One of my travelling pet peeves is visiting a place more than once. Two years ago, a couple of friends and I took a road trip from Toronto down to Los Angeles and back, quickly passing through various natural wonders throughout the southwest US. One of them was Zion National Park. It was one of the most spectacular landscapes I've ever seen (close second to the Canadian Rockies - which I will visit multiple times). Sadly, we were on a tight schedule and spent no more than 3 hours in the park, which was far from enough. Zion felt like unfinished business ever since.
A good friend - Devon - expressed interest in checking out Zion, so we planned a 4-day trip to do exactly that. I was headed out west to Climb Rainier anyway, making a stop in Zion isnt as big of a deal. We booked our flights without really having a plan, nor did we reserve anything besides our rental. Our bare minimum checklist included the hiking the narrows and the vertigo-inducing scramble up Angel's Landing, anything else was at random. Of course, landscape photography was a must on my end. Zion is a place I recommend everyone to check out, simply because there's a lot of things to do, for every type of person.
Day 1 - Arrival and Angel's Landing
The closest major city to Zion is Las Vegas. We quickly realized that it was going to be hot as we stepped out of the airport. Las Vegas was under a heat wave alert, and temperatures were forecasted above 40C for the following days. We spent the night at a hostel in Vegas, and left early the next day to drive up to Zion, roughly 2 and a half hours away.
The original plan was to camp at one of campgrounds within the Park itself. However, without any pre-planning done, we found out that the two campgrounds within the park were full. We had to scour the nearby town, Springdale and other third-party campgrounds for an available spot without much luck. Everything was sold out (Pro-tip: book a campsite well in advance!). We eventually did manage to find a campground at the east entrance of the park. The location wasn't ideal as it was on the other side of the park, and we'd have to maneuver the twisty roads in order to get to camp. Between traffic, tunnel shutdowns, and finding a parking spot, getting to and from the camp could take up to an hour. On the bright side, the campsite was located in a great "Zion-like" setting, so it would do. it's not like we had a choice.
During the busy months of April to October, the scenic road that leads down Zion Canyon is shut down to private vehicles and is only accessible by a free shuttle run by the park service. My only complaint is that the shuttle takes too long, an hour to get to the last stop. Additionally, the shuttle does stop operating around 9:00pm, this meant that we were always on a clock to get back. If you were to get stuck in the park after dark, it's a long walk back to Springdale where we parked our car.
The original plan on the first was to hike up to Observation Point. But after we sorted a place to sleep and got a camp all set-up, it was already mid-day. This left roughly 4 to 5 hours to do something and get back before the last shuttle leaves. We quickly decided that we would hike Angel's Landing. A hike that would fit within our timeframe according to the Zion guidebook. Angels Landing is a 1,760m rock that shoots into Zion canyon offering great views. It is most famous for its sheer cliff drops on either side of the trail. The trail was marked as "strenuous", which of course meant we had to do it.
The trail head to Angel's Landing begins at the Grotto shuttle stop. The trail begins flat, crossing the virgin river, and slowly gains elevation. It was easy at first, but it wasn't long before we went up steep paved switchbacks. This part was a cardio workout, your heart will pump regardless of fitness level. The switchbacks were shaded from the late afternoon sun, thankfully.
A third of the way through, the trail eases into a dark canyon known as Refrigerator Canyon, it was much cooler here as it was an area that rarely received sunlight. The slot canyon was eroded over centuries by rainwater rushing through after storms. It was vegetated with full height trees and ferns growing. Past the refrigerator, the doom of steep switchbacks return, almost as intense as the first set. We were doing fantastic time, we never stopped throughout. We wanted to stop, but we never did.
We got to the warning, took a break and re-energized. This is where things got fun. We saw the trail ahead of us morph from a paved path to a thin ridge with cliff drops on either side. The national park service fastened chains in order to ease this part (and prevent people from falling, d'oh). The ridge turned uphill to a false summit, then descends, then ascends again higher onto the end, eventually to the flat portion where one could rest and enjoy the views of Zion canyon.
You're pretty much scrambling with all 4 limbs at certain points on the ridge. Sometimes we'd hold on to rocks, other times we'd hold onto the chains, and it was so much fun. Despite the dangerous cliff drops and it's terrifying reputation, In my opinion, I thought the route was pretty safe. The only way someone would fall is if someone jumped off, or after doing something really reckless (as is usually the case in most accidents)
At the end of the route, we were greeted with fantastic 360 degree views of the canyon glistening in the late afternoon sun, including the ridge that we had just climbed. It took us 1 hour and 10 minutes to reach the end (this is very fast). We took plenty of photos, had snacks, and then made our way back on the same ridge for double the fun.
Google "top things to do in Zion", and Angel's Landing unanimously scores top spot. This is a 5-star trail and i highly recommend it if you happen to be in the area.
Day 2 - Observation Point
For a really hot place, the park gets really cool at night. Our campsite was at a higher elevation than the rest of the park, so i wonder if that had anything to do with it. My guess? It was probably a low of 10 or 15 C at night.
We had much more time during this time around, and the plan was to complete the Observation Point trail in the late afternoon. Until then, we killed the morning by hiking the popular Canyon Overlook trail. The trail was an interesting easy-rated hike that overlooks the east canyon, starting off with steps carved on to rock, then walking along the top edge of a slot canyon and through interesting rock formations until you reach the end of the trail. At the end, hikers were greeted with panoramic views of the canyon (hence, canyon overlook, duh). The hike took no more than an hour to complete round trip.
The most strenuous trail in Zion is Observation Point with the highest elevation gain. The National park guide said that it usually takes 5 to 6 hours, so we packed as much water as we could (3L in my case) and set off immediately after lunch. Like Angel's Landing, the shuttle is required to access the trailhead stopping at "Weeping Rock".
The observation point trail is 50% taller in height relative to Angel's landing, visible on the other side of the canyon, so I used the landing as a gauge to how far and high into the hike we were. The first thing that became apparent is that the sun would be mercilessly beating down on us the entire time. The trail had no shade cover with few places to hide. Immediately as we started the hike, the trail turned into steep switchbacks similar to that of the day before. It didn't take long for us to sweat profusely. The first stretch took us roughly half an hour to get through before it flattened out into a dark dried-up slot canyon providing some shade from the sun, it was only a few minutes of shade before the trail returned to steep switchbacks under the sun. It was a great cardio workout. I thought it was considerably more work than the angel's landing hike since it was longer in length and height. The sun didn't make things pleasant at all. God damn, it was hot. We've later come to learn that temperatures that day were in the low 40s. With all the sweat and heat, I was getting concerned that we would run out of water. It was tempting to just chug the cool water, but I had to pace it to make sure I had enough till the end. The bright colored rocks reflected heat back at us making matters worse. But we kept on keeping on.
If you do decide to hike this trail, I recommend doing so in the early morning hours. You'd be protected from the sun by the Canyon's shadows.
As we gained altitude approaching the top of Zion canyon, the trail skirts the edge of a flat topped mountain (with a considerable drop). It was pretty vegetated, almost as if Zion was once upon a time a really flat forest, and rivers and streams simply eroded the sandstone to form gigantic canyons over millions of years down the desert valley. I didn't read up on the history, I'm pretty sure this is exactly what happened.
The trail at the top is flat but much longer than I anticipated. Eventually, we got to end; on the edge of a cliff with views down the length of Zion Canyon. It wasn't the hardest hike, but I'll admit the heat made this hike unpleasant. I forgot to mention, I had chili the previous day, which made me feel queezy in the heat. In retrospect, that was a bad idea.
What goes up must come down, and the hike down the trail wasn't any better either. We were descending pretty fast, and it was pretty hard on my feet. My feet blistered. Despite the sun getting lower, the heat never eased off. I was pretty happy when I saw the shuttle stop. The heat kicked my ass.
We took the long shuttle ride back to the car, and crossed the park to get to our camp. It took us a while to get the fire going which made it pretty dark (thx to the damp wood). The stars were looking good from camp. I didn't bring an ultra-wide lens with me simply to save weight, so I was hesitant to take a milky way photo without that lens. But Devon convinced me to take a photo of it. Good Call.
Day 3 - The Narrows
No trip to Zion is complete without a hike through the Narrows. The Narrows is a hike into the deep slot canyon that was and is still being carved by the Virgin river. 2016 was an unusual year in that the area received a lot of snow, and the river was swollen from snow melt. Technically, this was day 4 as we spent our third 3 in Arches National Park, but it was our third day in Zion
There are 3 ways to hike the narrows including; 2-day top-down, 1-day top-down, and bottom-up. The first two requiring backcountry permits. Due to time, we couldn't get a permit, so we resorted the bottom-up method. The quickest way to get the narrowest and most scenic part of the canyon, known as Wall Street (and the part I really wanted to see)
The narrows from the bottom-up is open to the public when river levels drop below 150 CFS. In 2016, this happened mid-may (which is late). When we arrived at Zion, the water level was 100 CFS. In order to get the lowest water level, we decided to do the narrows last on our trip, when the river level was measured at 89 CFS.
There are many outfitters for canyoneering rental equipment in Springdale. We checked out one and found the water temperature to be a chilly 11C. Despite the cold temps, they did not recommend a dry suit. They did however suggest neoprene socks along with 5.10 canyoneer shoes. We rented those, a walking stick was included. We later realized that many people do the narrows with regular running shoes and didn't bother renting the boots or neoprene socks Walking in the narrows involves walking over slick rocks, twisting an ankle is possible. I didn't want to chance that, especially with my Rainier climb coming up, so I found the 5.10 canyoneer shoes extremely useful. They have sticky rubber soles that provided a lot of traction and have ankle support.
The bottom-up route starts at the last shuttle stop deep within Zion Canyon, at the Temple of SInawava. The trail starts on a well-paved trail called Riverside walk which lasted about 15 minutes. Eventually, the trail ends, and the river itself becomes the trail.
They said the water would be cold, but it doesn't hit you until you step into the river. As the boots fill with water, it felt like walking in water balloons. The canyon was pretty crowded at the trailhead as families and children enjoyed the river. We saw quite a few people tubing down the river, and with the amount of water in the river, this is actually a great idea (I will do this if i ever do the narrows again).
With every twist of the river, the canyon gets narrower and taller. roughly one hour in, we get to the point where the canyon splits into a Y. The left continues toward the narrows canyon, the right leads towards a smaller slot canyon known as Orderville Canyon. Orderville looked dry, and small, and I was more interested in Wall Street. We veered left, and almost immediately, it became apparent we were in wall street. The canyon was really narrow, water wall-to-wall with no dry ground, the height of the canyon made it dark and gloomy. I'm not sure if it was normal for wall street, but this particular section funneled the wind well, it was windy, making it slightly chilly (on top of cold water), with sand particles hitting your eyeballs.
The water was high enough that you can't see the river bed. It was also murky making every step uncertain. Wall Street - to be honest - was actually far shorter than I expected as we got to dry areas. We made phenomenal time by this point, so we figured we might as well keep going. After crossing a brief patch of the canyon where it opened up, we got to the "boulder", a landmark on the hike, and once again, the canyon got narrow and dark. The stretch after the boulder was also wall-to-wall water with no high ground, this isn't reflected on the map, but perhaps it's seasonal. We were hiking through higher than usual water levels after all.
The part after the boulder was the best part in my opinion. It wasn't as tall as wall street, but the canyon didnt extend straight up either, so sunlight barely made it through. It was dark, it was cold, and it was a stark contrast to the bright, hot, and sunny days we've seen in zion so far.
We had to return our rental gear by 7pm, we felt rushed. After passing the "gurgling" noise (see map above), we continued up further to another relatively open space. We figured we've seen enough of the canyon at this point, and it was time to head back. We were a little surprised by how deep into the canyon we've hiked, we moved fast, and we covered a lot of ground. Regardless we were told by the locals that it takes 8 to 10 hours to complete the bottom-up hike all the way to big springs and back. We did it 4 hours round trip (turning around just before Big springs).
As we got to our car and drove through park to our campsite, we stopped to get one more photo from the most photographed spot in the park, the Canyon Junction Bridge.
All in all, the park delivered. While we did the more strenious activites in the park, Zion has something for everyone; whether you want to hike, swim, climb, camp, photograph, or simply watch the sun change the colors of the canyon.