Derek Nielsen Photography

Derek Nielsen Photography

Uncategorized Photographers Guide To The Best Of Zion National Park
Image of Zion National Park at Sunrise from the Overlook Trail

Zion National Park is one of the most popular National Parks in America’s Southwest. Located near Springdale in southwestern Utah, the park is known for its fantastic geological formations. For this reason, It is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts like rock climbers, hikers, and photographers. In 2021, Zion National Park reached an annual visitation of 5 million guests, making it one of America’s most visited national parks. Here are some essential travel tips to consider when visiting.

Getting to Zion National Park

view from Zion National Park going toward the East entrance with gorgeous rocks and desert vegetation

Getting to Zion National Park requires some driving. I recommend renting a car or camper van instead of taking a big tour bus so you can explore the park at your own pace. Parking is found at the south entrance, including charging ports for electric cars. Reservations are no longer needed to use the shuttle system. Shuttles run from March 1st to December 31st. The first shuttle leaves the Zion Canyon Visitor Center at 7 am, and the last returns at 715 pm. During the high season, March through November, the parking lot is full by 9:00 am. Parking in the town of Springdale is an option. Research the shuttle schedule and pickup locations

For those coming from Kanab, the drive is roughly 30min. I spent many days living in Duck Creek Village, driving back and forth between Zion and Bryce Canyon. Duck Creek Village is a perfect place to rent a short-term rental to visit both parks. Driving time between Zion and Bryce Canyon is 1 hour and 30 minutes. 

Closest Airports to Zion National Park

  • Harry Reid International Airport – Las Vegas is the closest international airport to Zion. The average driving distance to the south entrance is 170 miles or about 3 hours. 
  • Salt Lake City International Airport- This airport is another excellent option, particularly if you plan on visiting some of the other fantastic neighboring national parks in the North. It is a 4-hour drive if driven straight, but many people visit Arches, Canyonlands, and Bryce Canyon National Parks first on their way south to Zion.
  • St. George Regional Airport—With daily flights to Denver, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix, this regional airport is an excellent alternative for long-distance travelers. It is a one-hour drive to the park’s south entrance.

Where To Stay When Visiting Zion

Image of a cabin in Duck Creek Village Utah in the winter with the ground and roof covered in show
  • There are three popular places to stay when visiting outside the park and only a handful inside the park. Depending on how long you plan on staying in the area, each location offers something different. With this in mind, let’s look at each location deeper.

    Places To Stay Inside Zion National Park

    • Zion Lodge—With cabins, hotel rooms, and suites, Zion National Park Lodge offers something for everyone in the heart of Zion’s stunning landscapes along the canyon floor. Perfectly situated at the base of one of the park’s most popular hikes, Emerald Pools Trail, Zion Lodge is ideal for relaxing with a cold beer after a long day of hiking. 

    • Watchman Campground—Located close to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, the Watchman Campground is open year-round. Reservations are open up to 6 months in advance and fill up quickly. There are 18 tent-only, walk-in campsites available. 

    • South Campground – As of 2024, the South Campground is currently unavailable for reservations due to rehabilitation work. 

    • Lava Point Campground—While technically still in Zion National Park, Lava Point Campground is 1 hour and 20 minutes from the park’s main South entrance. This primitive campsite has only six spaces available for reservations. Higher elevations along the Kolob Terrace Road usually lead to road closures during winter. At 7890 feet above sea level, late fall brings snow. 

    Places To Stay Outside The Park

    • Springdale – Because of its proximity to the entrance to Zion National Park, Springdale is the most popular location in which to stay. Here, you will find a number of options, from 4-star hotels to bed and breakfasts. Daily shuttles will run through town, bringing travelers into the park from their hotels. Dining options are available up and down the main stretch; however, during peak season, reservations are recommended. Visit the Zion Brew Pub for that long-awaited cold beer after a long day of hiking. For dog owners, a great place to board your dog while spending the day exploring the park is Canyonpaws.
    • Kanab – Located on the border between Utah and Arizona, Kanab is ideal for those looking to visit the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park. Visitors looking to hike the famous “Wave” often use Kanab as a launching point. Visitors will find great dining options along the winding Main Street, including this vegetarian favorite, Peekaboo Canyon Wood Fired Pizza.
    • Duck Creek Village – Perfect for short or long-term rentals, Duck Creek Village is located off Utah Route 14. The village is a bustling vacation destination for the ATV crowd during the warm weather months. The tiny town offers a reliable hardware store, a gas station, and a few restaurants. Duck Creek Village is ideal for visiting Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Kanarra Falls.

Safety Inside Zion National Park


From records, a total of 16 reported deaths have occurred hiking Angels Landing alone. Hiking in such an intense ecosystem requires planning. Weather conditions change quickly. Before hiking, please check with the park staff or research the weather forecast. Dehydration is common inside Zion. Bring more water than you are used to. Temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In contrast, hypothermia is also a common cause of concern inside the park. A woman died in November 2022 from hypothermia while hiking The Narrows Trail.

Best Photography Locations Inside Zion

image of The Watchman mountain in Zion National Park during sunset over a river with fall colors

(The Watchman – Limited Edition Fine Art Print Of 6 – Derek Nielsen Photography)

  • Zion National Park has so many great locations to compose beautiful landscape scenes. Some are much more difficult to get to and even require a permit to visit. Even though the image above of the Watchman is now an off-limits location, there are still plenty of great spots to compose. Let’s dive into the best photography locations inside Zion National Park.

    Canyon Overlook

    – The trail is one of the easiest trails in all of the park, and the rewarding view is as impressive as it gets, making it a very popular short hike. Coming from the visitor center, you will head toward the east entrance. After making your way up the zig-zagging road and through the tunnel, a small parking lot will be on the right. This parking lot will undoubtedly be full unless you arrive way before sunrise. That being said, plenty of parking is along the road leading out of the canyon. Make sure your vehicle is completely off the road, or it will be ticketed or towed. The trail itself is not very dangerous or intimidating; the only really dangerous part is the sheer cliff at the end, looking over the canyon.
Image of Zion National Park at Sunrise from the Overlook Trail

(Canyon Fire – Limited Edition Fine Art Print Of 6 – Derek Nielsen Photography)

The Narrows –

This hike inside Zion requires the most planning because it is mostly in water. Sometimes, freezing cold mountain water. Outfitters in town will rent waiters to protect you from the deep, cold waters during the cooler months. During the warmer, dry months, simple water shoes are perfect. For photographers, a dry sac and a tripod are good ideas. I will get into gear recommendations in the next sections, but it’s also worth mentioning here. Many people begin the hike from the Temple of Sinawava via the Riverside Walk. Here, you will enter the Virgin River, wandering through the canyon up to Big Spring. The total distance is 10 miles, and the round trip is a full-day hike. No permits are required for this portion of the hike. The water levels fluctuate the length of the hike. Be particularly aware of flash floods while exploring the Narrows. 

photo of the narrows hike in Zion National Park during fall

Angels Landing

A permit is now required to hike the final portion of the Angels Landing trail to the infamous mid-canyon viewpoint. Surprisingly, as much as I dislike permit systems in general, this one makes sense. Angels Landing is the park’s most popular hike. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States National Park system saw a huge influx of visitors. Regardless, I hiked this trail in the fall of 2020. With steep cliffs on each side, too many people on the trail, and icy conditions, I never felt comfortable until the end of the hike. Angels Landing is still a fantastic experience for those skilled enough to try. The hike leading up to (West Rim Trail) and beyond Scout Lookout is a fantastic hike and does not require a permit. In reality, this portion of the hike was my favorite, regardless of the views on the landing.

View from the top of angles landing looking south over the canyon

Other Notable Hikes In Zion

  • Emerald pools – Easy to moderate hike with ample shade in the afternoon.
  • The Subway – (permit required) This moderate hike is best done in the fall when the weather is cooler, and the fall colors add to the scene.
  • The Watchman – This hike can get busy because of its proximity to the park entrance. However, depending on the time of year, you can find yourself completely alone.
  • Observation Point via East Mesa Trail – The traditional route to Observation Point is closed because of a landslide. However, the iconic lookout can be accessed via East Mesa Trail.
View from the West Rim Trail in Zion looking south at sunrise with a tree in the foreground, fall colors in the trees and an orange glow across the canyon

(view from the West Rim Trail leading to Angles Landing)

Helpful Photography Gear For Zion National Park

Tripod – Professional photographers need to bring a sturdy tripod. Not only will you find it helpful during the early morning and late evening sweet light shots but also while capturing flowing water in the canyon. The walls of the canyons cast deep shadows. In tighter spots like The Narrows, even less light gets in. You will need a tripod to capture that smooth water flowing over rocks in the foreground with the majestic canyon walls towering beside you.

Graduated Neutral Density Filter – As mentioned above, the canyon walls cast dark shadows into the valley below. In order to create a balanced exposure, a graduated neutral density filter helps tone down the highlights.

Headlamp – Very few picture-worthy scenes are found right by the roadside. Several hours of hiking in the dark are not uncommon when shooting photography in Zion. Make sure you have a headlamp to hike safely in this environment. In addition, you will be happy you have one when setting up for your next gallery-worthy photograph.

Wide Angle Lens – Any serious landscape photographer needs to carry a wide-angle lens in their gear bag. Capturing a landscape as vast as Zion National Park requires a large field of view. For one thing, we want to pull the viewer into our image. A wide-angle lens allows us to capture the foreground easier, giving the viewer the feeling they are standing there.

Waterproof / Dustproof Backpack – One thing I have learned in my professional photography career is to do everything possible to protect your gear. Having a good waterproof backpack will do that for you. I never want to miss a shot because I was afraid I was going to ruin my gear getting there. With a waterproof bag, you can wade through the deepest waters in The Narrows or take a direct hit from a sandstorm without worrying about if your gear survived.

Best Time Of Year To Visit Zion National Park

Fall and early spring are the best times to visit Zion National Park. Less tourists and lower temperatures make the park far more manageable for private vehicles and the hiking trails more enjoyable. The park is open during the winter months but check with the National Park Service for closures. During the summer months, early mornings are really the only way to beat the heat because most of the park offers little shade. 

Bonus Section – One Of My Favorite Hikes In The Area

gorgeous flowing waterfall through slot canyon in Utah

(Divine Calm – Limited Edition Fine Art Print Of 50 – Derek Nielsen Photography)

Kanarra Falls is one of the most beautiful hikes in the area. In fact, it might be my favorite short hike in Utah. Located one hour north of Zion, this hike is well worth the side trip. Similar to The Narrows, this hike is best accomplished with water shoes. As a result, several places in town rent appropriate gear for hiking this trail. A permit is always required for hiking and can be purchased easily online. In 2021, a powerful monsoon season devastated the area and knocked out the iconic wood ladder pictured frozen above. Consequently, someone felt it was time to add a permanent ladder. Now, in its place is an aluminum staircase. Certainly not as iconic as the old tree ladder, but undoubtedly much safer.

What is so special about this hike is the building beauty of it all. The hike starts out as nothing special, but as you get further in, the walls of the canyon begin to narrow. Before you know it, you’re crossing the creek back and forth until you are fully inside the slot canyon. The hike won’t take more than 4 hours to complete unless you’re like me and take tons of photos. It is important to realize that the sun sets fast in the canyon, so keep an eye on the time. Hiking out in the dark is tricky. Being only a 4-mile hike, this is the perfect day trip outside Zion, saturated with beauty.


For more information on any of the images or fine art prints in this article or how to fine-tune your nature photography skills, please check out more of our articles. Likewise, if you have enjoyed the photography inside the article, please visit our gallery for more information and a wider selection of luxury fine art photography from around the world. It is my absolute pleasure to share my intimate knowledge of wildlife photography with audiences around the world. All of my fine art images are sold to help support conservation organizations around the globe.

Written By: Derek Nielsen

Derek Nielsen Photography

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