The closest trail to the south entrance of Zion Nation Park, and one of the best introductions to Zion, is Watchman Trail. This 3.5-mile lollipop loop climbs 500 feet to a rocky bench on the east side of Zion Canyon. The destination serves up stunning views of a nearby tower named The Watchman and several standout rock formations on the walls of Zion Canyon.
From the Zion National Park Visitor Center, the mesmerizing hike begins with a level walk along the east bank of the Virgin River. To the right, above an overflow parking area, there is already a view of The Watchman, a jagged spire topping out 2,500 feet overhead.
Thankfully, Watchman Trail does not ascend all the way to the summit of The Watchman, which would require merciless mountain climbing. Instead, the trail gradually reaches a landing on the side of the canyon beneath the towering prominence.
After a quarter-mile river bank stroll, the trail bends to the right, crosses a paved service road, and leaves the canyon floor. A short series of steps on the other side of the road prepare your legs for the 500-foot ascent to come. Progress across a desert landscape with motivating view up Zion Canyon toward a bowl shaped side-canyon.
Just over half a mile from the start, the trail launches into switchbacks built into the north wall of the side canyon. After 0.6 miles of climbing, the trail crosses the back of the canyon over two small streams and continues south to the split for the loop.
The half-mile circuit at the end of Watchman Trail is level and scenic. Spindled juniper clings to the rusty soil, leaving room for massive views. The right branch of the loop follows the canyon rim out to the westernmost point of the bench, where the best views up Zion Canyon can be found. The left side of the loop heads straight toward The Watchman, reaching the lip of a side canyon to the south before rounding toward the overlook.
There is a dramatic drop below Watchman Overlook and staggering views in every direction. To the southeast is the orange pinnacle of The Watchman itself. Farther south, beyond the park border, lies open Utah desert stretching toward the Vermilion Cliffs in Southern Arizona. To the west, on the sandstone wall across from the bench, is a stunning stretch of Zion Canyon that includes The Alter of Sacrifice (recognizable for the deep red stain on the stone).
After soaking up all the views along the loop, hike the mile and a half back down the trail. Sunrise is an excellent time to explore Watchman Trail. The transfer from shadow to sunlight that plays out across the Zion Canyon is quite dramatic. The trailhead is a short walk from both Watchman Campground and South Campground. If you are bedding down inside the park, Watchman Trail is an excellent way to start your day.
To get to the trailhead: From the park visitor center at the south entrance of the park near the city of Springdale, walk northwest past the shuttle stop to the bank of the Virgin River. Take the walkway to the north side of the road to the start of Watchman Trail.
Trailhead address: Zion Park Boulevard (Zion Canyon Scenic Drive), Zion National Park, Springdale, UT 84767
Trailhead coordinates: 37.20128, -112.986415 (37° 12′ 04.6″N 112° 59′ 11.1″W)
|Canyon Overlook Trail |
This one-mile round trip hike visits a scenic viewpoint looking west over Zion Canyon.
|Court of the Patriarchs |
This 0.1-mile walk heads up a short rise in the center of Zion Canyon to offer a nice view of the surrounding sandstone peaks.
|Emerald Pools |
This 2.4-mile loop visits three tiers of enchanting pools by incorporating the Lower, Middle, and Upper Emerald Pools Trails.
|Weeping Rock |
This 0.4-mile hike visits an alcove in the sandstone wall of Zion Canyon where water seeps out of the rock, nourishing hanging gardens and plentiful vegetation.
|Hidden Canyon |
This 3.3-mile hike ascends the east rim of Zion Canyon above Weeping Rock, and then crosses dramatic cliffs to reach a hanging canyon housing a small natural arch.
|Angel's Landing |
This 5.2-mile hike takes an incredible route up the east rim of Zion Canyon ascending to a towering slab of sandstone jutting into the center of the canyon. The expansive views and thousand foot drop-offs have made this trail world famous.
|Riverside Walk |
This level walkway follows the Virgin River to the bottom of the narrows north of Zion Canyon, a popular place to hike and swim.
|More trails in Utah |
Explore other hikes in Utah outside of Zion National Park.
|Zion Campgrounds |
There are two large campgrounds at the south end of Zion canyon and another near Kolob Canyon.