The canyons of Zion were a holy place to the Paiute Indians. When the canyon was later settled by Mormon pioneers, they gave holy names to this land. When you enter Zion National Park, it’s easy to see why.
Fed by the waters of the Virgin River, Zion is an oasis in a vast desert region. When it does rain, flash floods tear through the narrow canyons of the park, forming intricate and wonderful patterns in the soft sandstone.
The thing is, most of the truly incredible things in Zion are not visible from the road, and driving there is an incredible experience on its own. So incredible, in fact, that if you don’t start near dawn, you may not get a parking spot…anywhere. This has prompted a drastic response from the Park Service. Starting sometime in 2000, no cars will be allowed in the park. The plan is to introduce a shuttle system that will handle the hoards. Currently, shuttles run hourly from the Lodge and cost $3.25 for an adult.
Hikes in Zion are often very steep, but rewarding. Trails lead to narrow, well-guarded canyons, commanding overlooks and other natural wonders found nowhere else. I spent 5 days in Zion and was able to get a decent sampling of what this place has to offer. In reality, however, I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Places To See
Angel’s Landing – Starts at Grotto picnic area along Scenic Road. Angel’s Landing is a very steep 5 mile round trip along a paved trail to a very crowded place. Don’t let the crowds put you off, though. It is an incredible view of Zion Canyon. When you get to the first landing near the top, you can tell someone has been feeding the chipmunks. They’ll come right up to you and I would not be surprised if people get attacked over the occasional withholding of a candy bar. Near the top, the paved trail ends and chains have been installed to help you get up and down over very steep terrain. It is also very close to sheer drop-offs, so perhaps not recommended for those afraid of heights.
Short easy walk from Grotto picnic area or Zion Lodge. The Emerald Pools might be more aptly named the Muddy Puddles. The lower pools, however, did have some nice waterfalls coming into them. Apparently, they are really nice in early Spring and during periods of heavy run-off.
Hidden Canyon – Begin at Weeping Rock parking area. Hidden Canyon is awesome!! If you only have a short time in the park and can do one thing…do this (weather permitting, of course). It’s a moderately steep, one mile hike to the mouth of the canyon and there the trail ends. Going into the canyon, you will be flanked closely by sheer walls hundreds of feet high, limestone arches and sandstone carved with intricate and bizarre patterns. The way gets kind of sketchy in a few places, but you can get a decent distance into the canyon before being turned back. With a little climbing gear, you could probably get a lot further.
Echo Canyon – Use the same trailhead as Hidden Canyon, but go to the left at the fork. Due to its proximity, Echo Canyon makes a nice hike to do at the same time as Hidden Canyon. A good little side hike is to hike up the first smaller canyon to the right on the way up. There are some very nice narrows, but I was stopped from going up them by water. It may have been worth wading, but it was pretty nasty stuff. The Echo Canyon trail eventually winds around to an observation point with a commanding view of the park.
Bear Trap Canyon, Kolob Arch and La Verkin Canyon – These three are grouped together because they are all very close to each other in the Kolob Canyons area. Seeing all three makes a good overnight trip. The trail starts at Lee Pass. If Hidden Canyon is awesome, Bear trap Canyon is whatever is the next step up. About 8-9 miles from the trailhead, Bear Trap Canyon is hemmed in by high walls etched into incredible formations – arches, caverns, ripples and more. Unlike Hidden Canyon, which had some nasty stagnant puddles, water is always flowing through Bear Trap.
In addition to wild rock formations, Bear Trap is a very verdant place. There are many trees and spectacular hanging gardens. The trip up the canyon ends at a picture perfect little waterfall. Even though it is probably against park regulations, I recommend you strip naked and wade in underneath it. It is super cold, but a great refresher after the journey through the desert to get there.
A very nice extension is to continue up the La Verkin Canyon another mile or two. It’s a lot bigger than Bear Trap, but not quite as intense.
Kolob Arch is another major attraction in this neighborhood. It is believed to be the largest free-standing arch on earth. Kolob Arch is about 7 miles from the trailhead and there is a sign that tells you when you’re at the end of the trail. However, I could not see the arch. I thought “OK, am I blind or just dense?”, because I could not seem to find the biggest arch on earth. Eventually, I realized that if you face the sign and look high up on the canyon wall, you’ll see it. It’s Huge!
If you plan to see any of these, it’s well worth taking the pack and seeing all three.
Virgin River Narrows – In and out day hike from the end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Road, or shuttle to the top and hike down (16 miles). Either have 2 cars for this or arrange shuttle service – available at Zion Lodge ($12) and at a couple of other places in town. This is the grand-daddy of canyon hikes in Zion NP. It’s the biggest, baddest canyon you can get into without technical gear. It’s also a pretty tough hike. When you’re in the narrows, the canyon soars up to 2000 ft above you and the Virgin River fills the canyon from wall to wall. The rock twists and turns up into the sky and if things go wrong – a flash flood, for example – there is no escape.
If you do this hike, be warned: your feet will get wet, you will get wet, your pack and everything in it will get wet! This entire hike follows the Virgin River down and a good third of it is actually in the river. For the first couple of crossings, you might be able to find a dry route across some rocks. Don’t bother. Just take your BootsnAll and slog right through the water. Most of your day will be spent doing this. There were places where waist deep wading was required and a few where it was chest deep. Although I probably could have avoided it, there were a few spots where I actually ended up swimming. Expect to have to do this.
Also, when you do this, wear your boots. The terrain is uneven and often slick. Tevas or other water sandals won’t cut it. The bright side to this is that Zion is in the desert, so a couple of hours in the sun the next day should have your boots all dried out.
This is an amazing hike and I highly recommend it. However, it is dangerous.
Zion National Park is located about an hour (46 miles) from St George, Utah on Highway 9.
Click here for a Utah state map showing Zion National park.
US$10 per vehicle for a 7 day pass.
Numerous hotels in and around the park. Campgrounds in the park are $10 per night. Backcountry camping is in designated sites only. These permits are $5.
I am a sometime professional musician (upright bass), sometime
house builder, sometime shoe salesman who is leaving all these things
behind to travel across the United States and spend time in the woods.
Actually, I am moving from Oregon to Georgia to start a Master’s of Music
Education degree at UGA. With a move like that, I had to make the time for
a grand tour.
At the beginning of the journey, I stopped in for a while with the
Boots’n’All crew who I knew from earlier journeys. After some poking and
prodding, they talked me into a series of Travel Guides from the trip.
Zion National Park