Zion National Park - Milky Way

How to Plan a Zion National Park Stargazing Trip

In Space on Earth, Stargazing Guideby Valerie Stimac

Did you know Zion Park is the fourth most popular national park in the United States? People are drawn to visit for the beautiful natural rock formations, the great hiking trails, and the chance to see a night sky that’s almost entirely free of light pollution. Yes, it’s true: one of the best reasons to visit Zion National Park is stargazing.

If you’ve got this experience on your to-do after a long day of hiking in the park, look no further. After a scouting trip in April 2019, I’ve pulled together the most comprehensive resource on stargazing in Zion. I’ve also added tips on where to stay (including a few options with starry skies!) and what to do during the day. Read this and you’ll be all set to start planning your Zion stargazing trip!

How to Get to Zion National Park

Zion National Park - Milky Way & Virgin River

Zion National Park is located in southwest Utah. With all the natural wonders in and around the park, it’s probably not a surprise that it takes a little bit of effort to get to Zion. 

If you’re flying to Zion National Park, it’s most likely you’ll fly into Las Vegas or Salt Lake City, then drive to the national park. It’s a two-hour drive east from Las Vegas to Zion or a four-hour drive south from Salt Lake City along major interstates.

You could also be visiting Zion National Park as part of a southwestern U.S. road trip; if that’s the case, don’t forget to check out our stargazing guide to Bryce Canyon National Park. Together the two parks make great overnight stops during your trip – with outstanding stargazing opportunities!

How to Go Stargazing in Zion National Park

Zion National Park - Thomas via Flickr
Photo credit: Thomas via Flickr

Stargazing in Zion is as easy (or difficult) as you want it to be – based on where you go stargazing in the park, and the logistics to get to that part of the park. The National Park Service provides a rudimentary breakdown of stargazing guidelines; hopefully, this section will help you plan a bit more.

Stargazing in Zion Canyon

Zion Canyon, aka the Main Canyon, is the most difficult place to go stargazing in Zion. This is for two reasons. First, the geology of canyons makes it difficult to get a great view of the night sky. If you want to shoot astrophotos with the rock formations, it’s an excellent option – but you won’t get a horizon-to-zenith view of the sky.Additionally, whether or not you have to drive or walk into Zion Canyon depends on when you visit:

  • In the winter months (October to February), you can drive your private vehicle into Zion Canyon. You can stargaze from pullouts and parking areas along the road.
  • In the summer months (March to September), you must take the shuttle into the Main Canyon, and the shuttle stops running around sunset each night. This means you’ll need to hike if you plan to go stargazing in Zion Canyon and aren’t camping or staying at the Zion Lodge. Again, you’ll want to stargaze from the roadside trails and pullouts, rather than the main road, for safety.

Stargazing in Kolob Canyon

Zion National Park - Kolob Canyon

Kolob Canyon is the less-visited northwest section of Zion National Park, and it’s a great spot for stargazing – maybe even better than the Main Canyon!

You can drive your car along the Kolob Canyon road at any point through the year, providing better access. Additionally, there are lots of recently renovated pullouts that are perfect places to set up. Lastly, the mountains and formations don’t surround the road – they don’t reduce your night sky visibility the same way, and you can still use them as foreground in your astrophotos.

Stargazing Elsewhere in Zion National Park

Zion National Park - John Alexis Guerra Gómez via Flickr
Photo credit: John Alexis Guerra Gómez via Flickr

There are a few other places in the park you might consider stargazing, especially if you’re planning a multi-night stargazing trip.

  • Kolob Terrace – The ‘skinny middle’ of the park when you look at a map, Kolob Terrace sees very few visitors, but there are points along Kolob Terrace Road where you can get a stunning view of the night sky in every direction. Note that Kolob Terrace Road is closed in the winter.
  • Upper East Canyon – In the eastern part of the park, Upper East Canyon is a good spot for stargazing that you can access with your car. There are pullouts along Utah State Highway 9 for stargazing. This is a great part of the canyon for stargazing in the spring; you can get up super early, view the Milky Way and then catch the sunrise looking east over the park and canyons.
  • Desert Lowlands – Most people don’t know this region of the park, and it’s virtually never visited by people who want to admire the rock formations. These surrounding desert ecosystems offer horizon-to-horizon stargazing views.

Where to Go Stargazing in Zion National Park

Zion National Park - Watchman

The reality of stargazing in Zion is that you can do it almost anywhere! If you prepare with red lights and the proper equipment, you can find a quiet spot for stargazing even in one of the country’s most popular national park. That said, there are some spots that are easy to access and perhaps better than others. Here are the top spots for stargazing in Zion.

Human History Museum Patio

The Zion Human History Museum has a patio in the back that looks out on the Towers of the Virgin rock wall. This is a great spot for stargazing in Zion because you can drive into this part in the Canyon year-round, and there’s a nice view of the northern sky.

Pa’rus Trail

Zion National Park - Kolob Canyon

The Pa’rus Trail runs from the junction of Floor of the Valley Rd. (which you can’t drive on during the summer) all the way to the Zion Nature Center. It’s a flat trail that runs through some open fields along the valley floor, and it’s parallel to the road so you aren’t too far out in the wild. It would be easy to walk along the 1.75-mile (one-way) trail to find a spot for stargazing.

Kolob Canyon

Kolob Canyon is a great stargazing spot because Kolob Canyon road passes several pullouts and overlooks where you can get a great view of the night sky and the red rocks – if they’re lit by the twinkling stars. You’ll need to plan ahead to visit Kolob Canyon; it’s an hour drive from Zion Nature Center to Kolob Canyon Nature Center and another 20-30 minutes in along the Canyon road after that. However, Kolob Canyon Overlook is also a great spot to watch the sunset, so plan on doing that, then stay for the stargazing! 

Kolob Terrace

During the summer months, it’s well worth the 45-60 minute drive into the Kolob Terrace part of the park. This is also a great sunset viewing spot if you plan to spend the evening in the area. You’ll get sprawling views of the countryside as you ascend onto one of the main mesas – and then it’s nothing but night sky up above and all around.

Zion National Park - NPS Photo/Sierra Coon
Photo credit: NPS Photo/Sierra Coon

Checkerboard Mesa

Checkerboard Mesa is the primary stargazing spot in the Upper East Canyon part of the park. This fascinating rock formation looks little like those around it, and there’s a nearby pullout and the East Entrance Ranger Station where you can base yourself for a night of stargazing. 

Smithsonian Butte

Smithsonian Butte is technically not in Zion National Park, but it comes up regularly as one of the best stargazing spots in the area. The Smithsonian Butte Road and the nearby campground are a great spot to spend a night camping under the stars with yet another stunning mountain in your view.

Where to Stay Near Zion National Park

Zion National Park - Lodge - Don Graham via Flickr
Photo credit: Don Graham via Flickr

As a popular national park, there are lots of accommodation options in the area. Springdale, the main city near the Zion Nature Center, is the epicenter for all amenities. 

National Chain Hotels in Zion

You won’t find every national hotel chain in Springdale, but you’ll find most. For example, the Best Western has a great stone design that almost blends in with the surrounding red rocks (from $180/night); the Hampton Inn & Suites is all chic mountain cabin (from $219/night); and the La Quinta Inn & Suites has standard rooms but a heck of a view (from $249/night).

Independent Hotels in Zion

There are also independent hotels to choose from in Zion. I’d start by looking for rooms at the Zion Lodge, located inside the park. It’s rustic but harkens back to the early days of the national park system in a charming way.In Springdale, you can choose from the Cable Mountain Lodge (mixed/rustic design, great location, and won’t break the bank from $249/night), the Majestic View Lodge (lives up to its name, from $249/night), or the Cliffrose Rodge & Gardens (luxe, modern, and splurge-worthy, from $325/night), among others.

Airbnb & Vacation Rentals in Zion

There aren’t as many options for Airbnbs in Springdale as you might expect, but what’s there is certainly interesting!

Related: 11 Amazing Stargazing Airbnbs Around the World

Glamping Near Zion

Zion National Park - Camping

There are also some fantastic glamping options for those who don’t want to completely rough it. Under Canvas has a camp located in an isolated area off Kolob Terrace road, making it a pristine spot for stargazing without having to sleep on the cold, hard ground (from $249/night). There’s also this yurt on Airbnb, for just $52 per night.

Camping in Zion National Park

There are three campgrounds in Zion National Park:

  • Lava Point Campground in Kolob Canyon.
  • Watchmen Campground in the shadow of a towering rock formation.
  • South Campground near the Zion Nature Center.

All of these campgrounds must be booked through the National Park Service and reservations are highly recommended especially during the summer months.

All Booked Up? Consider Greater Zion

Greater Zion is the name for the region that includes Springdale (the town at the entrance to the Main Canyon), Hurricane, and even the nearby ‘big city’ of St. George. These areas all have accommodation too; on my trip in April 2019, I stayed at the Staybridge Suites in St. George. 

What to See & Do During the Day in Zion

Zion National Park - faungg's photos via Flickr
Photo credit: faungg’s photos via Flickr

What to See in Zion National Park

Zion’s top sights are 100% natural – if you’re looking for nature and stunning natural views, this is the place! Here are some of the top ‘sights;’ many have associated hikes or viewpoints.

  • Towers of the Virgin – A towering wall of rock near the Zion Human History Museum, popular for watching sunrise light the peaks with a fiery glow.
  • Court of the Patriarchs – Three massive sandstone cliffs named after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from the bible. They’re certainly worth the short hike to a viewpoint near one of the shuttle stops!
  • Watchman – One of the massive stone mountains near the mouth of Zion Canyon, Watchman looks out over visitors coming and going – and there’s a moderate hike up to a good viewpoint if you want to get the same perspective
Zion National Park - Kolob Canyon
  • Kolob Canyon – As mentioned, Kolob Canyon is home to some stunning rock formations that rival those in the Main Canyon. There are also good out-and-back hiking trails that are far less crowded than others.
  • The Narrows – Zion’s famous slot canyon, near the headwaters of the Virgin River, The Narrows is a popular hike that includes water crossing and hiking in the flow.
  • Angels Landing – If you’re up for a hike (and possibly waiting in line), Angels Landing is one of the most popular hikes in Zion – and one of the ones with the most altitude gain.
Zion National Park - Kolob Terrage
  • Canyon Overlook – Located on the east side of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, a relatively easy hike gives you a stunning view out over one of Zion’s other canyons.

This barely scratches the surface of all there is to do in Zion National Park… but you’ve gotta save your energy to stay up late for stargazing, so I won’t overload you!

What to Do in Zion National Park & Surrounds

In addition to stargazing, there are some other activities you might enjoy. After all, you came to one of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world – you should get out and see what makes it so special!Ride the Shuttle into the Main Canyon

Zion National Park - Court of the Patriarchs

The main way into the Main Canyon during the summer is aboard the shuttle. Arrive early to catch a shuttle in, then work your way out by hopping on and off at any of the shuttle stops near trails or viewpoints you want to enjoy.

Hiking & Mountain Climbing

Obviously, hiking and mountain climbing are the most popular active experience. Zion is a natural playground, and there are so many trails you could spend a lifetime here and still have areas to explore. Some of the most popular trails include Angels Landing, Observation Point, and The Narrows. Be aware that the National Park Service occasionally regulates or closes trails for safety, so be sure to check the Zion site for any alerts before you set out.

Visit Virgin Trading Post

Zion National Park - Virgin Trading Post

Virgin Trading Post is a little way outside Zion and Springdale, but if you’re headed west toward Hurricane or St. George, be sure to make stop! This shop, restaurant, petting zoo, and replica old Western town are kitschy but funny. Be sure to try the ice cream; cactus fruit flavor gives you a real taste of the desert!

Prep for Stargazing During Daylight Hours

Zion National Park - sodai gomi via Flickr
Photo credit: sodai gomi via Flickr

One last tip for the daylight hours: purchase a stellarscope and use it to get a sense of the night sky view you’ll have once the sun goes down. These handy tools allow you to set up the scope with your hemisphere, the latitude, month, and time you plan to go stargazing – then you can peer through the scope and see a map of the night sky exactly as you’ll see later in the night. Grab one for yourself on Amazon for $39.95.

While driving through the park, it’s also a great time to keep your eye out for roadside pullouts or rock formations where you’ll want to come stargazing later. In short, the daytime is a great time to plan for your stargazing excursion!

Other FAQ About Stargazing in Zion National Park

Zion National Park - Robbie Shade via Flickr
Poto credit: Robbie Shade via Flickr

When is the best time to go stargazing in Zion?

Anytime is a good time for stargazing in Zion. The winter months are far less crowded in this popular national park, but it’s also colder and you may experience clouds or snow which might interfere with your stargazing prospects. During the spring and autumn, you can enjoy fewer crowds than the summer months.

Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in Zion? When?

Absolutely! You can see the Milky Way in Zion National Park during the summer months. Be sure to time your trip to Zion right – and time your stargazing session using a star-finder or night sky app – to maximize your chances to see our galaxy.

Zion National Park - Greg Stawicki via Flickr
Photo credit: Greg Stawicki via Flickr

Is Zion National Park open at night?

Zion is open 24/7, though car traffic may be limited at different times of the day or year as mentioned above. You can drive into certain parts of the park at any point during the night for stargazing.

Are there guided night tours in Zion?

There are no formal stargazing tours in Zion, and professional guiding of any kind is regulated by the National Park Service. However, it’s pretty easy to set out on your own for a stargazing experience in Zion National Park.Other Zion Stargazing questions? Let us know in the comments.

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About the Author
Valerie Stimac

Valerie Stimac

Valerie is the founder and editor of Space Tourism Guide. She decided to start the site after realizing how many friends and family had never seen the Milky Way, and that space tourism was going to unlock the next great travel destination: space!