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The National Parks of the United States are absolutely stunning and visiting Zion National Park with a toddler is certainly a delightful experience. Experiencing the parks through the eyes of our son has become a wonderful adventure. Since having our son we approach park visits differently, but the experiences are equally as relaxing, invigorating, and captivating. The purpose of this post is to arm you with the resources and information that you need so that you can plan an exciting and relaxing trip to Zion. Additionally, I hope to convince you that it is not only possible but enjoyable to visit Zion National Park with a toddler and that there are plenty of things for small children to do on a nature-centered vacation.
Useful Things to Know
- Location: Zion National Park is located in the Southwest corner of Utah, close to where Nevada, Arizona, and Utah converge. You can enter Zion via Route 9, either from the south or from the east of the park. If you are coming from Las Vegas you will enter the park through Springdale, which is located along the southern edge of the park. If you are coming from Salt Lake City you have the option to enter through either entrance.
- How to Get There: There are two cities with International Airports ‘near’ Springdale and Zion National Park. Las Vegas, Nevada is 170 miles away and Salt Lake City, Utah is 300 miles away.
- Entrance Fees: $35 per vehicle; you can also walk into Zion at a rate of $20 per person (Children 15 and under are admitted for free).
- Driving Through Zion National Park: For most of the year, you cannot drive your car into Zion Canyon unless you are staying at the lodge or taking route 9 to the other side of the park. If you are visiting the park (and not staying at the lodge) you must park your car and take a shuttle into the park. The shuttle runs from approximately March through November; when the shuttle is running you cannot drive into the canyon (when it’s not running you can drive into the canyon). For the current dates of operation check here.
- Parking: If you are driving you can park in the National Park parking lot. If that is full then you can park on the street in Springdale.
- TIP: Just because the National Park lot says it’s full does not mean that it’s full. We never arrived before 10 am and the lot was always ‘full’ and we always found a spot. People are constantly coming and going and by 10 am people had already finished their hikes and were leaving. You may have to drive around a few times but you have a good chance of snagging the spot of someone leaving. If you are staying in Springdale there is a bus that will take you to the entrance of Zion (and then you can walk in).
- Free Shuttle: The shuttles are free and run every 7-10 minutes. The first stop (1) is the Visitor’s Center and the last stop is (9) the Temple of Sinawava. The shuttle takes 45 minutes to get out to the Temple of Sinawava (last stop, stop (9)). Here is a map of the shuttle system and the corresponding hiking trails.
- Cell Phone Service: There is no cell service in Zion Canyon.
- There is Wi-Fi at Zion Lodge for a fee.
- The layout of Zion National Park: The focus of this article is what to do in Zion National Park with a toddler, particularly what to do in Zion Canyon. Zion Canyon is the most visited area of the Park and where you want to be if you have small children. Other sections of the park include the East Rim, Southwest Desert, Kolob Canyons, and the West Rim, much of which is Wilderness.
What Can Kids Do In Zion National Park?
A common question that I get is, “what do you DO at a National Park?” And now that we have the kid in tow it’s, “what do you do there and doesn’t your son get bored?” Well, there are LOTS of things ‘to do’ at U.S. National Parks and Zion is no different. Naturally, the number one thing to do at Zion is go hiking/walking. However, there are many other things to do and I’ll run down each of them.
Hiking with a small child is very different than hiking with adults. The most important thing to remember is to take it slow. Hiking with kids is about the journey not about the destination. Pre-children my husband and I used to do 10-15 mile hikes and we HAD to get to the end. We still set goal destinations but we are ok with not getting there.
What to pack for the day/preparedness
What you pack for a toddler does not differ much from what you’d bring for yourself. If you are only going in a mile or so from the Visitors Center/Parking lot then you can bring a small pack and leave most of your stuff in the car. If you are going more than a mile out it’s all about having the right gear and being prepared. Here is what we had in our pack when we hiked Zion National Park with our toddler:
- Nutrition/snack ideas: sandwiches (something that will hold, like PB&J), trail mix, Cliff’s bars, and snacks for the toddler (goldfish, Lara Bars, hummus & pretzels, Nutragrain bars- whatever your go-to is).
- Mini-first aid (Band-Aids, a few alcohol swabs, gauze pads, and Neosporin)
- Change of clothing for the toddler (and yourself, especially if you plan to get into the river)
- Insect Repellant (we went in September and did not need repellant; however, I suspect that during the summer you might)
- Good shoes
- Baby Carrier
- Stroller (if paved trail)
Kid Friendly Hikes in Zion Canyon:
You will find that the most kid-friendly trails are those that are paved, marked with a handicap symbol and those listed under the ‘easy’ section of the hiking guide. I have included a number next to each trail that corresponds to its Shuttle Stop.
- Riverside Walk-(9)-Easy: This was by far our favorite hike. Primarily because at the end of the walk you are rewarded with beautiful views of the canyon. There is ample room to sit around and eat and little ones can scamper about along the banks of the Virgin River. It’s a relatively easy hike, but long enough that you feel like you actually hiked something (2.2 miles). The end of the Riverside Walk is the beginning of the hike to the Narrows. We hiked this with our son in a Deuter Kid Comfort III. You could bring a stroller up this trail; however, I would recommend wearing your child.
- The Narrows via Riverside Walk-(9)-Strenuous: This hike is strenuous. If you are going to do this hike (with or without children) you need to come prepared. A lot of the hike is up through the cold and sometimes rough Virgin River. There is also the threat of flash flooding if it were to rain. The day we were there the water was about knee high. We hiked about ½ a mile up the river and then stopped. We did not feel comfortable going any further. The rocks are slippery and I’ve heard walking up the river described as ‘walking on wet bowling balls’ which was pretty accurate. There were families with toddlers and older children who went further than us, but we stopped when we felt out of our comfort zone. The ‘beach’ that we stopped on was fantastic! Our son (let’s call him Baby Bear, BB for short) had enough room to play, build sand-castles, and play in the river. If you do not feel comfortable hiking up the Narrows you can do all of these things at the end of the Riverside Walk.
- Lower Emerald Pool Trail-(5)-Easy: This was an easy 1.2-mile hike. The trailhead is at the Zion Lodge. We wore our son up this trail- I would not bring a stroller up this trail (but you could). There are some cliff-drop-offs, so hang onto any loose toddlers. It’s a lovely trail and not very long. We let BB down and let him play in little puddles along the way. There is a railing along the last portion of the trail.
- Upper Emerald Pool Trail- (5) -Moderate- as of this writing, the trail to Upper Emerald Pool was closed. (It was also closed when we were there). In fact, you could see where the trail had collapsed/washed out.
- Weeping Rock Trail-(7)-Easy: This was an easy, short .4 mile hike. It’s short but steep. It’s cool for kids because at the end of the trail the water falls over the cliffs, from above. It feels as though the rocks are ‘weeping’ down upon you. BB really enjoyed that experience.
- Pa’rus Trail-(1)-Easy-This is a relatively flat, paved trail from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center (stop 1) to Canyon Junction (stop 3). If you were to walk the entire trail it’s 3.5 miles. This is more like a nature trail. We brought our stroller and just walked about a mile out and then walked back to the Visitor’s Center. There are multiple access points to the Virgin River along the trail. There is also ample wildlife. Our son had a great time chasing dragonflies, spotting bighorn sheep, mule deer, wild turkeys, chipmunks, squirrels and lizards, and watching tadpoles along the banks of the Virgin. This is a great, leisurely experience if you are looking for something low key and not strenuous.
- Archeology Trail-(1)-Easy: We did not personally hike this trail. The Zion hiking guide describes this trail as ‘short, but steep.’ The trail is .4 miles long.
- The Grotto Trail-(6)-Easy: We did not personally hike this trail. The trailhead is at The Grotto (stop 6) but will bring you down the canyon, right outside of the Zion Lodge (stop 5). So if you were heading to the Lodge you could jump off of the Shuttle at the Grotto Trailhead (stop 6) and walk down to the Lodge (stop 5). The Zion hiking guide describes this trail as having a small change in elevation and as being 1.0 miles long. This is something that we would have done but we ran out of time.
- Sand Bench Trail- (5)-Moderate: We almost walked part of this trail but decided not to (as we were short on time). They don’t typically mention this trail at the Visitor’s Center as it’s also used as a horse trail during the summer months. But from what I could tell it was totally doable with small children.
- Note on Angels Landing-via West Rim Trail-(6)-Strenuous: You should not take your toddler on this hike. People have died hiking this trail. This hike is very popular and one that draws people to Zion National Park. The volunteer at the Visitor’s Center told us that we could probably hike this with our stroller, as far as Scout Lookout. We decided against that because there are so many other beautiful and manageable hikes to do in this park that BB would also enjoy. We would only have been doing part of Angel’s Landing for ourselves. The reason for taking your children to somewhere like Zion is for the pure simplicity and beauty of it and for your child to experience somewhere truly magical. It’s not to climb a mountain. We’ll be back, and we’ll get up to Angel’s Landing!
Other Things for Children to Do in Zion National Park?
- Play in the Virgin River: Do it! Let your children play on the banks of the river. Be careful and exercise water safety, but don’t be afraid to get wet.
- Drive the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway: Driving this highway you will experience an extraordinary tunnel and get to see the Eastern side of the park. The tunnel is 1.1 miles long and was completed in the 1930’s. I’m no geologist but the topography and rocks on the other side of the tunnel are noticeably different and absolutely gorgeous. In my opinion, it’s worth the drive.
- Zion Nature Center: The Nature Center is located just north of the South Campground. It has exhibits, activities, books, and games. This would be a good place to explore particularly if the weather is bad.
- Ranger-led programs: These are offered throughout the park, check the website for specifics. Children aged four and up can complete an activity booklet and become Zion Junior Rangers.
- Look for wildlife: Zion is home to numerous mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and insects. Be on the lookout and you are sure to see some animals!
Additional Questions Answered:
- Things to do with kids near Zion National Park: Hurricane, Utah has a big splash pad and playground. St. George, Utah boasts Sand Hollow Aquatic Center and numerous splash pads and playgrounds. We went in October and it was hot enough to play in the splash pad in Hurricane!
- Zion National Park with a baby: I would recommend the same trails as with a toddler. I would wear the baby!
- Where to Stay: We stayed in Hurricane, Utah, in order to save money. I really, really wanted to stay in Springdale, but it was not in the budget. I searched Hotels.com, Bookings.com, Priceline.com, etc… trying to find a good deal in Springdale, to no avail.
- Springdale: When we arrived in Springdale the first thing that I noticed was that there were A LOT more hotels than were represented on those sites. If you want to stay in Springdale check out this website and check the individual hotel’s websites for pricing. If you are looking for ‘cheaper’ options (~$125 per night) you’ll probably be staying in Hurricane, La Verkin, or St. George.
- Hurricane, La Verkin, and St. George. You can find good deals on the big travel websites for these towns.
- Zion Lodge: This is a great place to stay if you can get a room. This hotel will run you over $200 per room, per night.
- Camping: Zion National Park has three campgrounds, two of which are located in Zion Canyon. The third is located about an hour away on the Kolob Terrace Road. Other campgrounds are located near Zion National Park. For more information on camping in and around Zion check out the nps.gov website.
- You can also stay on the East side of the park in Mt. Caramel Junction or Glendale.
- AirBnB’s or HomeAway’s are abundant in La Verkin, Hurricane and St. George.
- When to go: Spring is a nice time to visit, although higher elevations may still be covered in snow. Summer can be scorching, and extremely busy. Fall is an excellent time to go-nice weather and less crowds. Lastly, and often underrated, is visiting Zion National Park in the winter.
Our Trip Itinerary: October in Zion
- Day 1: We flew from Chicago’s, O’Hare airport to Las Vegas’, McCarran airport on Spirit Airlines. The flight was delayed 3 hours (canceled and then un-canceled). Flight arrived at 11:30pm (PDT). Drove to Hurricane, Utah, which is where we were staying for the duration of our trip and arrived in Hurricane at 2:30 am (MDT). The drive from Las Vegas to Hurricane is about 2hrs 15minutes. We stayed at the Wingate by Wyndham, in Hurricane, Utah and I would recommend this hotel.
- Note that there is a time zone change from Las Vegas to Zion.
- Day 2: We got up too late for breakfast and ate at a little café in Hurricane. After which we mozied around town and stopped at a playground/splash pad for Baby Bear to play! Then we drove out to Zion (25-minute drive) and had lunch at the Zion brewery, which I’d highly recommend. We checked out the Visitor’s Center (where BB fell asleep). Then we hit the Pa’rus Trail, walked out about a mile, played along the banks of the Virgin, and headed back to Hurricane.
- Day 3: Parked car in the National Park parking lot and caught the bus up to the Trail of Sinawava (9). We did the Riverside Walk hike and then we hiked up the Narrows. On the way back down the canyon, BB fell asleep and we stopped at the Zion Lodge (5). There is a café of sorts (more like fast food) downstairs and a sit-down restaurant upstairs. They have good ice cream! After BB woke up we let him run around the field out in front of the lodge. The lodge is a great place to let your kids lose and burn some energy. It’s also a good place to have lunch. There is a gift shop up there with slightly different things than the one at the Visitor’s Center, so check that out too. After all of that excitement, we headed back to Hurricane and hit the pool!
- Day 4: Parked the car in the National Park parking lot, took the shuttle up to Weeping Rock (7) and did that hike, then back down to Zion Lodge (5) and went hiking to Emerald Pools (5); BB fell asleep on the way back down from Zion Lodge. We transferred him to the car and drove out the Zion/Mt. Caramel Hwy. Then back to the hotel and hit the pool.
- Day 5: After checking out of the hotel we drove back to Las Vegas and caught our early evening flight home.
Recommended Itinerary for Zion National Park with a Toddler, if You Only Have One Day:
If you only have one day I would get out early and hit the Riverside Walk and hike up the Narrows as much as you feel comfortable. On the way back down the canyon hit Weeping Rock and then the Emerald Pools. Let your child(ren) run around in front of Zion Lodge and get some ice cream. Then head back to the Visitor’s Center. If you have time, drive the Zion/Mt. Caramel Highway.
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