View of Zion National Park from the top of Observation Point as taken by my iPhone
The park exudes beauty of biblical proportions. When you ride the shuttle around the park, there is audio telling the story about artist and topographer Frederick S. Dellenbaugh. He spent the summer of 1903 painting Zion Canyon. When he presented and showed off the paintings at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the onlookers did not believe his attestations that the canyon was an actual place because it is too beautiful to be real. That story accurately sums up the experience at Zion National Park (Zion). Even though you are standing inside the park and seeing it for yourself, you still cannot believe your eyes that something so majestic indeed exists. In addition to his paintings, Dellenbaugh also managed to find the perfect words to describe the canyon and its grandeur relative to the rest of the natural wonders in the United States. Per the National Park webpage, he introduced Zion Canyon in an issue of Scribner’s Magazine by noting:
“One hardly knows just how to think of it. Never before has such a naked mountain of rock entered into our minds! Without a shred of disguise its transcendent form rises preeminent. There is almost nothing to compare to it. Niagara has the beauty of energy; the Grand Canyon, of immensity; the Yellowstone, of singularity; the Yosemite, of altitude; the ocean, of power; this Great Temple, of eternity—”
Zion National Park is a truly magnificent place. Over millions of years, the Virgin River carved through over 2,000 feet of limestone to create the canyon. It is an impressive feat considering the river is much more docile and unassuming compared to the powerful Colorado River that carved the Grand Canyon. The reddish canyon walls, due to iron in the limestone, mixed with lush vegetation throughout the valley is truly a surreal sight to behold. Moreover, Zion features epic hikes. The most vaunted hike is the perilous trek to Angel’s Landing, which challenges adventurers with arguably the most dangerous hike in the United States but provides a breathtaking elevated vantage point to view the valley that rewards them for the risk. The most popular hike in the park is the Narrows. It is definitely a unique experience as you hike in a section of the narrow Virgin River between the tall, grandiose canyon walls. On those limestone walls, you will see gravity defying hanging gardens that challenge your imagination of what wonders are possible in the natural world. For serious rock climbers, they are presented with extreme challenges in the form of many routes up the canyon walls that take all day. Zion is truly a place that has the best of the best to offer for outdoor enthusiasts.
For all the reasons above, Zion is one of the most visited National Parks in the United States. In 2017, it was the third most visited. It is the most visited park among Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks. Accordingly, the planning and timing for a trip to the park is a very important consideration. Since Zion is very popular and there is limited parking in the park, a shuttle system was implemented to handle the large number of guests. It runs from March through November. The trip from the first stop, Visitor’s Center, to the last stop, Temple of Sinawava, is approximately a 40 minute ride. The buses run very frequently so the wait time at the bus stops are generally not long: not more than 7-10 minutes. When the shuttle is in service, visitors cannot drive around the park. Based on the number of riders on the shuttles, the bus drivers gave us an idea of the difference in traffic based on when tourists visited the park. I was at Zion on a Tuesday and Wednesday, 2 days before the start of Memorial Day Weekend. The approximate count for riders on the Tuesday was 9 thousand. During the summer, that count generally increases to 28 thousand to 33 thousand. It is especially busy on the weekend. Memorial Day Weekend is the busiest time each year for Zion. On that Saturday, there are typically 57 thousand visitors. One of the Park Rangers noted that it could 2-2 ½ hours just to get on the shuttle at the Visitor’s Center. In addition, he advised that visitors either “plan ahead or plan to be somewhere else” that weekend.
With ideal weather conditions, 2 days is perfect for Zion. I planned to do one hike with significant elevation change for a spectacular viewpoint into the canyon and valley and hiking The Narrows is a must. However, I got very lucky because there were dark ominous clouds on the morning of the day I arrived at Zion. I was nervous that one of my days at the park would be washed out. Instead, the skies cleared and any rainfall, that occured in the early morning, dried up for a perfect day. Accordingly, it may make sense to have an extra day or two for leeway. There are plenty of short or long trails and beauty to enjoy on extra days. The accessibility of The Narrows is another important consideration for a timing of a trip. The trail is not open until the water flow is less than 150 cubic feet per second. The approximate time of year that requirement is met each year depends on the amount of snowfall accumulated the past winter and how quickly it melts. 2017 was a mild winter. Accordingly, my friend was able to hike The Narrows at the end of March in 2018. In 2017, the 2016 winter had a lot more snowfall so visitors could not access The Narrows until Memorial Day Weekend. Of course, that makes it difficult to plan a trip if you need to do it well in advance. In that case, it may make sense to just visit in the busy times of the summer when it is very certain that The Narrows can be hiked. If you can wait to plan a trip, it is definitely advisable to check the status of the Narrows.
Zion certainly earns its distinction as the most visited Mighty 5 park with its unparalleled beauty. In terms of National Parks I have visited, it personally ranks number 2 behind Yosemite. Interestingly, Zion reminds me a lot of Yosemite. At various points during my trip, I felt like I was at a smaller Yosemite Valley with red rock formations instead of gray granite. As such, Zion is like a Mars Yosemite. The closest airport to Zion is McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, which is a 2 ½ hours drive to the park. In addition, it makes sense to combine it with a trip to another member of the Mighty 5: Bryce Canyon National Park. It is is less than a two hour drive north east of Zion. My friend and I drove out to visit Bryce first then hit Zion on the way back to Vegas. If you are more ambitious and trying to visit all 5 of the Mighty 5 in one trip, a beginning and ending point out of Salt Lake City probably makes sense. My friend and I initially hoped to map out that route for all 5 but decided splitting up the parks in 2 separate trips would be less rushed and made more sense for us.
Zion is absolutely stunning from any vantage point within the park. As such, it is certainly worth a visit even if you choose to just explore it from the valley floor via shuttle bus or driving (when it is permitted in the offseason). Of course, it is a superior experience if you hike around the park. In my opinion, a hike up to an elevated point of the park to look down at the canyon walls and valley (e.g. Angel’s Landing, Observation Point, etc.) is a must. Unlike other parks (e.g. Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park), visitors cannot drive or catch a shuttle to the top of an observation point. Zion forces its guests to earn its spectacular views at high elevations. On the hand, the other must is a water hike on the Virgin River on the Narrows, which is a lot more manageable.
- Angel’s Landing (5.4 miles round trip/ 1,488 feet elevation change)
When you tell people you visited Zion, the ones who know about the park will ask if you hiked Angel’s Landing. Accordingly, it is the most famous hike in the park. When I looked up pictures and videos on YouTube of the trek, I assumed the name is a reference to the morbid possibility of becoming an angel if you attempted it. In actuality, the origin of its name can be traced back to 1916 when a group passing through the park remarked that Angel’s Landing was so high that only an angel could reach it. Regardless, the danger of the hike is no laughing matter. There have been 8 official deaths off of Angel’s Landing since 2004.
So did I hike Angel’s Landing? As much as I wanted to complete it to brag that I accomplished it, I know my limits and the hike most likely exceeds them. The final ½ mile is very steep to get to the observation point. It is very narrow and has 1,000 foot drops on both sides. Strong metal chains are installed in the rock to help you keep your balance. However, the key is maintaining strong footing. It is unlikely that you can pull your weight via the chains without solid footing. Although I am not clumsy in terms of constantly losing footing, I have moments on a lot of hikes where my balance is not great and my footing slips a little. Of course, the terrifying height of the drops would amplify the peril if I slipped a little at any point and panicked. In addition, it would be scarier and more difficult going down. I had two friends who did Angel’s Landing. They confirmed this fear. Moreover, they noted it is a popular trail and they ran into impatient hikers going up that made their hikes back down an even more dangerous situation than the trail already is. That fact convinced me to not even attempt it.
On the other hand; almost all hikers, who attempt it, complete it. The deaths confirm that Angel’s Landing is a real danger that should be understood and respected for hiker’s that try it. However, a fatality is still not probable when you compare the number of deaths to the number of attempts. If you have great balance and footing, have experience with difficult hikes, and do not have a fear of heights; the views and adventure certainly appear to be worth it. If you try it, obviously be alert and careful. Again, you know your own limits and are the best person to evaluate whether you can manage and navigate the dangers.
In order to do the hike, get off the shuttle stop for The Grotto. The trailhead begins on the other side of the road. You will eventually hit Walter’s Wiggles, which are very steep switchbacks. If you do not want to do the risky, last ½ mile of the hike; you can stop at Scout’s Landing for a great view back down and into the valley. I considered doing the hike to this point. However, I was told by friends that it was not worth it if I did not go to the highest point. Accordingly, I decided on the Observation Point hike (below) as an alternative to Angel’s Landing. Although it is a lot less dangerous, it is a longer hike with more elevation change than simply hiking toward Angel’s Landing and stopping at Scout’s Landing.
- Observation Point (8 miles round trip/ 2,148 feet elevation change)
Observation Point is actually at a higher elevation point than Angel’s Landing. For me, it is a perfect alternative to Angel’s Landing. It provides a spectacular view of the canyon and valley with significantly less danger. Moreover, you get to look down toward Angel’s Landing as part of your views of the park. In addition to the magnificent payoff at the end, I thoroughly enjoyed all parts of the hike. To get to the trailhead, get off at the 7th stop for the shuttle: Weeping Rock. Continue straight, past the left turn to go to short path to Weeping Rock, on the trail until you get to the switchbacks. The initial switchbacks are very steep. However, it definitely gets better. Although the elevation increases very quickly and you are high up fast, you are not looking over a ledge. The switchbacks are indented inwards as they ascend. In other words; if you slid off one switchback, you would land on the switchback below it. Once you complete the set of switchbacks on the first mountain, the trail levels off for a bit and is flat. Eventually, you walk through a cave-like passageway to get to a hidden canyon. Next, the path links up to another set of switchbacks that run up the side of another mountain. Once you are done with the switchbacks, the final stretch of the trail is relatively flat for the last 25 minutes of the hike. However, that section of the path includes significant drop offs if you look over the side of the ledges. Obviously, falling over the ledge means certain death. For anyone with an adverse fear of heights, it may be very unnerving. I recommend walking on the inside part of the trail and away from the ledge if you are petrified of heights. There are also extreme drops over the ledges at Observation Point. Accordingly, I did not get too close to the edge when I was at the top. The views and pictures a few feet and safely back are still magnificent.
In addition to the final 25 minutes of the hike, there are a few other spots on the trail with steep drops. However, it is significantly less dangerous than Angel’s Landing. If you hike safely and are not reckless, serious injury or death is highly unlikely. Respect that real danger exists and do not act foolishly. I would not try this hike if it rained hard because the water would make the rocks very slippery. I also encountered points during the hike where the dirt was very smooth. As such, it was a bit slippery. Of course, just go slower and make sure you have solid footing at those sections. It took me 4 hours and 20 minutes to complete the roundtrip hike. 20 minutes of it was spent enjoying and soaking in the beauty of the park at Observation Point. Make sure you bring plenty of water for the hike because significant parts of it are completely exposed to the sun. I drank 2 liters.
Weeping Rock (0.4 miles round trip/ relatively flat)
I definitely recommend taking a detour to Weeping Rock before or after the hike to Observation Point. It is a short walk. The trail ends at an indent near the bottom of a rock wall of a mountain. The end of the path brings you under the top of the indent, which is like a ceiling. Water runs down the wall so small droplets drip over the top of the indent and on to the path. Accordingly, the drops of water are like tears and why that point of the park is called Weeping Rock. Moreover, it is offers a gorgeous vantage point looking back south into the valley. For all those reasons, it is a unique spot in Zion that provides amazing views without a strenuous hike.
- The Narrows (3 miles to Wall Street and 5 miles to Big Spring/ relatively flat river hike)
One of the Wonders of the Ancient World, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, has never been confirmed as real but the Hanging Gardens of Zion National Park definitely are. That natural anomaly is certainly one of the most unique and beautiful aspects of hiking The Narrows, which is Zion’s most popular hike. The name is based on the fact that the canyon walls are very close together at this section of the park where the Virgin River cuts through. As a result, the trail is narrow. Similarly, the distance between the top of the canyon rim walls is narrow. Consequently, it acts like a small crevice that allows but limits the amount of sunlight that hits the trail. At times, it looks like a divine light coming from and through the gates of heaven to grace the walls of the canyon. In addition to the beauty, the water element of the hike makes it a very fun experience. It is the first river that I hiked in. Moreover, the stones and rocks are surprisingly stable but obviously still slippery at times. Use a stick to poke at the ground or step gingerly on the ground ahead to test the stability of the rocks beneath before committing to crossing from one side to the other when the current is not very calm. In addition, the current of the river can be much stronger at various spots. If you see the water rushing hard over some rocks, it is a good indicator that it is not the most ideal spot to walk on or cross the river since the rocks are less stable and the current is stronger at those points. I wiped out once on the hike. My friend and I were about to turn around on the hike to return to the starting point. I went to cross the river to see if the scenery up ahead was meaningfully different than what we had already seen. I did not have my bag on me so I felt emboldened and carelessly crossed where water was rushing strong over rocks. The rocks were slippery so I did not have good footing. Then, the power of the water knocked me over. Luckily, I landed on my butt which cushioned my blow.
Unlike Angel’s Landing, The Narrows are not very dangerous if conditions are ideal. For this reason, it is a more trafficked and popular trail than Angel’s Landing. The trail is closed when the water flow is greater than 150 cubic feet per second. The time of year that it is first open for visitors can vary drastically depending on the amount of snowfall during the past winter. In 2017, The Narrows were not open until Memorial Day Weekend. In 2018, there was significantly less snow and one of my friends was hiking there at the end of March. When the trail is in season, flash flooding is still a real danger. However, the park posts the conditions and likelihood of a flash flood. Ideally, the meter is at 0% chance. As the meter moves toward the right, which is in direct correlation with precipitation, the rush of the water becomes stronger and the hike becomes more difficult and dangerous. Obviously, do not attempt it if flash flooding is likely. Park guests have died during flash floods.
The Narrows can be hiked “Bottom Up” or “Top Down”. Most visitors opt for “Bottom Up” and so did my friend and I. We took the shuttle to the last stop: the Temple of Sinawava. Next, we walked a little over a mile on the RiverWalk before we reached a set of short stairs that brought us to the entry point for the river. Of course, it is more difficult to hike upstream against the current than downstream with the current. Moreover, you are snapping a lot of pictures on the way up too. On the way back, you have already seen everything and will spend less time to stop and take pictures. For those reasons, it is a quicker and less strenuous hike on the way back. Nevertheless, the amount of time and distance you want to hike in the Narrows is totally based on your preference. If you get tired or bored, you can turn back at any time. Most hikers make it up to Wall Street. There are no markers on the river. However, you will know you have reached it when the distance between the canyon walls become a lot more narrow. From the bus stop, it is approximately 3 miles to Wall Street. It took us 2 hours to each it. Near Wall Street, there is also a fork in the trail. Go straight to stay on the main path. If you take the sharp right, there is a side hike to Orderville Canyon. It gets even more narrow and darker down that route. We decided to keep on hiking up the Narrows for an hour past Wall Street. There were a couple of challenging and fun points after Wall Street but the scenery was more or less the same as what we had already seen. At our turnaround point, I took a look around the bend to see what was there. When I matched what I saw at that point to pictures of key locations in The Narrows on the internet afterwards, the small falls I observed appeared to be Big Springs. Accordingly, we turned around just short of Big Springs, which is 5 miles up The Narrows. Again, it is faster returning because you are moving in the same direction of the current and taking less pictures. I made it back to the bus stop 30 minutes faster than it took to get to our turnaround point. In total, I hiked the Narrows for 5 ½ hours. A roundtrip to Wall Street would take 3-3 ½ hours. If you want to hike all of the Narrows, you need to do it Top Down. It is 17 miles. You need to buy a permit and hire a private shuttle company to drop you off at the top of the trail. Regardless of the direction you are going, it can be a little frustrating to be on the hike at times since you need to patiently wait for people to cross the river before you can cross them and others will be in your way because they are going in the opposite direction. The experience was not too bad for me. However, I can see how it can be difficult and more dangerous on a busy day when The Narrows is flooded with people (e.g. Memorial Day Weekend).
Since the Narrows is a water hike, consider renting the appropriate gear. I saw plenty of hikers use their own hiking boots or shoes (e.g. sneakers). However, they are not made to be used in water. I have waterproof hiking boots but that attribute just means the water will not escape when it gets inside my boots and make them heavier. It would also take awhile to dry them for other hikes during my visit. In terms of sneakers, I would only wear them for The Narrows if they are old and you plan on throwing them out because a good pair of shoes will be ruined after being drenched in water for hours. For those reasons, my friend and I rented wet shoes, socks, dry pants, and a hiking stick at Zion Outfitter (7 Zion-mount Carmel Hwy, Springdale, UT 84767), which is right outside and next to the pedestrian entrance for the park. After taxes, the package costed $44. There are other rentals shops in Springdale but that price can be used as a reference point. I definitely recommend the water shoes and socks. The workers are very helpful and friendly. Our guy wanted to be part of the experience. He noted that if we put on the shoes and socks correctly, which he inspected to ensure we did, that no water would get into the shoes. Of course, it is a bit of a fantasy. We hiked in a river and our feet were submerged in water so water definitely gets in. I could hear and feel the water squish against my feet when I walked back on the dry RiverWalk back to the bus stop. Nevertheless, I thought they had good grip and my hiking boots would have let in a lot more water. In terms of the dry pants, it is not necessary. We rented them because the water was only 50 degrees Fahrenheit so we wanted to stay warm and comfortable. We are both over 6 feet tall and the water got up to our waists at certain points of the hike. At one point, we had to hold our bookbags over our heads to keep them dry. In addition, I definitely recommend renting a hiking stick. It was useful for poking at the ground ahead of me to check that it was stable and for redistributing some weight and work from my legs to my arms. I also used a waterproof plastic sleeve that closed and had a string that I could wrap around my wrist so I would not lose my phone and could also ensure it stayed dry. I had one that I bought for less than $10 at Wal-Mart for a helicopter ride in Hawaii. I highly recommend getting one. It does not affect the clarity of the pictures you take on the phone and you do not have to worry about your phone slipping out of your fingers and getting destroyed or lost.
When I hiked the Narrows, a cool breeze and the cool water prevented me from getting too sweaty. They acted like nature’s air conditioning. Next, the current of the river was relatively calm. For these reasons, it was a relaxing hike that was not very strenuous. Moreover, I drank less than 2 water bottles, which were approximately 1.5 liters combined. However, the hike may be more difficult depending on the time of years (e.g. hot in the summer) and the strength of the current. It is probably safer to bring 2 liters.
- Emerald Pools (1.2-mile roundtrip loop to the Lower Pool; a 2-mile roundtrip visit to the Middle Pool; or a 2.5-mile roundtrip hike to Upper Pool/ 400 feet elevation change)
I do not consider this hike a must do. Nonetheless, it is totally a nice to do if you have time. It is also a good trail if you do not want a strenuous hike and looking for an easy one with beautiful views. There are three pools. It was a modest winter prior to my visit so they were not as impressive as they could have been. The Lower Pool is a waterfall and you walk under it. It is one of the most beautiful points in the park. However, the waterfall was definitely not as powerful or plentiful as it would have been if there was more snowfall during the past winter. The Middle Pool looked like a large puddle of dirty water near an edge of a cliff. It was dark (i.e. end of the day) with the trees blocking most of the sunlight so I could not see the emerald green color. Nevertheless, it was nothing special when I was there. The Upper Pool also looked like a dirty puddle of water at first. However, I could see the emerald green when I looked closer. It also showed up clearly on my photographs. The Upper Pools are also a nice spot because you can get an up close look at the canyon walls above it. In general, the hike provides unique views of the canyon walls/ sides of the mountains because you are walking in towards some of them and get a full appreciation for their grandeur and size. The trail also provides plenty of great vantage points to look back out at other cliffs and mountains on the other side of the canyon. With 400 feet of elevation change, it is not no work but is very manageable. There is minor rock scrambling near the end of the trail as you approach the Upper Pools. My friend and I were in a rush at the end of the day and rushed the full route in under an hour.
- Springdale/ Parking
Zion is smaller than some of the most popular National Parks (e.g. Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc.). Accordingly, parking is limited. The main parking lot is next to the Visitor’s Center at the Park Entrance. It usually fills up completely by 8-9 AM. There is a smaller lot at the Museum, which is the first shuttle stop after the Visitor Center. There are some parallel parking spots by Canyon Junction, where the road via the East Entrance connects to the main road of the park and there is a shuttle stop there too. If parking is full, you need to park in the town of Springdale which is immediately south of the Park. The town is on one road with plenty of good restaurants off of it. It is a modern and pretty town. If you parallel park on the main road, parking for a full day costs $22. There are also hourly rates. However, the solar powered parking machines did not allow me to cycle through the options to see which one was more economical. Nonetheless, you are likely spending a full day at the park so I would just recommend the full day rate. The businesses and restaurants in Springdale also sell their parking spots. The going rate appeared to be $20 for the day, which is a bit cheaper than parallel parking on the town’s main road. Of course, parking within the park at legitimate parking spots is included in your park fee. As such, you have a $20 incentive to wake up early to beat the rush and get a parking spot. If you park in Springdale, there is a Springdale shuttle that runs along the main road and brings you to the Park Entrance.
Bit & Spur Saloon (1212 Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale, UT 84767)
There are plenty of dining options in Springdale. My friend and I went to Bit & Spur twice for Mexican Food. On the second day, we were looking for a place to watch a NBA playoff game and the sports bar was completely full. Bit & Spur has a good bar area with a large flat screen television. The food is very good too. I highly recommend the mushroom soup as an appetizer. It was very creamy and smooth with plenty of of mushroom taste. As another appetizer option, the guacamole is a standard at a Mexican spot and it was solid. For entrees, I had the carne asada one night and the opah fish tacos on the other. The carne asada was very good. Not surprisingly, the beef was good since one of Utah’s biggest industries is cattle ranching. The side of rice was solid too. In terms of the fish tacos, I knew I would be disappointed because I have had opah fresh in Hawaii. I knew better but had it anyway to taste them. They were not terrible but the carne asada was definitely much better. I also had the oreo ice cream dessert special for the night. It was amazing. Bit & Spur is also open later than most of the restaurants in Springdale. For all those reasons, it is a great spot for food after a long day at Zion.
- East Entrance
The main [South] entrance connects right to Springdale. The East Entrance offers a memorable scenic drive with an impressive man-made tunnel that was carved through a mountain. I came from Bryce Canyon so I drove through the East Entrance. I definitely recommend the drive if you have time.
Springdale is the most convenient place to stay for a trip to Zion National Park. Obviously, there are cheaper options a little further out. To the east, Kanab is a popular town for tourists. I went west to Best Western Plus Zion West Hotel (44 W 500 N, La Verkin, UT 84745) in the town of La Verkin. It is very easy to get to and from Zion. From Zion, you follow the main road that cuts through Springdale and just go straight because it turns into Highway 9. I did not make a single turn until I made a right into the Best Western parking lot. It is approximately a 30 minute drive. In addition, it is about 2 hours from Las Vegas, which is where I had to return to for my flight. Moreover, La Verkin is a ten minute drive to the town of Hurricane. There are plenty of shopping plazas, malls, and food options in Hurricane. It is like a suburban town you would find anywhere. Moreover, there are fast food options that are opened late: Arby’s, Wendy’s, and MacDonald’s.
Utah Mighty Five Checklist:
1. Zion National Park (Above) – Complete
2. Bryce Canyon National Park – Complete
3. Arches National Park – Trip to be Planned
4. Canyonlands National Park – Trip to be Planned
5. Capitol Reef National Park – Trip to be Planned