The final chapter of Explore UT / AZ
brings us to Zion National Park, one of the most popular national parks in Utah. Zion is a 2 hour drive from Antelope Canyon, and 2 1/2 hours from Las Vegas. Zion is 232 square miles and is home to a surprisingly diverse amount of plants and wildlife. It also offers two of the more famous hikes in the American West, Angels Landing and The Narrows.
Zion’s entrance fee is a week-long pass, which makes this park very appealing for campers. It costs $30/car for the week, and $15/person if entering without a vehicle. Annual passes are also available for $50, which includes the passholder as well any passengers in a non-commercial vehicle (up to 14 people)! The park also offers free entrance for active military personnel.
Three campgrounds are scattered throughout Zion and access is included in the park entrance fee. The grounds tend to fill very quickly, so make a reservation as early as possible. There are other campgrounds just outside of the park if the internal ones are full, but at an additional cost. In addition to camping, you can horseback ride, birdwatch, go canyoneering, take a river trip, or even bring your stock animals! We only spent two days in Zion, but there’s more than enough to keep you occupied for the length of your 7-day pass.
Of course, some of these hikes are strenuous and, in some cases, can be deadly. Make sure to take all necessary precautions, pack accordingly, and be mindful of your limits! Look at the hiking guide to plan your visit and check for any weather alerts. A shuttle system is available to take you to many of the different trail access points throughout the park.
On the first day in Zion, we decided to do the easier hikes and leave the best for last. That meant starting with Riverside Walk, a meandering walk that follows the Virgin River. This is accessible by the 9th and last stop on the Zion Shuttle. It was originally called “Gateway to the Narrows,” but was changed to Riverside Walk to encourage more visitors to experience it. The hike is only 2 miles round trip and the terrain is mostly flat. It’s also wheelchair accessible up to the entrance of the Narrows, where the banks narrow until you can only walk into the river.
It was raining during our hike, but there are benches under rock outcroppings that help protect you from the elements. Riverside is the perfect first hike because it allows you to stretch your legs while still giving you a tantalizing hint at what Zion has to offer. There’s a good chance you’ll see some animals during this hike, most likely squirrels and herons, but don’t feed them! It’s illegal and could get you thrown out, if you’re caught.
Weeping Rock Trail
After Riverside Walk, we moved onto another short hike: Weeping Rock Trail. This trail is accessible through the 7th stop on the Zion Shuttle. Even though I said this hike was shorter (.5 miles in total), it is significantly steeper and more strenuous. Almost the entire hike is at an incline, so be sure to stretch the hammies! The view is worth the burn, because the elevated alcove gives a beautiful view of the canyon.
The “Weeping” part of the name comes from the continuous stream of water dripping from the ceiling of the alcove. The water falls from Echo Canyon, a slot canyon located directly above the Weeping Rock alcove. This steady supply of water allows a varying amount of vegetation and plants to grow on the ceiling and walls of the overhang. The shade from this overhang also gives you a break from the elements and allows you to sit and enjoy the view (and rest your legs).
Emerald Pools Trail
With Emerald Pools, we’re moving into some of the somewhat strenuous hikes in Zion. The Pools hike is 3 miles round trip and you can start either the Upper or Lower Emerald Pool hike from the 5th shuttle stop. Most of this hike is at an incline/decline and, when you add the slick mud from all of the rain, this trail was a bit trickier to navigate. That being said, the moderate struggles are entirely worth it both for the Emerald Pools themselves and the views the trail offers.
The Lower Emerald Pool was closed when we hiked the trail due to recent rockfall. That meant only Middle and Upper Emerald Pools were available to us, but they didn’t disappoint! It also helped that partway through the trek, the sky cleared and allowed for some beautiful weather. The Middle Pools are fed by the overflow from Heaps canyon overflow, which then flows from the Middle Pools to the Lower Pools. This area can get quite slippery if there has been a lot of rain, so be careful when making your way across.
About a half-mile of steep trail beyond Middle Pools, you’ll find yourself at Upper Emerald Pools. You’ll be greeted by a stunning waterfall that feeds directly into the Pool. The strength of the waterfall and the level of the water depends entirely on the recent rainfall. Based on the weather during our time, the waterfall was incredibly powerful and the stream was both high and quick. To get to the Pools, we had to hop across submerged rocks and balance on a log. While I wish I filmed this, it wasn’t worth falling off into a fast-moving stream. Once we made our way across, I asked Michele to stand in front of the falls and freeze for a photo. She obliged, and we got the awesome shot below. The wind was so strong, it was causing the waterfall to shift positions pretty drastically. It actually moved to the left and soaked a teenager taking a selfie!
Don’t let the waterfall distract you from the view behind you! The change in elevation sneaks up on you and it’s pretty incredible to see how high you’ve climbed. The view is just as stunning as the waterfall itself and, not unlike the freezing water, it will take your breath away.
This is the biggest, baddest trail in Zion National Park that you don’t need a permit and a tent to experience. Standing at almost 6,000 feet above sea level and over 1,400 feet off the ground, it really is something you have to see to believe. You can access the trail from the 6th stop on the Zion Shuttle. The trail is five miles round trip, but is almost entirely uphill. Be sure to wear non-slip footwear, ideally boots, as much of the rock is slippery. Several people wearing only regular shoes slipped and almost knocked other hikers down. This hike tends to get crowded, with traffic jams being a common occurrence. Be sure to be kind to strangers. You are on a sheer cliff, after all.
The first two miles of the trail is paved and offers some respite from the sun, so appreciate the shade while you can. A set of twenty-one switchbacks, called Walter’s Wiggles, will punish your legs. Who said you can’t workout while traveling? Once you get to Scout Lookout, the junction between Angels Landing and the West Rim Trail, the going gets increasingly more difficult. Chains are required to help your ascent and the sandstone gets pretty slippery. There are several chokepoints where, if there isn’t any communication, you can get stuck on a narrow ledge. Be sure to coordinate with the hikers coming down to keep these instances to a minimum.
The “fin” of Angels Landing is the most intense part of the hike. It doesn’t look possible from from a distance. Be sure to rely on the chains to pull you up and always make sure you have solid footing before proceeding. There’s no need to rush; only go at a speed you’re comfortable with. Also, keep an eye out for squirrels darting around during the climb. If they can do it, so can you.
Once you get to the top of Angels Landing, the view is absolutely breathtaking. The summit is rather wide and easy to traverse (two hikers set up a hammock on one of the few ambitious trees). Take your time and soak in the view before heading back down; this is potentially the best view in one of the best national parks in Utah! I put together a video of our climb, so I’ll let that video and the photos do the talking. Once you finish the hike, be sure to check out the Zion Brewery for a celebratory beer afterwards. You did it!
This adventure through Utah & Arizona was a long and exciting trip, which took us through some of the best national parks the American West has to offer. Did you take the same trip Michele and I did or did you blaze your own trail? What were your favorite spots? Comment below and let me know!