I’ve been on a fair number of hikes in my life, but I’ve never done anything like Zion National Park. I really can’t say enough good things about this place. The people are nice, the shuttle service is efficient, the bathrooms are clean, the views are unbelievable, and the hikes are exhilarating. (Side note: Ryan informs me that the men’s restrooms were disgusting. Why are you so gross, men? Why?)
If you’re looking for a vacation unlike any other you’ve been on, try to get to Zion National Park. It’s worth the effort.
The Landscape: Imagine a big, flat swath of land. Flat, flat, flat as far as the eye can see. There are some mountains way out in the distance, and the streams flowing from them carry a lot of rocks and sand and mud and other stuff down into the basin. The sediment that was deposited there last year gets covered over by this year’s sediment and so on and so forth for millions of years. The weight of the newer sediment keeps pushing the older layers down, keeping the top of the basin at sea level. The minerals that are in these sediments, combined with the weight, causes the lower levels to solidify into rock. Then things start to get interesting. Pressure from deep within the earth’s crust begins to slowly lift the basin upwards – vertically by 10,000 feet. This exposes some volcanic activity, and also the streams that were gently flowing about the basin became fast moving – and fast cutting – rivers. All of this cutting from the water and volcanic activity and erosion is what makes the sheer cliffs of Zion so breathtaking today.
Hiking: There are some truly magnificent hikes in this place. We took it easy on our first day (it was hot and we got a late start), but still managed to get in a couple of beautiful short hikes. We started with the Emerald Pools, a three mile round trip if you go to all three levels. The hike to the lower pool – 1.2 miles round trip and 70 feet elevation gain – is easy, to the middle pool – 2 miles and 150 feet – is moderate, and to the upper pool – 3 miles and 350 feet – is strenuous. It’s worth going to the top if you can. We also visited the Weeping Rock, an easy half-mile round trip up to a rock that literally weeps with water. Rainfall permeates the porous rock on the top layers of the canyon, but when it gets to the harder layers it has no choice but to flow laterally out of the rock. This allows life to grow, clinging to the rocks and forming “hanging gardens.”
The next day we got up early and headed out for the Angel’s Landing trail. All we really knew about it was that it was a steep climb and that the last part of it involved “sheer drop-offs on both sides.” Also, one of my Lyft drivers back in SF flipped out when I told him we’d be going to Zion and made me write down the name of this hike.
It turns out that Lyft driver knows what’s what. It’s a magnificent and exhilarating hike. Five miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 1,488 feet.
Take plenty of water and food, and take your time. There are a lot of neat features in the rocks, and if you’re paying attention you could see some unexpected wildlife. Make sure everything you’re carrying fits in a backpack; you’ll need both hands free to use the chains on the last half mile of the hike. You’ll be pulling yourself up the rock face – it’s magnificent.
More hiking! We also spent a full day hiking The Narrows, which is essentially the bottom of the canyon, where the Virgin River is still cutting through the stone. The best part about this hike is that THE PATH IS THE RIVER. You’ll need to wear shoes that can get wet because you’re in the river most of the time. We used our hiking boots as they had better tread on them than our sneakers. They worked fine and were completely dried by the next day (it’s hot and we left them outside). The one thing we wish we had was a hiking staff, which would have been helpful as we were traversing the “rapids” in the river. We discovered later that there is a kiosk at the pedestrian entrance to the park that will rent water shoes and staves. Do it.
Lodging: If you want to stay in the park and you don’t have a reservation, be prepared to wait in line for an hour or more. You can reserve a spot well in advance at the Watchman Campground or take your chances on a first come, first served spot at the South Campground. We arrived at around 8:30 am and were 25 vehicles deep in the line, but we were rewarded for our patience with a pull-through site in the South Campground. So be patient. The camp host is very helpful, and will even let you know if you’re likely to get a camp site based on your spot in line. If you’re not keen on camping, there are hotels just outside of the park in Springdale, and a free shuttle service will take you to and from the park. A separate line of the same shuttle will take you to most of the points of interest within the park. There is also the Zion Lodge inside the park, which looks swanky.
Food: Since Ryan and I are in an RV we do most of our cooking ourselves. But we did sample the local fare for two meals. Thai Sapa is surprisingly solid food, even if the menu dips into Chinese (potstickers) and Indian (samosas) cuisine from time to time. I had the green curry and R had the pad thai. Both were wonderfully spiced and very filling. We also went to the Bit and Spur Saloon, a tex-mex place that was decent, but not great. In their defense, we were just back from five hours of hiking The Narrows and we’d neglected to pack lunch, so we were a little delirious.
I’ll definitely be planning another trip to Zion. It’s an epic place. You should go to there.