According to National Geographic, Zion is the third most popular National Park in the country. While most all of the big national parks have seen an increase in vistorship over the past several years, since 2010, the number of visitors at Zion has increased by a whopping 70%. The park has already instituted permit requirements for certain hikes, has banned vehicular traffic through much of its most famous section (offering a well run shuttle system instead), and is now actively considering a proposal to require visitors to use a reservations system just to visit the park. This newest proposal is truly unfortunate but the park and the town that surrounds it can only handle so much volume and, unfortunately, while it’s awesome that people are getting out and appreciating our national park system, too many visitors can really damage these places. I’m not sure what the end result will be, but we were happy to visit this gorgeous place at a low tourist time and we took advantage of every day we had.
Zion’s most famous feature is the fifteen mile long canyon that cuts through a portion of the park. The canyon was created by the Virgin River which, over the course of hundreds of millions of years, has eroded the surrounding rock and left a breathtaking span of colorful cliffs, textured rock, pretty waterfalls, and large expanses of green vegetation.
Can you believe this little bullshit river:
…created all of this???
Me neither. It’s nuts.
Anyway, if you’re considering visiting Zion, late April featured fantastic weather and relatively quiet trails. And while we got some surprised reactions from friends when we told them we were staying at the park for ten days, in the end, we thought it was a perfect length of time to visit. We hiked almost all of the famous trails, spent time with some friends who were in town, and still had a reasonable amount of downtime to relax and recover from all the hiking.
The Watchman Trail
We started our explorations on the Watchman Trail. This is a 3.1 mile loop trail that is listed as “moderate” in most hiking guides. While we encountered plenty of people, it was by no means crowded and the folks we did see were spread out. It was pretty perfect.
As for the scenery, I’d say it qualified as “not too shabby”:
This was a perfect hike to knock the dust off our boots and get us ready to tackle the more challenging trails.
The Narrows is one of Zion’s most famous hikes, and for good reason. The “trail” is actually just the Virgin River. Hikers walk up the river through the canyon and watch as the walls get taller and narrower. This trail is only open certain times of the year when the water flow is at a safe level. We did not expect it to be open in late April because the water is usually too high (as a result of snow melting at higher elevations), but the river was still running low which meant we could do it.
Because the water is cold, and because the river bottom is covered with large rocks, most people rent waterproof pants, neoprene socks, specialized boots, and a walking stick from a local outfitter. The supplies help keep hikers warm and (hopefully) upright, as they make their way up the river. On the morning of our hike, we forked over the $41 per person, got ourselves fully outfitted in our super sexy waterproof gear, and headed for the trailhead.
Once in the water, hikers can walk as far up the river as they want. Some travel just a couple hundred yards to see the views, while others hike several miles. After speaking with a staff member at Zion Outfitters, we decided to try to reach the area known as “Wall Street,” which is a little over three miles from the trail-head (there’s only one point of entry so however far you go, you have to double it to get back to the trailhead… so our hike would be about six and a half miles).
As we made our way up the river, there were times we could walk along the edges on the rocks, but most of our time was spent in the water. The deepest it got was to the middle of our thighs.
While that may not seem especially high, we quickly learned that the strong currents and unsteady footing could easily throw us off balance. While we never fell in, we saw several people who did.
When not concerning ourselves with doing a faceplant in the river, we marveled at our surroundings. The landscape changed at every turn. Sometimes the canyon walls would open into large sunny areas that allowed trees and other vegetation to thrive…
While other times the walls would close in and almost completely block out the light, and any hope for greenery…
The landscape and lighting made for some mind boggling views.
And, as you can see from the pictures, the farther we went up the river, the fewer people we encountered.
Except this guy. He kept showing up in all my pictures.
By the time we passed through Wall Street, we were among just a handful of other hikers and our knees, ankles, and feet were screaming. We will say it was absolutely worth it to rent the gear as it helped us maintain our balance on the slippery rocks, but even with that stuff, there is a lot of twisting and turning, so if you have problematic knees or ankles, be prepared for some discomfort.
No, We Did Not Hike Angel’s Landing
If you tell anyone who’s been to Zion that you’re heading there, they will likely tell you that you “HAVE TO hike Angel’s Landing!” And if you tell anyone who’s been there that you just left, they’ll excitedly ask: “Did you hike Angel’s Landing??”
Why is this particular hike so popular? Because the last half mile or so requires hikers to climb a very narrow ridge with 1,000 foot drops on either side, assisted only by a chain nailed into the mountain.
This is a picture of Angel’s Landing a couple years ago: Notice the people on the bottom right corner about to head up the ridge…
Here you can see the size of the path as well as the chain hikers hold onto….
It goes without saying that this is really dangerous and, in fact, several people have fallen to their deaths on the trail, most recently a 13 year old girl in February of this year. The hike is an exceedingly risky proposition on a good day, much less given the current situation.
The problem is Angel’s Landing has become extremely popular on social media resulting in thousands of people trying to complete it every year. And a great number of those people are not experienced hikers but rather tourists who have six hours to “do Zion” and want a picture of themselves at the top of Angel’s Landing just like they’d want a picture of themselves at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The difference is, there are crowd control and safety measures at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Here? Not so much.
Here’s a photo of the trail last summer:
See the problem?
We certainly don’t hold ourselves out to be some sort of hiking pros, but we give serious consideration to every hike we take on and make sure we are adequately prepared. The danger with a hike like Angel’s Landing is that it’s not just you you have to worry about. It’s everyone else. And, as you can see, these days, that means you have to worry about a LOT of other people.
Since we began traveling, we’ve seen people hiking without any water, we’ve seen people hiking in flip flops, and we’ve seen many, (MANY) people who’ve been more concerned with getting an impressive selfie than paying attention to their footing or to the people around them. And these are the same people who will run to hike Angel’s Landing because they saw a picture of it on social media and want one for themselves.
I expect NPS will eventually limit the number of hikers on this trail by turning it into a permit system – I’m actually surprised they haven’t done it yet – but until they do, we’ll be taking a hard pass.
All that said, the views from the top of the canyon are outstanding and we wanted to experience them; we just didn’t want to end up the victim of stupid. So, we chose to take on a rather awesome – but very demanding – alternative.
I had read about the hike to Observation Point on a couple blogs. All described an extremely strenuous but, ultimately, very rewarding hike. Because it’s difficult and because it doesn’t have the name recognition that Angel’s Landing has, it weeds out some of the yahoos. The trade off is it’s extremely tough – 2100 feet of elevation change in less than 4 miles. So, the equivalent of walking up about 175 flights of stairs….
The hike starts with a set of steep switchbacks, levels off for a bit, then goes up another set of switchbacks before leveling off once more.
This was taken from the first set of switchbacks… you can see how far up we had hiked, but we had a long way to go….
This was at about the 75% mark, I think….
The higher we climbed, the more exposed the trail became. It was cold (which was helpful) and windy (which was not), and the trail just continued to go up. Every time we thought we were done with the switchbacks, we’d turn the corner and find another one.
But, when you finally do reach the summit, you get to see this neat plaque left by the U.S. Geological Survey:
And, more importantly, you get to take in this mind boggling view:
(By the way, the wall jutting out from the right hand side of the canyon in the center of the picture is Angel’s Landing. People who complete Observation Point like to point out that it’s much higher than Angel’s Landing and actually looks down on it. So there.)
Speaking of yahoos and selfies, as we were all standing at the top, huffing and puffing, red faced, sucking down water, and pulling our sweaty shirts away from our backs, along prances in “Instagram Alice” and her boyfriend “Photographer Pete.” Alice bounded through the exhausted hikers at the top of the mountain and plunked herself down on the cliff’s edge where she immediately struck her most perfect “staring out into the distance contemplating the meaning of life” pose while the rest of us rolled our eyes in unison.
There’s a back way you can get to Observation Point that doesn’t require all the hard work and well, from the looks of it, they took the back way.
Notice the girl in front of me wearing the baseball cap staring at Alice. You can feel the contempt burning a hole in poor Alice’s back. I mean, Alice had to work hard too. Probably had to blow dry AND flat iron her hair to make it look that shiny, and that super sexy fitted top didn’t just pick itself! Not to mention it’s HARD WORK to fake thinking deep thoughts while sitting on a very lumpy rock while Pete takes FOREVER to snap the photo.
Meanwhile, our rage-filled hiker’s boyfriend is keeping an eye on her to make sure she doesn’t suddenly lunge forward and shove Alice right off the cliff.
Anyway, once Alice got the hell out of the way, the rest of us happily took each other’s photos, ate lunch, and started the long trek back to the canyon floor.
We completed a number of other hikes while we were in the park. We particularly liked the Pa’rus trail which is really just an easy walking path through a pretty portion of the park. We found the trail was almost always deserted around dinnertime, so on days we weren’t taking on other major hikes, we’d head into the park and enjoy the beautiful surroundings in relative solitude.
We also checked out the Lower, Middle, and Upper Emerald Pools Trails, but try as we might to avoid visiting during popular times, we still found ourselves surrounded by tons of people. While the views are certainly pretty, given our other experiences at Zion, these trails fell to the bottom of the list.
While regular traffic is prohibited in the canyon (only shuttles can drive through), there’s a scenic drive that meanders through a different portion of the park before leading drivers toward Bryce Canyon National Park. The road is full of hairpin turns, dramatic scenery, and a mile long tunnel through a mountain.
As you drive, you can’t help but notice all the different types of rock formations, their sizes, colors and textures.
It’s most definitely worth taking the drive when you have some time to kill and want to check out another section of Zion.
Springdale and Friends
The town of Springdale sits right outside the gates of the National Park. It’s a nice little community with restaurants, hotels, and shops. We noticed that all the buildings fit a certain style and color pattern that coordinate nicely with one another. (Apologies for the dark pictures. I took them when we were walking around one evening after it rained.)
While in town we caught up with my college roommate and very, very dear friend, Melissa, who’d brought her mom out to Utah to see some of the big national parks. We had a lovely dinner at Bit & Spur, which we highly recommend. We also had dinner at Oscar’s Cafe one night with fellow RVers Jon and Cathy. (For some reason, I didn’t get a picture of either of these events. I know, I know – first I miss a dog on a skateboard and now this. I’m a mess.) Anyway, Jon and Cathy are also from D.C., bought a motorhome from the same dealer we used, and started traveling around the same time as us (their blog: here), so we’ve hung out several times. Jon enjoys giving me a hard time about the status of my blog (because it’s weeks behind) but no matter how many times I explain that Rome wasn’t built in a day and you can’t rush greatness, he just keep giving me crap. So, anyway, if you’re sick of getting these 3,000 word posts every week, blame Jon. The guy’s a real nag. (Hi Jon!!) 🙂
Speaking of getting caught up, I’m still not even close. But next week, there will be PUPPIES!!!!!
Where we stayed: Zion Canyon Campground, Springdale, Utah