It’s no secret that Zion National Park is full of great hiking opportunities for hikers of all skill levels. While the trails to Angels Landing and Observation Point tend to get a lot of publicity, some of the shorter, family-friendly hikes are also outstanding and deserve their time in the spotlight as well!
The Watchman Trail is one of those hikes. At just 3.2 miles (out and back), this trail provides great views and interesting spots along the way with only a small amount of elevation gain (small relative to other hikes in the park, that is!).
This trail is great for anyone seeking a short hike with more difficulty than something like the Riverside Walk, but wanting to stay away from the crowds or difficulty on hikes such as Angels Landing.
See what to expect on this great family hike in Zion!
WATCHMAN TRAIL DETAILS
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Distance: 3.2 miles (round-trip)
- Trail: Out-and-back
- Elevation gain: 646 feet
- Peak elevation reached: 4,453 feet
- Best time of year to hike: Early spring to early winter
- To beat the crowds: Arrive before 9:00 am or after 4:00 pm
- Footwear: Sneakers or hiking shoes
- Watch out for: Sun exposure
- Restrooms: Located at the trailhead, but not on the trail
- Pets: Not allowed
- Time needed:5 hours
Things to do in Zion National Park, maps of the Canyon (including information on the Kolob Canyon area), what to pack before your trip and useful links are covered in our extensive itinerary for Zion National Park. Our guide can be downloaded and printed, allowing you to have it available when cell service isn’t present in the park!
PARKING AND TRAILHEAD FOR THE WATCHMAN TRAIL
The trailhead for the Watchman Trail is located just northeast of the Zion Canyon Visitor Center parking lot. This is also shuttle stop #1. For directions from Springdale, check out the map here.
Watchman Trail Map and Trail
This parking lot has a ton of spots. However, on busy days it fills up very early in the morning. If you are not here by 8:00 AM, you’ll be out of luck (if not earlier). Another option is to park outside the park and walk in, as the visitor center is located right near the southern entrance to the park. Also, be advised that lines of cars are commonplace outside of the main entrance to park.
In other words, arrive early in the morning to beat the rush and avoid frustration!
The other option is to take this hike in the afternoon or early evening. By doing this, the park tends to be a bit quieter, and the views (and lighting in the canyon) can be absolutely incredible.
There are clean bathrooms at the Visitor Center, but no bathrooms exist on the trail itself.
HIKING THE WATCHMAN TRAIL
After crossing the road from the Visitor Center, the trail follows along the Virgin River. This flat section of the hike lasts for just under a quarter of a mile.
After walking for about 5-10 minutes, the trail separates from the river and crosses an access road. This is when the trail starts to head uphill at a very easy grade and when you'll start to see views of Zion Canyon. This continues until around the 0.75-mile point, before the steepest part of the trail starts.
While not overly steep, if you are hiking during the heat of the day, you’ll find yourself working hard in the exposed sun. The steepest part of the trail contains switchbacks (thankfully!) before flattening out on the way to the overlook.
Almost all the way up the switchback incline, there is a small bench carved out of rock. Our kids enjoyed taking a bit of a break here before continuing the rest of the way.
The trail ends with a short loop around a plateau, but the real highlight is the overlook to the west. From here, you can see views into Springdale to the south. The best views are of the Canyon to the north, which include the Towers of the Virgin.
This is a fantastic spot to sit and take a break before heading back. However, be advised that there is no shade, so plan on only being here for only a short time if you are here in the middle of the day. If you happen to be up here for sunrise or sunset, there are few spots in the world that will give you a view like this! The light dances off the canyon light you won’t believe. Just make sure you have a headlamp in case you find yourself hiking in darkness (or the early light if you are heading up for sunrise).
The short loop at the top of the plateau adds about 0.2 miles of extra hiking, but it is worthwhile doing if you have the energy.
THE RETURN TRIP
After relaxing at the overlook, the trail takes the same path down the mountain. The way down is quite a bit easier, but just be careful to not jar any rocks loose on the way down the switchbacks, as there will likely be plenty of hikers coming up.
- While we wouldn’t consider this to be our most favorite hike in Zion, it is definitely worth the time if you have it. We enjoyed taking our family on this hike in the early morning before heading out to Bryce Canyon National Park.
- We recommend combining this hike with a trip to the Visitor Center, since they share the same parking lot. Another great thing to do after this hike is to hop onto the shuttle and head up the Zion Canyon Scenic drive to other locations in the park.
- Since much of the trail is exposed, we highly recommend bringing a hat, sunglasses and extra water. Sunscreen is also a must.
- While there is plenty of information about hiking trails in Zion National Park online, we’ve found that the best tool to have for hiking in the parks is a good map. We recommend the National Geographic map for Zion National Park. The map is waterproof and made of durable paper, contains info on all the hikes and also can give you insight into different sites you are looking at while on your hike.
WHAT ELSE TO DO NEARBY THE WATCHMAN TRAIL
Since the Watchman Trail is located right near the main entrance to Zion National Park, it is really the hub of all activity that goes on in the park. There is quite a bit to do in the area, not to mention a ton to do if you get on the shuttle and take the road up Zion Canyon. However, if you are looking to just stay in the area, then there are a few things that we’d recommend coupling with your hike on the Watchman Trail:
- If you are in the area you have to stop at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. Not only is this a great spot to get out of the sun (if you are here in the summertime in particular), it has a store and exhibits that are worth checking out. If you need any assistance, then the Rangers are present to answer any questions you may have.
- The Pa’rus Trail is one of the easier trails in the park leaves from shuttle stop #1 and heads north. This 3.3-mile (round-trip) trail is great for families and has little elevation gain. While it can get busy (since it is so accessible), it is worth the time. The bonus of this relatively flat trail is that there are several spots where the Virgin River is accessible, giving you plenty of opportunity to cool off.
- At Shuttle Stop #2 and the end of the Pa’rus Trail is the Human History Museum. Here there are exhibits about inhabitants of Zion Canyon over the years, as well as information about the formation of the park and how water shaped Zion Canyon.
- Finally, the town of Springdale, UT is just on the other side of the main entrance. Most National Parks aren’t afforded the same access to civilization (and let’s face it, good places to eat!), but Zion is an exception. The town of Springdale is wonderful. If you aren’t staying here and need a break from the park, this is a great place to do it.
FURTHER INFORMATION ON ZION NATIONAL PARK FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- We’ve put together a ton of information on Zion National Park in our 12+ page itinerary for Zion National Park.
- We covered Zion National Park in detail in our blog 7 Reasons Why You’ll Love Zion National Park. Trust us, this park is amazing, which is why it draws in over 4 million visitors a year (rivaling Yellowstone!). Another great resource is our blog on the Best Easy Hikes in Zion National Park and our recent blogs on Hiking the Emerald Pools Trail in Zion and Hiking to Angels Landing.
- Be sure to also check out our blog on the best Kolob Canyon Hikes.
- We have an informative blog on Camping in Zion National Park.
- We have a large selection of WPA style National Park posters, including several Zion National Park posters. Be sure to check them out!
- When you get back from your trip, check out how we can work with you to create vintage-style travel posters from photos you send to us. You’ve likely seen the National Park posters in the parks and been impressed, but wait until you see one created using one of your photos! We promise you’ll love it, just like thousands of others have.
OTHER USEFUL LINKS ON ZION NATIONAL PARK
- Brad and Ladona Stork (from walkingtheparks.com) have great insight into how to navigate Zion National Park on the shuttle. Their blog helps make it easy and gives you some advice on what to expect.
- Frank and Gráinne (from therovingfoleys.com) give some great tips on Hiking in Zion National Park. They have a young family, and they discuss the ambitious hikes that they took on while they were there.
- Lia and Jeremy (from practicalwanderlust.com) cover information on day hikes in Zion National Park. Their blog is very thorough and is a great resource if you plan on spending several days in the park.