Of all the National Parks in Southern Utah, Zion National Park is perhaps the most unique and one of the most fertile places in the state, which is likely why so many Native American groups inhabited the area. The park itself is quite large, and the area where the roads are paved and tourists gather is just a fraction of the size. You can either drive, walk/roll or take the free shuttle to the park from the town of Springdale. Whatever you choose, an entrance fee is required at the gate. If you have a national park pass, the entrance is free (must be a US resident). Technically, Zion National Park is open year-round, but during the colder months, trails close, and shuttles are not in service, so plan accordingly.
The scenic drive is, well, very scenic but if riding on the shuttle, the permanently closed windows are a hindrance to taking quality photos, so you’ll likely want to get out at least once, if not more. Waiting for a shuttle is never too long. If driving, there are a number of good places to pull over. The shuttle drivers (at least what I experienced) were very friendly and knowledgeable about the area and made great guides. Zion National Park also offers a two-hour-long ranger-led tour on the shuttle for a more intimate look at the park. Reservations for morning or evening tours are required because seating is limited. Reservations must be made in person up to three days in advance at the Visitor Center.
The Free In-Park Shuttle is equipped with a lift and can transport two wheelchairs at once in designated spaces with tie-down belts to keep the chair in place. There are a lot of stations that the shuttle stops at within Zion National Park. Mobility devices must be smaller than thirty inches by forty-six inches and have a combined weight of fewer than six hundred pounds.
The Free Town Shuttle is equipped with a lift and can carry two wheelchairs at once in designated spaces with tie-down belts to keep the chair in place. This shuttle has many stops before reaching Zion National Park; by the hotels, restaurants, and shops that line the street. The shuttle is also available if you are just dining or shopping in the town of Springdale. Mobility devices must be smaller than 30 x 46 inches and have a combined weight of fewer than 600 pounds.
The Visitor Center is located right at the park entrance and is also a gift shop and café. It has automatic doors, accessible restroom stalls, and a separate family unit restroom as well as a lowered counter at the information desk if you have questions or want a map. Zion National Park also has free spring drinking water, so fill up your water bottle, and remember not to drink directly from natural water sources within the park. You can also catch the free in-park shuttle at the Visitor Center; otherwise, the shuttle has several stations it stops at along the scenic drive.
Trails and Hiking
Not too far from the Visitor Center is the Pa’rus Trail, the first of two accessible trails at Zion National Park. To access the trailhead, you can either stroll on a paved trail from the Visitor Center and through the South Campground to reach it or start at the Canyon Junction, which happens to also be a shuttle stop. The trail is 3.5 miles long (5.6 kilometers) with a 50 feet (15 meters) change in elevation. It’s estimated that this trail will take at least two hours. If heat intolerant, then plan to hike this trail in the morning, the earlier the better, as there is little shade on this trail and it gets hot in Zion Canyon. It’s also good for everyone to prepare by wearing a hat and sunscreen and bringing plenty of water. For the most part, the trail is relatively flat, the elevation change is very gradual and there are only a few small inclines. The Pa’rus Trail has some beautiful desert landscapes with great views of the canyon. Closer to the Canyon Junction, the Pa’rus Trail meanders back and forth over the North Fork Virgin River and is quite picturesque.
The only other accessible trail in Zion National Park that is barrier-free is the Riverside Walk, which is the second to last stop on the scenic drive and the last stop for the shuttle. The Riverside Walk is 2.2 miles (3.5 kilometers) and is estimated to take at least an hour and a half to hike. Elevation change is reported to be 57 feet (17 meters). The trail is called the Riverside Walk because it runs practically parallel to the North Fork Virgin River. This trail is significantly more shaded than the Pa’rus Trail and its surrounding foliage is also much lusher. The correct term here would be an oasis and something miraculous to experience in the desert. The paved trail starts somewhat gradually but then the trail encounters a series of dips and hills until its ends. Since the Riverside Walk is also not a loop, you must return the way you came; every dip is now a hill to climb. This trail is paved and barrier-free, but the hills are challenging unless you have good electric or manual power. A few sections of this trail have a light layer of sand, which makes gripping the trail impossible and problematic when going up a hill.
Additional Access Information
Picnic Areas vary in access. The most accessible is the one on the outer perimeter of the parking lot at the Visitor Center. This picnic area is unpaved, but most tables have been modified for access with an extended tabletop to allow a wheelchair to roll under. And then, of course, accessible restrooms are nearby at the Visitor Center. The Grotto Picnic Area is deeper into the park and is also unpaved with a unisex bathroom but has no modified picnic tables. Finally, the Kolob Canyons Picnic Area is located at the end of the scenic drive. The picnic area is located up a steep, unpaved path and the site itself is also unpaved but has an accessible bathroom.
Access to Camping is possible at two campgrounds in Zion National Park, and those with a national park pass get a 50% discount. The first is the Watchman Campground, which is the first thing you’ll see coming through the South Entrance, even before the Visitor Center. Sites A-24 and A-25 are reserved for those with access needs. Pavement at the sites has cracks and other erosion, which create a barrier for some wheelchairs. The fire pit/grill at these campsites has been elevated and picnic tabletops extended. Gravel pathways lead to the bathroom. An asphalt trail leads to the Watchman Amphitheater.
Just past the Visitor Center is the South Campground, where you also get a 50% off with a national park pass. Campsites 103, 114, and 115 are designated for campers with access needs. Some who use a wheelchair may still find this site challenging to maneuver around. Access modifications include a raised water spigot and extended picnic tabletops. The fire pit/grill is at ground level. Restrooms are near these three sites, and an asphalt trail leads to the South Campground Amphitheater; some wheelchair users may need assistance on this trail.
Park Lectures are a great source of information about the park, and they are accessible. Twenty-to-thirty-minute talks about the animals, people, and geology of Zion Canyon are held on the patio behind the Zion Human History Museum. In the evening, other talks are held at the Watchman Campground Amphitheater and Zion Lodge Auditorium. These forty-five-minute lectures address a variety of topics including geology, people, and animals of the park. Bulletin boards at the Visitor Center and campgrounds will display the topic for the evening. Parking is limited for non-campers.