Unlike many National Parks that provide lots of room to roam, most of Zion’s well known landmarks and hiking trails are only accessible off the 6 mile long Zion Canyon Road, from where it intersects with the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway to its end at the Temple of Sinawava, which provides access to the Riverside Walk and the Narrows. From April to October the only private cars allowed on the Zion Canyon Road are those belonging to guests of the Park’s Zion Lodge. However, even guests of the Lodge must use the ultra-quiet propane-powerd Shuttles when visiting the trails and landmarks along the road. No private cars are allowed on the road past the Lodge in order to maintain a peaceful Canyon experience for all visitors.
The Zion Lodge is the only lodging option inside the Park, other than camping. The scenery is great, but, the the Lodge is trather basic and somewhat expensive, with limited dining choices. We opted to stay in one of the Western Cabins at the Zion Lodge. It certainly was a treat to walk out to the views of the cliffs across the road, but rooms are pretty sparten with small bathrooms that have not been updated in some time. Most cabins come with two double beds (not queens) and very little elbow room. We’d recommend that a family of four with teens rent two connecting cabins if they really want to stay right in the Park.
For our next trip to Zion we will probably stay in the very nearby town of Springdale, which offers a wider range of options that are more affordable and roomier and benefit from having multiple restaurant choices nearby. If you want a pool you definitely need to stay outside the Park. The town of Springdale shuttle buses pick up at a number of stops near most of the family friendly motels and provide frequent, easy connections to the Park’s Visitor Center. From there you can transfer to the Park shuttles or walk to the beginning of the Zion Canyon Road via the Pa’rus Trail. If you want to park your car at the Visitor Center arrive early as it frequently reaches capacity.
Springdale is a pretty little town with a number of dining choices. We ate one dinner at the restaurant at the Zion Lodge but went to Springdale for breakfast and dinner the rest of the time. Oscar’s Cafe with outdoor seating is consistently voted a family favorite. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at Wildcat Willie’s, another family friendly casual restaurant.
Whether you stay in the Park or in Springdale, be sure to build time into your schedule to explore beyond the Zion Canyon Road. We drove the 20+ miles, switchback laden Zion-Mount Carmel Highway from the Zion Lodge, through the 1.1 mile Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, and past the park boundary on the way to Bryce Canyon National Park. While the outbound drive was beautiful, the return trip was breathtaking. Checkboard Mesa and its towering companions, the remains of ancient sand dunes, lined our approach to the tunnel from the East via Utah Route 9.
The tunnel itself was carved through the solid sandstone between 1927 and 1930. It is so narrow that today’s larger trunks and campers need both lanes to get through. There is a $15 fee for the park staff to stop traffic for these larger vehicles. Once you exit the tunnel heading back into the park, you will feel like you are driving a roller coaster as the road drops over 1,000 feet in just a few miles.
The bottom line, our three tips to consider when planning your family vacation to visit Zion National Park are: (1) expect to rely on Shuttles rather than your own car for much of your visit to the main canyon. (2) Be aware that the lodging and restaurant options in Springdale are most likely less expensive and more family friendly than those in the Park. And (3), be sure to find time to explore the East side of the Park. Our eastbound drive on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway and through the Tunnel was a highlight of our springtime visit to Zion National Park.