While it wasn’t the park that I most anticipated on my road trip, Zion was breathtakingly beautiful. I spent the majority of the time in the Zion Canyon area and only drove through other parts of the park. The canyons, rocks and tunnels were all unique and I couldn’t find a place that didn’t leave me feeling awed. I also came close several groups of mountain goats and it was equally fascinating to watch them climb mountains without much effort!
An unexpected and strong flash flood in July closed several of the famous hikes in Zion – Angel’s Landing and Upper Emerald Pool, so I didn’t get to enjoy the thrill and wonder of these hikes. However, I did get to hike the iconic Narrows and discovered a hidden gem, the hike to Observation Point.
The only in-park hotel is the Zion Lodge. As with most hotels inside National Parks, reservations for the Zion Lodge opens nearly a year in advance (13 months for the Zion Lodge) and will require a deposit equal the first night. Reservations can be cancelled up to 48 hours prior to your stay. The town of Springdale immediately outside the entrance to Zion National Park and offers several lodging options ranging from expensive to moderately priced. St. George, UT located an hour outside Zion is also an alternate option for lodging.
If you’re like me and prefer camping options, Zion offers three campgrounds. The South and Watchman Campgrounds are closest to the canyon entrance and the Lava Point Campground is an hour from Zion Canyon. Reservations open six months in advance and usually are gone scooped up within the first week reservations become available. A number of limited first come, first serve walk-up spaces are available but usually fill up by mid-morning. Each regular campsite is drive-up and costs $20. The costs of group sites and sites with hook-ups services are higher.
I stayed in the Watchman Campground and it was one of the most breathtaking campgrounds I’ve stayed at! The canyon walls surrounded us in every direction and we had an unfettered view of the night sky!
EMERALD POOL HIKE
This roughly 2-mile round trip hike has three parts, lower, middle and upper emerald pools. The trail starts across the Zion Lodge (Shuttle Stop #5) and the first part, to the lower pools is a quick half-mile hike on a paved trail. This part of the hike is accessible! If you get there early enough in the morning, you’ll likely avoid the large crowds, but also get to see the sun reflecting off the small falls. In the early fall, when I visited Zion, the pool didn’t look as majestic as pictures usually indicate, but the waterfall was still magical.
As a result of flood damage, the trail to the middle pool has been closed since 2010. The final part of the trail, the upper falls, is quarter mile further. It will take you to the base of a 300-foot cliff and offers shaded area to sit on a boulder, enjoy lunch and take in the expansive views of the falls!
Unfortunately, a storm in the summer closed much of this trail, so I only had the chance to hike to the Lower Pool (check out the video of the hike)!
THE NARROWS HIKE
The Narrows is one of the most iconic hikes both in Zion and in the United States. The hike can be done in two directions from the top, starting at the North Fork and requires equipment for rappelling, and the bottom, starting at Temple Sinawava (Shuttle Stop #9). The top down approach is 18-miles and is often completed as a backpacking trip or a long (12-13 hour) day hike. However, this route is currently closed as park officials negotiate land access with private land owners.
The hike from the bottom is the popular route. The first mile from the Temple Sinawava Shuttle Stop follows the Virgin River through a paved trail. The end of the River Walk dumps you into the shore of the river. At this point, you’ll wade into the water because the trail is the river! While many people hike to Big Springs, 4.5 miles from the Temple Sinawava, others hike to the split inside the canyon, which was also my turnaround point.
When I planned the road trip, I didn’t anticipate hiking in the Narrows. I’m not a strong swimmer and small river crossings make me nervous. Needless to say, hiking in the river was completely out of the question for me. After hiking the mile along the Riverwalk and seeing small children wading in and tackling the hike, I made an impromptu decision to tackle the Narrows check out the video of the hike!) myself. It was a beautiful day with comfortable temperature, so the water was warm and it was also calm. I’m a really short person (4’9″) and the water never reached above my hips and even then only in short areas. The entire hike was a breathtaking experience, from the hanging gardens at the top of the canyons to the excitement of hiking in the river, but the best part for me was actually walking into the canyons. The pictures don’t do this experience justice. If you’re considering visiting Zion, I would highlight recommend putting this hike at the top of your list!
As I mentioned, since this was an impromptu hike, I didn’t have any special equipment, although you can rent a rod and water proof shoes from nearby outdoor companies! I used my REI Flash 22 day pack, which kept all my belongings dry and Brooks trail runners (check out my reviews of each!) provided enough grip and worked well even inside the river! My Black Diamond trekking poles also were a huge help, more than anything else, helped me keep my balance as I waded through the water.
OBSERVATION POINT HIKE
While I was looking forward to tackling the harrowing Angel’s Landing hike, damage caused by a flash flood in July closed the trail. As an alternative, I decided to tackle the 8-mile, 2,000-feet elevation gain hidden gem hike to Observation Point (check out the video!).
The trail starts a short walk from the Weeping Rock trail head (Shuttle Stop #7) and begins to climb from the beginning and continues to do so almost to the top. The last mile to the summit is flat but also fairly sandy, while providing a reprieve from the elevation gain is not an easy stroll. The trail also offers plenty of switchbacks that provide several vantage points of the park, including the White Cliffs, Angel’s Landing and Weeping Rock.
A couple of miles into the hike, the trail evens out a bit as it approaches Echo Canyon. The canyon walls provide a brief reprieve from the exposure and and high desert temperature! This is a great place to stop for a snack break and photo opportunity. As I stood staring at the canyon walls above me, it felt like I was sucked into a magical place.
Slightly beyond the Echo Canyon, the trail emerges out of the canyon walls, the terrain changes to white cliffs and begins to climb again! There are also several trails that intersect at this point but bear to the right to head towards Observation Point! After another strenuous climb the terrain changes again to red earth. At this point, the trail levels out and Observation Point becomes visible on the other side of the rim. Shortly after this point, the trail connects with the East Mesa Trail, which is a less popular trail to Observation Point.
The way back down was a brutal downhill but I was fortunate to meet an experienced hiker. We chatted about hikes in the west coast, particularly Utah hikes, which distracted me from the knee pain but also helped me learn some of the secrets of Utah!