I'm glad that I took some time to reflect on my anticipation for my road trip this summer before I had even left for it. I even blogged about the five things I was most excited to do or see on my trip. Since then, I have learned a valuable lesson: most, if not every person who has been to Zion National Park would wonder why in the world Zion wasn't on that list? It's a question I still can't answer. But now, as I start to sum up my trip in silly statistics and reflections, I know that Zion definitely makes my top five for favourite places I traveled.
Of all the places I came and went from in the United States on my trip, I spent the most consecutive days in one place in Zion National Park and the area immediately around it (namely Springdale; the Bit & Spur Restaurant and Saloon makes some damn good post-hike enchiladas). I spent the first two nights disperse camped on BLM land near Virgin, Utah, traveling in and out of town and the park during the day. I spent the next two nights in the South Campground of the park.
Let's talk about camping in and around Zion for a bit before we get to the park.
Camping in and around Zion National Park
Most, if not all parks in the USA, have established, maintained and managed campgrounds inside of park boundaries. And, like other popular parks, Zion's campgrounds fill up FAST in peak season. Zion has three campgrounds, but the two most popular (and accessible from the south area of the park, where you can catch the shuttle to popular sight-seeing and hiking trails) are Watchman and South. The Watchman Campground may be reserved in advance, but reservations are typically full long before you get to the park. The South Campground, however, is available on a first-come first-serve basis, and is managed by park staff. Available campsites are typically occupied before noon as campers disembarking are required to check-out by 11 am.
I did not know far enough in advance when exactly I would be in the park, or if I wanted to camp in it. I loved my little nook on BLM land the first two nights, but finding parking in Springdale to shuttle into the park every day was a bit of a nuisance. Local business are starting to charge for a lot of the available parking along the shuttle line, and street parking fills up very quickly. I also really wanted to be closer to the showers at Zion Outfitters; it was in excess of 34 or 35 degrees every day that I was there, so I was really getting my sweat on!
So how did I score a campsite at the South Campground for two nights? I camped out for one. I know, it sounds silly, but apparently it is necessary through peak season (I was there in August). I woke up in my little BLM site and drove into the park before the sun was even showing its rosy cheeks. I was at the South Campground for 5:40 am, and I was still the sixth or seventh vehicle in line. By the time a camp host came around with reservation slips at 7 am, there were at least a dozen vehicles stacked up behind me. I was assigned a site at about 7:45 am. Once settled, when I left my campsite to head over to Zion Outfitters (for my first of many glorious showers in their basement) around 9:15 am, there were more than twenty vehicles still lined up waiting for a chance to grab one of 117 campsites as campers were checking out.
The moral of this story is that though I saw no robins in Zion NP, the early bird definitely gets the campsite-worm. Be ready, and bring snacks. Or at least make sure you pee before you get in line.
The South Campground was really good to me. There are real toilets and sinks in the bathrooms, potable water spigots, and fire rings and picnic tables at every campsite. It was a quick walk to catch the Zion shuttle (since you're already in the park in the campground, there's no need to deal with transfers to/from the Springdale shuttle), and as I discovered the next day, it's also walking distance to the Zion Outfitters (for showers - do I need to keep mentioning those?) if you remember to bring your parks pass (Zion Outfitters is technically outside of the park boundary).
I spent a rest day hanging out under the shade of a (rather pathetically) pitched tarp at my campsite, making friends with a doe and her fawn whom apparently found my campsite to be the safest and most interesting to hang out at, and watching the bluebirds pillage a neighbouring site's leftovers from a previous meal (please remember to put your food away). Campers were respectful of quiet hours, and I really appreciated having a home base for more than one night at a time for a change!
Hiking Observation Point
This was one of the most exciting and exhilarating hikes that I set out on. In the park, and also ever. You can find trail guides and reports just about anywhere for this hike, including on The Outbound where it is listed as an intermediate level hike, at 8 miles (about 12.9 km) round-trip and with an elevation gain of 2,100 feet. The Zion National Park trail guide lists the hike as "strenuous" with "long drop-offs". It's not a technical hike, but there is some exposure, it is a pretty consistent elevation gain, and if you're afraid of heights, this could be a spooky experience for you. However, if the idea of traveling the chains of the Angels Landing trails is absolutely a no-go for you, this hike is an excellent alternative!
The trail begins at the Weeping Rock shuttle stop, which is stop #7, and begins almost immediately with a whoooole bunch of switchbacks to get you up into Echo Canyon. I used to hate switchbacks, but I'm learning they are so much more enjoyable than the alternative; my calves prefer them.
Hiking through Echo Canyon, as someone who was experiencing red rock canyons of the Southwest for the first time ever, was incredible. The landscape was surreal. I was so distracted by it, that I hardly thought about all the elevation I was gaining. I was also really grateful that I set out on my hike early enough that I wasn't climbing in the high heat of the day, and occasionally passed through shade cast by rock walls.
Hiking through rock tunnels, alcoves and over faces, the trail is well established and occasionally sandy. The landscape was so foreign to me, coming from the blues and greys of my Canadian Rocky Mountains. I spent a great deal of this hike marvelling over just how red and orange the rock was, how plants and trees still found little habitable pockets to reach up out of, and over how many living things call the Utah desert home (soooooo many lizards).
Observation Point is one of those hikes that make you feel really, really great about your accomplishments - I mean, 2,100' of elevation gain is no small feat - until you find out that some of the people taking photos with you at the top, walked a brief and very much level trail from another part of the park and got to the exact same point as you. (How dare they!) But fear not, you still climbed 2,100'. You still get to look down on Angels Landing. And you, unlike those who may as well have cheated, got to hike through Echo Canyon and marvel over the incredible backcountry of Zion National Park.
This hike is much less traveled than Angels Landing, which is attractive to me. Heading into the park, I wasn't sure if I wanted to start with Observation Point or Angels Landing. When I decided to tackle Observation Point first, and realized that you get the same, if not a better view of the valley from Observation Point as you would from Angels Landing, I decided I didn't need to do both. Standing at the top of the mesa, in awe of just how much of the canyon has been carved away by the comparatively unthreatening Virgin River, was one of the most incredible feelings I had on my trip. The magnitude and scale of those canyon walls really hits you hard (in the lungs).
The photo above is a panorama that I took on my way back down the first switchbacks. You're looking at Big Bend with Angels Landing behind and to the left of it (Mt Majestic is beyond in white), Observation Point is high up above on the right (the white cap), and parts of the East Rim Trail on either side.
Side note: if you are hiking this trail in the summer like I did, bring more water than you think you need. I had a little bit left in my camelbak in my pack, and I brought a full water bottle. 12-13 km didn't seem like too terribly much, and I quickly discovered that I well underestimated the effects of not just climbing all of that elevation, but the desert sun. I rationed the last half of my water bottle on the way down, sucking the final drops from it as I descended back down the switchbacks. There is no water fountain at the Weeping Wall; I learned the hard way. I jumped on the shuttle to the Temple of Sinawava and fought the crowds to refill my bottle no less than three times before I headed back to camp.
If you're curious, Google Maps has actually done an incredible job of mapping the major trails of Zion National Park to pan through in their satellite view. Check it out, it's pretty wild the way they've augmented it.
Hiking The Narrows
I wrote about my experience hiking the Narrows for the Calgary Heritage Roasting Company - you can read about it now here! Hiking The Narrows was also one of the best hikes I have ever done in my life. I think it will live at the top of my "best hikes ever" list for much of the foreseeable future. It was my first time hiking in a river, and such an intimate way to experience the sheer majesty of Zion National Park.
The distance you can hike up the Virgin River seems infinite, but I figure I managed about 8 km (16 km round trip) including the Riverside Walk, which you travel from the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop (stop #9). Zion National Park's hiking guide lists this hike, again, as "strenuous". While the elevation gain and loss is minimal, the flow and volume of the Virgin River can make this a difficult journey.
The Narrows can be accessed from either direction - north or south. I accessed it from the south. Accessing it from the north requires a permit and ideally some canyoneering experience, but it does allow access to a greater distance of the river.
Most people only travel the first kilometre or two of the river past the Riverside Walk (a 1.75 km path between the shuttle stop and river access), which meant that my ambition to hike several kilometres even further granted me some much needed and appreciated solitude between the great walls of this river-carved canyon. I found several pockets within the canyon alone, which is something that I really value as an introvert in the outdoors.
Ultimately, I opted to turn around when the water levels started to get uncomfortably high (for me). I waded through some waist-deep water (I'm about 5'-6") in a spot or two, but I wasn't prepared to travel through shoulder-height pools. I felt entirely satisfied with what I did hike, though. There were no pouts on my face the day that I hiked The Narrows - I was all smiles no matter how far I hiked.
This hike is in-and-back, and there are no restrooms along the way, so make sure you visit the washroom on your way in. You don't need to carry much for this hike. I don't think there's any danger of bear or wildlife encounters traveling up the river, and since the canyon walls and crisp water keep you nice and cool, packing a lot of water isn't as necessary as it is for hiking Observation Point or Angels Landing. I brought a small, ultra light-weight day pack with a few snacks, a bottle of water, my camera, a fleece jacket in case it got cool, and a trekking pole. I wore sandals down to the river access point, where I changed into water shoes and stuffed my sandals into my pack.
Most memorable for me on this hike, were the incredible crystalline colours of the Virgin River, and how the canyon walls at times appeared metallic from moisture. It's hard to believe a river as unassuming as the Virgin River could cut a canyon so deep and extreme, but I can imagine that at certain times of the year, this river is much more aggressive and destructive. Make sure you check out the river conditions and flash flood warnings before you set out.
Will I go back to Zion National Park?
You better believe I will! I may even do the same hikes over again (which is saying a lot for me). I know I spent a lot of time in this park compared to others, but I wish I had spent a couple more days in the area. I did the tunnel drive and a bit of sight-seeing through out the park, and I dined a few places in Springdale, but I wish I had had at least another day or two to get up to the Kolob Canyons area. Not if, but rather WHEN I get back to Utah, this will be high up on my list to get back to. I'd also love to get setup with a permit and a guide to travel south down through The Narrows next time. It's something that, even on my thrifty adventure budget, I see being very worthwhile.
Zion left a lasting impression on me. I had both of the extremes: hiking up to look down on the park from Observation Point, and traveling deep down through the Virgin River which is the inceptive source of 2,000 foot eroded canyon walls. I got everything from wildlife encounters in the campground to some of the best enchiladas, and even a place to shower. From dramatic red rock vistas to crystalline river water, Zion has so much to offer. Though the shuttle ride might make you feel a little like you're being carted through a desert safari, there are so many ways to immerse yourself in the raw landscape of this park. I know I did, and it's an area that I will truly treasure for the rest of my life.
Photos are my own. Please do not reproduce without my written permission.
First: Mount Kinesava from Rockville, Utah 2017 | Second: Car camping montage 2017 | Third: Echo Canyon 2017 | Fourth: Zion NP from Observation Point 2017 | Fifth: Big Bend from East Rim Trail 2017 | Sixth + Seventh: The Virgin River, hiking The Narrows 2017