Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park is an enticing outdoor paradise that is part of Utah’s ‘Mighty 5’ and has the distinction of being the state’s first national park. The park is nestled within the American Southwest at the junction of the Great Basin, Mojave Desert, and Colorado Plateau regions. This unique location lends to the park’s combination of four diverse biomes: desert, coniferous forest, riparian, and woodland. Although these can be glimpsed along the scenic drive, a more comprehensive and rewarding experience can be achieved by hiking deep within the rugged landscape. In fact, the park is renowned for its world famous hiking and backpacking trails, which traverse the formidable terrain and are brimming with adventure and awe-inspiring vistas.

Once in the park, it is easy to see how time and natural elements have worked in tandem to form Zion National Park’s astonishing conglomeration of imposing mountains, giant mesas, narrow canyons, high plateaus, natural arches, and clear pools. A prominent feature that has accelerated this process is the Virgin River, a tributary of the Colorado River. The torrent of rushing water carves through the burnt umber-colored Navajo Sandstone, widening and reshaping the canyons that are the foundation of Zion.

A prevailing aspect of Zion that is found throughout the park is its vibrant scenery. The prominence of the reddish-brown sandstone, forest green trees, and baby blue sky are further enhanced as the sunlight illuminates them. There is something special about basking in the colorful setting that makes the trials and tribulations of everyday life fade away. It creates a tranquil atmosphere where auditory delights, like the leaves rustling in the wind or faint sounds of rushing water, heighten the sensation of the park’s natural beauty.

The following highlights and landmarks are based upon the order of appearance starting with the scenic drive and then proceeding inward:

Zion Scenic Drive:

The Zion Scenic Drive is a spectacular introduction to the desert landscape as it parallels the Virgin River through the Zion Canyon and on towards the Temple of Sinawava. It spans 54 miles from Exit 16 on Interstate-15 to its easternmost point at the junction of US-89 and Mount Carmel Junction. The scenic byway also provides access to the heart of the park, which is closed to motor vehicles during peak season from March to November; however, visitors can park their cars and utilize the park’s shuttle bus that stops at all of the major landmarks along this section.

As the road continues out of the canyon, motorists will encounter a sequence of hairpin turns and narrow manmade tunnels that aide in traversing the steep terrain. Due to the elevation gain, various pullouts and vistas should not be overlooked, as they provide a dramatic panorama of the magnificent environment.

Grafton Ghost Town:

Just outside of the Zion National Park boundary, and one of the first stops along the Zion Scenic Drive, is the ghost town of Grafton. Mormons first settled the frontier town in the late 1850’s, before a series of floods and attacks by Native Americans led to its eventual abandonment. Long since deserted, the well-preserved village now serves as a tourist attraction that is set within a wide valley flanked by immense cliffs.

The first landmark encountered along the dirt path of Grafton Road is the cemetery. Here, tombstones rise out of the ground with illuminating inscriptions as to what life was like during this time in history. The gravestones are a photogenic element, albeit eerie, that gives the town an authentic Old West atmosphere.

Further down the road are the five surviving structures that have been preserved and showcase the craftsmanship of the early pioneers. Although much of the surrounding land is privately owned and not accessible, the buildings are situated adjacent to the main road and are easily viewed. If the homesteads and backdrop look familiar it is because Grafton was the site for several scenes in the Hollywood classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Zion Canyon Visitor Center:

For first time visitors to the park, the Zion Canyon Visitor Center is the epicenter for park information, especially any questions about hiking trails, wildlife, weather, or other pertinent information. It is a full-service, ‘green’ facility that features indoor and outdoor spaces with an information kiosk, bookstore, and displays and exhibits.

The innovative design of the facility is a part of a conservation effort, which focuses on reusing natural resources and reducing the environmental impacts while producing an enhanced visitor experience. The operating hours of the Zion Canyon Visitor Center vary depending on season: summer (May-September) 8am-8pm, fall (October) 8am-6pm, winter (November-March) 8am-4pm, and spring (April) 8am-6pm.

Watchman Trail:

The Watchman Trail is a 3-mile round-trip route that culminates in an astounding view of the Watchman Peak and surrounding valley. It is rated as moderate because of its length and slight elevation gain, but is considered the perfect introductory excursion for anyone new to the park. During the summer, it is recommended that this journey is attempted during the early morning, since the trail is fully exposed to the elements and can get excruciating hot.

The trailhead can be found on the eastern bank of the Virgin River adjacent to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. It starts out hugging the edge of the meandering river on the valley floor before turning and ascending the hillside. The next mile is a grueling uphill trek, which passes by a series of switchbacks that are blanketed with native vegetation. As the trail turns back to the southwest along the rim, it is only a bit further to the viewpoint. After soaking in the phenomenal panoramic view, be sure to utilize the short loop around the butte for additional perspectives before heading back down to the canyon floor.

Pa’rus Trail:

The Pa’rus Trail is a 1.7-mile (3.4-miles round-trip) paved trail that is rated as easy and is perfect for all skill levels. The trailhead is located outside of the park’s entrance station; however, many opt to begin the journey at the South Campground and hike to its terminus at Canyon Junction. Besides being an easy hike, a fundamental reason behind the trail’s popularity is that it is wheelchair-accessible and the only path in the park where bicycles and pets are permitted.

During the peak season, the trail is a welcomed alternative to the crowds waiting for shuttle buses. The leisurely route affords visitors an opportunity to photograph the park from a variety of incredible perspectives. It parallels the Virgin River into the Zion Canyon where, along the way, the desert scenery includes cacti, wildflowers, and wildlife; however, the greatest attributes are the beautiful bridges. The most popular bridge is the Canyon Junction Bridge because of its unobstructed western views of the Watchman, which is perfectly framed over the meandering Virgin River. This iconic view of Zion is revered for its phenomenal sunsets and stunning landscape, so crowds are to be expected.

Canyon Overlook Trail:

The Canyon Overlook Trail is a relatively easy, 1-mile round-trip excursion that begins in the Upper East Canyon off of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. It is one of the easier hikes in Zion National Park, which is also why it is one of the busiest. Due to its popularity and limited parking, hikers suggest arriving early to avoid the crowds and missing out on this cherished vista. This is particularly beneficial for anyone willing to brave the trail in the dark for the ultimate reward of a remarkable sunrise.

The trailhead can be reached behind the ranger traffic booth on the north side of the road before the eastern entrance into the tunnel. From here, hikers will traverse a series of stone steps that quickly ascend the red-orange slickrock. After the steep climb, the well-maintained trail levels out before proceeding through a shaded alcove that features sandstone walls bursting with verdant ferns. Soon after, the path culminates at the dramatic cliffside overlook of Zion Canyon.

Although there are railings in place along the rim of trail for safety, hikers are advised to exercise extreme caution, as there are a few exposed sections with precipitous drops. Despite the danger, the Canyon Overlook Trail is a reasonable alternative for an incredible panoramic view than the more challenging Angels Landing and Observation Point excursions. The expansive view of the topography’s prominent landmarks include the switchbacks of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, Bridge Mountain, West Temple, Towers of the Virgins, Streaked Wall, Beehives, and Pine Creek, which are all labeled on the reference sign at the trail’s end.

Emerald Pools:

The Emerald Pools is a signature trail in Zion National Park that begins at the Historic Zion Lodge before crossing the Virgin River and ascending into Heaps Canyon. What makes this hike a classic is the oasis-like atmosphere that is generated by the verdant stream as it hugs the cliff on its journey from the canyon rim down to the Virgin River. As striking as it is tranquil, the descent of the cascading stream is what formed the three different tiers of spring-fed pools: Lower, Middle, and Upper.

  • LOWER EMERALD POOLS (Easy – 1.2 miles round trip): The trip to Lower Emerald Pools is a paved trail that is suitable for hikers of all abilities and ages. The hike navigates through lush vegetation before reaching the pools and the two waterfalls that plummet into it from the rock face above.

  • MIDDLE EMERALD POOLS (Moderate – 2 miles round trip): The trek from Lower to Middle Emerald Pools is rated moderate because of its elevation gain as it traverses the terrain before reaching top of the alcove. The Middle Pools are technically an accumulation of water from the stream, which forms the waterfalls that plunge off the edge and into the Lower Pools. From the edge, the vantage point of the canyon and dense forest below is exceptional.

  • UPPER EMERALD POOL (Moderate – 2.5 miles round trip): Moving forward, the final leg of the journey is the most difficult, as it negotiates a moderate grade over an uneven rock surface. At its conclusion is the enclosed paradise of Upper Pool, which is set within a natural amphitheater that is shaded by the sheer cliffs and flourishing flora. This marks the end of the trail and hikers are faced with the decision of retracing their original path or choosing an alternate route back to the canyon floor.

Angels Landing:

Angels Landing is one of the most exhilarating and dramatic hikes that Zion National Park has to offer. It is a 5-mile round-trip hike that is renowned for its precarious route up the fin-like mountain formation, culminating with unyielding views of the desert sanctuary. The trek is rated as strenuous for its significant elevation gain and the maximum effort necessary in reaching the summit.

Starting at the Zion Canyon Shuttle’s 6th stop, the Grotto Picnic Area, hikers will pick up the trail at the Grotto Trailhead. The first leg of the journey begins after crossing a footbridge over the Virgin River and onto the paved West Rim Trail. From here, it is a strenuous uphill trek into Refrigerator Canyon, a refreshingly cool side canyon that serves as the only shaded reprieve of the hike.

The trail levels off for a bit before arriving at Walter’s Wiggles, a set of 21 compact switchbacks that takes the trail to a ridge above Refrigerator Canyon called Scout’s Lookout. This viewpoint provides trekkers with their first glimpse of the canyon, as well as the Angels Landing Trail as it splits from the West Rim Trail and negotiates up the ridge. From this point forward, the trail begins its thrilling journey along the exposed sections of the narrow fin, which have drop-offs of more than 1,000 feet on either side.

The final stretch to the landing involves utilizing a series of chains that are bolted to the rock and assist with negotiating the treacherous spine of the towering mountain. After braving these obstacles, the trail climaxes at the final viewpoint from the pinnacle of Angels Landing. The vista is magnificent and affords onlookers with unobstructed, panoramic views that often times leave visitors speechless. It is an awe-inspiring sight that should be relished before heading back down the precipice. Though once it is time to head back, a benefit of this hike is that all of the hard work is done on the ascent, so the descent to the canyon floor is more mesmerizing than it is taxing.

The Narrows:

The Narrows is arguably one of the most legendary canyon hikes in all of Zion National Park. It begins at the Temple of Sinawava where the paved Riverside Walk negotiates alongside the North Fork of the Virgin River for approximately one mile. Upon reaching the conclusion of the path, trekkers enter the frigid water and continue upstream into the slimmest section of Zion Canyon. From here the water level fluctuates between knee-high and waist-high levels over a terrain of slick river rocks. As a precaution to these treacherous elements, park rangers highly advise hikers to carry all valuables in waterproof bags in the event of falling or submerging into the water.

There are two ways to undertake The Narrows hike: bottom-up and top-down. The bottom-up route is the most popular with visitors since it does not require a permit for anyone attempting the 10-mile out-and-back hike, which culminates at Big Stream. To proceed further, or attempt the strenuous top-down excursion from the trailhead near Chamberlain’s Ranch, a permit is required and can be obtained through the park’s annual lottery system. Before beginning either trek, it is imperative to check with park rangers for flash flood warnings to ensure a safe and pleasant journey through this surreal environment.

The serene environment of The Narrows features spectacular bends and towering sandstone cliffs that were intricately carved by the Virgin River over centuries. Since direct sunlight rarely enters the sinuous slot canyon, the most majestic time to hike is between 10am and 3pm when the light reflects into the gorge. During these hours, the reflected light illuminates each curve in the river, creating a dramatic view of the fern-covered, striated canyon. To best photograph the landscape, it is recommended to attempt the hike early when there are fewer people on the trail; however, the crowds will dissipate the further the trail extends into the canyon for greater opportunities to capture the incredible scenery.

Recommended Restaurants:

MeMe’s Cafe. – Sunday-Saturday: 7am - 10pm - (975 Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale, Utah – 435.772.0114) – A quaint, artsy café that serves a variety of sandwiches and savory crepes. Try the Just Peachy and/or Meme’s Veggie Delight crepes, as well as the Pepper Jelly Grilled Cheese! They also serve a seasonal cider with freshly sliced peaches that is tremendous!

Café Solei – Sunday-Saturday: 6:30am - 9pm - (205 Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale, Utah – 435.772.0505) – A quaint eatery that serves vegan and vegetarian options, which include wraps, sandwiches, and other delicious items.

Whiptail Grill – Sunday-Saturday: 11:30am – 9:30pm - (445 Zion Park Boulevard, Hurricane, Utah – 435.772.0283) – A former gas station that was converted into a Mexican cantina serving dishes that are rich with Mexican flair and flavor.

Deep Creek Coffee Co. – Sunday-Saturday: 6am - 8pm - (932 Zion Park Boulevard #3, Springdale, Utah – 435.669.8849) – A laid-back eatery serving bagel sandwiches, breakfast burritos and other dishes for breakfasts, while sandwiches are the popular menu item for lunch.

Zion Canyon Brew Pub – Sunday-Saturday: 11:30am - 10pm - (2400 Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, Springdale, Utah – 435.772.0404) – A microbrewery offering an extensive list of beers with food and a view of Zion.

Oscar’s Café– Sunday-Saturday: 7am - 9pm - (948 Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, Springdale, Utah – 435.772.3232) – A full service restaurant serving hearty breakfast dishes, along with burgers and vegetarian options in this colorful establishment.

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