Two Days in Zion National Park: The Ultimate Itinerary

Zion National Park was the last stop on my Mighty 5 road trip last January, but if I’d only known how much I would fall in love with this place, I probably would have raced right over first thing instead of waiting! 

Mind you, I had the luxury of going in the heart of winter when the shuttle system isn’t running and popular trails like the Narrows are only lightly peppered with visitors.

(I know, I’ve got a strange idea of what “luxury” means.)

The author, Nicole Westcott,
Visiting Canyonlands on my Mighty 5 road trip!
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Even still, the question remained: would I still share the same admiration for Zion if I visited at the peak of summer tourist season? 

Just the thought of waiting in long lines for the shuttle and sharing the trail with hundreds of other people was enough to give me anxiety.  

I was torn between never wanting to visit again (to maintain Zion’s pristine place in my memories) and needing to see what all the fuss was about. 

So, in the end, of course, I went and you know what?

Sure it was crowded, but a true national park expert (that’s yours truly) knows how to work around that… and that’s exactly what I did. 

The end result? You’re looking at it, a perfect 2 day Zion National Park itinerary that I’ve pieced together after many visits, and a lot of trial and error seeing what works — and what doesn’t. 

So, whether you plan your visit during winter’s slow season (which I still highly recommend!) or the summer’s peak, I assure you that this Zion itinerary will be a crowd-pleaser… and maybe even a crowd-minimizer! 

My only regret? Not hiking Angels Landing when I had the chance.

Back in January of 2022, you could hike this trail without a permit during the winter season. 

Sadly, I was a bit too nervous to take advantage of this (you know, with the whole slick ice and massive drop-offs thing) and missed my chance.

Now a permit is required to hike Angels Landing year round, but more on that later. 

Day One of Your Zion National Park Itinerary

Marvel at a canyon sunrise.

The author, Nicole Westcott, enjoying a stunning sunset view at Zion National Park with some light snow and morning light falling on the Utah landscape of Zion

I’ll be honest: the Canyon Overlook Trail (just 1.25 miles roundtrip) took me a bit by surprise, in the best possible way. 

You don’t hear many people talking about it, and it  isn’t a stop on the summer shuttle system.

The trailhead is on the side of the road and kind of hard to find (in other words, do your research and bring your maps). 

Yet, despite all this, it is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, one of my absolute favorite trails in the park, and a true hidden gem.

A short but moderately intense hike leads up to the overlook, complete with fun attractions like a small bridge tucked under an overhang and hugging a rockwall.

Plus, there’s long metal handlebars to guide you through the narrowest sections without fear of falling (or at least with less fear!). 

By the time I got to the viewpoint, I was already feeling satisfied with the hike… but then that view just stopped me in my tracks.

Watching the sun slowly fill up the canyon is one of my favorite memories of Zion. 

The fact that this trail is not on the shuttle route is just an added bonus. 

So, forget waiting in line for a shuttle in the dark with a bunch of cranky visitors who haven’t had enough coffee yet.

Drive your vehicle right up to the small (and I do mean small) parking lot, and get here early to start your hike at your own pace. 

Grab a quick breakfast at Deep Creek Coffee Co.

A cup of coffee to go at a coffee shop

If you haven’t figured it out already, Utah is known for its coffee, and Deep Creek Coffee Company is no exception.

Enjoy your coffee exactly how you like it, or get adventurous and discover a way you didn’t know existed. 

Just make sure to pair it up with one of their many, many breakfast options because you have a long day ahead of you and you’ll want all the energy you can get. 

If you’re looking for specific recommendations, well, my mouth is watering just thinking about the spiced maple latte and southwest quinoa bowl.

You should also think about grabbing a sandwich here, since you’ll likely want to fuel up while you’re on a trail!

Rent the gear and hike the Narrows.

The author of the article, Nicole Westcott, wearing a yellow hat, coveralls, packback and holding a walking stick as she walks through the Narrows.

I can’t emphasize this enough. You should absolutely hike the Narrows!! 

The beauty of this trail is that you can go out as far as you are comfortable and then turn around. This hike can be as long or as short as you’d like. 

No matter how far or short you make it along this hike, it will, without a doubt, be a memory you will never forget.

I don’t like to brag, but I’ve hiked countless trails in many different places, and the Narrows makes it into my top three hikes of all time… and I didn’t even make it to the end! 

Be warned: even when it is so hot that you feel like you are melting away, you really don’t want to be the person who thinks that they don’t need to rent gear to hike the narrows. 

zion narrows with river going through the valley and beautiful red rock

The water in the Virgin River is going to be extremely cold, even at the peak of summer, and while that sounds like a nice way to cool off on a hot day, your feet will be screaming within ten minutes. So just don’t do it. 

Besides, you’ll need a walking stick. The rocks are slimy. The river is flowing. You need the stick. Trust me. Get the stick. 

Luckily, there’s a ton of places to rent gear right outside of the park. So, after breakfast, head over to Zion Outfitters.

They have summer and winter rentals (ranging from $32-$55), plus the option to pick them up the night before so you can get on the trail first thing in the morning! 

Not interested in waiting for the shuttle?

Dedicate the day to the Subway (9.1 miles roundtrip)!

With a bit of research and preparation, this is a great alternative for people who want to skip the shuttle, beat the crowds, and go on a more rugged adventure. 

Stop for a quick sandwich fuel-up.

the author, nicole westcott, holding a sandwich in the narrows hiking area

Whenever you get peckish, it’s time to reach into that bag and grab the sandwich you packed earlier.

This Zion itinerary has one more hike between now and an early dinner, before having you head out again (for some quick views and sunset spots — no major hikes, don’t worry!).

So have a quick sandwich to fuel up but not stuff yourself whenever you get a little hungry on the trail.

Nothing makes a sandwich taste better than a stunning views of the Narrows!

Hike up to an emerald pool… or two!

Water falling at Emerald Pools trail with some ice on the rocks

I love a good low effort, high reward hike and the Emerald Pools Trail is just that… for the most part.

The Lower Emerald Pool is just slightly over a mile and follows a paved (well, sort of paved) trail to a spectacular set of waterfalls and, as the name might suggest, an emerald pool. 

The Upper Emerald Pool, on the other hand, will make you work a little harder at 3 miles roundtrip, but it’s also a great way to experience the falls without as much of the crowd. 

As an added bonus, it’s right across the way from the Zion Lodge.

So, not only can you skip the shuttle for once, but dinner will be only a short walk away!

Who wants to wait around with a hungry stomach anyways?

Treat yourself to a Red Rock Grill dinner.

Photo Credit: Miss Shari via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

If you are as much of a food-driven person as I am, you may have noticed that I skimped a bit on lunch, and I am truly sorry for that.

But the reality is, there’s only one real restaurant in the park, and the only way to get there is by waiting for the shuttle. 

So, to save yourself some adventure time (and peace of mind), I highly recommend that you pack your own lunch to enjoy on the trail.

Instead, save the Red Rock Grill for an early dinner… trust me, you won’t regret it. 

I’m a burger girl myself, and their burger hits the spot, but Red Rock Grill’s got so much more to offer.

If you’re looking for a bit more of an elevated dining experience, there are also a variety of other, more classy options like the trout Anasazi and a sirloin steak paired with a cranberry burgundy sauce. 

Dinner starts at 4 PM so get there as early as you can to beat the crowds. Besides, your day isn’t over yet!

Leave the crowds behind at Court of the Patriarchs.

Court of the Patriarchs shuttle stop

I hesitate to call Court of the Patriarchs a hike, considering the fact that it’s just a quick 0.2-miles roundtrip, but that’s part of what makes it so special! 

Most people are so busy rushing to the Narrows or to Angels Landing that they completely forget about this stop, but their loss is your gain. 

Plus, what with it being the first real stop on the shuttle (and the second to last stop on the way back), it just makes sense to take the extra time to check it out. 

the court of the patriarchs, Zion National Park, Utah

So, step off the beaten path and walk off your early dinner while you marvel at the three peaks that are so mesmerizing that they earned themselves a religious title. 

Don’t want to leave? This is a great alternative option for sunset. 

You won’t get as dramatic of a view as you would at Canyon Junction Bridge (more on that later!), but you’ll definitely have it all to yourself.

Catch the sunset at Pine Creek Bridge.

Sunset on the Watchman in Zion National Park, with river in the middle of the valley

So, a fun fact about me is that I obsess over good sunrise/sunset locations when I’m visiting a national park.

I do all of the research ahead of time, look at all of the photos, figure out exactly where I want to say good morning or good night to the sun’s rays… but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. 

So, I present you with a very important piece of information.

Information that I wish I had known during my first visit… even if it did ultimately lead me to the discovery of an even cooler (and slightly hidden) sunset spot upon my next trip. 

Canyon Junction Bridge is known for being the iconic sunset spot. But what many websites aren’t telling you is that times have changed. 

Zion National Park no longer allows for pedestrians to stand on Canyon Junction Bridge. 

I repeat, you cannot watch the sunset on Canyon Junction Bridge… at least, not without the potential of having your experience ruined by law enforcement. 

So, knowing this, what is a sunset obsessed traveler to do? Find another spot of course! Lucky for you, the one I found is nothing short of spectacular

Not only does Pine Creek Bridge offer the same eye-popping views of the Watchman, but it is located on the Pa’Rus Trail which starts at the visitor center (talk about an easy walk back to the car!) and is accessible to all (dogs included!).  

Day Two of Your Zion National Park Itinerary

Conquer Angels Landing… or not.

Allison Green (the editor of the website) doing the Angels Landing hike
Allison, the editor, doing the Angels Landing hike back in 2017 (pre-permit requirement!) Note: It’s a trick of the angle, but there is another larger rock step just below me, so I am not sitting at the edge of the cliff. That said, I still maneuvered to this area using scrambling technique, always maintaining at least 3 points of contact. Always be careful and never risk your safety for a cool-looking photo!

This is one of those bucket list hikes that everyone wants to do, even if it terrifies them, and for good reason!

Angels Landing offers views of Zion like you’ve never seen and the adventure to match.

Of course, it also runs along a very narrow fin with massive, “fall to your death” drop-offs, and a set of chains to hold on to so you don’t do just that.

While this may sound like too much of a risk , there is no denying that it is the number one hike in Zion. 

But with popularity comes difficulty, because the only way to hike Angels Landing is to score a permit through a lottery system, either months or advance, or at the very last minute the day before.

So, your chances of hiking this trail boil down to a mix of dedication and luck.

As a very dedicated person, I can confidently say that I lack luck because I have tried many times and failed just as often.  

It’s not all bad news, though, since with failure comes the chance for a silver lining, and a little bit of persistence here helped me to find one of my absolute favorite hikes. 

So, try for Angels Landing because, well, why not? But if you can’t get a permit, rest assured, I’ve got  you covered with an epic alternative. 

That alternative, of course, is none other than Observation Point, via the East Mesa Trail (7 miles roundtrip). 

View from observation point in Zion National Park

Before you get excited and head off to the trail, it’s really really important to note that the only way to access this trail right now is on the East Mesa Trail

A recent rockslide has closed the main trail, and it probably won’t reopen for a few years.

So double check that map and make sure you are starting at the right location! 

On the bright side, this means that the trail will be way less crowded, and you’ll want these scenic views all to yourself. Trust me, I know. 

Observation Point has such a wide-sweeping view that it literally overlooks Angels Landing.

It is, by far, the most impressive view that I have seen in the park. 

In fact, it is probably the most impressive view that I have ever seen, and that’s saying something!

Just don’t forget to pack yourself a sandwich (or similar) because you’ll beat yourself up if you miss the opportunity to enjoy lunch with this kind of view. 

Take a scenic drive.

views on kolob terrace road just outside of zion national park

What many people don’t realize is that there is a whole world outside of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive

I only happened to stumble upon this on a brutally hot summer’s day when I just didn’t have it in me to wait for a shuttle in the heat surrounded by hundreds of other people. 

Studying the map, I discovered the Kolob Terrace Road and just decided to wing it. This turned out to be a truly wonderful decision.

This was probably one of my favorite experiences in Zion National Park!

With not another soul in sight (except the occasional cow), I drove along one of the most scenic roads that I’ve ever encountered and stopped at countless viewpoints offering views drastically different from what I had seen “inside” of the park. 

So, if you like scenic drives and crowdless afternoons, you absolutely have to go for a drive on the Kolob Terrace Road.

Besides, I discovered a sunset spot along this route that will blow you away!

Enjoy a crowdless sunset.

sunset at lava point overlook near a campground with trees and plateaus and mountains of the zion valley area

Kolob Terrace Road has treated me very well and I feel obligated to tell everyone I know about the delights it has to offer.

Just picture it. A Zion National Park sunset… all to yourself. Think it sounds too good to be true? Well, it isn’t! 

The Lava Point Overlook makes you feel like you have entered an entirely different, but equally beautiful park — both in views as well as in terms of crowd level. 

As the sun starts to dip, the golden light falls over the lava points and Zion’s main canyon out in the distance. Paired with a magical silence, there is nothing quite like it. 

Last but not least, there is a campground at the overlook so it’s a great place to set up a tent and spend the night! 

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