Zion National Park is a hiking Mecca in southwest Utah… one of those places that if you like hiking and scrambling, and if you LOVE canyons, you’ve just GOT to go!
The sandstone, with its deeply carved slot canyons and its incredible streaks of colour, is amazing to see… but the sheer size and scope of the landscape steals your breath away (or is that the step slopes you need to climb to see those vistas and take it all in!?)!!
We hiked 18km on our first day there… on what was supposed to be a half day hike, just to settle in… but we got totally caught up in the beauty and couldn’t stop going and climbing and exploring. The canyons are unbelievable!
The sandstone is very soft, and so it erodes easily. You can see this in the places where chains are in place to guide you where the drop-offs are extreme. Look at the wall marks in the photo below, and the deep channel etched in the photo above.
As a result, most of the trails in the park are paved to protect them from the passage of millions of pairs of feet a year.
Don’t let this stop you from enjoying the place though! There are plenty of long hikes you can do into some pretty rugged and astonishing places. There are deep slot canyons, wide open spaces with incredible vistas, steep drop offs, narrow ridges to traverse, waterfalls that you can walk behind, heart-stopping uphill climbs to summit and incredible pools to hike through. And most of the time, on many of the hikes, you are quite quickly in the views!
Water has played a very important part in the formation of this landscape, and contributes greatly to its beauty. It sculpts the rock. It erodes impossibly deep and steep canyons. It cuts ledges and holes, huecos and arches, caves and stone pools. It flows through chasms and seeps out of massive walls. Water is the master artist in this special place (well, water, tectonic forces and salt, if truth be told, geologically speaking).
It creates incredible natural stone features.
Zion is undoubtedly a special place to explore.
HOWEVER…. and here’s the unfortunate part… it is overrun with tourists.
And so, before delving into our specific hikes, I thought I’d give a little advice, based on our experiences there.
If You Go…
Do not go on a weekend. Do not go during anyone’s spring break. Do not go over Easter, a very important family time in Mormon Utah. Seeing so many families there, clearly enjoying themselves and each other is a beautiful thing, but the crowds are insane. Go mid week… and a rainy day makes the hiking atmospheric and scares away a lot of fair-weather hikers. It is still spectacularly beautiful (wet sandstone is not slippery).
SHUTTLE BUS SYSTEM:
There is a shuttle bus system in place to keep the road through the canyon from becoming a traffic jam. Private cars can only go as far as the turn off to the Canyon Overlook/back road to Bryce Canyon, and to the museum.
There is also a second shuttle bus system in town that will take you to the park gates. Both are free.
Do not even think about driving into or to the park. The traffic jams to get into and out of town are horrendous. The line ups at the park gates are insane.
There is ONE EXCEPTION to this. If you want to do a popular hike, like Angel’s Landing (***the one in the crowd photo above), drive to the park in time to take the park’s first shuttle bus at 7am. The shuttles from town to the park gate do not start until after 8am, so you must drive. Then, you will have to swallow the steep $20 parking fee PLUS the park entry fee. Next, HOOF IT… not so that you get the hike to yourself (you won’t)…. high tail it so that you get up in time to not get caught in a backlog of people on the way down. (This was the advice of a wonderful Tennessee couple we met who did the first shuttle, and still got caught, taking forever, to come down the chains and get off the ridge line.)
The park’s shuttle busses run every 10-15 minutes. When you go to leave your trail head after a hike, intending to hop on the shuttle bus and go to the park gate, GO THE WRONG WAY! Hop on the bus in the direction that takes you to the end of its run, deeper into the park. It’s not a long ride. Otherwise, many shuttle busses will pass you, full of standing, sandwiched people, and you will not be able to get on. Do this on very busy days, like Saturdays.
If you do want to drive in the park, it is possible to drive up to the Canyon Overlook trail in your own vehicle… something I highly recommend. However, do this during “normal” time, and you will be in a parking jam with nowhere to park up top. And the traffic jam into and out of a tunnel up there is crazy enough for there to be personnel and a barrier to stop and start and control the flow of cars up the road.
The park gates open at 7am, but they do not close the park’s entrance barrier as it is still a backroad through to Bryce Canyon. So you can still enter the park before it opens. We did a spectacular sunrise hike when we were there, with headlamps, timing it to see the warm light of the sun peak over the horizon at our backs, and bathe the canyon walls in front of us in spectacular warmth and colour. Not a morning person? Suck it up, buttercup. And do this. Once.
Someone we met also said it is magical to ride the park by bike, at night, with headlamps, after it closes… something we will need to return to do.
Springdale is the nearest town to the park gates. There are no other nearby towns. Bring groceries with you to Zion. The one grocery store in town, Sol Foods, is exceptionally over priced. It’s also sort of like a Whole Foods, in that it seems to stock expensive, exclusive items… organic almost everything, and sweet potato cut chips, etc. A 750mL container of plain yogurt is $8 US, a small package of dried fruit is $9, etc. Any salty snacks (nuts, chips, bars) are crazily over-priced, even for this Canadian, who is used to overpriced grocery items! See for yourself…
Then, take your own water bottle and fill it with tap water. You won’t die.
FOOD IN THE PARK:
Bring your own food and drink with you. The only place to purchase food is at a restaurant in an exclusive hotel that is half-way through the park. The lineups there looked insane. I can only imagine what the prices were like. So pack up a lunch, bring enough to drink, make sure you have something salty in your pack to replenish your salt after sweating and haul it all in with you, on your back.
There is no water at trailheads. There are only pit toilets.
Oh… and bring extra snacks, so that IF you happen to get sidetracked with an “I wonder what’s up around that corner” impulse, and you set off on a hike that is far longer than you planned, you won’t have a hangry hiking partner (not to mention any names! Heh heh heh).
ONE LAST THING…
You cannot get lost on the trails. They are very well signed, and the paths are paved, so you cannot go astray. There are also maps at each trailhead’s shuttle bus stop. And where you check in at the park entrance, there are large signs that advertise each hike with their bus stop numbers, little descriptions and some enticing photos. No maps, no photocopied trail descriptions in your pack, and no GPS co-ordinates are necessary. This is sonot back country hiking… but it is so very, very worth it!
Trekking up a mountain’s shoulder, hiking through a flowering alpine meadow, snowshoeing through a dense pine forest, or taking in the 360 degree views from a ridge top vantage point make me feel alive. The experiences in these places give me a profound sense of space and place.
Travel does a similar thing, pushing me out of my comfort zone, exposing me to new experiences, new people and new ways of thinking; it also gives me that sense of space and place in this world.
I believe that life is lived in the contrasts: when you experience simplicity and complexity and life's ups and downs, whether they be physically in this world or mentally in your own personal inner landscape, you know that you are truly living.
The bigger they are, the more there is to explore!