Utah’s Zion National Park is truly an unbelievable place. It is filled with striking rock formations, canyons, and the Virgin River flows through the park. Zion is a popular destination for hikers, climbers, as well as photographers.
If you drive to Zion from the Grand Canyon, as many visitors do, you will leave the arid desert of Arizona and when you reach Zion you will feel like you stepped into another world. In this article we’ll take a look at Zion from a photographer’s perspective, with plenty of insight and tips to help you get the most out of your time at the park.
→ See More of The Best Places to Photograph in Utah
Zion National Park is fairly small compared to some of the other popular national parks, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with stunning scenery and views. Zion is located in southwest Utah and many visitors only stay for a day or a few days. Because it is relatively close to Bryce Canyon National Park, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and other cities and parks in Utah and Arizona, Zion is often just one stop on a larger trip. If this is the case (as it was for me when I visited Zion) you really need to be prepared and know what you want to do with the limited time you have there.
There is a shuttle bus system (runs from March through October) that will take you up and down the road in the main canyon (Zion Canyon), and the majority of visitors stick to this area. During peak seasons cars are not allowed on the road in the main canyon area where the shuttle runs, unless you are staying in the lodge. The shuttle stops at several different trailheads. Some of the hikes are short and easy, and others are long and challenging. The shuttle is free, although there is an entrance fee to get into the park. The shuttle stops (and a map) are listed at the end of this article.
The most common park entrances are the south entrance on Route 9 and the east entrance, also on Route 9. Route 9 runs through the park providing an amazingly scenic, winding drive with many places where you can pull off and park. Most of this drive on Route 9 is through what is considered the Upper East Canyon. The shuttle is only in the main canyon and doesn’t take you anywhere in the Upper East Canyon.
The visitor’s center is located near the south entrance. The south entrance is in the town of Springdale, which is where most visitors stay. There are several hotels and restaurants in Spingdale, and there is also a lodge inside the park. Parking within the park is limited and fills up pretty quickly during peak season, so there is also a shuttle that runs between Springdale and the park. See this page for details about where you can pick up the shuttle in Springdale.
→ Related reading: Photographer’s Guide to the Grand Canyon
Points of Interest at Zion National Park:
Now let’s take a look at some of the main points of interest when you are photographing Zion National Park. Some of these are very easy to photograph and others will require extensive hiking, which of course means more time.
The Main Canyon
As I mentioned earlier, the main canyon area is where the shuttle runs and where the lodge is located. There are a lot of things to see and photograph within Zion Canyon and there are several short hikes that you can do if you are limited on time. There are also several day hikes that start within the main canyon, so if you have a few days at the park you will want to look into these options as well.
Towers of the Virgin
You can photograph the Towers of the Virgin from behind the Zion Human History Museum, which is the second shuttle stop (the visitor’s center is the first stop). This is an easy location to access, and it is also a good choice for sunrise and sunset. If you are located behind the human history museum you will be facing west towards the Towers of the Virgin. At sunrise you won’t have a view of the sun since you will be facing west, but the sun will cast a beautiful light on the rocks.
You can get a nice view of The Watchman, a tall and dominant formation, from a bridge near Canyon Junction (the third shuttle stop). From this vantage point you can get the Virgin River in the foreground with The Watchman in the background. This is a popular spot for photographers, especially at sunset. The Watchman Trail also leads to a nice view of The Watchman. This is a two-mile hike (roundtrip) and the trailhead is located near the visitor’s center. Along the trail you’ll have a view of several formations including Towers of the Virgin, West Temple, and the Altar of Sacrifice.
The Three Patriarchs
The Three Patriarchs are named for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of the Old Testament. The fourth shuttle stop is at the Court of the Patriarchs and there is a short trial that leads to a viewpoint. You can also get a more unique view by exploring on foot and going off the path.
Emerald Pools Trail
You can access the Emerald Pools Trail by walking over the bridge near Zion Lodge (the fifth shuttle stop). The trail will lead you to the lower, middle, and upper emerald pools. Along the trail you’ll be near a stream and several waterfalls. The amount of water flowing depends on the season and can be quite low during the summer and will be at its peak during the spring runoff. This popular trail will take a few hours to complete, and it provides great opportunities for photos.
The Weeping Rock
The Weeping Rock is a popular location, and is easy to access. Water that has flowed down through the sandstone flows out as the rock appears to weep. There is some green vegetation and a small stream as well. You can get to the weeping rock by taking a short walk, although it is kind of steep, from the Weeping Rock Trailhead, the seventh shuttle stop. The Weeping Rock Trailhead is also the starting point for several other hikes.
The Great White Throne
The Great White Throne is an impressive monolith. The eighth shuttle stop, Big Bend, includes a viewpoint for the Great White Throne.
Riverside Walk starts at the Temple of Sinawava, which is the ninth and final shuttle stop. The paved trail is about a mile long (one direction) and eventually ends as the canyon gets too narrow. From there you can continue into The Narrows, a popular hike that I’ll mention in a moment. Riverside Walk is an easy and peaceful hike along the Virgin River. The entire walk is beautiful and you’ll have opportunities to photograph the river and vegetation up close. I’d recommend leaving plenty of time here to stop and photograph whatever catches your eye.
Upper East Canyon
From the road (Route 9) there are plenty of places to park in the Upper East Canyon where you can explore on foot. Some of the parking areas only have a few spots, and they fill up quickly. In other places you can pull off the side of the road and park.
The landscape here is considerably different from the Zion Canyon area, but also beautiful and waiting to be photographed. Leave plenty of time for a drive along Route 9. It is quite a slow and winding drive, especially during peak months with a lot of traffic on the road. This route also includes the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which is more than 1 mile in length. The tunnel is not very wide so oversized vehicles need a permit and rangers will convert it from two-way traffic to one-way traffic. From the text on the website it looks like the tunnel is two-ways under normal conditions, but when I was there it always seemed to be one way, and it could be a 15 minute wait or longer for the traffic to start moving in your direction.
Checkerboard Mesa is a slickrock formation that resembles a checkerboard. Located near the east entrance to the park, there is an official viewpoint for easily seeing and photographing Checkerboard Mesa.
The Canyon Overlook Trail
You can get a great view of the main canyon from the viewpoint on the Canyon Overlook Trail. From the Upper East Canyon you’ll take a short hike (1 mile roundtrip) to the viewpoint. The trailhead is located east of the tunnel.
More Intense Hikes:
If your willing to work a little (…or a lot) harder to get an amazing photo, here are a few of the popular but more intense hikes.
Angel’s Landing provides one of the most stunning views in the park (which is saying a lot since there are amazing views everywhere), but it is not easy to get to. The trail starts at the Grotto Trailhead (the sixth shuttle stop in Zion Canyon) and is about 2.5 miles one way and will take the better part of a day to do round trip. It’s quite steep and strenuous with sharp drops at many places. This hike is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. Go light on camera gear and leave anything unnecessary behind.
Another stunning view is available from the appropriately-named Observation Point. Like Angel’s Landing, you’ll have to work to get the view from Observation Point. It is a steep hike about 4 miles each way, although it is not as fear-inducing as the hike to Angel’s Landing. The trail starts at Weeping Rock Trailhead (the seventh shuttle stop in Zion Canyon) and much of the trail is paved. In addition to the view at the top, you’ll also have opportunities along the trail to view Hidden Canyon and Echo Canyon.
Hiking the Narrows is one of the most popular things to do at Zion. The Narrows is a narrow area where the Virgin River flows through the slot canyon. To get to the Narrows you will take the shuttle to the ninth and final stop, the Temple of Sinawava, and take Riverside Walk until it ends. Hiking the Narrows requires that you’ll be walking in water usually knee to waist deep, so be sure to have appropriate footwear, a walking stick, and only take the necessary gear and accessories. The Narrows is a day hike, but you can make it shorter if you don’t have a lot of time. Hike as far as you want and then turn and head back. Be sure to have waterproof protection for your gear.
The Subway is another popular area. It is a roughly half mile stretch where the canyon resembles a subway tunnel. Access to the Subway is limited and requires a permit, so planning in advance is highly advised. It is also recommended that you travel with a guide who is experienced and familiar with the Subway.
The northwest section of the park is called Kolob Canyons. This part of the park is not seen by most park visitors, so if you are looking to get away from the crowds this is a great option. There is a five-mile scenic drive along Kolob Canyons Road. If you drive to the end of Kolob Canyons Road you can get a great view of the Kolob Finger Canyons. You can get the view right from the parking lot. There are also several trails for hiking to get more unique views.
Kolob Terrace Road
Kolob Terrance Road leads to the highest point in the park, Lava Point. Along the road there are plenty of beautiful views. Kolob Terrace Road begins in the town of Virgin, west of Springdale on route 9, outside of the park. The Subway is located in the Kolob Terrance section of the park.
The Desert Lowlands
The hottest and driest area of the park is not a popular area for most visitors, but the Desert Lowlands do provide some photographic opportunities. This area is located southwest of the town of Springdale.
The best map I have found that will give you an overview of the layout of the park and it’s main attractions can be found on this page (scroll to the bottom of the page).
When is the Best Time to Visit Zion National Park?
The park is open year round with June through September generally being the busiest, and winter months bringing the smallest crowds. As far as temperatures are concerned, average highs in the winter months (December, January, and February) are in the low 50’s, but it does snow at times. Summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees, so spring and fall offer the most pleasant temperatures with highs typically in the 60’s – 80’s. There really is no bad time of year to visit Zion.
As the winter snow melts the spring runoff will mean that more water is flowing through the park than other times of the year. The Virgin River may have more water and the waterfalls flow more aggressively, which can be good for photography. However, that increased runoff also means that the Narrows usually cannot be hiked until June or July. Higher points in the park, such as Lava Point may still be snow covered well into the spring.
Summer temperatures can make hiking quite uncomfortable, especially on the trails that are fully exposed to the sun. As a result, fall can be a more comfortable time to visit. In the main canyon foliage starts to change colors in October, and in higher elevation areas it can happen in September.
In winter months hiking may be difficult and high elevation locations within the park may be inaccessible because of the snow. Also, the shuttle does not run in the winter, but during these months you are able to drive your own vehicle in the main canyon where the shuttle normally runs.
I visited Zion in September and found it to be a great time to be there. The main canyon was crowded but there were available seats on the shuttles and a few open parking spaces within the park (we didn’t need to take the shuttle from Springdale into the park, which we would have needed to do if we couldn’t find parking).
→ Related reading: Photographing Sedona, Arizona
Tips for Photographing Zion National Park:
1. Plan Ahead and Prioritize
As with any photography trip, you’ll get the most out of your time at Zion if you are well prepared. Even though it is a relatively small park you will not be able to see and do everything in one visit, so you’ll need to prioritize. Some things can be done fairly quickly or easily, such as photographing the iconic formations from the main canyon area. The shuttle system makes it easy to move from one end of the main canyon to the other and if you are sticking with only the shorter and easier hikes you can cover a lot of territory in one day. However, there are also a lot of day hikes that are great options but will not allow you to do much else on those particular days.
You’ll also need to plan ahead because the lighting conditions can be quite challenging. The high canyon walls can result in shadows that are difficult to work with. Between the golden hours you may need to stick to shooting scenes that are fully within the shadow due to the uneven lighting. Scouting areas will help you to get the most out of the peak lighting when it is available.
2. Be Flexible with Sunrise and Sunset
Sunrise photography and sunset photography at Zion are not typical of what you will experience at many other locations. Due to the high canyons you will not be able to actually photograph the sun breaking the horizon from most locations. In fact, the best sunrise and sunset shots at Zion are often facing away from the sun. A west-facing shot at sunrise may catch a beautiful scene of the rock formations lighting up in the sunlight, and an east-facing shot at sunset may also work well.
3. Learn About the Different Trails
There is a great deal of variety among the trails of the park. Some are short, some are long. Some are easy, some are difficult. Each trail will lead to to different views and provide different opportunities. Some, like the Angel’s Landing trail, may also be intimidating or even frightening if you have a fear of heights. Take the time to learn about the different trails and hikes to see what appeals the most to you.
As you read about the various hikes keep in mind that most posted hiking times will not account for time to photograph. Even some of the shorter hikes, like Riverside Walk for example, could easily become much more time consuming if you stop at a lot of different places along the trail for photographs.
4. Blaze Your Own Trail
Although there are plenty of great trails within the park, you may also want to hike on your own. Within the main canyon area almost all of the visitors will be at a location near one of the shuttle stops or on one of the main trails. Since cars are not allowed on this road (except in the winter) the areas between the shuttle stops are mostly devoid of people. If you hike between the shuttle stops you’ll find plenty of photo-worthy subjects and you will be mostly by yourself. You’re also likely to find some places that you can explore on your own.
The Upper East Canyon area along Route 9 from the east entrance does not have that many trails, but there are a lot places where you can pull off the road and park. You can explore these areas on foot to find unique scenes that most visitors will not see.
5. Stay for at Least a Few Days
Many people visiting Zion will only stay for a day or two because they are also traveling to some other parks on the same trip. If you really want to experience Zion and photograph it effectively you will need more time. Of course, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of staying in one location as opposed to visiting a few parks in one quick trip.
6. Take Precautions
Zion National Park is a paradise for outdoor activities, but it can also be dangerous. Be careful and don’t take unnecessary risks, especially on hikes like Angel’s Landing. If you are hiking in any of the slot canyons, like the Narrows, be sure to follow the guidance of local weather advisories. Flash flooding is a serious risk if you are not careful. It may not even be raining in the park but water flowing from a storm several miles away can cause flash floods very quickly. Take safety seriously and follow the recommendations of the park.
1. Lightweight Tripod
Since much of the experience at Zion involves hiking, and sometimes very strenuous hiking, you will want your tripod to be as light as possible.
2. Bag or Backpack
You’ll need a bag or backpack that will allow you to comfortably carry your gear while your are hiking. Since many of the trails are steep it can help to have a backpack that will keep your hands free. Those from Case Logic or Lowepro are good options.
3. Waterproof Gear
If you are planning to hike the Narrows or the Subway you will need to take precautions to protect your gear. You could use a drybag or simply take an inexpensive waterproof camera instead of your main camera.
4. Wide Angle Lens
One of the challenges of photographing from the viewpoints or near the road in the main canyon area is simply knowing what to photograph and how to compose your shots. There will be amazing rock formations all around you, and in some cases you will almost feel too close to get the shot that you want. A wide angle lens can help you to get more of the scene in your shots.
5. Telephoto Lens
A telephoto lens will also be helpful for capturing details of the rock formations.
6. Graduated Neutral Density Filters
You may need a graduated neutral density filter to help you deal with shadows being cast by the towering canyon walls. Filters from Lee Filters, Cokin, Hoya, and Singh-Ray are all excellent options.
7. Landscape Legend Lightroom Presets
When it comes to processing your landscape photos, the Landscape Legend Lightroom Presets can be a huge time saver. The set includes more than 290 presets, which includes 100 one-click presets and loads of stackable workflow presets that give you countless options.
Shuttle Stops in Zion Canyon:
1. Zion Canyon Visitor’s Center (access to The Watchman Trail)
2. Zion Human History Museum (view of the Towers of the Virgin)
3. Canyon Junction (Intersection with the scenic drive on Route 9 that heads towards the east entrance of the park. Views of the Virgin River.)
4. Court of the Patriarchs (short, steep trail to viewpoint of the Three Patriarchs and Mount Moroni)
5. Zion Lodge (Emerald Pools Trail and the Grotto Trail)
6. The Grotto (views of the Virgin River and Angels Landing
7. Weeping Rock (access to Observation Point Trail and East Rim Trail)
8. Big Bend (views of the Virgin River, Angel’s Landing, and The Great White Throne)
9. Temple of Sinawava (Riverside Walk, gateway to the Narrows)
Photo license links: CC BY 2.0, CC BY 3.0, CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-ND 2.0
Dear Marc, this is a brilliant article full of useful information. I’m planning my first trip to the US Southwest and will do it in October. I expect Zion to be one of the highlights and I have found lots of good tips on locations I haven’t seen elsewhere. Thank you!
This was sooooo helpful. Thank you!!
Utah looks so amazing, also this is so helpful, thanks!