Sal Santiago writes about travel, minimalism, art, philosophy, and living an alternative lifestyle.
Getting Around Zion
Zion is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful parks in the country. To really see the park in all its glory, you have to go hiking. Some of the most scenic and majestic places are tucked away, and can only be reached by trail. The Upper and Lower Emerald Pools are two examples.
As for the layout of the park: you can ride a bike, or take the free shuttles to get around and explore and arrive at the different trailheads. Cars are not permitted in the park. Parking can be a challenge. Usually, the main lots fill up early in the morning. However, there are some deals around. Hoodoos Market, less than a mile from the park entrance, has a parking lot where you can park all day, with a $20 purchase. A few coffees, snacks, and sandwiches from the deli and your parking fee is covered. Then you can walk the one mile to the park entrance, or hop on the free shuttle.
A great way to get around in the park is by bicycle. There are several bike shops in Springdale, very close to the park entrance, where you can rent one for a few hours or for the day. You will have the roads mostly to yourself. The only rule: when a shuttle bus is coming, you need to pull over on the road shoulder and let it pass.
A quick word about Springdale, Utah, the gateway town to the park. It has to be one of the most beautiful and picturesque towns in all of the US. The rock formations and peaks that tower around the town are awe-inspiring. Few places have this much natural beauty wherever you look.
The town itself has a lot of charm. It's small enough to be entirely walkable with a relaxed and happy vibe. A few ma and pa coffee shops and restaurants and no chains at all. There's a nice library and a small park. The shops are decorated with Southwestern and Native American art. The local flora and fauna of this unique landscape and climate abound as well.
Angel's Landing and The Narrows
There are a variety of great trails throughout the park. The most famous is Angel's Landing and The Narrows. Angel's Landing is particularly famous for the amazing views and the section of the trail where you walk along a narrow ridge and need to grip a chain railing. The path is fairly strenuous, about 2.4 miles (one way) with 1,500 feet of elevation gain, and there are views of the famous monolith the Great White Throne. Angel's Landing is the most popular, and the most crowded, of the park's trails.
For The Narrows, you need to have waders with you as much of the trail you are literally wading through several feet of water making your way through a slot canyon. Round trip, it's a 10 mile hike. Best to hike this trail in summer, when the hotter weather will make getting wet in the cold water more appealing.
These are great hikes and are very famous, but aren't what I'd recommend if you are trying to see the more intimate and beautiful parts of Zion or have been to the park before.
If you want to hike in less crowded parts of Zion, there are several other great trails you should check out. First, and starting very near the park entrance, is the Pa'rus Trail. This is also the only trail where you can ride a bike. It is paved, mostly level and only about 1.7 miles in length each way. It follows the Virgin River, along the winding path where it has cut through and shaped the canyon.
A wide valley opens up here, with colorful flowers and cottonwood trees. On either side, are the towering formations and peaks of the canyon. The sky is a pure, deep blue, and often there are puffy clouds drifting lazily overhead. You are likely to spot mule deer in this area and bighorn sheep. With no predators around, the mule deer are very relaxed and not too worried about people. Small lizards dart in and out of their hiding places under rocks. If you are lucky, you might see a tarantula. The Pa'rus is the perfect trail to help you get oriented and begin exploring the park.
The second trail I recommend is the Watchman Trail. The Watchman is a sandstone mountain with an elevation of 6,545 feet. The trail is about 1.5 miles (3 miles round trip), has many uneven, rocky steps, and features a slight rise of 300 feet in elevation. I was lucky to see a bunch of bighorn sheep from this trail one evening, grazing and making their way up the steep hillside. The sheer height and shape of the rock walls along this trail are spectacular. The views into the distance across the valley and over the town of Springdale are amazing as well.
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The next is slightly off the beaten path and my favorite of the lesser hiked trails. The Kayenta Trail is a 2 mile trek with panoramic views of the canyon. You can take the bus to the Zion Lodge shuttle stop. The trailhead is not far from Angel's Landing's trailhead, except you'll be heading in the opposite direction. The dirt trail winds across the mountainside and rises in elevation.
The short and gradual climb up will reward you with some wonderful views of the valley and the Virgin River. I hiked this trail several times in October and November. The leaves of the cottonwoods had just turned yellow and made for some incredible and scenic views. The towering canyon walls on either side will remind you just how tiny and ant-like we are in the grand scheme of things.
Another wonderful reward for hiking this trail: you can take a short detour and reach the Emerald Pools. Water trickles off the canyon forming small waterfalls. In other places, it sprays off the cliff face in a fine mist. The pools that have formed here are a beautiful and hidden-away oasis. At one point, the trail winds under the rock cliff and you are walking under the spray without getting wet. Well, for the most part. On a hot day, the cool spray is refreshing and very welcome.
The fourth and final trail I recommend is the Riverside Trail. It is a short walk of about 1 mile one way and is mostly level and paved. You can take the shuttle to the last stop in the park, at the Temple of Sinawava. The Riverside Trail takes you to the beginning of the Narrows. At the end, you can watch people in waders and carrying walking poles, as they trek in the river to the trailhead. This trail follows the Virgin River, and is dark and cool in many places where the sun cannot reach (during certain times of day), shaded by the steep canyon walls on either side. The tranquility of the river as it meanders along and the height and beauty of the canyon here are breathtaking.
Zion is part of the Grand Staircase. If you think of the Grand Canyon as the first step, then the next step rising is Zion, and even higher still is Bryce Canyon. It is interesting how they are part of the same "staircase," yet each park is so vastly different and unique, and really nothing at all like the others.
The geology of the area is mind-blowing. Millions of years ago the area was entirely undersea, and then a desert for vast periods of time. After the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, the powerful Virgin River carved through the rock layers and formed the canyon. The rock layers eroded away over eons. Historically, when the Virgin River was riding high after heavy rains, it was at its most destructive and creative and carried rock and sediment to carved and shaped the canyon.
Two safety tips to keep in mind: it is good to be aware of the intense heat in the summer, and to know your limits when out on the trails. Bring more water than you will likely need (a filter, if you like) and salty snacks are always recommended. Secondly, pay close attention to the weather; be ready in case of sudden rainstorms and flash floods. Some people have, unfortunately, been caught hiking in a slot canyon during these weather extremes and the outcome was not good.
In addition, several of the trails in the park—the Kayenta and the Watchman—have places where you are several feet from the edge and need to be extra careful and mindful of your footing. The book Death in Zion National Park could be helpful for planning and being aware of the situations you need to avoid.
Right at the entrance of the park, there is a brewery. Surely a stroke of genius by town planners. What could be better than an ice-cold draft beer (Utah has some great IPAs) on the outdoor patio and overlooking the Virgin River after a long day of hiking and exploring the park? Springdale has a few great places for ice cream as well, all within a few minutes of exiting the park.
Whether you have just a day or an entire week, you won't run out of things to see and explore in Zion.
A few facts:
The ancient Anasazi, inhabited the lands of Zion, leaving behind cliff houses and rock art. A few centuries later, Pueblos and Southern Paiutes inhabited the lands that now form the park as well.
It was named by a Mormon settler who lived in a one-room cabin where Zion Lodge is currently located. “These great mountains are natural temples of God. We can worship here as well as in the man-made temples at Zion, the biblical heavenly ‘City of God,’” the settler wrote.
After a land survey was completed in 1908, Zion was declared a National Monument in 1909 by President Taft. Shortly after, lodging and roads were added. In 1919, it was declared a National Park. Zion ranks 4th among the most visited national parks in the country. In 2021, the park had more than 5 million visitors (the most in its history). It is the most visited park in Utah.