Let me start with a warning. This article does not include Angel’s Landing or The Narrows. I assume that these two wildly popular trails are amazing experiences, but for our recent trip to Zion we did not attempt them.
Instead we were looking for a peaceful day and scenic hikes that weren’t death defying. Our day was filled with views of red and pink sandstone cliffs, rocky trails, and the sounds of rapids coming from the Virgin River. In other words, it was the perfect one day in Zion National Park. This was our first trip, but it won’t be our last.
About Zion National Park
Located in Southern Utah, not far from the Arizona border, Zion National Park covers 230 square miles. It’s Utah’s first national park, and also it’s best known. In fact it’s among the most visited national parks in the United States.
The main portion of the park is in Zion Canyon, carved over millions of years by the Virgin River, a focal point along several of the park’s trails. Northwest is Kolob Canyon, a much less visited portion of the park with its own entrance.
We didn’t see much wildlife during our time in the park, and according to the park’s website, it is unusual to see large mammals in the park. But there are a number of large birds that call it home including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, California condors, and Mexican spotted owls.
How To Get To Zion National Park
If you live on the West Coast it’s pretty typical to drive to Zion and incorporate a number of other national parks and natural sites into one road trip. Byrce, Grand Canyon, Arches, and Canyon Lands are all possibilities.
But if you prefer to fly into the area, I’d recommend flying into Las Vegas. Enjoy Vegas for a night or two, then rent a car and make the two hour and forty-five minute drive to the park. Salt Lake City is another option for a large, international airport and the drive will be just under five hours.
Getting Into Zion National Park
As our national parks get busier they are developing ways to protect the natural environment and control the crowds. Zion has done this by restricting car access along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (the park’s most popular route) most of the year. Visitors park in the town of Springdale, then walk to the park’s entrance, hop on the free shuttle, and hop off at any point of interest. Depending on where you park in Springdale, you may also want to take advantage of the free Springdale Shuttle which drops off just outside the park entrance. Shuttle hours vary according to the season, so check the website in advance of your trip.
Jason and I found the shuttles to be clean and efficient. And it’s so much more relaxing to watch the scenery than worry about traffic and parking.
We found parking across the street from the park entrance which cost us $40 for the whole day. Entrance to the park is currently $20 per person. However, I recommend purchasing the America The Beautiful Pass for $80.
I definitely recommend stopping at the Visitors Center to chat with one of the rangers before heading out on any hiking trails. They are always ready to recommend trails based on your fitness level and interest as well as advise of any problems.
Hiking Watchman Trail
Our first hike of the day was along the three mile Watchman Trail which is accessed next to the Shuttle Stop at the Visitors Center. Considered moderately difficult, the trail starts on the canyon floor next to the Virgin River, but quickly ascends. The trail is very rocky, so proper footwear is highly recommended, preferably good boots. There’s minimal shade, so hats, sunscreen and plenty of water are essential. I’d also recommend hiking this trail early in the day, especially if the weather is hot.
After a mile and a half of steep walking we were rewarded with views of Towers Of The Virgin, spiky peaks across the canyon. From the top it’s easy to see the colorful layers of the rocks, starting with deep red at the base and ending with a creamy white at the tip.
A few years ago Jason and I started the tradition of packing lunch for our hikes and finding a scenic view for a picnic. This time we bought sandwiches and drinks at a local grocery store before heading to the park. While there are some restaurants in Zion, they can’t compete with the views we enjoyed at the end of Watchman Trail. We ate and rested for about thirty minutes, took plenty of photos, and then began the descent.
The nice part of this trail being so close to the Visitors Center is the availability of restrooms and water bottle filling stations. We took advantage of both and then hopped on the shuttle for our second hike.
Hiking Emerald Pools Trail
We boarded the shuttle and rode it to the Zion Lodge stop. From here we crossed over the river and began hiking to Emerald Pools. There are actually three Emerald Pools--Lower, Middle, and Upper--each with their own trail. However, the ranger had recommended skipping the Middle Pools Trail and opting for the Lower and Upper instead. She said she liked this route better and it’s a bit less steep.
The Lower Pools Trail is just .6 miles long and is paved, making it fully accessible--we saw people of all ages enjoying it. The trail ends at a red rock grotto, under a waterfall plunging into a small pool of water below. Since we were here in September--long after the melting of winter snows at higher elevations--there was very little water in the falls. But we still enjoyed the scene and the cool mist from the water on a hot day.
We continued on to Upper Pool which is fairly steep. At times it felt more like rock scrambling than hiking. When we finally made it to the top we were rewarded with a cool, shady oasis. The last pool is actually protected by the shade of a steep, black cliff. After taking a few selfies, we sat on a large, flat rock and enjoyed people watching. Kids climbed high on the surrounding rocks, a couple played with their baby, and groups of hikers chatted while sipping water.
Finally, we decided it was time to descend. While we hadn’t paid much attention to the views on the way up, we did so now. Several hours into our day I still wasn’t tired of gawking at the steep, colorful sandstone cliffs against a backdrop of blue skies and white, fluffy clouds.
Cooling Off With The River And A Beer
At the end of the Emerald Pools Trail, we saw a short path leading into the river. Our feet were now hot and swollen, so we slid our shoes off, and waded into the cold water. Jason waded a ways down the river, up to his knees. Occasionally other people joined us in the water. At one point we saw a deer wade into the water upstream.
What I thought would be a few minute stop turned into thirty minutes of playing in the water like little kids.
Finally, we got out of the water, dried off our feet and headed back to Zion Lodge. It was now time to reward ourselves with a cold beer at Castle Dome Cafe. This outdoor snack bar serves a full menu, but since we’d already eaten, we enjoyed their selection of local microbrews. Then we returned to the shuttle for our final stop of the day, the gift shop.
Shopping For Souvenirs
Run by the Zion National Park Forever Project, the gift shop and bookstore next to the Visitors Center has an excellent selection of clothing, books, postcards, and other souvenirs. All proceeds benefit the Forever Project which supports conservation of Zion. I bought a t-shirt and Jason added to his collection of baseball caps. They also carry some practical items like sunscreen, socks, and protein bars--just in case you forgot something before heading out on the trail.
Tips For Visiting Zion
While the town of Springdale offers plenty of choices for accommodations, they tend to be very pricey. So we opted to stay thirty minutes away in the small town of La Verkin. However, for our next visit, I’ll probably splurge and stay in Springdale. It would be so much easier to park once and not add all the extra driving. Furthermore, Springdale has so many more options for restaurants and shopping.
Zion is definitely a popular place and with that comes crowds. Both of our hiking trails were quite busy. So if you’re looking for a quiet and remote experience, most of Zion isn’t it. However, we enjoyed our hikes. In the last year and a half the popularity of hiking has exploded, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m happy to see more people out enjoying nature. If you’re looking for a few moments of peace and quiet, consider getting up extra early and being the first to hit the trail.
Our visit took place in late September, which is an ideal time to visit. Temperatures rarely exceed 80 degrees, and the chance of rain this time of year is low. Summer can get really hot in the park, so if this is when you’re planning your visit, just be prepared with sunscreen and water, and consider selecting hikes with more shade. Winter weather is cold and snowy, but crowds are less, so this is certainly an option.