Zion Canyon Best Hikes

Updated on July 14, 2017
harrynielsen profile image

I have enjoyed hiking for many years, so I enjoy sharing what I know and tips about places to hike.

Looking at the Canyon

View of Zion Canyon from the Watchman Trail
View of Zion Canyon from the Watchman Trail

Where and What Is Zion Canyon?

Zion Canyon is the main physical feature of the Zion National Park, which is located just outside the town of Springdale on the Virgin River in the southwestern portion of Utah. On both sides of the canyon, towering walls of red sandstone rise several thousand feet above the valley floor.

The river bottom is a pleasant oasis filled with cottonwoods, box elders, and ash trees. For those who enjoy easy strolling, this is an excellent place to wander along the river. The sides of the juniper-covered canyon are quite steep, also providing the energetic hiker with stunning vistas.

A Brief History of Zion

Zion Canyon was created over the last several million years, as the Virgin River flowed across the Colorado Plateau and over the course of time carved out the remarkably deep canyon. Even today, the geological process is still at work, as the river continues to carry sediment downstream.

At the time of European contact, Zion Canyon was inhabited by the Southern Paiutes, who called the place "standing up land." In the 1800s the Paiutes were relocated to a reservation and the newly-arrived Mormon settlers moved in. Here, they started farms, tended orchards, and did some ranching.

In 1909 President Taft declared much of the valley a national monument, and finally, in 1919, President Hoover declared the place a national park. The Mormons continued to live and prosper just south of the park border, in the town of Springdale.

Many of the peaks surrounding the Virgin River bear biblical names
Many of the peaks surrounding the Virgin River bear biblical names

A Multitude of Biblical Names

One of the most interesting things about this heavily-visited park are the slew of biblical names applied not only to park itself, but also to the high peaks and pinnacles that line the Virgin River on both sides. With such colorful handles as The Great White Throne, The Court of the Patriarchs, Tabernacle Dome, Temple of Aeolus (now called Angels Landing), The Altar of Sacrifice, North and South Guardian and The Pulpit, this park certainly displays how the Mormon deep belief in the Almighty was placed on this small corner of the world.

Zion Bus System

The bus is stopped here at the next to last stop in the park
The bus is stopped here at the next to last stop in the park

Hiking in Zion Canyon

To put it mildly, Zion National Park is a very popular place to hike. Over the years, so many visitors have come to this park that in 1999, the park service banned all private cars and campers from the main canyon during the more popular summer months.

As a result, hikers and sightseers must use the park service buses to travel up and down the canyon. The wait to board the tandem buses can vary widely from a few minutes to two hours or more on busy summer holidays.

Fortunately, bicycles are allowed on the park road, so cyclists can avoid the long lines by bringing their bikes into the park. If you don't mind a good uphill two-wheel climb before you hit the trail, then this is a good way to avoid waiting in a long line.

Along the Virgin River

The Pa'rus trail provides excellent views of the surrounding east and west rims of Zion Canyon
The Pa'rus trail provides excellent views of the surrounding east and west rims of Zion Canyon

Walking the Narrows

The Narrows is a popular slot canyon trail in Zion NP
The Narrows is a popular slot canyon trail in Zion NP

Weeping Falls

At Weeping Falls groundwater is forced sideways out the side of a cliff
At Weeping Falls groundwater is forced sideways out the side of a cliff

The Easy Trails

The Pa'rus Trail

The Pa'rus trail is a paved combination biking and hiking path that begins at the visitor center and follows the Virgin River for a few miles. On hot summer days, when the temps often pass 100, many hikers opt out for a cool dip in the river. Either way, the views from this trail are magnificent.

The Riverwalk

Hikers will have to make their way to the Temple of Sinawava, which is situated at the upper end of the paved park road. The temple is a stunning rock pinnacle, named after a Paiute deity, named Sinawava. Begin your hike here and follow the paved path, as it follows the river, through a narrow canyon.

Hikers who don't mind getting their feet wet, can continue for miles upstream from the end of the pavement. Only catch is for much of the way you will be walking in a flowing river with water depth averaging one to two feet. As hikers progress further upriver, the walls close in, creating "The Narrows". Hikers should realize this wet walk is one of the most popular activities in Zion.

Weeping Falls

The trail to Weeping Falls is a very short stroll to a very strange waterfall, where rainwater permeates hundreds of feet of porous sandstone, only to hit a non-porous layer of solid stone. As a result, the water gets forced sideways, emerging at the bottom of a huge rock cliff. Be sure to take notice of the Giardia warnings, as this water is not safe to drink. This warning should apply to every place in the park, as visitors drink should only from marked fountains and spigots.

The Emerald Pools

There are three emerald pools that hikers than reach with relative ease
There are three emerald pools that hikers than reach with relative ease

View of The Watchman

The Watchman stands guard to the south entrance of Zion National Park
The Watchman stands guard to the south entrance of Zion National Park

Moderately Difficult Trails

The Emerald Pools

There are three emerald pools, thus named because of their rich, dark-green hue. These places can be reached by taking the Kayenta Trail from the park road. The lower pool does not require much climbing, making it an easy trail, but walkers with have to ascend a few hundred feet to reach the middle and upper pools. Great views of the valley can be had from the pools as well as the Kayenta Trail.

The Watchman Trail

The really nice thing about the Watchman Trail is that it begins right at the visitor center, so you don't have to wait for a shuttle bus to reach the trailhead. Named for the huge sentinel-like summit that protects the East Rim, this trail climbs several hundred feet towards the base of the mountain. From here stunning views can be had looking up Zion Canyon. Early morning and late afternoon are often the best time to negotiate this uncrowded trail.

A Long Hike and a Great View

This East Rim observation point provides one of the best views in the park
This East Rim observation point provides one of the best views in the park

Looking Down

Angels Landing looks 1500 feet straight down to the valley floor
Angels Landing looks 1500 feet straight down to the valley floor

Two Strenuous Hikes

East Rim Trail

For an uncrowded hiking trail to a spectacular viewpoint, Zion hikers might consider this long, meandering trail. Total climb is 2,000 vertical feet over four miles, so allow at least four hours and bring plenty of water. Those who attempt this hike will be rewarded with numerous switchbacks at the bottom and some narrow slot canyons before arriving at the juniper-covered ridge, which leads to the iconic overlook.

Angel's Landing Trail

Due to the massive construction to cut this rock path to the landing, this amazing hiking trail is now on the U.S. Register of Historic Places. As a result, the Angels Landing hike is very popular, despite the steep ascent and thousand foot exposure that climbers experience near the top. In many places, chains have been installed to use as handholds. Be sure you are in top physical shape and not afraid of heights before attempting to summit this sheer rock pinnacle. Those who make it to the top will be rewarded with spectacular views of the valley floor, which lies 1500 straight down.

P.S. Since this trail one of premier hiking trails in America, it is discussed in much greater detail in a separate article.


Zion Time-lapse

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • harrynielsen profile imageAUTHOR

        Harry Nielsen 

        13 months ago from Durango, Colorado

        Thank you. I was just there recently, and had a great time, despite the crowds.

      • juneaukid profile image

        Richard Francis Fleck 

        13 months ago from Denver, Colorado

        Very much enjoyed reading your article on Zion, a truly beatiful national park withe great trails! Thanks for sharing.

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