Utah is one of the most popular spots around the United States for adventure and nature travelers, due to its abundance of breathtaking scenery and natural environments. The top national parks in Utah, commonly referred to as ‘The Mighty 5’ attract millions of visitors every year and after experiencing them, you will certainly understand why.
During our recent road trip around Arizona and Utah, we were fortunate to experience three of these five and first up was Zion. If you are limited for time as we were, the best way to explore is to take the Zion National Park scenic drive.
Having visited the Grand Canyon National Park already and basically being struck with awe at how breathtaking this was, we headed to Zion with high expectations hoping that our ‘Welcome to Utah’ would be equally as memorable. I will let you decide whether Zion can compete with the Grand Canyon, but I can attest that Zion was certainly a memorable and worthwhile experience!
Location and History
Zion National Park is located in the south-west corner of Utah and not far from the Arizona state line. Our visit to Zion saw us take a road trip from the Grand Canyon to Page, Arizona and then across the state line (and time zone) into Utah before we arrived at the east entrance to Zion National Park.
Zion is Utah’s oldest national park dating back to 1919 when it was given this designation. Just like the many other national parks in this part of the country, Zion is stacked with beauty and natural landscapes that make any visitors envious of their surroundings. From canyons to gorgeous red rocks that provide a unique focal point as you pass by, Zion National Park is a dream waiting to be explored.
Zion National Park Scenic Drive
Road trips and scenic drives…we thrive on these!! Hopping in our car and taking in an abundance of gorgeous natural scenery is right at the top of what we love to do. But of course, it’s not all about driving. In our eyes, a scenic drive involves driving and stopping numerous times to really explore the hidden gems of a location and this is exactly what we did during our winding trip through Zion National Park’s scenic route.
After passing through the town of Kanab that is located just south of the east entrance to Zion, we again saw the benefit of our National Park annual pass by bypassing the $25 entrance fee. I will reiterate again the value of this pass, especially if you are planning on exploring Utah and Arizona on the same trip.
The drive from the East entrance to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and nearby town of Springdale takes around a hour and a half though this will fluctuate depending on how much time you want to spend at the various lookout points. Referred to as simply ‘Highway 9’, this route cuts directly through the heart of Zion National Park offering a myriad of stunning views of the natural landscape in this part of Utah.
So what can you expect to see along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway? The majority of the drive takes place along this highway before you reach the final section which joins with the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive which is only accessible by shuttle for the majority of the year. But after reading this post, you will have a better understanding as to what you can see without having to take a Zion shuttle.
The first notable landmark after passing through the East entrance is Checkerboard Mesa. Standing at 6,670ft, this is one of the most iconic attractions throughout Zion and is particularly popular given its location and easy access from Highway 9.
Where does the name ‘Checkerboard Mesa’ derive from? Take a look at this mountain and you will soon realize why! The distinctive geologic features of this make the appearance look very similar to that of a checkers board, so it was aptly named this by the superintendent of Zion in 1938. By the way, it was formerly named Rock Candy Mountain – I’ll let you decide which you prefer!
A combination of natural erosion due to weathering caused by the freezing and thawing cycle, along with the wind erosion has lead to the creation of this checkerboard design. A 2 mile round-trip hike is another popular attraction but I think seeing this from the side of the road is equally as impressive (though I would to take a return trip to Zion to hike some of the many awesome rocky terrains!).
Even though the main reason for visiting Zion National Park is to experience the natural beauty, the Zion Tunnel which you pass through along Highway 9 is a pretty awesome piece of engineering ingenuity. At a distance of just over a mile in length, this tunnel is a spectacle in its own right and is one of the busiest spots in the park.
Depending on the direction you are visiting from, there is an awesome overlook at the top of the mountain (for us it was prior to entering the tunnel as we visited Zion from the east) which is just a short hike from the road.
CAUTION – Parking is extremely difficult throughout Zion National Park, particularly at this overlook which is a very popular spot for visitors. I would encourage you to try and visit this spot early or be prepared to make a couple of trips through the tunnel in order to try and find a spot. Unfortunately we were not one of the fortunate few, and given the inclement weather we decided to move along and explore further parts of Zion.
This hike is renowned as the easiest throughout the park that allows you to see all of the canyon from the top looking down.
Zion’s Beautiful Topography
Driving through Zion really does take your breath away. One of the challenges is knowing when to stop and capture some of the breathtaking memories because there are just so many spots given the distinct topography that is typical of much of Utah’s national parks.
From the towering sandstone behemoths that look like they are about to fall over at any time, to the perfectly manicured arches that you would associate with Arches National Park, Zion is a perfect collaboration of all the geologic wonders you may want to explore.
You may be interested in parking your car and hiking to some of Zion’s famous attractions such as Weeping Rock and the Court of the Patriarchs, but if you don’t have time for that just stumbling across some of Zion’s topographical beauty is worthy of your time.
As we passed by admiring our surroundings, I will admit that much of the landscape blended together and actually identifying major geological landmarks was long forgotten.
Forget trying to find those iconic structures on the tourist path, and instead admire and reminisce on the beauty that is around you as you drive slowly along Highway 9 – I guarantee that this will be a rewarding experience that will make you want to book a return trip to Zion right away!
Encounters with Zion’s Wildlife
You don’t need to stray too far from the beaten path…ok Highway 9… to find some of Zion’s local floral and fauna. We were fortunate to see a deer just a few steps from the side of the road though reports of seeing condors, hawks, eagles and even bighorn sheep were unfortunately left for others as we failed to see any of these.
Visiting Zion National Park in May is a great time to experience the beautiful floral colors of Utah. Of course the floral species that flourish here need to be hardy souls given the extreme climate experienced for much of the year, along with the sandy conditions experienced in the landscape’s topography.
Who would have thought that taking a drive through a national park could be just as rewarding as getting out and hiking through the wilderness. Ok so maybe it’s not quite the same, but the Zion National Park scenic drive offers a variety of amazing stopping points that provide breathtaking views of the park, plus offer a number of short hikes to find some of the hidden gems of Zion.
Heather and I both agree that we would like to return to Zion to spend more time here because we really didn’t get to explore as much of Zion Canyon as we would have liked. But this scenic drive does give a brief snippet of the beauty inside Zion, and will definitely make you want to arrange a return trip!
You can check out more of our pictures from our scenic drive through Zion here: Zion National Park, Utah.