The Budget Guide to Zion National Park
With majestic canyons, sandstone walls, and breathtaking hikes, it’s no wonder this jewel of the National Park Service was named for the promised land.
Zion National Park in Southwest Utah is one of the most extraordinary places in the United States (and on earth). It offers adventure surrounded by towering canyons, immense sandstone walls, and amazing hikes that every American must see at least once in their lifetime.
McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is the largest airport near Zion National Park. The St. George Regional Airport is a bit closer at just 50 miles away, but prices are usually between $100 and $200 more for a round-trip ticket. Keep an eye on ticket prices leading up to your purchase, and snag some for St. George if you find a comparable deal.
If you’re coming from Las Vegas, rent a car for the 160-mile drive to the park. Then take off toward the mountains on I-15 for desert panoramas that will just begin to prepare you for the jaw-dropping Utah landscape you’re headed for. We recommend completing this drive during daylight. Not only will you want to take in the desert scenery, but there are also some winding roads.
For the best gas prices, be sure to fuel up in St. George or Hurricane, UT. It’s also advisable to buy several gallons of water before entering the park in case of emergency.
Entering And Navigating The Park
At the park entrance, you’ll pay $35 per car, which gives you access to the park for seven days. For $80, you can get the America The Beautiful pass, which grants you access to all national parks in the US. If you plan to go on from Zion to other nearby parks such as Bryce Canyon or Arches, we absolutely recommend this option.
During most of the pandemic, Zion has been implementing a shuttle ticket system. At the end of May 2021, the park eliminated this system. The shuttle is now open for anyone to ride. The only requirement is that you wear a mask! As of June 2021, the only places the buses are stopping include the visitor center, the lodge, the Grotto, Big Bend, and the Temple of Sinawava.
There is often a line to get on a shuttle, and on busy days, you may feel as though you’re standing in line at Walt Disney World. The line is typically worse in the morning as everyone is arriving to the park, but extra-early birds can beat the crowds. Shuttle buses begin running at 6 AM, so get in line around 5:00 AM if you’d like to be one of the first up canyon.
The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel
The Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel runs between Zion Canyon and the east side of the park. Due to height limitations, this 1.1-mile tunnel cannot accommodate large vehicles in both lanes. Rangers must control the traffic flow so that oversized vehicles can drive down the center of the tunnel.
Therefore, vehicles larger than either 11’4” tall or 7’10” wide must pay a $15 tunnel permit fee at the park entrance station. Vehicles larger than 13’1” are completely prohibited. Also note that pedestrians and bicyclists are not allowed in the tunnel at any time.
See below for the 2021 tunnel hours of operation (MDT) for large vehicles.
- August 29 to September 25: 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM
- September 26 to November 6: 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM
- Winter hours of operation starting November 7: 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM
Camping: The Ultimate Bargain
Tent camping is one way you can cut expenses while visiting Zion National Park. You can make camp on most BLM (public) land without a fee; however, this option should only be used by those who are experienced campers.
If you want to camp for free, make sure you have a map and give yourself plenty of daylight to find a campsite. The tradeoff with this option is that you’ll have to devote a little more time traveling to and from the park.
If you’d prefer a campsite inside the park with more amenities, plan to book your spot early. The Watchman Campground is right by the visitor center and is the busiest campground, often selling out months in advance.
Additionally, the South Campground is just a bit further up the road and allows reservations up to 14 days before your trip. For a little more privacy, you can stay at the first come, first served Lava Point Campground, about an hour and twenty minutes from the south entrance of the park.
Hotels Are A Short, Beautiful Drive Away
Affordable hotels can be found in Hurricane, UT, about a 30-minute drive from the park. Prices can be as low as $60 in the off season, and $70 in the high season. The drive is beautiful; just be sure to budget time to get through the park’s gates.
Springdale is the closest town to Zion’s south entrance, but it tends to be a bit pricier. Keep your eyes on hotel prices as you prepare for your trip, and again, snag something if you find a comparable deal. There’s a shuttle that runs between Springdale and the park, so parking doesn’t have to be such a pain if you stay in town.
Stock up on food in advance
To stay on budget, you’ll want to stock up on food and water at a grocery store (pick up a cooler and ice if you’re packing perishables of course). Stop in either Las Vegas or St. George for these items. There are also several restaurants and small markets just outside the park in Springdale, but these will be more expensive.
Hiking: Zion’s Main Attraction
Zion is world-renowned for its hiking. Whether you spend the day wading through a river canyon or scaling the side of a mountain, there is no more rewarding way to soak up Zion’s unreal landscape. Plus, hiking is free! Here are our top recommendations in the park.
- Section: South side (of the canyon)
- Level of difficulty: Easy
The 3.5-mile Pa’rus Trail is great for bicyclists and for those who want a fairly flat trail that will still give them plenty of stunning views. Additionally, there is only one trail in Zion that pet owners can take their animals, and this is it!
- Section: South side (of the canyon)
- Level of difficulty: Moderate
If you’re wanting to do something a little more difficult than the Pa’rus Trail without having to enter the canyon via shuttle, try this trail. In 3.3 miles, it rewards you with great views of the Watchman, the lower canyon, and Springdale.
Canyon Overlook Trail
- Section: East side
- Level of difficulty: Moderate
The Canyon Overlook Trail is a beautiful one to watch either sunrise or sunset from. It’s a short jaunt that clocks in at just one mile round-trip, and it leads you up to spectacular views of lower Zion Canyon.
Just be sure to head there a little earlier than your intended hike start time as you may have to park down the road. Parking at the trailhead is very limited.
Taylor Creek Trail
- Section: Kolob Canyons
- Level of difficulty: Moderate
If you’re interested in getting away from the crowds Zion is known for, take an hour drive to the Kolab Canyons section of the park and try the 5-mile Taylor Creek Trail.
Emerald Pools + The Kayenta Trail
- Section: Zion Canyon
- Level of difficulty: Moderate
Connect the Emerald Pools Trails with the Kayenta Trail for one of the easier hikes up canyon. This route is perfect for families or for those who are a little tired from hiking in the morning. There are a few different ways to do this combination depending on which Emerald Pools Trails you take, but the longest way clocks in at just about three miles.
- Section: Zion Canyon
- Level of difficulty: Strenuous
You can hike the Virgin River up to Big Spring (3.6 miles one-way), wading through the water as you stare up at the high walls enclosing you. The trail is listed as strenuous because it involves climbing over some rocks, but there’s little elevation gain.
Some choose to rent gear such as walking sticks and water shoes from outfitters in town. If you want to save some money, however, just bring along the trekking poles you’re using to hike with anyways.
Note that there’s always a risk of flash floods on this trail. Keep your eye on the flood forecast posted around the park and turn around if you see the following:
- Deteriorating weather conditions
- Thunder or a buildup of clouds
- Sudden changes in water clarity (from clear to muddy)
- Section: Zion Canyon
- Level of difficulty: Strenuous
This is Zion’s most famous hike, which ends with a crawl across the spine of a mountain to a view meant for angels. If you’re afraid of heights, stop on the trail at Scout Lookout, which provides views almost as good as those farther on.
This trail is often very crowded – by the end of the effort, you’ll be best friends with the people climbing the trail around you. Bring extra water as the set of steep switchbacks on the trail will have you needing more than you might think.
Other Things You Need To Know
Due to rockfall in 2019, a few hikes are closed: Weeping Rock, Hidden Canyon, and Observation Point via the canyon floor. These trails are bound to be closed for another decade or so (if they ever reopen).
The Virgin River (and any water sources coming from the river) is currently experiencing a toxic cyanobacteria bloom. Even though the park is monitoring it regularly, much is unknown regarding its effects. If you choose to go into the water, avoid getting it in your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, or in any open wounds.
Additionally, do not let dogs drink from or get into the river as the algae has been found to be fatal to our furry friends. The United States’ national parks are some of our favorite road trip destinations, and we were thrilled to create this budget guide for Zion. For more details about the park, head to the NPS website. If you go to the park and post any photos on social media, be sure to use the hashtag #MyBudgetTravel for a chance to be featured on our page!
This content is sponsored by Fireside Resort Cabins, Wyoming Enjoy the outdoors sustainably without compromising comfort at Fireside Resort Cabins in Wilson, Wyoming. The 25 LEED-certified individual cabins offer modern luxuries in a rustic setting near the mountain town and ski slopes of Jackson Hole. Each cabin has hardwood floors, craftsman-style décor, Native American artwork, king-sized Tempur-Pedic bed, walk-in rain shower and a living room with a fireplace and kitchenette. The atmosphere of a wooded campground is complete with a private campfire and hot tub. Some of the best-known parks in the country – Grand Tetons National Park and Yellowstone National Park, are nearby. Moab Springs Ranch, Utah Located just minutes outside Arches National Park, the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park, Moab Springs Ranch is a locally owned, eco-friendly resort. There are studio-style stand-alone bungalows with private porches, and spacious townhouses with one, two or three bedrooms to accommodate large families. The resort itself backs up to Moab’s majestic red rocks and offers walking, biking and hiking trails, as well as a relaxing garden with hammocks and waterscapes. Tiny Town Cabins, Colorado Since there are no accommodations inside Rocky Mountain National Park, most visitors choose to stay at the bustling city of Estes Park. The energetic town filled with eclectic restaurants and shops, is located at the footsteps of Rocky Mountain National Park, just 90 minutes from Denver. For a typical Colorado-style cabin experience, stay at Tiny Town Cabins at Trout Haven Resorts outside the park. Located alongside the trout filled Big Thompson River, the 19 individual cozy cabins offer a blend of modern amenities and historic architecture. In case you want to bring your four-legged family members along, the cabins are also dog friendly. Lazy Z Resort, California Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountain in Sonora, California, Lazy Z Resort is a family-owned retreat offering 13 cabins and cottages in 40 acres of pines, cedars, and oaks. The expansive rooms come with private kitchens and decks, while common areas include a rustic club house filled with family heirlooms and a relaxing swimming pool in the woods. The mountain retreat is great for nature lovers looking for peace and tranquility, and an easy access to Yosemite National Park. Treetop Hideaways, Georgia Located at the border of Georgia and Tennessee, Treetop Hideaways is one of the most luxurious and sustainable treehouse accommodations. Made of reclaimed wood, copper-lined whiskey barrels, and backed by a crowdsourcing campaign, the two treehouses offer the ultimate glamping experience. Complete with climate control, heated floors, walk-in rain-head showers, and ultra-fast internet, these treehouses feel like an ultimate nature resort in the sky. Nearby, explore Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the first and largest national military park in the country. Glacier Bay Lodge, Alaska The rustic Glacier Bay Lodge is the only hotel accommodation available within the Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in this remote part of Alaska. Glacier Bay Lodge offers spectacular views and easy access to Bartlett Cove and the Fairweather Mountain range. It is also the perfect place to embark on an adventure day cruise to see towering snow-capped mountains, magnificent glaciers, humpback whales, moose, mountain goats, brown and black bears, and bald eagles. Sunshine Key Tiny House, Florida Sunshine Key Tiny House Village features all the comforts of home cleverly designed in a fascinatingly small space. The bright tropical colored tiny homes are ideally located on the 75-acre island of Ohio Key, in the lower Florida Keys. Each tiny house is individually designed and decorated to express a unique personality (such as Hemingway), and inside you’ll find comfortable sleeping accommodations, a kitchenette, full bathroom and a flat screen TV. With steps from the beach, Sunshine Key Tiny House Village provides the perfect getaway for ocean activities, or for just relaxing at the water's edge for romance. Tiny House Village is next to the Bahia Honda State Park in Florida. The Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park are also just two hours away. Falling Waters, North Carolina Inspired by ancient Mongolian design, the yurts at Falling Waters Nantahala provide a unique alternative to cabin rentals. Falling Waters’ Yurt Village in the Smoky Mountains encompasses 8 yurts scattered across 22 acres in the scenic vistas of Western North Carolina. Watch the stars from the domed skylights while lying on a comfortable queen size bed, or gaze at pristine Fontana Lake from a private deck. These yurts come with a refrigerator, coffee maker and heater for those chilly nights. Falling Waters is located within a few minutes of Nantahala National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Castle House Estate, California Situated just outside of Joshua Tree National Park, near Los Angeles, The Castle House Estate is a unique glamping site that looks like a medieval castle. Different lodging options at the nine-acre desert estate include yurts, trailers, and guard towers. The estate offers incredible stargazing opportunities in one of California's designated International Dark Sky Parks. Shash Diné Eco Retreat, Arizona Shash Diné Eco Retreat is one of the few glamping bed-and-breakfast that allows guests to stay directly on the Navajo Nation. The homey Bell Tents, cabins and shepherd huts are outfitted with king size beds, hot water showers and candle lanterns. There are also two Navajo Hogans, which are traditional dwellings of the Navajo with earthern floors. Each site has a fire pit to make s’mores under a star-studded night sky. Located just 12 miles south of Paige, Arizona, Shah Diné acts as an easy base from where you can access Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and Grand Canyon National Park. View of the Grand Teton Mountains from Oxbow Bend on the Snake River © RIRF Stock / Shutterstock Tips for Glamping in 2021 Whether you are planning to camp, glamp or stay at a hotel, traveling during the pandemic requires some advanced planning and additional safety measures. Always call the property ahead to inquire if it’s currently open, at what capacity, and what safety measures they are taking to sanitize the rooms and public areas. Some places may offer touchless check-in, to-go breakfast only, or may temporarily close hot tubs and reception areas. When venturing to the national parks, keep in mind many of them now require advanced reservations to visit. Make sure to print out your reservation confirmation and enter the park during the allotted time. Cell phone reception is generally limited inside the parks, so make sure to download park and surrounding area maps ahead of time. A good way to plan your road trip and hiking trails in advance is by using the free National Park Trail Guide app. Avoid the most popular trails during peak hours and plan your routes in reverse order to escape traffic. Most facilities inside the parks, such as restaurants and gift shops, are closed due to COVID-19 or may have limited operations. Therefore, it is better to prepack snacks, food and drinks for the day before entering the park. Public restrooms inside the park are generally open, but carry PPP items such as hand sanitizers, wet wipes and masks to ensure an extra layer of protection. Carefully crafted collaboratively between GEICO, Budget Travel, and Lonely Planet. Both parties provided research and curated content to produce this story. We disclose when information isn’t ours.Sponsored by GEICO
These U.S. Parks Require Winning the Lottery to Visit
Many of us may be feeling the itch to travel after staying home for almost a year as we continue living through a pandemic. When it is safe to travel again, it’s possible that our travel priorities have shifted. Maybe you prefer to spend more time outdoors. If you're wanting to get out more in nature and visit specific parks or recreation areas, you’re going to need to do some extra planning. Several U.S. parks require entering and winning a lottery to have the opportunity to visit, such as reaching the summit of Half Dome or rafting down the San Juan River. Implementing a lottery is one way to minimize human impact on fragile ecosystems by reducing crowds and traffic. Please make sure you check for any COVID-19 pandemic restrictions before you plan or depart on any trip. San Juan River, Utah Floating or rafting down the San Juan River in southeast Utah may be high on your list, especially if you want to traverse through splendid red rock canyons full of history and wildlife. A permit is required between Montezuma Creek and Clay Hills Crossing, comprising 102 miles of the river. Some sections of the river are known for being calm and mellow, while other parts of the river require boating and rafting skills to navigate Class II to III rapids. How to enter: Lottery opens from December to the end of January for trips launching April 15 - July 15. Applicants will be informed on February 16. Any cancelled or unclaimed trips are released to reserve online starting March 16. Trips from July 16- December 31 also become available for advanced reservation. Costs: A $6 non-refundable fee for lottery or advanced reservations. There are additional permit fees with varying prices, depending on the river segment, as well as if you camp or hike within the Navajo Nation section of the river. Rafts and kayaks descend the Snake River in Hells Canyon on the border between Idaho and Oregon. ©thinair28/Getty Images Snake River in Hells Canyon Oregon, Washington and Idaho The majestic Snake River ebbs and flows through the deepest river-carved gorge in North America, known as Hells Canyon. Nestled between eastern Oregon and Washington and western Idaho, Hell’s Canyon is popular for braving rapids from Class II to Class V. There are also sections of the river for relaxing float trips. With the help of binoculars, you can often spot the great blue heron or bighorn sheep. Three private launches are allowed per day with no more than 24 people per group or launch (depending on type of watercraft), as well as two commercial launches during the primary season, from the end of May through September 10th each year. How to enter: Lottery opens in December and the application closes at the end of January. On March 16, any permits unclaimed or cancelled are released to the public and are available to reserve online. Costs: A non-refundable $6 fee to enter the lottery. If awarded a permit, there are no (additional) entrance fees. Half Dome Cables, Yosemite California The striking granite dome that rises about 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley is a symbol of this National park. For many hikers and mountain climbers, reaching the top is a rite of passage. But this 10-12 hour hike isn’t for the faint of heart; it’s a strenuous trail and requires hikers to be in good physical health. The last 400 feet may seem to be the hardest part requiring the famous cables to ascend to the summit but it’s only one of the many challenges. How to enter: The preseason lottery is open from March 1-March 31 with around 225 permits offered each day. Daily lotteries occur from May 31- October 13 (though dates subject to change) with a two day advanced window. So if you want to hike on a Tuesday, you need to apply on Sunday and hope you get lucky. Fifty permits are usually allotted per day. Costs: There is a $10 non-refundable fee to partake in the lottery. If selected, you will incur a $10 permit fee per person for a specific day. Rafting on the Colorado River in the Gran Canyon at sunrise. ©Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock Grand Canyon Rafting, Arizona Rafting down the Colorado River through the incredible Grand Canyon may be a dream come true. But you’re definitely going to need to plan in advance to have a chance at the unique view from the water. Self-guided tours, often referred to as private rafting, are available via the weighted lottery. Because the river is challenging and technical, the National Park Service requires that at least one person in the group has whitewater rafting experience and skills to navigate the river. How to enter: The lottery takes place for three weeks in February for the opportunity to choose up to 5 specific dates for the following year. If there are cancellations by winners or unclaimed trips, applicants can partake in additional lotteries. But hopefuls will need to be attentive to their email as extra lotteries have a super short window, usually two days, to enter. Costs: Applying to the lottery incurs a non-refundable $25 fee. If you win a launch date, you’ll be required to pay a deposit confirming your spot and will go towards covering additional expenses, including a park entrance fee and river permit per person. The Wave, located in the desert close the border of Arizona and Utah, is probably one of the most colorful and amazing sandstone rock formations in the world. Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Colorado Plateau, Coyote Buttes, Arizona. ©Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock Coyote Buttes North (The Wave), Utah Coyote Buttes North is most well-known for the The Wave, an impressive geological sandstone formation, located within the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Permits are required to access this undeveloped area and is considered the backcountry—there are no designated trails or bathrooms. Permit-holders should be in good physical health to hike the challenging 6.4 round-trip trail. A maximum of 64 people are allowed to enter the park each day and in groups of up to six people. How to enter: The lottery opens on the first of each month for the chance to get a day use permit four months later. For example, if you apply during the month of April, if you “win” a permit, you’ll be given a date in August. There are two lottery systems: advanced online and walk-in. The advanced lottery awards permits for forty-eight people or 12 groups per day and up to sixteen people can get lucky in the walk-in lottery. Each person must be listed on the permit, including babies, and pay an entrance fee. Cost: The lottery costs a non-refundable $9 application fee. If you are granted a permit, the cost per person is $7. Havasu Falls, waterfalls in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. ©ronnybas/Shutterstock Havasupai Falls, Arizona Havasupai Falls is part of the Grand Canyon system in Arizona but it is technically outside the park in tribal land that belongs to the Havasupai tribe. It is a known bucket-list hike for hikers and campers who want to experience the beautiful blue water falling over the canyon. In order to hike the canyon, people are required to have a reservation of at least 3 nights, so people should be comfortable with distance hiking. How to enter: The lottery closes on February 1 each year, though it is closed in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Welcome to America's newest National Park: New River Gorge!
America's Best Idea is welcoming a new park to the National Park system. New River Gorge National Park was designated as the United State's 63rd National Park. New River Gorge is the first National Park in the great state of West Virginia. It sits on the southeast corner of the state. Despite its name, the New River is one of the oldest rivers in the world. It has carved beautiful canyons out of the Appalachian Mountains, and is a prime spot for adventure travelers. It boasts some of the best whitewater rafting in the USA, and offers some prime climbing and hiking trails. New River Gorge also offers plenty of wildlife, as it offers some of the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world. The nearest major cities to New River Gorge are Roanoke Va, Knoxville Tn, and Cincinnati Ohio. For more information, visit the NPS site.
Yosemite National Park is open for day-use only
Yosemite National Park has announced that "In support of California Regional Stay-at- Home order, as of noon on Monday, Dec 7, Yosemite is open 8 am to 5 pm for day-use activities only. Lodging and campgrounds are currently closed. Visit https://go.nps.gov/covid for more information and updates."