No cars are allowed on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive beyond the Visitor Center from April through Oct. and the parking lot fills quickly!
You can park your car in nearby Springdale, take a free shuttle to the South entrance, and then walk the short distance to the Visitor Center - which is the main connection point for all internal park shuttles.
You can get on or off the park shuttles at any stopping point, and they run at 7-to-30 minute intervals depending on season and/or time of day.
Guests staying at the Lodge have use of hotel parking.
There are two great shuttle bus services that are free. One shuttle bus drives up and down the main road from the park gates to the far end of Springdale. The second shuttle bus drives up and down the Zion Gorge between the park gates and the end of the gorge. Both shuttle buses stop frequently at hotels, RV Parks, restaurants, points of interest, trailheads (start of footpath), etc. You can get on and off the buses as you please. The service was excellent. It should be noted that you cannot take your own vehicles into the Zion Gorge at peak periods of the year and this is when the shuttle bus is running.
There are two shuttle systems that serve Zion National Park. One runs between the town of Springdale (with several stops at various motels) and the park. The second shuttle system runs from the Visitors Center down the Zion Canyon Scenic Route. Shuttles run often and you can get on and off as often as you wish. They are the only way to tour the scenic drive during the summer months and taking it from Springdale allows you to avoid parking headaches.
It is mandatory to take the bus to the Scenic Drive road, where most sites are located off Hwy 9 route. There are 6 stops in Springdale, and if lucky enough to get a parking place at the visitor center, you can get the bus there. Along Scenic Drive are 8 pick up places. They run every 10 minutes average in summers months from 9-8. Buses run until 11PM at night.
There is no access to the Scenic Drive part that goes north 5 miles, and only buses can use that route. Along the main road; Hwy 9, people stop wherever they can, or feel like it. Others take a slow drive approach and go maybe undre the limit of 20 MPH . Campers and RV's are a nightmare to follow, especially around the switchback area.
Zion was one of the early proponents of shuttle buses and though you can drive from the east to west side of the park on an amazingly scenic route, Zion Canyon is only accessible by shuttle from late March until November. The shuttle buses are electric to reduce impact on the environment and also much more quiet. They are comfortable and drivers give a running commentary, especially on ones going up into the canyon. During peak hours, they run every seven minutes so you really don't have to worry about catching the next one. It's actually easier and faster than if you had to look for a parking spot. They stop at great viewpoints and all trail heads. Oh, and they are free so there is no reason to complain that you can't drive in the canyon. As if that were not enough, the park also runs another free shuttle from nearby Sprindale to the Visitor Center so that you don't have to drive or worry about parking at all during your Zion stay.
Though you cannot drive into Zion Canyon during the park's busiest months and must use the great shuttles provided, there are places you need a car to get to as well as get to the park itself. There are also numerous sights around Zion in Utah, all reached most easily by car such as Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks. The most amazing thing about Utah is that not only are their parks stunning but the drives in every direction are too.
Entering Zion National Park costs $25 per car load for a one week stay. This entitles you to all the shuttles and ranger programs as well as a million dollar view everywhere you look. We used the American The Beautiful Pass which costs $80 and gets you entry into all National Parks and administered lands for a period of one year. That is perhaps the best value in all of travel.
The East Rim Drive or Mt Carmel Highway is one of the most scenic in Zion and entirely different from Zion Canyon. If arriving from the east, it provides a very dramatic entrance to the park. This is slick rock country and the rock formations have a melted ice cream appearance with a bit more muted coloration as well. The Checkerboard Mesa is the most famous of the formations but there are many beautiful spots to get out and take photos. Get out of the car and walk around, it's very peaceful and the terrain is interesting to walk on. Try and time this for later in the afternoon for the best light.
The shuttle system is very efficient, and I completely understand why it was implemented. The number of personal vehicles in and out of Zion was destroying habitats and the landscape. So, the park created a shuttle system. This is the only way you can get around the park. No personal vehicles are allowed on Zion Scenic Drive. I think the only way around this is if you are staying at Zion Lodge. Then you are allowed to drive to and from there, but no further than that. You would still have to take the shuttle farther into the park. As I said, it is so effiicient; however, for someone that loves to be on her own, it can be frustrating to have to wait for the shuttle; wait for people to get on/off, etc. The drivers of the shuttle provide great information and are quite humorous.
Hopefully by the time you visit Zion National Park, this won't be an issue. While we were there, they were doing road work. This completely stopped the shuttles for 10-15 minutes at a time. It seems that the roads in Zion National Park have always been red rock. Well, the last time they paved the road, they used black tar instead of red rock. They decided to re-do it.
In case you are not good by foot, do not hesitate to come to Zion National Park. It is not only the hiker who can enjoy the scenery. Even from the road you will have great views into the landscape of this beautiful and colorful area.
Have a look at my travelogue in which I collected some photos I took from the road.
From March 25th to October 30th the only way to access the majority of the park by the Zion Scenic Drive is by the shuttle or for guests of the Zion Lodge. Fortunately though, it is the best run transportation in a national park I have ever seen. The busses run on no more than 15 minute waits to every location along the drive's 8 stops.
From the visitor's center, the bus goes just over 7 miles (11 km) into the canyon ending at the last stop The Temple of Sinawava. The first bus leaves the visitor's center around 6AM and the last bus returns around 11PM.
The Zion Scenic Drive is undergoing renovations to repave it and will be backed up at times. I believe it was supposed to be finished by December of 2005 but they are intending to resurface it a year after to allow the road to settle.
Busses are also used to transport visitors from Springdale (the closest town) to the visitor's center. Overall the bus system is excellent and cuts down on pollution in the canyon tremendously.
The Mt. Zion Tunnel was built in the 1920's to accommodate the cars of the 1920's and 1930's. Cars have gotten much larger in the time since then. If your vehicle is over 7'10" wide (2.4m) or taller than 11'4" (3.4m) you will require an escort. The reason for this restriction is that cars larger than that size will not be able to pass through the tunnel in their own lane.
If your vehicle is over that size the escort fee is 15$ and is good for two trips through in a 7 day period. While these vehicles are being escorted through the tunnel traffic will be halted in one direction. Backups can develop during these procedures.
Due also to the size of the tunnel some vehicles are prohibited entirely from driving through the tunnel. The banned vehicles are as follows: vehicles over 13'1" tall (4 m), semi trucks, commercial vehicles, vehicles over 50,000 lbs, single vehicles over 40' long (12 m), combined vehicles over 50' long (15 m), bicycles, and pedestrians.
From April through October, private vehicles are not allowed to drive the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. This decision was made because the park has many visitors during these months, and this removes the traffic congestion along the road, which at times would be bumper to bumper. For this reason, the park runs a free shuttle bus service that will take visitors along the scenic drive. This shuttle runs on a continuous loop, and makes stops at the main points of interest along the way. Visitors may get off the shuttle and board another shuttle as often as they wish, making it possible for you to hike the trails, bike (the shuttles include storage racks for bicycles), or climb the cliffs along the drive. The shuttle along the Canyon Scenic Drive runs from dawn to late evening. Be aware that pets are not allowed on the shuttle buses. A kennel service is available in Springdale. Since there is not enough parking at the Visitor Center there is parking available throughout Springdale. A town shuttle will pick you up and drop you off at these parking areas taking you to and from the park boarder, where it is only a short walk to catch the Scenic Drive Park Shuttle.
Be aware that if you are entering from the east side of the park and drive a large vehicle, which includes nearly all RVs, buses, trailers, dual-wheel pickups, 5th wheels, campers, and boats, there will be special requirements. Vehicles wider than 7 feet 10 inches including mirrors and/or higher than 11 feet 4 inches must be escorted through the Zion Mt. Carmel Tunnel. The fee for this service is $15, which includes two trips for the same vehicle within 7 days. Mid-March through October escorts are stationed at the tunnel entrances from 8:00 – 8:00 daily. From November through Mid March you will have to arrange for escorts at the entrance stations or visitor center or by calling to arrange an escort. These escorts may be scheduled between 8:00 A.M. and 4:30 P.M. You will not be following he escort through the tunnel, rather the escort makes sure that he tunnel is clear. You will have to drive down the middle of the road, as the tunnel is very narrow, built in the 1930s for the cars of the time.
The following are prohibited from passing through the tunnel at all times: those over 13 foot 1 inch tall, semi trucks, commercial vehicles, vehicles carrying hazardous materials, vehicles weighting more than 50,000 lbs, single vehicles over 40 foot long. And combined vehicles over 50 foot long, as well as bicycles and pedestrians.