Zion National Park, located in southwestern Utah, was the third-most-visited national park in 2017 – and for good reason. Beautiful red cliffs, pockets of green vegetation, hikes that make your heart race – this park has it all. Here’s what you need to know about visiting this desert paradise in your RV:
1. Outsmart the Crowds
Having had over 4.5 million visitors in 2017, Zion National Park sees its fair share of crowds. This can make negotiating an RV through the park complicated and frustrating. Here’s how to outsmart the crowds:
Start Early – Not only will it help you beat the heat in the summer months, but it will help you avoid the crowds. If you want to park in the Visitor’s Center parking lot to explore the park by shuttle, make sure you arrive early to get a spot. If you’re going to hike popular trails like Angel’s Landing or the Narrows, make sure to get on the first shuttle bus at 7 a.m. for your best chance at an uncrowded experience.
Avoid Peak Season – Most visitors come to Zion early February through late November. Those visitors are missing the beauty of a Utah desert winter, however. If you do visit during peak season, make sure to avoid Memorial and Labor Day Weekends, Easter Week and the Utah Education Association’s October break (see when this falls at www.myuea.org).
Plan Ahead – If you want to camp in Zion, plan ahead! Know your camping dates and set a reminder on your calendar two weeks in advance for the South Campground or six months in advance for the Watchman Campground so that you can head to Zion in ease, knowing you already have a site reserved (see camping tips below).
2. Where to Camp
Zion has two campgrounds that can accommodate RVs, both located near the Springfield entrance.
The South Campground requires reservations, which can be made two weeks in advance by visiting recreation.gov. The South Campground does not have hookups but has a dump station available. Generators are only allowed to run between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. and from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. The South Campground has some shaded sites with trees, but your RV must be shorter in height than 12.5 feet to fit.
The Watchman Campground takes reservations six months in advance through recreation.gov. Be sure to make your reservations well in advance because this popular campground fills up early. There are no full hookups in the Watchman Campground and generators are not permitted. There are, however, electric hookup sites and a dump station available. Tree-shaded sites can only accommodate RVs less than 12.5 feet in height.
3. Stay Outside the Park
Can’t get a spot in one of Zion’s campgrounds, or don’t want to deal with driving into the park in your rig? The Zion River Resort (www.zionriverresort.com) is located conveniently 13.5 miles from Zion’s south entrance, offers full hookups, a tree for shade in each site and free Wi-Fi. The resort also offers a $7/person round-trip shuttle to Zion, from which you can access the Zion National Park free shuttle to get around the park (see below). Make sure to make your reservations well in advance due to Zion’s popularity.
4. Do You Need a Permit?
The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel links the park’s south side with its east, giving visitors access to Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. It’s a beautiful drive, but the tunnel and winding mountain roads can prove challenging for big vehicles. Large vehicles cannot negotiate the winding turns of the long tunnel without crossing the middle line, so the park has instituted ranger escorts, turning the two-way tunnel into a one-way for large vehicles. If your vehicle is 11’4” or taller or 7’10” or wider including mirrors, you’ll need to obtain a tunnel permit when you buy your park pass at an entrance station. However, if your RV is over 13’1” or over 40 feet long, it will not be permitted. The permit is $15 and your vehicle can be measured at the entrance if you are unsure. The schedule for large vehicle access is as follows:
- March 5 to March 11 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- March 12 to April 29 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- April 30 to Sept. 2 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
- Sept. 3 to Sept. 27 from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Sept. 28 to Nov. 1 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
- Winter hours of operations for the tunnel are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
5. Hop on a Shuttle
Zion National Park has a very convenient shuttle system to help combat their limited parking and high-visitor count in the busy months. The Zion shuttles are free and operate from March to November most years. They run approximately every seven minutes to bring you to trailheads, visitor centers, scenic overlooks and more. During shuttle hours there is no private traffic allowed on the Zion Scenic Canyon Drive. Check the schedule on the park website for the most up-to-date run times: https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/upload/ZION-SHUTTLE-2018-1.pdf
In the busy summer months, the parking area at the Visitor Center often fills up early in the day. To avoid hunting for a parking spot amongst the crowd, park in nearby Springdale and take the Springdale free shuttle to the park, from which you can access the Zion free shuttle. The most up-to-date schedules are posted at each shuttle stop. You can access a map of shuttle stops here: https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/upload/Springdale-Shuttle-Map_7_7_17.pdf
6. Take a Road Trip
One of our favorite things about Zion National Park is its location. Southwestern Utah is any vacationer’s paradise with its variety of incredible landscapes, year-round warm weather and multitude of activities. Make your Zion National Park RV trip a Southwestern Utah road trip by visiting Bryce Canyon National Park, the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and nearby Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. You can access these other national park sites by driving the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel (depending on your RV size), or going around Zion National Park by taking Hwy. 9 from Springdale to Hurricane and Hwy. 59 (which turns into Hwy. 389 through Arizona) to Fredonia, from which you can take Hwy. 89A either North to Bryce Canyon, or South to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. You can access Grand Staircase from many points along the way.
Or, hit all 5 Utah national parks with this road trip.
With these six tips, you’re ready for the vacation of a lifetime in Southwestern Utah’s desert paradise.