Hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park

Experience one of the most beautiful places in America with the Canyon Overlook Trail hike.

I consider myself to be fairly well versed in the English language.

My high school graduation present was an unabridged dictionary and, despite multiple moves in the intervening years, it’s so cherished it’s never seen the inside of a box. I was in Latin club. I am fascinated by etymology.

According to one of those “expert” quizzes you find on Facebook, my vocabulary is in the top 0.01% of English speakers and I know so many words I can even make up my own.

Essentially, I am the modern day (and female) version of Shakespeare.

(Everyone knows that if a quiz you find on Facebook says it’s true, well then, it is unquestionably accurate and who are we to doubt the veracity of such a proclamation?)

With that in mind, I state the following:

I have no idea how to describe Zion National Park. Or Bryce Canyon. Or Escalante. Or Capitol Reef or Goblin or anything in Southern Utah Canyon Country. Period.

But I’ll try. More accurately, I’ll tell you what we did and then show you lots of pictures, because I’d have to make up an entirely new language to encapsulate what that area of the country is like.

We got a glimpse of Zion’s glory when we entered Springdale, the town at the base of the park. Even the view from the gas station was photo-worthy. When we stopped at the local market to pick up provisions for dinner I remarked to the cashier that it must be incredible to live there. “Eh, you get used to it,” he said.

Road leading into Zion National Park
Springdale Utah

“Huh?” I sputtered. That was blasphemy! The young man was obviously suffering from an extreme case of jadedness, an impression that increased when we got into the actual park.

Entering Zion was like driving into an artist’s rendering.  The intensity was nearly overwhelming. The colors were HDR vivid, the contrast of red mountains against an unbelievable blue sky breathtakingly crisp and bright.

Tiny creek running through the canyon
Unbelievable beauty
Mae Sorento, our Kia companion, in Zion National Park
Mae Sorento, our Kia companion

This is part of our EPIC Southwest USA road trip from the Chicago-area to San Diego and back!

Zion National Park
Zion National Park

We visited in March and there was a long line of cars to enter the park. The campgrounds were full before noon and finding a parking space by the visitor center was, shall we say, challenging.

Earlier I had said to my husband, Jim, that it wouldn’t be busy because it was off-season… With more than eight million visitors a year I have a feeling that there is no off-season and Zion National Park is never not busy.

The park is so popular that there’s only one scenic drive, and if you want to do any hiking beyond what’s available from the road, which is to say most of the park, you have to take a shuttle. Since we were also planning on visiting Bryce Canyon National Park the same day, we needed to take SR-9 through Zion and only had time to stop for one of those trails.

But, oh, what a trail it was.

Related: 18 easy tips for visiting National Parks + National Parks Checklist

Hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail

Switchback trail in Zion National Park

After exiting a mile-long tunnel through Mount Carmel we got lucky when a pickup truck backed out of the parking lot. If we’d been thirty seconds later we would have missed it, and would have missed the Canyon Overlook Trail.

It’s a mile round-trip, and a sign greets hikers with a picture of a goat and the following warning:

“This rocky, uneven trail is not for anyone fearful of heights, although most dropoffs are fenced.”

Most dropoffs are fenced. That meant some weren’t.

I was already a little trepidatious. We hadn’t done a lot of hiking in the past three weeks and I come from the land of flat horizons and no elevation. We were about a mile high; could I make it? I wasn’t worried about Jim. He’s from Montana, and although he hasn’t lived there in decades he’s still got some of the mountain man in him.

If I had to stop and take a breath, fine, but I had to – had to – make it to the top of that trail. One of the things I said when we were planning this trip was that I was not going to miss a view because of my physical fitness, or lack thereof.

I made it! I didn’t even have to stop to slow my heart rate or take a drink of water, even though the trail started by climbing hand-over-hand up switchbacks that ascended a third of the elevation almost immediately.

Descending hikers told us the first part was the worst section and it would even out from there. It did, and we followed the path as it ducked under a rocky cutout in the sandstone, and hugged the side of the mountain on a trail less than a foot wide, and gingerly stepped on sloped rock until we reached the overlook and then – that’s when I lost my breath.  

Trail under rock outcropping on the Canyon Overlook Trail
Looking out from under the rock at Zion National Park
Narrow trail on the side of the mountain in Zion National Park
Dead tree in Zion National Park

A thousand feet above the canyon floor we looked at the intersection of Zion and Pine Canyons in absolute, sheer awe. Below we saw the winding road we’d driven ever higher until finally emerging from that tunnel. Chipmunks scampered about. Families and couples and friends explored and took photo after photo.

Overlook of Zion Canyon

I was invigorated. I felt like I could have hiked for days. We turned around and began our descent, and I said to Jim, “Look at me! I’m a goat!”

There’s a reason this was a big deal. A few years before, Jim proposed while we were on a camping trip in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. We had only recently discovered our shared love of the outdoors and wanted to explore as many trails as possible.

Except I couldn’t.

The day after he proposed, we approached a trail that started with an uphill climb. I could not physically do it. I was embarrassed and ashamed and angry, and I vowed that it would not happen again.

So, in Zion, when I was able to scramble up and down a “moderate” trail a mile above sea level, I was proud, and I was happy, and I was grateful that I didn’t keep my husband from experiencing one of the most beautiful sites we’ve ever seen.

Looking down in the canyon in Zion National Park
Viewing the trail under the rock outcropping from the other side in Zion National Park
Looking down from the trail into the canyon
Walking under an overhang on the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park
Rock cairn on the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park
Zion National Park
Zion National Park

We returned to our vehicle and left quickly, freeing up a spot so others could enjoy the Canyon Overlook Trail.

Utah State Road 9 cuts through the park, and we followed it to the other side. The road itself is paved a color that matches the red stones, detracting nothing from the ethereal experience.

Unbelievable beauty of Zion National Park
Utah SR-9 in Zion National Park

We wanted to stay in Zion with its brilliant colors and crimped, crinkled mountains. We had to leave too soon, much too soon. But Utah had much more to show us, more than we ever could have imagined.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1! Scroll down for information on how to visit Zion National Park.

Jim and Theresa at Zion National Park

Visiting Zion National Park

Zion is one of the most popular parks in the system. To protect this resource for years to come, check out the Zion National Park Pledge. This pledge asks you to abide by Leave No Trace principles and generally show respect for the land and its occupants.

Before your visit to canyon country, make sure to check the weather. It varies so much from site to site, and even within Zion, that their website advises checking the forecast for the different regions.

Zion National Park Fees:

  • Private, non-commercial vehicle $35.00
  • Motorcycle $30.00
  • Per person, walk-in or bicycle $20.00
  • Non-commercial vehicles with a vehicle capacity of 15 or less $35.00
  • Non-commercial vehicles with a capacity of 16 or greater $20.00 per person

As a member of the National Park System, entrance is included in the Interagency Annual Pass.

Zion National Park Map

Zion National Park Lodging

Zion National Park is located in southern Utah next to Springdale and near St. George and Kanab. While accommodations are limited in Springdale, if you’re willing to drive there are more options in the other two cities.

Visit Tripadvisor and Booking.com to check rates and find a place to stay near Zion.

Zion National Park Camping

There are three campgrounds, and boy, are they popular! They generally fill up by mid-morning. Fortunately, you can reserve a spot in advance for South Campground and Watchman Campground. Reservations must be made a minimum of two weeks and up to six months in advance at recreation.gov. Both campgrounds are located in the desert and have little shade.

Lava Point Campground is about an hour from the park entrance off Kolob Terrace Road. Camping is free for this primitive site with pit toilets and trash cans. There are only six sites and they’re first-come, first-served.

Accessibility:

Watchman Campground has two accessible sites and multiple flat sites. All have easy access to their six accessible restrooms.

South Campground has three accessible sites, but no facilities.

Campground Fees:

  • South Campground: $20/night
  • Watchman Campground: $20/night tent; $30/night electric
  • Lava Point Campground: Free

Find out more about Zion National Park

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1 thought on “Hiking the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park”

  1. “Entering Zion was like driving into an artist’s rendering.” OK, I don’t know you but I feel like we are very similar. I have never been to Zion but I have been to other US parks and that is exactly how I felt upon driving in each time. And judging by your photos, Zion is out of this world beautiful. Saving this for when we finally go to Zion.

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