With the arrival of vaccines, we are going to see international travel get back to its regularly scheduled programming very soon. However, many of us are still looking for ways to quell this desire for adventure in the meantime. This is why now is a better time than ever to visit the United States national parks
During my own trip to the US national parks last August, every time I arrived at a new park, it was for that moment my favorite. However, I have to admit that when I reflect on the experience, my favorite of all would have to be Zion National Park in Utah. I think that in general it was the most varied and the most beautiful, but it was also the most cumbersome. Hopefully this article will help you navigate your way to a great experience at Zion National Park.
The first Anglo-European settlers, Mormon pioneers, arrived in the area in the late 1800s. They named the area Zion, which is ancient Hebrew for sanctuary or refuge. The name was believed to be a Paiute name meaning straight canyon. When we were there, there was nothing straight about it.
The thing that makes Zion a little challenging is that to get to the best trails, you can’t really park your car and start hiking. Rather, you have to get a special Zion bus ticket that will take you to drop off points to then start your hiking, and you have to buy tickets in advance for specific times during the day. The tickets are only one dollar, and we actually bought an extra ticket for a day that we didn’t use, which wasn’t a big deal. We just parked in the visitor parking section, and then got on our shuttle bus to the different hikes that we took within Zion National Park. They have things very well organized.
Something that I liked better about Zion than the other parks, was that the hotels in the area can accommodate a wider arrange of budgets and styles. There are just so many options for great accommodations as well as restaurants. One of my favorite moments was coming off of a very intense hike, and we got back to the visitor center, and there is a really incredible microbrewery right there that sells delicious food and beer. It was a hot day and I cannot remember a beer tasting as good as I did at that moment. Plus, the elk burger was off the chain.
My very favorite thing about Zion however is just the incredible beauty and the uniqueness of the hiking experiences. I literally had the best hike of my life in Zion which I will go into later. The various hikes have different levels of difficulty, and certainly every hike isn’t for everyone. Perhaps the most famous hike is also the most challenging, which is called Angels Landing. It starts off like a pretty normal but exceptionally beautiful hike, on a somewhat paved pathway and then it ends up at the top of a peek, where to continue, you have to wind your way up this incredibly narrow trail holding onto a chain as you go up. If you let go of the chain and just take a step away, you will fall to your death. In fact, people have died doing this section of the hike, and there is even a sign where that section starts that says how many people have died doing it. At latest count I think it is 10. Because of the Coronavirus, the park wasn’t allowing access to that portion of the trail, because you have to grab onto this chain and also you will be very close to other people. My friend and I were bummed out that we didn’t get to do that section because we were looking forward to it for days before.
However, when you get up to the spot where you can take a right and go to the really challenging small trail with a chain, you can alternatively go left, and there is a fantastic trail that winds up to at the top of another peek where you get spectacular views of the valley, mountains, and Virgin River.
Near Angels Landing (in fact it shares a shuttle drop off location) are the different Emerald Pools trails. There are three Emerald Pools: Upper, Middle, and Lower in Zion National Park, and visitors may choose the following trails: a short, 1.2-mile round-trip loop to the Lower Pool; a 2-mile round-trip visit to the Middle and Lower Pools; or a 2.5-mile round-trip hike to all three. These are moderate hikes, and they take you past pretty waterfalls.
By far, for me my favorite hike was the Narrows. The hike starts with a paved trail that follows along side the Virgin River for about a mile. After that, you actually have to go into the river to hike the rest of the way. So, you are literally hiking over river rocks in water that sometimes comes up to your chest. It is therefore recommended that you have water shoes as well as a waterproof backpack or bag for your camera and other items.
The best time to do this is on a very hot day and if the water is very clear. On the day that we did it, it was about 100 degrees, but it had rained a few days before, so the water wasn’t very clear and we couldn’t see where we were stepping. This just added to the challenge! After about four miles or so, we got to the part where you either had to go to the left and the water continued to be pretty brown, full of rich sediment, or you could go to the right, where a different stream joins the river, and this stream was very clear and you could see perfectly what you were stepping on. Of course we took the stream to the right. The canyon in the section on both sides view is also really narrow so visually it was stunning and impactful. It is also pretty challenging because as you are hiking you literally have to ascend waterfalls to continue going on your merry way.
My friend and I both love photography, so it probably took us longer than it needed to, just because we were loving taking photos so much. Eventually, the route got a little too rigorous for my friend, and so he waited for me as I billygoated it up different waterfalls and kept going by myself for quite a ways through this winding creek in the narrow canyon.
Sometimes when I am traveling I get this feeling that I call travelers euphoria, where I am just in the moment and I feel so free and happy, and everything that I am seeing in front of me is new, and it was here that I had that experience. I felt so high on life as I traversed this narrow canyon. I didn’t actually get to the end, because we wanted to make sure we got back in time to get the last shuttle back to the visitor center. Still, I had a blast with what I did.
A couple of tips that I have for doing this hike are the following. As with all hiking, I recommend that you bring more bottles of water than you expect that you will drink. I also recommend that you do this hike in the late morning or very early afternoon, and on a hot day because even though it is hot outside, since you are hiking through a river in a very narrow canyon, the water is fresh and cool, and the canyon sides block the sun so it doesn’t feel so hot. Also, bring some snacks, because you will likely get hungry. Note that while much of the time you are in water that only goes up to your mid shin, there are times when it can get pretty deep, up to your chest. Lastly, if it suddenly rains there can be flash flooding, so you don’t want to do this on a day that is expected to have rain. In fact, I don’t even think that the trail will be open on these days, so make sure you look at the weather forecast and plan accordingly. I can’t emphasize enough, in right conditions this hike is so worth it.
If you don’t want to mess with the shuttle there are still some other trails you can do at Zion where you can park and hike. They just aren’t the most popular. One of them however is pretty great, and especially for sunrise, and that is the Canyon Overlook Trail. This trail is on the east side of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, and looks down on Zion Canyon. The trail is just one mile roundtrip, so it is perfect for early morning sunrise viewing. We did this on our last day, and it was really beautiful watching the valley colors and shadows change as the sun rose.
While Utah has a number of really fabulous national parks, if you visit Zion, I think you will agree that there is something truly special about it. You won’t be disappointed.