You’re headed to Zion National Park where 90 miles of trails and 124,400 acres of designated wilderness await you to be explored. But where should you camp? Here’s a personalized guide to help you decide where to spend the night, from your choice of three park campgrounds to remote backcountry sites to a slice of RV heaven. At Zion, there are no shower or laundry facilities at the three campgrounds in the park, so plan accordingly.
What type of camper are you?
I love car camping.
Do you like to reserve in advance?
I go where the road take me, so a first-come,
first-served campground suits me best: 1, 3
I am a planner, so I want to make advance reservations: 2
My tent is an RV.
How important are electric hookups?
Very important: 2
Not important. I love my generator: 3
It’s backcountry or bust for me.
Do you want to get wet?
No. I’d like to stay dry: 5
1. Lava Point Campground
To get away from the crowds (and with that, campground services), head to the first-come, first-served Lava Point Campground, an hour and a half’s drive from Zion’s South Entrance near Springdale, Utah.
The best part is it’s free, but you get what you pay for. There is no water available at the six-campsite primitive campground, so be sure to bring enough to drink, cook with and so on before you head to Lava Point. There are pit toilets, however, and plenty of solitude.
Take Kolob Terrace Road, 25 miles north of Virgin, Utah, to get to the campground. Vehicles have to be 19 feet or less to be allowed on the road to Lava Point Campground. Located at 7,890 feet, the campground is usually open June through October but has opened as early as May. Call the park at 435-772-3256 to get seasonal information.
2. Watchman Campground
A quarter mile from the South Entrance, the popular 176-site Watchman Campground puts nearly everything right at your fingertips ⎯ a shuttle stop to get around the park, the town of Springdale, a park visitor center, amphitheater for ranger programs and three trails. And it’s open year-round.
For tent sites in loops C, D and F, the cost is $20 per night and includes fire rings, nearby flush toilets and access to drinking water. To get further away from it all, there are 18 tent-only sites a short walk from the vehicle parking lot, which are popular with backpackers and cyclists.
For RV camping, you’ll pay $30 per night and stay in loops A and B where there are electric hookups, nearby flush toilets, fire rings and drinking water available. A dump station also is available on site. Generators are not allowed at this campground, so plan accordingly
There are two wheelchair-accessible sites in the campground.
If you plan to camp in April or May, be prepared for the infamous tent caterpillar, which infests the area during those two months. They launch themselves from trees onto tents, picnic tables, chairs and people, so bring a wide-brimmed hat and a sense of humor to deal with these creatures.
If you want to stay in Watchman, make your reservations early because the campground is full every night during reservation season. For camping March through November, you can make reservations up to six months before your arrival online at at www.recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.
3. South Campground
Just a half-mile in from the South Entrance of Zion National Park, South Campground is slightly smaller than Watchman with 117 sites and fewer frills, at least for RVers. But it is a first-come, first-served campground, meaning you have a much better chance of getting a site in comparison to Watchman Campground that is reservations-based and full throughout the high season.
Open seasonally from late February to late November, depending on weather conditions, South Campground campsites cost $20 per night for up to 6 people, including children, ($50 for group sites). Each site comes with a fire grate, picnic table and access to drinking water. The Pa’rus Trail runs between the campground and the Virgin River and is great for wheelchairs, bikes and dog walkers.
There’s a perk for those who have the Interagency Senior/Golden Age or Interagency Access/Access Pass ⎯ you get a 50 percent discount on your camping fees. There is no discount on camping fees for an Interagency Annual Pass ($80 pass).
For RVers, there are no hookups, but generators are allowed from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. There is a dump station and drinking water.
There are three wheelchair-accessible sites. For more information about these sites or the campground in general, call 435-772-3256.
In 2016, park staff added four groups sites that fit 7-15 people, a maximum of six tents and five vehicles, including trailers, RVs and so on. These also are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so plan to get to the campground early to claim one.
4. The Narrows
For a classic Zion experience, backpacking in the Narrows in the upper section of Zion Canyon is a memorable summer-to-fall adventure, but you need to be aware of the dangers inherent in hiking the Narrows, including flash flooding and hypothermia. Know the weather and what to do in a flash flood. Zion park officials will not give out permits when the Virgin River flow is 120 cubic feet per second or higher.
With no maintained trail, the Virgin River is the trail with some areas only 20-30 feet wide. Sixty percent of the hike is in the water where you will be wading, walking and possibly swimming in the cold water and fast currents of the Virgin River. You’ll want to pack your backpack to keep your stuff dry and wear appropriate closed-toe shoes for the rocky, wet river bottom.
To do this overnight hike, you must do the route from the top down the canyon by taking the 16-mile Chamberlain’s Ranch to The Temple of Sinawava route. Shuttle your cars or arrange transportation with a shuttle company in Springdale for the 1.5-hour ride back to Chamberlain’s Ranch.
Once you start, you’ll find 12 backcountry camping sites along the way, and you must camp in the designated sites. Only one-night stays are permitted at each site. Some sites are walk-up only while others you can reserve in advance. Do your research and speak with a park ranger ahead of time to know where you can camp. Sites accommodate a range of people from just 2 campers at Flat Rock to 4 at River Bend, 6 at Ringtail and 12 at Kolob Creek, to name a few.
You must get a backcountry permit to spend nights backcountry in the park. You can get a permit at both park visitor centers the day before or the day of your trip. You also can make a backcountry reservation up to three months in advance. Make a backcountry reservation or get more information at www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/backpackingpermits.htm.
East Rim Trail to Weeping Rock
For a great spring and fall backpacking trip that meanders through a high ponderosa forest as well as drops into Zion Canyon, try the 10.8-mile East Rim trail to Weeping Rock trailhead. Stave Springs is located about five miles in from the East Rim trailhead and Weeping Rock trailhead and runs seasonally. It is the only water source on this route, so be sure to check with park rangers to make sure you know where it is along the trail and if it is running. There have been some years where it has remained dry.
When you start at the East Rim trail, you’ll begin a 1,000-foot climb onto the rim, taking in gorgeous slickrock views to the east and sandstone cliffs that give way to views of Jolley Gulch. Watch the edge as the walls drop precipitously down to the canyon here. For the next section, you’ll enter a ponderosa forest, which is higher in elevation and cooler than the first stretch. Spend the night here in the forest close to Stave Springs, so you have easy access to water for cooking and drinking. The water comes out of a pipe in the ground and is located near the junction of the Deertrap Mountain and Cable Mountain spur trail.
As you get closer to the rim, you’ll see views of Echo Canyon Basin, eventually descending to the floor of Echo Canyon via Observation Point Trail. Follow the rock cairns in Echo Canyon to Weeping Rock trailhead.
Shuttle your cars or arrange transportation with a shuttle company in Springdale to get from Weeping Rock trailhead back to your car at the East Rim trailhead.
You must get a backcountry permit to spend nights in the park’s backcountry. You can get a permit at both of Zion’s visitor centers the day before or the day of your trip. You also can make a backcountry reservation up to three months in advance. Make a backcountry reservation or get more information at www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/backpackingpermits.htm.