for error!
The brew pub, Zion Brewery, at the base of the park is a fun way to cool off and relax with a snack at the end of a fun day. They offer outdoor seating with misters running on hot days and have a typical kids menu as well as a variety of main menu options.
Time for the well-known and loved hike: The Narrows!
If you have two days and you’re up for a big challenge, head to The Narrows - it’s known for delivering awe-inspiring Instagram shots. We learned quickly that The Narrows is a choose your own adventure option. You’ll see people of all ages, with parents guiding and carrying kids through the water, people with walking sticks, water shoes, packs of all sizes and lots of cameras.
The shuttle takes you to The Narrows (it is the last stop and a popular one at that). There are restrooms at the shuttle stop and the first two miles are very family-friendly, mostly flat with great views along the Virgin River. Once you hit The Narrows, you’ll transition to walking in water of various levels. We often hit spots of waist deep water and it genuinely felt there was a sense of community as hikers experienced this natural wonder with patience and a healthy awareness of the potential need for one another.
Once we hit the water portion, we hiked about two miles into The Narrows through the water. I personally wouldn’t have felt abundantly confident going much further with young kids, but many people did and generally left very early in the morning to preserve enough time for the journey with little legs. Many also chose to hire a guide. Alternatively many families chose the well known turnaround spot for families at the first waterfall, which is on the right side when hiking up river.
It’s even more spectacular than pictures could describe and absolutely worth every bit of effort involved. It’s also extremely important that you come prepared and keep an eye out for all weather warnings. Be ready to get wet and bring along dry clothes in a wet bag. Layers are also helpful in case the weather changes. We wore sneakers and Keens water shoes and quick dry clothing (Patagonia baggies are a personal favorite), lots of sunscreen, sunglasses and brought a waterproof camera too!
The Narrows is amazing but it truly is not 100% kid-friendly so we must emphasize that preparation is the key to an optimal experience.
Preparing to Hike The Narrows at Zion National Park
If you’re traveling with multiple kids, especially under seven, you need a lot of adult help in crossing light to heavy flow waters that are often waist deep. We wore sneakers but you can also rent shoes and walking sticks which are both good options, especially if water temps are below 55 degrees. Zion Outfitters right outside the entrance of the park in Springdale offers plenty of rental options for cold-water gear.
A note on the shuttle: once you finish the day of hiking, expect to see a line at the end for the shuttle back to the park entrance. We brought extra snacks and water (always more than you think you need) and gummy bears for added motivation when energy levels wane. If you are feeling ambitious or just don’t feel like waiting, rent a regular or e-bike from any bike rental service and ride to and from The Narrows.
For even more helpful information, check out this detailed blog from Simply Amazing Trips!
If you have more time, there are so many additional hikes to explore in this incredible place. We suggest checking out alltrails, which is our go to. You can download the map layers in advance and track your route, we love it!
Where to Eat?
When traveling to national parks, we generally eat campfire meals and aspire to make it to the end of the night for S’mores together. That said, in our quest to share recommendations with the happyly community, we did enjoy a few outdoor meals and we were so happy we did because the town of Springdale is a friendly-haven packed with great energy and a delicious variety of options.
We enjoyed a proper sit down breakfast with all the home style goodness you could hope for. Open 8 am - 10 pm daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner for inside or outside dining.
This place was just so good! We loved the burritos, fresh juices, oatmeal and coffee options. A very popular to-go spot, especially considering the inside seating was currently closed due to COVID-19. Fortunately, they do also have takeout window with outdoor seating and a roof deck
Located at Flanigan’s Inn, we loved the kids’ menu with options beyond the expected. The meatloaf at Spotted Dog was definitely a hit! We enjoyed nice adult beverages and simple Italian dishes. We also loved the outdoor seating option with Zion views!
Starting November 3rd, Bit & Spur went to to-go only for the coming months. Food is available daily from 11:30 am - 7 pm.
While it was closed when we visited we heard it’s a local favorite.
Centrally located and fully stocked with fresh and prepared foods, this is also a good place to get sandwiches for your day in the park.
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Explore more of our Dreaming of Travel series in a music lover’s paradise like Memphis, or find your happy place on Nantucket or Bear Lake: An Adventurer’s Oasis. If you’d prefer, Make Nature Your Focus in Harper’s Ferry, Plan Your Next Adventure in Savannah, Explore Grand Teton or Yellowstone, Dream about a Tubing Adventure in Salida, Colorado, or further fuel your wanderlust in the Dry Tortugas or at Mojave National Preserve.
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